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The 2011 AFI Fest Filmmakers | Clay Liford: Taking a Stand in “Wuss”

The 2011 AFI Fest Filmmakers | Clay Liford: Taking a Stand in "Wuss"

Wuss-noun (slang): A weak, cowardly or ineffectual person.

Mitch is a substitute teacher, a Dungeons & Dragons playing mega-dork who still lives at home and is picked on by his sister, friends and even his students. Everybody’s perception of Mitch is that he is a wuss, and when some students take their ridicule too far, Mitch begins his transformation, although it’s not heroic by any means. Luckily for Mitch, when it comes time to take a stand, he finds the help he needs in the form of one of his female students. In “Wuss,” director Clay Liford shows his inventiveness in telling a story you think you might know with unexpected twists.

Featuring great performances by Nate Rubin and newcomer Alicia Anthony, “Wuss” asks how far we must go to get people to see who we really are, or for that matter to recognize it ourselves. [Synopsis by Beth Caldarello of AFI Fest.]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in 2011 AFI Fest’s Breakthrough, New Auteurs and Young Americans section to submit responses in their own words about their films. Get to know the films before they screen. AFI Fest takes place November 3 – 10 in Los Angeles.]

Young Americans section
Director: Clay Liford
Screenwriter: Clay Liford
Producer: Eric Steele, Barak Epstein, Adam Donaghey
Director of Photography: Chris Simpson
Editor: Jay Serra
Music: Curtis Heath
Cast: Nate Rubin, Alicia Anthony, Alex Karpovsky, Jonny Mars, Tony Hale, Chris Gardner, Jennifer Sipes, Sylvia Luedtke
Official Website

Director’s Bio: Clay Liford has directed three features, including the festival hits “A Four Course Meal” and “Earthling.” His comedy short “My Mom Smokes Weed” has played at over 30 festivals. “Wuss” reunites him with his principal cast from “My Mom Smokes Weed,” where Sylvia Luedtke and Nate Rubin also played mother and son.

Responses courtesy of “Wuss” director Clay Liford

Your movie: In 140 characters or less, what’s it about?

A high school teacher is ridiculed and beaten by his own students. Mortified, he teams up with another student to hatch a revenge plan.

OK: Now tell us what it’s really about.

WUSS is about going home when you don’t really want to go home. With your tail dragged firmly between your legs. And once you get there, you find that it’s a far worse place than when you left it. Mitch, my protagonist, has failed at his dream career. He’s living at home. He’s teaching at the same high school he actually went to. And on top of that, he now has to contend with being bullied, physically and mentally, by his own students. The subject matter is approached comedically, although it is something I take somewhat seriously. I’ve never been the subject of abuse, but I do work with kids a bunch. And I’m aware of the fine lines that socially exist between minors and adult authority figures.

After Mitch is pummeled, he turns to another of his students for help. This student happens to be female, and attractive, which leads to more questionable content. I like comedies that are steeped in looming tragedy. Also, I think you can use the format to tell somewhat of a morality tale. Not to get too haughty about the whole affair. It’s funny when it’s not you.

Tell us about yourself…

I’m a graduate of the University of Texas film program. I’ve been working as a writer/director ever since, when I can drum up enough funds. For my “work” work, I usually serve as cinematographer on a pretty constant stream of low budget indie films. My features as writer/director include “A Four Course Meal” and “Earthling” (which premiered at SxSW in 2010). I had a short film called “My Mom Smokes Weed” that shockingly (to me at least) played at Sundance in 2010. That film was sort of the precursor to “Wuss,” as it stars many of the same people, and covers a lot of the same thematic ground. As a DP, I’ve had the good fortune to work on some amazing indie films. One of the most notable being David Lowery’s “St. Nick.” Most recently, I filmed Jonathan Lisecki’s “Gayby” in New York.

My own weirdness made it into the script…

I think I really wanted to deal with the time I spent back home after graduating college. I moved back to my parents house to help them through a difficult time. I hadn’t necessarily failed at any career path yet. I just never really got a chance to get it off the ground. So, I felt stifled. I tended to hang out with neighborhood kids significantly younger than myself. It was a weird time. I always wanted to deal with that. And after “My Mom Smokes Weed,” I knew I wanted to work with Nate Rubin (the star) again. And I’m a bit of a lazy writer. Nate’s a small guy, so the easy “go to” comedy draw is ‘let’s have even smaller guys beat up Nate.’ Which was sadly, a major influence on “Wuss.” Because, again, I’m lazy.

But as I wrote it, so many of my post college thematic concerns wiggled their way into the script. I think it became a much deeper piece despite myself. I tend to be my own worst enemy, but the script wouldn’t seem to let me sabotage it. So yeah, a great deal of my own weirdness made it into the film. Even little things, like my horrid habit of saying “sorry” way too much. Like if someone slams into me in the hall, I’m the one who says sorry. It’s bad.

Everything is a challenge…

Well, we made “Wuss” in essentially sixteen days. Anytime you make a movie that fast, it’s a challenge. I mean, EVERYTHING is a challenge then. I have an amazing crew, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with for up to seven years prior. We all have a bit of a short hand which helps immensely when you have practically no set time to work issues out. I’m a huge believer in pre production. Working out all the angles (both literally and figuratively) while the proverbial time clock isn’t ticking. My amazing Assistant Director, Angie Meyer, and DP, Chris Simpson, comprise an enormous portion of this pre-planning. They both worked for a month prior to principal photography to make sure that when we arrived on set, our ducks were solidly in a row.

Beyond that, the biggest issue was simply casting good kid actors. I really didn’t want 20-somethings playing teens. It alway s shows. And the lead villain is supposed to be scary AND fifteen. We found a street performer named Ryan Anderson, completely by accident. He was the real deal. Scary and smart. But he’d never acted before. Thankfully, he’s a total natural and I think his performance really shines.

Educators and scientists need more films…

You never really know which audiences are going to respond to what. As LA is a ‘politically interested’ city, I think the basic issues of education and the way we value our teachers will probably get some notice. I’m not super political, but many of my heroes have been my teachers. I really don’t want to make films about cops, docs or lawyers. I like educators. And scientists. People like that. They need more films I have a feeling the AFI folk might respond the same way. Plus, we think the film is pretty funny. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Tony Hale (Arrested Development) is in it!

Which shelf they would rest on in a Blockbuster…

I’m a huge Hal Ashby fan. I tend to gravitate to many of the 70’s directors. Early Altman. Bob Rafelson. These are guys who didn’t define their films in terms of which shelf they would rest on in a Blockbuster. They’re not straight dramas. Or comedies. They tend to flow more the way real life flows. In the real world, something amazingly funny can happen one moment, and the very next…BAM! Tragedy! I like movies that move the way life moves. Things that defy basic categorization. So yeah. Ashby. I love “Being There.” I love “The Landlord.” I adore “The Last Detail.” And it’s really damn impossible to top Rafelson’s “King of Marvin Gardens.” I aspire to craft like these giants, though I know my lot in life is far more humble.

With a thirteen year old kid playing Norma Desmond…

Well, I’m working on my next feature. Also starring kid actors. It’s sort of a bizarre cross between “The Toy” and “Sunset Boulevard.” With a thirteen year old kid playing the Norma Desmond part. In preparation for that, I’m about to shoot a short film about kids who obsess over erotic Harry Potter internet fan fiction.

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