Two summers ago, it was a warm, welcoming day in Montreal when I met indie filmmaker Justin McConnell. I was interviewing him about his latest feature Lifechanger, a truly chilling and sharply feminist thriller about a serial-killing shapeshifter. It should have been a moment of celebration for McConnell, as it was a World Premiere at an adored international festival. Yet, he seemed a bit glum as we talked. Now, watching his follow-up documentary Clapboard Jungle, I understand why.
Clapboard Jungle follows McConnell through a five-year journey to make the film that’d prove his breakthrough to easy street. With home videos, clips from past films (shorts and features), and unblinking self-shot confessionals, he ushers audiences through journey from his filmmaking teen with aspirations to be the next Tarantino, to tenacious indie auteur clawing his way through making his first feature, to the murky area that comes after. The meteoric rise he dreamed of never transpired, in part because of how the shifting cinema landscape changed how the industry functioned. It’s hard out there, and not just for up-and-comers struggling to get funding for big ideas.
McConnell delivers a spectrum of insights into the modern landscape of moviemaking by presenting interviews with a jaw-dropping line-up of genre’s big names, including Guillermo del Toro, Richard Stanley, Barbara Crampton, Paul Schrader, Mick Garris, Don Mancini, Travis Stevens, Jovanka Vuckovic, Tom Savini, Michael Biehn, the late Dick Miller, and the late George A. Romero. For any true film lover, this line-up alone should be worth the price of admission.
Speaking to a fellow filmmaker, these directors, actors, and prodicers offer an exhilarating candor when talking about the pitfalls of getting a production off the ground and finding financing. Okay, those subjects might seem dry or dull. They’re not when you have the likes of Stanley talking in terms of child sacrifice while others warning about “time vampires” and the vital of importance of karaoke in networking.
Through all this, Clapboard Jungle demystifies the paths left to indie filmmakers today. McConnell welcomes us to be his shadow—and sometimes his shoulder to lean on—as he goes through a process that is less like a straight line and more labyrinth. We follow him to film festivals around the world, where he’ll screen his work, do Q&As, take meetings, and pitch his could-be projects at crowded markets. He’ll walk us through the Catch 22 of casting big names and the complicated juggling projects from soon-to-shoot to backburner to back again. Gently yet firmly, he’ll hold our hands as we barrel with him through the highs and lows of creation, rejection, success, and self-doubt.
From a purely informative level, Clapboard Jungle is essential viewing to any aspiring filmmaker. However, what makes it a compelling film is not just this behind-the-scenes info, but how McConnell builds it within the framework of his own story. We witness this soft-spoken visionary learn these lessons the hard way. Through the film, he seems to be trying to spare the next generation of auteurs the growing pains he’s endured. Yet, as personal as the doc gets, McConnell doesn’t lose sight of the big picture. He recognizes that as a white man, he has privileges some of his peers do not. So, the doc offers a sidebar, allowing female filmmakers space to speak to how—on top of all the struggles he’s faced—they also have to consider what they wear, how they talk, and how to combat the everyday sexism as they pitch themselves and their projects.
Watching the film, I thought back to that day in Montreal. McConnell impressed me—not only with his sensational movie—but with how thoughtfully he spoke about its feminist themes and self-reflecting origins. Yet he seemed weary. At the time, I chalked it up to the way festivals can devour your sleep and energy. It’s a marathon, just as McConnell describes the act of getting a movie made. It takes passion, endurance, and drive to do it. And even when you love it, there are times when you’re so tired you’re just going through the motions. They are moments where you might want to just drop to your knees and quit. Clapboard Jungle not only captures this exhilarating and infuriating experience. It also serves as a beacon for those still in the running, desperately seeking a sign of encouragement: You are not alone.
McConnell been there too. So have some of the greatest visionary filmmakers in the world! Talent does not make vocation easy. Vision does not lead swiftly to success. Sometimes getting a movie made at all is a miracle. In Clapboard Jungle, we are graced with the chance to see the miracle happen. It’s riveting, raw, and wonderful. And once again, I can’t wait to see what McConnell does next.
Clapboard Jungle was originally reviewed out of Fantasia 2020, where it made its Quebec premiere. Lifechanger is now on Showtime. To learn more about the festival, visit their site. Clapboard Jungle is available on digital on January 19.
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