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IN CONVERSATION WITH JUSTIN MCCONNELL

Justin McConnell made a name for himself with 2018’s LIFECHANGER. A low budget horror that played multiple festivals including FrightFest. Made during that film’s development and shooting, CLAPBOARD JUNGLE is an in depth look at not only LIFECHANGER but the many pitfalls and obstacles that pop up when making any low budget horror film. Refreshingly honest CLAPBOARD JUNGLE is an entertaining and educational behind the scenes look at film making available now on Blu-ray and on Arrow Player, where a number of McConnell’s short films have also become available.

 

In conversation with FRIGHTFEST McConnell discusses the making of his own making of documentary as well as the state of the industry itself in a year that has seen major changes.

 

FRIGHTFEST: What was your main reason for making Clapboard Jungle?

 

Well, my previous documentary Skull World had come out in 2013 and I realised that looking forward it would take me quite a while to get bigger narrative projects together, to put the financing together. I was trying to figure out what’s another project I can do for whatever pocket change I have, with basically no money? Well, I could shoot another documentary the same way that I shot Skull World where I was just putting my money in gradually and shooting as I could whenever I had spare time.

 

Justin McConnell: I was trying to think of a subject and then it dawned on me that I haven’t really seen a documentary covering the development and financing, that side of the film business from an independent perspective in a really pragmatic, realistic and honest way and I realised that I could not afford to follow someone else because that would be me living someone else’s life, having to financially support myself while I was their shadow for many years and I would never get my own work done. Since I was going to go out to these markets and festivals and pitch and take meetings anyway, I might as well just turn the camera on myself despite the risk you run of it becoming a vanity project. I brought on Darryl Shaw as a co-producer to call me on my bullshit and just went for it knowing that I wanted it to be honest and not this thing that just pumps me up as “Oh, look at this guy! He’s the greatest thing in the world!” or some shit.

I just started shooting and started collecting interviews. I think at the beginning of the shoot I spent about a thousand bucks on camera gear at the most and I just started going out wherever I could, collecting interviews and recording confessionals. Gradually over a five-year period I collected about three hundred hours of footage and I was able to turn it into this documentary and the eight-episode series that we’re currently in post-production on. It was just a long, organic process.

 

FF: Did you find it easier to get support for a documentary than you did for your feature LIFECHANGER?

 

JM: I wouldn’t say easier, it’s different. The feature, obviously we had to pitch it everywhere, we had to take a ton of meetings, we had to put multiple companies together to pay for it before we shot a frame. We already had our sales companies on board and then it was technically paid off on our end before we started shooting it. With the documentary I paid for it entirely out of my own pocket before we started post-production and then I had a small investment from my producing partner Avi Federgreen’s company to help with the major post-production costs.

 

The reality of it is that we didn’t start to get people interested in it or start to look at it or pick it up for distribution or for festivals until it was completely done. It’s two completely different sides of the coin. With this one it was very much like a passion project; I didn’t wait, I just did it in the hope that it would be good enough that people would want to put it out. I’m not saying that it was difficult to get people more interested but it was definitely something where people didn’t take a chance on it until it was there to be seen, not from a conceptual level. They were both equally challenging for different reasons.

 

 

FF: Since its release has Clapboard Jungle helped your projects like MARK OF KANE or THE ETERNAL, which are covered in the documentary, along with development?

 

JM: MARK OF KANE, we had to pause last year. We were supposed to shoot around May in Australia, we had all the money together, we were casting and then COVID hit, so we had to put a pause on it. But now we are back at it with a goal of shooting this summer in Australia with the same partners and the same finance and we are back to casting again. Luckily, Australia is pretty much COVID free at the moment. There's actually a hunger for Australian shot projects. So that has helped. I don't know if the documentary has necessarily helped with Kane. I do believe I've got more of a sympathetic ear with a lot of companies that have seen the doc now. Whether that pans out directly for a project is anybody's guess, because it's rarely a direct result of anything you do. It's like an indirect result of a bunch of different things conflating together to put you in a position where somebody trusts you with a project.

 

I do have a new documentary, They Came From Within, which is based on Caelum Vatnsdal’s book, that I'm going to start shooting once I've done the edit on the Clapboard Jungle series. That's a book on Canadian horror history. I'm going to bet that definitely was a result of this documentary. We'll start shooting towards the end of this year. I would describe it as NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD for Canadian horror is what we're looking to pull off with it.

 

FF: Since you finished filming CLAPBOARD JUNGLE what do you think have been the most significant changes to the industry?

 

JM: We already kind of covered that COVID has thrown a bomb right into the middle of the industry in so many ways. A good example is near the beginning of the documentary, Guillermo Del Toro talks about the content pipeline, you've always got to just keep feeding new content in the pipeline. COVID came in and put a stopper in that pipeline. You're now in a situation where you've either got projects that were released and either they did well on VOD, or they did not and they're forgotten. Or smaller projects like mine that have sort of benefited from the fact that there's less competition for buyers right now. Then you've got projects that sat on their finished film for a while waiting for things to get better, which will start flooding the marketplace. And then you've got companies that were developing projects that normally are putting out X number of movies a year and financing and helping put them together and stuff like that, who had to sit on all their development projects for about a year or two, which means all the new IP that gets pitched to them is all backlog.

 

We're going to end up where there's this content flood, that starts rushing out to the market. But anybody trying to get something new done, they're going to have to wait for a while. A lot of people who would have had the opportunity otherwise to get something done are just being told “we don't have the room right now because we're so backlogged from all the material that we've already got to make.”

 

COVID changed things a lot. In terms of other changes since I finished shooting. I mean, it's anybody's guess, at this point, what's going to happen with actual exhibition. It seems like the new hybrid model of theatrical and VOD is pretty much here to stay in one way or another. I'm very curious to see what that does to the revenue flow for these bigger movies. Because if it drives revenues down, it might mean that the studio's start taking more risks on smaller films, because it's less financially risky for them, that there will be less tentpole films made, maybe it's possible if that's the model. If the revenue isn't quite as big as these billion-dollar blockbusters, we might get less billion-dollar blockbusters and more smaller films, which could be interesting. I mean, I say smaller on a studio level, like 30 to 40 million bucks. But honestly, I don't have a crystal ball. There's no way I can predict where the business is going to go in the next five years, just because I don't think anybody can. I think that you can make an educated guess that the streaming services are going to strangle the life out of some of the indie scene. There's already a gap between independent film budgets and what the streaming services can do, and what the studios can do. And that mid-range budget is becoming less and less and less. You've got a tonne of movies now that are being made for less than 100 grand, less than 200 grand and at the most 500 grand, and then a bunch of movies that get made for $2 million or more. And maybe that sort of range between 500 grand and 2 million is diminishing, and the range between like 3 million and 8 million is diminishing.

 

So, you're either getting big projects, tiny projects, or the ones that are sort of in the middle, are riskier and are going to start diminishing in terms of numbers, less and less and less. I think either audiences are going to get more used to these super low budget projects, or those super low budget projects are going to be like indie bands and underground artists, stuff that the people in the know, know and talk about. But everybody else on streaming services, watching something that looks like a giant 100-million-dollar blockbuster, but it's a weekly television series, in the case of all the Marvel stuff. I'm very curious to see where it goes. I think it's going to be a really challenging time for independent filmmakers going forward. But I think that's it's always been a challenging time for independent filmmakers, so we'll see how it goes.

 

Iain McLeod.

 

CLAPBOARD JUNGLE is available from Arrow Video on Blu-ray from 15th April and VOD from 19th April 2021.

 

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