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[Fantasia Fest] Interview: Justin McConnell talks Clapboard Jungle

Justin McConnell’s documentary Clapboard Jungle was one of the best experiences at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, as you’ll learn in our review. The film follows five years in Justin’s life as he navigates the unpredictable world of independent filmmaking, backed up with truly insightful anecdotes and advice from filmmakers like Guillermo Del ToroGeorge A. RomeroGigi Saul GuerreroPaul SchraderTom Savini, Barbara Crampton and many more.

Justin joined us for a deep-dive into the experiences and insights he’s gained throughout a fascinating career, which is still rocketing ahead despite the unique difficulties of getting film projects off the ground this year.

When you began chronicling your filmmaking experiences five years ago, did you plan the end result to become Clapboard Jungle from the get-go? Or did you craft a narrative around what footage you had?

It was planned pretty much from the beginning. I started shooting around January 2014. After I thought about it a lot and figured out how I would structure something like this, the initial idea was that I needed a skeleton to hang the story on; some kind of an emotional story arc that would allow me to package the information from the interviews in a way that wouldn’t be just a bunch of talking heads. That can get a little dry.

I figured the best thing I could do is what I did with Working Class Rockstar, my first documentary: you follow a personality, or several personalities, as they try to put this advice into practice. But I knew early on in 2014 that it’d be a while before I got any narrative stuff off the ground. And that struggle of getting things going is really interesting.

But I knew that if I started following somebody else that wasn’t me, that would be exponentially more money – because I’d have to take time out of my life to follow another person. I just didn’t have it. I didn’t have the money or the time. So out of necessity, I turned the camera on myself.

Obviously, that has pitfalls, because you know that could turn into something that’s a little self-serving, or a vanity project. So I brought in a co-producer named Daryl Shaw, who I literally just asked to call me on my shit whenever possible. I made sure that I was getting the most honest footage I could, and that I wasn’t putting on a face and being performative for the camera – just being me.

So I knew early on that I wanted that structure. What I didn’t know was – because I couldn’t tell the future – just where my life was headed. So I didn’t know what kind of a story arc I would have to begin with. For all I knew, the movie would have just been me trying, and trying, and trying, and never getting the movie made or any of that sort of thing, right? 

I feel like I wouldn’t let myself do that. The ending of the movie could’ve easily been about Broken Mile, the feature I made before Life Changer, which I paid for myself – but that was a much smaller project. But I’m glad I got the footage I did, and I’m glad I got the ending that I did. 

Then, it was just a matter of making sure that the story itself wasn’t feeling inauthentic. You can easily guide a documentary to say almost anything you like. You can lie to the audience all you like. I didn’t want to ever cross that boundary. I try to have some degree of journalistic integrity, even on a thing where I turned the camera on myself. So it was very much about what actually happened, and how we take that and form it into something that’s palatable for an audience. I think we were successful; I can’t judge my own work, even if it’s work about me.

From an outside perspective, I think that’s one of the strongest elements of the documentary. I really felt I was watching a deconstruction of your own feelings about yourself as an artist.

As a writer, I related to it so much in terms of my sense of what I’m actually capable of. To create something and to put that out into the world, to see whether it actually goes anywhere or not, can sometimes be a soul-crushing process. It’s quite refreshing to see a depiction of filmmaking without all the glitz and glamour.

Well, there’s no glamour in my life! [laughs]

You touched on the interviews that you conducted with many filmmakers and actors about their experiences in trying to break out. What was your approach to creating synthesis between your story arc and the interviews?

The interview segments are meant to reflect on what’s actually going on in the actual story arc itself. I read a review that I think summarised it really well – I didn’t realise it at the time, but it makes total sense. This review likened it to those old cartoons starring Goofy, where he’s demonstrating how to play baseball. Goofy is a total fucking idiot, he has no idea what he’s doing. A voiceover comes on and says, “what you’ve really got to do is this!” – one of those old educational cartoons. I’m the Goofy, right? 

That’s how I think the approach was; that I made a lot of mistakes. As I went along, I was learning how to improve and how to do things right. The interviews are meant to support that path; pretty generalised advice that’s a step in the right direction as to what you really need to know.

For the eight episode series we’re working on, there’s going to be a lot more extended content that people can go deeper into it with. Clapboard Jungle is sort of the first lecture, if that makes sense. You can’t get all the information in 98 minutes, but it’s enough that it functions as a litmus test. By the end, you either know that this business is made for you, or you say “oh, okay…yeah, I’m not doing that”.

