Exclusive Interview: Clay Liford – Director of Earthling
Posted by LiveFor on February 18, 2010
2009 ushered in a new wave of science fiction films that put plot ahead of visual effects, with the likes of Moon and District 9 leading the way. Will we see this tradition continued this year? One film that may follow suit is Clay Liford‘s
Earthling which is set to make its debut at SXSW next month. Rich of Live for Films got a chance to ask Clay a few questions…
So Clay, what can you tell us about Earthling?
What can I tell you. Hmm. Well, it’s a science fiction tale of a woman finding herself after a major revelation caused by an “accident” in space. The revelation may or may not be about her true physical nature. Her humanity. Stuff like that. She encounters a support group of sorts, consisting of other people “woken up” to their true nature because of this space incident. Factions and fissures within the group occur, as they do in most dramas, with some wanting to completely abandon their former lives, and others wanting to just forget this revelation ever occurred. Our heroine, Judith, is torn between both camps.
How did you come up with story?
The story was a hodgepodge of several concepts I’d been toying with for a few years. The opportunity arose to produce a low-budget feature, as long as it was a “genre” film. Knowing that we could really only afford to do something quite contained, I found it a perfect opportunity to go down the character-based road, and make a film about people, albeit a science fiction one.
I’ve always liked the notion of someone having a secret past that they, for whatever reason, have sublimated. There’s great drama when that past resurfaces, especially when it runs contrary to everything their life has been up to that point. Sci-fi films allow you to explore that idea to the ultimate limits of its potential.
Was there anything in particular that influenced the film?
I was influenced I’d say primarily by some of the great science fiction novels of the past forty or fifty years. Phillip K Dick, though it’s a bit trite to say now, was a huge influence. People often forget, in this age of big budget transforming robot movies, that science fiction was originally a bastion for ideas first and foremost. We’ve sort of lost our way. If people read more books by Dick, Alfred Bester, Rudy Rucker and the like, I think things would be quite different today.
That said, I’m also a huge fan of the sort of post French new wave indie films popping up on the festival circuit lately. I love the intimacy and the perceived improvisational nature of the American no-budget indie drama. Often things referred to as “mumblecore.” Stuff overtly influenced by Cassavettes . In fact, I had my crew watch Cassavettes’ “Killing of a Chinese Bookie” prior to shooting, because there you have a genre film told in a manner much more in tune with the style I mentioned above. Sure it’s a gangster film, but it’s really a film about this guy. And he’s not really a mobster. He’s just this interesting character, who happens to be all the more interesting because he’s portrayed by Ben Gazzara.
My notion was to take these two things I love, and I am very unapologetic in my love for intelligent science fiction, and merge them. A sort of science experiment in itself. A hybrid of the new American indie and classic science fiction. I’m a big sci-fi snob, truth be told. I have a very high water mark for what I will accept in the genre. I think we’ve come to expect very little and accept it when we’re given it. I hate that notion and pass or fail, I intend to fight it.
We posted the teaser on the site earlier this month, can you tell us anything the spiky sphere thing?
The spiky sphere thing ? It’s , well, something clearly floating out there in space, right? Is it a lifeform? Or a space ship? Or both? I’m just glad you’re paying attention!
Are you a big science fiction fan?
As I mentioned before, I am indeed a tremendous science fiction fan. I’m a snobbish fan. And I have very little tolerance for sci-fi apologists. Often you’ll get a sci-fi film, something that’s CLEARLY a sci-fi film, and it sort of breaks out of the genre ghetto and finds a “general” audience. Something like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which could not exist if you remove the sci-fi elements. The love story hinges on the perception of memory induced by the science experiment. It’s literally fiction ABOUT science. But critics don’t want to call it that. They want to gentrify it. That makes me nuts.
The only form of sci-fi that seems acceptable to the masses is this big budget slam bang Michael Bay crap. I know I’m in the vocal minority when I tell people how much I despise the new Star Trek film. It’s the most generic space opera I’ve seen in years. It’s any Star Wars rip-off with familiar characters simply grafted on. The whole purpose of Star Trek, and believe me I know exactly how friggin’ nerdy I sound right now, was about exploration and ideas, not blowing up planets and fighting space dinosaurs (even though there of course was the occasional space dinosaur in classic Trek).
