By Tom Ue.
Clay Liford’s new film Slash (2016) centers on high school freshman Neil (Michael Johnston) and his slightly older fellow student Julia (Hannah Marks), both of whom write fanfic online. The process of writing for a public provides the introverted Neil with an outlet but it also pushes him to reevaluate his relationship with Julia and with the site moderator Denis (Michael Ian Black). Liford has written and directed three features, including Wuss (SXSW 2011, AFI 2011 Audience Award Winner) and Earthling (SXSW 2010). His comedy short, “My Mom Smokes Weed” (2008) has played over forty festivals, including the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. As a DP, Clay has shot 20 features, including the award winning films St. Nick (2009) and Gayby (2012).
Congratulations on Slash! What led you to choose erotic fan fiction for the focus of a film?
I’ve always been involved in fandom, in some form or another. I was a pretty big Star Trek dork in high school, and I ran an AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) campaign for three years in junior high. These are facts I would have been utterly mortified about if they were ever revealed to my “civilian” classmates. But now all these things are super hip. It’s all been co-opted. Vin Diesel plays D&D! So, I was in search of something that still had a bit of a stigma surrounding it – something misunderstood, in order to relate my teenage outsider feelings to a modern audience. But it couldn’t be something truly isolationist. I was part of various fan clubs (pen and paper, snail mail) around that time. There’s thing when you’re young and you don’t have a car. You’re sort of stuck with friends that are geographically desirable, but who don’t necessarily share your core beliefs. Fandom, especially now with the internet, allows kids to find their true companions. Not just the weird neighbor kids who like to blow up crap in their driveway (I grew up in the South). The fanfic community is as equally vibrant as it is misunderstood. In other words, the perfect metaphor for my personal coming-of-age story.
According to your Twitter profile, you also make Harry Potter erotica. What was it like to look at and respond to fan culture from a distance?
Being on the fringes of fandom has its advantages. I’m far enough away that I can see the humor in it without taking it too personally, yet I’m still close enough to have genuine affinity for its members and practitioners. I feel like I’m in sort of the perfect position – the really good seats. There’s no situation where I would have any desire to make the “Adam Sandler” version of this story. You know the very judge-y “hey look at these weirdos” version. It’s just low-hanging fruit and it’s lazy and gross. Conversely, if this was an insider movie, made for fans by fans, I feel like it would be completely inaccessible to the world at large. I know for a fact that that the day-in/day-out “nuts and bolts” depiction of fan community minutia isn’t perfectly accurate, but the heart of the people is right on the money. You take shortcuts with narrative filmmaking. It’s a winnowing process, to get to the heart. And the creative and passionate hearts of our “slash fic” writing characters is coming from a place of understanding and respect.
The production design is excellent: Neil’s and Julia’s costumes, for instance, look like they could have been homemade and different from those used in the fantasy segments. How did you decide on the different looks of the film?
It was important to us that the costumes and world of the fandom our characters chose to follow 1. felt legit and 2. didn’t directly reference anything currently strong in pop culture. These things shift, and we were looking for a degree of longevity and universality. That being said, I certainly had influences. There are things I was obsessed with in my youth that I was damn sure to sneak into the movie. Vanguard’s costume alone lightly references two major influences from my childhood: the Japanese TV show Ultraman (1966-67), and Brian De Palma’s single greatest film, Phantom of the Paradise (1974).
On the production side of things, would a bigger budget have changed the film for the better? How so?
I mean there is a version of the movie that I supposed could have specifically referenced Harry Potter and Star Trek fandom. Maybe even with connected star cameos. But would that have made it better? I mean at first glance that would be pretty catchy, but then suddenly you’re just the “erotic Harry Potter” or the “sexy Star Trek” movie. And with that, I think all the underlying messages I’m attempting to coax out sort of get lost in the A-list hullabaloo. Or maybe I’m just bitter.
Classical music is put to surprisingly great effect here. Tell us about your decisions.
