Thursday, January 21, 2010 - An excellent chat with Writer\Director\Producer Justin McConnell

Today has the pleasure of speaking with Justin McConnell Writer\Director and CEO of Unstable Ground a cutting edge Media company in Toronto, Canada.

Thank for joining us.

TGL - Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into the film industry? What first attracted you to writing and directing?

JMc - This may be a cliché answer to start an interview with, but film is in my blood. I may not come from a filmmaking family exactly, but they were a family of movie lovers. I both thank and blame my father for where I am today – had he not snuck the staple horror/edgy flicks past my mom from a relatively young age, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Thanks to him exposing me to “classic” (debatable, I’m aware) titles like Alien/Aliens, the Predator movies, Critters & Gremlins flicks, Argento (I wouldn’t recommend trying to watch “Phenomena aka Creepers” when you’re 12), and the first of it all, Monster Squad – the doors were opened that made me into the wonderfully twisted individual I am now.

From there it just became a mission – watch and study film (I mean really study it), make a bunch of cheapie shorts, film school, starting my own production/post company, and just working with the nose to the grindstone. If you want something bad enough, you just put everything you’ve got into it, and hopefully it works out.

TGL - A couple of years ago you wrote and directed a short called "Ending the Eternal" that tells the story of Samuel Gradius an ages old Vampire looking to put an end to his life. Since then it has spawned a Graphic Novel and you'll be shooting a feature length sequel called "The Eternal" later this year. Was that always part of the vision for Samuel Gradius? Did you intend to tell his story in three parts or did that evolve with the success of the short? Tell us a bit about the new project.

JMc - Samuel Gradius’ story was more an evolution than a solid plan. The first incarnation of that short I actually wrote back in high school (circa 1999-ish), as a short story called “Musings of an Ancient”. From there, the first draft of the script was written all the way back in 2003. Around that time I was shooting a feature-length documentary called “Working Class Rock Star”, and it pushed development of the idea to the backburner until 2007, when we finally said “Let’s just get the money together and make this bloody thing”. At that point my long-time writing partner Kevin Hutchinson and I sat down and started really breaking down and producing the short.

Waiting until then turned out great in a lot of ways – we had very little to make the short (less than $20K) – so it connected us with a strong team in it for not only money, but the art (special shout-out to our DOP Pasha Patriki). It introduced us to a great non-union (at the time) actor named Adam Kenneth Wilson. We first met him during the audition process, and he brought so much to the character from the get-go that we decided we had to expand Samuel’s story. We were so impressed with Adam once the short was finished that we asked him to join us as a co-writer.

From there it just grew and grew. The feature idea came first – we finished the first draft of the script in mid 2008, and started shopping for finance. At a certain point we realized just how difficult the indie market is right now, so decided we needed an edge – and the graphic novel idea, “The Eternal: Final Dawn”, was born.

Out of everything the graphic novel has been the most interesting for me from a writing perspective. We are writing it as the 500-year history of the character, a prequel of sorts. In doing so, we’ve managed to flesh out a really detailed world in which Samuel and “The Eternal” exist. I also got to put on my historian cap, and research a lot of myth/legend/history to weave into the narrative. The thing nobody knows yet is the other larger elements at play in Samuel’s story – elements that also weave through our other upcoming films “Deliver Us” and “New Generation”. We want people to be able to connect the universe in the same way one would Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER, or a show like LOST. Give something more immersive to potential fans.

TGL - A lot of our readers have asked questions about making into production. Can you briefly walk us through the journey, like a timeline of how you made it from idea to completed project? Do you think short films are the place for people, who want to launch a career in the film industry, to start?

JMc - Making a film, even a short, is a long process – at least it is if you want it to be any good. You don’t want any weak links – in the end, one bad performance, a weird music cue, FX that don’t work, etc. – can sink the audience reaction to your work. In an industry as over-saturated as the film industry is now, and technology existing in which anyone can slap together something on a Handi-cam and call it a film, you need that edge.

Obviously it all starts with the idea and script. That needs to be developed fairly well – don’t just write a first draft and shoot that. Take some time with it. I’m not going to go into the financing side, since the next two questions talk about that – but you need to develop and figure out your budget next. How cheaply can you do it well? What is your ideal budget? Once you have that figured out, and you know how much money you have to play with, pre-production can begin.

