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Moving pictures

Phil Connell, BCom’01, switched careers to pursue his passion for movies. His first film starred a Hollywood legend in her final leading role
Chris Powell

Phil Connell on the set of Jump, Darling, a film that he directed

There's a kind of Hollywood mythology, perpetrated by movies like The Fabelmans—a loosely told version of Steven Spielberg’s formative years—that filmmakers know from a young age that making movies is what they want to do with their life. They’re often portrayed as precocious, pursuing their dream with a single-minded focus. There typically isn’t room in the myth-making apparatus for the story of someone who finds their acumen for filmmaking relatively late.

But Phil Connell travelled quite a way down the business road, caught for several years in a weird space between the corporate and artistic worlds, before finally taking the off-ramp to a moviemaking career, something that had been tugging at him since his university days.

There were some minor speed bumps on the road less travelled, but the Toronto-based filmmaker has since amassed an impressive resumé that includes more than a dozen commercials, including a 2016 spot entitled “Ahlan Bear” that addressed the Syrian refugee crisis. The spot won a Silver Pencil at the prestigious advertising awards show The One Show and was also shortlisted at the Cannes Lions advertising festival.

But it was his first feature, Jump, Darling, that saw Connell achieve his filmmaking dreams and marked him as a Canadian director to watch. Written and directed by Connell, the film starred Hollywood legend Cloris Leachman in one of her final films and last leading role.

Leachman, who died in January 2021 at 94, was quite frail at the time of shooting in Prince Edward County, Ont. Connell vividly remembers her gingerly making her way onto the set with the help of her daughter. But when the cameras rolled, she was able to summon the skill that earned her eight Primetime Emmy Awards and the 1972 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Last Picture Show.

“When you would call ‘Action,’ it was like a muscle and she would kind of rise up,” recalls Connell. “And suddenly someone who spoke very quietly .. .and didn’t seem to have a lot of strength would scream at the top of her lungs or run across the room if you needed her to. She saved all her energy for the work, and she clearly just loved to do it.” How Leachman carried herself on set would prove highly inspirational for people decades younger, many of whom were working on their first or second film, says Connell. “It was very cool.”

So the story begins

Growing up in Oakville, Ont., Connell had no inkling that filmmaking was in his future. But while in Commerce he befriended some people in the DAN School of Drama and Music. That eventually led him to produce a Queen’s Players show. Even after entering the professional world just as the initial boom was ending, he was still moonlighting as a theatre producer. “I just kind of caught the bug,” he says. “You’re in high school and you kind of throw a dart at the board and say ‘Hey, I’m going to do this,’ and then you get out into the world and realize there are a lot of possibilities and that you maybe had some tunnel vision as you were going through high school and university.”

Phill Connell and Cloris Leachman

Connell’s early business career saw him find success with a company that sold digital advertising inventory across a network of Canadian and U.S. websites. But he’d regularly spend his nights on IMDb, the online film and television database, researching how old some of his favourite directors were when they released their first film. “I was never really ready to give up the dream,” he says. “I just kind of hadn’t figured out how to make it happen.”

“I was never really ready to give up the dream. . . I just kind of hadn’t figured out how to make it happen”

Connell finally decided to fully commit to filmmaking, as a writer and director, in 2011, intending to use commercials as a springboard to his ultimate goal of a feature film. He started writing the script for what would become Jump, Darling two years later. It would prove a transformative experience for the young director. Jump, Darling is the story of a rookie drag queen who heads to the country after a difficult breakup. There, he finds his grandmother in declining health but desperate to avoid the local nursing home. The character of Margaret (played by Leachman) was inspired by Connell’s grandmother and his conversations with her before she died.

In addition to Jump, Darling, Connell has released several short films, including Kissing Drew. He now has several projects in various stages of development. “None of them are hurtling towards production,” he says. “I could [provide a date], but it would be made up.” But hey, isn’t that what all the best filmmakers do?