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Ash director Andrew Huculiak.Handout

You know that best friend you had as a kid, the one whose house it felt like you were at as often as you were in your own home? For Andrew Huculiak, who grew up to make films and co-founded the band, We Are the City, that place was the Preston household, a three-minute bike ride from his home in Peachland, B.C.

In 2013, Huculiak was blindsided when that childhood best friend’s dad – local journalist David Preston – was charged with three counts of child pornography.

“I knew this man as a good person, a second father figure, and I saw his noble qualities and once the news broke about the nature of these crimes he was being charged with, it was pretty stark, the contrast – how other people saw him and how I saw him,” Huculiak said during a recent interview to discuss his new film Ash.

“Because it didn’t reflect anything about the relationship that I had with him. It wasn’t like there were these weird things that happened that finally [made] sense. He was so normal and really supportive and it was like, how is this possible?”

This was a man who had been supportive and influential, who had acted in films the boys made, who worked to get a skate park built in Peachland.

“Then, I watched as the family grappled with one of the most terrible things that a family could grapple with,” Huculiak says. “And I saw him get better. I saw him go to therapy and start taking medication. I saw his wife stand by him and support him fully to get better. And it was a beautiful tragic story and I just felt really inspired by the whole thing. There’s so much there.”

There was enough there for Huculiak to make it the subject matter of his second film. Previously titled I’m Not a Bad Person, Ash had its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival Sept 30.

Huculiak, 29, does not shy away from a filmmaking challenge. His directorial debut, Violent, was made in Norway and in Norwegian – a language neither Huculiak nor his skeleton team of co-creators spoke. Made for a budget of $300,000 (hard costs were closer to $30,000, Huculiak says), Violent was a critical success, winning awards for Best Canadian film and Best B.C. Film at VIFF in 2014, where it had its world premiere.

For his follow-up, Huculiak chose to tell Preston’s story, despite – or because of – the challenge of making a film with a protagonist who has Pedophilia OCD. Preston serves as story consultant.

“I felt the more challenging, the riskier, the better chance that we’d have something special on our hands,” Huculiak says. “Because the last film … was this huge challenge of making a film in a language we didn’t understand. And in some way, this kind of felt the same. It’s a language that we didn’t understand. The nature of the crimes is not something that we had a lot of comprehension about. So getting into those shoes and understanding the character and the motivations was another challenge.”

As Ash opens, Stan Hurst (Tim Guinee), who runs a local news website, is chasing a huge story – wildfires ravaging the Okanagan. But then he becomes the news, when the child-porn charges become public.

For Huculiak, working with the same core team who made Violent, the difficult subject matter led to unforeseen roadblocks pretty much every step of the way. A week before production was scheduled to begin, with the crew already in the Okanagan, the Canadian actor who was set to play Hurst pulled out.

“He left us high and dry,” says Huculiak, declining to identify the actor. Production had to be delayed.

“There were times – seriously when the actor dropped out – I would go home and I was nearly catatonic. I’d lay in bed and just think, ‘What have I done? What have I done to my friends, what have I done to my family? Why this story? Why did I go down this path?’”

They were a week away from folding, Huculiak says, when they found Guinee, a New York-based actor, who inhabits the role so perfectly Huculiak now sees that it was the best thing for the film. Chelah Horsdal (The Man in the High Castle) plays his wife, Gail.

Two days after Guinee read the script, he was in British Columbia for his first day of shooting. It was a whirlwind and they had to begin by shooting one of the last scenes in the film. Huculiak was worried about that. His producers orchestrated some high-level help: calls with directors Atom Egoyan and Bruce MacDonald. “They really built me up and gave me confidence,” Huculiak says. He was speaking to The Globe and Mail by phone from a fruit stand in Cawston, B.C., where the band had pulled over between gigs so he could do the interview.

But then, more problems. As word spread in the community about the movie’s subject matter, locations pulled out. There was the issue of music rights – and then the whole business of funding, marketing and selling the film, which has Canadian distribution and an international sales agent at this point.

The $1.2-million film does not pull punches. There is a courtroom scene that is very difficult to watch.

“It’s an empathetic telling of it, but it’s not a justification, it’s not an in-defense-of, it’s just merely these are the good parts of this person and these are the bad parts of this person,” says Huculiak, who is also a father – he has a young son and a second on the way. His son was a few months old when he was writing the script. He is also a devout Christian and that, too, informed his approach.

“I have challenged my own beliefs about unconditional empathy and compassion and forgiveness with this sort of material,” Huculiak says.

“How do we reconcile people that we love who did bad things?”

Subject matter aside, Ash once again displays the filmmaking prowess of Huculiak and his team. To capture footage of the wildfires, they would jump in their van whenever something flared up – which happened far too often during the devastating wildfire season of 2017. (They also shot fire footage in 2016.) Ash also contains some unforgettable – and even very funny – scenes.

Huculiak is anxious about the film’s reception, but is looking forward to what happens after the screening: at the Q&A and at coffee shops and on drives home and beyond.

“When we were talking about making this film, the concept of people after they watched the movie getting into a discussion about it and arguing, getting into some place of better understanding or some form of enlightenment, that was really exciting to me. And that’s what I want my contribution to the art world to be about.”

Ash is at VIFF Sept 30 at 8:30 p.m. (The Vancouver Playhouse) and Oct. 2 at 8:30 p.m. (SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts).

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