Neil is a lot like most high school kids. He has trouble fitting in, he feels alone, his family doesn’t get him, and he’s questioning his sexual identity. But Neil has found a new outlet to channel his explorations – erotic fan fiction. He has liberated top box office smash Vanguard, a space mercenary, from his everyday adventures and given him a new focus, that of seducing his adversaries. Neil is horrified when his secret gets out, but fellow outsider Julia admits to writing her own fan fic, and turns Neil on to the online community and the world of Comicons.
In Clay Liford’s comedy SLASH, which world premiered at SXSW, identity is very much under the control or at least the constant revision of the creator. Neil finds that out very quickly when he lies about his own age to post his stories online. He then starts up a flirtation with a much older man. But he is also developing feelings for Julia, or thinks he is, or that he should be. It’s a charming film that manages to be absolutely hilarious and completely endearing and uplifting at the same time. As well as basically being about sex. I mean how can you go wrong with that?
Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks fill Neil and Julia with such exuberance it makes me want to be in high school again, just to hang out with fellow outsiders. They have a delicately nuanced relationship, that is all sorts of messy, just like every high school relationship should be. Throughout the film Liford mixes 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). At its core, SLASH is a film about a community that usually maintains anonymity finding out who they really are. It was one of my positively favorite films at SXSW this year, and I hope they find a way to play it at several more festivals (and comic conventions) before it hits its wide release. This is a movie for FANS.
I had a chance to sit down with writer/director Clay Liford and the two lead actors at SXSW shortly after their première.
BEARS: So, let’s start with fan fic and erotic fan fic. Have you read it? Have you written it? What kind of research did you do?
Marks: Well, I’ve read Clay’s erotic fan fiction.
Johnston: Yeah, we’ve all read that.
Marks: Yeah, I read a little bit online beforehand.
Johnston: Funny enough, I am on a TV show that gets a lot of fan fic [Teen Wolf]. And, actually, I never really paid attention to it until I found out I was gonna be doing a movie about it. So I started looking it up. And there is somr Slash about my character.
BEARS: And how did you feel about that?
Johnston: You know, I mean, I do actually play a gay character on the show as well. So, it was a little weird, but yeah.
Liford: I wonder- and maybe you might not even know Michael, some shows like Supernatural, I wouldn’t say troll…but put little things in there for their “shippers,” people who put their characters together.
[Shipping comes from ‘relationship.’ It is the fans’ desire for the show to pair two characters up that often causes the most active fan fiction. The pairings are demarked after the title of the story in the manner of Character 1/Character 2 – the ‘Slash’ between the characters is where Liford’s film takes it title. Sometimes the two characters names are combined into one word, ala a Harry Potter fan fiction involving McGonagall and Flitwick getting it on being McWick.]
Johnston: Oh yeah, I have a ship name.
Marks: I had one for me with Peter Parker in Spiderman- ‘cause I did a small part in that.
Johnston: Does it have a name? Mine is Morey. Corey and Mason Morey.
Marks: And the cool thing about slash I think is there’s actually a lot of well written fan fiction.
BEARS: Of course. Anybody who spends that much time thinking and investing in the characters probably has a writer’s brain. So, what’s the best thing about fan fic?
Liford: You know, I think it’s so interesting when you learn why people are in it. Some of is just a lot of fun. Some of it’s a way to connect other people who skew the same way as far as the way they identify. But the third reason is the most political, because the slash community is predominantly female and it’s a big way for them to reclaim sexuality and removing the male gaze. The way I understand it at least, is that if you have two men put together in a relationship that may be of a sexual nature, it’s going to remove any type of hetero skewing male from wanting to comment on that or wanting to be involved because it removes any ability for them to apply a standard traditional hetero male gaze to it. So, by doing that, it’s a reclaiming. So, yeah, I came for the comedy, stayed for the politics.
BEARS: Have you met writers? It’s easy to read stuff online and you don’t know who the people are because they all go by their tags, but have you met writers in real life and talk to them about it?
Liford: I have. What’s interesting is I didn’t actually seek writers out personally. That’s a whole different story, because we did have Ramona Flume as she was doing a kind of like documentary with us on the slash community. She specifically reached out to slash writers and had interviews and sit downs with them. I had the luxury of making a short film about this a couple years prior, which played at a lot of festivals. There would always be a minimum, but sometimes a handful of slash fans in the audience were writers and they would come up to me and we’d have interesting conversations afterwards. They were all very positive conversations. I mean, if you asked a police officer and they watched “Homicide” or they watched “The Wire”, they’re gonna be like, ‘Well, this is what they got wrong,. because they’re a police officer. But the spirit’s there. We had 90 minutes to tell a story. You take some shortcuts but no one can dispute that we’re coming from a good spot.
BEARS: So Michael, Hannah, what do you think it is about your characters that made them excited about writing fan fiction, what did they get out of it?
