Navigating the Clapboard Jungle – an interview with Justin McConnell
(Note this interview with Justin McConnell includes mild spoilers with regard to Lifechanger.)
I had admired and enjoyed Justin McConnell’s film Lifechanger a couple of years ago, and found it eye-opening to discover how that film came to be in his documentary Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business, screened at FrightFest last year. Now, as it is due to be screened at Grimmfest’s “Easter Horror Nights”, I had the opportunity to talk to Justin about the film and his career.
If I look up “Justin McConnell” on IMDb, the results tell me he is a cinematographer and film editor, not a director; so I started by asking Justin how he sees himself. “I’ve seen myself as a director for a long time, but I also have to make money. It’s not particularly common to be able to support yourself on an indie level just directing, so how I survived over the last twenty years was I started in the early 2000s a post-production company. I would do music videos, DVD and Blu-ray authoring, special feature material, cut movie trailers, that’s kind of how I make most of my money. So because of that, I built up a bunch of credits in different fields, and so even Google calls me a film editor and that is what it is: I can’t convince them otherwise, because I have more credits in those particular avenues; and it’s just whatever the algorithm sorts it as. In my heart, I’m a director and writer, but I do like doing everything else too: I quite enjoy producing, just going out and shooting something for someone else, being hired. I kind of made the decision early on that as long as I was enjoying what I did with my career and I was at least working within the film industry in some way, shape, or form; even if I wasn’t directing my dream jobs, at least I would be enjoying the career I had and still able to support myself. So I realized I could either work a day job or I could get really specialized in specific things in film, and that would pay off more down the line, and that totally was the case.”
It’s a portfolio career, as they say. “Exactly, yes. The passion projects, the stuff that comes out of my head to get made: they’re happening more nowadays, but still pretty much few and far between, so I would spend a lot of my time just working for clients. A good example is my big job in February, putting together the Blu-Ray release for Psycho Goreman; that was how I put food on the table for that month, along with a couple of little jobs like trailers.”
Another strand in this varied career is the couple of anthology films he’s produced. “I’ve been running a short film festival called Little Terrors since 2011, and I put together a trilogy of anthology films with Avi Federgreen, which were basically a compilation of the best stuff from the festival. The second one of those was Galaxy of Horrors, which Studio Canal put out in the UK, and I directed the wraparound story for that (for like three hundred dollars in my apartment); because the complaint with the first release, Minutes Past Midnight, was that there was nothing connecting the segments together. So for the second one, I shot a simple piece to thread it together, and then we got the complaint that we didn’t need the wraparound!” Seems like a no-win project and that led us to swapping favorite anthology films briefly, some with wraparound pieces that really worked. “If an anthology is built from the ground up, you can absolutely sew things together a lot better. There’s this film I’ve been trying to put together for a while, called Microfilm, where it’s meant to be a Pulp Fiction-style anthology with everything interwoven, and you don’t necessarily know which director’s segment you’re watching.”
Back to Justin’s career. The beginning part of Clapboard Jungle looked at the “chicken and egg” dilemma of sorting out the money first versus the committed names first. “There are so many moving parts when you’re trying to put together film finance that the actual order you do things in changes all the time. It really depends on the project. But when it’s something you’re trying to build from the ground up, and you really have nothing to start with except the material, the written script, maybe the sales package, and nothing else at all; what you generally have to do is figure out what is the budget you need to pull this off in a way that gets the idea from your head up on screen. Then you need to ask yourself: realistically, how can I raise that budget? In Canada, for example, it will be something like getting thirty percent from the Canadian government if I structure it a certain way; but that comes in at the end of the project, so I need first money: now how do I get that? I can get a pre-sale from a sales agent, somewhere internationally, but they’re not likely to take a project for a decent pre-sale unless it’s got talent attached: so then you go OK, what kind of talent do I have access to? And will they say “yes” with no money now? Most of them won’t: they’ll want money in an Escrow account, and it’s hard to sign on the type of talent that will make buyers go “absolutely! We’ll totally make that Bruce Willis film” or something like that. That’s why you see so many mid-budget, direct-to-video Bruce Willis and Nicholas Cage movies: those names sell something. If you get them early on, it’s guaranteed that the buyers will go “well the last Nicholas Cage movie sold this in our territory, so this is what we’ll offer you”. So that’s usually a step you have to do if it’s a bigger budget: go out and chase down talent. Or, you could bring it at a project level to a streaming platform, or an agency to package it; but each step you take your team expands, you lose a degree of control. So it’s always a question of how much control you want on the actual project, what can you raise, what do you need to be able to raise that money: putting all those puzzle pieces together. It could be as detailed as someone putting in five percent, someone puts in ten percent, and it could take three or four years to put together all these disparate budgets. And then if you’ve got a hundred percent of the budget you need, but a month before filming you lose ten percent of it, that can kill your project; because all those other partners are on board specifically because each of the others agreed to do it. If they start walking away, it can be very stressful.”
