With advances in technology, it seems as though anyone can make a film now. Paradoxically, being a filmmaker, certainly a successful one, has never been more difficult. The market is over-saturated with product and the opportunities to get a movie financed and made appear to be dwindling. Over a period of five years, Justin McConnell documented the trials and tribulations of attempting to get a project from concept to screen.
This is not just a chronicle of one filmmaker’s journey. Clapboard Jungle also features interviews with directors, producers, writers, actors, festival programmers and publicists. When the opening talking head is none other than Guillermo Del Toro and goes on to include contributions from such genre luminaries as George A. Romero and Larry Cohen, it’s clear that the information imparted is going to be far from merely idle thoughts.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the movie business will have at least some idea of just how hard it is to get any kind of film made. A viewing of Blackboard Jungle will have you thinking it’s a miracle that anything ever gets made at all. At every stage of the process there are so many opportunities for things to go wrong and a fair number of them are depicted quite painfully here.
It’s all very well romanticising the business and referring wistfully to the magic of the movies but there’s very little, if any, magic here. There’s a lot of seemingly endless hard work, hundreds (maybe thousands) of e-mail conversations with potential financiers, countless meetings which go absolutely nowhere, travel to festivals in order to tout a marketable product and that’s just scratching the surface without even considering the script, the actors, the locations and so on. Calling “Action” on the first day of shooting is a distant speck on the horizon.
Faced with such odds, many of us would quit, perhaps rightly so. Not Justin McConnell. He deals with every obstacle thrown in his way because he wants to make films and doesn’t care how long it will take. He doesn’t dismiss every setback with relentlessly cheery optimism and an “Aw shucks, there’s always the next time”. He gets frustrated, he gets angry, he gets worn down, but he takes those experiences and continues to learn as he goes along.
There’s a refreshing honesty in the way that his shortcomings are depicted. With McConnell directing himself, the temptation could have been to paint himself in the most complimentary light but he shies away from that. He doesn’t get everything right. It’s clear that criticism particularly stings – especially when it’s Justin’s dad who’s pointing it out – but he realises that he has to address these issues, especially if they’re going to get in the way of him carving out a career.
The business side of the industry is given as much of a focus as the skills an individual requires on the creative side of the process. Festivals and film markets are now more vital than ever in pitching and promoting projects. In addition, the frequent cuts to the advice given by genre veterans such as Mick Garris, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Biehn both inform McConnell’s ongoing work and serve as a valuable guide to any wannabe Cravens or Carpenters out there.
The whole “will it/won’t it get made?” thrust of the piece adds natural drama and you’ll sometimes feel as exhausted by it all as McConnell is but Clapboard Jungle rewards persistence and patience. It also makes the salient point that, as improbable as it is for his ideas to come to fruition, his chances are far greater as a white man. Try getting something off the ground if you happen to be a person of colour or a woman or both.
A fascinating documentary about how filmmaking is far, far less about the actual making of the film itself than you’d hope, as well as being an essential “how to” guide for anyone crazy enough to want to follow in Justin McConnell’s footsteps, Clapboard Jungle is a must-watch for film fans and creators alike.