Film writer and director Jason Bourque recently sat down with Cult Faction’s Rhys Perry to discuss his movie Black Fly and his career in general…
When did you decide that you wanted to become a filmmaker?
It was the summer of 84. I saw “Alien” and “The Thing” back-to-back on VHS and it left an indelible mark on me.
Was there one particular Director or film that made you decide?
John Carpenter. “The Thing”, “Halloween” and “Big Trouble in Little China” were my favs and because of him, I wanted to make movies.
Which Director would you say influences you the most?
There’s so many great directors out there I admire like Sam Raimi, David Fincher and Martin Scorsese, but I lean more towards David Lynch as an influence. “Eraser Head”, “Dune” and “Blue Velvet” are three of my favs. I love his use of soundscape and how his visuals can hit the viewer on a subconscious level.
What were the first steps you took towards achieving this?
As soon as a I got my hands on a video camera, I started writing and directing using the neighborhood kids and I edited using two VCRs. My early works were zombie movies, “Brains” and “Dead Skin”, using Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” recipe for fake blood.
You have become known as a writer and a director – do you prefer one to the other?
By far I enjoy directing. Writing can be such a lonely, solitary existence and I’m a people person. I love the energy on set and collaborating with like-minded creatives. It’s probably why the majority of my produced scripts have been co-written.
Is it easier to direct something you have written yourself?
It’s the same process for me other than I usually have to do a re-write if I didn’t write the script to begin with. When I don’t have to deal with a writer, it finesses the process. I can make changes quicker, adapting the script so it’s more production friendly. On set, some writers probably get annoyed how much I allow the actors to change the dialogue and make it more realistic.
Your directorial work has seen you cross into documentary film making – is this something you intend to explore further or is it more the subject matter that draws you towards a documentary?
I love documentaries and films like “Shadow Company”, an introduction to the private military company industry, have given me lots of film festival street cred. Sadly, docs take too long to produce and it’s harder for me to make a living at them. As a film medium though they’re extremely fulfilling and my doc experiences have allowed me to travel throughout the world. Who knows? If I find the right subject matter, I probably would get sucked back into that world.
You also directed eight episodes of The Two Coreys – what was that experience like for you?
The Two Coreys! I directed the 1st season and helped develop it. As a huge fan of “Lost Boys”, this was a thrill. Corey Haim was a sweet guy who wore his heart on his sleeve. We bonded far more than Feldman who was much more calculated and closed-off. My fondest memories were brainstorming sessions with Haim who wanted to do a sequel to Prayer of the Rollerboys , his post-apocalyptic action flick. He was obsessed with doing a Mad Max version of the Tron disc game using razor frisbees.
In 2014 you wrote and directed Black Fly – where did this idea come from?
My inspiration for making “Black Fly” stemmed from my own experiences growing up in rural New Brunswick, Canada in the early 80s. My parents were convinced the quiet, picturesque Kingston Peninsula was the ideal place to raise a family but they were horribly mistaken. Noel Winters, our neighbor down the road, was a serial killer and hit man for a biker gang. While drunk, he shot-gunned a father and son we knew and a local kid helped dispose of the bodies by chopping them up and hiding them in garbage bags. It was all very morbid but as a young teenager with a creative streak, it always stayed with me.
I know that the Winters murders were the inspiration for Black Fly but where did you get the idea for Jake and the whole family aspect of it?
I have an older brother and have always enjoyed themes involving the power of family ties. Noel Winters ended up taking Paul Hansen, a local boy, under his wing to help with the disposing of the bodies. Jake evolved out of that. Luckily, I come from a very healthy family, but we did go hunting and I remember vividly these experiences. I wrote what I knew into the script and my childhood in rural New Brunswick was a colorful one. The grisly story of the exploding garbage bag full of chickens that Noel tells to the police officer actually happened to me and the darkly comedic story of Rex the dog also happened to a friend of mine.
I read that you filmed the whole film in 14 days – What was filming on such a short timescale like?
