Fantasia 2020 Interview: Justin McConnell on Indie Filmmaking and CLAPBOARD JUNGLE
Canadian indie filmmaker Justin McConnell (Lifechanger) has been in the game for a good deal of his life, either by providing technical services, programming his Little Terrors short film series in Toronto, or by being behind the camera.
It's the latter that McConnell's new documentary, Clapboard Jungle, investigates.
Specificially, Clapboard Jungle asks, "what does it take to make an independent genre film? Is it worth the blood, sweat, tears, and agony of getting that elusive budget to make a film?" If you're Canadian, you can watch Clapboard Jungle via Fantasia and find out.
McConnell got genre luminaries such as Guillermo del Toro, Larry Coehn, Paul Schrader, Larry Fessenden, Barbara Crampton, Mick Garris, and many more to speak more on what it takes --- in between five years of McConnell's own struggles to raise budgets.
Canadian viewers can watch Clapboard Jungle on-demand during the festival's virtual run (Aug. 20 - Sep. 2). Read more about the documentary via Fantasia's page for the film here. You can watch the trailer for the doc below.
ScreenAnarchy spoke to McConnell about the pains and perils of making independent film.
ScreenAnarchy: When did you first realize you wanted to make a documentary about the struggle of indie filmmaking? Was there an inciting incident or a series of events?
Justin McConnell: In early 2014, I was trying to figure out a project I could work on for whatever extra cash I had available. About six months earlier, my previous feature documentary, Skull World, had been released. I realized that it’d be a while before any of my larger budgeted projects got to camera, and it just kind of hit me. I started with the general goal to make a documentary about filmmaking, a sort of "film school in a box" approach, and pretty early on figured it was best to turn the camera on myself and track my progress.
This was an economic and logistics decision mostly, as I couldn’t afford to follow someone else, both time- and money-wise, and I at least had my own story close at hand throughout. But I definitely wanted to make sure I wasn’t making some kind of misguided vanity project, so I brought my friend Darryl Shaw in as a co-producer right away, to kind of keep me in check in that regard. It was meant to use me as a case study and skeleton to hang the information and interviews on, not something to prop me up.
You’ve got some amazing subjects, like Guillermo del Toro, George Romero, Barbara Crampton, and Richard Stanley, in addition to a huge range of indie filmmakers. How did you get them all?
It was a variety of things. Some of them I already knew in some way, some I reached out to their reps, some I "cold call"-approached directly with an earnest email. A few of the bigger names, such as del Toro, Romero, Savini and Charles Band, were arranged by our associate producer Chris Alexander, who previous had access due to his long history as genre press (and magazine editor). But after I banked interviews with a few of the larger names, the rest started to get a little easier, as people saw the project as a bit more legitimate and wanted to get involved, too. That being said, there were plenty of people I tried to get that I wasn’t able to, for whatever reason.
Anyone you can name?
Yes, absolutely. I tried to get Gale Anne Hurd but she’s very busy, and the schedules couldn’t line up. Same for Christine Vachon, Lexi Alexander, and a number of others (like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg). Things just didn’t line up. Some others said no outright. I took extra effort to try to have a good balance of representation in the documentary, but that didn’t always pay off. I wanted more female and POC creators, and I’m very happy I got who I could, but I still wasn’t able to fully get an even balance onscreen. There’s also a couple dozen interviews that didn’t make it into the main documentary. There’s a lot of work left to do on the eight episode educational series, so lots more will be in that, in all respects.
Did you decide on a structure for the doc ahead of time, or did it come along naturally?
I loosely knew that the film would use my path as a skeleton to structure the interviews around, but the full structure didn’t really form until final post-production. I wanted it to have a clear story arc and have a proper ending, but I also didn’t want to manipulate events so they fit a "film narrative" instead of being true to life as it actually happened. So the challenge was finding that balance --- making sure it’s (the doc) entertaining and has a structure, but trying really hard for it to not be a manipulated story.
A documentary takes years to make, and can result in hundreds of hours of footage. How did you decide on what to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor?
That’s a really loaded question. The truth is painfully. We shot over 300 hours of raw footage, and there’s so much great interview content on the cutting room floor. And a lot of little story beats in my own journey that didn’t make it in. The first cut of the film was well over two hours. But in the spirit of pacing and to avoid being too repetitive, things had to go. It was mostly about serving the overall story of the main film, and having some comfort that with the eight episode educational series, and all the extended content we’ll be working on, things aren’t really going to go waste. They just didn’t make it into the main film.
