(This interview is a part of our continuing Night Visions 2020 coverage. It has been edited for content and clarity.)
Hailing from Toronto, Ontario, Justin McConnell is a filmmaker, cinematographer, editor, writer, and jack-of-all-trades in the industry. As director, his earlier works include films such as LIFECHANGER, SKULL WORLD, and BROKEN MILE. His latest documentary, CLAPBOARD JUNGLE (reviewed here), premiered at Night Visions 2020: The New Abnormal last month. Making a visible impact on the audiences at the festival, especially myself, I was thrilled to be able to land some time to talk with McConnell about his years long process and how one survives the wilderness of filmmaking today.
On a personal level this documentary meant a lot to me, because it felt like connecting with someone who was wired on the same level as I was. It was almost a therapeutic experience in that way.
I appreciate that. I tried to tell it like I saw things, and it does seem to be connecting with a lot of people.
CLAPBOARD JUNGLE took five years to finally come together. When did you sit down and realize this was the next film you were working on?
In early 2014, a few months after SKULL WORLD was released. I was looking at what I could work on next. I knew it would be a while before I’d get financing on another narrative fiction and I was really struggling with getting THE ETERNAL going.
It all kind of hit me that there hadn’t been that many films made that dealt with the creation of and how you actually get a movie made as an indie filmmaker without any ties to the business.
I figured I could start shooting something and collecting interviews. Pretty quickly I also realized that I couldn’t stop my life to follow someone else, but I could do that with myself. The film really started growing from there.
One of the harder parts of making something like this is to keep it from being a vanity project. How did you go about that despite this being a hugely personal and subjective documentary?
There were a few things I put in place from the very beginning. One thing that was very important was that I wasn’t acting, that it wasn’t putting on a face of any kind. It was vital when I captured something that it was true to how I felt at the time. I wasn’t going to shy away from the dark or ugly moment. That was the first part. To make sure it was raw and not performative.
It then shifted into something where there weren’t a lot of untrue moments. That really wasn’t the footage I was collecting. I noticed this too with other people. Like when we were shooting things in the past, I’d see people have this habit of switching on when the camera is on them. I wanted to just be me. Like what we’re doing now: I just talk – it’s a stream of consciousness.
Even in the beginning of the editing process I was very blunt and said I didn’t want it to be a vanity process. I wanted it to be candid and honest. Between (associate producers) Darryl Shaw, Kevin Burke, and Avi Federgreen and the test audiences, they helped shape CLAPBOARD JUNGLE into what it is.
How did you go about getting people involved? Did you have a wish list going in?
I definitely had a wish list on some degree. I knew I wanted to get Frank Henenlotter, Paul Schrader, and Lloyd Kaufman. But a lot of people also didn’t want to join who I’d have loved to get. People like Gale Anne Hurd or Ernest Dickerson and Jennifer Lynch. I was trying hard to get more balance and I just didn’t have the access. But I’m really happy with who I was able to get.
What I’d do is plan out a festival, look at who’d be on site and just start putting down names. A lot of interviews were collected that way. Sometimes I’d reach ahead and book ahead, sometimes it was run by them at a party, on location, or something like that. That’s how I collected a lot of them.
Some were arranged by Chris Alexander, the editor of Fangoria, who had access to a lot of people. He helped get Guillermo Del Toro. I got the Del Toro interview the same day I spoke with George Romero, which was a part of something I made for the Arrow video release of the Romero box set. We did both of those at Romero’s house.
Once I had been producing about six months and we had some larger personalities getting the interviews became a lot easier, because we could say these people have already done it and legitimized the project to some degree. We interviewed like 120 people. It was years of taking opportunities where they dropped, lining up the interviews and hoping for the best.
It’s such a melancholy time capsule for people like Romero, Haag, and Cohen, but there is a blessing in hearing in them again.
I don’t know if I’d call it a blessing, considering four of the people I had interviewed are now dead. But it’s good to know that their voice continues onward, even more so on the eight episode series that we’re working on with extended content.
With Romero, Cohen, Sid Haag we get maybe a minute or two of them in the documentary. The Romero interview we have is over an hour, and Dick Miller was quite long too. In the extended content they have so much more fascinating stuff to say, and it will show up in the additional material that comes out of this project. It’s great that their legacy can live on, that people can get new perspectives on them even as they’ve left this world. It is so sad that they’ve left, but I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to meet them.
The day we did the Romero/Del Toro talk, it was an interview but afterwards we stayed there and had dinner and drank whiskey and just talked about movies for hours. It’s one of the moments of my life I’ll never forget. Romero passed away shortly after that and I had idolized him my whole life, so sitting there and understanding how similarly we were wired and what a nice man he was, it made me feel fortunate to have been in that position before it was too late to ever be in that position.
How is the series itself coming along?
We’re in post production and it’s eight episodes long, we have a pilot and three more done. Each episode is a specific topic. My story isn’t really in it much or at all. The idea is to make a film school in a box. So that people who are truly interested can really dive in. It’s fast paced and entertaining, but the format is much more akin to something like HEART OF DARKNESS, something more educational. It’s not a highlight reel, it’s something someone can sit with and absorb a lot of information. It’s a lot of footage and there’s still a lot of work left, but hopefully we’ll be done by next year and it’ll be out before the summer.
