Saturday, April 17, 2021

With CLAPBOARD JUNGLE hitting Arrow's streaming service here is my interview with Justin McConnell

I love Justin McConnell’s LIFECHANGER which rocked my world when it played Fantasia in 2018. I loved it so much that I had to ask him some questions because he had made a truly amazing film.  Justin also went on to my list of directors I would instantly say yes to when offered on of his films. 

A couple of weeks before Fantasia started I received an email from Justin's production company about his new film playing Fantasia. As soon as I saw it I sent them an email saying "I don't care what CLAPBOARD JUNGLE is about just send it just because Justin directed it." (I really did)

CLAPBOARD JUNGLE, the film, and the upcoming 8 part series (see below), is an exploration of what it is really like to make an independent film. It is full of versions of stories that I have heard from friends, relatives and other filmmakers who have tried to make films over the years. It is a film, and series, that anyone who is thinking of making a film should see because it will prepare you for what is ahead. It will prevent you from getting any unexpected surprises. The film is also filled with interviews with people from all over the filmmaking spectrum talking about their experiences making movies which just icing on the cake. The result is a film that transcends just being about making movies to becoming an entertaining film about the love of movies. (My review is here).

As with LIFECHANGER,as soon as I finished the film I emailed Justin and told him how much I liked the film and I asked him if I could send him some questions on the film. He kindly said yes. I then sent the questions off and a day or so later I received the reply.

What follows is our brief email conversation. Even if you haven't seen the film it is a must read because Justin has some great things that transcend being just about the movies and his film specifically - His thoughts on how to handle questionable comments as well as praise are perfect. 

Before I turn you loose on the interview I want to again thank Justin McConnell for taking the time to do this and for making a great film.

CLAPBOARD JUNGLE is currently streaming at the Fantasia Virtual Fest and can be seen here

STEVE: You started to film your daily life making films "five" years ago figuring it would lead to something. Now that you're done and the film is out is the finished film anything like what you had envisioned?

JUSTIN: The film, on a macro level, is very much what I was hoping it'd be. But I can't tell the future, so back in 2014 when I first started shooting I had no idea what path my life would take over the following five years. So while I started with the general idea that I wanted to have a personally-driven 'film school in a box' thing, where the personal story would be the skeleton to hang the interviews and information on, I had no idea what shape that skeleton would take at the beginning. I didn't even know if I'd have an ending, because in a way my previous documentary, SKULL WORLD, doesn't have the ending people are expecting, because you can't turn life into a perfect 3 act structure. Sometimes the big goal isn't met in real life. I had no idea what would be the arc, just that I hoped whatever happened would be compelling. I also started knowing there'd be a lot of extended content, but I wasn't aware at the time of the eventual decision to also do an 8 episode educational series with a slightly different format. And had no idea the number and level of interviews I would ultimately get. I kind of started the film on faith, in a way. Faith that I'd be able to make something out of it some day down the line, by gradually paying for it out of my own pocket and shooting when I could.

STEVE: The film has eaten up six or so years of your time, would you ever do something this long term? Are you going to record yourself any longer?

JUSTIN: I wouldn't say the film ate up six years of my life. I certainly worked on it a lot, but in that six years I also made two narrative feature films, wrote quite a few scripts, made some shorts, did a ton of client work, programmed two film festivals, travelled a lot and, well, lived my life socially. This film wasn't an all consuming process for me, as it was very much made in the periphery of everything else I was doing.

In a way I made it like a detailed hobby, just having to remember to regularly shoot my life, and get interviews when the opportunities presented themselves. This is the now the third long-term production documentary I've made like this (WORKING CLASS ROCK STAR took about 3 years, SKULL WORLD about the same), produced in a similar fashion of "when I'm able to financially and time wise", while I did other things to stay afloat.

Would I do it again? Possibly, but I still have a lot more post-production and the like left to do on CLAPBOARD JUNGLE (on the series and extended content), so that'll have to get finished first. As for if I'd shoot myself any longer - I'm a big believer in behind the scenes material with everything I've done, and will continue to be. I like being able to offer extensive bonus features with all releases, so the process will definitely end up on camera again. I just don't know if I'd put my own personal story out there like that again. It's a lot to open yourself up to the public like that. So I'm not sure at the moment.

STEVE: This is pure curiosity on my part there are references to all the working titles for the film in the film- how many different titles did you have?

