If you love genre cinema and filmmaking so much so that at some point you decide to take that definitive plunge – be it acting, writing, filmmaking, or even journalizing or vlogging, then there’s ten times more you need to understand about the industry, and tons more to comprehend about the process. From an observational perspective, the weight of that comprehension comes undoubtedly with talking to multiple industry film professionals who’ve been around the block and have developed thick-enough skins to have stood the test of time amidst the constant hustle and bustle of pursuing their craft.
Independent filmmaker Justin McConnell dives into more than plenty of that time in his new documentary, Clapboard Jungle, dating back to his early teens, all leading up to the near-twenty year period in his professional career, from his heyday as a curious up-and-comer with bare bones equipment and a skeleton crew, to a notable film director whose preliminary successes with earlier projects are still only stepping stones toward the pinnacle he’s striving for in his career. Within the first minute and change, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro takes the lead in summing up exactly what the viewer is in for, seconds before McConnell cites what he says are three things you should never do as a filmmaker. It sets the viewer up as McConnell begins sharing his backstory, chronicling from what he describes as his lowest point of the past decade and onward, as he struggled to get his projects off the ground following the release of his 2011 zero budget thriller, The Collapsed.
Sharing highlights from dozens of filmmakers, producers, sales agents, actors, casting directors and even festival programmers, Clapboard Jungle invites all movie fans as McConnell records his five-year journal as a hungry filmmaker, who has had to overcome everything from stifling non-starters due to production and financing limbo and repeated rejection from potential partners, to personal tragedy and the looming threat of depression from the lingering doubt. From behind the keyboard in his room to the energized sales floor at Cannes and meeting booths at the Marche du Film, it encapsulates all these in the course of delineating the stoic, tedious and enduring process of being a filmmaker, climbing the proverbial ladder in an industry McConnell describes as “a wild west of competing ideologies”.
From the players to the politics and politicians therein, McConnell narrates his documentary with a central focus on his own career as a concurrent example of what it takes to sustain one’s self as a director, having to shelve an ambitious project that would have at one point starred Michael Biehn, to moving forward on a conceptual horror short film – all of which are encompassed in the longstanding development towards adapting the Michael Prescott novel, Kane – to making his 2018 film, Lifechanger with production partners Serena Witney and Avi Federgreen.
The film almost lends an interactive experience of sorts, exploring some of the bustling innerworkings of places like Frontiéres, where directors meet and greet with multiple film professionals a time – investors, sales representatives and other potential partners, etc. – to pitch their ideas for hopeful movement. In all of this, there’s no question that McConnell has had to face roundabout trial and error, often faced with otherwise hopeful backers who would wait a day or so before rejecting his pitches and declining to engage any further. As many moving pieces as this aspect entails, it’s only one aspect of the industry, something which del Toro hints at in opening the film with, saying in part, “Making movies is beautiful. Prepping the movie, raising the money and selling them is horrible.”
The documentary also includes immersive dialogue from female filmmakers on the hurdles they themselves have faced, in an industry which McConnell himself alludes to as less hampering simply because he’s white and male. As filmmaker and Screen Anarchy contributor Izzy Lee so states at one point “…the stories are just– …you wanna scream!”. Other voices on this end include (but aren’t limited to) actress Barbara Crampton, producer Heather Buckley, and filmmakers like Gigi Saul Guerrero, Carolyn Mauricette, and Jovanka Vuckovic who at one point alludes to the prevalent lack of females in the industry despite the audience support. “Look at the average filmgoer.” she says. “More than half of them are women, we know this is a fact, we know this to be true, and yet the numbers are staggeringly low. The number of women directing films, producing films are staggeringly low.”
Clapboard Jungle, which wasn’t the documentary’s immediate title when McConnell began shooting it in 2014, goes above and beyond the call of duty in showcasing more than most people, including average fanboys, would ever know by simply reading an article. It presents and details an industry that’s become oversaturated by more movies than the field can handle, resulting in a gradual increase in competition, and consequently, a successive change in how film projects are marketed and ultimately funded, sans any guarantees or expectations one might have about the industry, regardless of how enticing breaking news headlines from sites like Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap, Collider, Screen Anarchy, Bloody Disgusting, or even the one you’re reading now are.
More to the point, the film draws a palpable conclusion with an even more resounding message about the craft itself. McConnell delivers a robust, hearty and engaging video journal that in Clapboard Jungle that all moviegoers need to see, to learn beyond the hype and the presumed glitz and glam, the need for constant fan service, and callow pretenses of getting rich and famous as a filmmaker. Hearing stories and factoids from the likes of film veterans such as Tom Savini, Steve Kostanski, Sam Firstenberg and the late Sid Haig, Stephanie Trepanier, XYZ Films’ Todd Brown, Julian Richards of Jinga Films, Lloyd Kaufman, and even Indiecan’s Federgreen, longtime friend and colleague to McConnell, Clapboard Jungle offers some of the best education anyone pursuing a career in movies could ask for, and transcends as even greater learning for average film fanatics who addictively follow films and film news in some capacity.