Interview: Justin McConnell – ‘Lifechanger’

❉ The Canadian writer & director on his career, inspirations, and his acclaimed new feature ‘Lifechanger’

Drew has an identity problem. Every few days, has to shape-shift, or face a painful death. He has to find someone and make a copy. He takes everything: their looks, memories, hopes, and dreams. Their entire life. He becomes them, and they die horribly. Enter Julia, the object of Drew’s affection. How can he make things right when he’s never the same person for very long? How do you gain back trust when who you are keeps changing?

Justin McConnell.

Part psychological thriller, part body horror, Lifechanger follows one shape-shifters’ twisted quest to repair the damage he’s caused, while leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Shot on location in Toronto, Whitby and Uxbridge Ontario, Canada, Lifechanger is best described as “an obsession tale with lots of twists and turns” because it doesn’t fit a certain genre.

More than four different actors play the character Drew throughout the film. To ensure the character Drew remained consistent between the various actors playing him, the cast participated in Drew “boot camps” to learn and properly portray his “ticks” on screen, such as scratching the back of his neck and drumming his fingers.

Lifechanger is written and directed by Writer/Director/Producer Justin McConnell. Justin runs Toronto-based production/post company Unstable Ground, is the lead programmer of the monthly horror short-film festival Little Terrors (which he co-runs with Rue Morgue Magazine), a Programmer for Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and is an acquisitions rep for two distribution companies: Indiecan Entertainment And Raven Banner Entertainment.

You only need to stalk your socials to see how many hats you wear in your day-to-day life. Which one did you wear first?

If you mean in an official capacity, in a way that is actually a career, post-production and editing. But I’ve wanted to make films from a young age, and made lots of my own videos and movies growing up. I ultimately decided my fastest way to getting where I wanted to go, and the easiest way for me to make a living while still being involved in film, was through editing. I didn’t want to work day jobs to support myself, so figured if I got good at post-production I could keep food on the table while pursuing a broader career in the business. So I went to school for post, quickly started working at a commercial house, and started trying to hunt down music video clients simultaneously. Everything else just kind of grew organically as time went on.

Filmmaking was always the goal though?

Well, filmmaking was my first serious goal, which I figured out by the age of 15. Before that I wanted to be a paleontologist, and then a criminologist. But eventually I realized I just really liked Jurassic Park and Silence of the Lambs.

Lucas or Spielberg? Which one inspired you the most? (it’s usually one of the two, right?)

John Carpenter, Wes Craven and George A. Romero. But if have to choose one of the two, I’d side with Spielberg.

How long do you think it took you to hit your stride as a filmmaker?

I’m not even sure what that question means, to be honest. Maybe I have yet to hit my stride? It’s a rather subjective thing to answer. But I’d say from the moment I set feature films as a goal, to when I believed I was seriously going to be able to do this, maybe a decade. Maybe less. I’d imagine I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in the dream early on. There have been lots of bumps along the way, though. I do know I couldn’t do anything else. While still doing lots else, but at least related to film in one way or another. But I suppose the time when I confidently felt I could continue to do this was around when I made the short film ‘Ending the Eternal’, back in 2007. Before that I was just feeling my way through. I’m never going to stop learning, though. So I can’t say when my ‘stride’ really is.

Is ‘Lifechange’r your favorite project of the Justin McConnell catalogue? Happy with it?

I believe it is my most accomplished film to date. But I have appreciation for my past work still, as rough around the edges as it is. It’s not really for me to judge, though. I just know that every film is another rung on a ladder, and maybe a couple of them were me falling down a rung (heh). I have to appreciate all the steps I take in a given journey. As in ‘Heart of Darkness’, the journey is what matters.

How much did those amazing reviews from the festival, earlier in the year, do for you and the film?

They’ve definitely helped put the film on the radar of a lot more people, and I’m sure have influenced our international sales to a degree. And will help people decide to see the film when it is released in an easy to watch format. Since there are so many films released every year, every bit of positive word of mouth or press gives a film a better chance of getting an audience. Helps cut through the noise. There’ve been a few not so great reviews as well, which I’m sure will have the opposite effect. It’s all a gamble. I had no idea how the film was going to be received until it was out there and being evaluated. And I think you never know the legacy of a film this early on. Who knows how it’ll be remembered down the line. I’m just happy people are responding to it.

Has the movie opened doors for you with Hollywood, too?

I’ve had some good meetings, and our next few projects are being considered at a number of places. Time will tell what happens next. Hopefully not too much time.

And I guess we’d be remiss not ask, ‘Species’ – the Roger Donaldson film – were you a fan? A little of it’s DNA injected into Lifechanger?

You’re the first person to bring up Species as an influence. That’s one I hadn’t even thought of. Everyone brings up Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Hidden, Fallen, The Borrower, The First Power, The Thing….. Species is a new one. I guess I see a few connecting fibers, but none of the influences were overtly planned to be direct. It’s just sort of the fabric of what makes up my psyche after decades of being a devout horror (and film) fan. And as trashy as it is, I think Species II is a really fun film. I’m one of those few people.

With the great buzz on the first film, surely there’s a ‘Lifechanger’ sequel in the works?

I can’t answer that at this moment, but we’ve had people asking. Or if it will go to a TV series, or something. I will state I’m not huge on the idea of just doing one for financial reasons. In my mind, it would have to be a story worth telling. Of course, my lead producer on Lifechanger, Avi Federgreen, has publicly said ‘fuck that’, to the idea of me being precious about finding the right story to tell. So I suppose we’re not closed to the idea. But this was never a film I planned or intended to have a sequel to. It was meant to be a stand-alone story. I can see where the story could go, though, either after or before this one takes place. Whether we take it there, is anybody’s guess for now.

‘Lifechanger’ was released in the UK on Digital HD 11 March courtesy of FrightFest, and in North America on Blu-ray and DVD 12 March from Uncork’d Entertainment; with special features including dual audio commentaries and making-of featurettes.

❉  Director: Justin McConnell. With: Lora Burke, Jack Foley, Elitsa Bako, Steve Kasan, Sam James White. Canada 2018. 84 mins.

❉ Image credits: October Coast.

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