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Director Justin McConnell’s Lifechanger shapeshifts in fresh and surprising ways

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Lifechanger is part body horror and part thriller as Drew (played by multiple actors) seeks to correct his misdeeds with the woman he loves, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. The film stars Lora Burke, Jack Foley, Elitsa Bako and more. Photo courtesy GAT PR.
Lifechanger follows Drew (played by multiple actors), a shapeshifter seeking to correct his misdeeds with the woman he loves, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. The film stars Lora Burke, Jack Foley, Elitsa Bako and more. Photo courtesy GAT PR.

In Lifechanger, writer/director Justin McConnell’s (Broken Mile, Skull World) gripping and innovative thriller, a shapeshifter seeks to make things right with those he’s wronged, all the while leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. It’s a confident and refreshing take on the genre, one that effectively plays on its surprisingly affecting premise.

McConnell spoke with The Mutt to discuss Lifechanger, the challenges of utilizing an ensemble to play the same character and his strategy when it comes to standing out in a competitive genre. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

THE MUTT: The concept behind Lifechanger is pretty novel. Where’d you come up with it?

JUSTIN MCCONNELL: Well, in 2014 I was trying to come up with an idea I could do for a really low budget because I was frustrated trying to get a couple of larger projects off the ground. So I started brainstorming what I could do with basically pocket change. During that brainstorming session I just let ideas percolate and I was on a bus one day and thought, “What if I saw myself in public?” Which, of course, is Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. But from that point, the idea organically grew into what this became. And then tonally, at that time I had been introspective, going through a lot of self-examination and depression, and that fed into the story and the tone of the script and who the character ended up being.

TM: What else played into the script? Were you influenced at all by other films in the genre?

JM: I watched every horror movie I could get my hands on growing up, and I still do. I’ve obviously seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, The Hidden, The First Power… the list is long of things that would make up the DNA of this idea, but it’s not like I was specifically thinking about one or two of those movies and thinking, “I’ll make a movie like that.” It just sort of came out of me.

TM: You incorporating that element of having a heart and a brain behind the horror elements of this movie… why do you think that’s important in this genre?

JM: I think it’s important in this particular film and in a lot of horror because you need to make something that stands out. The more personal you can get on an emotional level, the more they’re going to remember the film and the more it will cut through the noise. There’s way too much out there now. There’s a lot that doesn’t rise to the top and it’s very difficult to get noticed. So it’s good to break through into other genres and appeal to people who aren’t just hardcore goreheads. Though there’s nothing wrong with that approach, either I wouldn’t necessarily say a lot of the projects I’m working on now are full of heart. But for this one, it just organically kind of became that way, and I wanted to do something a little bit more grounded and personal while still being a horror film.

TM: I’ve seen the film described as part psychological thriller, part body horror… at this point in the process, how do you tend to explain the story to the unfamiliar?

JM: I like to say that it’s about a murderous shapeshifter on a mission trying to make things right with the woman he loves, and I leave it at that and let people come to their own conclusions. But there’s a lot you could say about the story. It’s less of a love story and more of an obsession story and about trying to be a better person and coming to terms with guilt. There’s a lot of other stuff going on, but I usually pitch it to people in the flattest way possible, with a hook, and let them come to their own conclusions.

Lifechanger director Justin McConnell said utilizing a diverse cast to portray the same character of Drew was a challenge, but one he relished taking on as a filmmaker. Photo courtesy GAT PR

Lifechanger director Justin McConnell said utilizing a diverse cast to portray the same character of Drew was a challenge, but one he relished taking on as a filmmaker. Photo courtesy GAT PR

TM: So, really, the shapeshifter element, that’s a tool to tell a deeper story. What was the balance there in telling that deeper story and pairing it with the shapeshifter story?

JM: It was important to me to do something fresh and new and get into the head of what a creature like this would be like at this stage in their life, having to live like a human all the time but having to life just outside of the species. So that was absolutely important, but you can pull that away and look at it on a metaphorical level. He’s changing and becoming someone else until he becomes someone else who appeals to the woman he loves. So it’s almost like a metaphor that if you’re in a bad relationship, you put on a mask and try to become who your partner wants you to be. If you do that your entire life, you end up living your entire life and never being yourself.

TM: As a director, what throughlines did you want to communicate to your cast to ensure they were playing this character using their own strengths as actors while still playing the same individual? 

