by Jay Howell
A&E Editor

Kevin Smith looks utterly exhausted. Between a non-stop publicity tour for his latest film, "Chasing Amy," and making the final preparations to begin filming his next project, "Dogma," Smith is in desperate need of some well-deserved sleep. But, for now Smith has found himself huddled at the corner table of a noisy nightclub to sign autographs and greet his St. Louis fans.

"I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings," Smith said offering up a chair, "but I have to admit clubs have never really been my speed. Give me a nice comic book store any day.

Of Smith's generosity there is no disputing. Not only is Kevin Smith a man who will share his table with you, he's also constitutionally generous &emdash; in his attentiveness, in his honest curiosity as to what the heck the person in front of him might be all about, in his casual charm &emdash; which seems to be no act. The warmth and truth-telling humor his films convey on screen, the clear look into the heart of a filmmaker, is not a trick of flickering light.

This is Smith: effervescent despite all we know he's been through. In his mid-20s, Smith has become one of the most sought after independent filmmakers only after entering the market only four years ago with his debut effort, "Clerks."

One of the happy onlookers happens to be Warner Brothers, which just recently hired him to script "Superman Lives." With "Chasing Amy" receiving almost unanimous praise at test screenings, Smith seems to be at the top of the game.

Despite Smith's friendly spirits, he will answer downbeat, thornier questions about career concerns, fear, "Mallrats," Smith's critically panned second feature, and the obligatory inquiries from "wannabe" directors. And he doesn't answer them with a lightweight's flippancy.

"That is probably one of the most often asked questions I get, and I think I've pretty much maintained that I believe film school is a waste of time," Smith said. "Granted, the school I went to in Vancouver wasn't the best in the world, but I can't imagine someplace like USC being any better. In my opinion, film school is for people who want to be film historians, film critics, maybe even cinematographers. But if you want to write and direct, there is absolutely no point in spending your money because you can either write or you can't write, it's just that simple."

Unlike most filmmakers, Smith is not obsessed with visual style, opting instead to create his own, distinct approach.

"Acquiring a visual style is, of course, a key component to being a director, but I think, if I've proven one thing with my career &emdash; it's that visual style is not always necessary, though it's a visual medium," Smith said. "It really comes down to the question of whether or not you can impart a thought or direction to an actor, and if you can do that, you're already half way there."

All the fuss about the finer points of filmmaking does not inflate Smith's ego. Smith, whether tangling with skeptics or graciously fielding interruptions from fans like me, who quote his dialogue like it was scripture, is the very guy you had hoped he would be. One of the fans walking away with a signed "Chasing Amy" poster said it well, "I was expecting what my image of Smith was &emdash; a very cool and hip guy, but somebody who is really unapproachable. I was right about the cool and hip part, but the guy is even more down-to-earth than I am."

The next morning, behind a breakfast of orange juice and Marlboro Lights in a bright hotel suite, Smith sat back on a couch and reflected on the night before.

"Coming into town, I never thought of St. Louis as an appropriate place to market the film," Smith said. "But after sitting in on a portion of the screening last night, I realized they're no different from any other college town I've been to. In fact, there were jokes picked up on during this screening I've not seen picked up on yet."

After a poor box-office return with "Mallrats," Smith clearly understands the importance of his college town appearances, especially when his latest feature takes a conscious departure from his established comedy style.

"With 'Mallrats' the reviews were almost uniformly bad," Smith said. "But I do remember one review from the New York Press, that caught my eye. He said if you scrape away the vulgarity and the cynicism, what you have at the heart of both 'Clerks' and 'Mallrats' are stories about guys who want so badly to fall in love but are just so befuddled by women. He then closed the review by saying, 'I finally figured out why Silent Bob doesn't speak. He's afraid when he opens up his mouth everyone will figure out what a sweet guy he really is.'"

"When I finished the review, my jaw just hit the floor and I realized he was absolutely right," Smith continued. "I don't want people to know I'm a melodramatic fiend at heart. So, when writing 'Chasing Amy,' I decided to embrace that side of me that I have a tendency to bury in cynicism and smart-ass remarks, and try for a more balanced approach."

For Smith, dedication and commitment are viable issues both on and off the screen. The writer/director is notorious for using the same people on all of his projects, and Smith has always contended he is merely part of a team. In fact, producer Scott Mosier and director of photography David Klein attended the Vancouver Film School with Smith and have been with him ever since filming "Clerks." Even Smith's onscreen sidekick, Jason Mewes, has been a longtime friend.

"Jason, of course, was a kid I'd known for a few years before I got into filmmaking," Smith said. "I used to work at this recreation center, and he was one of those latchkey kids who would come in and just always catch everybody's attention."

"I remember one day he came in and for a half hour straight ran around the room fellating any [inanimate object] remotely in the phallic department," Smith continued.

"After about five minutes, you cannot help but die in laughter," Smith continued. "He always had this bizarre sensibility, and I remember thinking, if it was just possible to capture that energy on screen, it would be fantastic."

Though Smith seems at ease with himself and film as a medium, he never had aspirations of being seen as a director, let alone a maverick.

"I never knew what I wanted to do," Smith said. "For the longest time I assumed I would own a deli. Then I went to see Richard Linklater's film 'Slacker' in New York for my 21st birthday.

"It was just one of those very empowering films where you sit there and say, 'I want to do this' or 'I can do this,'" Smith continued. "It's the type of film that when you look at it you realize that film is not that difficult. It's not that alienating. It's very much like, 'come on in, put your feet up and see how easy this is.' I only hope I convey the same feeling in my films."

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