Do you think aliens really walk among us?
No. I was gonna make a joke about illegal immigrants here, but I (wisely) decided to pass.
Last year there were a lot of lower budget sci-fi films that were great, do you think people are realising the genre doesn’t need huge effects create a good film?
A good story is a good story. Again, let Hollywood have their giant robots. With them funnelling all their energies there, they’re leaving a huge rift open for audiences who crave a cinema of ideas. Ideas, ACTUAL ideas, are cheap. They don’t rely on explosions. Ideas and people are the core of any good story. Good writers in any genre know this. I’m not saying “Earthling” is a better film than “Transformers” but it’s certainly got a different agenda. We patently avoided what I refer to as the “Three R’s.” Rockets, ray-guns, and robots. That being said, there are certainly plenty of classic sci-fi elements in the film to hopefully keep genre fans happy.
If you were given an unlimited budget for Earthling you wouldn’t be filling it with Michael Bay-esque effects?
No. I’d spend the money on actors and music. That’s where we’re usually short changed.
The film features some seasoned actors, did that make your job easier?
Certainly. “Earthling” lives or dies on its performances. And within that, the film is 95% in the hands of one particular actor. I’m referring to the lead, Rebecca Spence, who plays Judith. We brought Rebecca in from Chicago. She’s performed on stage at the Steppenwolf. She’s been in some big films for directors like Michael Mann. She’s truly amazing. Up until we found her, I was tearing my hair out, cause I knew that without someone amazing in that role, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Luckily we did find her, and I can’t imagine anyone else in that role. She totally owns it.
The same can be said for all the supporting players. We brought in a few names as well. This is obviously helpful with marketing, but it also sets a standard for the quality of acting. Peter Greene is truly a great actor. I knew I wanted to work with him after I saw “Clean, Shaven.” And William Katt. I’m a huge “Carrie” fan, and I have a major soft spot for “House” and “Big Wednesday,” so when we were presented with the opportunity to cast him, it was a total no-brainer.
How was it working with Peter Greene?
Peter is fantastic. He’s very imposing physically. He’s like 6’5” or something nuts. But he’s very soft spoken. He’s had a very full life. His stories , as you can probably imagine, are amazing. One thing about him is he’s very eager to please. He really wants to make sure that, as a director, you get what you want out of him. He was very gracious to our cast and crew alike. Peter is also quite the portable party off-set. We had a great time with him, and everyone loved him. Hopefully he’ll do some of the fest dates with us!
So the film debuts at SXSW next month, how nervous are you?
I’m exceptionally nervous about our debut. We’ve tested the film for an audience of strangers before. That was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Sitting in an audience full of people with no allegiance to me , praying they don’t hate my film. I can’t think of a better way to induce a stroke. Thankfully, our notices were extremely positive. So at least I’ve jumped that hurdle already. But this truly is our first screening for the public with a completed film. It’s terrifying. I know my fight or flight will kick in when I’m sitting there for screening number one. If anyone reading this is planning on showing up, I take donations in the form of high-powered pain killers.
Are you planning a festival run?
Yep. We’ve already got a few more festivals that we’re close to announcing. You can check our status on the web at www.everythingcomesfromthewater.com
Is there anything in the pipeline for a theatrical run?
Hopefully we will get some sort of limited theatrical release. Realistically I have no idea. It’s certainly the sort of film that would play beautifully on the big screen, so fingers crossed.
Usually we end with some quickfire questions, so here we go:
What your favourite sci-fi film?
If aliens invaded Earth what would you do?
Anal probe and live, or laser gun to the head and die?
Based on the gender politics of my film, you should be able to guess this one. Maybe after you see it.
What film(s) are you looking forward to this year?
I want to see Red Riding. Other than that, I’m sort of out of the loop.
If you were to be killed by a movie alien what would it be?
And what would be your final words?
Cheers Clay, all the best at SXSW!