Justin McConnell

Fantasia Review: Clapboard Jungle

Fantasia International Film Festival has always been a haven for indie genre filmmakers. It makes sense that their 2020 lineup would include a documentary about the journey of an indie filmmaker. Clapboard Jungle: Survivng the Independent Film Business is the result of five years’ work from filmmaker Justin McConnell (Broken Mile, Lifechanger). 

McConnell’s documentary takes audiences on his five-year journey as he attempts to get multiple film projects made and distributed. His projects include multiple feature-length films and a few short films made between projects. We get to watch as McConnell utilizes various methods to attempt to get his films produced, into the film festival circuit, and distributed. He supplements his own journey with interviews with individuals involved in different aspects of filmmaking such as producers, writers, directors, casting directors, and more. There are even big name filmmakers, including Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead), alongside indie darlings including Jenn Wexler (The Ranger) and Gigi Saul Guerrero (Culture Shock). 

Clapboard Jungle is effective in authentically conveying what happens when trying to make an indie genre film. Often times the filmmaking process can seem glamorous and straight-forward. McConnell shows that is not the case. He explains how the filmmaking process from concept to distribution is long, complex, and many films never see the light of day. Clapboard Jungle also makes it clear that there is no one correct way to make a film. While the audience primarily sees the methods McConnell employs to make his films, we also see multiple interviews with different filmmakers at varying levels of their careers and tips for making a film. It quickly becomes clear that each one of them has different advice.

While much of the documentary focuses on McConnell’s journey, he also acknowledges the journeys of others. Specifically, McConnell points out that he is a white male in a predominantly white male industry. He points out that, despite how difficult his film journey has been over this five-year period, women and people of color have a much more difficult time getting their films made. This may be a small part of the overall narrative, but it really forces one to think just how much women and POC have to do to make a film after watching the trials and tribulations McConnell experiences.

Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business is essential viewing not just for filmmakers, but for anyone involved in the film industry. The documentary is sometimes brutally honest, but also provides helpful tips for budding filmmakers who are trying to make a film. Based on this and McConnell’s other recent film, Lifechanger (which I was able to review last year), he is clearly very passionate about what he does and skilled at it. Normally I give a number rating for films, but I don’t like to do that for documentaries as they are often very personal to those who made the film. Instead I will say this is a must-watch for anyone interested in the indie filmmaking process.

Lifechanger

lifechanger

A shapeshifter has the ability to transform into another person, but only at the expense of that person’s life. After existing in different forms for decades, the bodies he takes over are decaying at a much more rapid rate. This shapeshifter’s time is running out. Yet he goes through body after body in an attempt to reconnect with the woman he loves.

Writer and director Justin McConnell (Broken Mile, Collapsed) brings audiences an interesting take on shapeshifters, love, and morality in Lifechanger. There have been films in the past about shapeshifters and things that need to take over the body/life of another human in order to survive. There are aspects of this plot that help to differentiate it from those other films. One way is that the plot is told from the point of view of the shapeshifter, giving us a more empathetic look into the mind and life of this being. The shapeshifter has to kill in order to live, and there is a moral question nagging at the audience as to whether or not he should continue living. Another way this film is different is that the shapeshifting itself isn’t the focus of the story. It does play a very important role, but the film is more about the shapeshifter’s loneliness and desire to be with the one he loves. This plays into the morality issue as well. Is what he does okay because he is doing it for love?

In the third act the film takes a bit of a turn. Without giving too many details, this act changes your perspective of the shapeshifter a bit and makes the audience realize his motives might not be quite what we are lead to believe. I have mixed feelings about how the final moments of this film plays out. Part of me loves it because the end left me with a feeling similar to how the end of The Mist left me. Whether you enjoyed the end of that film or not, you have to admit it packed quite a punch that stuck with you long after the film ended, and Lifechanger ends with a similar impact. It won’t appeal to all viewers, but it is at least thought-provoking. On the other hand, I found the last half of the film, including the final act, almost romanticizes stalking and abusive relationships. I don’t think this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but it stands out in my mind when I think about some of the shapeshifter’s actions throughout the film.

Considering how many different actors played the shapeshifter in Lifechanger, there are a number of great performances in this film. While each actor did a great job as the shapeshifter, the standout performances come from Rachel VanDuzer  in her first feature film and Jack Foley (Fugue). We spend the most time with the shapeshifter in these bodies, and both VanDuzer and Foley portray the character in a way that is a combination of cold, lonely, loving, and frightening. The character is able to take on the memories of its victims when he transforms so the portrayals are meant to be a mix of who the person was and who the shapeshifter is. My one qualm is that I wish there had been some personality trait or tick that made a more obvious connection between all the actors playing the shapeshifter. There is an internal voice the audience hears, the love he feels for a woman, and a marble we see him play with in a few scenes. While those help to connected the different actors, they feel external or separate. Another great performance comes from Lora Burke (Poor Agnes) as the love interest, Julia. Burke portrays Julia in a way that she comes across as broken yet extremely personable. She is someone who could become a best friend overnight. It makes it easy to see why the shapeshifter fell in love with her.

There are many interesting visuals throughout the film. The opening sequence has some gorgeous cinematography. There are many scenes shot beautifully, but the opening stands out the most. The filmmakers opted to use primarily practical effects. This works very well and gives the film a timeless look. The effects themselves are used to create the bodies of the shapeshifter’s victims. They go through a bizarre transformation that is somewhat grotesque, but it is also quite eye-catching. The cinematography and the effects work well together in a way that shows the filmmakers took care to make sure the film had quite a bit of visual interest. They also help set the bleak tone of the film.

Lifechanger is a film that holds nothing back as it takes the audience on an unexpected journey with a shapeshifter. The stunning cinematography and the practical effects help to build the dreary reality of a very unique character. Compelling performances from an array of actors allow the audience to understand the shapeshifter on a more human level with an equally compelling performance from Burke as the love interest. Lifechanger has a fascinating plot with a few rough patches, but the only aspect that truly bothers me is the way stalking is used in the film. An element of the unknown will leave some things unanswered in a way that works well. This is a thought-provoking film that is definitely worth checking out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10