‘Slash/Back’: Nyla Innuksuk Talks Alien Special Effects and Representation in Film [Interview]

One of my favorite movies from SXSW Film Festival earlier this year was Slash/Back, a fantastically creative tale that follows a group of young girls who are tasked with saving their small community of Pangnirtung, Nunavut from tentacled aliens. The film, which could be compared to a mashup of Attack the Block and The Thing, not only showcases a group of fierce, feminist, Indigenous girls kicking alien ass, it left me with a smile on my face.

Written by Nyla Innuksuk, in her screenwriting debut, and Ryan Cavan (Sinister Switch), and directed by Innuksuk in her directorial debut, Slash/Back features wonderful performances by its young cast, which includes Tasiana Shirley, Alexis Vincent-Wolfe, Nalajoss Ellsworth and Chelsea Prusky. Slash/Back was filmed on location in Pang and utilized a combination of practical effects and CGI to create the spectacular alien effects.

Bloody Disgusting was excited to have the opportunity to talk with Nyla Innuksuk about the impressive creature effects in Slash/Back, finding the talented young cast, representation in film, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about.

RLJE Films and Shudder will release Slash/Back in theaters, on VOD, and digital on October 21st.

Bloody Disgusting: I saw Slash/Back at SXSW earlier this year and I loved it so much! You co-wrote the story with Ryan Cavan, and you directed. How did the two of you come up with this story and why did you decide to set it in the small community of Pang?

Nyla Innuksuk: I love working with Ryan Cavan. We’ve been working on a second psychological thriller together that I’m really excited about jumping into. We just got really lucky finding each other and coming together to share ideas and be really vulnerable. To be able to connect and share that work has been so much fun. The idea of the movie, a group of teen girls in the community of Pang, was something I had talked with some of the cast members about and we did a proof of concept short film. So, the short film really kind of had the essence of what the movie was. The line, “Don’t fuck with the girls from Pang,” was definitely in there, so this idea that it would be this group of girls from the small community of Pang taking on aliens was something that was kind of built in, and then getting to work with Ryan on the script was just this really awesome experience.

We spent some time with the cast and a lot of the themes and dynamics of the girls within those friendships came from their real-life friendships. So, it’s been this special process of having developed this in ways with these kids and believing in this idea and then finding the right people to bring it to life. For me, it was always really important that it be shot in Nunavut, and I love the community of Pang; I just think it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. My nephews are from Pang, so just the idea of being able to make an alien invasion movie for them in their hometown was a really big deciding factor, almost as big a deciding factor as those fjords. The community of Pang is nestled in the middle of these crazy mountains that were carved by glaciers and it’s a totally different environment than anywhere else in the Arctic. So, for me, it just felt like a magical place for a movie like this.

BD: One of the reasons I was invested very early in the film is because this fierce group of young girls are all so likable. The dialogue flows really well and naturally between them and they each have such a distinct personality. What was the casting process like and how did you decide on this specific group of actors? They all just seem so perfect for the roles.

NI: Thank you! They’re such sweet young women. I started working with them when they were much younger. Nalajoss Ellsworth was initially playing the role of Aju, the youngest sister, and she aged-out of that role and I actually thought she had aged-out of the movie. She had this crazy growth spurt the summer before we started filming and I realized that she could probably fit in age-wise with the other actors, who were still a couple of years older than her. I found Frankie Vincent-Wolfe, who plays Aju in the movie and is Alexis Wolfe’s (Jesse) little sister in real-life, when I went to pickup Alexis for rehearsal one day and Frankie answered the door [laughs]. She’s just this little, bright light and it was really great to work with her. We found Tasiana Shirley, who plays Maika, pretty close to when we started filming, and that kind of rounded out the cast. We brought the cast to Pang for the summer, and we made a movie together and it was such a blast. Now that we’re sharing the movie with audiences, and to see them representing the movie, is just so special.

BD: The creature effects look amazing! How did you balance the practical effects and CGI to create the aliens and their movements?

NI: I love the idea of doing as much with practical effects as possible. I love the look of practical effects and I also love the movie The Thing – the girls reference The Thing in the movie – that has such great practical effects. We definitely tried to push that as much as possible. For the bear attack scene, I had a full bear suit made for our contortionist. It only worked if he was essentially backwards and upside down. It’s this crazy, impractical position [laughs] and he spent all day running in this position downhill [laughs]. It looked so cool and wonky and really kind of campy in a way, so we ended up just matching the body movements and replacing it with a CG bear. Outside of that, we were trying to do as much practical as possible.

It was also really fun to work with the VFX teams to kind of enhance special effects or add things like the tentacles, for instance, in post. We got to work with skin suits and this amazing contortionist, Troy James, who is basically double-jointed and can do the craziest things with his body. The aliens are these monsters that are basically made out of tentacles and take over the bodies of creatures and wear their skin as a disguise. Getting to work with this amazing contortionist to figure out how someone would move if they were made out of tentacles was just such a fun process.

BD: Slash/Back is a fresh and wildly creative blend of Sci-Fi and horror, but it’s also a feminist, Indigenous story. I feel like the industry still has work to do. What are your thoughts on representation in genre film and film in general?

NI: I think that definitely there is lots of work to do, but it’s a really exciting time. I think that even five years ago, within the Indigenous community, we were having these conversations and we were advocating for authentic representation, and these terms that really no one else was using until the last few years. Now when we’re talking about these things, people know what we’re talking about and are actually working towards those kinds of things as well. So, there has been a real shift. I think with shows like Reservation Dogs, which has set a precedent for amazing television, Indigenous writers rooms, and all Indigenous directors, when before we just never had a show that had Indigenous directors or an all-Indigenous writing team. Now we can say, “Oh look, we can do it,” so there’s really no excuses anymore.

It’s been really wonderful to see my friends making things. One of my best friends, Zoe Hopkins, is such an amazingly talented filmmaker. She made a movie called Run Woman Run and it’s like a Rom-com set on a reservation. I think that there’s just so many different types of stories that can be told from our communities, so it’s really exciting to see how we are continuing to make things and build capacity and make some really exciting things.

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