Director and writer Justin McConnell presents the horror thriller Lifechanger, a film with equal layers of desire and destruction. We talk to McConnell about what to expect from his film, his love for the genre and how a bus trip can turn into a nightmare!
A murderous shapeshifter sets out on a blood-soaked mission to make things right with the woman he loves.
Lifechanger will premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival on July 20th.
Fantasia International Film Festival takes place July 13th to August 1st, 2018. For additional information on Fantasia International Film Festival, feel free to check out their website!
Dread Central: Thanks for taking the time out to speak with me about your awesome film Lifechanger.
Justin McConnell: Thank you.
DC: With Lifechanger, you don’t know what to expect. I wanted to understand how you came up with the concept.
JM: I first wrote the first draft back in 2014, but the basic idea came to me after a few years of frustration where I was trying to get these larger films made. I was trying to come up with a concept that I could do for a budget that I knew I could put together – something quite low. I thought of like bad night on the town movies like Scorsese’s After Hours or Stuart Gordon’s Edmond or things like that. You can do everything as sort of a compressed period of time… following one character with a bunch of locations but still easy to get locations. I sort of started from a practical point of view. Then, I was on a bus at some point in 2014. I started thinking about an idea of what if you were out in public and you saw yourself. From that initial thought, I guess the subconscious started working and then it just hit me. I ended up writing a treatment and then a beat sheet and character backgrounds. Somehow, it just came to me. It’s hard to say how ideas hit somebody when they’re creating them. Usually, it is a very organic process. It was no different for this one.
DC: Does this always happen to you when it comes to ideas for your films?
JM: Yes and no. I rarely approach something with some sort of a structure in saying, “This is the type of film I’m looking to make. And this is what I want to write. This is the target market I’m aiming for.” I usually approach it from the idea first. I’m always thinking of concepts and ideas. “Oh, that would be neat.” Or, I’ll be out in public and a life experience will inform an idea that might take years to generate but eventually will come to the surface. I think a lot of the writer’s process is like that. It’s less about trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and more about just letting something come out of you.
DC: When it came Lifechanger, how long would you say it took you to write it?
JM: The first draft was pretty quick. From the moment I had the basic idea and I sat down and did the beat sheet and the treatment, that took about a week. Then the first draft was probably done in a month. But then from that point in 2014, it was rewritten a lot. I made the mistake with an earlier film of mine that got mixed critical reception. I wrote the script in six weeks and literally shot it in six weeks or a month later without taking a lot of time to really refine the script. I see the flaws in my own work. Not enough time was taken to really put in the effort to make the script as good as you possibly can. So there were a lot of drafts for Lifechanger. Even when you shoot it, things change. Then in post, things change, too. It was just a constant process from basically 2014 until we finished it in May of this year.
DC: How was the casting process?
JM: This is a very low budget film shot in Toronto and not a union film, so the pool of actors we have to choose from are non-union actors. We basically can’t afford to bring anybody in outside of the southern Ontario area. That limits the pool to begin with. But then we got a great casting director named Ashley Hallihan, who put out a call and we collected a whole bunch of self tapes. Then the process was figuring out the best actors for each given role, and then who fit the role the best. I find that if you look for a specific look or you got an image of this person in your head, you find somebody that looks that part and you might overlook the fact that they can’t really act well. So, it’s usually performance first. Then, you can adapt the person to make them look the way you hope a part looks later, especially when you’ve got a limited pool of actors.
DC: As far as it goes with the make up, what inspired the make up? I got Sci-fi vibes, like Body Snatchers, Poltergeist, like the face peeling scene but modernized.
JM: There are definitely influences from past practical effects driven films in there. I’m a big fan of bladder-effects, like you’d find in Altered States, American Werewolf in London, etc. But we approached the effects story first, knowing exactly the entomology of this character, this creature, and how he works. That informed how the effects were designed. We primarily used David Scott and his company Form & Dynamics (including the talented Alexandra Anger and Tabitha Burtch). David Scott worked on Jack Brook’s Slayer and Slasher. But there is one major effects sequence at the end of the film that I approached my friend Chris Nash to do, because I knew it played to his strengths. He consulted with me and designed something that blows my mind (along with Audrey Barrett). Chris Nash did work in Z is for Zygote from ABCs of Death 2.
