'If It Exists, There's Porn of It': Enter the World of Erotic Fan Fiction with SLASH

Clay Liford's SLASH on No Film School
In a world where teenagers turn to the internet to explore their sexuality, director Clay Liford plants us squarely into the lives of young erotic fan fiction writers. 

The SXSW 2016 premiere Slash follows two high school outsiders (Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks) as they bond over their mutual hobby: slash fiction, a genre of fan fiction centered around sexual relationships between fictional characters. Through this lens, director Clay Liford explores the complexities of making friends over the internet and coming into one's own as an adult.

Expanding from his 2013 short film about Harry Potter erotica, Liford invents a new universe of fan fiction as the backdrop for his third feature film.

No Film School talked to Clay at SXSW about stitching together locations, why there's no such thing as over-preparing, and his advice for navigating film festivals.

"I always like to test ideas in a short film form because —  especially if it's a more 'out there' idea —  you can translate what's mostly an internal process externally."

NFS: How did you decide to jump onto this project?

Liford: I always like to test ideas in a short film form because —  especially if it's a more "out there" idea —  you can translate what's mostly an internal process externally. I spent a very small amount of money just to make a short version of Slash and see how that worked. It played really well. It played at Fantastic Fest and a lot of LGBT festivals. 

I really came to like the characters and I decided I wanted to live there longer. In the short, it's all about Harry Potter erotica. Obviously, I was not making it to make money, so if Warner Bros ever came down and said, "Stop doing what you're doing," I could just walk away from it. But with a feature, you have to be fiscally responsible. The biggest thing for me was actually just coming to terms with the fact that I could develop my own [content] from which they could base their fan fic erotica. With 90 minutes versus nine minutes, you can do some world-building.

Also, I've been aware of slash fiction since I was a kid. I was a child of the conventions. 

NFS: I went to Star Trek conventions as a kid, so I understand.

Liford: Star Trek was the progenitor of modern slash. Literally, the term came from Kirk/Spock fiction, called K/S. It was always on my radar, and I was a writer in search of a metaphor, I suppose. [People looked at me sideways] for liking slash when I was a teenager. It's like being a Star Trek nerd. Dude-bros watch Star Trek now. It's been so co-opted.

"People thought we were just doing some weird YouTube video and ignored us."

I like taking things that people misunderstand and then playing with them, and hopefully coming out in a better place of understanding. [Fandom] brings people together who may not be able, through mainstream media, to find depictions of what they enjoy. They take something [from media] that's not giving them what they need, they transmute it into something that is. 

NFS: What was your motivation to have the camera actually go inside the fictional world?

Liford: I thought it was necessary. In the short, you don't see any Harry Potter. It was about Harry Potter, but I could say Harry. I could say Draco. I can say names of these characters. I barely know Harry Potter, but I know it well enough. Anyone would know. You conjure an image in your head. Done. In the short film, things have to be iconographic, including the characters, because you have such a short amount of time to tell the story. You have to be able to instantly recognize symbology. But with a feature, I can't just say these made-up character names; it has no weight. You have to show it.

I have this weird stigma about movies within movies. When it's a movie about a guy making a movie or about a guy writing, it tends to always be, "We know this is silly." Yeah, there's stupidly ridiculous movie moments in our sci-fi scenes, but I feel like we do it in a way where we never really wink to the camera. I hope it does not come off that we feel like we're better than those scenes. That was something I was adamant that we did not do. 

SLASH SXSW
"SLASH"

NFS: When you see those costume changes and the nipples are out and stuff, it's just so funny. I makes you laugh automatically. 

Liford: I let my designers do their thing, but if I gave them any kind of touchstones, I gave them things I actually loved. For Vanguard, my touchstones were Phantom of the Paradise and Ultra Man. I'm a huge fan of both of those things. Familiar lines are always a good thing. Kragon —  he was the villain —  was my Terry Gilliam homage to Brazil. That was meant to be a mish-mash of both The Samurai and then Michael Palin's Torture Mask, which was probably the most influential movie of my life. 

