A Conversation With Clapboard Jungle’s Justin McConnell

I got to talk to the director of one of my favourite films coming out of Fantasia, Clapboard Jungle. A great inspiring documentary about the hardships of making a film. You can read my review here. And read our conversation now!

Andres: At what point did you decide you were going to start filming this documentary?

Justin: In early 2014 I was looking for a project I could do with whatever money and resources I had available, as I knew it would take a while to get my next narrative feature’s budget together. From that thought process the basic idea for this film came to me, and I started shooting almost right away, almost on faith that something good would eventually come of it. The idea and structure developed over time from there, and was driven by where life took me.

Andres: How were you able to get a hold of such big names in the genre and horror industry?

Justin: It was a variety of things. Some of them I had already met through my career (either approached for past projects or via supplemental material work), some I directly approached their reps or them in a cold call kind of way. A lot of the ‘biggest’ names – Del Toro, Romero, Savini, etc. – were assisted by one of our associate producers, Chris Alexander (former EIC of Fangoria), who already knew them to some degree. So he’s owed a big thanks for that help. Eventually though, after I’d banked a few interviews with more notable personalities, it made asking new people to sit down with me easier, as their presence validated the film as time went on.

Andres: Who were some of the people that to this day, you still have a hard time believing they agreed to talk to you for your doc?

Justin: This answer is fairly obvious, as I was consistently surprised who said yes. It’s a long list, so I’m just thankful so many did opt in. Not everyone I approached said yes or could line up the schedule, but those who did I was very happy with. I think it’s more how welcoming and open some people were. But I think the long interview I got with George A. Romero was the most memorable moment in the path, as it was relatively early in production, and it was the moment where I first thought “okay, I may have something here” and believed it.

Andres: There’s a series version of the documentary going around as well. How was the process of choosing which moments went into the film versus the doc?

Justin: The series is a different format to the film, so it’s relatively easy to keep them separated. We collected something like 120 interviews, and over 300 hours of raw footage. Because of this, there’s so much great stuff that just couldn’t fit into the film, and even a couple dozen interview subjects that didn’t even make it into the feature film version, who appear in the series. But the series removes my personal story entirely and is talking heads, each episode based on a specific topic, and uses a lot more footage from movies from across film history. It’s less personal and more educational, so it’s different information with very little cross-over (though there will be small moments if the point is important in context).

Andres: How fast do you typically take to write a draft, and can you teach me your ways?

Justin: That really depends on the project, and what the definition of ‘writing’ actually is. Because I may come up with an idea for something and then workshop it in my head, writing notes from time to time, for months, before I actually sit down to write something. I generally then draft a rough outline, then a treatment, then the first draft. I’ve had scripts where I burned out a first draft in less than a week (which people would call a ‘vomit draft’), and then re-wrote a ton for quite a while. And I’ve had projects where it took as much as 6 weeks for a first draft. And I’ve worked with writing partners before which is a whole other way of doing things, as you’re basically constantly giving each other homework to do, and that can result in either a really quick process, or a prolonged one. There’s no one answer for this, for me, to be honest. What is important though, no matter now long it takes, is to take the time after the first draft is done to go through a thorough revision process. Especially if it’s a project that’s been in development for a while, it’s important to make sure you’re getting readers and notes, opinions that are blunt and honest, putting in a drawer for a bit, letting the subconscious and the conscious work on it, live your life, and revisit and refine. The more time goes on the more I believe in the process of polishing it properly. Some of my biggest mistakes in the past were just rushing something. You don’t want to eat bread before it’s done baking.

Andres: How long have you been programming for Toronto After Dark?

Justin: Since 2013.

Andres: What was it like to have Lifechanger play there, and have the warm reception that it did?

Justin: Well, a little context first, because I need to acknowledge I was on the programming staff when that played there, and people may get the wrong impression if this isn’t stated: when it comes to our programming team, all of us are creatives in some way (except the programming director who doesn’t make films), so we have a policy that we have to step away from the decision making process when it involves our own work, and it’s up to the rest of the team to select something. I’ve been rejected by that festival on past films while working there, my co-workers are the last people I would expect to play favours and will always speak their mind honestly, and I do think the process avoids a certain level of nepotism. But it may on the surface look like that isn’t the case. I also need to state that before I worked there, I was an alumni filmmaker who had 2 shorts (Ending the Eternal, Eviction) play the fest. Anyway, all that is to say it was a surreal moment for me when the film played. On one hand it was incredible that a 550 seat cinema sold out, my family was there and most of my friends, and it was a really great night and wonderful screening. On the other hand I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was just going to be a bad look to some people because a festival I programmed for was playing a film I directed, because people don’t know the above context. But that seems to be a rule for the way public perception can skew negative without proper context in a lot of things, whether related to the festival or not, so I kind of just had to shake out of that feeling and try to enjoy the night. So, what was it like? It was complicated, but a good night in reflection.

You can also watch his panel with the legendary Vincenzo Natali right here.