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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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Calgary Underground Film Festival

CUFF 2019: 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 will make its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) April 28. 

The Mutt spoke with director Rob Grant prior to the film’s screening at CUFF. 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 makes its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival April 28. For tickets, click here

Click here to read our roundup of 9 Canadian films playing at CUFF 2019.

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Calgary Underground Film Festival

CUFF 2019: The story behind Uwe Boll, the so-called “worst filmmaker” ever

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F*** You All: The Uwe Boll Story dives into the background of the notorious filmmaker, featuring a number of interviews with colleagues, critics and with Boll himself. Photo courtesy CUFF
F*** You All: The Uwe Boll Story dives into the background of the notorious filmmaker, featuring a number of interviews with colleagues, critics and with Boll himself. Photo courtesy CUFF

Director of the critically-maligned video game adaptations Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead and BloodRayne, Uwe Boll has long held a unfavourable reputation in the film industry not only due to the perceived quality of his films, but also due to his antagonistic response to his online “haters.” 

But a new documentary, F*** You All: The Uwe Boll Story, seeks to better understand the firebrand filmmaker, diving into Boll’s past through a series of interviews with colleagues, critics and Boll himself. 

The Mutt spoke with F*** You All: The Uwe Boll Story Vancouver-based director Sean Patrick Shaul prior to the film’s Alberta premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival April 27. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

THE MUTT: How did you first become acquainted with Uwe Boll?

SEAN PATRICK SHAUL: I first met Uwe Boll on the set of Assault on Wall Street. I worked as a crew member with him. Seeing him work was so fascinating. The way he directed was like no one I had ever seen before. He was such an interesting guy. That was almost 10 years ago and I ended up working on a TV show that was shooting in his restaurant. That was how I came across the idea for the documentary. The idea was to look at someone who is widely known as the world’s worst director. It was more asking, “Why was he considered that? How did he get that title, and whether or not he was.”

TM: As his persona on the internet developed, did that mesh with what you knew of him? Did you feel he was being portrayed in a way that was inaccurate?

SPS: I had seen some of his movies and I understood the reputation he had. He also fuelled that himself through the internet, engaging with all of these trolls and these critics. He takes it head on, which is fun to watch. But I had no idea what he would say when I pitched the documentary to him. Within five minutes, I realized we had a lot in common. He was excited about the documentary, excited to have that side told of it.

Vancouver-based director Sean Patrick Shaul first encountered Uwe Boll on the set of the 2013 action thriller Assault on Wall Street. Photo courtesy CUFF

Vancouver-based director Sean Patrick Shaul first encountered Uwe Boll on the set of the 2013 action thriller Assault on Wall Street. Photo courtesy CUFF

TM: How does Boll feel about being referred to as the “world’s worst director”?

SPS: He thinks it’s very unfair, which I guess I would agree with. Art is subjective, so it’s hard to say whether something is good or bad. But I think he’s also aware of the type of movies he was making. He didn’t think he was making The Godfather. He knew these were video game adaptations movies, so his expectations were low with those. But he has made more personal films (since then), but he already had this black cloud following him around. It stalled his career in that way. I thought that was really interesting – he made 32 movies, but by his fifth movie, people had already written him off.

TM: Why do you think Boll feels the need to respond to his trolls and his critics online?

SPS: I think he’s a very proud guy. He’s aware of his accomplishments and I don’t think he can let a comment like that go. If someone has the motivation to go after him online, he has the equivalent motivation to fire back at them. He hasn’t really calmed down on that too much. I think he’s currently banned from Twitter for going after trolls. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek for him when he goes after these people. He enjoys it, he likes engaging with them. It became part of his personality. As much as it hurt his career, it also helped his career in a way.

TM: In spending time with Boll, what surprised you about him as you got to know him better?

SPS: Before, I thought he was kind of an asshole, from his online persona, I thought he was just kind of a jerk. Through meeting him, I realized he’s a super sweet guy, he’s a really, really genuinely nice guy. He cares about films, he’s a real film guy. He knows all of the classics, he’s seen all these foreign films – he’s a real cinephile. But there’s something about him not being able to pull that off. All his favourite movies are the classics, but for some reason he can’t make those films himself. He was kind of handcuffed by all these tax loopholes and funding schedules, that he would have to pump these films out in a certain timeframe to get the tax credit. There’s a lot of reasons his earlier films turned out the way they did. They didn’t turn out the way he envisioned.

