Galveston County and the island seemed to be more popular this year at the SXSW Film Festival, but one film by Texas filmmaker Kat Candler brought her entire production to the area.
“Hellion,” starring “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis (“August: Osage County”) shot in Southeast Texas during the end of last summer fairly quietly.
“Aaron came down to Southeast Texas maybe a week before the last season of ‘Breaking Bad’ started airing,” Candler said.
He came down sort of under the radar; and then by the time he left, suddenly his fame skyrocketed, Candler said about her leading man.
“Hellion” is based on Candler’s short film of the same name. The film premiered at Sundance in what she called a “mad dash” to complete for the extended deadline.
It then went on to play SXSW for its regional debut and also has since shown at the Dallas film festival.
I met the 39-year-old filmmaker in a cafe near the University of Texas Austin campus where she is a lecturer in the film department.
“Hellion,” which could be grouped with similar films about teenage boys, including “Joe,” “Mud” and a host of similar ones debuting at SXW, stands far above the others with its raw emotion.
In the film, Paul’s character, Hollis, and his sons have lost the matriarch of their small family. Their last connection to her is the dilapidated beach house in Galveston that Hollis desperately tries to repair in hopes of keeping things together.
“The landscape of that part of Texas and thinking about where the mom died, that this beach house would be their ideal family place,” Candler said.
“Then the hurricane would hit and it would become the last link to his wife.”
While on a vacation trip in Galveston before the short film, Candler said she felt the area lent itself to the characters she was writing.
“Galveston and the Port Bolivar area just became the fantasy world this character lived in,” she said.
Candler also admitted that Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard prohibited her crew from filming on the Bolivar ferry because it would cause interruption to the 24-hour service. Instead, the Texas Film Commission pointed Candler to the Baytown ferry, which is much smaller, but gave them unrestricted access to shoot after hours.
Candler uses closeup shots in that final, emotional and heartbreaking scene on the ferry, so only the experienced eye should notice the difference.
“The Southeast Texas community was one of the main reasons we were able to pull this off,” Candler said.
“So many people rallied behind us, donated football stadiums, like the one you see in the film. All these people came out and were so incredibly supportive. There is no way we would have been able to pull this off, otherwise, we were such a bare-bones, scrappy film.”
Many of Candler’s films focus on the teenage male perspective. Josh Higgins who plays the central character, Jacob, even admitted to his director that she was like a 12-year-old trapped in an adult body.
“For whatever dumb reason, I relate to those kids sometimes more so than I do the adults,” Candler said.
She said it was films such as “Stand By Me” and “Lord of the Flies” that she watched so often as a kid that influenced her subject matter.
There are a lot of hard lessons learned in the film, and what Candler does so effectively is allow the audience to care, hurt and feel for these people who are suffering from loss.
“You just try to be real about who these people are and that they are going to fail and that’s beautiful and what makes us human and interesting,” Candler said.
I came out of “Hellion” realizing this was going to be the best film for the first part of the year and that has held true. It’s rare that a filmmaker can compose something like this with characters who are so flawed and still the audience feels such empathy for them.
Not to mention, Paul gives the performance those of us unfamiliar with the television show that proves he has a long career ahead.
“When I wrote this script, I didn’t have anyone in mind to play the character,” Candler said.
“It was just trying to capture this man who is so numb with grief. Being so absent emotionally from the world and from real life and having this notion of bringing back this house will bring back his wife.
“It’s so many drafts of trying to get these characters believable and honest.”