It’s still TIFF and Nova Scota based filmmaker Jason Buxton is sitting in the back corner of a crowded hotel meeting room full of other filmmakers all abuzz about the goings on at the festival. He probably didn’t realize it at the time but at least several of the people in the room were openly buzzing about his being there with his debut feature Blackbird.
During the festival, his gritty and moving tale of a young man named Sean (Connor Jessup) coping with the unintended consequences of making an idle threat on the internet was being hailed as one of the most ambitious debuts of the year. He was rewarded by sharing the festival’s prize for best debut feature with Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral. After winning Best Picture awards from both the Atlantic and Vancouver festivals, Blackbird would go on to garner a pair of Canadian Screen Award nominations: one for the film’s screenplay and a win for Buxton in the first time filmmaking category, taking home the prized Claude Jutra Award.
But in this moment, Buxton is relaxed, if a bit tired from the festival. For someone with only a few short films under his belt prior to this, he speaks with the grace and candor of an old pro, unafraid and lacking in self-consciousness. They are personal traits that he uses to his film’s advantage, as Blackbird never adheres to a traditional redemptive arc for it’s main character and the film’s depiction of juvenile rehabilitation pulls no punches. Much like his film, what you see is what you get and as genuine as possible.
We talked with Buxton about the cultural relevancy of his story, the research he did, and the sometimes arduous and frustrating casting process.
Dork Shelf: This is your first film and you’re dealing with subject matter that was about to become really relevant in a big way. What made you want to tackle this kind of a story?
Jason Buxton: At the time, myself and my producer Marc Almon, were approaching Telefilm Atlantic to do a feature. I had done some research the year previous on these types of stories that were popping up a lot in the media about youth being scrutinized, looked at, and arrested for making threats online.
In one case there were these two brothers in Ontario who were at that time, and I don’t know how the both of them became involved, but the one had written a creative essay in the third person, but because there were certain elements in the story that bore a resemblance to the specific school that he attended and perhaps some of the characters invoked in the story sounded like kids were bullying him at school. And this was the kind of thing that creative people normally do. They draw on information and events from their real world. But because of that, this story became the notion that it was some sort of revenge plan as opposed to a piece of writing.
I think our culture has lost, to a degree, the ability to discern these sorts of things because we’re too afraid to approach them head on. And I’m a parent, so I’m pretty protective of those sorts of things myself, I think.
DS: One of the things that you touch on in the film to that same effect is discussing the fine line between what can make someone almost become a bully through the act of being bullied themselves. Your main character never fully goes down that road, but you can see numerous instances where it would be really easy for him to do that. It’s interesting to notice how that progresses between Sean being in school and him being in prison throughout the film.
JB: It’s definitely an element of the story and that’s something that came up in development, actually, that concern about leaving one world behind for too long. But that’s the nature of the story I wanted to tell.
DS: He’s an outcast when he’s at school, but when he’s thrown in prison, not only is he a misunderstood outcast, but he becomes an outcast of a completely different sort. Was it more difficult to get that point across in the prison sequences than it was in the school sequences or did it make that easier? I’m just going to assume that you haven’t been to prison.
JB: (laughs) No, I haven’t. It wasn’t harder, actually. To actually challenge that notion a little bit, some of that school stuff was a bit more challenging because the set-up is rife with potential clichés: the outcast who’s drawn to the pretty, popular girl, the jock bully, all that stuff. By limiting the point of view strictly to Sean it actually made it a bit difficult to flush out those characters and make them a bit more multidimensional. I definitely found that challenging.
The prison stuff came a bit from the research that I had done with at risk youth, and what I was surprised about was how they were almost always exactly the types of people you would have expected them to be. A lot of them have these huge personas and coping mechanisms.
DS: And those are the kinds of clichés that you sort of build for yourself as you’re growing up.
JB: Exactly. So, for me, what was interesting when I was developing the project and getting down to the process of writing, I created this foil that Sean would have while he was in prison. I have to create that character to serve the elements of Sean’s journey, but to also make that part of the motif and to give him more dimensions. The motivations for him became those very elements of those mechanisms that I had been interested in. I started asking questions about what the background of this individual would be like. Who would bully that hard? If he has to control his environment to such an extreme degree, why does he bully the way he does? One of my story editors that I was working with pretty much verbatim told me the same story that’s told to Sean by one of the youth regarding what happened to Trevor and why he was in there. It was taken to some degree from this recounting of true story, and I totally latched onto that while I was writing because it opened up a world for that character.
Then I was interested in sort of taking it to the probably somewhat obvious climax where Sean has to defeat his antagonist, but then for him to see something and grow as a result of that. For me that was to remind that privilege is very relative. Sean comes from a disadvantaged background, but compared to some youth and the ones that I had researched – some of whom had spent some time in prison – he’s got it pretty good. There are varied degrees.
And I think that Alex Ozerov, who’s a relatively little known Toronto actor, does a great job in the Trevor role. I don’t want to give too much away, but we shot a scene where he’s talking about his past – that really pivotal point in the film – was the last thing we shot in the movie and it was at the tail end of an extremely long day where we were pushing the restrictions that we had with ACTRA and our production manager burst onto the set and said “You’re got two takes left.” We still had an entire scene to shoot and we only had two takes. So Alex’s shot was up first, and I decided to shoot him first because I thought it would make the most sense. I never told him that he only had one take, but he was absolutely amazing and he nailed it. He was a really instinctive actor who was really into the details of a scene, like the food he was eating. We did one take of him, one take of Connor, and we were done. We wrapped our film and it went out with my favourite scene in the film.
