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South By Southwest 2011 Interview - "Wuss" director Clay Liford

Wuss - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

"A high school English teacher is ridiculed and severely beaten by several of his own students. Too humiliated to confide in the authorities, he teams up with another of his students, a strange girl with criminal connections, to hatch an elaborate revenge scheme." Director Clay Liford on "Wuss" which screens at this year's South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend the festival screenings?

Wuss is my second feature in two years at SxSW. We premiered "Earthling" there last year in the narrative competition. The short film from which "Wuss" was sort of born, "My Mom Smokes Weed" played at Sundance last year, as well as fifty other festivals worldwide.

Could you give me a little look into your background, and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I'm a graduate of the University of Texas film program. I kind of came to film late in life. I mean, I was always obsessed with movies, I just thought I would be a playwright or a novelist or something. I originally started school in the theater program. I think I was slightly daunted by the process of movie making. Eventually, I realized that I could do it myself. And most of my films have a sort of DIY aesthetic. Not to discredit the incredible crew I've built up over the years. They're truly amazing. I think they all just get my style, and know that the films are going to have that sort of grassroots feel to them. But, yeah. I was never that eight-year-old kid in the backyard with an 8mm movie camera.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”

I just told people I wanted to write. I always knew I wanted to tell stories. Film was always my first love, but like I said before, I think I was originally intimidated by the prospect of it. Somehow writing a novel seemed easier! Which is a ridiculous notion now, don't you think?

How did this whole project come together?

"Wuss" came about when Nate Rubin (who plays Mitch in the film) and I were hanging around Cinevegas with our other film, "My Mom Smokes Weed". We knew we wanted to work together again. So many people suggested I make a feature version of "Weed" but I really am not a big fan of returning to the well. But something there struck me. I knew the type of character and the slightly autobiographical nature of things was something I did want to explore more. Not that I was ever a high school teacher. And I've never once been in a fight my entire life. Just the details in "Wuss" are autobiographical. Like the whole marching band thing. Anyway, I tend to be a bit of a lazy writer. I go for the obvious. I wanted some comedy in there. And Nate's a little guy. So what do you do with the little guy, you have even littler guys beat him up. Funny, right?

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

Any time you attempt to shoot a feature in 15 days, especially one clocking in at one hundred pages, you're gonna face some challenges. Thankfully, I've been working with the same team for many years. Most of the gang was with me on "Earthling". They know how I work. They know my shortcomings and how to cover for them. They make me look good. It's all hard, though. I mean anything's easy if you don't give a crap. I could write a novel this week, if I didn't care about it being the worst novel ever written. It's when you start caring that things get tough. Post is really rough, because logistically, we had a long script that we knew needed to end up as a 90 minute film. That meant cutting nearly 30 minutes of finished film from the fine cut of the movie. That was rough. But since I tend to be my own worst critic, I do want the film to be up there the least amount of time as possible. Get in as late as you can, and out as early. I learned that from doing stand up for years.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

My director of photography, Chris Simpson, and I go back many years. He was originally my gaffer. And when I work as a DP, which is sort of my day job, he's still my gaffer. But Chris is honestly a far superior DP than I, and he knows tech in a way I'll probably never know. We shot the movie on the Canon 5D, but only after extensive tests conducted by Chris. Chris does not screw around. He's really involved 100%. He's even a producer on the film. We went 5D because of the lenses and the cost effectiveness. I like the size of the camera too. Working with a bunch of kids, many of them non-actors, you don't want to shove a giant camera in their faces. They'll gum up. With the 5D, half the time I doubt they even knew there was a movie camera around.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

I'm a HUGE Hal Ashby fan. I love Collin Higgins. Many of the 70's directors who sorta petered out in the 80's. Bob Rafelson, I like movies that are slightly hard to classify. Things that play more like life plays. Comedies that aren't necessarily always banana peels and stepping on rake jokes. In real life, something really funny can happen one moment, only to be followed by something tragic the very next second. I think Ashby got that. There was that grand period of work by Altman too. Man, I love "California Split".

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

If I could live at the level I'm at now, well maybe a bit higher up budget-wise, if I could live here and just make enough to support myself just through my little films, that's where I'd wanna live. I don't want to make Hollywood comedies or movies about transforming robots. I like slightly high concept stories about people, told in a very indie way. I like the idea of getting to focus on the stuff that would get white washed in a studio film.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

I'm not qualified to do much else. If I wasn't doing this, I'd be asking you if you wanted your drink venti or grande.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

Man, we can't afford advertising. We use social media to get the word out. Word of mouth is huge for us. Festival audiences are huge for us. Critics are extremely important. Getting someone with a voice to champion your film is like the best thing that can possibly happen to you. Believe me, I'm no Kevin Smith. I will kiss a critic's ass till it's red if I have to.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

Well, I am partial to the Alamo Draft House. It's pretty amazing. It's also curated so well. The owners and staff, they truly get film. And not just the obvious stuff. They really dig deep and have a great appreciation for offbeat, neglected gems. Especially from the 80's.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

My film affords you a much better chance of getting laid. Cause anyone looks more attractive in comparison to my characters. Not that my actors aren't attractive. But here, you're not competing with Robert Pattinson and Megan Fox. No, in all honesty, I'd say, for comedy's sake, if you wanna see something that doesn't recycle the same freaking joke you've seen in fifty other films, then I'm your man. Plus we have ZERO precocious kids and ZERO funny anthropomorphic animals. And nobody gets kicked in the balls...which actually, we probably should have.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie?

I'd cry and tell them my parents were killed by a cell phone, and hopefully they'd stop.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

I think you just gotta grab a camera and do it. It's the most hokey advice, but it's true. I was scared at first. My fear is what kept me away for so long. But it's just about doing it. The tools are crazy cheap these days. If you're passionate about it, you'll find compatriots who are equally passionate and want to work with you. Passion breeds passion. In life and in love.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

Why would you ask such a crazy question? I love so many, for so many different reasons. I will say, the film I remember being the one that made me want to make films, was Terry Gilliam's "Brazil". Which is odd, because, save for "Earthling", it's not really my own personal aesthetic. But holy crap, it's so amazing, and it really speaks to me in a way previous to that experience, I hadn't been spoken to.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2011 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 11-19. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte Facebook: jasonwhyte

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originally posted: 03/10/11 06:47:55
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