Sundance Preview: How a Deep Discussion Over Milkshakes Led to Aaron Paul Starrer 'Hellion'

Filmmaker Kat Candler and "Hellion" star Josh Wiggins
Filmmaker Kat Candler and "Hellion" star Josh Wiggins
 Lauren Logan

The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch-up. So this year, The Hollywood Reporter decided to do a bit of prep work for you: Here's the who, what, where, when and why for a film worth putting on your radar.

Like many of the films at this year’s festival, Hellion and its filmmaking team have deep Sundance roots. Hellion was originally a six-minute short that premiered at the 2012 festival; writer-director Kat Candler then returned to Park City in 2013 with her short Black Metal, while producer Kelly Williams was developing the film as a Sundance creative producing lab fellow. The feature tells the story of Jacob Wilson (Josh Wiggins), a 13-year-old obsessed with motocross racing and getting into trouble with his friends, while his widowed and largely absent father (Aaron Paul) tries to drink away his sorrows. The family’s situation comes to a head, though, when Jacob’s activities start to involve his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner), who eventually is taken into custody by his aunt (Juliette Lewis).

In anticipation of Hellion's Jan. 17 premiere, Candler talked to THR about learning to become a filmmaker in Austin and how Paul turned Hellion into a reality.

Background: "I knew from my creative writing program [at Florida State] that I wanted to pursue film. New York is too cold and L.A. isn't quite my scene. I’d heard that Austin was this really special place to make movies and live, so I moved here, fell in love with the film scene and I’ve been here ever since."

"I never went to film school.  My undergrad and grad school film education were my early shorts and two really low-budget features. It's really only the work I’ve done over the last five to six years, though, that I’m really proud of and consider to be more my voice."

The Big Break: "The Hellion short. That's what got the attention and then, of course, the stamp of approval from Sundance goes miles and miles with people, ears start perking up wondering what you'll do next."

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Getting the Film Off the Ground: "I saw Smashed at the theater here in Austin and saw Aaron [Paul] in this really beautiful, honest performance. I think I'd only seen two episodes of Breaking Bad. I'd gotten to the bathtub episode, which I think is the defining episode for people -- you can either make it past that episode or it's a little too much. After seeing Smashed, my husband said I should really go back and watch Breaking Bad. I did and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this kid is awesome.’ "

"So we sent the script to Aaron, and James Ponsoldt, who directed Smashed, contacted Aaron on my behalf as well. Shortly after getting him the script, I was on a plane to Macon, Ga., and we were having chocolate milkshakes and talking about love and life, the script and character. It really was the defining point of the project coming together. Just Aaron’s excitement and his belief in the story, it really kinda snowballed from there in terms of pieces falling together."

Biggest Challenge: "There's never enough time to shoot, and we were working with kids, one of which [Josh Wiggins] was in almost every scene -- he shot 24 of 25 days. When you are working with kids, you are also limited in how many hours a day you can shoot, so I was incredibly nervous about getting all the footage we needed. Luckily, I spent a lot of time in casting and finding the right kids. Because of that, all of the boys in the film are so great and so honest. My lead, Josh Wiggins, is just a knockout. He’d never [acted] before, and in every single take he's so good."

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Story Origins: "My uncle Frank, who is the youngest of three boys on my mother's side, he'd always tell this story about how he and my other two uncles set fire to my grandfather's Jeep and what happened in the aftermath when my grandfather got home and proceed to punish these boys.  It just stuck with me for years and years, this very interesting take on my grandfather and how he related to these unruly boys, so I wrote this seven-page script based on the story. And when we were actually making this short I just adored these characters. I loved the world they lived in and I wanted keep living there, and that's how the short grew into the feature. I just wanted to stay with this blue-collar single dad, and it blossomed into the feature."

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