Marks: As Hannah, I relate a lot to fan fiction just because I’m such a fan girl of movies. So, I think any kid that has a passion or a drive, or goals in their life, can relate to wanting to write fan fiction. Also, you’re practicing your writing, and you’re getting to be a fan at the same time, and you’re growing as a human. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s accessing so many different parts of yourself.
Johnston: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I never felt the need to write fan fiction, but I always loved to create something. I feel likeit’s an interest and I love pursuing what I love to do. That totally relates to, “oh, I want to write something, I want do something that I can do from home, and do something that I love and do something that I’m proud of.”
Marks: It’s cool to be a part of that community, too.
Johnston: Yeah, it’s cool to be part of a community, and it makes sense for it to be- it’s so funny that it’s slash, because that also is kind of dealing with my sexuality. I mean, it’s perfect- it’s like it all goes together.
Marks: The good thing about the internet, I know there’s a lot of bad sides to the internet- but the good thing is that you can find other people like you and not feel like an outsider anymore.
BEARS: Well, one of the other characters in the film says “If there’s something of interest, there’s porn of it.”
Liford: Actual Internet rule #34, it exists.
BEARS: I often talk to people my age about this, that it’s a very different thing growing up now than it was 25 years ago. And if you had ideas in your mind and you weren’t sure what other people think about, then you didn’t know that.
Marks: It’s amazing. 20-30 years ago you definitely couldn’t find your peers, really. I mean, it’d be much harder.
Liford: Yeah, I mean you had to do it the old pen and paper style.
Johnston: It’s so great that you can post it and still be anonymous.
Marks: True, you can really choose.
Liford: It’s interesting, too, because I feel like there’s a degree of empowerment involved. Let’s say you’re a fan or a writer, or just a casual viewer to some degree, but you don’t see yourself represented. Maybe you skew outside of the heteronormative or anything like that, and you don’t see yourself represented. This is an opportunity to take something back. I’m a huge advocate of fair use, I’m a huge advocate of being able to make derivative works from larger things. Some of the more powerful slash I’ve read, or just fan fiction in general is not just fan service. It’s not a joke, it’s actually something that is trying to expand upon or be inclusive of something that was omitted from a pre-existing work. Like Star Trek, killed three seasons in, didn’t even have enough episodes for syndication. To some degree- to a huge degree, the fan community is the reason why it came back. If it wasn’t for that fan community, we wouldn’t’ve had Star Trek come back in ’84.
Marks: I mean, look at all these revival shows… they’re bringing back “Gilmore Girl”s and they did “Arrested Development”. What else? “Fuller House”.
BEARS: Just announced yesterday they’re bringing back “Futurama.” So to bring it back to this specific film, and this specific fan fiction, tell me a little about the design and mythology of Vanguard as a character, because I feel like you had to invest a lot of energy into that.
Liford: Yeah, you know, it’s a weird thing. So, with the short we used Harry Potter, it’s iconic. You don’t even have to show anything. Like, I’d say Draco Malfoy, I’d say Harry Potter and you have a picture in your head, right? But, obviously I’ve got a feature, we have to make money, and Warner Brother’s not gonna let us use that.
BEARS: There is actually a line in the film about a character getting a cease and desist letter from Warners.
Liford: They are the most litigious company and they spend days sending out cease and desists. What was interesting is with 90 minutes you can do some world building. I thought about something that has not gotten much attention but is very digestible from my youth. And I was very much into this Keith Laumer series called “Reteif” and like “Reteif Unbound” and Reteif, you know, “Rides Again” and all these ridiculous books. That was just kind of my touchstone where he was like an intergalactic diplomat who kept killing everybody instead of actually performing diplomacy. What about an intergalactic bounty hunter who keeps having sex with people and ends up killing them? And then you get a guy like Tishuan [Scott] who was like a big sexy, ripped dude, sexy, Idris Elba looking guy and Lucas Neff who was just so much fun and so down for whatever.
Marks: They were sexy.
Liford: We designed those scenes specifically so our actors could have doubles. Like, they wear masks through the first half of it, so they don’t have to do their own fights. And both guys were like, “No, we’re doing it.”
BEARS: So, could there be a Vanguard Feature?
Liford: Yeah, absolutely. I would love Ryan Johnson or one of these guys who’s doing Star Wars go run with it. Let’s do it, let’s do it.
Marks: I remember when I first read the script, in the very beginning, there’s that part where Neil’s voiceover says, “They were almost evenly matched,” and then you cut back to the Sci Fi movie, you know- “We’re almost evenly matched.”
Liford: First joke of the movie.
Marks: And I remember reading that and thinking, “Okay this guy can write, i’m really excited to read the rest of it.”
SLASH world premiered at SXSW in March and plays the Montclair Film Festival at the end of April.