Director: Justin McConnell
Behind the scenes of movie-making always seems such a glamorous business and Hollywood loves nothing better than turning the camera on itself. But for independent filmmakers the experience is relentlessly brutal, balancing sellable concepts with writing time, financing and the deluge of competition. Justin McConnell’s 100-minute documentary Clapboard Jungle argues that making any movie is a miracle and wonders whether it is worth the pain.
Filmed between 2014 and 2019, McConnell takes a no holds barred approach to documenting the lows and further lows that see projects shelved, investors changing their minds and seemingly promising meetings come to nothing. In between, a raft of independent filmmakers, producers, marketing representatives and financiers give their opinions on the industry with tips on how to give your movie a better chance of being made.
The chronological approach in Clapboard Jungle means that McConnell and cowriter on Mark of Kane Serena Whitley are balancing several projects at the same time, with different opportunities coming into focus, so rather than outlining the complex process of getting a single movie made, the documentary throws several into the mix, looking at McConnell’s ‘slate’ and the constantly changing experience for an independent filmmaker.
The process of documenting his life in Clapboard Jungle is clearly a cathartic process for McConnell whose home movie-style interviews capture his often-disappointed reactions as the months and years grind him down. For the viewer, this approach is a little overwhelming. There are lots of talking heads cutting between McConnell’s progress and numerous (many very impressive) commentators every few seconds, and the story travels to film markets, festivals and networking events in Montreal, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cannes, the purpose and impact of which are not always well explained for those outside the industry.
When progressive things do happen in the film, these are skipped over quickly such as filming a short to take to the Festivals that happens in a quick overview description with the process of getting into the Festival and the mechanism of audience feedback skipped over. So, while Clapboard Jungle gives a flavour of the scrum, it does feel baggy with too many projects, opinions and activities to keep track of, although it does seem that McConnell is learning about his own industry along with us.
Putting yourself and your own life at the centre of a film project is a brave choice, and McConnell bears his soul at various points. The downside is you become a ‘character’, even in non-fiction, asking an audience to invest in your story and your personality. A lot of the film is necessarily dour as McConnell deals with rejection and even though his parents note an unwillingness to take criticism, later the director seems sceptical of test audience feedback. But McConnell’s determination motors the film along and despite continual rejections, he admirably keeps going.
And that is the positive message to take away here, that self-made independent filmmakers should never just give up and there is a range of advice in the documentary from the many industry experts that McConnell has interviewed from director Guillermo del Toro to Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader and a host of genre filmmakers. As McConnell concludes, there is no end point; just the ladder, endlessly rung to rung’, so keep climbing it.
Released on 19 January 2021