Producer: Justin McConnell Director: Justin McConnell Cast: Justin McConnell Distributor: Arrow Film
Anyone who reviews movies is likely to receive invitations from directors of independent films to watch them for review consideration, with screening links attached. They’ve become so numerous that it’s pretty much impossible even to sample more than a few, and it’s easy to forget how much passion and effort go into making any film, long or short, whether it gets wide distribution or none at all—and whatever one’s personal reaction might be, positive or negative.
The big virtue of Justin McConnell’s documentary—which is basically an account of his own odyssey to succeed as a writer-director in the business, which he relates directly into the camera—is that it reminds us of that. It is not, however, a roadmap for aspiring filmmakers to follow, although it offers lots of advice, or at least observation—from him, others still struggling like him, established figures, actors and behind-the-scenes craftsmen—about the difficulties and pitfalls along the way. Among those from whom we hear in snippets of varying length are Michael Biehn, Charles Band, George Romero, Lloyd Kaufman, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Schrader, Mick Garris, Tom Holland, Dick Miller, Barbara Crampton, Tom Savini and Brian Yuzna, to mention only a few.
Of course, the comments are often contradictory. That doesn’t make them uninteresting, but it does mean that one can’t base your own decisions on them, particularly at a time when filmmaking is changing so radically, not only in terms of the technology available to even impecunious strivers but with respect to financing and distribution. Everything was in flux even before the pandemic struck, and is even more so now.
As to McConnell’s own story, it’s not an atypical one. He was bitten by the moviemaking bug as a kid in Canada and began easing his way into the fringes of the business, always hoping to make his own pictures and angling for connections that could help fulfill his dream. He served on film crews in various capacities before (and while) trying his hand at writing and directing himself. He describes all these experiences for us, as well as studying reactions to them. (He’s an avid reader of reviews.)
But the major focus of his own story is his effort to get his most ambitious project made—a horror movie about a shapeshifter titled “Lifechanger.” He succeeds, but despite some positive reviews (see Rotten Tomatoes—a site he undoubtedly consults, though he might be less pleased with the very mixed comments from viewers who have posted on IMDB).
What’s clear is that the 2018 release has not realized its title insofar as McConnell’s own career is concerned. “Clapboard Jungle” makes that abundantly clear.
Shot over five years by McConnell himself, and edited by him along with Kevin Burke with a score by Sean Motley (who also did the music for “Lifechanger”), “Clapboard Jungle” is hardly elegant-looking, and its mixture of narration, clips and interview excerpts is often chaotically assembled. It will hardly serve as a “how-to” film for aspiring cineastes, and may in fact serve to discourage rather than encourage them.
As far as those of us who merely watch movies—many of them bad—are concerned, that might be the strongest reason to advise people to watch it. This account of one man’s search for success in the moviemaking world is less revelatory than mildly interesting.