Elliot Slade is a Welsh runner, who also happens to make horror movies. It was proving a perfect combination until the real global horror of the coronavirus pandemic threw his plans into confusion. Owen Morgan spoke to him just as he was attempting to return to Europe from San Francisco – a home-coming he hopes will prove temporary.
The past few years of Elliot Slade’s life read like a film script, which is entirely appropriate for a man who has set his sights on being a successful director.
Since leaving Cardiff for Philadelphia to study political science in 2015, the 25-year-old athlete has:
- run at the highest level of American collegiate athletics
- won a Welsh 800m title,
- fallen out of love with the sport
- walked away from college
- house sat a Georgian Dublin mansion house where he shot a horror series
- re-ignited his passion for running
- moved to California to chase his cinematic dreams.
Put that little lot to a movie mogul and your pitch might just end up in the waste paper basket for being too fanciful even by Hollywood standards.
But this is a true story, which he intends to see to its happy ending after the interruption for the coronavirus crisis. And one which Slade is more than happy to tell after he got back on track and was living his American dream, studying film and back running on the college circuit.
Speaking from San Francisco, Slade told Dai Sport: “If someone wants to write the script of the last four or five years of my life, they would certainly have something interesting to write about.”
Interesting is something of an understatement.
A hugely promising Welsh international runner who represented Great Britain twice at youth level, Slade left his home city of Cardiff to study political science and run for one of America’s top endurance teams – Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
While starring on the track in the top division on the hugely competitive American collegiate circuit, Slade also started to explore his life-long interest in the film industry – particularly the horror genre.
“It had been in the back of my mind for so many years,” says Slade. “Getting VHSs as a kid, watching all the horror movies and all that jazz.
“I just decided to start it in Villanova. I had the chance to work with a production company out there and it really opened my eyes to it.
“It was a funny chain of events. I was doing a lower level acting class and a higher level acting class and one of my classmates there, their partner owned a production company and they knew I was always talking about film in class.
“They invited me along to a real film set and production set, so that was alongside my main studies.”
While doors were starting to open away from the track, things started to go wrong on it.
“I got injured and there were other issues,” says Slade. “In Division One it’s pretty like, ‘if you can’t run . . . good luck’.
“The coach and I didn’t get on too well and it just ended quite badly. I left a semester early, but I still got my education.
“I went back to Cardiff and worked for a year in digital marketing. I wanted to come back to Cardiff because I absolutely love the city, I love my coach there, Darrell Maynard, and my best mate Sam Gordon is there too, so I really wanted to go back.”
The return to Wales, and being around people like Cardiff sprint star Gordon and coach Maynard, did the trick.
Slade eventually started running again. But there was about to be another twist in the plot.
“This sounds like a movie I guess,” says Slade. “Me and my partner got the offer to move into a Georgian mansion in central Dublin to house sit!
“I left the job in Cardiff and was like ‘right, we are going to try and make films, we’re going to try and be creative, to try and write. We’re going to try and just create content and train full time’. So I was I training with my other good friend, Jerry Kiernan, as well.
“It was a unique opportunity because Dublin is probably one of the most expensive cities at the moment, so it was really surreal.
“We managed to write a lot, work a lot, collaborate a lot, and we created a series in the actual mansion so that was special.
“It’s called, Covenant. It’s a four-part, supernatural drama tragedy series set in a Georgian mansion in Dublin about a cursed family.”
While living and creating film content in Dublin, running once again helped play a part in directing the next scene in Slade’s life.
“I was doing a cross country in Birmingham,” he recalls. “An old friend of mine, Matty Edwards – he went to the States as well – had heard about my situation with Villanova, how I had left early.
He said ‘you know you still have more years on the clock in America, you can get a scholarship’.
“I didn’t think of it until six or seven months later and then I just reached out to this one school and said, ‘hey do I have any years left? I’d love to get out there and you’ve got a great film programme’. We worked it out and here I am!”
“Here” is the San Francisco Academy of Arts, where Slade is doing his Masters in film directing and screenwriting.
Not only that, he is back running in the NCAA, this time in the second division, and preparing to introduce “The Covenant” to the wider film world.
“We are going to do the festival route because we put a lot of money and time into this one,” says Slade of the horror series.
“As a director, this is exactly what I want to present to the world, to festivals, to Film Wales, to everyone.
