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Interview with Justin McConnell, director of Clapboard Jungle
By James Whittington, Sunday 30th August 2020
ClapboardJungle-Poster

A couple of years back, at FrightFest 2018 a movie named Lifechanger played. This deep, engaging and original movie was a thought provoking and intelligent piece of work. Its director, Justin McConnell is back at FrightFest but this time with a rather different piece of work, looking at how the industry works and showing people just how hard the film making business can be. We chatted to him about this look at the business.

HC: What was it you saw or read about that made you want to have a career in the industry?

JM: Maybe it's a thread of insanity of some kind? I honestly can't remember the exact "ah ha" moment, more of a generally growing love of film when I was a younger. My family watched a decent number of movies, and my dad in particular would rent me horror from a young age. I do remember The Monster Squad being very influential on making me really see the magic of film. To a kid that film is a wonderful show of smoke and mirrors, so to speak. Some of my favourite childhood memories were film related, either seeing them on the big screen or watching them with friends. I come from a really small town so there was an allure to the world outside that. I had a subscription to Fangoria when I was a teenager, and the internet was just coming into use so there'd be pages with rudimentary fake blood recipes I was finding. And the movie blogs were starting to gain a foothold in the late 90s. So, it all kind of just pushed me to try and chase the thing that brought me the most joy. Got the bug and didn't look back.

HC: This is a very raw, emotional, and honest account of the industry, and yet very inspiring, what do you hope people take away from it?

JM: That the effort is worth it, if you realize that for most people, to get where you want to go, there are going to be a lot of road bumps along the way. A lot of moments of self-doubt and defeat. That you have to put a piece of yourself out there for the world to evaluate and be prepared for everyone to have an opinion and keep going. Basically, that everyone has different paths to their dream, and many will never make it to their ultimate goal, but the effort is worth it provided one thing: that you truly love the medium of film/visual storytelling.

HC: What singular thing is the most frustrating part of making a movie?

JM: I don't think there is one singular most frustrating thing, as it's more like a bunch of tiny cuts amounting to an overall series of wounds on the path to finishing a film. But my least favourite thing is fundraising. It's a lot of effort to continually try to put various people and teams together toward a shared vision, knowing that you need every piece of the puzzle to get something made, and knowing full well a key piece of the financing puzzle may drop out at any time. Or some much larger world event may kill your momentum dead. Sometimes you get lucky and a project comes together quickly without much of a hitch, sometimes it can take years. Sometimes you can put your life and soul into trying to get something made and it just sits there after a long series of false starts. It's a rollercoaster and can be very disheartening.

HC: Have you ever wanted to quit and walk away from the industry?

JM: Yes. Absolutely. But usually that feeling doesn't last very long. A good example was this film I made in 2010 called "The Collapsed". It was this tiny feature that was made for like $40K up front, shot way too fast, from a script that I wrote too fast. I was pretty green still, at the time. Anyway, it punched above its weight in the market, sold to a bunch of companies (including Anchor Bay and Lionsgate), and did a theatrical run across Canada. In the long run the reviews were mixed, but in the short run the night before my Canadian theatrical most of the national Canadian papers tore the film to shreds. It was a tiny movie competing in theatres next to studio fare, but it just filled me with so much self-doubt. But that didn't last long, as you take things like that and plan to do better next time. I don't think the film is terrible, given what I had to work with, but it was definitely a great learning experience of what not to do, and that I needed to take my time refining my work more. I'm always learning. I have to be.

HC: You cover the lack of diversity and under representation in the industry, did any of the facts surprise you?

JM: Not particularly. It's hard not to notice the voices calling for better representation the past few years. And rightfully so. I'm just trying to be an ally the best I can, and that carried right into our crew on LIFECHANGER. The majority of our crew was women, and in casting I actively tried to make sure the faces in the film reflected the reality of Toronto in real life. There's this common thread in Toronto indie production where a lot of projects are whitewashed (though that has been improving), and we put in effort to make sure that wasn't the case there. Even though I'm a tiny indie filmmaker operating on the fringe of the business overall and have had plenty of doors shut in my face, I still know I have a degree of privilege other people do not. Proper representation does appear to be on the way to becoming more widely accepted as a practice, though. Still work to do, but I do notice progress.

