Conducted by Sharon McRill, Borders.com Video Editor
In 1994, Kevin Smith turned his convenience store experience into a lo-fi cinematic masterpiece. Clerks, a hilarious document of a single day in young, shiftless America, launched Smith's career and struck a blow for the indie film revolution. While his next movie was not a success -- Smith calls Mallrats his "sophomore slump" -- 1997's Chasing Amy was loved by critics and fans alike. Now Smith is back with Dogma, a celebrity-filled look at religion and faith. Our video editor talked with the filmmaker about his latest picture, his career, and his appearance on Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
I know you've talked about this before, but Richard Linklater's Slacker inspired you to start making films. Was it because it looked easy or was it because of Slacker's subject matter?
Kevin Smith: I think it was a mixture of both. It was kind of taking a look at that flick and seeing that a film didn't have to be polished and expensive and gorgeous and have stars in it, and also that it was so regional and about something that didn't necessarily… could never appeal to the mainstream or a mainstream audience, and that's what I kind of dug about it, that's what I found inspiring.
Very cool. It's a strange little film.
KS: It's a very strange little movie but… the nice thing is that years later the same things I used to say about Richard's movie people [say to] me about my flick all the time.
KS: Like, "what Slacker was to you Clerks is to me," and it always feels nice because it kind of keeps the chain going, keeps the circle moving.
Right. Well Clerks was such a success for you. Looking back is there anything you might have done differently?
KS: Not really, probably not a thing actually. Everything just kind of came together the way it did and that was really nice.
Well is there anything about filmmaking in general that you didn't expect?
KS: There are times when I didn't expect it to be taxing, you know, because it's not like laying brick or working -- really working -- for a living, but there are times when it kind of get a little overwhelming and takes a lot out of you mentally, I guess, psychologically. It can tend to run you down because if you're in charge or if you're directing you're kind of overseeing everything and involved in every aspect. So it's tough to kind of relax, particularly in production, when you have to keep your hand on everything -- on every aspect of the flick. Sometimes it tends to be exhausting. And also it takes a lot of your free time away.
What do you think about writing versus directing? Do you have a preference?
KS: Yeah, I mean I'm a far stronger writer than I am a director and I like writing a whole lot more. I'm not a real crowd kind of person, so I'm much better if I'm sitting in a room by myself writing stuff than to be on the set directing.
I think that you have very strong personal skills. I've seen you speak and…
KS: Thanks. It's weird, being on stage or addressing a crowd or doing a Q&A or college lecture or something like that, that's really comfortable, because you're really addressing the audience as one person, and you have the focus of attention, and nine time out of ten people are there because they're on your side anyway -- they like what you do.
KS: So you don't really have to win them over. But in a mixed social setting or something like that it's always a little tougher to get up there and do something. Recently, I presented on the MTV awards (the movie awards), and for the first time in five years I was really, really scared to like get up on stage.
KS: Yeah, I was trying to figure out why, because I'd spoken to much larger crowds. But I think it was just because those people weren't there to see me at all, so it was kind of like, I guess, like it was a true test of can you win an audience over, especially a disparate audience of people who…
Who were there to see the Backstreet Boys!
KS: Exactly, or anyone else but you! Don't know who you are, have never seen your flicks... that kind of thing.
Well I think you're being a bit disparaging. I think that more people have seen your films. I'm sure that a lot of the people in that crowd knew who you were.
KS: There were some that didn't and hadn't heard of me. I mean odds are, I would say, more than half hadn't.
KS: I would think so. Even in an industry crowd, because that's a big kind of unspoken mystery about the film business, a lot of people don't watch movies.
Well let me just say that around our offices today, everybody wants to know what it's like to talk to you.
KS: Oh get out of here!
I'm not kidding.
KS: You're like, "He wouldn't stop eating! All I heard was that dude chewing a bagel for like a half hour, you'd think he'd show a little more couth!"
People here were really, really thrilled and I am as well. I don't mean to go on and on about this, but I'm a huge fan of your work.
KS: Thank you, thank you, that's very cool, that's very cool to hear. It's one of those things that kind of makes it all worth it.
