Hannah Marks and Michael Johnston in "Slash"

Interview: Clay Liford & Brock Williams on Finding an Identity with “Slash”

If it seems like staging a Comic-Con would be difficult on its own, ask director Clay Liford and producer Brock Williams about recreating one for their latest feature “Slash.”

“We took that whole section of the movie from the script and mapped it all out because we were shooting in three completely different locations, and every time the actors walked from one place to another — sometimes even in the same room script-wise — we’re changing locations,” said Williams, who arranged for the film to shoot at Comicpalooza in Houston at the outset of production in order for production designer Chelsea Turner to be able to build sets to match it and had the script supervisor Brett Hamann constantly pull up stills on his iPad for reference while shooting. “It’s fun when that comes together, because you need everyone’s brain — the cinematographer, the production designer, the [assistant director], the producers and the director all talking it through, and even post, because we had to talk to the colorist in advance to make sure that he could color the footage to match.”

“It was very much a Russian nesting doll,” added Liford, who obsessed over duplicating sconces and light fixtures for months. “After the two times in the past I’d shot at live Comic-Cons, for the “Slash” short and this other movie that never made it past the short phase, I felt confident that when I wrote the script that we could actually pull it off, but it was a big leap of faith for everyone else on board and secretly, I was terrified.”

That anxiety may come flooding back this week as the two head back to the biggest Comic-Con there is in San Diego, but only because Liford, Williams and the one of the film’s stars Michael Johnston will be presenting clips from “Slash” in the hallowed 6,500-seat Hall H, the locale known for the first assembly of the stars of “The Avengers” and making the reputations of such films as “Kick-Ass” and “300.” Taking the stage as part of the “Under the Radar” panel featuring the best in genre fare from the festival circuit, their return is triumphant and at least slightly ironic, not because of the rarity of seeing a film of “Slash”’s size taking the Con’s biggest stage, but because after the filmmakers’ meticulous efforts to build a reality so recognizable to attendees of such an event, “Slash” aims to tear down the societal constructs that drive so many to seek out refuge in fantasy in the first place.

That may sound like heady stuff, but it never feels like it in the hands of Liford, whose previous films — the high school-set comedy “Wuss” and the refreshingly unorthodox alien invasion tale “Earthling” — would seem to have prepared him well for his finest film to date. A deft balance of humor and heart, “Slash” mines the awkwardness of its lead Neil (Johnston) in any number of directions, tracking the teen’s trepidation-filled foray into the world of erotic fan fiction by channeling the confusion brought on by his budding hormones into wonderfully florid fantasizing about his favorite sci-fi series Vanguard. While Neil finds this newfound freedom at an online forum called Rabbit’s Hole, his words have real world consequences, the first being the discovery of a true talent for writing and the second finding his tribe in the real world, despite having to hide his age from everyone but Julia (Hannah Marks), a fellow slashfic writer who he makes a connection with at school and who encourages him to submit his writing to a Rabbit’s Hole competition, with the winner unveiled at Comic-Con.

In an era where people may be more open about their love of sci-fi and their sexuality yet more able to shroud themselves in online avatars to avoid confronting public scrutiny, Liford has a lot of fun hitting familiar notes of a coming-of-age story, but doing so in ways every bit as imaginative as his lead characters write slashfic. It speaks volumes that for a comedy centered on a very specific subculture, the film has charmed audiences at a variety of different festivals, premiering earlier this year at SXSW in the director’s native Austin en route to screenings at general interest fests such as Seattle and BAMCinemaFest, gay and lesbian festivals such as Outfest and genre festivals such as Fantasia Fest in Montreal (where it will have a second screening on July 28th). During this very busy schedule, I was able to catch up with Liford and Williams in Los Angeles to talk about the film’s transition from short to feature, how the film was constantly evolving and growing throughout production, and when they realized they had something special on their hands.

Michael Johnston in a scene from "Slash"How did this come about?