It’s clearly going to mess with a person’s head. It was clear when watching Clapboard Jungle that Justin had made it for himself, and for budding filmmakers who may want to follow a similar path. The film showed what an emotional rollercoaster it had been for Justin, but I wondered if he had any advice for new filmmakers about how to handle it themselves. “I don’t have any distinct advice because everyone is wired differently: how I might handle rejection and the rollercoaster is different to how someone else might. Whatever I have going on mentally may not fit for someone else. But I think what’s important to realize is that sometimes when you’re building a career, especially when you’re young, you can have an inflated sense of what speed it may take to get you somewhere, an inflated sense of your own abilities and talent to some extent. That doesn’t mean you don’t have the talent, but in keeping in mind that you are one of thousands of people trying to do this, it’s better to remain grounded and realistic about this, maybe a little reserved about your dreams: you may not get there exactly as you dream or want to. So when roadblocks do pop up in your way, the rollercoaster goes up and down, you have a failure or something falls apart, or doesn’t go as planned, you don’t blame yourself, go into a dark spiral of some kind and blame yourself: it’s a much bigger system than that, a much bigger issue. You can ask yourself how do I fix this? What other path do I take? Or what’s a new idea I can do? Ask yourself whether you want to keep trying for ten years or make something different; maybe make a smaller project that could help the investors trust me more for a bigger one afterwards. It’s very much a relationship business: you have to prove yourself before they’ll let you prove yourself in a lot of ways.”
You’re proving yourself to yourself along the way too. “Oh, absolutely: you have to be your own harshest critic. You‘ll never look at yourself fully objectively because you can’t diagnose the problem when you are the problem; but you can at least try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes: if I need to improve something I’m doing, how would I do that? Take proactive steps then to do that, without crushing all your confidence and inner drive. Be reflective enough to know something isn’t working and ask yourself why it isn’t, and how can I construct a path to make it work.”
My son joined in briefly at this point: “my favourite line, from someone you interviewed was ‘don’t get it right, get it written,’” and he talked a little about his own approach to writing. “That’s the way to go,” agreed Justin. “I started stream of consciousness with my writing and have become a bit more structured with time, let things percolate more; I write outlines, brainstorm, put it in the drawer for a while and let my subconscious work at it. Because one thing I’ve found is that if you immediately write something and put it out into the world, you’ll feel differently about it the next day. But if you reread it, and give it a little time, you can then get it right in the rewrite, like he said.”
I took us back to the topic of confidence. Having been following Justin’s Twitter feed since discovering Lifechanger, I thought he had come across as someone with a variable level of confidence, and so I’d been surprised to see his face so much in Clapboard Jungle. I asked whether – like a video diary – the documentary had stretched his confidence in some way. “Yes and no. I mean when I was in the middle of shooting it, I didn’t necessarily know what I’d have by the end of it. So while I was recording, I didn’t really think about people watching: I was more thinking it was a way to work out my demons, a catharsis, in a way. When something happened, I recorded it: I knew I was making this film and so I captured the events, and that became second nature. At the time, I wasn’t talking to anyone but myself, I knew that down the line I’d have the editor too, so if there was something truly embarrassing I had the option of leaving it out. I did leave a lot of moments in which were pretty raw, but it wasn’t the same as if I were a YouTuber or live streamer: the video-editing gives you a prism of reality, and it’s not quite the same as just putting yourself out there.
“That being said, I’m not sure I’d call myself someone who is lacking confidence. I’m self-deprecating for sure; and also on social media I’m not always a hundred percent serious, so can make some weird jokes that maybe three people will get. So between the social media face, who I am in real life and in the documentary, there’s a disconnect to some degree. And at least internally I don’t lack confidence, I’ve been stepping up in front of hundreds of people for a long time, I was in a metal band, no real issue with a public face. My self-deprecating nature, maybe the sign of a lack of confidence, is because I’m aware of my imposter syndrome: I have a lot of self-doubt when it comes to my own work.”
