One of the highlights of Fantasia Festival 2020 for me so far was the story of Justin McConnell, an emerging director who had a breakout hit screening at the festival in 2018, with inventively original body-swapping horror film Lifechanger.
Two years later and McConnell is back with his second feature length film at Fantastia, but it’s not a follow-up to Lifechanger or a new horror film at all, at least in the conventional sense, but rather a personal introspective look at his own career so far and his struggles within the independent film industry to get Lifechanger, or in fact anything made, titled – Clapboard Jungle: Surviving The Independent Film Industry.
It’s particularly interesting because we’ve already seen the end-result of this struggle with the film Lifechanger, but now, with Clapboard Jungle, we begin to see the circumstances that led to McConnell making a film like Lifechanger and creating a character like the film’s titular monster, villain, and protagonist, Drew.
You can also begin to interpret parallels between the two. In Lifechanger, shapeshifter Drew murders his way into a woman’s life because he desperately loves her, only to eventually realise the futility of his actions and in Clapboard Jungle we see McConnell tirelessly work on project after project, attend meeting after meeting, all because he loves film, and ultimately not really getting anywhere.
I was able to interview Justin McConnell about both Clapboard Jungle and Lifechanger and I immediately wanted to know if he thought there were parallels between himself and his journey and Drew’s
“Not overtly. But you could say there is a correlation between the pursuit of getting any film made and obsessive love. There’s a healthy way to approach the pursuit of getting something made, and a damaging way that’s more all-consuming and can really affect your mental health. If you make the quest to getting your vision to the screen your entire personality and reason for living, you may be setting yourself up for a crushing disappointment that can really affect the rest of your life. So it’s best to have some healthy emotional distance from the mission, while not giving up on it.”
We know from Clapboard Jungle that McConnell was definitely going through some dark moments as a result of the constant setbacks he was experiencing in his pursuit of realising his dream, but did any of those darker moments of McConnell’s life and personality find themselves being added to Drew’s character?
“Sure, I took certain things I saw in myself that I found problematic and exaggerated them to a psychopathic degree when writing Drew. In a lot of ways I was looking internally at my own life and how I approached love, relationships and the world around me, and the basics of who Drew was came out of that. Almost like exorcising those demons into the character.”
So, then, if McConnell was exorcising his own personal demons through the character Drew, how did he feel about how the ending to Lifechanger was received? Should Drew have been punished more for his transgressions, or is the outcome that takes place in the film punishment enough?
“I didn’t specifically want either outcome. I wanted [the audience] to come to their own conclusions. I think if the audience got angry he didn’t get punished further they may not have grasped the point of the story entirely. It’s easy to kill the villain, but true punishment is the villain realising they’ve lived an entire life without ever actually living, being crushed by the guilt of their actions over decades, now too old and near death to live the few years he has left in any meaningful way. “
“I liken him to a Nazi war criminal finally realising the error of his ways, forced to spend the rest of his days carrying the crushing weight of their own actions with him everywhere they go. The question is, does he still have his power? Is he still able to take other forms? And if so, knowing what he knows now, would he still be able to bring himself to take a life to prolong his own?”
With this answer you certainly get the sense that McConnell’s journey since making Lifechanger could be a mirror of Drew’s after the film finishes. He struggled for so long to get a feature length film made and when he did he was then left with the aftermath of figuring out what to do next. Perhaps, that’s why Clapboard Jungle came about as his next feature length film, a look at the decisions he made in the past to best help inform his future.
One thing that the McConnell we see in the past, in the build-up to the making of Lifechanger, are his struggles with criticism and negative comments about his work, with him often questioning if he’s good enough to make films. Clapboard shows us several moments of Justin reading out negative comments, but doesn’t often dwell on how he’s actually feeling. Now, much like Drew did at the end of Lifechanger, this seems to be one thing that McConnell has come to a realisation about.
“I don’t think anyone takes criticism particularly well. I know (and have read about) a lot of artists who just don’t read the comments, or any criticism. But for me it isn’t so much a question of not taking it well, it’s learning to try and find the seeds of truth, to my own instinct, in any of the negativity. Because the most valuable part of any feedback or criticism is being able to learn from it.
“The thing about creating art is you’ve created it, it came from your own mind, it’s part of you. You birthed it into the world, one way or another. And when it’s something that’s a part of you, and you display that to the world at large and go “here, I made this thing”, you’re opening yourself up to criticism, and it’s hard not to take that personally.”
“But experience and time gives me the wisdom to know that all opinions, good or bad, are just that, opinions. And everyone’s are different, and most are not created equal. All I can do is just keep creating, be thankful there are people out there who want to watch the stuff I make, and the rest is just a fact of life.”
And that’s something that Clapboard Jungle really seems to reinforce, we meet McConnell at the beginning of his journey and we slowly see him grow into the person he is today. We, as the audience root for him every step of the way and feel for him when things go wrong, so it’s almost a relief when he finally gets his break with Lifechanger.
