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.
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
There Are No Fakes is a shocking journey into the world of art fraud
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.”
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.
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Isabelle brings psychological terror to an idyllic neighbourhood
In a quaint New England neighbourhood, a charming young couple (Adam Brody and Amanda Crew) find the perfect home to move into. But what they find in that home complicates their dream to start a family, as darkness and paranoia emerges in director Rob Heydon’s Isabelle.
Following in the footsteps of other psychological horrors such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, Isabelle comes from a screenplay written by Donald Martin (Milton’s Secret). Having grown up watching genre films like The Omen and The Shining, Heydon approached the project looking to put his own stamp on psychological terror.
“Reading the script, I just got into it cold. Then once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down,” Heydon said. “I thought a lot about what other references it could be like and how I could help bring something to the story and the storytelling.”
Much like other films in the genre, Heydon’s intention for Isabelle was to emphasize the psychology of the terror as a priority. That meant slowly building up the characters and introducing new elements throughout the runtime of the film.
“In a sense, it’s trying to tell a story in three arcs and build the audience’s expectations up to the third act,” Heydon said. “We used the combination of cinematography and editing and music to bring the audience into the mind of the main character and have the audience experience what our main characters are going through.”
The strength of the cast – which includes Brody, Crew and Zoë Belkin as Isabelle – was essential given the nature of the material. Brody was the first to sign on, but other cast members took longer to materialize.
“Amanda Crew wasn’t available at the same time. So it took almost two years to put together the cast,” Heydon said. “But when their calendars lined up, we also got some amazing talent to surround them. Belkin, Sheila McCarthy, who played Isabelle’s mom… we were really lucky.”
Isabelle shot in Hamilton, Ont., with old Victorian homes posing as New England. Beyond the locale, Heydon said the cost savings attained shooting in Hamilton were significant.
“In Toronto, to rent a house for a day might be 10 or 15 thousand per day. In Hamilton, we were lucky to get three houses right next to each other for 20 days for $20,000,” he said. “You just can’t find that anywhere in Toronto.”
Having initially premiered in South Korea as part of the Busan Film Festival (along with fellow Canadian horror Lifechanger), Isabelle will now open to a larger release in Canada. Heydon said genre aficionados should find much to enjoy in Isabelle.
“I’d say read what the film’s about and check out the trailer – I think the trailer says it all. And if you’re interested, come check it out,” he said.
Isabelle begins its theatrical run in Toronto June 28 at the Carlton Cinema. For more information, click here.
Next up on The Mutt: Horror materializes in unconventional ways in Things Fall Apart
Horror materializes in unconventional ways in Things Fall Apart
Those familiar with Hussein Juma, director and writer of Things Fall Apart, know that it’s somewhat fruitless to attempt to fully summarize his work. That’s largely by design – Juma himself says he enjoys injecting ambiguity into his projects.
But more than that, what’s exciting about Juma as a director is his ability to create a sense of atmospheric dread based heavily on context and character and not cliché. So horror fans on the hunt for films that are likely to surprise should take note of what Juma says about his first feature, Things Fall Apart.
“If you like arthouse cinema, things that are going to challenge you and even scare you a little too, I think this film would be for you,” Juma says. “If you’re interested in new ways to tell stories, in indie cinema and the way it can reframe things and put them in different contexts, I think there’s a lot to think about with this film.”
That unique approach to story was evident throughout Juma’s 12-episode web series Horse Mask, a surreal horror that centres around a missing daughter, a forest and many mysterious masks. Though Things Fall Apart is Juma’s first feature, he says working on Horse Mask helped prepare him, given the fact that the runtime of that web series evens out to be around the length of a feature.
Set during a dinner party, Things Fall Apart lets audiences act as a sort of fly on the wall as tensions and emotions emerge.
“Things progressively get more tense between the characters. I think there’s a good balance — there are those moments where you’re going to feel uncomfortable, there are moments where you’re going to be scared, there are moments where you’re going to feel like, ‘What the hell is going on right now?’” Juma says.
Furthering his desire to tell a story in a fresh way, Juma says he employed improvised dialogue throughout Things Fall Apart, making up 80 per cent of the dialogue. Though actors were provided with full scripts, dialogue was written in beats that guided where conversations would go.
“When we finally selected our actors, we extensively rehearsed it multiple times. That was a really cool process,” Juma says. “I had a bare-bones, skeleton idea of where I wanted each conversation to go, but these actors got so into it and took it to interesting places. (Many times) I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great. We have to keep that.’”
The cast, which includes Chengis Javeri (one of the leads in Horse Mask), Bobbi Goddard, Gina Lorene and more, was already familiar to Juma, giving him confidence that they would be able to pull off the improvised dialogue. Juma says surrounding himself with smart, funny people led to a number of happy accidents that made their way into the finished product.
Other times, Juma says he would play off what he knew about the actors themselves.
“If I could see even a sliver of tension between them in the real world or a sliver of something in a look that I see, I can kind of harness that in the film,” he says. “I think that worked really well in terms of when I wanted to play someone against another person. Because I worked with them before, I knew things I could whisper in their ear before a take to throw them off.”
Ultimately, Juma says he wanted to make a film that he would want to see himself. Based on his track record, it’s likely that horror fans looking for a surprising, experimental feature with strong character work will find it in Things Fall Apart.
Things Fall Apart plays June 2 at 2 p.m. at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. For more information, click here.
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