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DIFF: Clay Liford and Eric Steele Talk 'Wuss'

by Stephen Becker 5 Apr 2011 2:25 PM

The director and producer of the North Texas-shot feature talk about their working relationship and the unusual way they cast the film.


Nate Rubin plays Mitch in Wuss.

If you’ve followed the local film scene over the past few years, the name Clay Liford should be familiar to you. The Berkner High School grad’s short My Mom Smokes Weed played Sundance last year, and he followed that with the sci-fi feature Earthling, which showed at both SXSW and the Dallas International Film Festival.

His latest film, Wuss, focuses on Mitch (Nate Rubin), a high school teacher who is beaten up by his thug students after he tries to restore a little order in the classroom. Mitch has been a doormat his whole life, and the physical violence inflicted upon him by his students is just the next beating in a long line of psychological beatdowns he’s received from everyone from his sister to his co-workers. But the student beating awakens something in Mitch that drives him to stand up for himself for the first time in his life.

And that’s where Wuss takes a left turn. What begins as a classic revenge tale morphs into an awkward relationship story when Mitch befriends one of his students (Alicia Anthony) who’s got problems of her own.

During an interview in Austin during SXSW, Liford said that he resists making films that are easy to label because in the end, they aren’t really that true to life. The thing is, films that are tough to label are also tough to sell. Liford, along with Wuss producer Eric Steele, talk about that challenge, as well as how they found their lead actress at a Denton taco shop in this Q&A:

Art&Seek: Clay, this movie is a lot different than Earthling, the film you showed at last year’s festival.

Clay Liford: I have many interests, and I don’t want to get pigeonholed. I think a lot of filmmakers have a tendency to want to get pigeonholed, especially ones who have intentions of working in Hollywood. They want to be the comedy guy or the sci-fi guy. Since I’m pretty much staying right here and I have no real plans to make Hollywood films – not like anyone’s knocking down my door or anything – but as of right now, my plan is to make moderate- to low-budget films with people I like. That gives me the freedom to make the type of films that I’m interested in. With most people, your interests don’t just stick to one category – you have a gamut of interests, and I am the same way.

A&S: Eric, you found Alicia Anthony, who plays Maddie in Wuss, in an interesting way.

Eric Steele: Clay was trying to cast the role of Maddie, one of the integral roles in the film. We had looked at some actresses and hadn’t really found the right one in. And I was in Denton to see a Doug Burr show, and after it ended, it was 2 a.m. and I walked next door to Fuzzy’s Tacos. And there was this girl behind the counter – the place was empty – and something just compelled me to walk back up the counter. And I just said, “This is going to sound so creepy, and I’m going to sound like a stalker or worse. But we’re making this film, and I would just love for you to meet the director. I think you might be perfect – just your aura – the way you smile, the way you talk …”

C.L.: It’s starting to get creepier the more you tell the story.

E.S.: Yeah, it’s getting worse. It’s getting really bad now…. And like 100 actresses later, Clay cast Alisha.

A&S: There are a few nonprofessional actors in key roles in this movie. What are the advantages of working with them?

C.L.: I think the trick to working with non-actors is you get them to play something in their safety net – something from their own life. And then you get that true-life experience.

A&S: You shot a lot of the movie at Garland High School. Did the school have any concerns about the content of the film?

C.L.: The funny thing is … you can show the aftermath or the precursor to any event, you just can’t show the event. Like say I wanted to do a school shooting. I could show somebody pulling out a big pile of guns, and I could show somebody laying bloody on the ground. But I couldn’t show the actual gunshot. They actually determined this rule based on plays they were doing for the UIL competition. There’s a longstanding rule about what you can show and what you can’t show, and they umbrellaed us under this UIL policy rule.

A&S: That’s interesting, though, because there are kids doing drugs and other things in the movie, but it sounds like as long as it didn’t happen in the school, it was OK.

C.L.: There was a funny story when we went to liquor sponsors for the film. … We e-mailed Jameson, and they said before you even send us a script, here’s a list of like 47 things you cannot do in a film. And 46 of those 46 things I think we violated. On the list were such things as: characters cannot be drinking out of sadness, they cannot be drinking straight from the bottle, cannot be drinking while driving, cannot be providing minors with alcohol, minors cannot be drinking. Like, every scene in the movie violated at least 46 of the 47.

A&S: Eric, what is it about Clay that has you wanting to continue to work with him as a producer?

E.S.: I remember being in a bar with Clay when he told me this idea. He said, “Eric, I’ve got this idea for this feature – this high school teacher gets beaten up by his students.” As he started explaining it to me, I just remember the moment very clearly that I knew this idea was original and would be something really special. … Clay’s unique in the way that his mind works – he’s able to defy being labeled into a genre. … How do you categorize this film? Which I love. That’s what excites me about his work.

C.L.: I’m a marketing person’s dream!

Wuss screens Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. at the Angelika Film Center.