Whether it's a LiveJournal forum from the dark days of mall goth or a subreddit for Billy Mays mixtapes junkies, online communities have provided a home for social outsiders for as long as the internet has been widely accessible. In this online world, where your "people" are just a quick Google search away and a club for fans of Taylor Swift's armpits exists, the homoerotic fan fiction community is hardly a total freak show. Still, the niche literary genre is an interesting jumping-off point for a feature-length mainstream movie. Someone has done it though — director Clay Liford, who last year launched a Kickstarter campaign for a film about a nerdy kid called Neil who goes "down a rabbit hole into the strange world of erotic fan fiction." He reached his funding goal, and Slash is now about to take mainstream America on the same strange journey.
Slash's plot is an obstacle course of potentially awkward stumbling blocks: sci-fi reenactment scenes depicting beefy alien Vanguard heroes in homoerotic trysts, Neil's relationship with an older man he met online, and the refusal of the director to put labels on his characters' sexual orientations. Liford navigates these hurdles with apparent ease to create an enchanting story about two outsiders finding their identity. Here the director talks about why the same-sex adventures of superheroes were a natural way to put a fresh spin on his coming-of-age tale.
How did you become aware of the slash fiction community and what did you find so fascinating about it?
I've always been tangentially interested in it. As a kid, I was really into sci-fi novels. Growing up in Dallas, my dad used to drop me off at Comic Con and I would wander around going to book stores. It was only when I got old enough to go in that I discovered a big chunk of it was people writing erotic fanfiction based on popular characters. Then, you know, things happen — you grow up, you make other stuff, your interests change, maybe years pass. Later on, I began exploring high school outsiders and what that meant. The stuff I was embarrassed to admit when I was a teenager is mainstream now. You know, frat guys watch Star Trek now. So I was digging deeper, looking for something that still wasn't understood by the general public. That brought me back to fanfiction, because most people don't understand what that's about or why people write it. It's easily mockable. I discovered the community that these people had made for themselves and other people who are really marginalized. There are a lot of women and a lot of people from the LGBT community.
That's interesting, because the stereotype of fan fiction writers is often a nerdy white boy. Were you surprised by the demographic?
Yeah. The demographic, when you break it down — it's predominantly female-driven. It's predominantly not cisgender males. Especially in erotic fan fiction, it's heavily female-dominated. That kind of made Neil an outsider amongst outsiders.
Why did you decide to make him male?
I think it's so important that he's male, even though the majority of the fan fiction writing community is female. Especially in indie films, you always get this female character who doesn't know what she wants and she flips from guy to guy. Men aren't allowed to have that. Any uncertainty is always a negative trait. By reassigning those traits, some of that negativity can hopefully be taken away from them.
Neil's crush Julia, despite being older, is almost more confused about her identity than Neil is. She seems to be more herself when she's running around dressed as an elf than when she's wearing her "edgy teenager" costume.
I think Julia is like Neil a few years into the future. She has learned to take her insecurity and bury it deep in a level of bravado. She uses performance as a way of shielding her feelings. There are several times throughout the film where her pregnant friend Martine basically says that she was Neil a few years ago. Martine has been watching her fall in with the wrong crowd and how they train her to use bravado like a costume.
The film takes a very sympathetic view of fantasy, the internet, and even experimentation with drugs. Why can alternate worlds be so valuable in shaping one's identity?
The internet is such a huge thing in the movie — the idea that you can take anything you don't like about yourself and you can change that. Especially when society is trying to define you in a certain way. If you're growing up before the internet, like I was, it's much harder to find like-minded people. Creating a character online does have a lot of benefits, but it also has a lot of drawbacks. Humans are a mixture of good and bad traits, and you have to have the bad traits with the good traits. Then, taking it a step further, there are real life situations you can alter too. Taking drugs is a way of doing that.
Slash also takes a very fluid and natural approach to sexuality. Why did you avoid putting labels on Neil and Julia's sexual orientations?
I've made other films that have played at LGBT festivals, including one which is ostensibly about a lesbian relationship. In Slash it was important to me to keep the matter open. I made a movie for questioning kids. If I suddenly put Neil in a box, then it feels like I robbed half of those kids of their movie. I think society is now moving past labels. It's something that has significance in my personal life and in the personal lives of so many of the people closest to me. Inclusiveness is such an important goal, especially now. I feel like these are my people. I wanted to make a movie that reflects this.
Text Hannah Ongley