When I made the short film version of “Slash” (2012), I didn’t have the budget to hire a composer. So it was a creative decision born of limitations. You know, to use public domain classical compositions. I didn’t expect it to work as well as it did. So much so that when I actually did have a composer, two actually (Curtis Heath and Lauren Sanders), we all still decided to use the classical pieces. I love the somewhat ironic juxtaposition of “classy” music to underscore what some people would consider “trashy” writing.
The leads are excellent. Tell us about the casting.
We worked with an amazing casting director out of Los Angeles, JC Cantu. He’s worked on a friggin’ Soderbergh film, so he was really slumming it with us. Anyway, if a script comes to you via him, you take it seriously. That really opened our little film up to such a great calibre of actors. There literally wasn’t a single bad read at any audition. I can’t tell you how rare that is. But when it came to both Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks, it was not just about how well they read. It was about how much they intrinsically embodied the characters. With both of them, there was a clear eureka moment between myself and my producers the moment they began their auditions. These are the moments you dream about when you write a screenplay. I owe my cast so much. It’s so character driven!
How has the response to the film been like amongst the fan fiction community?
By and large we’ve been completely embraced by anyone in fandom who has actually seen the movie. There’s been a bit of a knee-jerk response from people who’ve only heard about it. Heard that a male director made it with a male lead (opposite a female lead). Because slash fiction is largely written and read by women. So it could seem as though I’m an uninformed outsider. But again this reaction has primarily come from those who haven’t seen the movie yet. I’ve even had several people at screenings tell me they came with the intent to hate-watch it, but left loving it. Because the thing is, when you read a synopsis, you only get dry facts. And this isn’t a movie about dry facts. It’s about empathy. It’s about finding the universal message in even the most peripheral of places. I think this is something that sort of needs to be experienced first hand. It doesn’t necessarily translate to a Tweet.
Let’s talk more about the story. The internet provides community for writers like Neil at times while making them vulnerable at others. Is there a way to balance this?
You can’t have one without the other. And that’s the thing about the modern era. We have access to so much more than any generation that preceded us. But there’s always a cost. The give and take is a large part of what this movie is about. Balance comes from maturity. Setting your own boundaries. The humor in the movie comes from the fact that Neil (and Julia) are possibly too young to have developed the necessary skills to deal with the internet community.
Another affordance of the internet, as Neil and Julia discover, is that it gives writers more liberties and prevent them from being pressured by publishers and mainstream success. Can you comment on this?
There’s literally something for everyone on the internet. You’re no longer limited by the publishing schedules of the major conglomerates. Of course they have the loudest voices, but if you dig deep enough, you will find people saying the stuff you’d hope to find. There’s always a way to find your place. No longer do people have to live in virtual isolation. The irony is the measure of success hasn’t really evolved to match the landscape…yet. But it’s the next generation that will decide the stakes and the scope of fame and success. It’s Neil and Julia’s generation.
Neil is visibly more talented than Julia though she has written much more. What are your thoughts on talent vs. perseverance?
I’m the poster boy for perseverance. My career has been one long battle of attrition. It’s like World War One trench warfare. I’m not a savant. I think neither Neil nor Julia are savants. Practice is what will keep them going. I teach film, and I always tell my students, “hey you’ve got seven bad movies in you. Seven bad short films. Or if you’re a musician, seven bad songs. Get them out of your system while you are in a protected space amongst your peers. Bury them deep, deep beneath the earth. Tell no one. Then, by your eighth short or whatever, people will think you’re this amazing overnight success.”
Is Martine (Jessie Ennis) right when she suggests that Julia to Neil is what Mike (Peter Vack) was to her?
We strongly imply that if you were to rewind the movie about a year, the version of Julia you’d see would be much more in line with what Neil is currently like. I think there is some truth to it. Sometimes you have to be forcibly pulled from you shell. There’s a light and a dark side to it. I actually don’t think Mike is that bad of a guy. He’s really a base creature. Something from the id. But even when he’s being a dick, he’s not really trying to be a dick. Mike (along with Martine) pushed Julia’s life in a new direction, just as Julia has done so with Neil. You take the good with the bad.
Why does Julia rip up the story that she writes with Neil?
