Fantasia 2018 Interview: LIFECHANGER'S Justin McConnell on the Challenges of Filmmaking
Writer-director Justin McConnell was just in Montreal for the sold-out, world premiere of his new feature Lifechanger. It's the story of Drew, a wistful shapeshifter who becomes a detective, a bar fly, a dentist, a dental assistant, and other identities in the pursuit of his love interest Julia.
McConnell and I spoke about the themes of exisitentialism, what it takes to be an indie filmmaker in these challenging, cash-strapped times, the joys and harsh realities of shooting with large casts and heavy special effects, and the logistics of filming in Toronto.
Check out the trailer below the interview for a glimpse of this brand-new Candadian indie genre film and look for it on the festival circuit!
You wrote and directed Lifechanger; what can you tell us about the origins of the project?
Justin McConnell: In every interview I’ve done so far, I mentioned how I was looking for a project I could do for a very low budget after getting nowhere trying to raise money on two projects, The Eternal and Tripped. Eventually the idea just came to me. What I haven’t mentioned yet, because I’ve been hesitant, is the mindset I was in at the time. As I’m writing the answers to this interview, I’m talking to a friend and one of the film’s producers on Facebook, and he’s convinced me to mention why the film has the tone and themes it does.
In 2012, someone very close to me, my best friend and writing partner for a decade, left the world by his own hand. By the time I came up with Lifechanger in 2014, I’d spent two years in a depressive spiral because of it. Drinking too much, eating too much, living with the kind of ‘who gives a fuck’ attitude that leads to a lot of self-destruction. I was pushing 300 pounds by the end of 2013, and living a lot of “woe is me.” I’d cut a lot of people out of my life, and was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I was kind of treading water, sinking a little more every day. I was having horrible nightmares and basically wondering if I should probably start seeing a psychiatrist. Questioning what I could have done differently to prevent what happened.
Around then, some new people entered into my life as well, and with their help and company, and a new sense of focus, I gradually pushed myself through sheer willpower, started working out and dropped a ton of weight, and eventually channeled the depression, guilt and isolation I was feeling into the writing of Lifechanger, a kind of catharsis. Not as a direct representation of a given situation, but a metaphorical one. It’s a horror movie on the surface, but it’s about loss, grief, morality, and regret at its core.
The story is about a shapeshifter who inhabits several people and bodies, but there’s a strong undercurrent of existentialism. Is this a topic you’ve explored in your work before, or have always wanted to explore?
JM: I’ve definitely explored existentialism in the past. It seems to be a common thread in the narrative work I do. And maybe in documentary too (there’s a fair bit of it in Skull World). For example, my 2008 short Ending the Eternal (and the not-yet-made feature The Eternal) is about a 500-year-old vampire who is so tired of living and how much he’s seen the world he knew change, that he wants someone worthy to kill him. My first answer above states where the themes of Lifechanger originated, but I’m quite an introspective person overall, especially as I get older. Maybe to a fault, as I tend to over think.
But existentialist concepts fascinate me, both on a micro- and macro- level. The perception of self, and the external perception of an individual to those around them, are as interesting to me as concepts of our place in the hierarchy of the universe, string-theory, the multi-verse, etc.
Because there are so many characters in the film as the shapeshifter jumps from body to body, there are lots of actors and moving parts involved. What were the logistical challenges you faced in films this story?
JM: Scheduling was a big challenge. We had 24 speaking parts overall, on a 20-day shoot schedule, where we block-shot everything based on locations. So we had a lot of roving cast sort of popping in and out, since we switch between locations quite frequently throughout the story. My producer Avi Federgreen and production coordinator/associate producer Laura Tremblay can tell you how difficult it is logistically to legally shoot on the streets of Toronto and in Toronto locations with the budget we had to work with. Every street needs a permit, every location needs parking permits enough to cover the crew and gear vehicles, every location needs extras holding and an area for craft, often separate from the shooting location. With a budget like ours, they went nuts in the production office, and I can’t thank them enough for the hard work they put in to make it all work.
Were you able to rehearse with your actors at all, or was that a luxury out of reach, as it is for most indie filmmakers?
JM: We rehearsed, but not as much as I would have liked. It’s really difficult to line up the schedules to get everyone in the same room at the same time leading up to production when everyone has day jobs, or may be coming from out of town. We had a full table-read in a bar, then the “Drew Boot Camp” for everyone playing the shape-shifter, and an individual rehearsal of just the first few scenes (since we were doing those first in the schedule and I knew we needed to be warmed up). So some rehearsal, but less than my last feature Broken Mile, where we had the privilege to get together off and on for several weeks.
Filmmaking can take quite awhile. How long has it been to go from page to screen for Lifechanger, or was it a faster process than normal?
