Chicago Tribune, 4/13/97


Talk about walking into a hornet's nest: in 'Chasing Amy', director Kevin Smith depicts gay tendencies in straight men and straight tendencies in a lesbian, and he based the movie's central conflict on his then-rocky relationship with his girlfriend. And he cast the girlfriend, Joey Lauren Adams, as the female lead.

"I certainly didn't want to stir a {expletive} storm," the 26-year-old writer/director said before unveiling the movie at January's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. "I just wanted to talk about some topics that I found interesting."

"It's odd to see it up there," Adams, 29, said of the relationship's depiction on screen. "I feel slightly invaded. But I think if he hadn't written the movie, we would have broken up." Instead, Smith and Adams are still together. "Chasing Amy" opens Friday, and Smith's career seems back on track after 1995's failed farce "Mallrats."

"Chasing Amy," the 3rd installment in Smith's unofficial New Jersey trilogy, is his attempt to return to the personal scale of his 1994 debut "Clerks." The total shooting and post-production cost wound up well under $1 mlllion, compared to the $6.1 million budget for "Mallrats," he said.

"I tried something else with 'Mallrats,'" Smith said. "Perhaps it didn't work for a lot of people, but I did it, and I was happy with it. Now I've done something that's kind of on the same scope as 'Clerks' in terms of how small the movie is, but I think it's much larger than 'Clerks' in terms of what it's about." "Chasing Amy" stars Ben Affleck (who appeared with Adams in 1993's "Dazed and Confused") as Holden, a comic-book artist, who falls for Alyssa (Adams), a lesbian who also authors a comic book. But despite her insistence that her sexuality is non-negotiable, she eventually returns his feelings and is then shunned by her lesbian friends.

Holden has no problem with Alyssa's promiscuous past with women, but when her experience turns out to include men as well, he flips out. That jealousy is the part that mirrors the director's own relationship. "I was kind of like the Holden character having a hard time dealing with [Adams'] past," Smith said. "That's where it came from. The whole gay angle, that's added on." Stil, the homosexual themes, which include the suggestion that Holden's gay-hostile collaborator Banky (Jason Lee) may be fixated on him, do spring from Smith's view that sexual identities are slippery. "It's just not easily defined and shouldn't necessarily be," he said. "What fascinated me was that it's personally acceptible if 2 girls who are very good friends slip 1 night and get 'gay' with each other. Everyone thinks it's cute. If you have 2 guys and that same situation happens, people freak: 'What, are you gay all of a sudden?"

In the movie, Alyssa adamantly identifies herself as gay until she becomes involved with Holden, at which time she says she has chosen to be with a man on her own terms. Smith's writing and Adams' emotional performance are convincing on this point, but one can envision someone accusing Smith of playing the old tune that what a lesbian really needs is a good man.

"I think if you go in viewing this movie from the head, there's a lot of potholes, a lot of political issues that can pop up," Smith said. "But if you go in viewing from the heart, you won't really have a problem." "Chasing Amy" initially was going to be a PG-13 movie about a high-school lesbian in love with an older woman, but as Smith reworked the script, Adams said she slowly became aware that he was writing about them.

"Those are the fights that we should have had that we didn't," said the actress with the little girl's voice that can rise to a rage. She added that she cried when she read Holden's declaration of love to Alyssa, and, no, she never read other passages and threw the script at Smith's head.

"How could I?" she asked. "If he'd made the Holden character out to be some sort of hero and smart guy, I probably would have broken up with him. But his whole point is Holden is stupid for not being able to get past this.

At the same time, she couldn't win debates over whether Alyssa would actually say what Smith had written. "It's really hard to make that argument when he wrote it with me in mind," she said. "I would say, 'She wouldn't say it like that' and he'd say, 'You say it like that all the time.'" Then again, she wasn't the only one who found Smith inflexible about altering his words. "Kevin's not really interested in having other people come in and change what he's got going," said Affleck, 24, as he sat beside his director.

"The script is the bible," Smith affirmed.

The reason is that Smith's screenplay's are almost completely word driven. "It's only once a script's done will I sit downand start wondering what it's going to look like," he said. "What's being said is far more interesting than what's being seen, which I know is a horrible thing to say because it's a visual medium, but it's just the way I approach things."

Like "Clerks," which received an initial NC-17 rating solely for its language, "Amy" features graphic discussions of sex. In one scene Alyssa and Banky compare cars incurred while performing oral sex - a topic rarely covered with the candor displayed here. "Which is a shame," Smith said, "because it's such a common thing. You'd imagine they'd be talking about it left and right in films."

His verbal approach extends to his direction; he likes to give line readings to his actors, who don't always appreciate the practice. Adams, who also worked on "Mallrats," said the 1st time Smith read one of her lines and demonstrated the character's appropriate finger gesture, "I was mortified. I could not believe that he did that."

But both agreed that he has improved his communication skills. "The interesting thing about 'Chasing Amy' was watching him direct emotional things, because you can't give a line reading on crying," Adams said. "And he did really well."

"For the 1st time with this movie I felt like a director," Smith said.

"For the other two flicks I basically felt like a writer who was just telling people what to do." One dicey bit of direction was filming his girlfriend professing and demonstrating her love for another guy. "Kevin's a brave man," Affleck teased, "because when you let another cat climb on top of your lady, bump and grind on top of her, that's bravery."

"That's where the true performance in that movie is," Smith shot back. "Look at Joey's face, that rapture, that love. The camera would shut down, and she'd turn around and be like 'Uuuggggh.'"

Ultimately, Smith and Adams said the experience brought them closer together. "I think it was more of a therapeutic thing - cheaper than therapy or more expensive, depending on how you look at it," he said. "It just helped to get over certain stupid issues."

Smith currently is writing the new "Superman" movie to be produced by Jon Peters, and his next movie, "Dogma," goes before the cameras in August. He described it as an "apocalyptic black comedy" about the Catholic church. From one hornet's nest to another.