Fantasia 2020: Clapboard Jungle Offers Insight Into a Different Aspect of Filmmaking

Director Justin McConnell’s documentary, Clapboard Jungle, tackles the side of filmmaking not frequently explored – the financial and business aspect of an industry most usually looked at from the creative angle. Thanks to McConnell’s many years in the indie horror trenches, along with the wide swathe of individuals with which he manages to speak, the end result is something that’s both personal and a series of lessons for the burgeoning filmmaker.

“An emotional and introspective journey following five years in the life and career of an independent filmmaker, supported by dozens of interviews, posing one question: how does an indie filmmaker survive in the current film business? Featuring interviews with Guillermo Del Toro, Richard Stanley, Barbara Crampton, Paul Schrader, Tom Savini, George A. Romero, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Michael Biehn, Frank Henenlotter, and many more.”

Watching McConnell’s Clapboard Jungle, you’re almost immediately struck by the fact that, at heart, what this documentary is about is something that’s boring. Talking about finding investors, dealing with what exactly it takes to line up and keep funding, and how to attract folks to your project are not topics usually explored when talking about genre film.

More frequently, it’s tales of run-and-gun guerrilla shoots, the bloody reality of practical effects, or the enduring appeal of scary stories, rather than the ins and outs of putting together a lookbook in order to convince a financier to invest. Strangely, though, that’s what makes Clapboard Jungle work so well: this isn’t something we’ve heard over and over again.

Sure, McConnell has the requisite talking heads, scenes where he’s directly addressing the camera with unfiltered commentary regarding the work for which he’s trying to find funding, grainy video of film premieres or Q&A sessions, and the requisite stills of internet articles and comments, but everything is new and different. The filmmakers, actors, and producers with whom he spends time aren’t relating the same stories we’ve seen in any number of supplemental Blu-ray features or other docs. They’re getting to talk about an aspect of what they do which takes up a lot of their time and energy, but about which they rarely get a chance to share insights.

Clapboard Jungle manages to speak with folks from all aspects of genre cinema, not just those who write the scripts or step in front of or behind the camera. Hearing what leads the folks at Uncork’d Entertainment to fund something or pick it up is interesting, as is hearing directors from the top of the heap, like Guillermo Del Toro contrasted with newly-minted creators like Jenn Wexler of The Ranger or friend of the ‘Punx, Izzy Lee.

Those last two names are important, because McConnell doesn’t just speak with men. While people of color aren’t represented in large numbers, the director is cognizant of the fact that, for all his troubles, he knows that, as a straight white man, his route has been far less troubled than if he were a woman, LGBTQ, or a person of color. The way in which he amplifies the voices of so many women in Clapboard Jungle makes the documentary a far deeper dive than what it could’ve been otherwise, given that the majority of the film not given over to other creatives is devoted to McConnell’s own five-year struggle to get several different films into production, and his emotional well-being and thoughts regarding all that.

Were it not for the balance in his choices of folks with whom he spoke, Clapboard Jungle could’ve come across as a real pity party, but thanks to the self-awareness of the director in how he chooses to present indie horror filmmaking and those within that subsection of the industry, the documentary ends up being a really superb introduction into just how these films really get made.

It’s also kind of great that this film will screen at Fantasia, because the fact that the festival makes repeated appearances within Clapboard Jungle makes it all seem like kismet. This was meant to be, kids! Additionally, though it’s currently in post-production, there will be a related eight-episode series which ditches the personal aspects of the documentary to create a “film school in a box,” focusing on different sides of the filmmaking process.

Nick Spacek
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