I was recalling scenes in Clapboard Jungle when Justin had said to himself things like “this isn’t going anywhere” or “this is going to fail”. Justin simply called these “honest moments”. “I get into these pessimistic states sometimes, but I’m actually not able to stop, not able to shut down the dream or the goal. So on the surface, it looks like a pattern of negative thought, but I can generally figure out a way to get past that. So far, at least; and this last year has been a real test of that. I’ve had family tragedy, lost family members to COVID: a lot of my life has been shifted this past year, but I know that the whole world is going through that.”
Going back to practical aspects of Justin’s story, I brought up his short Christmas film, Do You See What I See? (currently available on Amazon Prime in the UK). It had been sent to his network of contacts as a Christmas card, and I was curious to know whether that had brought about results. “To some degree, yeah. One thing I find is the results are rarely very trackable or immediate to the point that you can see because I sent out this card or whatever I got this job. You can’t put two and two together like that, even when it’s meetings at markets or pitching things. Sometimes those work, I mean Lifechanger got made eventually, and past movies have come together, and we had all the money for Mark of Kane before the pandemic hit. But that was the result of a bunch of thing coming together over time, and I think what the Christmas card approach gave us was that it made us more comfortable with us in future meetings: they knew we weren’t talking s**t, that we could actually produce something. It wasn’t like someone saw the card and decided ‘I’m making their feature film!’. And I think that’s partly a culture change, because part of my inspiration for doing that was how South Park was created: they sent out The Spirit of Christmas and that eventually got to Comedy Central and got greenlit for their series. With Do You See What I See? we did get one festival out of that: Calgary Festival hosted the premiere for that short from the Christmas card launch, but otherwise it’s about opening a door so that people could see we were part of their circle. Then more pitches and more mutual respect. Not completely, of course: I’m sure some people watched it and thought ‘well, that was a piece of crap’ because you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to find those you see eye to eye with, or those who see some potential and hope they say the right thing to someone else. It is very much a long game, and reputation means a lot, and that can go negative as well of course: if you were an a*****e to a PA on a set ten years ago, and that PA is now working for an executive at a studio, or maybe they are the executive, guess which studio is not going to work with you?”
Had I heard right that Do You See What I See? is on its way to becoming a full-length film? “In the foreseeable future, yeah, but I couldn’t say when. Serena Whitney (who co-wrote and directed the short) and I have expanded the basic idea from the last minute of the short into something new. It’s still an attack on a party, but significantly bigger in scope. I don’t want to get into the details, but we’ve made a fun action-comedy out of it. We wrote the script a few years ago now, and then in 2019 Grimmfest signed us on as part of their development slate and we’ve found a couple of other backers, but of course we’re in the middle of a pandemic now, and there’s a backlog, so time will tell when it actually gets made. It’s the complete opposite of what Lifechanger is: in-your-face and non-stop action, very gory. I’m looking forward to doing that, as I really love high paced horror, splatter movies.”
It must be satisfying to have an initial idea which has springboarded into something bigger. I admire variety too, so I do hope Justin finds this can be a success like Lifechanger, while also being utterly different. “I really respect directors who don’t just stick in one lane. I’m not saying the one-lane directors aren’t worthy of respect; there are lots who make just one kind of film and great, that’s them, their identity. But I really appreciate a director like Bob Clark, who can go from Black Christmas to A Christmas Story, you know: a very diverse kind of career. And people like Joel Schumacher, who gets a bad rap for the Batman films, but if you look at the rest of his filmography, it’s diverse and quite good; sure, he’s been pigeonholed, because he made two Batman films that fans hated, but you still have to appreciate the output of someone like that. Then there’s George Romero, who spent most of his career trying different things, but everyone just wanted more zombies for the most part. He had an elephant-hunting film which was his dream project that he was trying to get made for the longest time and it was just like ‘are there zombies in it?’. I’ll always work in multiple streams of story, but I’m a horror kid at heart, so I’ll always come back.”