Everybody’s going to struggle on a different level. So it’s not like the story represents the experience of every single filmmaker in the world, or every single artist in the world. But in a way, I set myself up as an avatar for the audience where they can hopefully see parts of themselves reflected in it. That gives them an idea to branch off and start thinking in different directions for themselves.

So yeah, I think the interviews are edited in a way that serves the story arc and the plot, but in a way I also structured it so they’re topical to some degree. But then it’s almost like you can set your watch to it. It starts with development and financing, then moves into what you can do to make yourself more palatable at short film festivals. It does go by topic, but it’s based around tying in with the arc at the given time that the topic actually shows up. So it took a while to figure out that structure, but I think that works.

I’m glad you touched on that, because that synthesis must have been relatively difficult to establish.

We had 300 hours of footage, so it was, kinda!

It sounds like a hell of a project to say the least! I did have a chance to read about the episodic format. What’s the general plan for that?

Well, there’s a pilot already and we’ve got assemblies on four episodes. It’ll be eight episodes total. But it’s a completely different format to the feature. The feature is very personal and emotional, and from my perspective, and then supported by interviews. The series has a bit of narration from me, but my story is not in it at all. 

Every episode is a specific topic. It’s mostly talking heads supported by footage from movies and behind the scenes stuff, and there’s little bits of story that we would have shot in the footage – but it’s not going to have an eight-episode arc like Tiger King or something like that. It’s not structured like a Netflix documentary. It’s much more of an educational, module-based learning tool. So it’s meant for the people who watch the movie and decide they’d love to learn more. 

It’s not really going to be for casuals, if that makes sense. We’re not necessarily making it for your mom, or your grandma to sit and watch a really entertaining series. It’s more like a film school in a box kind of approach.

There’s a lot to it – I did 120 interviews. Lots of them were long; like half an hour to 90 minutes long. To leave all that unseen would be such a massive shame. And I really did set up to make a resource that I wish had existed a decade ago when I was coming up, to give young filmmakers a chance to just learn the ins and outs you don’t get in film school.

There are lots of people who offer that, and I’m not saying this is the definitive anything. I just wanted to put in the effort to make it as comprehensive as possible. Beyond the series, there’ll be full interview chunks and modules that we’ll create in addition as well. So there’s a lot of stuff coming up that can help people.

When you were first getting into independent filmmaking, were there any particular resources that you found particularly engaging and influential?

I grew up idolising the low budget, maverick type people. So things like Robert Rodriguez’ Rebel Without a Crew, all of Lloyd Kaufman’s books, stuff like Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye. I read a lot of books on filmmaking coming up. John Alton’s Painting With Light is another great one. There’s all kinds of resources that are very specific to a certain type of filmmaking, or a certain aspect of filmmaking. 

There’s a book that I think everybody should read called The Writer Got Screwed (But Didn’t Have To) by Brooke A. Wharton. It’s based on the legalities of the system twenty years ago, but it’s still applicable today.

I also rapidly devour behind-the-scenes content on every Blu-Ray and DVD. Maybe less so now because there’s less features being released, which is partially a budget thing and partially because physical media doesn’t sell as well, so they don’t put in that kind of effort. There are companies that do it.

The point being is that if you’ve got a video collection and you’re a filmmaker, but you haven’t been watching the behind-the-scenes content or listening to commentaries, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I mean, I have a pretty sizeable collection of thousands of discs. If I hadn’t watched the behind-the-scenes stuff on those discs, I’m leaving all kinds of knowledge and information undiscovered. That stuff’s really, really important, and there’s lots of filmmakers that actually put a lot of effort into making comprehensive behind-the-scenes content.

Peter Jackson’s incredible at that. The Frighteners’ Blu-Ray has a four-hour-long making-of documentary that they shot at a time when nobody was thinking of that. It was the 90s, right? There weren’t really any special features yet, but he somehow shot enough footage behind the scenes to make a four hour documentary, which was incredibly instructive. 

There are lots and lots of resources out there if you look for it. I think the reason I wanted to do this, and why I think there was room for it when all this other stuff already existed, is that they were all very specific about certain things. You would need to watch a lot of things at once to get all that information in.

There’s a very good documentary – I’m not going to mention the director because he’s persona non grata right now – called Seduced and Abandoned, which is just about trying to get a movie funded at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s two hours of Alec Baldwin and this director going around trying to get their next movie going. I think it’s really eye-opening in terms of how things are done, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it because of who the director is.