It’s funny… looking back at my career of SyFy disaster movies, Lifetime thrillers and indie features, this felt normal. My shooting schedules usually fluctuate between 12-15 days. My survival technique is heavy prep – I pre-block the scenes with stand-ins, sometimes do my own storyboards and do up extensive shot-lists. The heavy page count can be tough on actors – it’s why I’m always looking for opportunities to rehearse on set, figure out the beats, run lines with actors. “Black Fly” was challenging due to maintaining the emotional intensity. I only did 1-3 takes to keep the performances fresh so pre-planning was very important.
How did the murders affect you personally?
When I discovered we had a serial killer as a neighbour, I was a teenager with a sense of invulnerability. I was disturbed at first but didn’t find it horrifying or traumatic in the long run. Due to my age, in many ways I didn’t make a connection to what had been a very real threat. Instead, there was a healthy fascination with all of it. At the time, I was obsessed with Stephen King novels, Fangoria magazines and horror movies. My parents on the other hand were totally horrified. They brought my brother, sister and I to the Kingston Peninsula, thinking a more rural setting would be a wonderful place to raise children. Boy, were they wrong.
What challenges did you find in transferring your words to the screen?
I find the script is very much a skeleton. I like how a film evolves organically into a fully formed entity as the creative team contributes and actors take ownership of the characters with their own choices. I sometimes ad-lib the heads and tails of scenes to keep the dialogue natural. I’ve never been precious about the words. With “Black Fly”, the biggest challenge was how to shoot it with such a low budget yet not make the compromises visible to the audience.
Were there any frustrations regarding your vision vs what you had produced?
Like most filmmakers, I always feel like I need more money and time. With such a tight budget and shooting schedule, I did a major cut down on the original script, focusing on the characters and aftermath of the violence. The biggest change was losing the big scripted shootout in the farmhouse. I ended up playing it all on Jake’s face, hearing the horror of it all, knowing I still had some seriously gruesome pay-offs coming up. I wasn’t losing the intensity, just the action. To pull it off, I would have needed another day of shooting. I had planned for a big shotgun blast in the face SFX shot that totally backfired on the day. Looking back, I wish I had scraped together the cash and done it with VFX. Also a few of the squibs backfired. Instead of fake blood, poor Matthew had smoke pouring out of his chest like he was terminator so we had to shoot around that.
Was casting something you had written yourself more difficult?
Casting is always a challenge and due to the level of talent I was aiming for, at one point I was seriously worried it wouldn’t come together. Matthew McCaull was the first audition we had and he nailed it. No one came close after that. Casting Paula was a challenge due to the nudity; 75% of the local actors wouldn’t come out for it. Christie Burke actively pursued us for this role. Paula is a very damaged character and Christie had this incredible drive to make her as believable as possible. Like Matthew, no one else came close. Casting Jake was the nightmare – we had a name actor back out at the last second to do a pilot. It turned out we were being used as a chess piece by his talent agency to negotiate his deal and it jeopardized the whole production. Our incredibly talented casting director Judy Lee found Dakota Daulby who came in for an emergency casting session, days before we were going to camera. He nailed it with an incredible nuanced, vulnerable read. Like Matthew, Dakota ended up delivering an awesome award-winning performance. I honestly felt blessed we were able to have such a dedicated cast – we all knew we had something special.
One character that stood out on watching the film was Paula, was she based on a real person?
Noel Winters had a girlfriend who Paula was loosely based on. An interesting note, actor Christie Burke’s take on the character was to be “Pretty Woman goes to hell” with the hair, make-up and crazy purple nails. It was an incredibly intense role for her to play and to this day, she remembers very little of the experience.
I understand there was some issues stopping the film being released/distributed?
It’s been quite the learning experience. It feels like a miracle to actually pull off an indie movie these days that gets seen. I put years into “Black Fly”. It was the first script I wrote, way back in 1996. We finished it in 2014; it got festival recognition, won lots of awards and we immediately got a sales agent. But bottom line, it’s an indie sales and distribution mine field out there. To be fair, the challenge with indie movies like “Black Fly” is the lack of marquee. Our incredibly talented cast were unknowns and it does impact on sales. Knowing this, “Black Fly” needed love and a strategic plan to find its audience.