NFS: I found it really interesting how you were able to shoot the convention sequences.

Liford: If you look at the script, there are a lot of scenes where it's these big vista shots, like, "Wow, look at this crazy place we're at. Look at all these people. Hey, let's go over to this corner and have the rest of our conversation." We tried to minimize how much location sound we had to worry about. I knew that was going to be a huge challenge. We ended up shooting surprisingly more at the real conventions. We formed relationships with several convention people, Wizard World Austin, and then also Comicpalooza in Houston. At Wizard World Austin, we shot some B-roll before they even cast the actors  just getting shots of people, things we could cut to.

Then when the actors came in, the very first thing we shot was at Wizard World. We timed the shoot around it, took them there with a skeleton crew and had permission to be there, but we didn't let the people know what we were doing. We tried to make it look like we were just doing a YouTube video. We took our huge film camera with all the junk on it, the matte box, took everything off, and pared it down to its bare elements. This looked as much like a regular camera as possible and hopefully people thought we were just doing some weird YouTube video and ignored us. They generally did.

Then the live read and the slash room, and things like that, were recreated in several places.

"You can't offer an action star an action star role in a lower budget film. There's no upside for them. You take an actor who's never seen that way and you give them an opportunity to do [it] in your independent film."

NFS: Did you shoot everything all at once?

Liford: No. We did pretty much all [filming] in concentrated waves. When you're shooting in the location, typically you shoot off your shoulder because you're just running and gunning it. We were like, "No, we're shooting it the same way [as anywhere else]." We had a dolly and the slider with us. We tried to keep everything in the same feel as the rest of the movie. That way, it didn't look like we were trying to pull a fast one, and everything meshed together much better. 

NFS: I always like seeing how people pull off these seemingly complicated things and how they stitch them together and make it work.

Liford: The biggest trick was just cutting around anytime anybody looked at the camera. That wasn't even that bad. Of course we had to make sure that nothing crazy copyrighted showed up. We had a person that was helping us with clearances that approached a bunch of vendors at a time. We would tend to shoot around the ones that we got clearances for, so there's a prominently displayed Top Cow decal because we cleared them. 

SLASH SXSW
"SLASH"

 

NFS: I want to ask about casting Michael Ian Black in this black comedy role. It's a side you don't always get from him.

Liford: He was pretty interested right from the start. I really like working with comedians in serious roles, because they always make the transition to drama so well. There are so many examples of great stand-up comedians going into more dramatic work. For Michael, I feel like it was an opportunity for him to do something he's not known for doing. He really took to that and he really prepared. I met him in the flesh the day he showed up to shoot. It was such a whirlwind getting ready —  looking at actor availabilities —  that we didn't know he was going to be in the movie until only a couple weeks out from shooting.

When you're doing a movie at this budget level, no one's doing it for the money. There has to be something else. You can't offer an action star an action star role in a lower budget film. There's no upside for them. I feel like you take somebody who's never seen that way and you give them an opportunity to do that. That's always my biggest advice when you're casting independent films. What's the real reason somebody might want to be involved with this if it's not just a straight numbers game?

"Every ounce of preparation that could be done during pre-production —  before that money meter starts ticking —  pays off in droves." 

NFS: What kind of things did you do to facilitate the environment for the leads? Was there a lot of rehearsal?

Liford: Because Michael and Hannah were in essentially every scene, we wanted to make sure they had time together. We brought them in early, did wardrobe fittings and all the other stuff they had to do. Also, it was great getting to do that comic convention shoot first, with just the two of them and no one else, because neither of them had been to a convention before. On top of that, having time so they can co-mingle and figure things out was super valuable. 

NFS: What kid of advice would you have for other filmmakers starting out? This is several films in for you and your scope is expanding, like you said.

Liford: Especially when you're working with very low budgets, every second counts. Every ounce of preparation that could be done during pre-production  before that money meter starts ticking  pays off in droves. If you're a free-form guy and you like the improv, I personally think the more you prepare, the more you're freed up to improv later. When you show up to the set and you know every single shot, every single set-up, every single angle, every location, that's a base line. If you go in without preparing, it's like you're in an electrical storm with a friggin' lightning rod in your hand. You're just asking for it. 

