Rounding out our coverage of FrightFest 2020 is Justin McConnell’s feature documentary Clapboard Jungle. Following McConnell’s journey as an independent filmmaker of the course of five years, Clapboard Jungle documents the rollercoaster of momentum his career faces when attempting to produce movies. Interspersed with interviews from a variety of genre filmmakers, McConnell converts his personal story into an eye-opening insight into today’s filmmaking climate. Twelve Cabins caught up with McConnell after the film’s premiere to talk, vulnerability on camera, using his journey as a resource, and the future of his practice.
At what point did you decide to start documenting your filmmaking journey?
In early 2014, about six months after my previous documentary Skull World was released. I was trying to figure out a project I could do with whatever resources I had at hand, paid out of my own pocket, while waiting for bigger narrative projects to come together financially. That situation influenced coming up with the idea for Clapboard Jungle, and I started shooting right away, whenever I could.
You mentioned in the introduction at FrightFest that you hope for Clapboard Jungle, and the future series, is for it to be a resource? Could you expand on that?
I think that while there’s a lot of filmmaking courses that you can take, and a tonne of information out there, I didn’t really see a really concise resource that helps people starting their careers in understanding the ins and outs of the business as a whole. There are these vast pools of information via sites like No Film School, Indie Film Hustle, Masterclass, and all of that, and people should absolutely be looking at those sources for info. But I wanted to come up with a more direct and streamlined delivery system for that information, a kind of ‘film school in a box’ that covers a lot of facets in an entertaining way. So, in that way, I’m trying to make something I wish existed when I was coming up a decade or so ago. It’s not the final word or anything, but it’s meant to be at least one guiding light to helping people understand the paths they can and may take. A teaching tool, I guess.
Given the nature of the film, and your nature as a filmmaker, were you ever worried that you wouldn’t get the end you desired? Or was that part of the process?
I was absolutely concerned I wouldn’t have a ‘happy’ ending. Skull World was criticised for that very thing, because it builds and builds and builds and ends on a kind of plateau. It’s another store of striving for dreams and being okay with where you end up, because you can’t plan life. I’m not psychic, and I didn’t have the ability to see the future while making this, so really the only thing I had was hope and faith that whatever path my life went on would be compelling to the narrative. I wasn’t going to manipulate the real events to make it fit a specific preconceived story arc. So, it’s lucky Lifechanger actually got made and was well-received. The movie could have just as easily been a film about trying and trying and trying and nothing working by the end, and that would have been honest too, if that’s the path my life had have taken. But when I first started this I didn’t have the initial seed of the idea for Lifechanger at that point, and for all I knew it would have been Tripped or The Eternal that got made at the end of the journey. Just couldn’t predict it.
You document so many of the high and lows that come with filmmaking, were you ever resistant to putting yourself vulnerably in front of the camera?
I got over that feeling relatively quickly, once I started shooting. There was definitely moments of doubt and asking myself if it was even a good idea to make this movie, especially because I worried my intentions would be misconstrued and it would be seen as just some kind of vanity project. I knew that with this film more than any other I made, the reviews and response wouldn’t just be a review of the film, they would read as a review of me as a person, to some extent. So, absolutely, there was internal resistance. But I did it anyway, and then when it came time to edit, I had the distance I needed because Kevin Burke and Darryl Shaw were there to help guide the story in a way that I could be both comfortable with, and that tried hard to just be honest.
How did you find accumulating the interviews and deciding on what questions you would ask each of the filmmakers involved?
I just collected interviews gradually whenever the opportunity presented itself. If I was travelling somewhere or knew someone would be in Toronto I would try to make arrangements to book one. And if I was going somewhere and I didn’t get in contact ahead of time, I still had my gear with me wherever I would go for years, so I could meet them in person and when the opportunity arose I could ask them if they’d give up a brief bit of their time. A lot of people said yes. In terms of questions, I tailored them based on who they were and what their speciality/history was, and refined them as production went on and story/info threads started to clarify, so if I knew I needed certain things talked about, I could make sure those questions would get asked so I’d have as many bases as possible covered.
Finally, you mentioned that the shoot for Mark of Kane was postponed due to the pandemic, what’s the future looking like for your filmmaking practice?
I’m not sure what the future looks like at this point, not just for the film business, but for the world in general. I’m working on whatever I can in the meantime, but the idea of going back into production in the near future is likely not realistic, outside of specifically designed COVID-friendly productions, for example I self-shot an isolation short film called Soul Contact in July where I did every job, including acting, as an experiment. But we’re still in post-production on the Clapboard series, and I have a tonne of client work on my plate, and the release of this documentary, and a new script I’m working on…. so for now I’m able to keep busy. As for Mark of Kane, I truly hope our partners are still at the table when the dust settles a bit more with this crisis, as we were very close to camera, but time will tell.