The more directors I interview, the more I understand the amount of blood, sweat and tears that go into an independent film (and in the case of horror, lots of blood). It’s a process that takes years and millions of dollars, with an end product that’s only an hour and a half long for the small price of ten dollars. Justin McConnell understands the struggle of being an independent filmmaker. It’s a labor of love for a cruel business, not nearly as glamorous as it appears in the DVD special features. Canadian filmmaker Justin McConnell wants everyone to understand that struggle. He has worked as a writer, producer, editor and director on shorts, documentaries, and features.
Today, McConnel’s latest feature Lifechanger is set for its North American release. it tells the story of Drew, a shapeshifter who takes over a different body every couple days to avoid decaying into nothingness. Some have interpreted the Cronenberg-esque body horror as a twisted love story, but as McConnell describes, the truth is a lot darker.
Chris Aitkens of Nightmare On Film Street: You’ve probably answered this question a million times, but I really want to know where the idea for this movie stemmed from?
Justin McConnell: Sure, I absolutely have answered this questioned lots of times. It stems from a couple of places. One of them was in 2014; I was getting really frustrated trying to get a couple much larger films made. One of them called the Eternal, the other called Tripped. We made it pretty close to full finance on both. They had multi-million dollar budgets. But they just weren’t coming together. So I was getting frustrated, and I thought, I need to make another film that is incredibly low-budget, something I can put together myself with whatever money I can scrounge together. So when I was brainstorming for that, I was on a bus one day, and gradually I had this idea: what if I saw myself out in public? Which of course is [story designer] Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. But from that moment it organically grew into what this is. The other side of it is, I was going through a lot of soul-searching and introspection, just trying to figure out my place in the world—and I’ll be honest, I was going through a depression at the time. I had recently, in the last couple years, lost a best friend and writing partner. A lot of the tone of the film came from that mindset.
NOFS: Now it’s interesting that you thought about what you would do if you saw yourself in public. I remember reading something where scientists say that if you did see yourself in public, you wouldn’t recognize yourself, because you’ve only seen yourself in pictures and in the mirror. Do you think you are recognizable to yourself?
JM: That’s a hard question, actually. I don’t know. It really depends on how far away I am, what version of myself—is it a younger or older version of myself? Is it just a mirror image of me? I think it’s a difficult question to answer, in that I wouldn’t know until that actual occurrence happened. Would I even know, or would I keep walking by?
“it becomes really hard to prepare practical effects for a shoot like that. You just need to plan ahead, that’s the main thing.”
NOFS: Is it difficult to pull off a body horror on a budget?
JM: Yes. Absolutely. The main thing is that, practical effects take time. Not just to execute on set, but you need to give the effects people enough lead time ahead of a shooting. If you’re not paying them full rates, and if they’re working on other jobs at the same time, you have to also account for the fact that they’re not spending their full time doing it. You need to approach them early enough, and get them to start working early enough, sometimes before you even got the money in the bank from your investor, they need to start working. The big challenge is, knowing that, you need to organize your pre-production very clearly in order to pull off any practical effects like that.
The other thing is that with the actors, you need to have them casted far enough back, especially if you’re doing something similar to what we did with this: double bodies of dead actors. The actors have to be head-casted, body-casted, and then have those bodies built. It’s one of those things that if you’re running very last-minute, and you have to go into production tomorrow— which does happen at some larger companies; they’ll green-light something, and they’re already at camera a week later—it becomes really hard to prepare practical effects for a shoot like that. You just need to plan ahead, that’s the main thing.
The other thing is that on set, effects have a habit of failing. You can test them as much as you want to off-set, but once you end up on-set, the first or second attempt to pull something off may not work, so you have to put extra time into your schedule to be able to pull that off on the day as well. There’s an effect that we have near the end of the film, probably our biggest one. I set aside the entire shoot day to pull it off. The whole sequence is probably only 17 shots. And even when that sequence was done, there was still one shot we needed, that wasn’t ready on the effects-level. We had to come back six weeks later, rebuild the entire effect in a different location, light it identically, just to shoot one insert shot. It’s just a lot of planning.
NOFS: I’m very curious about the casting process. The lead of the film is constantly changing. What was the one thing you were looking for among all these actors during auditions?
JM: Well, the first thing was, can they perform? That was something that was first-and-foremost. Are they believable, are they natural? There was a lot of talent we looked at, but we had a limited pool, because it was a non-union production shooting in Southern Ontario. It was a shallow pool. There was a lot of them, but the truly talented ones are few and far between, because oftentimes, what happens is that they go union. Some of them stay, but a lot of them, when they really break through, they end up in the union and end up working on bigger sets. That limited us from the beginning, but there was still a lot of great people there.
Secondly, I was looking for if they had a natural charisma, or does it look like they’ve actually lived on their face? Does it look like they’re bringing something real to the role? After that initial path of us watching everybody’s tapes, instead of doing a second call-back where they would read more material from the film, I did face-to-face meetings. We would have a 15 to 20-minute conversation with each of the candidates, for me to get an idea of who they are as people and how they are going to be on-set and what their background is and how hungry they are for the role, all the stuff you don’t know solely from their audition. On a small-budget film, it’s got to be like a family, like a team, everybody has to be supporting the entire film and wanting to be there. So that was important.
And then after that, after we had everyone narrowed down, we had our cast, it was about getting everybody in the same room, getting them comfortable with each other, really discussing who the character Drew is. Everybody has to play the same character, and that way, we can work out common ticks and ways of walking, things that are shared between every single actor so that there’s uniformity, while still letting them perform their own interpretation, so you’re not stepping on their own natural inclinations which would come across more honest than if you’re trying to force a performance, like a round peg into a square hole.