He got too close. Julia’s been intimate with boys before Neil. He’s not bringing this new thing to the table. But with slash fiction, they bonded on such high level of pure relation, a pure sharing of a mutual love, that the intimacy of what they wrote together in bed in a way outshines whatever physical acts they may have engaged in.
None of the adult characters offer especially helpful advice: what do you think is unique about their teenaged experience?
Oh man! I really thought what Denis says to Neil in the car is great advice! About letting time work out your issues for you. I think what is unique about what both Neil and Julia experience has to do with how much they put themselves out there, for the world to see (and critique). And that’s part of a creative life. Putting yourself out there, knowing full well that the world may not respond in the manner you hope. Neil is especially interesting. There’s a particular type of American indie movie. You know the one. A young girl in her twenties just can’t decide what she wants, so she flits from guy to guy in an attempt to find herself. It’s like girls are allowed to be flighty. It’s almost an unspoken pejorative, especially in the sense that you never see this with male characters. Look at your typical American male lead. He may be insecure or introverted, but he damn well knows what he wants. It’s the Top Gun effect. In Top Gun (1986), Tom Cruise literally says (paraphrased) in the first five minutes, “I’m gonna be the greatest fighter pilot ever.” I wanted to see a male protagonist be flighty. To not know what he wants. And here we’re doing it with the most sensitive topic imaginable: sexuality.
At the convention, it became increasingly apparent how subjective the reading experience is: some fans relate better to some genres of fictions than they do others. What do you see as the value of conventions and what makes them special and different from online forums?
Well, like I said about the internet, it’s really a fantastic way to discover likeminded friends. But as with any friendship, you can only go so far online. People are largely gregarious and tribal. We need that very direct human interaction that doesn’t 100% work strictly online. I love conventions. I’ve been attending them since I was ten years old. Granted, they’ve sort of ballooned into these corporate monstrosities lately, but if you dig deep enough you can still find your peers in the crowd. That was actually the weird balance I had to strike when writing the movie. Because I wanted to invoke the romantic feeling of these musty old comic conventions of my youth. The sort that would be held in the basement of a Ramada Inn, where everything reeked of moldy comic book pages (I mean this in the most lovely way – nothing smells better than a decaying comic book). But I also knew I needed the verisimilitude of the modern age, and it’s a slightly “colder” convention landscape. Granted there are still specialty conventions (including invite-only ones strictly devoted to slash fiction) that have the classic feel, I realized that we needed to present at least a picture of the convention world that’s somewhat familiar to a general audience. But then we screwed with that picture in a hopefully subversive way.
Despite Neil’s attempts to sort out his sexual orientation, he is unable to do so by the end and it didn’t seem to matter. What led you to structure and end the film in this way?
This is the closest thing I’d say we have to a “spoiler” so I don’t want to dig too deep here. I will say that we intended to make a coming-of-age movie for kids who don’t have their own coming-of-age movie. I mean, let’s be frank. You could build a defensive wall out of just coming-of-age movie DVDs. But if they’re not about heteronormative kids, then they’re about very specific check-boxes on the sexuality spectrum. If you are connecting with this movie and you don’t know where you fall, sexually, and then I suddenly define my lead character as one thing or another at the end, then I’ve just robbed you of that special connection we just made together. I robbed you of your movie.
Neil and Julia have both done unforgiveable things to each other throughout the film. Are you optimistic for them?
They’re kids. I don’t think what either of them did is necessarily unforgivable. You have to remember when you’re fifteen, everything is the end of the world. Every decision is life changing or affirming. I don’t know what will become of Neil or Julia or their friendship. That’s one of the truly great things, for me, about the movie. Being able to let go and let the characters shape the narrative and their own fates. I think there are hints of hope. I think they have more stories to tell too. Not just their writing. I mean there are stories I could see myself writing about them. I like the idea of perhaps checking in with them a few years down the road, just to see how they’re doing.
What is next for you?
I have so many stories I want to film! I have a movie called Cutlet, which is a horror-comedy about evil talking cows with British accents. I have a movie called The Submission, that’s loosely based on a true story about some filmmakers who tried to catch a killer using cinema. And there’s now talk about a Slash television series. Any one of these projects would make me exceedingly happy to get off the ground.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.