Haunted Honeymoon

Interview: Justin McConnell (The Eternal)

Justin McConnell spoke to HorrorNews only a scant few months ago, and in the meantime, the Toronto based horror maker has continued to move and shake it in a notoriously prickly and fickle industry. He took some time to talk to us yet again about the various developments happening in his always promising career, as well as impart some hard won wisdom about the industry of moving pictures.

Since you last spoke to HorrorNews.net, you’ve had some exciting developments in regards to your film “The Eternal”. What has happened with that particular project?

We’ve hit a point where it’s basically greenlit, with shooting targeted for early next year. The sales agents on my last two films, RAVEN BANNER ENTERTAINMENT, have stepped up and acquired the worldwide rights, and are going to co-produce the film with us. In addition, a great Canadian producer named Avi Federgreen has joined the team, and we’re in a position now where we’re in the final stages of getting it all together, finally. I’m always cautiously optimistic, but after a long time in development, it looks like things are going to happen.

I’m sure that the road to this current stage of “The Eternal” has been a detailed and complicated one, but can you fill us in on how this project has come to fruition?

It started with an idea and a short film, something I initially wrote in high school. I took this short story called ‘Musing of an Ancient’ and adapted it into a short film that we shot on low-budget in 2007, entitled ‘Ending the Eternal’. During the audition process, my co-writer Kevin Hutchinson and I met actor Adam Kenneth Wilson, and he brought so much to the lead that once the short was completed, we knew we had to expand upon it. Before we did our film festival run with the short in 2008, the three of us worked out the initial draft of the script for ‘The Eternal’. Instead of just retelling the short, we set it a few months afterward, and took the story from there. The feature version became much more of an action-driven film, and we got hard at work shopping it around that year. I also, without the help of a casting director, hopped on the phone and started calling agents, quietly attaching actors. That year I attended AFM for the first time, and we ended up with a lot of interest… enough that we were about halfway to our target budget by the end of the year. Unfortunately, the recession also hit at the same time, our budget was too high for the needs of the market, investors pulled their offers, and we were dead in the water for a bit.

Kevin and I took the time to rework the project a little, re-writing the film, and also working on a number of other feature screenplays. We built a connected world of scripts, 5 in all, and kept shopping ‘The Eternal’ however we could. We also shot a really low-budget teaser trailer for the film in 2009, to help push it at AFM that year. Nothing seemed to really work, despite the continued ‘interest’ from a number of companies, and we figured we had to try a different approach. Deciding that we needed a ‘calling-card’ feature to be taken more seriously, we very quickly wrote ‘The Collapsed’ in the spring of 2010, knowing we only had about $40,000 to get it shot, and wrote around the budget we had to work with. It was that fall we first connected with the team at Raven Banner, and together with a thorough publicity campaign and festival run, we ended up selling this ultra-low-budget feature to 12 countries, to companies like Anchor Bay and Lions Gate. At that point, more doors started to open. I kept attending AFM each year and taking meetings with whoever I could, eventually a series of events lead to Michael Biehn reading the script, he enjoyed it and jumped onboard, and now we find ourselves here, finally. The team we’re working with is great, the script is much stronger than it was when we started out (4 years of polishing makes a huge difference, compared to the roughly 1 month we took to write ‘The Collapsed’), and I’m excited to finally get this mayhem to an audience.

Sadly, this is all very bittersweet for me at the moment, because one major part of the team didn’t make it this far. My best friend and co-creative Kevin Hutchinson passed away at the end of August this year, and now we have to produce without him. His ideas are there, though.

Michael Biehn is toplining- how did he get involved, and will the rest of the cast and crew be American or Canadian?

It was actually a confluence of random events that lead to Michael’s involvement. I work with Anchor Bay here in Canada as an editor, and we were discussing potential guests for Festival of Fear in 2011. I suggested Michael Biehn, since he was in ‘The Divide’, which they distributed. I actually just took a cold risk and approached via his Facebook page, and was passed on to his lovely wife Jennifer-Blanc Biehn. The end result was that Biehn was booked as a guest of the convention, and I ended up meeting him in person at the Anchor Bay booth that year, while we were promoting ‘The Collapsed’. We got to talking briefly at a party about low-budget production, since he had just shot his directorial debut ‘The Victim’ on the cheap. He was given a copy of ‘The Collapsed’ and eventually the package for ‘The Eternal’. He read it, enjoyed it, and agreed to join the cause. I’m very thankful he believes in the project, because he’s a hell of a talented actor that I grew up watching, and it blows me away that he believes in indie production as much as he does. It helps that I think he’s got a great character to sink his teeth into (not literally, he’s playing a human), and he’s basically the lead.