“In the film world it’s weird because you need to build that style and that influence first so I went all in and wrote something that’s really in my style and what I’m interested in.
“I filmed it very much in a way I wanted to and it’s in post-production now. The last thing we’re waiting on now is the score from a score artist in LA.
“We’re going to target the big boys, hopefully the London film festival . . . Galway and then release it online.
“But I need to do more research into how because when you go down the festival route you’re not allowed to publicly show it. You have to send it to the festivals first. We’ll see what happens after the festival route.”
It’s not only Slade’s film-making ambitions which have received a boost in the sunshine state.
A step down to the less intense Division Two of the NCAA has once again got Slade excited about running stateside – something some other Welsh athletes have found difficult to come to terms with in the past.
“That’s a big thing that I try to advocate and I’m trying to do a video at the moment on how to get here and who you need to be,” says Slade.
“There are three divisions. I’m in Division Two now, but I was in Division One full time at one of the top distance running schools in the US.
“I would say that if you’re the type of person who really likes structure, who really goes all in for running, and nothing else, then the D1 system would be great for you.
“It’s a good team environment, it’s very focussed and intense, but you do sacrifice individuality, hobbies, interests, because the focus in D1 usually is, depending on the coach, obviously, and I’m not speaking about all the D1 colleges, is running and training and everything outside of that shouldn’t be a focus.
Here is the FULL trailer for the series ‘Covenant’ that I directed. Shot in Dublin with a wonderful cast, we hope to bring you a Celtic Horror tale that will leave you with something to think about. Excited to get some of the story out there for you guys!https://t.co/GfJD0ABOw9
— Elliot Slade (@elliot_slade) January 17, 2020
“Division Two is a little bit different and I’m really enjoying it at the moment. Me and the coach get on really well and it’s more of an amateur way of doing it I think.
“You have to take responsibility for yourself more, you can have hobbies, you’re allowed to do things, but you still have to compete at a high level, but there’s more a sense of individualism and freedom in Division Two, which is nice.
“I fell out of love with running after Villanova. It was really hard for me to get into it and I actually nearly quit. I didn’t think I’d ever get back into it but thanks to Darrell Maynard and Jerry Kiernan, it brought me back.”
Speaking just hours before the NCAA’s indoor season was suspended due to the Coronavirus outbreak, Slade said: “I’ll be doing the California circuit and hoping to run a PB. Running anything quicker than 1:47 would be ideal and now is the time to do it.
“I’ve definitely switched, which is kind of interesting and I can’t wait to see how it goes. I’ve switched to more speed based now.
“I’m definitely more four/eight based and I know they want me for the four by four here, which I love, so that’s great.
“I’m quicker than I’ve ever been. But it’s going to be interesting to see how that translates to the 800 considering I was mainly aerobic based in Villanova, but yeah, I feel quick.”
As well as quick, Slade feels happy, combining his love of film with his rediscovered love of running and spending time with kindred creative spirits on the West Coast.
“I won’t be completing the whole course because my scholarship doesn’t last that long, but the class I’ve been doing is fantastic. I should be here for about a year, we’ll see. But for now, it’s just a great short term experience.
Going to miss these sunny days out filming and writing! This is my plague protection gear last week! pic.twitter.com/BMNshfNGE4
— Elliot Slade (@elliot_slade) March 20, 2020
“Everybody on the team is really artistic, which is so cool. We all love anime, we all love the same kind of thing which is unique.
“Being here opens up a lot, I’ve met so many amazing people here already -creative people, driven people, in all aspects, not just running.
“I’ve met artists, people who are working in the creative industries, it’s just amazing to open my eyes to see what other people are doing.
“And not only do I get to run in the big Stanford meets, I get to be in one of the most creative places, maybe in the world.
“It’s funny the chain of events which have led me here. In a way it feels a bit like serendipity in the way that things went really badly and now I am in a place that couldn’t be better.
“I’m thinking ‘how the hell am I here? How the hell is it going so well? How the hell am I meeting so many cool people and running still quite well? It’s going as good as it can do right now. Touch wood!”
His positivity and optimism has, of course, been severely tested by the new restrictions announced in recent days and tightened again last night.
Slade’s California dream looks likely to be put on hold for some time and his revised plans are now to try and return to Dublin – where he will try to stay fit and write – while the pandemic takes its course.