Will it be out on DVD, blu-ray, or streaming media?
It’ll be on streaming platforms, but we’re negotiating with some partners so it depends on what they allow us to and depending on where it’s available. I’m hoping to put out individual episodes or the whole thing on a platform that is available for everyone, so that people can watch it wherever they are in the world. But that depends on the deals we’re currently sorting out.
Very few directors actually talk about what their work on set is like. I loved that this aspect of the documentary was so candid with it. Was that something you set out to do or is that something that just happened as you recorded footage?
I watch special features all the time. I love the in depth on set analysis and behind the scenes footage. Some of my favorite docs are heavily involved in the day to day footage. So from the very beginning I’ve been very intent on showing all that stuff and if you look at the previous films I’ve put out they’re very into the nitty gritty stuff on how things are made. It’s literally the day to day process how we made each movie.
I’m a huge supporter of showing how the recipe is put together. It helps people learn. That’s what the bonus features are for, they’re meant to be a demonstration so they can learn more about the films they enjoy. People who are getting into film and aren’t looking at bonus features that’s an extended film school they’re ignoring.
When I started making CLAPBOARD JUNGLE I didn’t know if I was going to get another film off the ground like it happened, since I can’t predict the future, but I wanted to show as much as I could. It wasn’t until we got LIFECHANGER greenlit and on camera that it became a reality.
There’s a part in Clapboard Jungle where Del Toro says that making films is wonderful, but selling them is hell. Is that a belief you’d subscribe to as well?
I think that the really difficult part of raising money is the disappointment. It’s a process that takes forever and it becomes very consuming mentally, emotionally, and with your time. Trying to knock on doors and trying to convince people to become partners; the bigger the movie and unless you’re dealing with a studio, it takes so many puzzle pieces to actually be greenlit. Especially in the indie world where you need five or six entities to come together and agree on the terms of a single film and then for all to be on the same page.
All it takes is one of those elements to drop out and you’re suddenly losing all the financing elements. Even if it’s just one that flakes out you’ve lost 20% of your budget, and if you can’t find alternative funding in time the others will move on, or a recession hits, or any of the hundred things happen that means the money that was viable for a moment isn’t there six months later.
That aspect of financing is soul crushing and it’s very difficult to explain to someone who isn’t in this how excited you can get when you raise 2 million dollars to something like this. It’s crazy to think how it happens in the first place, and then if it doesn’t work out how do you explain that you lost the access to that financing? That’s a big hit for your mental wellbeing. Then you just have to live with it, because you’re in this business and you know that it happens. “Well, try again!”
That part is soul crushing and it happens in all levels of the business. Sometimes it’s just luck, good or bad, but no matter what it’s very, very difficult.
But on the positive side, raising this money means traveling the world and going to festivals; there’s a fringe to it where you’re out there and you’re meeting people in places that were once behind doors you couldn’t get into before. It does mitigate the soul crushing reality that there is otherwise.
When you work on a new script do you consciously take into consideration the probable budget or do you just pour it all out regardless of the cost?
It depends on the project. I always think how will this get made when I’m writing, certainly. But it depends every time. A lot of the stuff I write is low budget because I’m relatively confident it’ll get made at that point.
But I wrote a thing called TRACER that’s a sci-fi film set in the future and it’s at minimum a five million dollar picture, but it would also be much more comfortable as a 30 million dollar film. I didn’t give myself any handcuffs and just wrote what I wanted to see on screen. But that’s different from me designing the project from the beginning knowing I have an x amount of dollars that I can pull, so then I’ll reverse engineer the project to fit into what I can put together.
Like you’re working through the writing you’d ask yourself how would this be shot if you did it on set? Instead of decapitation I’ll stab them through the throat cause it’s an easier gag to produce. With something like THE COLLAPSED, which was movie I wrote too fast and I regret doing it so, but I went with what locations I had access to, and I wrote around them because I knew I had around 40k Canadian to make that film, and I knew I had to work with what I had.
What would you say to those who are going in for the first time to pitch things and getting that door slammed to their face?
I think you have to have faith. If you believe in your abilities, and early on you’ll be filled death a lot of doubt, at the end of the day the most important things is to believe in yourself. Even if the door is slammed in your face you’ve already made it to a point where someone is listening to you who can make this movie happen. There’s a lot of other doors. Feel free to be disappointed, it’s only natural, and it can be very depressing. Especially when it comes after months of work and things just stop. That can be really tough. Just know that everyone is going to go through the same thing to some degree. It’s just the way the game is played.
There are so many factors that go into a positive decision that aren’t necessary to do with you. The easiest thing the company can do is say no, because they don’t have to do anything else after that. So they say no more than anything else.
But saying yes requires a lot more because it’s just a ton of work they’ve added on their plate. And a lot of financiers are representatives for a pool of other people who invest in film. So they have to make very calculated decisions. Even if the pitch is great, if it doesn’t make sense on a financial level it won’t happen. But what you can do is get better, don’t get so invested in the why did this happen, why not me, etc., because first of all it’ll just lead to depression and crushing disillusionment, and you start moving slower or whatever. But if you keep going more opportunities will present themselves. So that’s what you do.
You just keep moving forward.