JM: Well, the first thing I did when I had everyone casted was that I had written up a two- or three-page summary so they knew who this person is, where they are coming from, how they’d be psychologically. I tried to get that up front. We also had a “Drew boot camp,” where everybody who had to play Drew sat at a big conference table and we just talked for a few hours. In that session, we came up with stuff like the common tics that he has, the tone of voice that he uses fairly regularly, but I didn’t really want to step on their individual performances. So it was very specific things that could tie them to the character in a visible way without them having to overthink and have to act like the other person as much as possible, because I figured that would make all the performances really stilted. I tried to control that on set as best I could without stepping on it too much. In post-production, we as a team had to be very mindful of how Drew comes across on screen. If any particular actor had a scene or a delivery that was too far outside of what Drew’s character would be, it was cut out of the film.

TM: You guys were working with a limited budget, but the makeup and effects are very strong in the film. You took home the Best Practical Effects award from the Toronto After Dark festival. What was your approach to the effects given your budget?

JM: I’m pretty decently connected with the prosthetic and makeup effects community in Toronto, and there are a lot of really high-end effects people in the city. I knew that David Scott had wanted to work with me for quite a while, with his company Form & Dynamics, so I approached him with a listing of all the effects breakdowns. It was really quickly realized that we could actually pull off what I wanted to pull off. And we were clever and cut some corners and adapted past effects that they’d done and reskinned them and found other ways to cut costs, because we had a low-budget but we still wanted to pull off a ton of effects.

TM: Any parting words to moviegoers who haven’t seen Lifechanger yet?

JM: You don’t necessarily have to be a horror fan to enjoy this film. Anyone who is looking for a different kind of story, (Lifechanger is) something that’s violent but isn’t so gory that it’ll turn you off if you’re not into that kind of thing. And just to see a sample of what Canadian indie genre films are doing these days, because I think we’re in an independent renaissance in Canada right now. There are so many great Canadian independent films that have been funded outside of the Telefilm system in the last five years or so. It’s worth checking out and removing some of the stigma of thinking, “Oh, it’s just a Canadian movie.” That’s what I would say to Canadians. Anyone else, you’ll know pretty quickly by seeing the trailer whether you want to see it or not. Go into it with an open mind. If you like it, great, if you don’t, well, it’s not for everybody. Hopefully you enjoy it.

Lifechanger is now available on VOD across North America. For more information, click here.

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Honey Bee is a revealing look at human trafficking in Canada

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Honey Bee, directed by Rama Rau, stars Julia Sarah Stone as an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival.
Honey Bee, directed by Rama Rau, stars Julia Sarah Stone as an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival. Photo courtesy A71 Entertainment

Honey Bee director Rama Rau may be known to Canadian audiences mostly due to her acclaimed work in documentary, including League of Exotique Dancers (2015) and No Place to Hide (2015) – the former profiling aging burlesque dancers and the latter taking a focus on the world of cyberbullying.

But though Honey Bee marks Rau’s narrative feature debut, her instincts honed in documentary filmmaking remain essential, as much of the film is shot as though it were a documentary feature.

“I think that was key in telling the story, for me,” Rau said. “The actors were never acting – they were always in that state.”

Much of the film’s dramatic power is supplied by lead actress Julia Sarah Stone, who plays Natalie, an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival.

“She was literally the crux of the film. She was everything,” Rau said. “When I saw her audition, and I looked at a lot of auditions, I really wanted her to be in my film.”

Rau spoke with The Mutt about Stone, transitioning from documentary filmmaking and the too-infrequently discussed prevalence of human trafficking in Canada. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

THE MUTT: So tell me about Honey Bee.

RAMA RAU: It’s about a girl groomed from the foster home system and put into a human trafficking ring. She thinks the person grooming her is her boyfriend. That’s how they get young girls from the foster care system in Canada. Then, she’s caught in a police raid and sent to a farm and the movie really begins there, her coming to terms with what has happened. A lot of it is her finding herself.

TM: What were your first thoughts when you initially read the script?

RR: I was a bit shocked, to be honest. I was stunned that these things happen in Canada. I wondered if I wanted this to be my debut feature. But it’s never frightened me to go into the underbelly of society. But films have the power to open up areas that we don’t normally talk about. I also said as a woman director I can bring a certain perspective to it. And I found my way into the story, and said, “This is how I’m going to do it, and if you’re OK with it, I’m happy to work on this film.”

TM: What were those specific elements you wanted to bring to the film?

RR: I knew I wanted it to be totally told from the perspective of Natalie, from her POV. I knew I wanted it to be a very personal film. In documentary, we use handheld cameras a lot. We literally run behind our characters. I wanted that sense of urgency in this film. We kind of blurred the lines between fiction and fact. I wanted to go so deep into the story, so the audience never knows, “Is this a real story, or is this a person acting? Does this really happen in Canada?”  [There was a scene where] and we ran behind [Natalie] like we were a camera crew.

