5 Questions with Justin Black, Director of Headwaters Down

This week, RVA NOW connected with Justin Black, a graduate of the University of Virginia and local Richmond filmmaker. In 2022, Justin and his team won Best Virginia Film at the Richmond International Film Festival with their film Headwaters Down, a story of 250 miles of “paddling, preservation, and misadventure” over 13 days on the James River.

Now, their creative team is about to premiere A Sturgeon Story, which follows the adventures of three friends trying to film the epic breaching of the recently returned Atlantic Sturgeon in the James River during their seasonal run. The short film premiers on Saturday, May 13th at the Environmental Short Film Showcase at Gallery5. We asked Justin a few questions about his process, his relationship to creativity, and how Richmond has shaped his career.

Which came first – wanting to make your first documentary, or wanting to canoe the James?

Our team, Will Gemma, Dietrich Teschner and myself had been writing scripts for short films and more narrative focused stories for years before we pursued making any documentary work. We had always been taking short canoe trips on the James and on one of those trips we thought maybe we could link all the sections we had done on the upper and middle James together and film it, for a YouTube series or something… but as things went down on the trip we realized we had an actual feature film. 

What surprised you the most about your search for the sturgeon?

Just seeing the Atlantic Sturgeon breach in person for the first time was an absolutely life changing experience. Seeing something so big and elusive and majestic right here on the James, that swims from the ocean all the way up to the city was epic. 

How does Richmond inspire you to create?

Richmond has been an affordable place to live as an artist, at least for the past decade. Also, the community is small enough that you can access people to help out or answer any creative questions you may have. Winning awards at film festivals like the Richmond Environmental Film Festival and the Richmond International Film Festival really helped launch our film career and gave us the legitimacy we needed to start our production company. 

What advice would you give a student who wants to follow in your filmmaking footsteps?  

My advice is more geared towards people who want to direct, make their own films and create original work. To create original work you need to live first (and breathe deeply lol), so unless you have money already, having a part-time lucrative job that can support your art is important in your 20s. It also gives you life experience which comes in handy believe it or not! Sometimes that can be in the field you’re most interested in like working on other film sets. I found that working on other films/shows didn’t pay very well and took up way too much of my personal time.

Find something that allows you to stay engaged creatively but gives you the free time you need to make work – or that gives you access to tools you need to make work. It takes time to find your subject, your voice, your style especially once you’re on your own. Stay focused and keep pushing towards self appointed deadlines and goals. Meet those goals, give up the quest for perfection and move on to the next project. 

If a student has never explored the James, how would you recommend getting started?

I’d recommend booking a white water rafting trip with RVA Paddlesports, joining a Sturgeon watch tour with the JRA in September or taking a walk down to Belle Isle. Oh yeah, or watch Headwaters Down on PRIME! 

You can purchase tickets for the Environmental Film Festival here.