The film itself is made in pre-production. If you slack here, your film will suffer greatly. The lower the budget, the more responsibility you’ll find yourself saddled with. I’ve worked on many things in which, as director/producer, I didn’t have the budget to pay a full crew – so you have to decide who you have room for, and what roles you can sacrifice. The hope is you’ll have enough money, but don’t feel bad if you are also up until 4am making craft-services for the next day, even as a director (which I’ve done on a number of occasions). Filmmaking isn’t glamorous, and a lot of my “success” came from the willingness to get my hands dirty.

You need to be organized from day one. Shot-lists, storyboards, and a good firm schedule can really help your film. I never show up on set without knowing exactly what I plan to shoot that day. The D.O.P. gets my shotlist days before we shoot so we’re on the same page and can discuss problems that may arise BEFORE we get to set. And most of all remember – even the highest skilled veterans like to work and create, so don’t be afraid to ask for professional help on deferral and reduced rates. I know that as a genre filmmaker, my product is only as good as my FX team and DP, so I never compromise there.

There is no set timeline to get a film done, but the key is efficiency. With “Ending the Eternal” we did a loose 1.5 months of pre-production (keeping in mind that with a full crew this pre-pro would be significantly shorter), 3 shoot days, and a couple of months of post (again, this isn’t work all the time – you need to let your cuts sit a bit, let friends watch and give feedback – you never know what can be improved if you don’t rush things). With a feature the schedules vary – a standard indie feature preps for approximately 10-20 days, and shoots for about the same. More money allows more time to play around and get everything perfect, so in an lot of ways the indie filmmaker has to be even more organized to make an impact.

As for short films, I’m of two minds. Dov S-S Simens would disagree with me, but I think they have a great deal of value. The “calling card” short is a great commodity to get your foot in the door - look at Neill Blomkamp, Jason Eisner or James Wan. However, you have to go into them knowing you probably won’t make your money back. Very few people buy shorts, and the licensing fees are very low. They are great “demos” for your abilities, especially on the festival circuit, but if you can take the same money and make an effective feature film out of it, then you may actually have a product that is worthy of distribution and decent revenue.

TGL - We also get a lot of questions about money. What kind of budget was there for Ending the Eternal? And how does it compare to the feature?

JMc - “Ending the Eternal” was very low budget (less than $20K), but everyone still got paid decently enough on set. However there was still a lot of donated work, so if everything cost what it should have, probably closer to $50K.

On a feature film things are different – sure, you could ask people to work for 15-20 days for little pay, but I really don’t like doing that. A paid crew is one that won’t screw you over in the 11th hour. “The Eternal” was written and designed to be a proper film, with a proper budget and actual known (name) actors. Because of the cast we have attached (which can’t go public yet), we need a lot more money – and because we’re poised to make a Canadian indie feature with the intent of a limited theatrical release and worldwide sales appeal, we aren’t just going and shooting it. We’re raising a fairly sizeable chunk of money for an indie film made in the current industry.

However, as it stands I have multiple versions of “The Eternal” worked out – we have the “ideal” version, and then know we are able to make it for approximately half the money. This of course means less cast pedigree and more corners cut, but you need to have a contingency plan. Money is extremely hard to come by, and even more-so now. It’s out there, but it takes a lot of work (and don’t kid yourself, working capital) to put together. We still don’t have all of our goal finance on “The Eternal”, despite having shopped it and taken countless meetings over the last year and a half. The financial climate across the board is one of nervousness and very little risk-taking, so you have to be ready and put yourself in a position to keep swimming, if plan A doesn’t pan out.

What I’ve learned to do is play the game and diversify as much as possible. “The Eternal” may be our flagship film, and our highest budget (night and day compared to the short – but it is a much bigger story) – but you meet so many different kinds of financers that it’s good to be ready to take the discussion into multiple directions. Because of this we have three other properties packaged and ready to shoot, at varying lower budgets. If someone doesn’t want to invest in “The Eternal” but still wants to invest in something a little less financially heavy, we’ve got “Foster’s Bane” (thriller @ $500K), “Skull World” (doc/comedy @ $100K), and a new currently untitled project (dark comedy/thriller @ $100K).

TGL - What are some of the challenges you've faced in getting your work off the page and onto the screen? How did you overcome these challenges?

