Riverhead: Filmmaker Justin Oakey Discusses His Debut Feature Film

Photo by Evan Smith (Cropped)
Riverhead is a crime drama following an outport community divided by a violent blood feud.

What’s Riverhead about?

Riverhead is a crime drama following an outport community divided by a violent blood feud. It centres on a middle-aged man finding himself at odds with vengeful brothers determined to breathe new life into a bitter feud started by their father. It’s a story born from all the clashing between Catholics and Protestants in rural Newfoundland, especially up the North Shore.

Why did you choose Riverhead as your debut feature?

I never intended for Riverhead to be my debut feature, or a feature at all. In fact, I was meeting with local filmmaker Christian Sparkes one night after being introduced at the Atlantic Film Festival and I was pitching him a short I had written about some stories my grandmother had told me about Catholics and Protestants up the North Shore. That short was called Riverhead. When I first pitched the idea to Christian, he assumed it was a feature and that immediately got the ideas going. I’ve always been fascinated by The Troubles of Northern Ireland, and the UK. I think it’s a complex slice of history, and our island’s own issues have rarely been explored on screen.

Who are you working with?

I’m lucky to be collaborating with a really talented local crew. They’re patient, too, as I am pretty particular and my style with shooting is to keep things nimble, naturalistic, even documentary-like at times. Brad Gover is co-producing with me, Ian Vatcher is behind the camera, and the lively Lawrence Barry is our star, supported by Steve Oates, Evan Mercer, Allison Kelly, Steve Lush, Michelle Rex, and Des Walsh. Larry has been on board since day one. After making Flankers – my last short – together, we formed quite a friendship and bonded over family connections in the Grand Falls-Winsor area. When I pitched him the feature-length idea for Riverhead, he was chomping at the bit to make it together. The story is fixated on his character, so he’s got the lion’s share of screen time. Honestly, his character has a very dark journey, and I think his performance is gonna turn a lot of heads.

How did you get into filmmaking?

I suppose I can say from a young age I wanted to be a storyteller, but choosing film as my way to tell those stories came a little later. For a while I wanted to be an animator, but after some high school video projects, I got wooed by filmmaking.

Where are your storytelling roots buried?

Like many Newfoundlanders, my family is full of natural and colourful storytellers, so it’s no wonder I found myself on that path. I’m particularly inspired by their stories of conflicts, feuds, exciting hunts, or troubles on the water. My work always starts with stories from people close to me, they provide the foundation. From there I can start wiggling more cinematic ideas in. It’s important to me that my films set on the island are both highly cinematic but also authentic representations of outport Newfoundland culture.

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