Coming-of-age genre movies have shaped our love of film here at Nerdist. From The Goonies to Attack the Block, it’s one of our favorite flavors of genre filmmaking. That’s why we were so excited to see the atmospheric trailer for Nyla Innuksuk’s debut feature SLASH/BACK. Set in the quiet arctic hamlet of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, the film follows a group of young alien-fighting girls. We were lucky enough to check out the film and it’s a charming, chilling, and delightful debut. To celebrate SLASH/BACK’s release in theaters, digital, and VOD on October 21, we chatted with Innuksuk about combining horror and joy into this narrative.
Nerdist: When did you first land on the concept for SLASH/BACK?
Nyla Innuksuk: I think I’ve had this idea of teenage girls fighting aliens for a really long time. I’ve got friends who are like, “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve had this idea for a movie.” I grew up as a fan of movies and loved movies like ET and Goonies. And all these other adventure movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. So for me when I had the chance to make my first feature, the idea of being able to do something that felt like one of the movies that I grew up watching but in this place that I loved and was familiar to me in a different way was just this fun mix of things.
You touched on some of the influences but were there any other specific movies that you revisited when you began to make SLASH/BACK?
Innuksuk: So many! There were different kinds of inspirations throughout and in different ways. Leatherface and Ed Gein who was also the inspiration for Psycho. All those kinds of things were definitely fun to explore, and with the practical effects they were really a blast. The Thing on the topic of practical effects was obviously a big one. But also movies that are less obvious, like Scream, for instance, I loved. To have Nalajoss [Ellsworth] running up the stairs being chased by an alien then jumping out a window and into a boat. That whole sequence was basically taken from Scream. So it was really fun to explore those kinds of nerdy interests within the context of this coming of age movie.
Those two aspects really define the movie: the horror of the aliens and the joy of this really authentic friendship. Before we talk about the amazing girls of Pang, can you tell me about designing the aliens? They have big Men in Black skinsuit vibes.
Innuksuk: Yeah, definitely. And I know for sure when we were trying to figure out how do we actually execute this, Men in Black was definitely something we looked at. So it was a bit of a fun, creative process that was done in stages. That’s what I love about making movies is you get this opportunity to work with such amazing artists and people that are just really great at what they do. So getting to figure out from the concept of how these creatures would work, how they would move, how they come to the community, what form they would take, that was a really fun puzzle to figure out with my co-writer Ryan Cavan. Once we figured that out, and it’s in the script, it’s like, okay, now how do we actually make this a reality?
I was so lucky that this amazing contortionist Troy James lived in Toronto, which is where I’m based. He does a lot of work with Guillermo del Toro and can do just the craziest things with his body. And he was available and excited to come up with us and the girls loved working with him. So we built these skin suits that he would wear and we worked together to figure out okay, how would you move if your body was all tentacles? Then getting to work with all these really amazing creative people in the VFX world to enhance the blood and gore and create that new tentacle work. It was just so much fun and really a collaborative process throughout with some really talented folks.
At the center is this brilliant group of friends, and all the girls are such great actors. Could you talk about building this authentic group of teenagers who are so necessary to making this sci-fi story work?
Innuksuk: It was a process that was done with the girls. I actually had this idea for this movie and developed it as a short film proof of concept to try and get this feature made. A lot of the same cast members from that were in the feature. Because there weren’t any casting or talent agents in Nunavut and no teenage stars to pick from, we had these acting workshops. I had a local theater actor help me out with those and we just invited a bunch of young women and girls to come out if they were interested in acting. In that process, we’d try different groups of kids reading the pages from the short film, and then we’re able to cast that way. We found Alexis [Wolfe] and Chelsea [Prusky] and Nalajoss and then later we found Tasiana [Shirley].
When my co-writer Ryan Cavan and I were up in Nunavut working together on this script, we would hang out with these three kids. We’d go out on boat rides, we’d go to cabins, they’d tell us stories about their crazy grandmas, and we’d just listen to them talk about boys nonstop! It was the drama of teenage life. And every time we’d go and see them it was something new. So the dynamics of the friendships, how those can change really quickly, there’s different things that might influence the dynamics of our friend group that even the kids might not be necessarily aware of. All of that was really inspired in part by this work that we did with these teenagers. So we knew that if the world was being invaded by aliens, these kids would probably still talk about boys.
We all were learning so much in the process of this. So it’s been great. We’re all in Spain together now sharing the movie with audiences. So just seeing how they’re continuing to grow as young people and actors has been really inspirational.
And now you’re sharing the movie with the world! What are you most excited for people to experience when they watch SLASH/BACK?
Innuksuk: I think what has been so nice is just hearing the girls talk about it. To hear other people mention it is just giving this window into a part of the world or a community that maybe people aren’t familiar with. We see this as our home and the things that we do as so normal that sometimes it’s hard when you realize, “Oh, people aren’t used to seeing us in this way,” that we’re both modern and connected to our traditions. It’s been neat to see the response to that and that maybe people haven’t had the opportunity to see indigenous teenagers in this kind of modern context. And so I’m excited for people to get to know them because they’re really great.
Nyla Innuksuk’s SLASH/BACK hits theaters, digital, and VOD on October 21.