He will then return to the States and resume his work and his running – a juggling act so many athletes must perform – which was proving such a successful recipe.
“I always get asked how I do it. I honestly don’t think it’s too difficult.
“As soon as I finish running I don’t think about it at all. I don’t watch sport, I don’t look at results, I’m not really looking at running at all apart from when I’m training, or say I’ve got a race the next day
“So, for me, it’s two hours of my day in training, then the rest of the day I can do whatever else. How many hours are in a day? It’s a really small part of my day.
“And secondly, I think it’s really important that people try and find skills outside of their athletics. I know a few people who have struggled to adapt or find something when they hit the real world out of college because running is not forever, athletics isn’t forever.
“And even when you hit the real world, if you’re not running full time it can be a really big shock to work and then try and focus on running. You almost feel like you’re going to be sacrificing one or the other.
“It’s really strange, when I went to full-time work after college it was like I was miserable. I would get out of work at 5.30, travel to NIAC, do a session, not get back until 8 or 9. I had nothing.
“But it’s a mindset. I’d say being part-time, if you want to focus, might be the best way, as long as you can sustain yourself.
“Always make sure to look at your circumstances and life and make sure that things aren’t hurting you mentally.
“It’s so important for people to have another focus. For me, film-making and running go hand-in-hand because they are both creative in their own way and I can switch off from one or the other.
“It’s funny how the relationship with running is never linear, which I think is important. If you look at a lot of athletes, especially in the NCAA, there are a lot of mental health concerns with athletics.
“It’s such a strange sport because it’s so individual, everything comes down to you, so when you fall out of love with it you’re falling out of love with yourself in a way.
“So, it’s always amazing to see, now I’ve been through it, that other people have done the same, it’s not just me.
BAFFLING how Wales is sometimes completely unknown outside of the UK. I went to several bookshops with Celtic history sections that had Ire, Scot and Eng but NO sign of Wales. 90% of people I meet have NO idea it’s a country. So now, it’s my job to make it known, through film! pic.twitter.com/m26NhhQKfP
— Elliot Slade (@elliot_slade) March 1, 2020
“I’m back in love with it and I can’t wait to race, I’m so excited. The team around me are so supportive, the coach is great. If there’s a time to run a PB it’s this year.”
Although life has been good on the other side of the pond, Slade is a proud Welshman and wants to promote his homeland on film and represent it on the track.
The Cardiff Athletics runner says of his desire to put Wales on the film-making map: “It’s something I really love and really want to see on the big screen.
“I think Wales is really underrepresented on the big screen. Ireland gets a lot of focus, England and Scotland . . . but Wales doesn’t seem to get the same type of exposure.
“Which is great because it means I can try and bring it to people. I really want people to see more than just Wales, I want people to see the beauty of it, the magic nature and history of the country.
“Arthur Macken is one of my big influences right now in writing. He was a horror writer from the Caerleon area. It’s something I just want to show people and show the language as well.
“I’m learning Welsh again now. It’s something I wish I had paid attention to in school. The language is so wonderful and so unique and the people are so wonderful and magical.
“Film Wales – if you’re reading – let me bring Wales to the film screen. There’s not much out there, outside of Wales. A Dark Song is the only film right now that I know that’s showing a bit of Wales, but again not as much as I’d like.
“Everything I write at the moment has a Welsh influence or is set in Wales.”
And his ambition to represent Wales on the world stage isn’t confined to film. Making the Welsh team for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 is also in his sights.
“I would absolutely love to. Because I’ve had such an up and down relationship with running over the past few years, I didn’t think that I could make that kind of level again.
“This year and last year has really given me the confidence and the drive to be like ‘wait, maybe the Commonwealths are something that I’d love to do’.
“And I see my best mate Sam Gordon over there, his passion is re-igniting my passion. We talk a lot and help each other out. We talk about running a lot. The Commonwealths would be absolutely ideal.
“I think if I really got my head down and focussed a little more on it, then I could possibly make it, but we all say that.
“But I think there is a possibility. I would like to think that other people think there is that possibility. I just have to prove it.”
As much as he has loved life in San Francisco, a move back to Wales is the on the cards at some stage.
“In general, absolutely,” says Slade. “I want to come back to Wales, I want to make films in Wales, I want to run in Wales, I want to be in Wales, eventually.
“I didn’t realise how much I loved it until I left. It’s such a magical place and I want to be there and do everything there. “