Editor’s Note: Texas filmmaker and DP Clay Liford has been on multi-year journey into the world of fan fiction to make his new film “Slash,” which premiered at SXSW and is screening Sunday night as part of the BAMcinemaFest. We asked Liford to reflect on his experience of finding his story. What we got was this wonderful essay about the joys of research and exploring a sub-culture in creating a unique cinematic world.
courtesy of filmmaker
I’ve always been attracted to characters who lived on the margins. Not necessarily outsiders with a capital “O.” Not your James Dean types. More just really passionate people heavily invested in things the general population may not really “get.” As a comic book convention kid who was pretty secretive about his nerdy interests all the way through high school, I felt the insular fandom community was the perfect conduit to talk about outsiders looking to create their own place to fit in, thus filling a void left by the mainstream society.
However, it’s been years since I was young and in hiding regarding my once-taboo interests. Stuff like “Star Trek” fan clubs (card carrying member here), that would have gotten you a major wedgie for even mentioning in my youth, have now been completely co-opted by the mainstream. Dudebros watch Star Trek now. I needed to dig deeper.
Fan fiction, and specifically erotic fan fiction, is sort of the last outpost of fringe fandom. Even in my convention days, it was segregated from the crowd by an age-gated, “18-Up” door, promising an adult Shangri La within. Nerds are traditionally stereotyped to be awkward when it comes to all things sexual, and here we have what the outside world I guess would consider the nerd “sex-pit.” I guess you could say erotic fan fiction, especially the primarily homo-erotic slash fiction, is the Alamo of nerdom, and as such was exactly the metaphor I needed to explore the feelings of my youth and my desire to find justification for my weird interests with a peer group I wasn’t fortunate enough to be geographically oriented around in my daily life.
The fan fiction community truly built something just for themselves, and with the advent of the Internet, that has really grown. Geographic desirability is no longer a hindrance. And because it was “for them, by them,” up until recently, it was never meant to be uncovered by the general populace. Fan writers and “slashers” erected their own “fourth wall.”
Capturing the bits about being awkward in high school came extremely easy to me. That’s the framework upon which the other pieces hang. As far as the writing itself is concerned, that took quite a bit of research. Mostly I read a ton of erotic fan fiction on several internet repositories such as “Archive of Our Own” and “FanFic.net.” The stories really ran the gamut. Some are intentionally hilarious. Some are very clearly unintentionally hilarious. And some are extremely well written and heartfelt.
Like any community, you have exemplars from all walks of life. And I think that tapestry was one of the strongest takeaways for me, and the sense of community is what really made me want to make this film. My producer and I also attended several conventions featuring slash panels and readings. And we brought on a journalist who interviewed actual writers within the field. Everything we learned influenced the script and even the casting of the movie itself.
I made a short film version of the movie as a test run. I wasn’t quite sure if the world was ready for a movie about people writing internet erotica, especially underage kids. But the short did really well, and played a ton of festivals. I would always sit in my screenings and watch the audience.
My biggest fear was so much of the short plays out over internet chat screens, and honestly I can’t think of a less cinematic thing than a series of computer screens. But those moments, where it’s just two strangers having a possibly inappropriate conversation over chat boxes, were the ones where the audience seemed most invested. I realized we live so much of our lives online now and intimacy is being redefined by technology daily. Seeing that work is what really gave me the courage to expand the subject into a feature film.
Though it was the positive festival reception that gave me the courage to tackle a long-format excursion into the world of slash fiction, it was ultimately the characters that I truly wanted to explore. My goal was to further explore and understand these passionate people fighting the good fight against the grain of normality.
My thought was, and still is, you probably aren’t going to run home and start writing slash or even traditional fan fic after seeing my movie. But I honestly do think you’ll understand why fan fic writers pursue this as a creative outlet. It’s not about appropriation, which is a common argument against the practice.
It’s actually about a lot of things. It can be highly political, especially when it comes to race and gender issues. It fills a pretty large void in mainstream media culture, where there tend to still be very few major roles for anyone who’s not a straight white male. It can be subversive in the best way. Like the best transgressive cinema of the 80’s, it can exist to purposefully push boundaries. Or it can be a source of self discovery, as it is with the characters in my own movie.
When you don’t find something in the world that represents your viewpoint, through fiction you have the means to reshape something to represent you far better. And this transformative act is probably the biggest argument for fan fiction as opposed to work not based upon anything pre-existing. It’s the transformation itself that stands for something. Not to be too high-minded about it, but I’ve always seen my teen characters as butterflies-in-waiting. High school is the cocoon. But something else, something hiding on the periphery of modern culture, had to be the catalyst.
“Slash” will have its New York Premiere on Sunday at 9:30pm as part of BAMcinemaFest.