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Clapboard Jungle
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by Jay Seaver

"A lot needs to happen to make even a B movie."
4 stars

SCREENING AT THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's probably not particularly important to mention that I was fairly disappointed in "Lifechanger", the feature film made by "Clapboard Jungle" director Justin McConnell whose production is a major focus of the second half of his documentary on being an independent genre filmmaker at the present moment, but the review is easy enough to find on this site, so there's not much point of not putting that context right up front. It kind of doesn't matter, though - it's not just that McConnell does a good enough job of showing the madness of independent film production to make you realize that just getting something made is a victory, but that the madness is the point.

He makes this point by making the risky choice of making himself, rather than the film, the story, which he acknowledges as hubris right at the start, but it's necessary: Focusing on the production of one film would give a documentary such as this a clear beginning, middle, and end, with resolution and boundaries, but that would be something of a lie: Even as Lifechanger is taking shape and going into production, the theme that is taking shape is that filmmakers like McConnell can't just focus on the one thing; they must have a "slate" of multiple projects in the works at all times because not only are there are going to be long stretches where work on that one project is stalled, waiting for someone else's interest or availability, but because producers investing in a filmmaker are looking for longer-term returns, or because nothing will come of it. Eventually, yes, shooting, editing, and doing the festival circuit with Lifechanger will take center-stage, but outside of those moments, McConnell and those like him have to split their attention, build a pipeline, and be ready to change direction .

It changes the focus of the movie from what you might expect, and it works sneakily well - one of the first filmmakers McConnell talks to is Guillermo del Toro, and while it's always fun to hear him wax rhapsodic about how much he loves movies and enjoys making them (and useful to demonstrate the dedication filmmaking inspires), one sees him making The Shape of Water and knows that, even if he's famously had trouble getting films off the ground, he's a bit disconnected from the granular struggle at this scale. He soon expands it to folks the mainstream may not know, whether because their successes at the box office are still relatively minor or because they work well behind the scenes - people like producers, packagers, and festival programmers - the ones who are usually cast as villains or obstructions in movies about moviemaking.

McConnell spends a lot of time on that part of the process, bringing his camera to film markets or training it on himself as he takes calls with producers, talking about how bits of preparation like "looks books" are important and describing, along with other independent filmmakers, how getting things set up is a chicken-and-egg problem, with talent and finance and distribution all wanting everything else in place before signing in. Others talk about how there are more outlets than ever before and more movies being made, but each one being providing less average value to those outlets than before. It could be bitter, but instead just leaves the audience slightly dizzy trying to absorb all of these necessary parts of having a career in movies that require a drastically different set of skills than the creative ones that they have spent a lifetime developing. McConnell is canny enough to know that playing this as unfair a bait-and-switch won't get him much sympathy - most in the audience would either love to have a career in film or are dealing with uncertain employment themselves - but he shows the stress of how all the uncertainty, juggling, and extended timelines wears on him.

Eventually, things do start coming together on Lifechanger, and while some of this may be kind of familiar, the greater familiarity with the business side of show business perhaps makes the viewer a little more appreciative: There's a process that led up to every person on that set, and their time is precious. Familiar scenes about how much actors like working with flexible directors take on a different implication ("we've done all this prep and only so much time"), though not in a way that shows them up. The challenges of editing are also more clear - as much as you may love your cast, sometimes you only get so much and you can't go back to get more. It feels really good to be accomplishing things after so much trying to get started.

It's not quite enough to make a viewer wonder how anything gets made, but it's eye-opening about the parts of the process which regularly draw ignorance or even disdain from film fans who are not actually part of the business. It's got a good chance of changing how a viewer thinks about the low-budget genre movies they watch, even if it doesn't actually make the end result better or worse.

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originally posted: 08/14/20 08:53:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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