The true hit of the genre festival circuit (and LGBT as well), Clay Liford’s SLASH is making its Canadian Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival this month. Neil (Michael Johnston) is a shy teen boy with questions about his sexuality and a strange hobby – he writes erotic fan fiction. When Julia (Hannah Marks) brings him out of his shell and encourages him, he ends up in the different world of comicons and men much too old for him coming on to him. And he also may be interested in Julia. It’s all a mess in his mind, which is what makes SLASH so wonderful. It is a charming coming-of-age story where no one really figures anything out, except how to get by for the moment. Both actors nail their roles with humor and sensitivity so that we are always on both of their sides, even when they are angry at each other, and that’s a true victory. Clay Liford has really made a special film, mixing in life lessons with all the humor, as if someone hijacked an episode of 7th Heaven (actually, that makes me want to look up 7th Heaven fan fiction).
The film began as a short, four years ago, based around the Neil character (who was writing Harry Potter fan fiction) and a road trip to comic convention to meet an older man. In the transition to feature length, Neil not only acquired a new writing interest (and less potentially litigious) but also a more complicated love story. With the new character of Julia added to the story, Slash becomes just as much about finding a true friend as it is about finding your sexual identity, and finding a true friend BY finding your sexual identity, or the other way around. That’s why I love this film so much!
I had a chance to sit down with writer/director Clay Liford and the two lead actors a while back.
Clay Liford: There were kind of two things. The simpler of the two was that I like to experiment in shorts – I have a kind of rule when I make short films, I won’t make ‘em for more than a thousand bucks. If I want to try some crazy idea I don’t wanna fly loose and fast with other people’s money. So, we do it for a very, a tenable amount of money where you don’t have to make your money back. Because a short film’s, you know, that’s just a showcase. So we spent basically spent a little over a thousand bucks and we made this film and I was really concerned, mostly about because a lot of it takes place on computer screens and like, that was gonna be possibly the thing that killed it. And, I would watch- and I always watch audiences at my screenings- and I would always notice those internet scenes played so amazing well, where it’s just the screens, people would all lean in, especially when he’s like writing provocative things to what’s clearly an older person that you should probably not be talking to at this point, so there’d be like these moments and people’d lean in, and I was like, “Oh, that’s working.” So that was like, reason 1, that gave me some cajones to try a larger version. But the other thing was simply the idea – what started off as just a fun environment to have some jokes led me to a place where I really cared about the characters. And Neil, who’s Sam in the short, was a character I just wasn’t done with. I wanted to spend more time with him. And it seems cliché, a lot of people say that type of thing but it’s true. I wanted to spend more time with him, I thought he had a lot more to do and say. And then having a foil for him with the Julia character was something that was invented for the feature – it suddenly was a lot of sounding board for what’s normally a very quiet character and kind of giving him…
BEARS: …his first voice, really. The first time he talked about anything that matters to him.
Hannah Marks: Yeah, out loud, totally.
BEARS: So, I love the slash stuff, and that was the hook for me and the hook for me four years ago. The thing that captured me in the film is that it’s really about discovering yourself at that most critical time- you really don’t know who you are and all you have is people telling you who you are. Michael, your character Neil got so frustrated with Julia saying, “Well, I’m basically lesbian and you’re basically gay.” And it’s like, “Am I? I don’t know that yet. I’m 15, I’m still trying discover that.” And I think it’s so amazing to tell a story that’s developing over the course of the film, but it’s not developing in a way that we see every other coming of age, first love story come to happen.
Michael Johnston: I tried to look at it as if it was just a love story. I mean, even though it’s an unconventional love story, I wanted to look at it that way because, ultimately you’ll like the movie if you believe the relationship.
BEARS: But I think it has more twists and turns than most of those love stories, I mean certainly for your character. Can you talk about how you checked in on where you were with the love- you know, when you were filming and you’re like where are we now with our relationship?
Johnston: It’s definitely a little more difficult when we’re not filming in order.