“…you can rewrite a film until the day you die, if you self-evaluate that much. It’s never finished. At a certain point, it just gets abandoned”
NOFS: I understand the script went through several rewrites. How did the movie evolve from the original draft?
JM: Mostly subtly. The overall arc of the story, minus the ending, was pretty much there for the first treatment. Not everything, but the main beats of it were there from the beginning. The rewrites were a lot about trying to refine the scenes of the dialogue, and work out story issues and character issues that would come across as too trope-y or too cliché. A good example of that is, in the earlier drafts of the script, there’s a character named Rachel, who’s a dental hygienist in the movie. She has a boss, in the film, they have a contentious relationship. She wants to keep her job, she’s sort of friends with him, but he wants her on a physical level, and they have this tension between them. In the original script, she was just a prostitute that the doctor was seeing on the side. Very quickly, within the second or third draft, I realized that not only is it trope-y, but it’s just not a great role for a talented actress to play. It’s very base. So the dynamic changed gradually. The ending that exists now got added in the second or third draft, after really thinking about what the theme of the film was and what I was trying to say.
I started writing in 2014, we didn’t go to camera until the end of 2017. New partners would come on the film, or new people would come to the table, and they would give me notes. It was like a process of evaluation; taking the notes that made sense, putting it in a drawer for a while, and then coming back to it when I had fresh eyes. Just trying to work all the bugs out of it. Even that being said, you have to abandon the film at some point. Looking back, now that the film is done and its played festivals, I obviously still say things like, “Oh, we could have done this or we could have done that.” But it absolutely felt like it was ready to go to camera, and I’m still happy with what we ended up with, but you can rewrite a film until the day you die, if you self-evaluate that much. It’s never finished. At a certain point, it just gets abandoned.
NOFS: Here’s a fun question. If you could switch lives with someone for just a day—without the consequences Drew experiences—who would it be?
JM: Oh, man. I never had to think of that question before.I’m going to do the boring thing and say I’d switch lives with a director working on one of those $200 million budgeted feature films, so I can see how that side of things work. You get a hint of it in special features, but I get the impression that you’re like a general, and all that happens is a bunch of different lieutenants walk up to you all day and ask “what do you think about this?” And I would say whether it’s good or not. It feels like such a world removed from the low-budget stuff. But maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but maybe I will one day, and say, it’s just like the low-budget project, just way fucking bigger. That’s the boring answer. There’s lots of other answers I could give that would fulfill vices I have, but I’m not going to get into that publicly.
NOFS: On that note, you’re also working on a documentary series about indie filmmakers.
JM: Yeah, it’s about the business, anyway. I’ve been shooting since 2014 on this thing called Clapboard Jungle:Surviving the Independent Film Business. I have done roughly 120 interviews so far. We’ve been in post-production for the last several months on it. It’s taking a long time, partially because we got about 400 hours of raw footage. And partially because it became something more; it’s started off as just a documentary feature, but now it’s developed into an eight-episode series. The idea being that it’s meant to be a film school in a box, that people can watch or absorb, and learn how the actual business side of things works, right from the mouths of everyone from Guillermo del Toro, George A. Romero, Paul Shrader, all the way down to agents, managers, and indie filmmakers. It’s a lot of voices giving their experience, and trying to help people navigate the business itself. it should be out mid-2019. That’s the goal. I’m editing it with Kevin Burke, who directed 24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters. It’s a ton of footage, so it’s just been a real monster to try and get finished.
“If there are Christmas lights, […] and fucking Christmas music, it’s a Christmas movie…”
NOFS: Was there a common challenge that would come up in every interview that you could relate to?
JM: There aren’t really common challenges so much as there’s just a lot of challenges, and a lot of the ones happen when you really don’t know what you’re doing or don’t know your way through certain problems. The further you get a long and the more you understand the business, you end up being able to avoid pitfalls, and sharks, and people trying to con you out of money, and distributors that are just going to take your title because they need something to fill a pipeline, but they’re not going to promote it all or make any money for you.
There’s a lot of different challenges out there. I don’t think anything common came up, but maybe the one common thread is that it doesn’t matter how big of a filmmaker you are, you still struggle, and you’re not as rich as the public perceives. There’s some people who definitely have money, and who live in nice houses, but it doesn’t mean that they’re bathing in gold. They’re still working for a living. If they stopped making films tomorrow, some of them might survive quite well, while some of them will have to get jobs. And some of them still hold jobs. There’s a public perception that if you’re working in film, you’re loaded, especially now that it’s ubiquitous, and everyone tries to make movies with pocket change. There’s way more films out there than there are viewers to watch them, over a year. It’s not like that at all.
NOFS: Very important question: is Lifechanger a Christmas movie?
JM: (laughs) It’s a movie that takes place at Christmas. Its tone is informed partially by how statistically depressing the Christmas season is. I say any movie that takes place at Christmas is a Christmas movie, in that you can watch it as part of your Christmas watch list. But I wouldn’t say that it’s a movie that’s a Christmas horror in that it’s built around the holiday. The holiday is the backdrop in the same way that Shane Black puts a lot of his movies during Christmas. If there are Christmas lights, and there’s Santa Claus, and there’s Christmas trees, and fucking Christmas music, it’s a Christmas movie, in my mind. It’s just not about the holiday.
Justin McConnell’s Lifechanger begins a one-week theatrical engagement in Toronto, Calgary, and Ottawa December 28, 2018 before going to VOD January 1, 2019. Over very own Kimberley Elizabeth called the film “an isolating ailment, a fascinating legend, a horror story, and a love story all wrapped into one”. Read her full review HERE and let us know what you though of Lifechanger on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook.