Fantastic Fest Interview: Clay Liford, 'Slash'

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Clay Liford

Local filmmaker Clay Liford's short film Slash (aka S/ash), which premiered at Dallas IFF in April, screens this week at Fantastic Fest. This wickedly funny short film portrays Sam (Arthur Dale), a 13-year-old boy who writes erotic fan fiction involving characters from the Harry Potter franchise. Not an unlikely premise when you think of Internet Rule #34: "If it exists, there's porn for it."

I met with Liford at a local coffeehouse where he frequently works on projects, and we spoke about Slash and its creation as well as other projects. Liford traveled this past week to New York for Independent Film Project (IFP) Film Week where the script for the feature-length version of Slash was included in a project. He describes his short film as "a very nerd movie about this subculture of fan fiction" and spoke of the challenge presented by references to copyrighted materials in an unintended light.

The selection of the name Slash contains a double meaning -- not only is "slash" a type of fan fiction that features homoerotic relationships (often male), but it's also a reference to Harry Potter's signature lightning-shaped scar.

Liford's focus on fan fiction came about because he finds the subculture very fascinating and wanted to make a movie about it. He mentioned that a documentary seemed too easy, being the "lower hanging fruit." Instead, he decided to write a narrative around a character that writes fan fiction.

"Everything has been co-opted, shaved and sterilized by Hollywood and other conglomerates," Liford noted as we discussed the lack of taboos in film nowadays.

"Even like John Waters movies from the 70's -- you see Farrelly Brothers movies and even modern comedies with poop jokes and people getting ejaculate in their hair. It's not even a big deal anymore. It's hard to push people's buttons -- Polyester is an extremely tame film now."

But both the short and feature versions of Slash are "not about pushing buttons for sake of pushing buttons," he clarified. The idea behind the films is "an interesting jumping off place for a character."

His approach is inspired by the films of Todd Solondz, who creates characters who are terrible, yet connect with viewers.

"The easy thing to do is say, 'Look how bad this person is and ridicule and deride.' That's extremely easy and therefore not interesting. Solondz actually makes you sympathize with these characters that are almost unsympathetic."

In researching Slash, Liford read quite a bit of fan fiction which he described as "90 percent point-blank hilarious." But he chose not to approach it from that angle even though "that's part of the comedy" in making his own film. It's more important to him that "these characters are people that I care about, and they're not people that we ridicule and that we are making fun of."

"For me it's far more interesting to look for the sympathetic point in a character, and just try to see the world through their eyes," Liford explained. Liford will explore this in the feature version of Slash -- he wants the perspective of "somebody that I'm not really into -- I forced myself to be into it, to make the movie, to write the script."

To do so, Liford "went deep down into the rabbit hole," by exploring fan fiction forums where he read discussions between writers and fans.

"I read about these people and their philosophies. They'll chat with each other online and you can kind of see where these people are coming from and it's interesting."

"It's always about looking at the subtext in the source material," he added, explaining that slash fiction originated with Star Trek and the relationship between Kirk and Spock.

"I think people try to gravitate more towards that because there was a lot of subtext that people could read into those characters -- that they may have that relationship because they were very special friends. Obviously Gene Roddenberry and the creators of Star Trek had no intent for a homoerotic relationship between Kirk and Spock."

In his research, Liford discovered that slash fiction seems to proliferate more with canceled or failed television shows. He observed that "television is a good breeding ground  by nature of the fact that it is longer and those characters are in your living room."

We also spoke at length about the motivation behind his main character Sam in Slash, and the influence of the internet.

"A lot of awkward kids that maybe don't have a lot of friends IRL (in real life) can find like-minded friends. What's changing is that when your friends growing up they were geographically desirable friends -- not necessarily because you had mutual interests, but because they were your neighbors or went to same junior high as you. Now kids and adults have the opportunity now to meet like-minded people."

Liford said that Sam, his main character, "doesn't know a lot of things, like maybe he doesn't know exactly what he wants to write about, and maybe he doesn't know what his sexuality is. The internet also allows you this supreme opportunity to constantly re-invent yourself which can often times be a bad thing but can also be a good thing."

"When you are figuring things out, that's such a huge part of the internet and social networking. You can lock yourself into history by documenting everything in your life in some form on the internet, or you find that you can subvert that and completely change yourself as much as you want. I think the vast majority of the time it's completely harmless."

Liford has other projects in the works, and credited having great management. "We're always trying how to figure out how to crack the egg." He's pitched television shows and has several film projects that "I can't afford to make on my own that we're trying to get people to throw money at. Some are bigger, some are smaller but the Slash feature is what we'll try to do next as it's a very attainable amount of money and there's a direct line between the feature and the short. It's much easier to pitch people on that."

Liford hopes the feature-length version of Slash should allow for a broader conversation about its topics.

Be sure to check out Liford's prior features, including Wuss (Jette's review) and the science-fiction thriller Earthling. Both films are available through VOD on Amazon Instant Video and Earthling is also now available to stream through Netflix. Or you can watch his short film My Mom Smokes Weed below (via YouTube).

Slash is playing before Maruyama the Middle Schooler at Fantastic Fest -- see it tonight at 8:15 pm or Thursday at 10:45 am. And if you miss it, we just found out that the short will be screening at Polari (which announced its lineup at its launch party last night) on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 9:30 pm at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.

[Photo credit: "Clay Liford at Work" by Debbie Cerda, for use with accreditation.]