But that being said, there’s just a giant list of films on film out there. There’s Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and two incredible books that I absolutely think everybody has to read are the two Robert Evans books, The Kid Stays in the Picture and The Fat Lady Sang. Evans was a very, very interesting person in the way he looks at why certain things work, and how things get green-lit and all the risks you take. 

I could be here all day, listing! This is the online generation, you’ve got Indie Film Hustle and No Film School and all these sites that are dedicated to making you more informed, and you definitely shouldn’t ignore them.

It’s wonderful to be alive at a time when there’s relatively easy access to those kinds of resources. And like you said, there are different tiers of education. It’s nice that people aren’t necessarily locked out of learning how to get into film and being created just because of things like class, thanks to libraries and YouTube.

YouTube has loads of stuff, to the point where you don’t need a tonne of money and you don’t need to go to film school to learn film. It democratises everything. You just need to go out there and find that info.

So what’s next for you?

We’re in post with the series, of course, that’s taking up a decent amount of time. I’m working on a new script to add to my drawer of scripts. I think it’s very risky to try and produce anything, and on a moral level I don’t want to be the crew who has somebody die under my watch. So things are on pause in terms of actually going to camera for now, until things get better. I know people who are producing stuff right now, and more power to them, but I’m not that person. 

Mark of Kane is still very much an active project. We had pretty much all our finance together in January, and we’re starting to cast our lead actors. We were targeting production in Australia in May this year; then COVID hit, so I don’t even know if our financial partners are still going to be at the table once we’re able to start producing again. 

It’s sad, but everybody is having a very tough time right now. It’s one sad story among millions and billions of sad stories, so whatever – and some are in way worse shape than I am. So I’m not gonna complain. But I will say that after years of development, we had a pretty sizeable budget together and we were ready to shoot. And then it was like, “oh, global pandemic!”. 

I shot an isolation short film in July for the fun of it, where I tasked myself to literally do it alone. So I did every job – I acted in it and I wrote the score. It’s called Soul Contact and it’ll be online at some point in the next month or so. 

I also picked up playing music again, because it’s been over a decade. I was in a metal band for a couple of years. I wrote electronic music for a while, so I bought some MIDI keyboards and restrung my old guitars, and I wrote an entire album this summer which will be fantastic. It’s a synth-wave, industrial metal fused kind of deal called Cathode Raid.

Oh, man, you’re ticking all the right boxes for me there.

I’m keeping busy! I have a tonne of clients, as well. I’m always doing trailer edits and Blu-Ray / DVD authoring and whatnot. That’s how I make most of my money. If I’m being totally honest, I make decent money from residuals and film sales and the stuff that I’ve worked on. It’s okay; it’s not set me up particularly comfortably. But in order to stay afloat, I also run a post-production company. So yeah, I’m always doing service work for people, because it’s at least within the industry. I can keep my toe in the industry, doing stuff for others. 

It’s certainly a time when everyone’s having to try and find a new angle to keep doing what they do.

When it first hit, I had three months where I had zero workers; it just dropped off to nothing. But it’s slowly sort of starting to come back. I’m lucky that I’m able to work out of my home, because I literally just have a courier drop off a hard-drive or I can download something from a server and work on it remotely. I understand I’m in a privileged position to be able to do that, but that was years of work on setting myself up in this position.

You’ve got a very humble approach to what you do, and that’s refreshing.

I try to be – I imagine it’s up to the other person to decide if that’s the case or not. You never really know what people are actually thinking. But I try. I think when I was younger, I had that egotistical sort of filmmaker brain where you think you’re better than you are. Then you get a reality check as time goes on, and you realise you still have so much more to learn.

I mean, I’m 39 in a month. I’m not that old, but I feel like in the last five to ten years I’ve improved as a human being – and that’s all I can really ask for.

Yeah, I feel like every six months I look back at myself and go, “oh, man”. But the fact that I can look back and feel like there’s actually been growth is a good sign.

Yeah, it’s part of how I’m wired, to be self-analytical all the time. And that leads to lots of trouble in the brain. But I think if you’re not self-analytical, and you’re just blindly walking through life, it’s not good. It’s kind of what Life Changer is about on a sub-textual level; leaving a wake of destruction in your path, unaware that your own action are causing this and thinking that you’re in the right. That’s kind of the subtext of that film.

I think as long as you aren’t hurting anybody in life and you have a moment to take stock and look at yourself and go, “okay, I should improve in these areas”, that’s important. Being self-aware is important.

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