There’s this weird thought — and I had it too when I was younger — that if I over-prepare, I'm taking away my mojo. You think that you're going to lose something that makes you creatively unique [if you prepare], but I don't think that's the case at all. I think you're gaining the ability to have more creative freedom.

Shit happens. Shit goes down. The most perfectly planned shoot's going to have problems; movies are chaos magnets. I call it the "X-factor," the unknown. If you add in a couple X-factors and you walk into a day like, "Ah, we'll figure it out when we get there," you are just courting disaster. It's completely unnecessary because there's so much work that can be done that costs no money. It just takes a little time. 

SLASH SXSW
"SLASH"

"The most perfectly planned shoot's going to have problems, because movies are chaos magnets."

If you've planned, you know what can be combined and you know what can be tossed away. Some of my favorite shots in the movie are based on a degree of creative limitation. You have to be very economical with each shot. Each shot has to have multiple purposes. That's not something you just figure out on set. You've got to be able to know, "Okay, this is a two-shot that becomes somebody else's close up." That's a two-purpose shot, as opposed to a shot that's just an angle on one person, and it doesn't hold for when anyone else is talking. It's all about identifying things that are going to help you. 

NFS: What did you learn to prepare for on this film?

Liford: Everything from locations to clearances. Here's a big one: music clearances. The second you know you want to use a song, if you're very specific about it, start that process. The more time you have to negotiate, the cheaper the rate's going to be. When you don't have time to negotiate is when you just have to take it or leave it. 

NFS: What do you think was the biggest obstacle in making this movie?

Liford: The planning, which was done impeccably well by my producing team. This is a very ambitious film. The film's ambitions are its own biggest obstacle. We shot in three cities with stunts, with a relatively big cast. 80% of our cast was not from Austin. We were bringing them in from every which way. Having great producers really made it tenable.

NFS: How do you navigate film festivals?

Liford: The most important thing when you have a movie in a festival is being able to go with the flow. If you've got a movie, you've got a lot of responsibilities. It can be frustrating because you want to see other movies. You've got a lot of FOMO.

For one, you've got to protect your movie, especially if it's a sales festival like Sundance or SXSW, where there are actually distributors buying films. If you're there, you're there for that reason. Then you're also going to play regional festivals that don't necessarily have buyers. That's where you catch up. There are great festivals that have amazing programming  Maryland and Florida have some great guys whose instincts I trust.

If you're just at a festival as a viewer, don't go to the things that are literally about to open in theaters and come out on Netflix. Go see stuff [whose fate is uncertain]. This may be your only chance. You can see whatever big Hollywood movie opens next week. Be open to surprises. Go where the winds take you. 


For more, see our complete coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. Listen to our podcasts from SXSW (or subscribe in iTunes):

Video is no longer available: soundcloud.com/nofilmschool/sets/sxsw-2016

No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom    

Your Comment

5 Comments

This is an awesome concept - love the trailer.

March 23, 2016 at 7:08PM, Edited March 23, 7:08PM

13
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Ed David
Director of Photography
1740

Love it - our attitudes to sex are going to be SO revolutionised by the internet.

March 24, 2016 at 12:49AM, Edited March 24, 12:49AM

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Caroline Bottomley
Company Director
144

Trailer at 1:06, "Oh dude, please get out" - does anyone know who that actor is ? I'm just curious if it is this guy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtZDxzlGbN4 .
It's going to bother me now (!).

Film looks great by the way, like a breath of fresh air.

March 24, 2016 at 9:32AM

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Saied M.
1391

This looks so great, I need to see it.

March 25, 2016 at 3:02PM, Edited March 25, 3:02PM

0
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A couple of attractive leads in a film centered on sex and the critics love it. How original.

April 10, 2016 at 9:34PM, Edited April 10, 9:34PM

3
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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
968