SXSW Film

Daily reviews and interviews

SXSW Film

Head Trip: Clay Liford's sideways kind of sci-fi, 'Earthling'

Clay Liford walks a narrow line with Earthling. Is it high art aiming to reveal the small truths of existence, or is it old-school science fiction honoring the best of a genre? "I think it's going to be a split," Liford predicted of the film's South by Southwest premiere. "There will be a schism in the audience between people who want to see more introspective movies and the people who are hungry for sci-fi films that are not like Avatar." For the record, Avatar-lovers, Liford yawned at the sparkly Oscar nominee. "I never thought I could be so bored in a movie," he says. "I know I'm in the vocal minority."

Liford describes Earthling as "about a group of people who realize after an accident occurs that everything they thought about themselves is false, perhaps a cover-up for another life." He made his cast and crew watch John Cassavetes' 1976 gangster genre-buster The Killing of a Chinese Bookie before filming. "I wanted to merge two things I love that you don't often see together – interpersonal drama shot in the Cassavetes way and science fiction, which seldom gets any respect and is often action-driven crap," he says. Consider Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Is it science fiction? Liford nods his head yes. "It's fiction about science – literally," he says. "That movie's completely driven by the science within it. I wanted to make a film where there was no way you can't say it's science fiction."

The University of Texas film grad is best known in the state's tight indie circles as a skilled director of photography for hire who has shot for Spencer Parsons and David Lowery and will shoot a Kat Candler short next week. For Earthling, his visual cues come from Andrew Wyeth paintings and Art Forms in Nature, a book by 19th-century marine biologist/paint Ernst Haeckel, who did exhibitions with Charles Darwin. "He would take these crazy little sea creatures and print them," Liford says. "A lot of those organisms were the basis for alien ships in Earthling." Look deeper and you'll also note Eighties film influences from the likes of David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, and David Lynch lurking.

Add to that Earthling's lush and eerie score composed by Curtis Heath of the Theater Fire. "If nothing else, the film will be an amazing music video for Curtis' work," Liford says modestly. Oddly, it all begins with comedy for Liford, whose next film Minor in Possession – funded and ready to shoot – is a laugher about a high school teacher who is regularly beaten by students but is too embarrassed to complain. If that sounds like a genre stretch, consider that his comedic short "My Mom Smokes Weed" recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Liford did stand-up while at UT and credits that experience with teaching him about story. "I wasn't particularly good at it, so I didn't stick with it, but I learned how to write," he says. "I learned that you want to get in as late as possible and get out as quickly as possible."  

Earthling

Narrative Feature, Narrative Competition

Thursday, March 18, 7pm, G-Tech

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Clay Liford, Earthling, My Mom Smokes Weed, Curtis Heath

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