Clay Liford: I’ve always been in the fandom to some degree because when I was a kid, I would go to conventions. I never wrote fan fiction per se, but I was a member of several comic book fan clubs – Elf Quest was a big one for me – and when you’re a kid, you have to have geographically desirable friends, and all my friends were these rough and tumble Texas kids, and I really didn’t really have any shared interests with [them], but then I discovered through fan clubs that the geographical boundaries broke down. Suddenly, here are friends who actually had shared interests in different cities, so that was always something that stuck in my mind. As you get older, your interests change and stopped going to cons when I was in my teens. Still, I was making all these movies about high school for my own movies, and at a certain point, I was like, I’ve been doing all these movies from more of an adult perspective and I really wanted to capture this notion of being a high school kid who didn’t feel like he had a sense of community.

A film festival asked me to do a comedy short and gave me brief parameters, and it was around that time that I had been on some web sites, which were poking a little bit of fun at fan fiction. A web site called Topless Robot had a thing called Fan Fic Friday, [where] they would take the best of the worst fanfic and do commentary on it. I thought it was really funny, and some of it was Harry Potter, and I [thought], wouldn’t it be funny if [the short] was these two kids, way too young to [write slashfic] – they’re just trying to find a Harry Potter fan site – and they accidentally wander into one of these things and get completely freaked out. The idea made me chuckle initially, but the more I thought about it, it kind of felt cheap, so I ended up doing another film entirely and‎ two or three years later, I came back to that idea, [thinking] there’s something here I really want to investigate, but. maybe from a less jokey angle.”

I didn’t think about doing it as a feature, because it was just an experiment, especially because I thought, “What’s the least cinematic thing you can do?” To me, that’s showing somebody typing on a computer screen for a ridiculous amount of time, which a third of the short is. But when ‎it started playing festivals, I would always watch the audience and notice that people would lean in to see what was going to be typed next during the chat room scenes. That combined with this desire to explore that character more gave me the bravery to think, “Oh, maybe this could be a feature.”

Since we’re from a generation when geek culture wasn’t as celebrated, was it interesting to write for a generation where it’s more acceptable?

Clay Liford: It’s been so co-opted now, [if you want] a more cynical take of it, but it was a balance [in the film]. We were able to have our cake and eat it too by having the main floor of the convention they go to being very much a modern convention, but then they go off into this little subterranean area, so it still has the romanticism of the type of cons I went to, where it’s that more musky, old basement of Ramada Inn thing with people pouring over comic books.

As far as the idea of what the kids are doing now, it is a transposition. This is why I didn’t make this movie specifically about “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” nerds – the stuff has been completely co-opted or celebrated, depending on how cynical you are, by the mainstream, so much so that dude bros, guys in sideways backwards caps are “Star Trek” fans now. I always thought “Star Trek” would be the last thing to go. It’s the nerdiest thing. How do you bro that up? But they found a way. They ripped the skin off the buffalo and they stuck it on “Star Wars,” and now it’s like Star Trek Wars. So [the question became] what’s left? What’s just taboo enough to still be relatively untouched by the mainstream?

The funny thing is, even in the amount of time that we made “Slash,” fan fiction in general has become a hot topic and coming to the point where it’s normalizing, for lack of a better word. It fit exactly what I wanted to do metaphorically. Even though I don’t specifically write fan fiction, I totally can relate to the idea of non-geographical friendships that were like what happened in the pen and paper pen pal world for me, where all those boundaries break down and you feel like if you don’t belong to your immediate peer group, you have this way of talking about things that are not being spoken about. What’s really interesting about fan fiction and erotic fan fiction specifically is that you have people you might not think fit into the standard, run-of-the-mill, cisgender, heteronormative sexual roles, and their voices are not heard in mainstream fiction or media, so this is a place for them to take that back. It becomes about this sense of building a community with your global peers, as opposed to your geographically desirable peers.

Hannah Marks and Michael Johnston in "Slash"There’s been some criticism since the film has started playing festivals that in telling the story from the perspective of a Caucasian male, you were ignoring the fact that slashfic is mostly written by women, though Julia is such a strong character. Did you know what you were getting into?

