Features and Columns

Austin Cinematic Limits: Getting To Know Writer-Director Kat Candler

By  · Published on March 13th, 2012

Writer-director Kat Candler (Cicadas, Jumping Off Bridges) has an undeniable knack for creating lush atmospheres within her films, developing cinematic worlds that relish in youthful ecstasy and naivete. The dreamlike visual qualities of Candler’s films play like not-so-distant memories of youth; yet the characters and their actions are incredibly realistic. All of Candler’s films remind me in one way or another of my own youth, and that right there is something very few filmmakers have ever captured.

I hate to play favorites, but Candler is one of my favorite Austin-based filmmakers. Her latest film Hellion (which premiered at Sundance 2012) is programmed in what is clearly the strongest Texas Shorts program in SXSW Film history. I chatted with Candler on the eve of her regional premiere of Hellion to discuss her career as a filmmaker in Austin…

What is life as a filmmaker in Austin like for you?

I love living and working in Austin. I get to work with film kids at UT. I get to write for hours on end in coffee shops where they know my name and know my order. I get to come to Arts and Labor where I office and collaborate with an amazing and talented group of people and good friends. Essentially I wake up every day and think, “I fucking love what I do.”

I moved here because the vibe in Austin is a kind one. I’ve been lucky to grow up with a group of talented and generous filmmakers here. It’s a community where everyone genuinely roots for each other, where we do what we can to help each other out whether it’s letting each other use a house, connect them with industry people or just sink a little cash into a film. I feel like we’re there for each other and have each other’s backs. It’s a special place to make movies. I think that’s why folks keep moving here from New York, LA, Dallas… There’s a way of life that’s based on kindness and support and it’s awesome.

How do your lecturing positions at University of Texas and Texas State fit into your life as a filmmaker?

I typically teach one class – sometimes two – a semester. That one class takes up maybe about 1/3–1/2 of my time during the week, depending on how early we are in the semester. It pays my rent and that’s about it. But you definitely feel like you’re making an impact in these kid’s lives and in their work. Just saying, “I’m really proud of you, that’s great work,” carries so much weight in their world. You have a lot of influence over them and are able to offer words of inspiration. I remember early on when an older filmmaker told me I should submit one of my first films to festivals because she thought I had a lot of promise – it was huge for me. To have that vote of confidence from someone in my field – god, it meant the world.

I’ve made some amazing friendships with students. I’ve found rock stars in my classes that I’ve gone on to work with and who have gone on to mentor my current students. And as a teacher, you definitely feed off of their enthusiasm and their wide-eyed excitement. I love being around that energy.

Do you prefer writing or directing?

If someone put a gun to my head and made me choose… I would probably choose directing. I love working with people. I love collaborating. I love creating a world from scratch. And I’m in love with working with actors. It stems from playing with my matchbox cars, Barbies and stuffed animals as a kid.

But, that would be if I had to choose. I’m so head over heels for writing. I’ve grown as a writer with leaps and bounds these last few years. I feel way more confident in how to tell a story. And that goes back to realizing I’m always and forever a student. I’ll always be learning and growing.

How important is it to you as a writer to direct the screenplays that you write?

I have written one script Love Me that I sold and someone else directed. It was very strange. In a good way. It was a script I wrote to sell so it wasn’t one of my “babies” – if that makes sense? I learned so much from the Love Me experience and met some really amazing people. It was the biggest set and budget I’d been a part of, so I was taking mental notes the whole time. I hope to work with some of those folks again. They were really great people.

Your films tend to feature very honest portrayals of kids and teens – is this something that you consciously strive to do?

I’m drawn to youth – as a teacher, as a writer and as a director. There’s something really wonderful about empowering kids, treating them with intelligence and respect and giving them a voice. It genuinely pisses me off when I see teen films about “stupid” kids or mean-spirited, one-dimensional characters. If I were sixteen I’d be throwing my middle finger to the screen with a big, “Fuck you.”

Do you feel like you need to approach directing kids and adults differently?

I really enjoy working with kids. They’re just cool.

There are definitely different approaches to working with super young kids to teens to adults. First off, you have to find kids who just have “it”. If they don’t, you’re not going to get a performance. So 80% of the battle is the audition process and finding talented, honest kids who feel comfortable in their own skin and feel comfortable with you.

With any actor, you want to protect them on set. And create a space they feel safe to go where they need to go emotionally. And so anyone under the age of 18, you’re extra extra careful to protect them. I have a “no expletives” (ridiculously hard for me) and a “be careful what you talk about” around these kids on set rule. You have a responsibility to the actor and to their parents to treat them with respect and professionalism.

In a film like Hellion where you’re getting extreme emotions from little, little kids, you have to explain the process of working together and always “check in” with them. I explained to Deke, I’m not going to let you enter this scene until I see you’re emotionally ready. And Jonny’s going to yell at you in character as your dad to help get you there. My poor editor (David Lowery) would have long takes where Deke wouldn’t come into frame for a good long while as Jonny just yelled. And after almost every take, because Jonny would have to be physical with these guys, he’d always ask, “Are you okay? I didn’t hurt you did I?” Jonny and I definitely took these kids through the ringer. But they were little bad asses who stepped up to the plate and held their own. And I think it shows. And I’m crazy proud of them.

