Filmmaker Clay Liford made his major film-festival debut in January, when he took his short, “My Mom Smokes Weed”, to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Liford’s short is up against films by Spike Jonze and James Franco. And his feature film, “Earthling”, has been accepted to another major film festival, which wouldn’t allow him to announce the news before this story went to print. Liford, whose office/studio is in Oak Cliff, was director of photography on “St. Nick”, the David Lowery-directed feature that was an official selection of the SXSW Film Festival last year, and it’s hard to find a film project in Dallas that Liford hasn’t touched. He’s currently at work on his next film, a comedy about a high-school teacher whose students beat him up.
Tell me about “My Mom Smokes Weed”. What was your inspiration?
Well, my mom does smoke weed, like for my entire life, and she’s 77. And I really never have. I’m not against it on any moral grounds; it just doesn’t appeal to me. But it’s always been a source of embarrassment my whole life. So, I moved my mom to Florida in 2002, and so she lost her [marijuana] connection. She found some dodgy hookup somewhere in Miami, and I got tagged to go with her. So I decided to write a fictional script based on that.
Wow. So how does your mom feel about the movie?
It’s funny because I wanted to make sure my mom was OK with it, and I felt like a lawyer doing this, but I brought her the script and I had her initial every page. But she doesn’t have the best memory because she’s 77 and a longtime pot-smoker, so when she first saw the movie, she kind of wigged out. But then everyone told her they loved it, and then it was fine. So now, she helps me promote it. She went to CineVegas (Film Festival) with me, and people were trying to sell my mom weed. There were strippers in Vegas talking to my mom about weed. It was very off-putting.
I know we can’t yet announce which one, but your feature film, “Earthling”, was accepted to a major festival. Tell me about that one.
With “Earthling”, I made a science fiction movie about a woman in her mid-30s who is infertile and trying to deal with the fact that she can’t have kids. It’s all about her, but it’s a science fiction film, too. I wanted to write a movie from a woman’s perspective that wasn’t this annoying movie cliché, where the female hero is basically a dude who has his genitals removed. This is a real woman dealing with her life, and it’s also a sci-fi film. This movie is completely unchartered territory for me. It’s a test. I have no idea whether anyone’s going to like it. I’ve never been more nervous about something in my life.
You’ve established yourself pretty well as a filmmaker and editor. You could go to New York or L.A.; why do you stay in Dallas?
We made “My Mom Smokes Weed” for a couple hundred bucks. You could not do that in New York or L.A. There are no unions here; it’s a right-to-work state. If you wanted to film in a diner, you’d have people bending over backward for you. In L.A., you couldn’t film anywhere for under $1,000. And there’s also the feeling that, if you walk into Starbucks and you see 40 people working on scripts, it completely trivializes what you’re doing. It takes the drive out of you to see so many people trying to do what you’re doing.
Not everyone thrives on competition.
I have never been a competitive person. I’ve proven — I’m not bragging, but I have proven that I can make a good movie cheaply that people will like. All my friends who go to L.A. stop making movies. They become professional pitchers. They go to pitch meetings all the time. In New York, they will kick you down and “no” you to death. Everyone will tell you “no”. L.A. is worse because they “yes” you and lead you to believe that something will happen, and it never does. At least here, I’m in control of my own destiny.
So is there a pretty strong film community in Dallas?
It’s not big. There are a lot of people making really, really wretchedly bad movies here. But if someone is making good movies, you find each other really fast. So it’s mostly the same people. We all work for each other. When your friends are successful, it helps everyone out. Shooting “St. Nick” got me work. It got me good work. That movie did so well that it was good for everybody involved.
Do you have a day job, or is filmmaking your fulltime job?
This is all I do. It’s all I’ve done for 10 years. You have to diversify because it’s a small market. I own a small editorial company called ND Outpost. I mostly make my money as a director of photography and editor.
How would you describe your cinematic style?
I like that rough-around-the-edges look to things. If you have a too-polished look, you start to lose trust in the filmmaker. The audience should not feel too safe. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a great example. That movie is frightening 35 years later because you don’t know if that director has any boundaries. If you look at the later versions of it, they’re too polished, and it tells you that this director is not going to cross a certain line. I feel like that same esthetic can be used in comedy. We call it a horror film where nobody gets killed. It’s not going to be that annoying indie comedy thing where it’s all well-lit and the music is like [corny]. It’s not going to be like that at all. It’s going to be shot like a horror film. —RACHEL STONE