Filmmaker Justin McConnell (Lifechanger) takes the viewer on a very personal exploration of the ups and downs involved in making an independent film in his new documentary Clapboard Jungle, which plays Fantasia International Film Festival this month. The film features interviews with people like George A. Romero, Guillermo Del Toro, Richard Stanley, Barbara Crampton, Izzy Lee, Jenn Wexler, and so many more. McConnell takes you behind the scenes to show the difficulties of things like acquiring funding and distribution, and makes it very clear that making movies takes a lot of hard work, and even once you’ve made the movie, you’re faced with the struggle of trying to get it in front of audiences. This documentary is inspiring, emotional, and important, and hopefully, it will be helpful to aspiring filmmakers, as well as anyone who is interested in what goes into making a movie.
Ahead of its premiere at Fantasia, Dread Central was delighted to have the opportunity to talk with Justin McConnell about the process of making Clapboard Jungle, which involved several years of interviews and documenting his experiences with filmmaking. Read on to find out what we talked about!
Dread Central: Clapboard Jungle is a powerful documentary and it provides such an intimate look at independent filmmaking. When did you decide you wanted to document your journey and make this film?
Justin McConnell: In early 2014, my last documentary, Skull World, had just come out and was being distributed and people were starting to see it. A lot of times when it comes to making a documentary, this being my third now, they’re kind of hobby films; they’re movies where I sit there and go, “Okay, what can I make with limited money coming out of my own pocket in the spare time while I try and get bigger projects made?” I always like to be creating something because I always like for something new to be happening, because that’s how you get career momentum. So, in early 2014 I was thinking about all of that and it just kind of struck me that a really simple, but effective thing that I could create would be what at the time I set out to make as sort of a film school in a box; the kind of thing that I wish existed ten years earlier, so that I could turn to it, or that as a younger filmmaker I could get a better indication of at least a path you could follow. And I realized I had next to no money to make it, I just had whatever money I had left over from my production company, you know, that’s how I put food on the table.
So, I bought some cheap camera gear and some additional audio gear, nothing too expensive, and then I started shooting by turning the camera on myself and then gradually collecting interviews. So, I was doing whatever I could, like whenever I would hit a market, things like that, and just sort of organically building the project. It was out of a necessity to produce initially, but as time went on, that’s sort of when the shape of it started to form, because it’s very much an experiential documentary, where the story isn’t obvious at the start, until you’ve lived it [laughs].
I turned the camera on myself because I’m my own cheapest subject. I didn’t have the money to go and follow someone else’s life, while I was also simultaneously trying to live mine. It made total sense on an economic level to do that, but I also realized that you really shouldn’t make a movie about yourself, ultimately, because it ends up being really biased, and it could be a vanity project at the end of the day. So, I brought on Darryl Shaw right at the beginning to kind of call me on my shit, so that I had a second set of eyes who were not letting it get too off the actual goal of the piece. I didn’t want it to be self-serving at all.
DC: I adored Lifechanger and it was your first feature film to premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival. Clapboard Jungle will play at Fantasia this year. How does it feel to have two of your films shown at Fantasia?
JM: Fantasia is a festival that I first heard about in 1999 from Fangoria magazine and I was about eighteen at the time. I dreamed about going to that festival for years and years and years and I first got a chance to go in 2013, once I started working for Toronto After Dark as a programmer. So, that became my film summer camp every summer for about the last seven years or so. I’d go for two or three weeks, I would network at the Frontières events, and it was just such an important festival for me. I had this movie I made called The Collapsed, years ago, and when it was finished, Fantasia actually said they wanted to play it, but this broadcaster in Canada put an offer on the table for the movie, if we would broadcast it before Fantasia started. So, I got accepted with that movie, but I wasn’t able to play it because I had to take the money on the table, because it would have been stupid not to [laughs]. So, by the time Lifechanger rolled around in 2018, it was like eight years of waiting and trying to get something into that festival, and I made movies in between then that didn’t get in. And now, two years later, to come back with Clapboard Jungle feels like validation to some degree. I think that’s really what it comes down to.
DC: Clapboard Jungle shows how incredibly difficult the process is of getting financing, making a movie, finding a distributor, and things like that. It’s inspiring to watch you go through that process and never give up. What do you enjoy most about making movies and what keeps you going?
JM: The actual action of creating something from the ether, from thin air, and coming up with a story. The process of actually getting what is just an idea in a head up in front of an audience, that whole part of the arc I really enjoy, but there is one part of the arc that could last for years and years longer than you would expect, which is just developing and fundraising, and getting the team together and putting all the puzzle pieces together that is like a necessary evil, so I enjoy parts of it. I enjoy the networking and going to the markets, because there’s a lot of fun to be had at the Cannes market or Berlin or whatever. Those are legitimately good experiences.
What’s not a great life experience is when you sit in a meeting with somebody, the meeting goes incredibly well, and you think, oh, you’re set. And then you don’t hear from them for six months and then they move on. And you’re waiting for this one person, and technically you can be talking to other people, but if a meeting is good enough and it seems like they’re on board, you lose that six months in development. That’s why things can roll on for so long, because people move at the pace of molasses sometimes. That whole uncertainty leads to a lot of self-doubt and imposter syndrome and things that can be degrading mentally. So, that whole section is my least favorite, but hopefully, gradually over time, it gets easier. I’m not sure if it will, but at least when you’re first starting out and you don’t have a ton of work behind you that’s really proven what you can do, it ends up being much more difficult trying to get somebody to take you seriously enough to sign on to something.
