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AMPIA Spotlight

A Closer Look at Some of the Creative Talent Making Things Happen In Alberta

Blake McWilliam |  Producer · Director · Writer | Back Road Productions

Blake McWilliam is an award winning Canadian director and producer. With an official selection at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, a Canadian Screen Award Nomination in 2016, and multiple AMPIA, CCMA, and JUNO nominations and awards along the way, Blake is quickly establishing himself at the forefront of the Canadian film industry.

He produced the feature films “Hands that Bind” starring Paul Sparks and two-time academy award nominee Bruce Dern, and “Hey Viktor!”, an indigenous comedy that premiered at Tribeca and TIFF this fall. On the documentary side, the recently released “Lebanese Burger Mafia” enjoyed its world premiere in May at Hot Docs and releases on Paramount+ this spring. “Send Kelp” is Blake’s feature-documentary directorial debut. He is next set to direct the feature films “May Long” and “Fading Elegy”.


Can you please provide a brief overview of your journey in the film and TV industry?

My journey is a little roundabout, to be honest. For my whole life, I was always making little films. If there was some kind of class presentation in junior high, I would make a video and play that for the class rather than stand at the front of the room and present it live. The obvious fear of being in front of people aside, it was clear that filmmaking was always something I was interested in. But as I grew up, entered University, and got smacked in the face with the realities of life (and being from Edmonton, in particular), I really didn’t think I could actually make a career in the industry happen. How would it even be possible? But, despite far too many years in school debating between what my heart wanted and what my head was telling me, I finally decided to take the leap and just try.

I had no idea where to start and began at a corporate video production company straight out of school. While what I was making wasn’t even close to what I wanted to be doing, it was still storytelling through the visual medium, and it led me to meet some of the people who would become my consistent collaborators even to this day, all of us growing our skills together, pushing each other, and supporting each other. But I soon came to a crossroads, realizing that if I was going to pursue making the kinds of things I dreamed of making, I was going to have to leave that company and chase what I really wanted. But without exposure to the way the industry actually works, no real connections to the established industry, and recognizing that nobody was going to reach out to me and say “hey, we have this really cool project do you want to direct it” without me having any actual experience, the only option I saw was to start my own company, Back Road Productions, and basically just figure it out.

I started out doing commercials and music videos for anyone I could convince to hire us and had some incredible opportunities and successes in those arenas. But still, the pursuit of making film and television never stopped. So along the way, I made some short films and even made a self-funded proof-of-concept pilot for a comedy series. It was those experiences that eventually led to the opportunity to independently produce some television and feature films.

So this is all a long-winded way of saying that through nothing but the consistent pursuit of my larger goals and an unwavering work ethic, I’ve proven my original assumptions wrong and have made a career for myself in this industry, in Edmonton of all places. But, I’d be lying if [I] said that I feel like I’ve arrived at where I want to be. The pursuit continues. Maybe even more vigorously than ever.

What are some of your key accomplishments?

I’ve been really honoured to have been recognized by the AMPIAs, CCMAs, JUNOS, ACE Awards, and the Canadian Screen awards over my career so far. But the last six months, for one reason or another, has been really special and is the culmination of work that began five years ago.

The first feature I produced, Hands that Bind (directed by Kyle Armstrong), and a 2nd feature I helped produce, Hey Viktor! (Directed by Cody Lightning), both saw theatrical releases this year by Mongrel and LevelFILM respectively, both with subsequent releases on Crave. The feature-length documentary I executive produced, The Lebanese Burger Mafia (directed by Omar Mouallem and produced by Dylan Rhys Howard) played Hot Docs last year and enjoyed a theatrical release by LevelFILM and subsequent release on Paramount+.

Having three films in theatres across Canada at basically the same time is something I’m very very proud of. And it goes without saying that these accomplishments are by no means personal accomplishments. They are the accomplishments of every single person who contributed their time, passion, skill, and belief.

What are your current and/or future projects?

On top of the many projects Back Road is currently developing, I’m really excited about the upcoming release of a feature documentary I produced and directed called “Send Kelp” (you can see it in Alberta at Northwest Fest on May 13th at the Garneau, and then streaming on Telus Originals). And I’m looking forward to directing my first narrative feature film later this summer.

Have there been any key moments in your career that changed your trajectory?

It’s so hard to pin things down to a few key moments. I really see it all as one long, never-ending, Sisyphean struggle (can I put lol here?). I can certainly remember a number of big decisions that I could point at as changing my trajectory, but that feels a bit too easy. There is so much value in those dark times we all have when something didn’t work out the way you hoped and you think that maybe your career is over or that you don’t have the ability to keep going. But you happen to get a call from a friend who says just the right thing in the right moment. Or that mistake ends up leading to something you never would have thought of. So for me, I often think about all those little things that have all led to this moment. Those are the moments that matter the most and I’m so grateful for them. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, and it’s so cliché to say, but it’s that you really have to love the journey and process. So if I have to pick one key moment that changed my trajectory, it would be the moment I really came to understand that.