DC: How would you describe yourself as a director?
JM: I supposed I’d have to have a good degree of self-awareness to accurately describe myself as a director. And even though I’m in my mid-30s right now, I don’t know if that comes until later in life. I would say that I’m somebody who doesn’t just want to tow the popular line. I’d rather try to create fresh stories and experiment with technique over making something that’s been done before. That’s not to say I don’t have influences. I wear those on my sleeve, as a student at the altar of horror history. I’m an 80s-90s monster kid at heart, but I also like a vast variety of genres outside of horror, so those will probably always inform my work. I just love film. I’ve felt it’s the thing I’m meant to do for a long time, and I know I’ve got to keep improving and learning.
DC: I can definitely tell that you love film. It shows in your work. You mentioned influencers. Who inspires you and how did your love for film come about?
JM: I owe my love of film, and horror in particular, to my parents. Particularly my dad, but my mom was no slouch in taking me to movies either. But my dad is the one who first rented me Monster Squad, and used to sneak me R-Rated genre films while I was sick when I was younger (which was a lot). It’s how I saw Alien, Aliens, Predator, and Dario Argento’s Phenomena (which was called Creepers on VHS back then). I was home sick being made well by the craziest horror stuff. I grew up wanting to be a criminologist or a paleontologist. Then at 15, I realized I just really loved Silence of the Lambs and Jurassic Park, and started making my own films. As for influences, we’d be here all day. I’ve been collecting movies most of my life, and started importing stuff I’d find out about from Fangoria when I was a teenager, before the internet really took off. I will say I’ve now met a lot of my influences, some of which I’d call friends, and most of them are excellent people. I’m definitely the type that will remember the obscure filmmaker from their life on my video shelf over the tentpole legend.
DC: That’s awesome that you grew up on horror! I bet you have an awesome film collection. This I know because your film Lifechanger is unlike anything I’ve never seen before. What are your 5 favorite genre films?
JM: Oh, wow. That’s another ‘we’d be here all day’ question, and one I don’t like answering because the moment I say 5, another 5 pop into my head. Then I’d say those, and another ten would pop up. And ranking these films wouldn’t be fair. I can say 5 of the most influential on my younger self, though. The films that kind of put me solidly on the path I’m on. I’ve already mentioned The Monster Squad, so I’ll leave that off, but that’s the film that started it all, I think. So here’s 5 influential ones: In The Mouth Of Madness, The Evil Dead Trilogy, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Night of the Creeps, and Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage. Oh, and 5 more: Critters/Critters 2, The Child’s Play series, The Thing, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Halloween. Oh, and 5 more….. you see the point? Even limiting it to formative films, it’s too much. One more thing to add to that: Oh, and you said ‘genre’ and I’m mostly listing horror here. Genre opens it up to action, sci-fi, dark comedy, neo-noir, you name it. I’d need a week to list it all.
DC: I definitely understand! I feel like I know you a bit more because of your movie taste. I absolutely love that you included Critters/Critters 2! Sometimes I feel like people forget about it.
JM: I’ve got a huge soft spot for small monsters in film. Show me a Gremlin, Mogwai, Ghoulie, Crite, Hobgoblin, or even that puppet from Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and I’m happy. I’d love to one day do an adaption of Dean Koontz’s little-monsters novel Darkfall. I tried to chase the rights a few years ago and got nowhere.
DC: Also, I must take a step back to tell you that you have amazing parents! I’m not too sure if you have any kids, but would you follow in your parents’ footsteps and allow your kids to watch horror movies?
JM: I don’t have kids, but I would absolutely let them to watch horror. Age-appropriate first, but eventually help them learn the genre. That is if they wanted to. I always think the worst thing a parent can do is try and force their tastes on their kids. But leaving the door open to let them discover it for themselves by having it available and letting them explore the genre, I’m all for. Maybe one day.
DC: Because of your love for horror, you’ll make an awesome dad! Do you think from your childhood you watched a horror that wasn’t age appropriate for you? Did it give you nightmares for weeks? Did you sleep with your blankets over your head?
