In a few weeks’ time (on November 11 to be exact) the Razor Reel Flanders Film Festival will host the Belgian premiere of SLASH, Clay Liford’s latest film. The coming-of-age story centers on two oddball teens trying to find a sexual identity for themselves and also claiming their voice as writers.
Wonderfully portrayed by a young and able cast (starring Hannah Marks and Michael Johnston) SLASH feels contemporary yet pure and honest enough to effortlessly capture the universal transition from child- to adulthood.
Did I mention all this happens through the lens of erotic fan fiction?
To mark the occasion, and also to shed light on the how and why of Liford’s ballsy film I was fortunate enough to sit down with the writer-director for a Skype interview. Check out our conversation below.
Looking back on the film’s inception, is there a particular personal experience that informed the creation of SLASH the movie?
It’s always something I’ve been aware of since I was pretty much a kid because I used to go to comic conventions and there was always an eighteen up room and I always wondered what was going on in that room but never had access to it. Then later on I obviously found out about the adult side of fan fiction and stuff like that. Really what happened was I wanted to do another high school movie but more from a younger perspective. My other films are high school films from the teacher’s perspective and I wanted to do a movie from more of a coming-of-age angle. I wanted to tell a story about not fitting in and not really connecting to your immediate peers and being ostracized for your interests.
Obviously things that I was interested in when I was that age are very different now. Now nerd culture is so inclusive, everyone’s a part of it … There is very little left that you can tell those kinds of stories with and really I kind of reminded myself of what’s like the last thing that’s still kind of marginalized? It made me think about, oh yeah, there’s slash fiction. That was just a perfect metaphor to tell a story about outsiders finding a place and finding a community of likeminded people … and it kind of makes it universal. Even though I didn’t write slash specifically when I was younger I was definitely into stuff that my immediate peers were not into and I always felt outside the loop there, so this film kind of scratches that same itch.
So the metaphoric potential of Slash fiction was immediately apparent to you?
It’s always been on the margins of everything that’s within my interests … it’s always been there. It was just a matter of finally turning around and kind of looking deeper at it and looking at the people and what kind of motivations are behind why they write it and why they do what they do. I think writers as characters are always a metaphor in and of themselves for people that are searching because writers are exploring and often exploring themselves. When you take that on top of the specificity of what he’s writing about and the sexual nature of it, I think it kind of takes it to the next level.
Continuing on the subject of writing. Something tells me that, given the care that went into crafting this script and the all-around attention to detail, there is an entire backstory to some or all of the sci-fi components, with everything from 'The Pleasure Gardens of Milliarcha V' to 'the Duke of Raggidi' somehow existing in more fleshed-out form in your mind or perhaps in earlier drafts of the script.
I definitely wrote a lot of pages to cover the backstory. I think it was really important since we couldn’t use a copyrighted character, which most Slash fiction is about. So we had to have the feeling of it being a well-known character and the way that’s accomplished is by the details and the backstory of the world. There was never really much more in the script itself but there were always pages and pages of just backstory that was written. Even to the point that now one of our producers had a digital comic book made of some of the character’s exploits … so there is definitely a world there. It was very important that the character was very iconic even though it’s a character we made up. The idea is that he’s instantly recognizable as the archetype he is so you can concentrate more on how we’re twisting the scene instead of trying to figure out what the scene is.
I’m a big believer in specificity when it comes to references. Everything had very specific terms attached to it and it kind of gives you the illusion of a world that’s perhaps a lot richer than the screenplay alludes to.
The sci-fi visualizations of Neil’s Slash fiction are well-staged but not so overused as to potentially distract from the story’s budding relationship between Neil and Julia.
Right, yeah, the spacing of those scenes and where they appear in the script was something we went back and forth on a lot in pre-production. At one point there was one extra, additional scene that we ended up cutting out because it did not feel necessary, and it was so important for me to concentrate on the real world characters. The biggest production challenge was probably juggling all the pieces because it’s almost like three entire movies in one. You have the high school coming-of-age comedy, then you have the whole comic con set piece, then you have the movie within the movie with all the Vanguard stuff and it felt like staging three different productions almost. So juggling all those pieces, shooting at live events – real actual comic cons – and going to Los Angeles to shoot the science fiction stuff and then all other scenes in Austin Texas. It was such a combination and juggling all those pieces was very challenging.
