Director Justin McConnell reveals the feminist inspirations of Lifechanger

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Aug 3, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

Sometimes a horror movie rattles you to your soul — not because of its visuals as much as its harrowing insight into the darker side of humanity. That intellectually stimulating, spine-tingling sensation is what washed over me as I watched Justin McConnell's chilling new film Lifechanger, which is deliciously disturbing and profoundly feminist.

Making its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, Lifechanger follows a homicidal shapeshifter who is obsessed with reconnecting with the woman he once loved. To cheat death, he leaps from one body to the next, stealing the form of his murdered victims. And with each new identity, he circles closer and closer to her, looking to wind his way back into her life and her arms, no matter the cost.

I was intrigued by the premise that demanded a grisly toll for its peculiar protagonist's survival. Cleverly, Lifechanger employs voiceover from the creature's perspective, allowing him to address the audience directly, explaining his motivations, trials, and passions. But as I watched, intrigue turned to shock and repulsion as his carnage overwhelm his explanations. A creeping realization prickled my skin like goosebumps. This shapeshifter's justifications were as tone-deaf and galling as the statements issued by a string of famous, alleged abusers outed by the Me Too movement. Essentially, this movie's monster is a serial abuser who sees himself as the true victim.

When SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with McConnell in Montreal to discuss Lifechanger, he didn't shy away from the film's politics, sharing the long journey of Lifechanger and how #MeToo shaped its fantastic final cut.

It began in 2013 when McConnell was seeking to create a script that could be produced on a lean budget. "I was sitting on a bus one day, and I had this idea of, 'What if I saw myself out in public?'" He said of his inspiration, "From that seed, it gradually over a period of a couple weeks grew. The whole story just formed in my head."

Over the next five years, the script would go through 10 or 11 drafts ahead of a "challenging" 20-day production that McConnell noted, "had more locations than shoot days." But even in the edit bay, the script shifted dramatically. In post-production, McConnell completely rewrote the voiceover narration, informed in part by the conversation evolving out of the Me Too movement.

The voiceover was originally intended to be the unfiltered and reactionary thoughts of this mysterious shapeshifter, as if the audience were reading his mind. In post, McConnell made the small yet momentous shift of having his protagonist knowingly address the audience. This change shifts the creature's intentions, making him an unreliable narrator even as he tries to convince us that his life of murder and violation isn't bad really, and is even romantic.

McConnell expressed frustration at the standard movie cliché where a male lead is regarded as romantic for effectively stalking his "dream girl" to get her attention. In Lifechanger, he intentionally subverts that trope by exposing the delusions of its wannabe romantic hero. "[The shapeshifter is] coming up with excuses with the evil he's doing. And the film is not supporting him. It's condemning him in a lot of ways," he said. "Over this period of having to kill and having to kill more frequently and having the memories of everybody which means all the tragedy, he realizes all the collateral damage he's leaving behind. The mind is going to break at some point, so it starts to rationalize itself out of whatever bad things it's doing."

McConnell's film also includes purposefully unnerving scenes of sexual harassment and attempted sexual assault, as well as a chilling reminder that appearing "normal" is the best disguise for an abuser. Of his horrid anti-hero, he says, "I see him like a Nazi worker sitting on a bench, feeding birds. And you don't know that you're sitting next [to that]." But extreme examples like Nazis or Harvey Weinstein were not the sole inspiration or Lifechanger's self-deluding creature. Instead, McConnell imagined if a more socially accepted form of toxic masculinity ran wild.

"[Lifechanger] talks about masculinity in a lot of ways," he said. He reflected that movies from his formative years objectified women as dream girls and treasures to be won. McConnell made Lifechanger to confront the possessiveness, sexism, and selfishness he believes those movies ingrained on a lot of young men, himself included. "It came a lot from my 20s. And everybody's always improving, right?" He said. "So, I still struggle with thinking of, 'Oh, this is how I was in the past, and I don't want to repeat this.' And you really try hard not to be jealous or possessive. You've got to learn how to be in a relationship. You don't have the tools to really understand yourself until you get older and you start being introspective. I wanted to write a character who is stuck in this sort of archetypal fairytale that he's created of his own life." 

To be clear, Lifechanger is not a movie made because of Me Too. And McConnell isn't aiming to opportunistically capitalize on the movement. Rather, his film—about a man realizing his own toxic masculinity—took years to complete. And in that time he has aligned and been influenced by a mounting wave of feminist discussion. But does McConnell consider himself a feminist, especially when so many still chafe at the label?

"I would consider anybody who is aware of the environment around them to be a feminist," he said. "To realize we're all human beings and that we have to coexist, empathize and understand each other? So yeah, absolutely."

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