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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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Next up on The Mutt: Trench 11 takes the horror of the First World War deep underground

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Schitt’s Creek to conclude after next season

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The popular CBC sitcom Schitt’s Creek will conclude with its sixth and final season, star and co-creator Dan Levy announced in a statement today. Photo courtesy CBC.
The popular CBC sitcom Schitt’s Creek will conclude with its sixth and final season, star and co-creator Dan Levy announced in a statement today. Photo courtesy CBC.

The popular CBC sitcom Schitt’s Creek will end at the conclusion of its sixth season, series co-creator and star Dan Levy announced March 21.

“We are so grateful to have been given the time and creative freedom to tell this story in its totality, concluding with a final chapter that we had envisioned from the very beginning,” Levy said in a statement. “It’s not lost on us what a rare privilege it is in this industry to get to decide when your show should take its final bow.”

Schitt’s Creek premiered on CBC in 2015, becoming one of the network’s most successful half-hour comedies ever. The show follows the fish-out-of-water Rose family, forced to assimilate into a small town after they lose their family fortune.

Though the show’s first season received mixed reviews, it grew in regard with both fans and critics over subsequent iterations. Schitt’s Creek’s fifth season, which premiered on January 8, 2019, scored a 100 per cent “Fresh” ranking on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.

The show is also among select company among Canadian sitcoms, drawing strong viewership in the United States and elsewhere thanks to distribution on Netflix and the American Pop network. Critics have reacted favourably to recent episodes, with TV Guide’s Megan Vick writing that each season of Schitt’s Creek has “gotten better and better.”

Read Levy’s full statement below.

New episodes of Schitt’s Creek air Tuesday nights at 9/9:30 NT on CBC.

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Watch the Oscar-nominated Canadian short “Animal Behaviour”

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The National Film Board of Canada is offering Canadians the opportunity to watch the Oscar-nominated Canadian short film "Animal Behaviour" until the end of today. Photo courtesy NFB
The National Film Board of Canada is offering Canadians the opportunity to watch the Oscar-nominated Canadian short film "Animal Behaviour" until the end of today. Photo courtesy NFB

To get prepped for the 91st Academy Awards, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) is offering Canadians the chance to check out Animal Behaviour, nominated tonight in the Best Animated Short Film category.

Animal Behaviour is a new short from Alison Snowden and David Fine, who previously won an Oscar in 1994 for Bob’s Birthday. The short is the 75th Oscar nomination for the NFB, and the first short film for Snowden and Fine since Bob’s Birthday. The 91st Oscars air tonight at 8 Eastern on ABC and CTV.

Watch Animal Behaviour below (expires tonight).

Next up on The Mutt: Wynonna Earp future in doubt as Season 4 delayed

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Wynonna Earp future in doubt as Season 4 delayed

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Wynonna Earp Season 3 Episode 11/12 - "Daddy Lessons/War Paint". Photo courtesy Bell Media
Wynonna Earp Season 4 is in jeopardy, according to the The Hollywood Reporter, due to financial difficulties. Photo courtesy Space

All of a sudden, Wynonna Earp is in Purgatory.

Earpers were stunned Thursday night when executive producer and showrunner Emily Andras posted (and subsequently deleted) a tweet suggesting that fans of the show may soon have to fight for it. Another tweet, posted shortly later, took a decidedly more straight-forward approach.

Andras appeared to be responding to the news that funding for the fourth season of Wynonna Earp appeared to be on shaky ground, according to a report from The Hollywood Reporter. According to THR, financial challenges faced by IDW Entertainment have stalled production on Season 4, despite the company being contractually obligated to deliver the show to Syfy.

In response to the news, Earpers took to Twitter with the hashtag #FightForWynonna, which at the time of publication was one of the top Twitter trends in Canada. Though Season 4 has yet to be officially cancelled, IDW has yet to commit to a start date for the new season.

“IDW is committed to continuing to tell the Wynonna Earp story,” the company said in a statement posted to Twitter. “Much like the fans, we are passionate about not only the series, but the comics, the characters and the overall message that the Wynonna Earp franchise carries. We are in the process of working out the details for how the Wynonna story will continue and will share new details very soon.”

Our resident Earper, Ghezal Amiri, was a big fan of Season 3, writing that the show’s season finale, entitled “War Paint”, was a “wildly emotional conclusion.” Read her recap here.

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