We ended up going with a sales agent that has a huge slate of films when sometimes boutique companies can give an indie film more attention. They sold our US distribution to a very small company that did zero publicity and wouldn’t return emails for three years. At one point, I thought they had shut down completely. They made no attempt to strategize with us which was heart-breaking as a filmmaker. It was dumped on DVD and three years later it finally came out on VOD in the US which is the main revenue stream. Again, our US distributor never contacted us or attempt a strategy plan. To this day, the experience baffles me because we delivered a beautifully acted, very strong film that resonates with audiences. Now that “Black Fly” is finally available on VOD in the US, I’m doing the press myself through my own company and getting the word out there. So far, response has been excellent.
All that said, “Black Fly” did exactly what I needed it to. It opened doors. International star Sean Bean loved it and came on board my second indie feature “Drone” which sold globally. All our “Black Fly” cast got US representation, nominations and awards and I couldn’t be more proud of what we pulled off.
Since then you have directed a number of tv shows and movies – do you have any personal projects you are working on?
As an indie filmmaker, I usually have to keep a dozen balls in the air at all times. In between the television movies, I work on my genre passion projects and sometimes they take years to get off the ground. Through my company Gold Star Productions Inc. we have a slate of four features in various stages of development. An action-flick about a hitman who gets reincarnated at a 14-year old, a wilderness winter thriller that’s a combo of The Revenant and Winter’s Bone and a couple horror projects I’m super excited about. The horror “Iris” may go first. It goes for the jugular.
Anything you can tell us about it?
“Iris” is a supernatural horror that all takes place in one night. With her sanity in question, a hospitalized teenage girl must face a malevolent entity hell bent on destroying her life. I co-wrote it with my writing partner Paul Birkett (Drone) based on an idea my mother came up with, years ago. The best way to describe it is “13 Reasons Why” meets “The Grudge”.
Do you have any advice you can give to any aspiring filmmakers out there?
I got into the industry by making my own content and not waiting around. You simply gotta get off your butt and do it. My first short I paid for with my Visa card. I went to film school but I learned so much more being a PA in an office, followed by being an assistant production coordinator on indie films. It allowed me to be a “fly on the wall” learning the nuts and bolts of production.
In between those gigs I did short films and music videos to practice my craft. There’s a lot to be said about this trial by fire approach – direct as much as you can. Every “mistake” is an experience you’ll learn from.
When it comes to writing what you would like to direct, there’s a lot to be said about writing what you know. By making it personal, you avoid the pitfalls of trying to copy a Hollywood movie. Other advice from my film school of hard knocks – talk about your project. The chance of someone going through the hassle of trying to steal your idea is very slim. Get your pitch down; be comfortable talking about it and understand that it takes practice. Go to film events, meet like-minded people. Also, In today’s market it’s not just about having a good script. Put together a great pitch deck – basically a document that shows off what your film is going to look like. Both writers and directors can do this. I love using film-grab.com to drop similar stills into the pitch document as examples of composition and color palate. I can go on for a while talking about that one – it’s all about making the best presentation to investors, broadcasters, distributors and sales agents. As creatives, we need to educate ourselves on the business of filmmaking and don’t be afraid to ask the indie film community for help. There’s lots of awesome Facebook groups, websites and film co-ops out there.
What would be your most important piece of advice to future directors?
This might come across more like a ramble than one piece of advice but I think it’s important to say it – don’t have an ego and treat everyone with respect, right down to the PA. Filmmaking is collaborative and the best films are made by the best teams; it’s all about relationships. The best way to treat actors is the “partner in crime” approach. Be a strong leader by listening to suggestions and be open to change. Ultimately the director makes the final decision but by keeping an open mind, it takes full advantage of these artists you’ve surrounded yourself with. I’ve found the worst sin on a film set is when creativity is crushed by a director with a big ego and tunnel vision. An actor who feels they’re not being respected or listened to will shut down and it impacts on performance.
As indie filmmakers, one of the best skills you can have is being able to adapt to creative curveballs and of course, never let them see you sweat. Keep calm, open to ideas and be “producer friendly”. Combine that with a strong creative vision, strong prep and a story worth telling and you’ll go far.
You can follow Jason Bourque at:
Instagram – jasonbourque1
Twitter – jasonbourque1
Website – goldstarprod.com