Clay Liford: To some degree, we absolutely knew what we were getting into, and there was a very specific reason why I wanted it to be [male], but I also did not want to discount the notion that an overwhelming majority of that community is female, so that’s why Julia has so much of a voice in the movie, and I would dare say much more than him, especially about the world of fan fiction. She’s the authority, he’s not. But because it was a personal story, it felt more accurate to have him be male because I am coming from that viewpoint, but also a lot of me is in Julia, too and the larger thing was always the outsider amongst outsiders [idea] — that notion of someone who fits in nowhere and is actually put in the position to potentially be rejected from his peer group because of his own gender. That tends to be a running theme in my movies [where] a character doesn’t have a safe place to go, and in the first drafts of the script, they tend to be even more intense that way. There was much more of [Neil’s] family earlier on [in the writing process], and we were like, “Well, we’ve got to dial back now a little bit so he’s not so beleaguered.”

Was it difficult finding teen actors that could play these roles?

Clay Liford: That was the longest part. I’ll let Brock chime in on this one.

Brock Williams: We hired J.C. Cantu, a casting director [in Los Angeles] who started getting a ton of kids on tape, and we came out here at one point and saw some auditions in the room. Casting Neil was really complicated, because it was hard to find somebody who could look young and innocent enough but still had the chops to pull it off. It seems easy because he’s not the big, outgoing Julia character, but it’s pretty complicated to be compelling on screen when you don’t have a lot of lines and action. We saw a tape of Michael Johnston, and Clay immediately was like, “This is the kid.”

A lot of the other roles, like Julia, were tricky because we had a lot of people who loved the film and a lot of actors really wanted to be involved, but on this budget level, some actors get offered a much bigger part in a much bigger movie, and you just have to take that. We finally found Hannah [Marks] at the last minute through friends of mine – she was in “Southbound,” which my good friend Susan Burke wrote and my friend Roxanne [Benjamin] directed the segment that Hannah’s in, so they recommended her.

Clay Liford: The funny thing she had been on [an audition] tape already – the first batch of people – but somehow we missed it.

Brock Williams: We looked at so many tapes, and we had another actress attached [at one point] and she had to drop out for another commitment, so when my friends recommended Hannah, we looked back at her tape, we got on a Skype call with her, and we were like, “She’s just perfect.”

Clay Liford: I can’t even imagine anyone else. There’s not a single role where that’s not either exactly what I hoped for or better than I hoped for.

Brock Williams: I know. It’s complicated [particularly] in the summer and actors would have other conflicts come up. A lot of the parts came together pretty last minute, even Michael Ian Black. Not only am I so pleased with the performances we got, but we got so lucky – everybody that we ended up working with was just so kind, love the final movie and are really excited about it, and just really cool folks.

Hannah Marks and Michael Johnston in "Slash"It seemed like the Kickstarter campaign that was launched to help with the fantasy sequences also was during production – did you actually know you’d be able to do them with the size and scope they wound up having at the start of shooting?

Brock Williams: Things evolved over time about how we were going to shoot that. We went back and forth about whether we’d try to shoot it in Austin or shoot it in LA because we knew we’d shoot the fantasy stuff later and we were so happy about what we got that when we wrapped filming on the main unit, we realized we should try to do the biggest version we can do of because the film deserved it. That’s when we decided to do the Kickstarter and shoot that stuff in Vasquez Rocks [outside Los Angeles] on the spaceship stage out there and try to get those great cameos with Angela Kinsey and John Ennis we got, [which happened] just because we were shooting in LA.

Clay Liford: It was always written a certain way, but you can shoot those in so many different ways. We talked about shooting this rock quarry and when I saw the new “Star Wars,” they shot part of it in Georgetown, and I’m like, “It’s got to be that rock quarry.” We shot Vasquez Rocks, which is arguably the most famous actor in the movie because it’s been an alien planet in every movie. It’s every Star Trek exterior, and “Bill and Ted” shot there, and the week we just wrapped production, I went to go see a movie at the Drafthouse, and it just happened to have all these scenes shot at Vasquez Rocks and I’m like, “That’s serendipitous.”

You mentioned that seeing the potential of the Instant Message scenes were part of the reason for adapting this into a feature. How did you figure out to make those cinematic? Scoring them with classical music, for instance, is a stroke of genius.

