Filmmaker drills down for new project

Actors Shaun Hood, left, and Ashleigh Shortridge meet with writer director Aaron Huggett on the set of his 2016 film, Red Ryan. Shortridge also is in the cast of Huggett's latest project, Black Gold, being filmed this summer. (File photo/ The Observer)

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Aaron Huggett looked close to home for the subject of his latest film.

The writer and director of the films Red Ryan and Black Donnellys, the first two instalments in the Heroes and Outlaws Canadian history series, is at work on a third.

Black Gold is about the birth of North America’s oil industry in Black Creek, the early name of the Lambton County community of Oil Springs.

“I grew up outside of Oil Springs,” Huggett said.

The significant role the village and former boom town played in the early oil industry is a well-known story in Lambton, but not as familiar elsewhere, he said

“It’s a story I’ve always found compelling and finally felt we’re at a place where we can tell it.”

Black Gold is being produced by Electric Motion Pictures with 50 volunteer cast and crew members mostly from Southwestern Ontario.

Huggett’s first film in the series came out in 2016 and told the story of notorious Depression-era gangster Red Ryan who was shot and killed by police while robbing a liquor store in downtown Sarnia.

That film was followed by Black Donnellys telling the story of a family of Irish immigrants who were victims of a massacre on their farm near Lucan in 1880.

The films have won 19 awards, to date, and more than 14,000 people attending 48 screenings held across Ontario for Black Donnellys.

Many of the scenes for the new project are being filmed this summer at a period set constructed at Fairbank Oil fields, an historic oil property in Oil Springs owned by fourth-generation oil producer Charlie Fairbank.

“We created a four-sided façade, so one building that is in different pieces that will actually pass as several different buildings,” Huggett said.

While there are buildings from the 1800s still standing in the area, those structures “have age on them,” he said.

“To really show the boom town as it’s happening in Black Creek in the 1850s, we needed something that looked like new construction.”

Along with the building, the set includes a horse paddock and a three-pole oil derrick.

Creating the set was a challenge, “but we felt it was something that was needed to tell the story in a convincing way,” Huggett said.

Historic characters in the film include oil pioneers Charles Tripp, Hugh Nixon Shaw, James Miller Williams and J.H. Fairbank.

The actor portraying Fairbank is Michael Henry, a community theatre actor in Petrolia who also is a direct descendant of the early oil driller.

“I saw him in a play a couple of weeks before we were finalizing casting,” Huggett said.

“I thought, ‘That guy’s good, I wonder who it is?’”

It wasn’t until Huggett asked around that he discovered Henry’s family connection to J.H. Fairbank.

Also in the cast are Rick Amsbury, Danilo Reyes, Madi Graves, Dan Huggett, Levi Oliver, David Parisian, Vince Ricci, Ashleigh Shortridge and Bob Gibson.

The film centres on three main stories, including a connection to Josiah Henson’s nearby settlement in Dresden through former slaves who found their way to the oil fields.

“That’s a part of the story that has never been told,” Huggett said.

“We’re excited about that.”

Fairbank and Shaw are the focus of the other two main storylines.

They were among the early drillers converging in the 1800s “on this swampland in the middle of Southwestern Ontario and out of it springs this little civilization, and the oil industry itself,” Huggett said.

DVD copies of the first two films are sold online through the website, with proceeds helping finance upcoming films.

If interest in the films continues, so will the series, Huggett said.

“We expect to be able to let people know what the next one will be when this one premiers,” he said.

Huggett said they hope to schedule a local premier for Black Gold in the spring.