Photo courtesy of Austin360

Do you feel more comfortable developing female or male characters?

I feel pretty comfortable writing both. However the other day, Hellion’s producer Kelly Williams (check out our interview with Williams) pointed out that all of my protagonists in the past many years have been male; at least the ones I’ve directed. His note on my last draft of the feature version of Hellion was that my male characters (young and old) are pretty fleshed out but I need to go back and flesh out the female characters. I sat back in my chair and was all, “Huh… weird”; but he was totally right.

You do you approach the funding and distribution of your films?

Ah, funding… I raise my fist to the sky. It’s frustrating. I don’t come from a wealthy family and don’t have wealthy friends. I’m not a part of that world so it’s always been a struggle. Hellion we went through Indie Go-Go and had a fantastic experience. We went well over our goal and had a fun time making stupid videos along the way to entice people to help us out. Back in the day (10 years ago) I was writing letters to friends and family for money. Now it’s SO much easier. For smaller budgets at least.

On a bigger scale there’s one key element in getting larger sums of cash – name talent. And it’s tricky. We’re packaging a project right now with cast and it’s been a new experience. I’ll let you know how it goes in a few months.

Do shorts and features serve different purposes for you?

Shorts, for me, are calling cards for features. They’re experiments. They’re exercises. They’re scratching an itch because I don’t have the money to make a feature right this second. They’re honing the craft and learning more on a much smaller budget.

As far as ideas for either or both… I have my fair share of feature scripts in various stages. Sometimes I ditch them. Sometimes they call to me years later. Sometimes I can’t stop writing (that’s a good sign). Or sometimes I get stuck and have to revisit a few months, a few weeks or even a few years later. But I’m not going to make something at this point in my life unless I’ve put in the time and work to get it right on the page. I’ve told Kelly, let’s write the feature version of Hellion but if it’s not good enough, I don’t want to make it. There’s no point. I’ve upped my meter of what’s worth the time and what’s good. I don’t want to waste other people’s time, energy or money on anything half-assed.

Most of the shorts I’ve done in the last few years have been about a moment. Something simple and small. I save the more epic ideas for the features.

Can you talk about your current projects as well as what you have in the pipeline?

Hellion (the feature) – I’m still finishing the script. We’re in the middle of applying for grants, labs, that kind of stuff. Kelly and I, in an ideal world, will be shooting spring of 2013.

Love Me – I was the writer on this one. They shot the film last October up in Calgary. The producers, Aircraft Pictures, will be at SXSW next month. So I’ll have to get the scoop from them. They produce the hilarious and irreverent TV series Todd and the Book of Pure Evil. They have a Todd panel at SXSW this year. I love those boys.

The Spider in the Bathtub – It was optioned, talent got attached, the option ran up, the money never came through, it fell apart, the rights came back to me and Chris Mass (my co-writer on this one). I have a friend who’s interested in producing it. Chris and I just have to figure out time for a rewrite. My short film Love Bug was pulled from this script.

Never Date a Teen Idol – Aw. Ms. Toddy Burton (my co-writer on this one) will be so happy you brought this script up. It went out to the studios almost two years ago and didn’t get any traction. Apparently it was too Disney for the edgier folks. And too edgy for the Disney type folks. So it’s sitting on a metaphorical shelf.

Nikki is a Punk Rocker – It’s with our wonderful casting director out in L.A. who is packaging the name talent. Lots of fingers crossed. In an awesome ideal world, we’ll be shooting this in the fall. Please note, I said “awesome” and “ideal”.

Death Metal – I’m on draft four of this script. It needs many more drafts. I’m in love with this story. I just have to wrap my brain around it a little more. I have people waiting to read it, which is a nice feeling.

What is your strategy for juggling so many projects that are in various stages of production?

I don’t sit still very well. In fact just a few minutes ago my husband said, “I want to destroy your laptop. I want to hurl it out the window.” He actually says that a lot. Bless his heart.

But yes, essentially the more projects you have on the table, the better your chances of getting one made. That’s what happened with Love Me. A wonderful company called Dolphin Entertainment who had passed on three of my other scripts but liked my voice and liked my work, just happened to be looking for a teen thriller/horror film and I just happened to have a script that fit what they were looking for. So it helps to have a “buffet”, if you will, of projects.

The other thing is it takes forever to get projects off the ground. So it helps to have a lot of irons in fires … not sure if that’s the right expression or not.

Cinematic Things To Do in Austin This Week:

3/13 – Paramount Theatre — For those of you who do not have a SXSW Film badge, SXSW presents a FREE Community Screening of Slacker 2011. (More info)

3/14 – Texas Spirit Theater (Bob Bullock Museum) – Austin Film Festival Presents The Trip To Bountiful with producer Dennis Bishop (The Fast and the Furious, Dexter) in attendance for a Q&A as part of their Made in Texas: Adaptations series. (More info)

3/9–3/17 — In case you have not noticed, the 2012 SXSW Film Festival is in full swing. (More info)

Related Topics: