Interview with Justin McConnell: Director of ‘Lifechanger’

The end of the year is approaching and I’ve been reminiscing about all the amazing horror movies that have came out this year. One of them is the highly praised horror thriller, Lifechanger (read our review here), directed by Justin McConnell.

I recently had a chance to talk with Justin about his career, his inspirations, details about Lifechanger, upcoming films, and more!

PopHorror – Hey Justin, it’s great to talk with you. Can you tell me how you got involved in the industry?

Justin McConnell – I got the film bug at an early age, and figured out working in the industry, and specifically directing, is what I wanted to do by the age of 15. I made a couple shorts and my first feature in High School, bought gear and started playing with editing, and then went to York University to study film there. Dropped out quickly after due to a TA strike, then took Post-Production at the Trebas Institute the following year. I graduated there in 2002, and started working at a commercial production house called Creative Forces. While there I was responsible for producing/directing/editing TV spots for a bunch of record labels, like Universal and Warner, and simultaneously struck out on my own chasing indie music video clients and building my own company, Unstable Ground. From that point I just gradually built my business, my career, and tried to learn as much as I could. Now it’s almost 20 years later, and here I am. That’s the short version of it.

PopHorror – Sounds like quite the journey. Who inspires you as a director?

Justin McConnell – I’d be here all day listing people, but I can generally say anyone who made a career and body of work for themselves while maintaining an independent approach to their career. The filmmakers who leave a personal stamp on everything they do that’s distinctive, and who fight to maintain a vision. The John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Don Coscarelli and Frank Henenlotter types. But I could answer this question for days, as there is no shortage of good and talented people worth looking up to in this industry.

PopHorror – All great filmmakers! What was the first film you were ever involved in?

Justin McConnell – It was probably a little stop-motion short film using a mix of Ninja Turtles and Beetlejuice toys, when I was like 12 or 13. But in terms of something I wrote, directed, shot with all original material, probably my first official short film, Retribution of the Meek. I made that in 1999. Before that there was a ton of little videos and documentaries/presentations for class projects.

Jack Foley in Lifechanger (2018)
Jack Foley in Lifechanger (2018)

PopHorror – Both sound fun. Your newest film, Lifechanger, is a great horror film. So I have to ask, are you fan of the horror genre?

Justin McConnell – First of all, thank you! Secondly: what an odd question! I understand there are people who make horror films for cynical reasons, but I’m a die hard horror fan, through and through. I caught the horror bug at a young age, and rabidly watched everything I could get my hands on growing up. I still love horror, and try to watch as much as I can. It’s also my job, as I’m a programmer at both Toronto After Dark, and my own short film festival Little Terrors. It isn’t the only genre I enjoy, or even the only genre I ever want to work in, but I absolutely love it with all my heart, and will continue to return to it with the majority of my output, I’m going to predict.

PopHorror – Haha, well believe it or not I’ve met directors who have created horror films that involved that much in the horror genre. Where did you come up with the idea for the story?

Justin McConnell – In 2014 I was growing frustrated after being unable to put the finance together on a couple of much larger films, The Eternal and Tripped, and started brainstorming something I could do on the cheap. The story kind of organically grew out of that. It of course has DNA from a bunch of body jumping/shapeshifter films from the past, but I didn’t set out to make a homage to any of them, so much as just wrote a story influenced by a lifetime of watching the genre and absorbing the language of those films. I was also in a pretty dark place emotionally at that point, very introspective, and that influenced the tone the film has.

PopHorror – Was there any specific films that helped inspire this film?

Justin McConnell – There are definitely films that influenced it, but not directly, just in that they exist in my sub-conscious since I’d seen them all growing up. Things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Hidden, The First Power, Fallen, The Borrower, The Thing, even American Psycho.

PopHorror – All inspiring films. How did the casting process come about?

Justin McConnell – We had a great casting director named Ashley Hallihan on the team, who gathered us a bunch of self-tape auditions for each character. After that first round, we narrowed it down to a few candidates for each role, and I did face-to-face meetings with everyone to get a vibe for who they were as people, and what they could bring to the character. A couple of perfumers I already knew or had seen, such as Lora Burke who impressed me with her performance as a serial killer in Poor Agnes, and Elitsa Bako, who I’ve been close friends with for over six years. Others, like Jack Foley, were recommended by my producer Avi Federgreen after he worked with him on Fugue. Everyone still had to self-tape and be reviewed by the whole team, including the producers, but I’m very happy with the cast we put together.

Steve Kasan in Lifechanger (2018)
Steve Kasan in Lifechanger (2018)

PopHorror – The cast was undoubtedly phenomenal! Was there any particular scene that sticks out to you?

Justin McConnell – There are lots of scenes in the film that stick out to me, but every time I rewatch the last act and ending it continues to stick in my mind. I’m not going to spoil anything, but the performances and where the story goes really work to me.

PopHorror – So far, Lifechanger is receiving quite a bit of love and feedback. How does it feel to get this reaction from your viewers?

Justin McConnell – I’m incredibly happy about how the film has been received. Of course, the film isn’t for everyone, as no film is. But to have this strong a response for something is both new to me (it’s definitely the best received film I’ve made so far, and since it’s technically my sixth feature, that’s a long road). I’m very thankful for everyone that helped get this made and believed in it enough to give me the leeway to make the film I wanted to make. And to have so many people enjoy the work we put in, and in some cases actually cry during it (which I never would have expected in my wildest dreams, as this is a horror film), is something I have trouble putting into words.

PopHorror – I completely understand – you should be proud! Any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

Justin McConnell – I’m in post-production on a documentary feature/series called Clapboard Jungle: Surviving The Independent Film Business, and we are supposed to be going to camera on two more films next year, Mark of Kane (based on the novel ‘Kane’ by Michael Prescott) and Do You See What I See? (the feature adaption of our 2016 Xmas horror short).

PopHorror – Oh I love Christmas horror stories! I look forward to all that you do and will keep my eye out for them! Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to talk! 

Lifechanger opens in a limited theatrical run on December 28, then will be available through iVOD January 1, 2019. Be sure to check it out!

About Tori Danielle

Tori has had a passion for Horror and music ever since she was a little girl. She got bit by the writing bug in high school where she was involved in both the school newspaper and the yearbook. While getting her Bachelors degree, she took Journalism and Creative Writing classes where her passion grew even stronger. Now, in between work and family, she spends all of her spare time indulging in music, Horror movies, and nerdy fandoms, all while running/assisting one of the biggest Horror groups on Facebook and writing for various websites.

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