Mallrats and Clerks are both out on DVD now. What do you think of the format?
KS: It's funny because we did a Chasing Amy laserdisc for Criterion about two years ago, and at the head of the commentary on the disc, my commentary, one of the first things I said was "f*ck DVD," because it was just kind of starting up and jumping into the mainstream without planting, and I still have a laserdisc collection that was, like, over 2000 strong, and this little format comes along and kind of "does the dinosaurs" on laserdisc. You know, a format which was always kind of marginal anyway and was just more for like the…
KS: Yeah, the technophiles and real film fanatics and whatnot, so all of the sudden DVD was coming along and "pooching that" and it seemed like they were making a really big play for the mainstream market, you know, the average Joe, not just the filmophile, if you will. So I was one of those guys two years [ago] that was just like, "Oh, DVD, that's for idiots and I'll never buy into that format," and here I am now, two DVDs of my own of flicks being done and one of them is like… it's utilizing the medium in ways that are only, I guess a few pornos have, thus far, used, that multi-angle stuff. It's just ironic to me that I went from being "f*ck DVD" to having no choice but to embrace it. I could still go down on record as saying "f*ck DIVX," but everybody did that. [Laughing]
Well, it's gone now!
I'm really excited about DVD because I think that it's bringing a real knowledge to the film community and beyond, and it's teaching people about all the different aspects and the subtext of film where they would never have seen that unless they were actually on the set.
KS: Right, exactly, but I mean this was something that laserdisc was doing too but for a very finite audience.
KS: DVD seems to be breaching the distance between the filmophile and just the casual movie viewer. So suddenly something that was reserved for only the enthusiasts or techno-enthusiasts is now kind of accessible for folks that don't fall into either of those categories who just happen to like watching movies. So that is kind of neat. Close that gap, I say, close the distance between the audience and the filmmakers, you know, get rid of the mystery; there is no mystery, it's just like we are them, they are us. The only difference is we actually kind of do it, they watch it, but a short time ago we were watching other people do it, you know. They always shroud the mystery, they always make it seem like it's a big deal, like "this dude's a director." It's like anybody can do it, Jim could do this job.
It is a big deal.
KS: It is and it isn't, it depends. I mean there are people that are definitely masters at their craft and are true artists, but most of us are just making up as we go along, and faking it. There's no exact science to it, that's what's kind of nice about it because anybody, even a non-technophile like myself can make a career in the field. But you gotta be responsible to try to learn and grow the longer you stay in the field. The fourth movie of mine that we just finished, which won't be out for a little while, is way better looking and way better crafted than the first, but that just stands to reason I guess.
You're talking about Dogma.
I'm thrilled to see this movie, I cannot wait. There's such a tremendous buzz. Are you excited for people to see it or is it more about just having it finished?
KS: I mean for the longest time it was about having it finished, and now I think I'm excited for people to see it, and then we screened it at Cannes, so it did have an audience, and we've had a few test screenings.
Right, and you went back and re-cut it.
KS: Yeah, we took out ten more minutes. You get to watch it with an audience and kind of pick up on what's clunky or the stuff you were holding onto going, "No, no, this will play," and then you finally watch it not play, and you're like, "OK, it's time to give it up." But it went over like gangbusters over there. And the press really dug it and the audience really dug it and so if the movie never came out, I think I wouldn't feel real bad, because you're always looking for that one great screening, right? That's about it. Because it's not like when the movie come out… I mean I know it's a business, right, so you want to see the movie do well commercially and whatnot, but being that the movies we've made up to this point have been very marginal commercially it doesn't really matter to me as much as like having that one great screening, and we had that in Cannes, and we even had it before Cannes at some of our test screenings. The audience just dug it and understood the movie and laughed along with it and learned something from it and dug the performance, loved the writing, and people were nice enough to say that it looked good too! So it's kind of like I'm satisfied, and anything else beyond this point is just gravy.
Outstanding. So is it true that you wrote the Dogma screenplay before you wrote Clerks, but you shelved it?
