Exclusive Interview: Director Justin McConnell on Skull World and making documentaries

justin profileLast year, Biff Bam Pop had a chance to talk to the cast and crew of the horror film, The Collapsed (you can check that out here). Less than a year later, director Justin McConnell’s latest film, Skull World is now available, and it’s not what you might have expected. This time out, McConnell has hit us with a documentary about a unique individual known to many as Skull Man. Check out the trailer for the film and then find out just who Skull Man is, along with a crash course in documentary film-making,  in our exclusive interview with Justin McConnell.

skullworldposter1Andy Burns: A horror film to a documentary – tell us how you went from making The Collapsed to directing Skull World?

Justin McConnell: I actually didn’t. I started shooting ‘Skull World’ in 2008, two years before the idea for THE COLLAPSED even existed. I actually jumped into long-term production on this film right around when my last documentary, WORKING CLASS ROCK STAR, was released in North America. Overall I like to keep busy, and if I can be working on something, I try to do all I can. I love horror, as well as doc films. Documentaries, to me, are a way to keep producing something that I can actually afford to make from whatever extra money I had at a given time.

Andy Burns:  How different is the world of directing a horror film when compared to directing a documentary – are there more similarities then one might think?

Justin McConnell: They are night and day. You still have to focus on story, but with documentary that story is often found over time. If you’re producing a narrative, you plan every step before you shoot a frame. Then you shoot, and keep shooting until you either have everything you need within the budget you have to work with. Some docs can be planned like this as well – the more ‘talking head’ type of films. A movie like ‘Skull World’, however, in which you are following a subject around for a long period of time, is more exploratory. Life can go in any direction, and if you aren’t influencing the story (something I try to avoid at all costs), you have to find the story arc as you go. At a certain point you say “Okay, I have enough. I have the story.” Then comes the massive job of piecing it together with endless hours of footage.

Andy Burns: Greg Sommer aka Skull Man is quite a character – could you give us a little background on how he became your documentary subject?

Justin McConnell: I met him almost 10 years ago, at an underground black metal show. He was shooting the mosh pits for his show Variety Store TV. Over time I started to hire him on my crew when we’d go on travel gigs to shoot live bands (for DVD concert releases, etc.), and got to know him pretty well. We’d take these trips with a 3 person crew usually, the other guy named Tom Gregg. It was on one of these trips that Tom and I started talking about how interesting it would be to make a documentary about Greg. Several years later Greg launched Box Wars (after being approached by the Australian Box Wars Council), and eventually I figured it was time to start shooting.

Andy Burns:  I didn’t know anything about Box Wars until watching Skull World – part of me thinks “this looks ridiculous”, part of me would love to take part – what were your first impressions of that world?

Justin McConnell: I was definitely in the ‘this looks ridiculous’ camp initially, but had fun watching it. I originally thought it seemed kind of like a stunt gag, like you’d see in Jackass. During the first battle I came out to help Greg shoot, I started to notice something different about the game, the vibe of the people watching. It took until I finally fought in one for me to understand though. Yes, it’s ridiculous, and outlandish. But it’s also a lot of fun. I’ve since battled four times. Sometimes I bleed. But it’s always fun, and often feels like a bit of a cleansing. You just let out aggression (carefully and safely), laugh a lot, and finish the battle feeling a huge rush. And considering the next level the Australians and Greg’s chapter take it to sometimes, it can be a lot more. It can be art.

Andy Burns: How do you know when a documentary is going well; that is, when do you know you’ve got a film?

Justin McConnell: Impossible to say, really. To be honest, I could have kept shooting SKULL WORLD for another 10 years and never had that ‘perfect’ story. Because life isn’t perfect – it’s messy, it doesn’t always have that sought after arc. It’s not always rags to riches, then everything is celebration and rainbows. I actually thought I had a finished film over a year ago, in early 2012. I figured, “yes, this is the ending, this is good.” I showed a much-longer rough cut to a private audience back then, and that feedback was really instructive. Everyone responds to the same story differently, so you have to filter it a bit, but I decided that I needed a new ending and a bit of a reworking. So I went back into production a while longer, cut out 28 minutes, added in 8 of new material. You have to be patient with documentary…. but not too patient. At a certain point, the film is the film. You don’t want one film owning your entire life, and you have to decide when it’s time to finish it and put it out into the world.

Andy Burns:  What was the hardest part for you when it came to working on Skull World?

Justin McConnell: Probably getting Greg to open up, to find that ‘heart’ in the story. It’s there, but some might claim there isn’t enough. I had to find the balance, and I figured in the end that I would rather the film be mostly entertaining, at the sacrifice of a bit of deeper analysis. Early on I decided I wanted the film to play out more like an adventure, following this one person and his friends over a period of several years, with the audience along for the ride. Along the way there were things that would raise up that I would want to go deeper with, but you can only go as deep as your subject is comfortable with. And frankly, no huge crises ever rose up that really mattered, so I would have been picking at minutia anyway. I went in actively trying to avoid the reality TV inspired ‘find drama in every situation’ approach, and I’m happier with the film because of it. Some aren’t, and that’s entirely okay. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Logistically I had some issues as well: I just couldn’t be there for everything.

Andy Burns: Now that the film is out on Blu-Ray/DVD, what are you working on next?

Justin McConnell: My dance card the next year is pretty full. Another film I’m a producer on, Adam Mason’s bat-shit crazy JUNKIE, is releasing later this year. I’m a producer on three upcoming features (two horror, and one crime drama), and am still working my ass off to get THE ETERNAL (www.theeternalmovie.com) off the ground after years of development. We’ve got a great cast shaping up for that one (including the great Michael Biehn), but it’s a much larger film than I’ve ever made before, so the road to getting all the finance together has been rocky, to put it mildly. I’m also the lead programmer of the monthly LITTLE TERRORS short film festival, co-sponsored by Rue Morgue, and that takes a fair bit of time to keep going. Recently got hired on staff at Toronto After Dark, and continue with constant post-production client work. I’m also tossing around the idea of starting production on a new documentary-style project – a mock doc this time. I think I may need a clone.

Andy Burns:  Finally, is there anything you’re reading, watching or listening to that Biff Bam Pop readers should check out?

Justin McConnell: Yikes, this will be a long list. Books: ‘The Last Final Girl’ & ‘Demon Theory’ by Stephen Graham Jones, anything by Tim Dorsey, ‘This Book is Full of Spiders’ by David Wong, ‘Losing Touch’ by Chris Larsen, anything written by Craig Clevenger, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Palahniuk, Christopher Moore, ‘The Dark Tower’ series by Stephen King (and the 15 or so satellite novels), The Ender Cycle by Orson Scott Card, any Discworld book, anything written by Gregory Lamberson…. Movies: Day of the Beast, The Kings of Summer, The Rep, Stitches, This Is The End, Manborg, War of the Arrows, anything Frank Hennenlotter makes, Calibre 9, John Dies at the End, anything on Red Letter Media’s site (this list could keep going)…… Music: Mastodon’s ‘Crack the Skye’, Dillinger Escape Plan ‘One of Us Is Killer’, Matt Berry’s ‘Witchazel’, the new Clutch, anything by Dog Fashion Disco, Polkadot Cadaver, Mike Patton, Born of Osiris, the newest Meshuggah, anything by Devin Townsend….

Thanks to Justin McConnell for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop! You can order Skull World here

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