FrightFest 2020: Clapboard Jungle Review

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If you want to get an insight as to how films get made, than this might just be the documentary for you – here’s our review of Clapboard Jungle.

“A lost cause is the only one worth fighting,” Guillermo del Toro tells us in Clapboard Jungle.

If you want to bring this writer onboard with your film immediately, showing a stop motion film that you made as a child using Ninja Turtles action figures is a very good way of doing it.

Clapboard Jungle, from director Justin McConnell, is a documentary about how films get made. McConnell films his process of trying to get a movie off the ground, illuminating each step of the process with interviews as he does.

We stay with McConnell through footage sourced over several years as he takes important calls, writes and attempts to bring collaborators onto his projects. We travel with him to festivals and sales markets. There are doubts and devastations laid bare for the camera; there’s real bravery in how candid and open McConnell is.

One of the reasons Clapboard Jungle is so insightful is because it’s not just focused on filmmakers. There are interviews with producers, sales agents, distributors and people working in all kinds of roles within the industry. It is a full look at the process, with empathy for everyone involved. This is not an expose on corruption, it’s an explanation as to why it’s so goddamned hard.

However, there are several filmmaker interviews and they are really something. There are so many brilliant filmmakers that offer us their insights. From Paul Schrader to Larry Cohen to Brian Yuzna, it feels like I could spend paragraphs listing the wonderful people in this film and would still miss some names out. They even have George A. Romero.

The thing is, getting really good storytellers involved is great because they’re often really good at speaking, too.

There are a few stand outs I’m compelled to mention. Please just let Guillermo del Toro, Lloyd Kaufman and Frank Henenlotter talk for a podcast or something. del Toro is the loveliest person to listen to. Kaufman talks like he’s trying to get you to step right up and take three balls for $5 at his carnival game and if you ask him if it’s rigged, he’ll wink at you. He is wired, buzzing with energy. Frank Henenlotter is just mesmerizing. I could honestly listen to them for hours.

The personal aspect of McConnell’s film is no small selling point. We get to know McConnell over the run time and because we’re with him for the victories and setbacks, it doesn’t take much time to become invested. It’s all very unshowy, too. We spend as much time with McConnell in his small apartment, co-writing a movie, planning pitches, writing and taking make-or-break calls as we do flying around the world trying to get the movie made.

There’s something about the process of making a film that is so frustratingly imprecise, even with this documentary illuminating so many areas and walking us through some of the unwritten rules.

Something about Clapboard Jungle that really stuck with me was that this seemingly impossible battle that McConnell was showing us was occurring in hundreds, maybe thousands of other apartments with other aspiring filmmakers all across the world. I think Clapboard Jungle is a really effective response to internet trolls, because I can’t imagine coming out the other side of this documentary with any vitriol. Even the worst film you’ve ever seen went through a process just like this. Look at how difficult it is.

That’s not to say that the documentary is without flaws. It does run a little too long, with McConnell’s story expanding to cover more screen time in the second half of the movie. There are also several international trips to sales markets and film festivals with no insight for aspiring filmmakers as to how they might cover these financially.

As we spend time with McConnell we get a great insight into his battle to make a career as a filmmaker, but I would have loved to hear some more on his passion for movies and stories. The love gets lost in the work and the frustration at times.

Clapboard Jungle, then, is a generous and illuminating documentary about pulling an idea out of your head and dragging it onto the screen. For movie fans this documentary is a breezy and very enjoyable explanation as to what goes into making a film with some fantastic interviews from some brilliant filmmakers. For aspiring filmmakers, though, this documentary should be treated as an invaluable resource. Tune in and take notes.

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