TM: This film is obviously so based on character and Natalie’s experience. Do you think approaching things with that documentary mentality, did that help you capture small character moments?

RR: Yes, absolutely. I think that was key in telling the story. For me, the actors were never acting, they were always in that state. I encouraged them to be that way for as long as we were filming. I think they really took that to heart. They really lived their characters, and that was so rewarding for the camera because the camera picked up every little twitch of the cheek and movement of the eyebrow. I think that really lent to the authenticity. I even told Ryan (Steven Love), I want you to not talk too much to the women and I want them to hate you by the end of the film. So it’s really beyond method acting, it’s really living and being that character for that period of time.

TM: Having someone capable in the lead is obviously very important, because you need someone who is able to deliver that authenticity. How important was it having Stone in that role?

RR: Oh my god, she was literally the crux of the film. She was everything. I know she did so much research. I think she really carries the film on her shoulders. That’s why I had to choose such a strong actor like Martha to offset Julia’s stunning performance. I got so lucky in getting such great actors. God knows what I would have done if Julia wouldn’t have been able to deliver, because the film is totally based on every nuance of her face.

TM: Why would you recommend people check out the film?

RR: I think human trafficking in Ontario is not talked about enough. I think people watching this film will find a way into thinking about it. It’s not a news item. It’s more of a story of a girl who has been through the sex trade and has been bartered like a piece of furniture. I think we need to give these girls a voice. Since documentaries on these subjects can’t be made because it brings a lot of danger to their lives, these sort of films based on social issues is what opens up peoples’ minds to these sorts of issues. That’s why I think this film is crucial for people to watch if we have to tackle things like human trafficking in Ontario.

Honey Bee opened in select theatres on Sept. 20 and will be available on Video on Demand on Dec. 10.

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Director Rob Grant on the tension (and dark comedy) of HARPOON

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From director Rob Grant (Mon Ami, Fake Blood), Harpoon will make its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival. Photo courtesy CUFF
From director Rob Grant (Mon Ami, Fake Blood), Harpoon will make its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival April 28. Photo courtesy CUFF

Adrift on the seas on a luxury yacht, three friends find themselves stranded without food or supplies and quickly realize their survival is less than assured. An official selection at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019, Harpoon made its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) April 28. The film will release on VOD in Canada on October 15.

The Mutt spoke with director Rob Grant prior to the film’s screening at CUFF 2019. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

THE MUTT: Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of Harpoon?

ROB GRANT: I had a great relationship with my producers (Knuckleball director Michael Peterson and Kurtis Harder) from a film called Fake Blood. I pitched Mr. Peterson on this idea that was a mix between Polanski’s Knife on the Water but by way of Seinfeld characters on the boat. I grew up in Vancouver, and the original idea was, “Well, I spent a lot of time on a boat, we could go take a boat out to the ocean and try to isolate ourselves out there.” Once a budget came into play and the idea grew, suddenly we were shooting the interiors of the boat in a set in the middle of freezing winter in Calgary, and shooting the exteriors on a boat in tropical Belize down south.

TM: Was it difficult for you to balance those comedic elements and still find a way to ratchet up the tension?

RG: It was very difficult, and there were a lot of discussions about that. When you have to give the elevator pitch, you have to say: “This is the genre and this is what it means.” But I subscribe to the logic that in life you can feel in one moment that you’re in a love story and the next minute in a horror movie, and that’s the way real life actually works. But it seems a little more rigid in movies. We were aware of potentially disrupting viewers’ experiences of watching the movie. (We thought) a movie could, or should, be multiple things at once. We’re willing to accept that there’s going to be some audience members that are going to reject that as a movie experience, but we wanted to try it.

Harpoon director Rob Grant said premiering the film at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019 was a very validating experience. Photo courtesy CUFF

Harpoon director Rob Grant said premiering the film at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019 was a very validating experience. Photo courtesy CUFF

TM: Can you tell me more about those influences you mentioned? I’m curious about how you mixed something like Seinfeld with more traditional thriller elements.

RG: Hitchcock’s Lifeboat was definitely in there, as well as Polanski’s Knife in the Water. But I had to still find the dark humour in it, and Seinfeld came up specifically because as much as we all find the Seinfeld characters enduring, they’re very much in it for themselves. They’re worried about their own outcomes. So I tried to use a lot of that. As much as these people like to say they’re looking out for each other, the second it becomes a survival story they’re all kind of in it for themselves. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia was another one, not only for mixing drama and humour, but definitely because the narration was less focused. It sets up what’s going to happen without speaking to much on the nose about what you’re about to see.