As for the rest of the cast, it’ll be a healthy balance of Canadian and US/foreign. The characters are rather international, and it’s very much an ensemble in the script. We’re in talks with a number of people I would absolutely love to work with, and time will tell if they decide they want to work on the film. The script definitely seems to interest people, it’s just a matter of negotiating the right deals for our budget. We also, of course, have the very-talented Adam Kenneth Wilson back to play ‘Samuel Gradius’, the one-and-only vampire in the film, and I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. His profile is building a fair bit at the moment too, with his sizeable role in George Mihalka’s series ’24 Hour Rental’ (also starring Biehn), and his work in the Mirvish play ‘Terminus’. Long story short with the casting: my goal is to bring together a lot of talented people that will both understand the tone of the material, and enjoy working with it.

Do you think you will stay in Canada as a film maker, or do you plan on moving to the U.S?

That’s a tough question at the moment. I feel there’s a great indie genre scene growing in this country now, and it’s an honour to be a part of it. I believe that with enough work and opportunity I can make a great career staying in Canada, and produce a lot of entertaining film. However, the structure of production in Canada is not what I would call flexible or inviting.

We have great tax incentives, and there’s a ton of funding programs that are available if you play the game correctly, but in many cases these limit the creativity of the project overall. It’s not impossible to produce the film you want in this country, but it’s difficult to do it without compromise. In terms of indie financing, the scene is still in it’s infancy compared to the US, so it will be a while before there’s a healthy, competitive industry operating independently of the government structures. Not only that, but those very structures are under fire and losing support, so the future is looking both promising on one hand, and dire on the other. Add to that a level or bureaucracy that can be, at times, migraine inducing, and the US does start to look somewhat appealing. I know one thing for sure: I’ll be here for quite a while to come, and produce as long as I can. At some point though, I may have to decide what is best for my career, and pull up stakes. I’m of two minds on this subject, but am not going anywhere in the immediate future.

Your production company, Unstable Ground, Inc, has been around for a decade. How have you managed to keep your company afloat, financially and creatively?

Debt. And perseverance. A lot of my work has been self-financed, enough that I racked up a sizeable amount of debt just building the company. That’s finally starting to turn around, but it took a long time to get there. On a day to day, I can survive, and produce whatever is asked of me, but there’s still plenty of times when I’m left scrounging for change in the couch cushions. I’ve built up a great roster of clients though, and the last few years the work I’ve been getting is really helping pay the bills. I also haven’t held what I would consider a ‘day job’ since 2003, so there is silver-lining to the process. As a freelance service provider I basically set my own hours, am able to carve out time to work on the creative film endeavours, and that keeps things seeming fresh. I’ve also managed to go on a number of overseas gigs (Russia, China, Australia) over the years that kind of refresh the creative coffers, so to speak. At this point I’ve started doing BluRay & DVD authoring/production for two major distributors, and it’s helped further fund the work I do. It was really tough going for a while though, but after all this time I have a great body of work to draw from, enough to keep food on my table. I also learned early on that your ‘brand’ really matters, so I do everything I can to get it out there in the public consciousness. I gradually taught myself the PR game, because nobody else was going to do it for me in the early days, and it’s been invaluable knowledge, even as other people have also been working to push my name as of late.

You curate a monthly screening of short films with Rue Morgue called “Little Terrors”. What has been your favourite films that you have screened, and what, in your opinion, makes a great short film?

Another difficult question. We’ve played well over 100 shorts at this point, over 13 events, and I generally try to avoid playing anything that I don’t think the audience will enjoy. I would say there are 1 or 2 ‘favourites’ every month. I say this to preface for any filmmaker reading this interview, in case your short isn’t mentioned, because we’d be here all day. Highlights that jump to mind though: Robert Morgan’s ‘Bobby Yeah’, Jerome Sable’s ‘The Legend of Beaver Dam’, Pedro Cristiani’s ‘Deus Irae’, Joshua Long’s ‘Axed’, ‘Brutal Relax’, Todd Cobery’s ‘Good Morning Beautiful’, Clark Baker’s ‘Vessel’, Steven Kostanski’s ‘Heart of Karl’, Lee Cronin’s ‘Through the Night’, Kevin McTurk’s ‘The Narrative of Victor Karloch’, L Gustavo Cooper’s ‘Velvet Road’, this list goes on and on. The next event on November 21st (9pm, Carlton Cinema) has one of the stronger line-ups we’ve ever programmed, so I truly recommend people attend if they can. We’re premiering the Sitges-hit ‘Yellow’, among many other killer titles.

As for what makes a good short film, it’s not something with a succinct answer. The great thing about a short is that it doesn’t have to be only one thing… it’s a great format to experiment and try new things, to mess with the audience’s minds and expectations, and generally present subject matter and structure that wouldn’t work normally with feature-length. So, whether your short has a tight-narrative, or is a more abstract piece of outsider art, I would recommend you consider your audience above all else. A short can be personal, and it can be obtuse enough that only a small percentage will even understand it, but it’s your job as a filmmaker to make sure that doesn’t matter in the end. You want the audience to buy every moment of your film, or you are wasting your time.

This doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing if you don’t have the resources to pull something off, but at least realize what your resources can effectively create. If you cast all of your friends in a zombie ‘epic’ that you’re shooting on a handicam, don’t produce effectively and within your means, and then go forward thinking it’s the next coming of ‘Dawn of the Dead’, you’re not being realistic. The cracks will show, it will be a great learning experience (because you should always be producing and learning), but programmers generally won’t touch it. A great short, to me, is something that makes the audience feel something. Whatever your goal is: to make us laugh, feel uncomfortable, think, etc., as long as afterward the audience sees your story before the flaws, you’ve made a successful short.

What is happening with your web series, Rub One Out?

I literally had a discussion about this one with one of the co-writers, Joseph Nanni (Black Goat, It Got Out), yesterday. The last time we had a serious story meeting about this one was in the summer, before Kevin died. The truth is that this series originated from an idea Kevin had for a really crass comedy short, and after he passed away it was tough to go back and discuss this further. There were four of us writing it – Kevin, Joseph, Adam Kenneth Wilson and myself. We still want to do it, it’s just a matter of finding the time in all of our schedules to develop the script for the first season. With ‘The Eternal’ coming up and a slew of other things, it’s always the challenge to find the time. I think it’s got to get made though… it’ll be a nice comedic departure for us (while still basically being in the horror genre), and should be a lot of fun. Also, I think I owe it to Kevin to get this idea of his out to the world, even in the adapted/altered form it’s currently taking.

What is your least favourite trend in horror?

I both love and hate zombies. I enjoy a good zombie movie, and always have, since long before the cultural explosion they have experienced as of late. But there’s just too damn many of them now. They’re over-saturated to the point of farce. Same with vampires (and I understand the irony saying that, considering I’m shooting a vampire movie next…. but in all honesty, the vampirism is the least interesting thing about ‘The Eternal’, in my mind). I’m not just talking about zombie movies either. Books, TV shows, T-shirts, toys, dolls, do-it-yourself make-up kits, 20% of all Halloween costumes, endless memes. Even the CDC and Heart & Stroke Foundation are using them to gain exposure.

They’re the horror genre’s equivalent of Pokemon to me, or that horrible ‘Gangnam Style’ thing. Except, like every zombie, they just won’t f*cking die. It’s also a big trend in indie filmmaking, where people will do a zombie film because it’s easy, often lazy, it sells, and is full of tropes that take no real effort to put into a blender when writing a script. Every once in a while there’s a diamond in the rough, and I still watch a lot of them in the off-chance I find one, but you have to get through a sea of pretenders to find something real. There were over a dozen films with the word ‘Zombie’ in the title at AFM this year, are even more on Kickstarter, and it’s just getting to the point where I want to say “enough, dammit”. In a few years it’ll likely get this way with werewolves. We have this well we keep going back to, again and again, and zombies have had their day in the sun. Unfortunately, they are also huge business right now, so nothing against those making or setting out to make a zombie project… it makes sense on that level. Just please try and have something new to say. We’ve all seen the ‘Dead’ scenario play out ad nauseam now. Time for something else.

What has been the hardest won lesson you have learned as a film maker?

To have patience, thick skin, and realistic expectations. Patience, because things often take far longer than you expect them to. I’m 31 now. When I was 21, and was charting my path to my goals, I would have expected to be further along in my career at this point. But that’s the folly of youth. Sometimes people get really lucky and break big when they’re younger, but that’s a very small percentage. An even smaller percentage got there quickly through sheer talent. There will always be people with more access and an easier path to their dreams, and it took a long time for me to stop seeing them as competition. It’s my life to live, not theirs, and I’ll move at the speed I was meant to, in the end. Thick skin is really important, especially in the days of the internet.

And I didn’t realize how thick until after ‘The Collapsed’ came out and was being watched all over the world. Some people take it personally when they hate a film, and make it a mission to really mess with your mood via personal attacks. The reality is that everyone’s tastes are different, and if you dwell on the negative responses, you won’t see the positive. That film is far from perfect, but it’s got just as many fans as it does detractors, and it took me quite a while to come to terms with that. Hell, right now some kid is probably sitting on the IMDb message-board for ‘The Godfather’ and calling it ‘the most boring piece of shit I’ve ever seen’. That’s the nature of things now (and in no way am I comparing my last film to ‘The Godfather’…. just stating that everyone has different tastes, and the ADD generation’s are very, very different from my own). Finally, realistic expectations, because not everything you do is going to be a hit, or even that great. The biggest and best directors have misfires every now and again. People get screwed over at every level of the game, losing money and sanity in the process. As long as you take it all in stride, realize there’s always tomorrow and the next project if you keep working at it, you’ll be okay. You’ll have a career.

Interview: Justin McConnell (The Eternal)

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