Last October during the Vancouver International Film Festival, Connor Gaston was attending church in Vancouver as research for The Devout, his debut feature film set in evangelical, small town B.C. This year, the Victoria auteur was notably absent from VIFF, where he was honoured with a Best Emerging B.C. Filmmaker award at the world premier screening. The University of Victoria alumnus was in Busan, South Korea for The Devout’s international premiere at the Busan International Film Festival (Oct. 1 – 10), the largest film festival in Asia.
“I just want to make something that’s good, that I like, that people can relate to,” Gaston said, exhausted after a night of A-list party hopping the night prior with his fellow UVic alumn: executive producer Daniel Hogg and producer Amanda Verhagen. The trio made the trip alongside The Devout‘s visual effects artist Denver Jackson and lead actors Charlie Carrick and Ali Liebert of Vancouver.
The Toronto International Film Festival, where Gaston’s last short film Godhead premiered in 2014, was their initial goal for the film. “I just didn’t expect to get into Busan,” he added.
And in its first week before the public, The Devout has continued to exceed expectations. From throngs of fans demanding autographs post-screening, to insightful questions from some 250 middle school students who sold out one show, the Korean reaction to Gaston’s MFA thesis project underlines the 26 year old’s ease for telling stories that reach beyond cultural divides.
The Devout follows a Christian school teacher Darryl (Carrick) through a crisis of faith after hearing his terminally ill daughter Abi (Olivia Martin) claims to have had a past life as an astronaut aboard the Apollo 1 space mission. Darryl risks his marriage to Jan (Liebert) and his last days with their child to determine if she has lived before and will live again. It’s a story inspired by Gaston’s own claims as a four-year-old child, and one that he had some trepidation over telling for fear of offending Christians.
“My parents tell me all the time,” Gaston said. “I said I was a carpenter named Mark and that I fell off a roof and I had a black dog. … (The theory is) you’re still connected to the past when you’re young and you have a certain time frame when you can ask.”
The story was originally about a young boy, but when an open call at a Gordon Head preschool led to Martin, Gaston adapted the script. The four-year-old was a natural, both on screen and before a live audience in Vancouver where she fielded a post-screening Q & A while her co-stars were in Busan.
“Every day she’d walk on the set saying hi to everyone,” Hogg said. “She was so happy to be there. And I think we had sugary cereals at crafty that she wasn’t allowed to have a home.”
“Ali did this genius thing where she’d play with Olivia between takes. Then they were really comfortable with each other and she would really listen,” Verhagen said. “It also kept the mood light.”
The film was funded by Telefilm Canada, the B.C. Arts Council and private investors. It was supported by Cinevic: Society of Independent Filmmakers, shot on Vancouver Island and features locations across Greater Victoria.
Once Gaston returns to the Island, he’ll begin work on The Cameraman, a short based on the novel by his father, Bill Gaston, and made possible by the Harold Greenberg Fund Shorts-to-Features program. The project goes to camera early next year.