Marks: Yeah, it was hard because obviously none of it was in order.
Johnston: But I feel like a lot of the reason why it kinda worked was because, well, we’re really mismatched. I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not really meant for each other. And it’s really interesting because I think you’re wondering, “Okay, something’s gotta change. Either Julia’s gotta chill out or Neil’s gotta get crazy.” It’s so funny that Neil – impressionable Neil – at the end of the movie just decides to be himself. And Julia’s the one who totally flip-flops around.
Marks: There is that whole thing of opposites attract.
Johnston: Yeah, a little bit, yeah.
Marks: It is cool because I believe that with friendships, I think you get along with people when you have the same interests but you have different personalities. That’s what makes a relationship thrive, because you have different opinions on everything.
Johnston: It’s so interesting.
Liford: But what makes fan fiction so important is the fact that’s the thing you guys have.
Marks: Totally, like that is the thing that bonds us together. We don’t know if anyone else at our school likes that. I think Julia says this, it’s actually really special.
Liford: That’s interesting to me. It’s like when they have their moment together- let’s call it a moment- they can’t even divest that special moment away from their writing. Like, the writing gets into the moment.
Marks: That was cool.
Liford: That was actually- that wasn’t even in the first draft of the script. I had this weird “woke up at 2 o’clock in the morning epiphany,” and I’m like, “I gotta get to the computer right now.”
BEARS: Where they’re writing together.
Liford: Now I can’t even imagine the movie without that moment, because it says everything about their relationship- how important the writing is to them- the details, the jokes, the- all the things about the community, the details we got right, the details we got wrong- none of that matters. Absolutely none of that matters. What matters is, the importance of what that means to those characters. Because that in a nutshell is the most universal thing about it. That’s the thing that ties the room together, so to speak and detail is a detail, that’s universal.
Johnston: Well, I would sayyou can’t go wrong. As long as you’re sure ( and you were) all of the characters were true to themselves after that moment, everything that happens, happens. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t need to be right, it all just happens, and you’re just living in their experience. So, that’s all that matters. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just “Ooo, what’s happening with him?”
Marks: Something that I really wanted us to get right was I was worried that since we’re so different that you wouldn’t believe that we’re friends. And then I watched the movie and I totally get why we’re friends. I mean, it’s like we’re magnets. It’s so cool.
BEARS: I felt like you needed each other. Even though you were a very strong personality, you still felt like nobody got you and you found somebody and you were like, “You know what? This person might actually understand who I am.”
Johnston: As soon as we have that first scene together where started to get to know each other…
Marks: In the principal’s office.
Johnston: In the principal’s office.
Johnston: It’s just so clear, that we look at each other and you’re like, oh yeah.
Liford: The earliest moment in the film when I feel like everything’s clicked and like I’m happy is literally when you say what you do and you see his face wordlessly change and he gets mopey up to that point because he’s so introverted…
Marks: …nobody gets him.
Liford: Then in that moment, you see him. You light up. Through every edit of the movie, through everything we did, I protected that moment.
Marks: I like that Neil is so hesitant to admit that it’s sexual, and that Julia forces him to be like, “Yeah, this is about sex, get with it.”
SLASH plays again at Fantasia on July 28th. Clay Liford just appeared on the ‘Under the Radar’ panel at Comic-Con with Johnston alongside films like Ti West’s IN THE VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, and the new crowd-funded Chuck Palahniuk film LULLABY. “It was pretty incredible to be in front of that many people. We were in Hall H, which seats 6000 people,” says Liford, “it went so fast, it was like a blur.” The panel should be on youtube soon, as the focus was to shine a light on a few more indie projects in the shadows of all the normally huge films at Comi-Con. Mark Bernardin of the LA Times tweeted about SLASH: “It’s the best @Comic_Con I’ve ever seen on film.” Gravitas Ventures just acquired the North American rights to the film, and plans a limited theatrical release in the fall, including at select Alamo Drafthouse theaters. For more on the film, you can check out my previous interview with the team.