Kat Candler, the writer and director, fell in with an ambitious group of filmmakers when she first moved to Austin from Florida in 1997.
Throughout the 2000s, Candler watched as many of her friends—among them Bryan Poyser (Lovers of Hate), Nathan and David Zellner (Kid-Thing), and Mark and Jay Duplass (Cyrus)—landed prominent spots at the Sundance Film Festival, and in the case of the Duplass brothers, went on to major Hollywood careers.
Candler, who did not go to film school, became an eager member of the group, learning the art of filmmaking by working on the projects of her Austin friends and then later on her own features and shorts.
All the while, Candler was aware of another challenge that she was facing as a female filmmaker: Only nine percent of the 250 top-grossing films in 2012 were directed by women, according to Women Make Movies, a nonprofit organization.
“Yes, unfortunately, I am one of the few female narrative filmmakers in Texas,” said Candler, noting that in recent years, several female documentary filmmakers, like Margaret Brown and Heather Courtney, have emerged from Austin.
But “I’m not going to get weighed down by statistics,” Candler added.
Candler, 40, is now enjoying her moment: In January, her film Hellion, a coming-of-age story, premiered in the dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival. It was an expansion of her short film by the same name, which played at Sundance in 2012. On Friday, IFC Films released Hellion into theaters in New York City and to on-demand — promising Candler a wider audience than she found with her previous features, Cicadas (2000) and Jumping Off Bridges (2006). (The film will open in three Texas cities—Austin, Dallas, and Port Arthur—on June 27 and in Houston on July 4.)
“What’s inspiring to me as a female filmmaker is that she just kept doing it, making short films, year after year, to get to this point,” said Courtney, a documentarian and friend of Candler’s whose own film Where Soldiers Come From premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2011.
For Candler, a major turning point came, she said, when she first began teaching film production at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008.
“That was when I had to up my game big time as a storyteller and a filmmaker,” she said.
Candler shot the short version of Hellion—about a rambunctious twelve-year-old boy growing up without a mother—in the summer of 2011. Immediately she knew she wanted to further explore the lives of each of the characters. In the feature version, Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and his younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) are being raised by their widowed father (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad), a refinery worker in southeast Texas reeling from the death of his wife. With its quiet attention to the dynamics of broken families and cast-adrift children, the film evokes eighties dramas like Shoot the Moon, Tender Mercies, and Stand by Me. (“I love that early eighties aesthetic—the physical texture of the palette and the emotional textures,” she said.)
“Women are underrepresented in every part of the film industry in every city in the United States, including Austin,” said Ellen Spiro, a documentary filmmaker and a University of Texas professor.
Added Courtney: “I think Austin in general has fostered the spirit of collaboration and support, especially for indie filmmaking, but there’s still more to be done for women in Hollywood.”
For her part, Candler seems to refuse to be defined by the struggles facing women in filmmaking. Hellion effortlessly defies traditional notions of what female-directed films are supposed to look like: With the exception of Juliette Lewis as the boy’s aunt, most of the characters are male; much of the plot revolves around young Jacob’s budding interest in the sport of motocross racing. And part of Candler’s research for the script involved spending time in a barbershop in southeast Texas, interviewing and listening to the life stories of customers who worked at a nearby refinery.
But Candler is also conscious of her own position as a role model. She founded Women in Cinema at the University of Texas, a group that pairs female student filmmakers with established ones, in the hopes of fostering mentorship and industry contacts. In recent years, she said, she has also seen a nearly equal number of women and men in her film classes — a trend she believes will continue.
“I think it really is about fostering those younger voices, and strengthening their confidence to stick with it, and holding their backs and saying ‘You can do this,’ ” she said. “It’s weird how those simple words — ‘I’m proud of you, and you can do this’ — are so simple, but how huge they are for the younger generation.”