NIGHT VISIONS 2020: CLAPBOARD JUNGLE

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Justin McConnell’s film is highly personal, which means this review must be as well. On a purely objective level there’s very little to say about a personal portrait like this. It’s a well shot, expertly paced documentary told with a level of confidence that only a good storyteller with something to say could. At 90 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the interviews are thoroughly interesting. 

That’s all well and good. But CLAPBOARD JUNGLE is also something much more meaningful. It’s a sobering and inspiring experience. A touching reminder of how many people are out there hustling to make films right this minute, and how communal that experience can be, even as we work with blinders on just to get one step ahead. 

To talk about that, one should approach it from a personal point of view. It’s only fair. 

Making movies is beautiful. Prepping them, raising the money, and selling them is horrible.

– Guillermo Del Toro

I wish CLAPBOARD JUNGLE had existed when I was in college. Now that I’ve seen it twice, I feel like it needs to be shown to every filmmaking student, hopeful, and aspirant the first thing they make the decision to pursue this madness as a career.

It documents with clarity and humility just how difficult, insane, and often soul murdering it is to try and get a film made. From pitching it to the people with money to casting, filming, and eventually, way down the road, to showing it to others. It’s a journey where at any turn things can go sour and the whole thing will come collapsing down around you. 

McConnell puts himself front and center. Between interviews, narration, and vlogs he’s kept over the years, we go on this trip hand in hand with him, and I applaud his frankness and bravery in revealing all this. Most artists don’t like to talk about their methods because they’re usually very personal. There isn’t a single person who doesn’t panic and question every decision they make during the filmmaking process. There’s frustration, fear, anxiety, and eventually elation that comes with putting art together. Combine that with the added stress of dealing with other people’s money, and it amplifies everything. 

Instead of hiding all this, McConnell pours every ounce of himself on screen in a way that is occasionally painful to watch. Many times he’ll record himself thinking “this is the one” when a good meeting closes, only for the next update to reveal it to be another closed door. Anyone who hasn’t been in these scenarios will probably ask why he keeps getting so excited, and anyone who has been in them will know that’s just how it goes. Every single time. 

Watching CLAPBOARD JUNGLE I found myself constantly nodding along with the story. I recognized myself everywhere. Like McConnell, I’ve been in rooms where producers have said they’ll take the project, but only if I’m removed first. I’ve run around markets selling scripts and pitching ideas, desperately hustling for a meager budget to make something small in hopes that it will turn into something big. I’ve taken that long bus ride back to the airport, and the even longer flight home with nothing to show for it. Like him, I’ve watched projects collapse, sending me into long stretches of depression.

Back then it felt like I was doing this alone. Like I was a unique failure when others around me were spinning into wild successes at every turn. I wish I had McConnell with me back then. It would have made a huge difference.

CLAPBOARD JUNGLE feels like a direct response to that. It feels like McConnell reaching out across the distance to anyone out there making or dreaming of making films to say they’re not alone. During his five year production of the documentary, McConnell has managed to rustle up filmmakers of varying degrees of success, each who tell a similar story. Making movies is a painful experience, made only worthwhile by the fleeting moments of seeing an audience react to them. 

These interviews are revelatory. Not just because they feature big names like Guillermo Del Toro reinforcing the notion of how hard this industry is, but because they’re frank and honest without any sugar coating. Even Lloyd Kauffman, who has made an icon of himself with the Troma label, speaks with bittersweet humor about how every film is a battle that, even upon a completion, is a complete crapshoot whether anyone will watch it. 

The documentary also astutely points out the paradox that is the business today. There are more films being made than ever before, leading to a market saturation where it’s nearly impossible to get your film seen by audiences. And yet this must mean that your chances of getting a film made should be hugely better, right? After all, if more and more products are being financed, who’s to say that yours won’t?

Which in turn leads to the spiral of self-doubt when the project you spend years on prepping doesn’t get financed. What was wrong with it? Was it the script? The budget? The cast? Me? McConnell doesn’t provide answers, because there isn’t a single objective truth to the matter. Sometimes it’s all of these things, sometimes it’s none of them. 

If that sounds like insanity, it’s because it is. To be a filmmaker you have to be an artist, a marketer, a producer, a haggler, a magician, a lawyer, and a dozen other things in order to tell a story you’re passionate about. If you can’t be all of them, you’d best hope that you have people around you who can, and who will be as passionate about these projects as you are. 

So when McConnell begins to move forward with his aptly titled film LIFECHANGER, it feels like a shared triumph. You want him to succeed, because you know how painful the alternative is. Every day on the set is exciting, every tension between the crew palpable. McConnell is a terrific storyteller and he builds the film in a way that feels like climbing a mountain. 

It’s here the CLAPBOARD JUNGLE reveals its most potent and important power. It creates a feeling of global kinship. It opens the door to reveal that everyone is having these same doubts, struggles, and fears. By candidly revealing his strengths and shortcomings, McConnell allows us a chance for personal introspection, which in turn helps fuel passion for film even further. Nothing about this is easy, he says, but it is worth it. 

If that wasn’t enough, McConnell reminds, those of us who are white men still have it incredibly cushy compared to women and minority filmmakers. Some of them are given a voice here as well, even as the focus is very much in favor of the former group.

The craft of directing and filmmaking is romanticized at every turn. It’s made out to be almost a magical experience, where you’re plucked out of obscurity as long as you have a good story to tell. For the vast majority that never happens. But McConnell’s film shows that it doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. His interviews with those who’ve made a career without global mainstream success are testament to that. The screenings for LIFECHANGER, where sold out crowds cheer at finished product reveal that there will be a tribe for you somewhere, and it’s just as rewarding as anything else.

I didn’t get to see CLAPBOARD JUNGLE until I was 33, some 20 years into my decision to become a filmmaker. I hope it will find a place in every curriculum in every film school. I wish it turns into the film people talk about in conjunction with books like A REBEL WITHOUT A CREW.

I hope those that see it will feel like I did that they’re not alone, and find strength to go and work on the next thing even if it doesn’t succeed. 

Because maybe, just maybe, that next project does work out and you get it shipped to festivals. And at that festival you get to meet the people who inspired you early on and you can say thank you. 

In a community that often thrives on gatekeeping, McConnell’s film is a generous and heartwarming reminder that nobody does this alone. 

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