JUSTIN: Only four. It started with just 'Film Business Project' in the earliest stages, I briefly thought 'Working Class Filmmaker' but thought better of it, when I started doing interviews it was called 'Slate & Game', but it changed to 'Clapboard Jungle' relatively early in the process. And from there I couldn't think of a better title. I tried, believe me. But it just stuck at a certain point and I grew to like it.

STEVE: I'm curious about all of the interviews that are sprinkled throughout the film. How did you set them up? Did you interview everyone just for this film or did you have other plans for the material? How long did you talk to everyone?

JUSTIN: I booked interviews in a variety of ways. Some I knew already so just reached out personally. Some I approached their PR reps or agents, or got to them directly some way in a cold call kind of fashion and just earnestly asked if they wanted to be included.

Some of the bigger names, like Del Toro, Romero, Savini and Charles Band, were helped by our associate producer Chris Alexander, who already had contact with them. He's a bit of an unsung hero of the project there. In the earliest days of production in 2014, I noticed some interesting people would be attending the Frontieres market at Fantasia, like John McNaughton for example, and Fantasia's PR office helped me line up that one (thanks Ted!).

I think it started to snowball a bit after that, as I'd had interviews with 3-4 quite well-known figures within the first 6 months of production, so from then on approaching people was easier, as the project was more validated, so people would say yes more often.

In terms of other material, we shot 120 interviews and collected over 300 hours of raw footage, so there's absolutely other plans for the material, but all under the 'Clapboard Jungle' banner. The 8 episode educational series will include a lot more interview content, and there'll be a decent amount of extended content available. And the length of interviews varied. For example I had well over an hour with George A. Romero but maybe 20 minutes with Del Toro. It really just depended on everyone's schedule at the time and how well the conversation went. There's some amazing stuff in the almost 90 minute interview I did with Tom Holland, for example. There's so much overall yet to be seen.

STEVE: We see you dealing with negative comments for your work, How do you handle the bad comments that come your way? How much gets under your skin? On the opposite side how do you handle the positive reactions? Since you've been up and down with reactions to your films, do you find you have to reign yourself in at any point when you get positive reactions?

JUSTIN: I've gradually, painfully, learned to take all comments for what they are: personal opinions. Of course negative comments sting, and positive ones elate. But I have to treat it all with a healthy balance or I think I'd go insane. And try to find the seeds of truth in all of them. Someone who negatively reacts to your work may be saying something valuable you can learn from to improve in the future. And the types of comments you get can help you figure out who your audience is over time, and where you may be losing viewers.

But the reality is for every good movie, there are people out there that hate it. And for every bad movie, there are people that love it. The very notion of movies being either good or bad is a smoke screen anyway, because it's all based on personal opinion, which vary so widely you can't take any of it as absolute truth. Ultimately the audience that matters most, in terms of pleasing, is myself, as I'm the one who gets to live my life with that piece of art as something I created, and if I'm not satisfied with the work I did, that will stay in my consciousness far longer than anyone else's opinion of the work will. Believe me, I'll still be thinking about mistakes I've made years after I've made them, while for most of the audience that work will be nothing more than a potential trivia answer.

I'll admit in the past I've taken some comments personally, due to already having a pre-existing personal connection with someone far ahead of the film's release and maybe seeing something malicious between the lines, but even there it's all perception, and sometimes I've been wrong, so I have to let go of stuff like that too. People are going to talk, even friends talk shit about each other behind their backs. So I say bring it on, talk about my work however you want. I hope you enjoy it, I know not everyone will, and that's okay.

But I do think if anyone is truly struggling with handling negative reaction to their work, look at the current state of political discourse, or the discussions about the rights and wrongs during COVID, to get perspective. Realize that reactions to film reflect the same spectrum of individuals that argue online about anything, that everyone has opinions, and that there are plenty of absolute idiots out there. Now have have a good night of sleep, because when you look at the world through that lens, you realize how nobody's opinion matters more than anyone else's. Wake up the next morning and keep creating.

STEVE: I know this is a film for anyone who loves to see how movies are made. I really think that they are going to eat it all up, especially with all the interviews. The question is what do you think the non-crazed fan will get out of the film? I ask this because I suspect some may say they don't want to see a film about making movies, in your opinion, why should they watch it? Why should they watch it?