HC: Was there anyone's opinion you didn't manage to get on film?

JM: Plenty of people. I tried to get Gale Anne Hurd, Christine Vachon, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, Jason Blum, Ernest Dickerson and a few others, but for whatever reason those interviews didn't line up. I'm surprised I managed to get as many people as I did, though. So many people I expected to turn me down ended up saying yes.

HC: Social media is filled with "keyboard warriors" who all have a comment to make. How do you deal with any negativity?

JM: I used to eat my feelings (joking, sort of). But the reality is that absolutely everyone has opinions about everything, and one person's opinion is not the truth, it's the opinion. I'd be lying if I said negative comments don't hurt to some degree, but lately it's more like a little poke than a punch in the face. The important thing is to try to take any seed of truth in these comments and see if that can be applied to your future work. But if the current world political client is anything to go by, everyone thinks differently, there are lots of idiots out there, and you can't let those words get to you. You can't put too much value in any opinion, either positive or negative, or it affects the work in the long run. It's almost like a crowd-sourcing thing: pool the comments together if you're looking, find the seeds of truth in all of them, good or bad, and try to learn from that. Other people have every right to call my work shit just like I have the right to not agree with them. But let's be honest, every piece of art gets hated by some, liked by some. The only person who has to truly live with your artistic choices is yourself and those with vested interest in your work.

HC: Is test screening an integral part to film making?

JM: I think it is, but not necessarily the way studios test movies. There are two schools of thought. The studio way where an independent marketing company runs the screening and they are looking for problem areas to fine tune a film for the widest audience appeal can be good, but can also lead to a compromised vision, or an outright mess. The indie version of that, what I do, is test the film so that I have a pool of opinions to study and draw from, so that the core team also has the same opinions, then we can discuss the improvements that can be made from an artistic standpoint. You are still thinking about audience appeal, but it's more of a gut-check thing. You aren't bowing to pressure; you're trying to find the bugs in the film to refine it and make it better. But it's very important the opinions you get aren't just your circle of friends and family. You need distance from the audience, ideally people who don't know you and have no vested interest in your feelings. Then you start getting honest feedback.

HC: Has your film Lifechanger changed your life?

JM: The film did decently well so there's in pitches and meetings it has led to me being able to enter with people already knowing my work, which wasn't common in the past. It was bought by Netflix for a few territories, is now on Showtime, and is on SkyMovies in the UK, so there definitely are more serious meetings that have come out of that, and offers of small parcels of possible financing for future projects. But it remains to be seen what the next step is. We were beginning casting on MARK OF KANE when COVID hit and were supposed to already have been done shooting that by now, so that one is a priority. But even there, setting up and taking meetings for Kane were noticeably more productive after LIFECHANGER came out. Correlation does not equal causation, and so much of what happens in film seems like a butterfly effect kind of thing where you're never sure exactly what made an opportunity happen, but I think there have been some positive changes, sure.

HC: What's the single most important piece of advice you could give to a wannbe film maker?

JM: Your first few films will probably suck to some degree, unless you are one of the few who have a mix of good luck and incredible talent out of the gate. But they are necessary because this is a thing you learn by doing, making mistakes, and being open to learning from those mistakes. But everyone's path is different, so I'll boil it down to a stupid analogy I just made up: you need to eat a lot of sh*t to get to the soup.

HC: So, what are you working on at the moment?

JM: Beyond the client work we are in post-production on the 8 episode companion educational series for Clapboard Jungle (my story takes the backseat, each episode is a specific topic, so people can have a great deal more expanded info from the feature film). I'm also working on a new script (I have a massive drawer of old scripts, but this one is... unique). And with all the lockdown time I've recently gotten back the bug to write music, so I'm working on an album with an old resurrected music project called "Cathode Raid". I guess it would fit in with the synthwave stuff, but also tinged with elements of metal and industrial. Not going to attempt to define it. It's hobby stuff, but I think there's an audience out there for it, and writing it is keeping me sane.

HC: Justin McConnell, thank you very much.


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