Interviews

True Crime, Lobsters, and The Killing of Phillip Boudreau

Megan Wennberg learns firsthand how a murder can divide a small fishing community.


For years, Phillip Boudreau poached lobsters and evaded local authorities in the community of Isle Madame situated off of the coast of Cape Breton angering the local population. Frustration transitioned into vigilante justice when fisherman James Landry shot Boudreau and rammed his speedboat leading to a killing that was reported in the national media as ‘Murder for Lobster’ in 2013. But is that the complete story? In making the documentary The Killing of Phillip Boudreau, filmmaker Megan Wennberg (Drag Kids) discovered that emotions and opinions still remain divided as to whether the death was a well-deserved reckoning or a tragic conclusion to a troubled life.

The setting in Cape Breton is beautiful but also leaves one with a prevailing sense of isolation from the rest of the world. These are people living ordinary lives and their financial struggles have become a tradition in the economically depressed region. This is not a place where murders are regular frontpage fodder for the local newspaper as it would be in a major city like Toronto. Only three prominent family names are to be found in the community, which emphasizes the fact that every resident is closely entwined with each other whether it be as neighbours or by bloodline. For someone to die would be seen as a death in the family rather than that of a stranger. All of these elements only serve to heighten the emotional and social ramifications of the killing for not only Phillip Boudreau and James Landry but the entire community.

Speaking over the phone from Nova Scotia, Wennberg discussed with POV the COVID-19 pandemic, how she initially became a script supervisor, the complications of trying to get people to speak on a sensitive issue, and the re-election campaign of President Donald Trump.

Megan Wennberg

POV: Trevor Hogg
MW: Megan Wennberg

POV: How are you and your family doing during these crazy times?

MW: Not too bad. My family right now consists of two cats and everyone else seems to be doing well. We’re lucky in the Maritimes. It’s good to be out here.

POV: I notice that you have a background as a script supervisor. How has that experience influenced you as a filmmaker?

MW: Interesting. [laughs] I’m not sure! I started making films out of journalism school and then joined the [local] Film Coop but I certainly wasn’t earning any sort of money in making my own short films early on. When the opportunity came up to be a script supervisor on a feature film, I decided to do that. And because there aren’t many script supervisors on the East Coast, I ended up continuing to get work. It was a good way to make money while I was still trying to work on my own projects. But as a script supervisor I had the opportunity to sit next to a whole lot of different directors. I imagine that I definitely learned some stuff by being comfortable onset and seeing that whole machine made it less intimidating. I would feel terrible for any director coming from their own short films to suddenly being on the big set of a feature or TV show. I can’t imagine how intimidating that would be!

POV: How different is this documentary compared to your previous projects?

MW: Very different. The project that I had done right before that was called Drag Kids which was about preteen drag queens from around the world coming together to perform at Montreal Pride. That was amazing. They were such inspiring kids who wanted their stories told, and their parents were supportive. They were also performers so excited to be on-camera. [laughs] Whereas going to Isle Madame, an island off of Cape Breton, people did not want to talk to us. They were friendly and hospitable but the idea of speaking on-camera or talking about this horrible tragedy to strangers was something that people weren’t particularly interested in, certainly for the first several trips.

POV: How did you go about gaining the trust of the community?

MW: The big thing is time and also hoping that my approach wasn’t pushy. There were a lot of people who I tried to interview but they didn’t want to do it. At that point you have to stop. If people say ‘no’ then they say ‘no’ again, that’s it. I only wanted to talk to people who wanted to talk to me. Eventually what started happening was I found people with a stake in the story who felt that their side hadn’t been told and maybe hadn’t shared much of their experience with anyone before. Those were the stories that I was interested in.

POV: Was there a particular interview that you found to be surprising in what got said?

MW: That happened several times. The first time was with Nicole Gionet who is the mother of Phillip’s best friend [Rhéal Landry] but was also someone Phillip had hurt over the years. She wasn’t sorry that he was dead but at the same time she hated how he was killed. She understood that Phillip as a kid had been taken advantage of by different men in the community who had intentionally got him stealing. Once Phillip became an adult it was no longer funny to them but it was also a problem that they had created.

POV: There is an African proverb that goes, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ The community places a lot of blame on the police but perhaps they need to look more inward.

MW: That’s a hard thing for people to admit. A lot of people were responsible for what happened that day. Obviously, the men on the boat, like James Landry and Dwayne Samson. Phillip had been tormenting them for years but for the wider [Cape Breton] community, there was this guy who is in and out of prison, arguably had mental health issues, had a rough upbringing and wasn’t getting help on any level. Phillip’s problems kept on getting worse and people didn’t know how to deal with it so treating it as someone else’s problem was easier than stepping in and trying to help.

POV: How long did it take for you to produce The Killing of Phillip Boudreau?

MW: We started shooting a demo to see if we could get some development funding back in March of 2019. Then we finally finished filming in January of 2020. That was a lot of trips back and forth. We would only go for a few days at a time. Sometimes the trips would go well and people would want to come to us. Other times things that I had lined up would fall through and we ended up shooting more landscapes.

POV: Did you have a conversation with your cinematographer as to how close the camera should be to the interviewees?

MW: Paul McCurdy is a talented cinematographer and a lovely person. He is incredibly respectful of anyone we were working with. Paul doesn’t get up in anyone’s face and we weren’t certainly approaching people on the street with the camera. Any interviews that we did were set up in advance.