Other than finding that balance between the different components as you mentioned, I was wondering whether it was ever difficult to create a working environment where everyone felt comfortable given some of the risky subject matter involved.
I think that everyone kind of knew where we coming from; there was never any question about our intent and it was always about the heart of the story. From the cast and the crew everybody was brought on because of a certain degree of sensitivity and also just the fact that everyone ‘got’ the script, everyone understood what I was doing. With Michael and Hannah, the two leads, we brought them in early so they had a lot of time to spend together, more than anyone else. And by the time we were actually shooting the movie they were pretty comfortable with each other. I feel like everyone was just pushing in the same direction and that always makes things easy … -er … easier.
You mentioned Hannah and Michael and they really deliver superb performances that made the film feel very grounded, relatable, and warm. The film is never gratuitous, sensational or sentimental and they just had a great rapport between them. Did they immediately take to their characters? And are they the Neil and Julia you imagined when writing the screenplay?
Yeah, they basically are exactly what I wrote. They both have very different processes … They come from kind of different schools of acting but they mesh really well together. Michael is very much naturally the character … he’s able to just, with very little direction, become that character whereas Hannah she’s very work-based, she does a lot of research, she’s super professional … there’s a lot of physical word toward the character … they just come from different places I think but mesh really well. Michael was the first person that I saw who really embodied he character. Everybody who ever read for that character, because we had such a great casting director, we had no bad performances … we were picking from the best of the best. Hannah too … with both of them, they just had something that stood out and it was just a matter of making sure that we held on to those qualities and not let those qualities get ‘over-directed’ out of the film because there’s a tendency to sometimes direct the good stuff out of people as well as the bad stuff. I like to just hire good people and let them do their process and kind of get out of their way.
With the way this presidential election is unfolding and Donald Trump’s rhetoric of intolerance that only seems to favor white heterosexual males, it seems that a film like SLASH is still incredibly relevant and that, perhaps surprisingly, it still really needs to be made?
I’m glad that you think that. I think it’s very important to show that there are constructive stories that are positive that lie outside of the heteronormative spectrum, that you can have people or characters who want what everybody else wants … they want to find their place in the world and that’s a very universal thing. So even though the story may have some outlandish elements to it, and maybe you might think what they do is outlandish, they’re just people and they want what people want. They want to fit in, they want to find their place. I think that right now the political climate is all about ‘us against them’, it’s this idea of people pushing people apart. We gotta remember that we’re all people and there’s certain things that bring us together. We all want the same stuff.
Picking up on that and, in general, the affirmative message of SLASH as a film that basically celebrates life, whose call was it to end the film to the triumphant tune of Lee Hazlewood’s “Rider on a White Horse”?
That was me! He’s my favorite singer-songwriter of all time and it was very nice to have a Lee Hazlewood track included in the movie. And the song’s just perfect … it’s a melancholic triumph. It is a triumphant tune but has a bit of a road-weariness to it. You hear it in his voice and the lyrics too, it’s like it was not an easy victory. That’s kind of emblematic of what Neil goes through. He had to go on a fairly large journey to get where he is at the end of the movie.
SLASH is making the rounds at international festivals and is really setting the world on fire. Both critics and audiences absolutely seem to adore the film. Does the incredibly positive reception surprise you given the subject matter that could be termed taboo? Or were you expecting a very positive response?
For some reason I always assume people are gonna hate everything I do. But at the same time, working with so many great people, knowing we had something special and really work-shopping it, really testing it … I test my movies for audiences constantly. We had seven test screenings for this movie before we ever locked he picture. So I had a rough idea that people were at least not gonna hate it but didn’t know the degree to which they were gonna love it. And it’s been the most pleasant surprise of this entire process, to notice how well it’s being received. But I had a hunch. When you’re in the editing room and you’re working with such great actors and you have such great performances, you know you have something special.
It really means a lot when people come up to me and they tell me the film reflects their youthful experience and when people tell me there’s something in those characters they see in themselves and they appreciate the way those characters are handled. That’s the reason why you make a movie like this. It sounds like a line, but it’s true. It’s the reason you do it.