But further than that, the fact that McConnell is releasing Clapboard Jungle at all, a self-made documentary about some of the hardest and worst moments of his life, is a testament to how much his confidence has grown and how much of a footing he has gained as a filmmaker in the industry. So much so that he bravely offers the story of his own life alongside interviews with some of the industry’s greats like George A Romero and Guillermo Del Toro. McConnell tells me what that was like,
“That feeling is relatively difficult to describe. But the more people I meet in this business that I grew up idolizing and respecting, the more I realize they are just people. And as much as it was surreal and humbling to sit down with these people, bucket list experiences at times, I had to keep focus on why I was there, and approach them all conversationally.”
“I find in interviews the best way to get wonderful answers is to approach the subject, no matter who they are, with a bit of detachment and just a friendly humanity. Be conversational. So in a way I’d have the initial pang of fanboy-itis, then I’d have to pull that back and just get the job done. It certainly meant a lot that so many people agreed to sit down with me, and most of them turned out to be lovely people who just wanted to help.”
This is certainly interesting to me, because another fascinating part of Lifechanger is how Drew’s love-interest Julia, keeps meeting him in different bodies at the bar but seems to have a kindred spirit with all of them, almost like she knows there’s something familiar. I wondered if there was a part of her that knew she was talking to Drew all those times,
“She didn’t realise it overtly, but I think there was a sense for familiarity there that lead to her being open with those people. In the same way the dog recognises Drew no matter what body he’s in, she has a sixth sense that this person she’s meeting is a kindred spirit of some kind. So little things like same drink probably filled her with a sense of déjà vu, but it’s a big jump to assume she’d be able to make the jump in her mind to realising it’s all the same person. Julia lives in a conventional reality, at least to her life experience, so the concept of a shapeshifter being real wouldn’t strike her until it’s undeniably right in her face.”
I bring this up because, if I wanted to force another parallel against McConnell’s wishes, which I do, you could easily see how, despite the fact he’s changed massively from the start of Clapboard Jungle to the end, that McConnell is most at ease when talking to people within the industry, both in his real-life documentary footage and also in the mini-interviews and piece-to-cameras he includes around it. They are, after all, kindred spirits, people who love film.
It could also be argued then, that Drew and Julia’s bar meetings can represent both McConnell and his ever-changing attempts to ‘make it’, with him constantly coming up with new projects and trying new angles with old ones as well as the independent film industry itself, because throughout Clapboard Jungle, the rules for getting a film made seem to change and alter on a whim leaving McConnell powerless to do anything but follow in their wake. Both are at times strangers to each other but both are inexplicably tied together as familiar kindred spirits.
It’s clear that for Lifechanger at least, McConnell doesn’t see the hidden relationship Drew has with Julia against her will, by posing as different people each time, as a positive thing. He, in fact, uses it as a rather fitting metaphor for two parties struggling over a shared tragic loss or trauma, which he explains was intentional.
“It was intentional, as the damage you bring forward into your future relationships can affect the success of those relationships. Sorrow and depression can be a millstone to your happiness as a couple. However Drew was not Julia’s husband originally, he took her husband’s form and lived as him for a brief time, and assimilated that love via the memories he absorbed from him. So in a way, Drew’s love for Julia is not just tragic, it’s deeply problematic, because he stole it, at the core.
“He’s a creature that feels deeply and has human needs, but he has so many personalities swirling around in his head, and so many conflicting moral compasses competing for control, that he doesn’t really have what can be considered a clear sense of human morality. He thinks what he’s doing is right but the film is about him realizing the damage he’s causing in that pursuit, deeply feeling the guilt, and trying to redeem himself and do something good before he dies. But it’s too late, the damage is done, and he can’t fix the problem he himself caused. He can only learn and try to improve gradually in the future. He’s a villain, but doesn’t realize it until closer to the end.”
Perhaps this informs us about how McConnell felt about his relationship with the film industry at the time. This is part of what makes Clapboard Jungle screening at Fantasia Film Festival so perfect. It embodies the hopeful optimism that we see from McConnell at the end of the documentary and brings his struggles almost full circle, with him returning, like familiar spirits meeting in a bar. I asked McConnell if it felt serendipitous for Clapboard Jungle to be selected for this year’s festival.
“Absolutely, Some of the earliest interviews shot for the project were done during the Frontieres market in 2014, and in a way it was a bit of a guiding light for not just this, but Lifechanger and Mark Of Kane as well. So there’s definitely a degree of kismet to the whole cycle of the past 5 years or so. But to be honest I first wanted to attend Fantasia in 1999 after reading about it in Fangoria, so to now have a second feature film selected for the festival (after Lifechanger played there in 2018) is a great feeling.”
Clapboard Jungle is genius in this sense, because it itself is a layered piece of filmmaking, informing on the behind the scenes of the industry as a whole, but also using it to expose the behind the scenes of McConnell as a person. But in doing so it, possibly indirectly, also adds layers to Lifechanger as a film as well. As a result I believe that both films are improved by having watched the other and between them we get an extraordinary look at McConnell and his life that conventional documentaries often don’t offer. I can’t wait to see what McConnell tells us about himself next.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here