Going back to Clapboard Jungle, I referred to a comment in there from Larry Fessenden: he had said something along the lines of “a shoemaker makes shoes, but if you’re a filmmaker, you dream about the shoes.” When I had watched Clapboard Jungle, this had reminded me of when I interviewed Fessenden and he refused to tell me what he was working on next, because (the way he saw it) you can never tell what is going to come into fruition. Justin agreed with this. “It’s been a hard lesson over the years. I’ve done this quite publicly: I had a film called The Eternal that I had two sets of cast, and I went to press about it. We were halfway to getting the quite sizeable budget, when the recession came in 2009, and basically the investors were very risk averse at that time. So when I was talking to people about that particular movie, I had Brad Dourif, Kim Coates and Keith David attached to it, we went to market with that cast, but we couldn’t get any bites. So we reshuffled the cast, and I had Michael Beihn, I was trying to get Michael Rooker, and some others; I was younger and greener and didn’t really realise that just because you’ve got these pieces together the film is going to get made. I’d been doing press, interviews, a short film, the teaser trailer and that sort of thing, and people were like ‘where’s the movie?’ And because I was so publicly talking about it, it weighed on me like a millstone: I’ve got to get this thing made. It can mess with you as a creator. So I’ve stopped talking about every step of the process, as I get more experienced, because things fall apart all the time, so easily; so just like Larry said in your interview there’s no point in talking about it until it’s really there. That’s why in a lot of press releases, they say such a director ‘will direct’ or such an actor ‘will star in” x movie, even though they’ve been filming for two weeks: they hedge their bets in the press.”
So is there a point in the process when you can say with certainty ‘I know what’s happening next’? “Well I want to say ‘yes’, in that when you have the money in the bank and you’re in pre-production, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get the movie done, but there’s still no guarantee. There’s still the possibility that it could fall apart, especially the more a budget goes up, and the more partners are at the table. People have had movies fall apart one or two weeks into shooting. People have shot for most of the shoot and then the bond company comes in and takes it over. You do not really know for sure until the movie is fully in the can and you’re starting to edit, that you’ve got a movie. And even then, there are stories of people losing their footage, or a fire in the warehouse, acts of God and things like that do happen. For me, the only time I’m truly comfortable that this thing is going to happen is Day One of production. But even then, I know in the back of my mind that we still have to get to the end of production. So no, you can’t really know or relax.”
So I guess that’s why it pays to have several projects in the pipeline. “Yeah, I think that shotgun approach is important. The more you can diversify what you’re planning to do, the more of a safety net you have when one project falls apart.”
I had read on Twitter that Justin had decided not to take anything to the film market in Berlin this year, and I was curious whether he had something ready for that stage. “I just decided not to virtually attend the market, largely because I was too busy with client work; but also because I’d been to most of the virtual markets last year and while I found them somewhat beneficial, it’s not the same by a long shot as being able to talk to people face to face. Zoom is cool, it works in a pinch, but it’s very difficult to get a read on people, and you’re rushing to get the meeting done, with no time for pleasantries; and although you can visually see someone, it’s not the same with body language and so on, and the discussion generally is much better in person. So I didn’t find I could get my head into those markets very well, I’d paid a bunch of money to be there, but couldn’t take full advantage. So when Berlin came around this year, I was comfortable that my interests were already being managed by other people (such as Raven Banner representing The Clapboard Jungle in territories where it hasn’t sold yet), so figured I could take a rest for that week.
“Until I have a clearer idea what direction COVID is going to go, it’s difficult to know what to plan, anyway. You can’t book actors right now unless you have a pretty good plan like a friend of mine: he’s shooting a film on a tropical island that has zero COVID, so they basically set up a three-picture deal with the film commission there, so they could go there, quarantine for two weeks and then shoot a film! So there are ways to get around it, but I’m also of a mind that I don’t want to employ anyone in an active outbreak zone because morally I’m responsible for their wellbeing, and I don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way. So narrative projects right now are after vaccination, for me. All power to people who are producing right now. Abi is making a film right now with full COVID protection measures, which are very expensive. I morally can’t get into that position: I don’t want a crew member or a crew member’s family contracting an illness and dying just because I decide I need to make a film right now. That’s not going to happen.”