TM: Given that he knew the documentary wasn’t going to be all positive, why did Boll want to participate?

SPS: I think he just wanted someone who was looking at the larger picture instead of comparing him to a Tommy Wiseau or a Ed Wood. He wanted to explain himself a bit. The articles and the small kinds of podcast interviews don’t really give him enough time to explain himself, or they ask the same five questions. Almost every headline is “world’s worst director” – I think he wanted to look at something deeper. But he wasn’t shying away from that title. I told him early on in production that we’d be definitely looking at that angle and talking about it. He was more than happy to look at it. Most people would want this buried, but he looked at it head on. “I have that title, but let’s look at why.”

F*** You All: The Uwe Boll story plays April 27 at the Calgary Underground Film Festival. For tickets, click here.

Click here to read our roundup of 9 Canadian films playing at CUFF 2019.

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Acquainted takes a raw and honest look at modern love

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Acquainted stars Giacomo Gianniotti and Laysla De Oliveria as Drew and Emma, two high school classmates who discover sparks between them upon reuniting, despite the two both being involved in committed relationships. Photo courtesy Red Eye Media
Acquainted stars Giacomo Gianniotti and Laysla De Oliveria as Drew and Emma, two high school classmates who discover sparks between them upon reuniting, despite the two both being involved in committed relationships. Photo courtesy Red Eye Media

In Acquainted, a new romantic drama from Toronto-based director Natty Zavitz, high school classmates Drew (Giacomo Gianniotti of Grey’s Anatomy) and Emma (Laysla De Oliveria of The Gifted) reunite with each other at a bar and instantly connect, discovering they share some serious chemistry. Problem is, the pair are both in serious, long-term relationships.

The script for the film was partly inspired by the deterioration of Zavitz’s last major relationship, said producer Jonathan Keltz (Entourage, Reign), who also plays Allan in the film.

“(Zavitz) sent me the script almost four years ago and I just connected so deeply and was so blown away by his script,” Keltz said. “(I was blown away) by how defined his voice was. I was completely moved by it.”

Inspired by films such as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset trilogy, Acquainted is an honest look at relationships and adulthood, exploring the subject matter with introspection. Keltz said the film examines fidelity and infidelity from a judgement-free place.

Alongside Gianniotti and De Oliveria, Acquainted also stars Johnathan Keltz (Entourage, Reign), Rachel Skarsten and Parveen Kaur. Photo courtesy Red Eye Media

Alongside Gianniotti and De Oliveria, Acquainted also stars Johnathan Keltz (Entourage, Reign), Rachel Skarsten and Parveen Kaur. Photo courtesy Red Eye Media

“The characters are not villains or victims. It’s a raw and honest look at being in relationships, to have these type of things happen and how to deal with that,” he said. “The relationship with the self and the seeking to find out who you really are is really what’s crucial to the building of a relationship with somebody else.

“It’s about taking the time to do that work that puts you in the best position to be a partner with somebody and to be an adult in this world.”

Many of the cast and crew on Acquainted have worked in Toronto’s film community for years, making the set of the film a reunion of its own. 

“In front of the camera and behind the camera, (the film involves all) kinds of amazing artists. It’s really a Canadian film and a Toronto film,” Keltz said. “It’s not trying to either hide that or beat you over the head with that.

“I think that’s done in a very unique way, and in a way that is both Torontonian and Canadian but also universally and commercially viable.”

Keltz said he thought the film would be emotionally affecting to audiences, offering perspective that could help to contextualize modern love and relationship.

“I think this is a really raw and honest and beautiful film about what it means to be in love, to be heartbroken, to be devastated, to be inspired and to try and build a life for yourself and figure out what that means,” Keltz said.

Acquainted is now playing at Cineplex Movies Yonge and Dundas in Toronto, International Village in Vancouver and at Landmark Cinemas nationwide.

Next up on The Mutt: With maturity and depth, An Audience of Chairs reflects on mental illness

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