DS: So the exhaustion on their faces in that scene was probably somewhat real.
JB: Oh, yeah. Well, Connor earlier that day had sprayed this black stuff all over his hair, because we kept flipping through time periods where it was the early goth stuff and the point he’s at in prison, and he always had to go back three or four times. That day, we did all the black haired stuff first, and after we washed it out for the last time, he told us that it was actually getting harder and harder to come out. (laughs) It turned his actual hair colour darker by the end of the shoot. I know he was really relieved to never have to put that stuff in his hair again.
DS: Connor is a really film savvy young man, and he’s already even been a producer on films before. How did he turn up on your radar?
JB: We had Toronto casting agents that we had hired, and there was the usual process of finding actors. I will say this, and I’ve said this before in other interviews so it might be getting redundant, but the first time we sent the breakdown out for a 16 year old character, agents always send back these 25 year olds. It seemed like they still followed the Beverly Hills 90210 casting approach. I got really kinda frustrated with that because I had flown all the way in to Toronto and this was our pre-camera casting and I know there are a lot of 16 year old actors in Toronto and I wasn’t seeing them.
DS: Just because you look 16 doesn’t mean you can play 16.
JB: Right, because you just automatically convey more experience. That was important to me for this style of movie. It always had to be age appropriate, to me. There were questions in development with our various funders about the likeability of Sean as a character, and I always knew that you cast a 16 year old and put that 16 year old face up on the screen everyone was going to like him. Then when you cast Connor, you get a lot of audience empathy. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t feel bad for that guy. Everyone feels bad that he’s in that situation. He just seems likeable. It’s like how Hitchcock was fond of doing stories about the wrongfully convicted. I think we can all easily put ourselves in the shoes of that kind of scenario. What if it was me? That’s the real hook for the movie to get people to connect to it emotionally.
But anyway, I got off the question a little bit. Connor was in L.A. at the time, and he put something to tape. I think he might have even done it on his iPhone. I watched it and I was in a coffee shop when it came in and I was on my iPhone and I was just watching and listening to it over and over again, and every time I watched it again and again I became more and more convinced that he was the right one. So I flew to Toronto when he came back so we could finalize casting. I knew I had to be in the same room with him just to be sure, and the day before we had brought in Alex as Trevor, and we brought him back to help because we knew we wanted Connor. We wanted them both in a scene together, and it’s really rare in the casting process on a film this size that you can get two actors whom you both want in your movie together with myself and Mark, and David Miller, our other producer. We all sat at different points in the room while they did the scene so we could see ourselves in the crossfire, and we were all looking at each other like, “This is it.” That was the dynamic we wanted and it was a great experience.
DS: The father and son dynamic is another really important aspect of the film because right from the beginning we sort of join them at a point in their relationship where there’s already some strain between them. Was there anything that you told Connor and Michael Buie ahead of time in terms of a backstory they could draw from?
JB: They met and they talked a bit and worked it out among themselves, mostly. It’s funny because Michael had worked with Russell Crowe many years ago on Mystery, Alaska and they became really good friends. It was him and Scott Grimes and a bunch of other people who just got really taken with each other, and they work together a lot on some things. On this one Michael was cast as the father of this young and up and coming actor, and I think one would think that role would be that of a mentor to some degree. But then you have Connor, and you realize that he’s pretty great right where he is. Michael said this in jest, but he said just after he came to Halifax, “I just went to meet Connor for coffee and he’s smarter than me!” I think Connor can really be similar to Ron Howard in a lot of ways, I think. He’s going to branch out into directing one day. No question.
It’s interesting because with someone like Alex, who was a few years older but who hasn’t had the same opportunities that Connor has had, but I’m not sure how he would handle his career long term. Someone like Alex might do well to have a manager at this point in his career, but Connor just knows that he can manage his own career. He does have his people, but they usually tell him things that he often disagrees with, like “Don’t do Blackbird.”
DS: Someone actually told him that?
JB: (nods) Or something to that effect. They might not even be with him anymore, but you know how these things go. He’s on a show like Falling Skies and he’s signed up in L.A., and they get a low budget Canadian film come across their desk without really investigating it at in a lot of cases it could be just dismissed. And Connor loved the script and he knew he wanted to do it. He just knows what he wants.
DS: When you were trying to get financing the film, was there any resistance that you ran into just in terms of the film’s subject matter?
JB: No, not with TeleFilm, at least, and as you know they’re kind of like the trigger that gets pulled on projects like this in Canada. From the beginning when we pitched them the budget and through the entire process they were behind this project. And it was at a time when it was hard to get a job making this kind of a film. They were in a period where there was more of a focus on comedies and genre pieces. I think they still kinda are to some degree. It’s interesting because a lot of the successful movies from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are dramas.
If anything, it was harder to get broadcasters and distributors involved. “The film’s too dark.” I learned what that meant over time. It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter because a lot of films had that same kind of “dark” subject matter. I was resistant to a (change in the ending). I thought that would just be too artificial and go against the message I was trying to say.