JMc - I’ll let you know when those challenges are entirely overcome. At the moment the financing game is a tall mountain to climb. We’re confident we’ll get our goal, but you have to be prepared for a lot of disappointment. You can meet and negotiate and plan out your project for months and then everything you worked toward can fall apart in a single phone call.

With indie film, a lot of financing structures are also built around the idea of co-production. A $2 million film might have 10 different financers, or two (each putting in half the money), etc. If one of those financers pulls out, goes bankrupt, or anything else, your project could sink. You need to be extremely careful in how you approach everything. I’ve thought we’ve had full greenlight twice already with “The Eternal”, and twice it’s fallen apart. It can be incredibly disheartening, but you keep going.

Another worry is creative control. The fact is – if someone is paying for your movie, unless you are very lucky, or David Lynch, it’s not going to be the same film you saw in your head. This is both good and bad – film is a collaborative art and other opinions are good. Notes and changes can sometimes be for the better. But not always. I haven’t hit the point yet in which I’ve had someone literally tell me to change something or it’s a deal-breaker, but I know it’s coming.

I think the only thing you can do as a filmmaker worth your salt is move forward carefully, and be ready to get screwed over. And when it happens, don’t let it kill the dream. You need thick skin, or you’ll get chewed up and spit out. Remember, there are a million other people just like you, at varying degrees of talent, all competing for the same dollar. All after the almighty “greenlight”. Talent is one thing, but unless you take the time to teach yourself the business and really know what goes on at markets like AFM, and how deals are made, you are just a dreamer. Even as a writer. You need to know these things in 2010. Everyone that “makes it” on an indie level does.

There are great resources out there to learn these things. Search online for producing tips and blogs (like Todd Farmer’s great writing blog), get an IMDbPro membership and read the message-boards, add filmmakers on Facebook and actually try and talk to them, pick their brain. People love to talk, love to pass on knowledge (well, most of them), so never feel shy. Your passion and sincerity will come through, and you can gain tons of valuable info. I also highly recommend Lloyd Kaufman’s book “Produce Your Own Damn Movie” and Dov S-S Simens “2-Day Film School” DVD collection.

Also, more than anything else, learn the pitfalls in the industry. Avoid the sharks and so-called producer’s reps/sales agents that are really only after conning you out of money. There are some great sales agents out there (most are IFTA members), but there are also fly-by-night con-men that will take you for every penny you’re worth if you give them the chance. Check everyone out. Being stupid will result in nothing but debt and shattered dreams (or thicker skin, if you have to learn the hard way). The sharks prey on your ambition and most young filmmakers aren’t grounded enough to realize that “too good to be true” usually is.

TGL - What is your writing process?

JMc - I generally write with my long-time creative partner Kevin Hutchinson (, but regardless it’s generally the same when it comes to screenplays. After the initial idea, or spark of an idea, we sit and discuss it, sometimes we’ll meet a few times just talking it back and forth. We come up with the general story, working out any plot holes or problems that may arise. The next, and most important step, is characters. Generally, we make up detailed character backgrounds for everyone in the story, even the minor ones. We make sure we’ve come up with who they are, where they’ve come from, their personalities, how they’d respond to a given situation. The audience will never know the detail we put in, but it’s that detail that dictates the story. It becomes much easier to write if we know what John Doe will do if a big monster jumps in front of him. If we know their every insecurity, their psychology, etc. For example, if a character has intense anxiety disorder, then a certain degree of suspense actually organically comes from that trait.

Next up is the rough outline – a point by point breakdown of the major beats in the story. We then take that outline and write it up, change things that need changing, and start hashing dialogue. Generally we know the entire story before we even start a draft (though in some cases a free-form script can be something powerful – just very rarely).

Finally, the first draft starts, which I usually end up writing on my own (with constant input from Kevin). After that, we revise together to second draft. Any subsequent drafts come with the benefit of time and reflection – over time ideas change, some things get thrown out, and the story becomes more solid.

TGL - A common question we get is about rewrites during the shoot. What we have on paper sometimes doesn't translate 100% to the screen... Did you find or do you expect that you'll have many re-writes during filming?