Clay Liford: For the short, it was simple as the fact that I didn’t have a composer and I just needed something that sounded right, so I used old recordings of classical music because it was essentially free and the no money solution ended up working so well — it was such an interesting juxtaposition between what [Neil] was doing, writing occasionally silly things on the internet, versus how fancy the music was — that it just felt natural. I would love to say there was some grand design to all this, but I fumbled my way into it, and I had no idea the first time I ever played it in front of an audience that that stuff would work at all. It was just this weirdo short that didn’t cost very much money so I could try some outlandish things, and for the feature, we have original recordings that we made with our composer, just trying to steal some of that flavor and translate it in the feature. That was the most refreshing surprise of the short was how the scenes I was worried the most about, that they worked the best.

Brock Williams: I think that’s true in the feature, too. Those scenes of just Michael sitting and typing, especially chatting on the computer, there’s a lot of laughs and audience reactions.

Clay Liford: Arguably, one of the biggest laughs in the movie comes out of one of those scenes.

Did having a couple features under your belt also give you some confidence to adapt this?

Clay Liford: There was a lot of talk [about doing a feature] when I had “My Mom Smokes Weed” short, and I was very headstrong in those days, [thinking] “No. I made the story I wanted to make.” I made that one based on the fact that I’d been making goofy horror comedies up to that point, and then my friend [“Pit Stop” director] Yen Tan actually recommended I try something more personal, and I was like, “Nobody wants to hear about my dumb life.” Finally, I was like, “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do the craziest version of it,” so I did that, and then it worked. It totally changed the trajectory of all the movies I started making. I probably should have made the [“My Mom Smokes Weed”] feature, but it was nice to actually take something further [with “Slash”]. I had to fight against my instinct, which is always the story is the length it’s supposed to be, and it dictates the format. I had to get past that notion, and any time I’ve ever gone out of my safety net, it’s always been good.

Michael Johnston in "Slash"What’s it been like to take this out into the world?

Clay Liford: It has been incredible. Going back to “My Mom Smokes Weed,” I always used to say that movie is the prom queen [because] it’s like, “Everyone loves the prom queen,” then I made this crazy feature “Earthling,” which is the weirdo goth girl, and some people really love the weirdo goth girl, but not everybody. But “Slash,” which might be the most seemingly whackadoodle movie I made on the surface, has become my new prom queen — people really respond to it. When our first reviews were starting to come out at SXSW, [I wondered] “What are people going to think?” And we tested the movie pretty heavily, so we had a fair idea that we had something special, especially with teenagers and [people in their] early twenties, they really connected to it, so we knew people weren’t going to dogpile us in a bad way, but the degree to which people loved it was such a surprise.

Brock Williams: It sounds like a movie that might be really niche, but it’s been so universally embraced by people, and it seems like everybody finds something that they really love in the film. When we were casting, I noticed that so many of these young actors who read for a part just went on and on about how relatable the script was and how it was so different than anything else that they were being sent and I started to realize that this really connects with young people in a way that I don’t think other films are really honest about [in terms of] the types of struggles of trying to figure out who you are and find your place in the world in a very non-judgmental way. A lot of the young actors who auditioned seemed to really connect with that idea that the film wasn’t trying to put people in categories or push people into one group or another, and was about the lack of a need to have those types of labels anymore.

This seems to be one of those cases where the more specific you make it, the more universal it becomes.

Clay Liford: That’s weirdly a tenet of all comedy. I’m a firm believer that comedy carries a lot of pathos and is a very important genre, and it’s also the most dismissable, even more than horror films are — “The Exorcist” and other films like that have actually garnered more critical respect. You can name on one or two hands the most respectable comedies, like “Annie Hall.” I think it’s such a stupid thing. It’s all about specificity. That’s where the truth comes.

“Slash” will be released this fall by Gravitas Ventures. Its “Under the Radar” presentation at Comic-Con in San Diego will take place at the San Diego Convention Center at 3:30 pm on July 21st in Hall H. It will have a second screening at Fantasia Fest in Montreal on July 28th at the J.A. De Seve Theatre at 1 pm.

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