Fantasia 2020 Review: Clapboard Jungle
Updated: Aug 19
Justin McConnell's sophisticated documentary gets real about the indie horror industry
Written by Anton Bitel
"It's been said that there are three things you should never do when making a film: make a film about yourself; make a film about filmmaking; or open the film with a quote." So says Canadian filmmaker Justin McConnell at the beginning of this documentary about his attempts to get a properly financed indie film off the ground, in the can and before a viewing public - and his words are followed immediately by a textual quote from Henry David Thoreau. In other words, while Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business may broadly adhere to the talking heads format of so many documentaries that have preceded it, from the outset McConnell shows an impish self-consciousness about his received form - and he also uses his own experiences, tracked over five long years, to anchor the broader commentary on independent filmmaking provided by an army of contributors whom he has met along the way.
And what contributors! A seemingless endless parade of the genre's luminaries (Guillermo del Toro! George A. Romero! Larry Cohen! Larry Fessenden! Lloyd Kaufman! and too many others to mention) offering their expertise and aperçus, and sometimes their counsel of cynicism or despair, on developing, writing, financing, directing editing and test-screening a film, and on the markets, festivals, meeting rooms and karaoke bars that must become the networking haunts of any aspiring filmmaker. This commentary is all masterfully edited together by McConnell and Kevin Burke to match the different stages of development hell at which several of McConnell's own projects become infernally stalled, and then the production, post-production and exhibition through which he manages to take his feature Lifechanger (2018) once it finally gets greenlit. Yet even if, after years of frustration and determination, Lifechanger gets made and is a success, McConnell concludes that in the ever-shifting, overpopulated landscape of indie horror, far from there being a top to the ladder that the most skilled - and the luckiest - eventually reach, rather "there's just the ladder, just the climb, endlessly, rung to rung."
Lifechanger was not in fact McConnell's first feature - he had already made several amateur ones (on digicam) around the turn of the millennium, and the widely (mostly home-)released microbudget The Collapsed (2011) before commencing work on this documentary (which in any case is initially focused on other projects of his that fell through) - and he had also previously made the documentary features Working Class Rock Star (2008) and Skull World (2013), gaining experience in the form which would help make Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business prove as engaging as it is accomplished. Still, if not his debut, Lifechanger certainly was the film that would literally change McConnell's life, a key rung in the ladder opening all sorts of doors for him and reviving the possibilities of getting his other projects off the ground.
Yet if this documentary adopts the making-of format so commonly seen in home release extras, it is not just about the making of Lifechanger, but also of the short film Do You See What I See? (2016) and of the single-take microbudget thriller Broken Mile (2016) that McConnell made during the years that he spent waiting for financing to come through for Lifechanger - and in a more sophisticated way, it is about its own making too, given that it is clear that McConnell opportunistically shot his behind-the-scenes documentary footage and many of the interviews during this period. This is one of the film's key lessons for surviving the business: always be working on more than one project. McConnell did just that, and this excellent documentary on the industry, a must-see for any horror wannabe, is one of several salutary results.
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Director: Justin McConnell
Screenwriter: Justin McConnell
Cast: Justin Benson, Heather Buckley, Larry Cohen, Guillermo del Toro
Running time: 98min