JMc - Rewriting during production is usually for practical reasons. A location will make the blocking impossible and it has to revised, or an effect or gag doesn’t work and you have to improvise, etc. As a writer and/or director you have to think on your feet, especially with low-budget. You may write your story for one way, but after casting your actors may have a different cadence to their speech patterns (ie. Dialogue changes needed), certain performances may seem weaker (character time cut), or you might just simply run out of money (which shouldn’t happen if you produce well).

I think the best moments and re-writes are the ones that come while making the film. You may have a great idea or a way to add another layer to the story easily, halfway through the shooting schedule. Or anyone might have made a great suggestion...... a film continues to be written while it’s shot, and it’s important to realize that it’s a good thing.

Which side of things do you prefer? Writing or Directing?

JMc - For me they are somewhat indistinguishable. I somewhat prescribe to the Auteur Theory, and am trying to shape a career as a writer/director.

When writing I’m actually breaking down the film, shots and all, in my head. I know the way I want the scene to play out – so when it comes to directing what is written not much gets lost in translation.

Even if I end up directing a script that isn’t mine, the director is still very much a writer in that case. The words and the story are one thing, but how that story is told on screen is just as much a part of the writing process. A reaction shot, decisions on how lines should be played – many things, both subtle and less so, dictate how the story is interpreted. Both roles are different sides of the same coin.

TGL - What advice would you give to someone looking to film their first short?

JMc - If it’s your first short – just shoot the bloody thing. Do a simple idea that doesn’t take a ton of effort, and shoot it. Aim to make it the best you can. Get this into your head now – if it’s your first short, chances are it isn’t going to be amazing. Do it anyway. The first short is all about experience.

My first short was “Retribution of the Meek”, which I made in high school. Cheap cameras, cheap blood, etc. But I learned things making it that still apply today. “Ending the Eternal” was actually my fifth short film, but the first to get any sort of actual notoriety. I made one after that, “Open Invitation”, and I think the growth as a filmmaker is clear between the two.

Just keep shooting – but don’t go to make your first short and sink $20K into it – because it’s a waste of money. Make sure you know what you’re doing before you really start putting cash into your career. A bad looking $20K short is just that – worthless. But a bad looking first time short is worth the experience. Who knows, you might be a genius who can pull off something amazing right out of the gate, but it’s unlikely. Film is a learned craft, a culmination of years of experience and knowledge. So take the time, and don’t worry if it takes longer than you expect – it will.

TGL - We see a lot or media online and everybody has a YouTube Channel these days. Has the Internet become a new tool for Indy writers/directors? How have you used this medium to get projects out there?

JMc - The internet has made me. I’ve got pages on Facebook, Vimeo, Youtube, Twitter, Google Video, Daily Motion, Pelime, Myspace, Imdb, etc. Embrace it. Never before has it been so easy to get your work out to the world. The networking sites have also allowed me to get to know the webmasters/editors at most major horror news sites, so they run my press releases. Whore yourself, but do it respectfully. Attach your uploaded videos to theme-driven groups. You never know who is going to see your stuff online. Enter in online film festivals, post links on message boards – go to where the fans of your type of film are, and get your buzz building. It’s worth the work.

The internet can also help you build your network and crew – Craigslist,, social networking sites – you may find everyone you need to get your film off the ground via these. Use it to make your name, to advertise your upcoming events, to make your presence known. And when you’re about to go into production, use the internet and approach Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Baseline Studiosystems (who provide all film info for the New York Times, Yahoo, Fancast, and much more) – announce your project in the trades or production charts – people will come out of the woodwork inquiring about your film. Some great contacts can be made this way.

Be careful with short films though – if you want to make a festival impact, you can’t release on the internet first – as most major festivals require your film to be an exclusive premiere (or at least not available for free on the internet). We did pretty well at festivals with “Ending the Eternal”, but we didn’t get into some because I decided to give it an internet release first. I don’t mind – plenty of fans have been made online.

TGL - We've spoken about the Eternal Saga, what other projects are you working on? What can we look forward to in 2010?

JMc - 2010 is planned to be the year of “The Eternal”, but we have a number of other projects in varying stages of development. I’ve been shooting a new documentary called “Skull World” ( for a little over a year now. That wraps in Fall 2010. In addition, we have two lower budget features, “Foster’s Bane” and a currently untitled one. Besides that, some music videos. Generally our main focus is on getting Samuel’s story out to the world.

TGL - Again, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

JMc - You’re quite welcome. Hopefully I didn’t write too much.

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