We both shared a laugh at the prospect of lightening the conversation: the world we’re in is full of difficulties to navigate. So I reached for the positive moments in Clapboard Jungle. Towards the end, when Lifechanger was about to start production, Justin had said “I hope it’s going to be worth the effort in the end”. I thought to myself I’d seen the film and it bloody was worth the effort! It was one of my favourites from that year. I asked Justin how he felt looking back on his results? “I’m definitely proud of what I’ve done there, and there’s clearly a big contingent of horror fans and film viewers that like it a lot, so that’s all great. But I think as a creator, I am my own worst critic, so all I see when I watch it now are things I would have done differently. Not to say the film is badly flawed and I’d change a lot, but given more budget, more time, ideal conditions and stuff like that, there are certainly things in the film I could have done in a different way, which probably would have improved the film. I don’t know who said it, but there’s a saying that a film is never finished, but it’s abandoned, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s a point when you have to say it’s done, and you put it out in the world, let the world deal with any inadequacies. You have to accept what you’ve created at that point, and I’m happy with what I created: I think it’s a solid horror film, I did good with the scenario, with the financing and all the realities around it. I did as good a job as I could have. Of course there are things I’d change, but there are also lessons I can carry forward into new projects and not repeat the mistakes. There are some people who are geniuses out of the gate, but I think most people making films follow a learning process, with constant self-reflection and analysing what you can do to make the next one better. Lifechanger might be the best film I ever make; I hope not, but it might be, because who knows?”
I compared this approach to project management that I encounter in my day job: at the outset of any project, the project managers have to consider how they will know when the job is done, and how they will know when it is done well. In contrast, it sounded like filmmakers decide at what point to put it down and step away. “Yes. No matter what, when you’ve done a cut and finished the film, determined that ‘this is it’, you definitely have to have an idea of finality around it. But with writing, if you put a script in a drawer and come back to it three months later, you might think of an even better direction to take it. There are fan theories about superhero movies online, where people get angry and declare ‘this is how I would have done it’: you’re always going to re-evaluate your work at some point and think of something that could have been way better, but you can never get things done if you’re just waiting for that to happen every time: you’ll work on the film for the rest of your life otherwise. I mean I could keep thinking of improvements to Lifechanger event when I’m eighty. You still have to finish the film, but accept that you could always see flaws later down the line. So that’s what I mean by having to abandon it: you can’t let one project absorb your entire being for the rest of your life, you have to sotp at some point.”
I guess with some films, if the director decides they could have done something different, they write a sequel, or a special feature for the home release. With Lifechanger, it felt pretty clear there couldn’t be a sequel. “I do actually have a sequel for it, but it’s not one that fans would want to see. It would literally be about the seventy-year-old form of Drew slowly dying and then having to come to the moral dilemma of taking another body or letting himself die like a regular person. No-one wants to see that, there are no horror feels, but a straightforward drama. You could always make other films in the same universe, with other shapeshifters; or a prequel, because he’s got a long history. But if I was to do a sequel, that’s the idea I like most: my character considering the damage he’s done, the moral weight on him as an old man, alone in the world.”
Getting ready to wrap up, I dared to ask a very broad question that I’d been wondering for a while: what is it about Canadian horror? They’re all so good! Ginger Snaps, Incident in a Ghostland, Black Christmas, The Void and of course Cronenberg’s catalogue. “At this moment, I don’t know. Part of it might be because our funding system traditionally has been very different to what you might get in the United States, where we’re not necessarily making commercial projects for the world to see. A lot of it is funded by the Canadian government (not necessarily films that I’ve made, but I have had tax rebates). Because our funding system is different, and we’re constantly having to find ways to make not just a straightforward slasher movie (though of course there is My Bloody Valentine) but sort of need to have bigger social issues and more character to get past the gatekeepers of these funding bodies, so you end up with films that try to say more. But although I don’t have a clear answer right now, I’m going to try to get it because the next film I’m working on is a documentary that I’ve just signed, They Came From Within, based on a book on Canadian horror history. And part of the goal of that documentary is to try to figure out what is our national horror identity, and how we got there. Because they definitely do stand out, but they stand out for different reasons, I think. So finding one specific reason is going to be a challenge, but a challenge that I am going to attempt. I just know that our movies seem to have an identity, maybe part of it is because we’re trying to make some Americanised films, but we’re not American, and we have a completely different perspective on the world; so we get the sort of exploitive elements of those films, but in kind of a unique way. Hopefully I’ll find a better answer.”
I look forward to talking to him when that documentary is ready too.