Fantasia Fest 2020: With the amount of content available to audiences, it can feel like everyone is in the process of making a movie. With the advent of iPhone films and endless platforms, it is possible to get content to more people than ever before. Yet with that influx of opportunity, the field is spread thinner than ever. Director Justin McConnell faced this uphill climb over the past decade. For much of his career as an indie filmmaker, he’s had to write and find alternative routes to get his work to the big screen. Along his journey to get another film greenlit, he found himself in limbo for more than 3 full years. Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business seeks to expose the difficulty inherent in making a film. For McConnell, his video film diary is a mixed bag, but one that carries a pathos worthy of your attention.
Clapboard Jungle begins in 2014 as McConnell finds himself pushing for a new path forward. His writing partner has passed away, and his latest documentary Skull World was met with good reception, but a limited audience. After devoting his life to the industry, he believes he can step forward to make a bigger film. Caught between taking small paycheck gigs that cover his bills, and working on his personal slate of films, McConnell finds himself running into brick walls. From 2014 to 2018, we follow McConnell as he goes to Cannes, TiFF, and other festivals in hopes of selling his slate of films to become a more successful filmmaker.
In constructing the documentary, McConnell takes a bare-bones approach to the footage. He packs the film with talking heads expressing their experiences and frustrations with the industry. He occasionally takes time to include behind-the-scenes footage, but for the most part, we see McConnell’s interviews with esteemed filmmakers. Icons, including Guillermo Del Toro, George A. Romero, and Dick Miller contribute to the discussions on independent film. The cavalcade of talking heads makes it clear how difficult making a single movie can be. It doing so, McConnell makes it clear that every film is a miracle in its own right.
McConnell has the self-awareness to understand his privilege as a white male, and seriously questions if he’s even a decent filmmaker. Like any career, rejection can create feelings of inferiority. Rather than blame others for his frustrations, McConnell points the finger at himself. McConnell tries to expand the conversation beyond his experience, asking some of the women filmmakers about their barrier to entry into the industry. He could go further but ultimately the focus of Clapboard Jungle is on McConnell’s journey. The limited scope of the film leaves some ideas on the table, but the big-budget, multipart version of this story would need many more hours of footage.
Unfortunately, the overall quality of the film hits some snags on the way. While McConnell is focused on putting every piece of information into the story, he is both subject and filmmaker in this circumstance. That leads to many moments of McConnell looking down into a camera and telling us his experience. In doing so, we cannot come to any conclusions of our own, and the documentary severely lacks the “show” elements that can create riveting dialogue. McConnell makes his point, but with so many interviews broken into small sound clips, the documentary often feels like someone channel surfing rather than creating a solid, focused argument. The lack of music or footage of actual films throughout Clapboard Jungle causes the film to drag at times.
Yet, these very issues get to McConnell’s issues within the film. Without the proper budget, crew, and support, is it possible to make a film that can be considered a quality venture? His big swing comes late in the film, and as he gains more resources, he creates something that could launch the next stage of his career. Without those resources for Clapboard Jungle, which relies mostly on his own footage and heart.
While Clapboard Jungle certainly has its flaws, the personal story on display helps the film tremendously. McConnell’s willingness to turn the camera on himself and provide a mostly unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness approach to the process provides authenticity many films severely lack. When you can tell a filmmaker is putting everything he can into his art, the work becomes all the more entertaining.
What do you think of Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business? Let us hear your thoughts below!
The 2020 Fantasia Film Festival is running virtually from August 20th through September 2nd, 2020.
All images are courtesy of the Fantasia Film Festival and the filmmakers.