POV: What drew you to the story?

MW: When the two producers at Tell Tale Productions, Erin Oakes and Edward Peill, brought me into their office for a meeting while I was editing Drag Kids, they pitched a couple of projects. I wasn’t interested in those but then Edward asked, ‘How do you feel about vigilante justice?’ My reaction was: ‘I’m in!’ I had been away from Nova Scotia when this killing happened. I started reading articles about it and initially, I was more on the side of the lobster fishermen, which was interesting and weird. From what I was reading, it sounded like they had no choice, were pushed too far, and finally snapped. But going to the community and speaking to the people and getting to understand more about who Phillip was and the circumstances of his life and the life of that community, I felt horrible for both sides.

POV: Was there any additional insight that was gained by making the documentary?

MW: There were several takeaways in making the film for me. I liked everyone I met in that community. At one point I met James Landry. Even knowing what I knew about what he had done, James came across as a lovely old man on a wharf in Nova Scotia. It’s crazy to realize that any of us are potentially capable of anything depending on the circumstances. This is a raw wound and something that the community as a whole hasn’t figured out how to heal from.

POV: How tricky was it to get access to the police interrogation footage of James Landry?

MW: We were lucky because it was a court exhibit in James Landry’s trial and that’s why we were able to get access to it.

POV: How did you make sure that the interrogation was shown in the proper context?

MW: I watched all of it. We had several hours. A lot of it was repeats. They were going through the questioning again and again. It was a great way to give people the chance to know James. He passed away last November. I hope that he comes across as likeable and relatable despite doing something completely horrible. In terms of using the different excerpts of the interrogation, it was like plotting out the arc of a story. Initially, he was completely denying the killing, claiming, ‘We never saw him that day.’ But then in the most telling character moment for me is when the interrogator asks him, ‘What kind of person would run over another man at sea knowing full well that he could endanger his life?’ Instead of saying a horrible person, James Landry said, ‘Not too many.’ It’s that kind of weird answer where he is not admitting that he did it but implying it would take a rare person to actually act [that revealed a lot to me].

POV: Did you always intend to use re-enactments?

MW: I knew we would probably have to because there was no other way of illustrating what happened. That’s something I haven’t done before. It made me a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do anything that was too crass or sensational. I didn’t want to make murder sexy in any way. All of that stuff grosses me out but at the same time I felt that we did need to give people some sense of what it could have been like out there on that day.

P*_OV:_* Was there much of a discussion about the cameras, lenses, aspect ratios and how you would approach the coverage?

MW: I get to watch a monitor the entire time we’re filming. Paul has wonderful instincts and we’ve worked together on so many projects that I don’t tend to have a lot to say to him. As for aspect ratio what we really wanted to use was 2.35:1 and that’s what the international version is but CBC wasn’t able to accept that, so it’s standard 16:9 for them. The reason behind using the 2.35:1 was for being able to showcase the landscape. Isle Madame is an incredibly beautiful place but it’s also vast, empty in places and a real character in the community’s life.

POV: Does the international version also have a different runtime?

MW: The international version is 52 or 53 minutes [instead of 45 minutes] so there is a bit more from some of the characters; that’s because of international hours, no commercials and it being in PAL.

POV: How hard was it to assemble the opening teaser?

MW: For POV, you have to have a teaser at the beginning. We did that last. My editor, Warren Jefferies, and I had gone through the whole film and had been mocking up little bits for the teaser and had a sense of what we might like.

POV: Did the narrative change a great deal editorially in order to make sure that each [major] person was given enough time to express their perspective and for viewers to get know them?

MW: We started editing in October but I was still shooting in November, December and January. It was definitely a challenging process because we were trying to build the narrative while knowing that there were going to be gaps, which would potentially get filled by stuff we had yet to get. It wasn’t until last winter that it started to feel cohesive. Once there was a rough cut, we were able to show it to different people and get some feedback. From there I took it all apart, and rebuilt it up so that the story was moving as best as possible.

POV: What was your biggest challenge?

MW: The biggest challenge was finding people who wanted to speak about what had happened and wanted their stories shared.

POV: Is there a particular shot or sequence that stands out to you?

MW: Rhéal Landry was supposed to be out with Phillip that morning. Having him agree to take us out to the beach, where Phillip was killed, was one of the most powerful moments. Just seeing how visually affected Rhéal still was, made the whole thing much more real and I was grateful that he was willing to take us there and go there himself.

POV: What do you hope to achieve in telling this story?

MW: I hope this helps people in other small places because it’s not like this couldn’t happen anywhere else. Maybe seeing something like this might give people pause because taking the law into their own hands, even though they’re frustrated, probably is not going to be a great result for anyone.

POV: On an entirely different note, I have to ask whether or not you are going to do a sequel for Anthem for America? [In 2016, Wennberg made a short video of people in Halifax writing down what they would like to say to Americans knowing Donald Trump was president-elect.]

MW: Ohh! [Laughs]. I hope not! I really hope that things go well on November 3rd. We did that a few days after the Presidential election so we’ll see what happens this time. I really hope that there will be a happy result for the world.

The Killing of Phillip Boudreau airs Saturday October 17, 2020 at 8 PM on CBC and is now on CBC Gem.