Filmmakers are dreamers who want nothing more than to pluck their numerous ideas from the clouds and share them with the masses. Unfortunately, for most of these artists, their dreams quickly turn to nightmares as they attempt to navigate the soul crushing maze of the film industry. As Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro points out in the opening moments of the documentary Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business, the actual process of “making movies is beautiful; prepping them, raising the money, and selling them is horrible.”
Stripping away the glossy sheen of movie magic, Justin McConnell’s latest film offers an honest look at just how difficult the business side of the film industry really is. Turning the camera on himself, McConnell documents five years in the life of an independent filmmaker–a period that is filled with more downs than ups.
Playing like a “how to” guide for budding filmmakers, Clapboard Jungle attempts to provide some structure for an industry that often appears to be operating in a constant state of flux. Despite the media hysteria of 2017, which proclaimed the death of movies, the film industry is still alive and well. The problem is no longer the rise of streaming services, but the excess of content. How does one gain any traction when trying to swim in an overcrowded pool?
As McConnell finds out the hard way, breaking through is not the rag to riches fairy tale that ushered in “Sundance directors” like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith in the ’90s. It is a long and gruelling series of false starts, mistakes, rejections and hard truths. For McConnell, this means swallowing a few bitter pills of his own along the way.
Fortunate enough to be able to experiment with film from a young age, his debut feature STRATA was made while he was still in high school. Cinema has been as essential to McConnell’s life as air itself. However, in the new competitive landscape of film, one needs to learn how to be a jack of all trades on the fly. This includes becoming both artist and banker, leader and marketing specialist, all the while conveying a confident façade despite dealing with depressing aspects of the job.
Clapboard Jungle could have easily been a self-congratulatory tale about a battered Phoenix rising from the ashes. McConnell himself is astutely aware that even making a film about making films is a risky venture. However, aside from a few awkward “I was living the dream style” narrations cues, McConnell’s film offers a guiding light to other filmmakers who feel as it they are floundering in the darkness.
Watching him struggle to get numerous projects off the ground, including an adaptation of Douglas Borton’s novel Kane with frequent collaborator Serena Whitney, allows one to understands how difficult it is to win a game where everyone is playing by different rules. Clapboard Jungle emphasizes this point when McConnell speaks to several filmmakers, actors, and industry insiders including del Toro, Paul Schrader, Karen Lam, George A. Romero, Michael Biehn, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Lloyd Kaufman, Noboru Iguchi, and more. While each individual shares their tips and grievances, their passion for film is what gives them the strength needed to endure even in their weakest moments.
By the time Clapboard Jungle touches on Lifechanger, the aptly titled ambitious film that is arguably McConnell’s greatest work to date, one feels the sense of catharsis and rejuvenation in the director. While filmmakers, or those looking to get into the industry, will find the film most informative, there is plenty for the casual cinephile to enjoy here. Clapboard Jungle is a testament to holding onto to one’s dreams, even when those dreams are forced to take unexpected shapes.
Clapboard Jungle premieres across Canada on Friday, June 5 at 9 PM on Superchannel Fuse as part of the Canadian Film Festival.