You have many interviewees, obviously, and they all have stories and advice. What was the most impactful thing you learned while making Clapboard Jungle?
That we’re all in this together in a similar way, but to varying degrees, based on luck, geography, our circumstances, and whatnot. The more I meet and get to know the people I idolized growing up, the more I realize everyone are just people like you or I, they all have their own struggles and their own successes and failures. And in order to survive in this business, you have to learn from the failures and celebrate the successes, but always keep learning and improving to keep going. So in a way, there are countless ways you can reach your goals, but the goals are just an abstract target, and how you spend your time on the journey is what matters the most. I think Paul Schrader said it best in the doc: “Luck only comes for the prepared.”
You seem resilient, but was there a time when you did seriously feel like giving up? What kept you from throwing in the towel?
Yes, a few times. Probably too many times to count. But they were always passing moments. For example, I made this movie for $40K CDN up front, The Collapsed, back in 2010. Despite its tiny budget, and the speed in which it was made (and written), it managed to get some pretty solid distribution (Anchor Bay in multiple territories, Lionsgate in the UK, a bunch of other countries). So it did a theatrical run across Canada in 2011, and was reviewed by every major national paper in Canada.
The reviews, to put it mildly, were not good. Here’s this tiny film on the market competing on screens with a bunch of studio fare, and it got shredded. And to some degree, rightfully so. Hindsight has shown me lots of mistakes I made with that film. But the night those reviews all hit, and basically every paper in Canada told me my work sucked, I wanted to throw in the towel. Similar moments of defeat have happened in development where I may get close to a fully-financed film and then the investors walk away, for whatever reason (one of the big ones happened in the recession over a decade or so ago, where investors got cold feet almost immediately as the markets crashed). Anyway, there’s always moments of doubt, but the stronger voice inside me is the one that says I can’t give up. I do have something to say and am deserving of success in relative terms --- provided I put in the work and get the foundations under me. As long as I constantly improve and learn.
What would you say to other filmmakers who are struggling to get that budget or film made?
Keep at it. But you can’t make that happen from your couch. Even in a virtual world of Zoom and COVID, you need to put yourself out there to get any kind of return on your efforts. So keep creating, keep writing, keep trying. The more track record you can build, the better. There’s thousands of people trying to get their films made, and although they aren’t direct competition exactly, they’re all vying for a limited pool of finance. So do the work to make your project stand out, whatever that may be. And really think about packaging the film, whether it’s graphically, team/talent wise, whatever. You need to create a package that’s hard to dismiss, and then realize even if you have that, you’re likely going to get dismissed a lot.
Do you think that indie filmmaking is getting harder or easier?
Easier in that anyone with a smartphone can make a movie, and the medium of visual storytelling has expanded where you could also consider Youtube videos, TikToks, etc. to be part of a similar pool. You can create something if you really want to right now, if you put your mind to it. You don’t even need a crew.
As an experiment, I self-shot a new short film in July called Soul Contact where I tasked myself to do every single department, including cast and score, since I live alone. Just to see if I could with what I had on hand. Personally, I think it turned out pretty solid on minimal resources. So, there’s no excuse to not be able to create something. It’s the creation of something with resources behind it that’s the challenging part, because budgets keep going down, MGs (minimum guarantees) are getting lower globally (or going away entirely in some cases), and the actual return on investment is narrowing.
What are you working on trying to get made at the moment?
Our priority is still Mark Of Kane (based on the novel "Kane" by Michael Prescott), which we’ve been developing for years. We were close to camera when COVID hit, so I suppose when things get better that will be a priority once again.
But I have a massive slate of projects at the moment, and always like to have a lot of proverbial balls in the air, so there’s a variety of things. We have a feature-length expansion of our short Do You See What I See? for example, which I think we turned into a really fun Christmas-horror-action property.
And this big cyberpunk/sci-fi/action/horror project called Tracer that I’d love to get made. The list would go on, including a new project I’ve started writing. But mostly I’ve got to get the post-production of the rest of the Clapboard Jungle material done in the meantime (we are in post on the eight-episode series).
On a personal level, I got the bug back to create music (I had a couple electronic projects in the early 2000s and was in a metal band for a couple years over a decade ago), so have slowly been writing an album under the artist name "Cathode Raid." It’s a weird hybrid of synthwave/industrial/metal and film score material. Strangely, with a lot of production and film stalled, this has been giving me a sense of sanity in a crazy time.
Best of luck!