The perspiration pays off

Director Jason Buxton with Connor Jessup, the young star of the feature film Blackbird.(Photo by Chris Porter)

Back when Jason Buxton was a 21-year-old student at NSCAD in the early 1990s, he didn’t fully appreciate what his teacher, Jerry Ferguson, had to say. It was only when he was older and had developed discipline that the hard-nosed professor’s words resonated.

“As young art students we seemed to think that we could stand in front of the easel and divine inspiration would rain down,” says Jason, an award-winning director whose first feature, Blackbird, opens in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver this weekend.

“Jerry would say that art making is 95 per cent perspiration, five per cent inspiration. I didn’t get that then, but I certainly do now.”

The debut of Blackbird in theatres is a long-time coming. In 1993, Jason left NSCAD, heading off to Simon Fraser University to study film production. But most of his education came by doing: he worked as a camera assistant on films including Titanic, The Shipping News and Simon Birch and made three short films before returning to NSCAD and finishing his degree in 2003. Following graduation, he taught himself the craft of dramatic construction and decided to tackle a fictional story based on research he was doing for a NFB documentary. The result is Blackbird, a story about how an alienated teenager’s online threat ignites a firestorm of fear in a small community.

He describes Blackbird as a modern story, “similar to The Crucible, in that it’s a reputation versus integrity story.” In the film, he puts the viewer in the shoes of the protagonist, Sean, the socially isolated teen played by Connor Jessup who is falsely accused of planning a school massacre. “The movie situates the audience 100 per cent from his perspective,” says Jason.

Since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last September, Blackbird and its creator have been showered with accolades. Blackbird was named best Canadian first feature at the Toronto Film Festival and the Vancouver Film Festival. At the Atlantic Film Festival, Blackbird won best Atlantic feature, best Atlantic director and best Atlantic screenwriter.

To top it all off, the Chester, Nova Scotia resident won the Claude Jutra Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement by a first-time feature director. The Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television called the film “a cutting-edge and socially poignant debut.”

Film-making can be such a precarious business that Jason wouldn’t let himself think beyond the next stage, much less about awards.

“All you’re hoping is that you survive each phase of development. Then, you hope it gets green lit and that you can make it. And then you hope it turns out. And then you hope people like it.”

He’s thrilled that Blackbird will open at Park Lane Cinemas, where as a budding filmophile, he took in such films as Rainman and Dead Poets Society. “I have vivid memories of being there as a teenager … and now to have my own film there, well, it’s very gratifying.”

There are some special events associated with Blackbird screenings this weekend at Park Lane. On Friday, May 10, a Q&A will follow the 6:40 p.m. show, followed by a reception at Your Father’s Moustache. On Saturday, May 11, there will be an after party at FRED at 9 p.m., featuring music by Asif Illyas, who did the score for the film. And, following the 3:40 p.m. matinee on Sunday, May 12, there will be an “In Conversation” with local actors in the film.

Jason is now collaborating on an adaptation of several short stories from the collection Whirl Away by Newfoundland writer Russell Wangersky.