Interview: Justin McConnell

Skull World

Full disclosure: Justin McConnell is a friend of mine. We’ve gone out together for drinks several times in the past, gone to the movies together, and he’s generously plied the site with passes to his Little Terrors horror shorts screening series over the years. He’s a big friend of the site and the Toronto based director possibly best known for his work on last year’s indie-horror hit The Collapsed and the documentary Working Class Rock Star lets his genuine love for his friends shine through in his latest effort, Skull World (opening this Friday at the Carlton in Toronto at the start of a North American tour of the film), which just so happens to be about one of his closest friends.

Metal loving and jean jacket sporting Greg Sommer has created a monster both literally and figuratively. The hardcore Clutch aficionado is the creator of an all out carnival of mayhem and destruction known as Box Wars. Under is alias and masked personal Skull Man, Sommer encourages a style of LARPing and battle based shenanigans that emphasizes the creative process almost as much as it does the brute (but always safe) force, as combatants dress up in elaborate costumes and body armour made out of cardboard and largely discarded materials.

A participant himself, McConnell followed his friend around as the Box Wars phenomenon started to get bigger and bigger. I caught up with him to talk about why he went back to making a documentary this time out, his relationship with Greg and getting his close friend to open up, his own battle scars, and Greg’s love of all things Clutch.

Dork Shelf: Aside from the obvious personal fondness towards the subject, what made you want to come back and make a documentary for the first time in quite a while?

Justin McConnell: Actually, there wasn’t a lot of time between finishing my previous documentary, Working Class Rock Star, and beginning production on Skull World. I wrapped the first one in mid-2007, it was released in North America in Fall 2008, and by then I had already started shooting the doc on Skull Man. I think it was a couple of reasons – I wanted to take the lessons I learned making that and apply them to the next one, make the subject far more focused, do something more fun. In some ways, Working Class Rock Star is a much more downbeat movie, and I wanted to do the polar opposite. I’d known for years that I wanted to make something about Greg, and right around then his Box War chapter was starting to spool up in a serious way, so I jumped right back in.

DS: You’re mainly known as a horror movie guy, and I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of horror movie fans also quite paradoxically also like documentaries. Would you be one of those types of fans?

JM: I’m a movie guy, in general. I grew up loving horror, and the genre whet my appetite to make films, but I have never been what I would call primarily a horror-hound. I love the genre, most of the narrative stuff I’ve written and am trying to get off the ground is related to it, but I’ve always been a firm believer in a well-rounded cinematic landscape. I watch and enjoy all genres, and especially enjoy a good documentary. If they’re done properly, they can really transport you to another world you didn’t realize existed. Some even have the potential to create positive change in society, one viewer at a time.

DS: It also seems like an easy film to make for someone with a busy schedule like yourself.

JM: Easy may not be the right word, but it was definitely something that was feasible with my schedule. Focusing on someone I knew well enough and had quick access to, and who was open to the camera following him around whenever, lead to a lot of flexibility. But I still had to be there at all the major events, or somehow catch them as they were happening. Or catch up if I missed something. Cost was kept low, luckily, as I own the gear and it was as easy as strapping on the camera bag and hopping on transit in some cases. What helped a lot is that Greg was very proactive in telling me when something had happened, or was about to, so it all went smoothly. Greg also owns his own production gear, so I told him early on that if something is on his mind, he should turn a camera on himself and record a blog about it. It allowed me to get more than enough coverage to form a cohesive narrative.

DS: Describe your friendship with Greg Sommer and your first experience with Box Wars.

JM: They can both be described the same way: invigorating, sometimes confusing, full of metal and generally a good time. But with Box Wars, I was a little more nervous at first. Luckily the fun trumped any pain. Greg and I have been friends for years, since 2001, as well as work colleagues. I have hired him as a camera operator on my crew countless times, as we’d shoot for bands through the US and Canada. We have a lot of hours logged on road gigs and whatnot. Like any friend, Greg has quirks that sometimes get under your skin (as anyone does), but you learn to just let it be and I’m proud to have him in my life. Considering I tragically lost my best friend last year, he’s one of the few ‘old guard’ friends that are still in my life in a major way. Over time people drift apart, but that didn’t really happen with Skull Man. He’s a true friend.

DS: Do you ever worry about Greg, not only in terms of his safety at times, but how he will survive as Box Wars grows bigger and bigger? The scene where he has to go and seek out liability insurance really sticks out in my mind as a key moment in the film. It’s almost like when he’s forced to grow up a bit.

JM: I don’t worry about Greg much at all. He’s self-motivated and a fast-learner. He’s smarter than a lot of people give him credit for, because the goofy surface veneer sort of distorts that. In fact, I think he’s probably one of the more organized people I’ve ever known. If he needs to show up for something, I’ve rarely ever seen him show up later than 20 minutes early. Things like the insurance segment are common in Greg’s life, because he does things in a very calculated and careful way. On the surface he may approach life differently, but I don’t think he’ll do many things recklessly or without an intense amount of research first. I am a little curious to see what would happen if true fame came to Greg’s life, though…

DS:  Was it easy to get Greg to open up? It seems like he’s used to the camera, but there’s almost something a bit more intimate and guarded that comes out when he’s talking about this thing that he loves and works really hard at. Side question: Do you think he was ever afraid of being judged not by you, but by an audience?

JM: Yeah, it was difficult at times. Early on in production I had to tell him to relax and stop playing to the camera as much as he was, and soon enough he was just himself. There was definitely a bit of tug of war getting the more personal stuff into the film. I know professionally that documentaries are more successful when they depict heavy personal struggles. I also had my own team advising me to push more for that as well. Documentary is a tough sell now, and everyone wants the next Anvil or Last Days Here or whatever…. and when you watch those films, they are all heart-string tugging experiences where someone is basically down in the gutter and you’re hoping for them to have this big moment of triumph at the end.

The truth is, though, that this isn’t one of those docs. And sometimes Greg just wasn’t comfortable going there. I had to fight back and forth to get certain things in the movie, which is a tough position to be in, but at the end of the day these elements were needed in the film. Like anyone Greg has strife and challenges in his life, and they are touched upon, but we made a movie to bring smiles to faces, a ride film. I took a mandate of positivity with flashes of humanity, because that’s how the few years I spent shooting went anyway. If I had intervened, forced him to make choices he normally wouldn’t on his own, like go and see his estranged dad, the film would no longer be about Greg and who he is, truthfully. It would turn me from the storyteller, to the one guiding the story. It would be manipulative. So the film is comprised of what happened, not what a certain section of the audience would want to happen. Greg really is a positive person. This is a film, at it’s core, about having a positive outlook on life and living it to the fullest, come what may.

Justin McConnell - Skull World

DS: What’s the worst injury you ever sustained in Box Wars?

JM: It’s a toss-up between my bloody teeth or my split open finger. Probably the finger, as it took longer to heal and hurt like a bitch for about a week.

DS: Is there a creation that you ever felt embarrassed getting slain by?

JM: In truth, I’ve battled four times now, and only been taken out of the game once. And that was the first time I’d ever battled. I’m more embarrassed that I fell in that battle during the initial run up.

DS: Does Greg really listen to that much Clutch?

JM: I’d ask him, but he’d have to turn the Clutch down. (laughs) He loves the Clutch! Funnily enough, he actually cut a fan video for ‘Sea of Destruction‘ years ago, that the band showcased on their official page back then. As far as I can tell he never misses a concert when they come to the city, either

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