TM: I understand there’s some great gore and effects in Harpoon. What was your approach to that, and what effect do you think that has? 

RG: I’ve explored the effects of violence in cinema with Fake Blood, and this was an extension of that. The entire movie, these people speak very casually and aloof about the things that potentially will need to be done without actually considering what that entails until suddenly when it happens. I felt like it would be a good idea to make sure that was extremely violent and horrible, not only because we’ve been teasing up to this moment, but I do believe there’s a certain element that people do not consider the actual realities of having to do something like that. So it’s very shocking, very brutal, it’s like, “ha ha ha this was all funny to discuss” and now that it’s happened it sucks the wind out of you. That was a very intentional decision.

TM: What do you think Harpoon does in a unique way when compared to other similar films? What do you hope the audience walks away with?

RG: I hope when people leave the cinema that it wasn’t the movie they were expecting, that it was a little bit of a different take. I do think it’ll challenge them depending what their expectations are. I just hope they’re expecting something interesting in the genre, and that they’re along for the ride.

Harpoon will be released on VOD in Canada on October 15.

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There Are No Fakes is a shocking journey into the world of art fraud

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Directed by Jamie Kastner, There Are No Fakes is a shocking feature-length documentary that centres on the work of Norval Morrisseau. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions
Directed by Jamie Kastner, There Are No Fakes is a shocking feature-length documentary that centres on the work of Norval Morrisseau. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

Some of the best documentaries of the past two decades involve hard left turns – films that begin in one direction but end in another due to events that unfolded during production. There Are No Fakes, directed by Jamie Kastner, joins that select company of documentary as its comedic opening slowly morphs into something much darker.

There Are No Fakes centers on the work of Norval Morrisseau, the Indigenous Canadian artist of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of the North”. Morrisseau, who died in 2007, sought to remove forgeries of his art from the marketplace, establishing the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society in 2005.

After Kevin Hearn (of Barenaked Ladies fame) buys one of Morrisseau’s paintings, he starts to doubt its authenticity and discovers a bizarre feud consolidated around Morrisseau. It’s this conflict, and the dark secrets hidden beneath it, that form the backdrop of There Are No Fakes.

Kastner (The Secret Disco Revolution, Free Trade Is Killing My Mother), who was friends with Hearn in high school, learned through conversation about Hearn’s ongoing lawsuit surrounding the Morrisseau paintings. It became clear to Kastner that such a story would be perfect for his next project.

“It was almost unbelievable. There was so much crazy stuff in this story, I couldn’t quite believe it,” Kastner said. “I told him if I was going to proceed with it, though we were friends he would have no editorial control. As a journalist, I would be talking to both sides, and he agreed.

“I went off on my own doing my own kind of digging and research. Lo and behold, everything he told me and then some turned out to be the case.”

Norval Morrisseau of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation was sometimes referred to as the "Picasso of the North". Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

Norval Morrisseau of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation was sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of the North”. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

As the story unfolded and as Kastner continued to meet a succession of larger-than-life characters, he found himself shocked at what he uncovered. Bringing footage back to his editor provoked a similar reaction.

“He’d say, ‘Holy f***!’ Then I’d do another one, and he’s quite an even-keeled guy, and he’d say ‘holy f***,’” Kastner said. “So it was a series of ‘holy f***’ moments. I tried to recreate that experience for the audience.”

Documentaries can often unfold much as expected, with a known story dictating the outcome of the production. But given the fluid situation surrounding the events of There Are No Fakes, Kastner followed the story as it led him, knowing he had been handed an incredible gift.

“It’s definitely a privilege and a responsibility (to tell this story). You’re dealing with the legacy of one of our most important artists,” he said. “You wind up dealing with very serious issues of abuse of different kinds, so I felt a real responsibility.

“You have to handle it very carefully as a documentary filmmaker. It really is so unique and unusual and special and horrific and inspiring and a whole range of things that you don’t usually get in one film.”

There Are No Fakes made its world premiere at Hot Docs 2019, receiving highly positive reviews. Kastner said the film provided fascinating insight into the legacy of Morrisseau, touching on multiple problems still at play in Canada.

“It’s a very dramatic story. People can’t believe that they’re real people. They seem like characters out of some HBO series or something,” Kastner said. “I think it’s a very entertaining, edge of your seat, jaw-dropping type of story that happens to be a documentary.”

There Are No Fakes will screen at multiple locations throughout Canada in July 2019. For more information, click here.

Next to read on The Mutt: Tantoo Cardinal propels Falls Around Her in first leading role

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