Justin McConnell thanks his dad for leading him down the path that would ultimately land him on the map. After introducing his son to such genre greats as "Predator" and "Gremlins," McConnell’s father watched as his son put his newfound knowledge and enthusiasm to use making stop-motion videos and short documentaries, before eventually shooting his own Movies. The filmmaker’s latest project is unarguably his most ambitious and reputable, “Lifechanger,” a sci-fi horror film that hits VOD in January.

Justin recently talked about this exciting project via an exclusive interview.

Inspiration, movies, and casting

Meagan Meehan (MM): What inspired you to become a filmmaker, Justin, and how did you secure a start?

Justin McConnell (JM): My father is responsible for what I am now, initially. I distinctly remember the first time he rented “The Monster Squad” for me. That started a run of him renting me iconic genre films like “Alien/Aliens, Predator 1 & 2,” the “Critters” and “Gremlins” films, etc. My mother was resistant to letting me see that stuff at a young age at first, but eventually, she became very supportive as well. I used to make little stop-motion videos with my toys and a borrowed 8mm video camera, and at around the age of 15 decided filmmaking was what I wanted to do.

I started making short documentaries for class assignments and presentations and eventually bought my own camera. By my last year of High School, I’d directed my first feature, Strata, and a short film.

After High School, I want to York University for their Film & TV Production program but quickly dropped out due to a massive TA strike keeping me from class.

I got my tuition money back and then went to Trebas Institute for Post Production the next year, started my company Unstable Ground officially while I was at school there, and started putting a plan together. Once I graduated Trebas in 2002, I went in two directions. I started working at a commercial production house called Creative Forces, where I met a couple of mentors, Tony Dipasquale and Carlo Basilone.

While I was there my job was what they called a ‘Predator’ (producer-director-editor), and I’d be responsible for making TV spots for artists on labels like Universal and Warner. This allowed me to learn a lot more post-knowledge, which strengthened what my own company could offer clients. Simultaneous to this, I had bought a decent camera and basic production gear and was going to metal shows regularly and handing my business card to any band that would take it. That lead to a period of time directing music videos and arranging live event recordings. Eventually, after a few years of doing this, I started shooting my first feature-length documentary Working Class Rock Star, paid for on pocket-change, and working with even more clients.

I learned a ton of tech knowledge and realized I had to keep learning. Then when it came time to sell Working Class Rock Star, I got thrown into the need to know a lot more about how the actual business worked. I got my start on the job, so to speak.

I’m not 100% sure what the first thing I got paid for was. It was probably during High School, as I gained a reputation for being the guy you go to if you want something shot in a semi-competent manner. But I don’t remember the particulars. After that, it was probably my first music video, ‘Shove,’ for the band No Assembly Required. That video went on to massive TV airplay on MuchMusic for an indie video (it only cost like $500!), so really lighted a fire under my ass and made me believe I could do this for a living.

MM: What equipment do you film your movies on?

JM: There’s no usual. The tool fits the project. “Lifechanger” was shot on the RED Epic-W 8K, and I loved working with it. Especially when it came to the latitude you get for reframes and zooms in post-production. My last feature, Broken Mile, I shot on a Sony A7S-II because it was a ‘single-take’ film I was shooting myself, and I needed something light to hold up on a 3-axis gimbal for long periods of time. It really just all depends on the project and available equipment at the budget.

MM: How did “Lifechanger” come to you, what appealed to you about it, and how did you handle casting?

JM: I was trying to come up with a concept I could do for a very low budget after the frustration of trying to get much larger films, such as The Eternal, financed.

While I was brainstorming, I was on a bus one day, and thought “What if I suddenly saw myself in public?” That, of course, is Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, but from there the seed of the idea grew into what it is. I was also going through some heavy depression for a couple of years due to the death of someone close to me, doing a lot of self-examination and getting all existential about everything. That influenced the tone the film has.

It’s a really personal story that I wrote myself, and since it came out of my fairly organically, instead of trying to make a basic concept work, it very early on felt like one I ‘had’ to make, instead of one that would be fun to make. It felt like a story that mattered, so I needed to tell it.

I signed off and agreed on everyone we cast, but the part of me that’s loyal to actors I’ve worked with in the past was hurting a little during the process. There were a couple of parts where in my mind I was going forward knowing they were written with a particular performer in mind, but then when we hit casting and went through that whole process, the roles ended up going elsewhere. Part of that is because I have money people, and over half-a-dozen producers on the film, and everyone gets at least some say, so decisions have to made as a group. I don’t regret the casting decisions in any case, ultimately, but I felt bad on a personal level in a couple of cases, like I was burning a strong already existing relationship with a performer and friend.

But the reality of this business is you have to do what is best for the film, and what satisfies the powers that be, and sometimes those are the same thing. I hope I get to work with those that didn’t make the cast again, though. I believe in their talent.

Filmmaking, advice, and projects

MM: Thus far, what do you enjoy most about being a filmmaker and where do you hope your career is in ten years?

JM: I really enjoy the process of post-production, and traveling to film festivals to show a film to tons of different types of audiences. They may all come from different places, and different walks of life, different cultures, but film is the great equalizer. How obvious that is when attending film festivals is a real joy to experience.

And the people. There are some real assholes in this business, but the plethora of great people in the same struggle more than makes up for that.

Hopefully, I am still alive in ten years. I can’t help but be pragmatic and realistic about not just the business, but the state of the planet in general. Some days it’s difficult to be enthusiastic about fulfilling a dream when the species itself is in a state of crisis. So, if I’m alive and getting to make movies still, I would consider that an extreme privilege. If I’m also getting to work on projects that I really care about, with budgets where what’s in my head actually makes it to the final film, then I won the lottery. But I can’t help feel that in ten years if I am afforded that level of existence and accomplishment, it will be while living through some incredibly trying times for the rest of the race.

I think the film is important, stories and entertainment are important, for all humanity. But maybe not the most important thing so that time will tell.

MM: What advice can you give and what projects are on your horizon?

JM: I’m currently in post-production on a feature documentary/series called "Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business." It’s meant to be an entertaining ‘film school in a box’ that I’ve been shooting and working on since 2014. I’ve now collected over 120 interviews with people in all levels of the industry, and we’re piecing it together now, with ‘24x36’ director Kevin Burke working on the edit with me. There are also two features that should go to camera soon: Mark of Kane, based on the novel ‘Kane,’ which Serena Whitney and I optioned and have co-written/are co-producing.

That’s set to shoot in Australia in early 2019 with director Serhat Caradee. And Do You See What I SEE? an X-mas horror/action feature expanding upon the short film by the same name that Serena and I release in 2016. And, of course, continuing with our Little Terrors anthology series (the first three were "Minutes Past Midnight," "Galaxy of Horrors," "Blood Sweat" and "Terrors".)

Never give up, if it’s truly your passion. You’re likely going to hit a ton of roadblocks, hear the word ‘no’ more times than you can count, get criticized by the world at large, doubt yourself at every turn, make films that don’t turn out how you intended, have trouble keeping afloat financially, maybe have trouble sleeping, or will have to make sacrifices of comfort in the name of the dream.

But if is your dream, if it is your passion, then it’s all worth it. No question. It’s a bit a form of insanity, maybe, wanting to do this in the current business. But it’s a shared insanity, so go for it. Just do it. However, you can. And then look back on the struggle and realize how alive you feel during it. Oh, and don’t go into the business without realizing you need to actually learn that it is a business, and treat it accordingly. Make mistakes, then learn from them. There’s always more to learn.