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SXSW 2010 Interview: “Earthling” Director Clay Liford

by David Cornelius

The South by Southwest rundown on “Earthling”: Judith is a teacher going through a crisis. She can’t get pregnant, and it’s causing a rift in her life. On an orbital space platform, a crew picks up a strange object during a routine mission. It appears to be a living seed of some sort. One of the astronauts comes in contact with the seed causing a pulse that sends a global brown-out on Earth. Judith is drastically affected. Dreams begin. She’s haunted by visions of the astronaut who survived the encounter with the seed pod. Eventually a group of people having the same dream locate her. They slowly realize that they are members of a stranded alien race, living on Earth disguised as humans. After many years, they'd forgotten what they were. They band together to seek out the seed, which may be a way back home.

Just what is “Earthling”?

Earthling is a low-fi sci-fi fable about a small group of people affected by an electrical occurrence in space. They are, in essence, rebooted to the reality that their lives up to this point may have been a cover for something much bigger. And no, they’re not Cylons! The film is seen through the eyes of our protagonist, Judith, who is also not a Cylon.

I got a “Solaris” vibe from several shots in the trailer, and I caught a “Blade Runner” reference on the movie’s blog. Are these the main influences on your film?

I wouldn’t say those are the MAIN influences, but they certainly have infected my brain. I’d say I sort of selectively allowed myself to be influenced by American filmmakers working within the “indie” realm. Guys doing stuff possibly considered “genre” but with a very personal sensibility. I made my crew watch Cassavettes’ “Killing of a Chinese Bookie” before shooting. I love that it’s essentially a gangster film, but completely overpowered by Cassavettes’ personal story and character concerns. He uses the genre in the same way a painter might use a spoon to apply paint instead of a brush. Something other “artists” shy away from, which in and of itself is just a tool to get the work done. Genre films are great, because you can take what would have to be an abstraction or a heavily veiled metaphor in a realistic drama, and you no longer have to hide it. Aliens as a metaphor for alienation! Heady stuff like that. The sci-fi novelists of the 50’s and 60’s got it right long before we did.

How difficult is it to tell a science fiction story on a limited budget?

Doing any film on a limited budget is always a challenge. Obviously, once you toss in effects and things that you can’t simply buy at Target, the challenge compounds. Thankfully, my background is in horror and sci-fi genre films. Originally as a Director of Photography. Which taught me some amazing lessons about what you need to actually show or build in order to give the illusion of something fantastic. It’s surprisingly less than you’d think. Lighting is the key. You can imply a lot more the less you actually expose. It’s the oldest trick in the sci-fi/horror book. Let the imagination fill in the blanks your budget could never hope to achieve. That being said, we have some amazing sets and effects!

You started filming last April, and it’s already complete, quite unusual for a sci-fi project. How did you manage such a quick production?

Is that fast? I felt like I was slacking! Well, we always shoot our films in less than twenty days. It’s a budgetary imperative. I’ve been editing films for nearly ten years. I know my footage way too well. I’m essentially editing in my head while we’re shooting. We have goals that we know we have to meet. SXSW was always a key festival for us to shoot for. Had we missed the entry deadline, we would be dead in the water for nearly a year. Many of the key North American fests (not all, of course) have entry deadlines that roughly fall around the same time. I think you can thank Sundance for that (no offense, Sundance!).

What got you started making movies?

I wanted to be a writer. But I found I was always writing about films. And I don’t really have the patience for prose, which is probably apparent here. I tried the theatrical thing, knowing that playwrights are amongst the most highly respected writers who are allowed to leave lots of white spaces on their pages. I ended up switching majors in college from Theater to Film once I realized the odds of me becoming a successful playwright were slim to none. I wasn’t one of those kids with a super 8mm camera making stop-motion films in his backyard. I wish I had been. Maybe I’d be better at it now!

Any lessons learned while making this movie?

Effects take a very long time to execute “in-camera.” Things that don’t read on the page as BIG EFFECTS suddenly become giant black-holes, sucking up time in your precariously short schedule. Prepare for that. If your script references anything about creatures coming in or out of characters’ mouths, you can rest assured that those mouth shots are pretty much going to own your day. Don’t try to also fit in a love scene… unless of course that involves the mouth creatures.

Are you nervous about coming to South by Southwest?

I wasn’t until you asked that!!!! Kidding. Yes, I’m very nervous. We’ve tested the film. I’m very happy with it. However, this is the first time it will play finished before a festival crowd.

You’ve had a few months - your short film “My Mom Smokes Weed” played at Sundance, and now “Earthling” premieres at SXSW. Overwhelmed yet?

Are you trying to give me a complex???? No, I’m still in that sort of shock mode. You could stick me with a pin. Wouldn’t feel it. I’m sure it will all hit after our premiere. Check the papers for any news about missing filmmakers.

The two films make an odd pair.

I’ve been told. Believe me, I’ve been told.

What’s next for you?

Well, I like to mix things up. So it’s back to comedy. I’m reteaming with my “My Mom Smokes Weed” posse to make a film about high school teachers IN TROUBLE! Actually, that’s not a bad title. One of our working titles right now (one of the ones that’s printable in respectable journals, that is) is “Pathetic Little Wuss.”

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d probably be…

…a Starbucks employee. Or a Best Buy salesperson. I don’t dance. This is all I got.

Beatles or Stones?

Stones. No doubt. Stones all the way.

In ten words or less, convince the average moviegoer to watch your film.

Free drugs. Hidden under randomly selected seats.

“Earthling” has its world premiere as part of the SXSW Narrative Competition. It screens 11:30 AM March 14, 7:00 PM March 15, and 7:00 PM March 18.

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originally posted: 03/01/10 18:54:36
last updated: 03/01/10 18:55:29
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