Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business
(Canada, 98 min.)
Dir. Justin McConnell
How does an aspiring talent survive in the independent film scene? This question fuels Justin McConnell’s Clapboard Jungle, which navigates the hardships of an unforgiving business. The documentary is a companion piece of sorts to McConnell’s 2008 film Working Class Rock Star, which considered how aspiring musicians struggle in the business of art. Clapboard Jungle takes an insider’s view into the film biz as McConnell, a B-movie horror filmmaker by trade, endeavours to see several projects through the production line. Some succeed and others don’t. He learns tips of the trade from industry players, fellow starving artists, and a few notable big names with similarly humble origins. While the talking heads doc contains few revelatory nuggets, Clapboard Jungle might serve as a much-needed reality check for aspiring newbies.
Clapboard Jungle sees the filmmaker jetting off to Cannes and hitching a train to Fantasia to work the markets and land meetings with key stakeholders. Some of their advice is frank, but it’s necessary. Perhaps a key lesson in Clapboard Jungle is a point both explicit and implicit across the board in the interview with industry players: when the field is oversaturated with content, a filmmaker really needs to listen to the wants and needs of distributors and audiences. Making one’s precious pet project might not be the smartest move for an emerging filmmaker, but a stepping stone project that proves one’s salt might yield better long-term rewards.
The film follows McConnell along the circuit as he seeks financing for two projects. One film, the body horror Lifechanger, saw release last year and performed respectably for a film of its scale. The other project, Mark of Kane, remains in perpetual limbo. McConnell is an avid student and genuinely seeks out advice and professional development in a manner that too few artists do. One also sees his engagement with the participants now that Lifechanger is done and distributed and Kane is still trucking. The film’s especially intriguing if one has seen Lifechanger, acknowledges its strengths and weaknesses as a film made with limited means, and can interpret the impact of this documentary process on the horror flick.
Much of Clapboard Jungle plays inside baseball with B-to-C-grade genre talents, so the essay might be limited to filmmakers working a relatively niche genre. Although his conversations with collaborators like actor Michael Biehn and distributor Avi Federgreen, as well as TIFF’s Midnight Madness crew, will interest genre fans, as will interviews with stars like Sid Haig. For parties eager to learn more about cutting teeth in commercial cinema or art cinema, McConnell’s discussions with A-level interviewees like Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro, Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader, and late horror icon George A. Romero prove the most universal.
However, while the film illustrates McConnell’s aptitude for low-budget horror, it leaves something to be desired as a documentary. Clapboard Jungle might benefit from some of the advice that McConnell gleans from the experts, or perhaps from equivalents in the non-fiction field. As a slice of lo-fi DIY film-on-film documentary, the tired talking heads approach is limited and struggles to carry the 98-minute running time. At the risk of sounding like a lazy critic, Clapboard Jungle probably works best as a behind the scenes bonus documentary for Lifechanger, or Mark of Kane if it ever gets the greenlight.
Clapboard Jungle screens at the Canadian Film Festival via Super Channel on June 5 at 9:00 pm.