JM: The first draft was completed at the end of 2014, and we went to camera in mid-November 2017. So three years. And two false starts before we finally had the partners we went to camera with. In 2015, we went the Telefilm route (our Canadian funding body), but weren’t approved. That was almost a yearlong process, so we regrouped and found another set of partners. That deal fell through (and they went and immediately made another horror movie that played Fantasia in 2017), and we had to regroup one more time.
Then at Cannes in 2017, we had dinner with Keith from Uncork’d, and it was basically green lit there. It’s always difficult putting a self-generated project together and actually getting it made. I’m hoping it gets easier, and time will tell, but I have my doubts.
Our generation of horror storytellers has a love for the practical special effects that we grew up on in the ‘70s and ‘80s. You’ve got some cool effects in your film as well. Tell us about the process of working with your FX team and making those effects come to life.
JM: There were two specific effects teams on this film. David Scott’s Form & Dynamics did the majority of the effects, with his crew Alexandra Anger and Tabitha Burtch. I basically did an effects breakdown for the film, describing how I pictured them in my head, and sent that with the script over to David. We had a few consultations, discussed the practicalities of pulling each thing off, and what the budget could actually afford, and went from there. Some of the effects were adapted from existing molds and animatronic pieces.
Then on set, you just have to make sure to give the effects team enough time to implement everything. I’ve worked with practical effects before a few times, so feel I have a decent handle on how to schedule them. The other team was Chris Nash and Audrey Barret. They were responsible for one big focused effect near the end of the film. I loosely described what I was looking for to Chris, and he came back with a storyboard of how he pictured the effect, and it blew my mind. We had a discussion about execution, and then I left him to work. I’m so impressed by the final result.
What were your biggest challenges on set?
JM: Whatever challenge was occurring at a given time was always the biggest challenge. That’s what filmmaking is, overcoming challenges. This film in particular it was challenging to maintain a consistent tone across the performances, without stepping on the process and toes of the performers. And we had more locations than shoot days on a budget you would traditionally spend on a single location two-hander. It was also really cold, and we had a lot of outdoor shooting. And there was one day where a miscommunication with a location owner led to the landlord of a building thinking we were shooting there illegally and trying to shut us down. We smoothed all that out, but it was stressful as Hell on the day, literally getting the last shot we needed before having to pack up super quickly and leave.
What were the most important things you’ve learned on this feature film --- was it your first?
JM: My first feature film was Strata (2000), which I shot in high school. I was still just trying to find my own way around shooting and editing at that point, so it’s super rough around the edges (the fact it was cut with two VCRs didn’t help in that regard). But I learned how much work a feature takes, even a $0 feature shot with your friends and teachers. Lifechanger is my sixth feature film as a director, if you count Strata.
Before this was also Working Class Rock Star (2008), The Collapsed (2011), Skull World (2013), and Broken Mile (2016). I learned a lot on all of them, and hindsight gives me a clearer picture of their respective flaws. I think in the process the biggest thing I’ve learned is to never think I’m done learning, and always believe there is room for improvement.
Maybe that’s a way my introspection serves me well, in that I believe I’m at least improving with every film. Specifically with Lifechanger though, this is the first time I’ve had this much budget to play with (even though it is still low), and the first time I’ve worked with this many producers with vested interest in the film. Which means it was the biggest true collaborative experience of my career so far, and I’ve had to learn to be a better team player, while still fighting for what I believe in.
This may be a bit early to ask, since you’ve only just had the world premiere of Lifechanger here at Fantasia — but are you planning a sequel or do you have anything else in the works?
JM: No sequel planned at the moment. It would take a really compelling reason to consider a sequel to this one. Something besides money, a story that simply had to be told. But there’s plenty else in the works. I have a big slate of features, not all written by me, in development right now. I sometimes work with a writing partner named Serena Whitney, and we have two projects we’re aiming to produce by this time next year. The first is a feature-length adaption of the Christmas horror short we co-directed, Do You See What I See? We’ve got a killer script and have taken that concept in a pretty unique direction.
The second is Mark Of Kane, the adaption of Michael Prescott’s novel “Kane.” We have tapped director Serhat Caradee to helm that one, and are set to produce in Australia. I’ve also got the new documentary series Clapboard Jungle: Surviving The Independent Film Business currently in post-production, which I’ve been shooting since 2014. Kevin Burke (24x36) and I are working on that edit with the goal of completing it by the end of the year. And finally, the third installment of Little Terrors anthology series, Blood Sweat and Terrors, is coming out across North America in November (the first two were Minutes Past Midnight and Galaxy of Horrors).
Where can audiences find Lifechanger next on the festival circuit?
JM: It’s playing FrightFest at the end of August, and has been accepted to eight other festivals so far. I just can’t say which ones yet. I’ll be keeping the info up to date on the various social media pages, all of which are linked from lifechangermovie.com