The lightning could also strike and you’re good to go the next day, if you’re lucky enough with all the right timing and that sort of thing. That part I don’t like so much, but it’s everything else; the whole process of everything else and finally unveiling it to the public, touring with it, and all of that sort of thing, and just being able to tell a story; that part is like living a dream. So, it’s almost like you have all this sort of struggle, but that’s life in general, right? All of the bad times make the good times better, so, in a way, if you’re pushing this rock up a hill, it’s like a Sisyphean thing, once you actually get it up there [laughs], it stops rolling down on you. There’s a certain natural high to that, I think, that’s really, really good.
Of course, [laughs] there could be a crushing low after you finish something, too, when it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to exactly or the public doesn’t respond to it the way you wanted them to. There’s a whole other side of it where you need to have a really thick skin, and I’ll be the first to admit through my past, from time to time, that stuff has crushed me to some degree. But I just think it’s a great business because the highs are so high, even though the lows can be pretty devastating. But that being said, that level of devastation is nowhere near me getting my arm blown off somewhere [laughs], because I’ve still got to remember I’m just making movies.
DC: You interview such a diverse group of people from producers to filmmakers. How did you go about deciding who you wanted to include in the documentary or was it just part of the process of documenting your experiences over the past few years?
JM: It was a mix of things. Part of it was part of the process, because let’s say I was going to Frontières Market at Fantasia, and I knew everybody attending the Frontières Market, I could go through the catalog and go, “Okay, these would all be really interesting interview subjects,” and then I would reach out to them. There would just be a pool of people I could pull from in a way through something like that. Other people, it was like, “Well, I have access to this person, they have a certain cachet, and I’m certain they would be a really interesting interview. Let me try and get this.” So, that’s where your del Toros and Romeros and Henenlotters and people like that would come from. Some of them I was just a big fan, like Frank Henenlotter is one of my favorite directors. It wasn’t particularly difficult to get to him, and I have a friend who is his publicist on his documentary while I was shooting, so it was like, if I had access, I would definitely try and get that access.
One of our unsung team members is Chris Alexander, the former editor of Fangoria. He’s an associate producer on the movie, so he had the access to Romero and del Toro and Charles Band and people like that. I knew that I needed a decent degree of gender and identity balance in the movie, I tried at least. I actively tried to seek out people, because I didn’t want it to just be talking horror heads the whole time. I wanted there to be a decent amount of representation in the film, as much as I could. It just ended up being that I couldn’t line up the actual interview with some of them, and some of it was like I had way more access to everybody else. It became a bit of a challenge, but we definitely put in the effort to do it. And it’s a ninety-eight-minute movie, so we couldn’t fit everybody into it [laughs], which is why we’ve also got this eight episode, expanded educational series we’re doing, too, which is all talking heads and educational topics, but it allows a larger range of what I actually shot interview wise to be available to people.
DC: If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring filmmaker, what is the one most important piece of advice you would give them?
JM: Honestly, William Goldman already said it best, and it’s that nobody knows anything. I’d be paraphrasing if I got the rest of the quote, but the general idea is that you definitely should educate yourself, you should learn as much as you can, and you can learn a lot by doing. But at the end of the day, every single thing anybody tells you as advice, or things you must do or things you should do to get ahead, is all opinion based on personal life experience and not the rule, so nobody really knows what’s going to work or what’s going to be successful, and that allows you lots of latitude to experiment and try things and think outside the box a little bit. But, you need those foundations underneath you and you need to know as much as you can about the craft, and about the business and the way it works, and the way that things have been done, so you can experiment on top of that.
It’s like jazz, right? You still need to have pretty good musical fundamentals to be able to play jazz, or whatever genre that experiments with a form of music, you need the fundamentals before you can break out of those. Going forward and thinking you’re going to reinvent the wheel is great, and you can do that, but it’s hard to do that if you don’t know the basics, so education, and letting go of your ego, and listening to notes, all of that is really important. The effort you put in is really important, but at the end of the day, whatever somebody says, there’s always going to be an alternate opinion of that and a different way of doing things, so just be open-minded to the idea that nobody really knows anything and we’re all in this together.
DC: We’re all still dealing with a global pandemic, but can you tell me what you’re working on now?
JM: There’s a few things. One of them is we’re still in post-production for this educational series for Clapboard Jungle, so that’s keeping us somewhat busy. On a moral level, I’m not producing anything until I can assure that my set is going to be safe and there is a low chance of the people I work with and the people I care about dying. If all things were to have gone as planned, we were supposed to have Mark of Kane wrapped by now. We were casting and pretty much had the majority of the money together right when COVID-19 hit, so that’s one of our first priorities once things clear up.
I’m working on a new script and I just shot an isolation short film, called Soul Contact, that I tasked myself with, since I live alone, to literally do everything, including acting and score, just as an experiment. That’s actually playing some festivals coming up soon. It might be online relatively soon, I’m not sure. I did that for fun, but it was a really neat experiment to just sort of do everything on my own [laughs] and still pull off something entertaining. Other than that, it’s just sort of planning for a future that we don’t know exactly when it’s going to be in a position to be able to pull this stuff off on an indie level. I see people going into production right now on certain things, and indie filmmakers trying to skirt the rules, and stuff like that. I just can’t put people in that position. I don’t care if they want to do it, I can’t morally live with myself if my AD dies. It’s a little bigger than us right now.