JM: I definitely had nightmares off and on as a kid. But whether or not they came from horror films, I do not know. It’s possible. And I definitely watched stuff that probably messed me up watching it too young. But I guess in a good way, because I feel I turned out alright. I saw that Argento flick I mentioned when I was 12, for example. But my dad was always of the opinion that if the movie had fantastical elements: monsters, slime, over-the-top gore, then it was okay, because he could explain it was effects. Kids aren’t dumb, and neither was I, so that stuff grew into a love of the craft more than fear. It was the movies dealing with serious, real-world issues that could disturb on that level, I was kept away from until I was old enough to discover them myself. Things like Oliver Stone’s Salvador or The Killing Fields. Those were not movies my dad would let me see. I think he wanted me thinking of happier fantastic realms over what could be lurking outside the door. I started getting into the more realistic stuff as I got older (I still remember importing the uncut Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer from the Video Vortex catalogue I got out of the back of Fangoria at about the age of 15).
DC: Your film knowledge is seriously awesome. I’d love to pick your brain more on your thoughts on a variety of films but I wanted to go back to your film Lifechanger. Perhaps I’m just being greedy, but are you interested in expanding it? Maybe a sequel or series?
JM: I definitely would not be against a sequel, but I do think the film stands on it’s own quite well, and there’d have to be a pretty compelling reason to do a sequel besides money. Plus, I have a massive slate of other films written I’d rather make first. This was a really personal one for me, for a lot of reasons, and I’d have to see both what demand there was for a sequel, and that there is enough of a good story to tell. I guess time will tell, because there is obviously other places to go with this concept and character, but it would have to be the same organic process I mentioned earlier to get there, I think. So never say never, but my focus is on the future of other ideas at the moment.
DC: Understandable. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more from you. Okay. You run Unstable Ground, you direct, you program for Toronto After Dark Film Festival, you run Little Terrors Film Festival… who knows? You probably cross-stitch, too. I can see that you love your work, which is very inspiring. But, what do you do when your not working?
JM: When I’m not working….. that’s few and far between! I obviously watch a lot of movies, TV, etc. And whenever I can, I like to get out somewhere with friends, go to parties, live shows (though that’s slowed down a bit in my 30s… in my 20s I was at a lot of metal shows), eat good food, share quiet moments with the ones that matter. When it’s warmer I like to get away to a cottage if I can. Go to the park with my dog. I love to travel (and do a lot of that for business reasons, but it still feels like a bit of a vacation regardless). This is starting to sound a bit like a dating profile. But being so entrenched in the film industry here, and now elsewhere, a lot of my downtime is still graced by film, period. Most of my closest friends work in entertainment in some way or another. Your professional circle and your personal circle have a habit of melding. So you try to get away but it pulls you back in!
DC: And finally, What do you want viewers to take from Lifechanger?
JM: I hope they take their own personal interpretation from it, and it sits with them a while. I feel there’s a lot of interesting discussion to be had about the nature of identity and basic character morality when it comes to this story, and there’s a lot of world-building there to think about after. I do hope that if they come away with a negative reaction, or an interpretation that condemns the film based on a notion of what it is trying to say that it may not be saying, they take the time to discuss that with their friends or people on social media so whatever opinions are formed are informed ones. There’s this knee-jerk kind of ‘instantly posted reaction’ culture to film right now, with people instantly stating their thoughts about a given film before they’ve truly had a chance to let it settle in, to really think about it. Part of that comes because there’s so much media that it’s easy to just move on to the next thing, but I don’t think it does film any favors in the long run. There’s a reason movies get remembered as classics 20 years later, and it has a lot to do with a story or elements lingering in your consciousness over a longer period of time than instant. This is a long way of saying that I hope people give it a fair shake. I can’t please everyone, but it’s been said film is a two-way conversation, an active process. Or maybe I’m just talking out of my ass. That’s up to them to decide!
DC: I love the way you stated that and I do agree with you, some people do not always let movies settle in. Thank you so much for answering my questions, Justin! I really appreciate it. I know people will enjoy Lifechanger! Safe travels to Montreal!
JM: Thank you!