JUSTIN: I think the key message of this film applies anyone in any kind of artistic pursuit. Yes, it's micro-focused on indie filmmaking, and even more skewed toward the genre. But at the core, it's a movie about drive. The same way non-boxing fans can enjoy ROCKY as a story of overcoming adversity, training and determination, this is a similar kind of story. It's about self-reflection, doubt, and self-improvement. It's about what to expect when putting any part of yourself out there for the world to see. I think the story is more universal than it appears.

STEVE The Covid lock downs have altered everything about making movies, do you think there will be long term changes? Do you think it may have altered any of the bits of advice given in the film?

JUSTIN: This remains to be seen. We were already going through a big period of change in the industry before COVID hit, with the dominance of streaming platforms and the reshuffling of theatrical exhibition standards. Now COVID has sped so much of that up, and we've just had the Paramount Consent Decree killed…. so it's anybody's guess.

I think anyone who is currently holding onto the old way of doing things is going to have to come to a reality check soon, keep their ear to the ground, and make calculated moves toward this new paradigm. But I don't have a crystal ball, so I don't know fully what that will mean. I would say the lessons in the doc will mostly hold true - you'll still need a network and support to produce on a certain level, you'll still need to market yourself well, and you'll still need to roll with the punches. But whether that means the rift between studio and streamer content, and the work of the indie creators, will be ever wider than ever before, remains to be seen. I do think it'll be either large budget and or mico-budget, with very few films being made in the zone in between. I know in the short term though, I have a moral problem with people producing in areas with active community spread. But that's another conversation entirely.

STEVE: I know the Covid nonsense has altered the release of your film, you won't be at the fests this fall. But as someone who has been in the film business for years how do you think the crisis will change the release patterns of films from this point on? I know you do festival programming so how has the Covid crisis altered your programming?

JUSTIN: One thing that seems like a major change is the 3 month theatrical window has been shortened to 17 days (at least via AMC in the US). That's pretty major, as it's almost acquiescing to the fact digital/streaming has gained a powerful market foothold and will eventually dominate entirely.

I think people are very much still thinking short-term, though. That things will be back to pretty much normal once COVID passes or is more under control. I'm not sure I have that level of optimism about it. I think there are some festivals that will go digital from here on out, some that will now run as a hybrid of physical and digital, and some that will just die altogether. And for the ones that are going to run nationally digital going forward, it's going to hurt a lot of smaller festivals that rely on the rules of regionality to book unique films and fill seats in cinemas. It's hard to convince a crowd to come out to something that already screening on VOD across an entire country. I still think the rest is very much wait and see.

Things have moved fast since January, and are going to change even more by 2021. And the thing to keep in mind is COVID will not be the last major global crisis we will face in the next 30 years. Climate change is real, and it's going to bring an awful lot of hardship to a lot of people. The film industry is going to bear the brunt of whatever those events happen to be. It will persevere as long as humanity and electricity survive, but it's going to be in a huge state of flux going forward. We are heading into uncharted waters.

STEVE: You've done documentaries and you've done narratives. Where does your heart lie?

JUSTIN: Narratives. I mostly have made documentaries out of personal necessity. I want to produce something, and I can make a self-generated documentary relatively inexpensively. I do enjoy making them, but post-production on documentary is a huge undertaking compared to a narrative film, at least in terms of the picture edit. It's a way slower process. WiIth a narrative you're actually full birthing a story into the world, and control all aspects of that story (or you and your team does collectively). So you end up with something fully designed to be the experience you pictured in your head at the beginning. At least that's the goal. In music terms, narrative is a symphony or a ballad, documentary is jazz or prog. They are all cool, but one takes a lot more work and has way less audience. I know, what a silly metaphor.

STEVE: What's next- for both the film and yourself?

JUSTIN: We're still in post-production on the 8 episode CLAPBOARD JUNGLE educational series. I also shot an isolation short film in July, where I tasked myself to do every single department, including acting and score, since I live alone, as kind of an experiment. It's called SOUL CONTACT and has some festivals coming up, and will be online soon enough. There's of course MARK OF KANE still very much priority, but COVID has put a big pause on that one, along with any number of new projects.

I've started a new screenplay to add to my ever-expanding script drawer (heh). And for some reason, I've gotten the taste for writing music again. In the early 2000s I had an electronic project, and was in a metal band for a couple of years over a decade ago, and kind of just fell out of writing anything. This isolation has me picking up instruments again, so I've resurrected an old electronic project called CATHODE RAID and have been working on album. It's a mix of synthwave/industrial/metal/movie score influenced stuff, and it's been pretty mentally rewarding working on it. Unsure when I'll be releasing that.

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