KS: Yeah, I wrote it before Clerks, or rather before Clerks came out actually, and then just kind of sat on it for a few years until I was ready for it. Like we were actually intending to do it second before Mallrats. It was even before Mallrats was even an idea. But I was just kind of leery of wasting the movie as the second film because invariably the second film always gets butchered, right? That's what I was thinking at the time, like sophomore slump, you know, no matter what we do they're going to hate it and it'll never be as good as Clerks and that kind of thing. We were trying to out think the critics, which is never a good thing to do, so we put that on the side and decided to do Mallrats instead. [Laughing]
So can you talk about what are some of the hidden bonuses on the Mallrats DVD? Just to give people a taste.
At this point I heard noise in the background and Kevin was talking to Jay (companion to Silent Bob), who was telling him about George Carlin (who has a part in Dogma) being in the lobby of their hotel. However, the amusing part of this is that Carlin didn't recognize Jay or recognize Kevin's name when Jay mentioned him
George Carlin's in the lobby?
KS: Yeah, George is in the hotel and Jay's running around the hotel and he's just like, "George Carlin's downstairs." He's doing a little stargazing! Anyway, what was I saying?
I was asking you about the hidden bonuses.
KS: Yeah, I mean there's bonuses that aren't so hidden, the stuff that's on there in terms of, like, the hour of cut footage, and there's a music video on there, and we put together this documentary on Mallrats, what happened kind of thing, which is really, really fun. I guess Universal threw a disclaimer at the top of it that said, "the opinions expressed are that of the filmmakers and don't represent the studio." You always know you're doing a good job when somebody throws a disclaimer at the beginning of your film. But in terms of hidden bonuses or Easter eggs, I mean there's one hidden somewhere on the disc and it's not real special -- if you don't find it I'm not saying anything, but if you find it's kind of fun.
Well that's groovy. I've heard the Catholic church is totally up in arms about Dogma, but you haven't tried to offend anyone…
KS: No, not at all, and for the record, too, it's not really the Catholic church, it's a group called the Catholic League, and they're very up in arms about the movie. The Catholic church has remained kind of mum on the subject, as I think it behooves them because they haven't seen the movie to object to, but neither has the Catholic League, but they don't feel they need to see the movie to object to it.
Well, my guess is that you're just trying to get people to think outside their socio-religious upbringing.
KS: Yeah, it's a movie about religion, and it's a pro-faith movie, and it's actually in many ways pro-Catholic.
Because you're Catholic.
KS: Because I'm a Catholic. At the same… but more importantly I'm a Christian, and the movie is kind of addressing an audience that may not have thought about faith or spirituality in ages and it's tackling that subject but doing it with a lot of "dick" and "fart" jokes at the same time. So I guess right there anyone without a sense of humor or with a very limited sense of humor will object to it, because you can't talk about Christ and joke around at the same time, which I disagree with completely. So it's one of those things where it's irritating because people run around from the Catholic League going "this guy's completely anti-Catholic and the movie is a slap in the face to Catholicism," when it's not. I'm actually very pro-Catholic, and more importantly, just pro-faith, and the movie is very faith-affirming. I don't know, it's just one of those things that kind of irritates me. I wish to God that they would just wait to see the movie before they object. I don't mind if somebody doesn't like the movie, but just see it before you get all bent out of shape about it. Because they print a lot of things out of context, [that] I've read on the movie, and pull quote off an early draft of the script that was on the Internet, and there's stuff that they're objecting to that hasn't been in the movie in about two to three years, since that draft. But, I'm not the target, they don't care about us or the movie, they care about Disney, because the movie was once a Miramax film and by virtue of that it was also a Disney film. So it's just a way to kind of attack Disney.
Right, and Bob and Harvey [Weinstein] bought it.
KS: Yeah, and we got clear of Disney, like we have no ties to Disney whatsoever, and the Catholic League they had a press conference where they talked about how they're campaigning against Disney to drop Miramax. They want Disney to just completely drop Miramax even though the movie's gone, what are you complaining about? But again, that shows you how little interest they have in me or the movie. Nobody's ever tried to contact me, they're after Disney.
There are some people that need to make a fuss. Directors like you, or like Neil LaBute, but people are all up in arms about his subject matter.
KS: Right... Just because I'm a Christian or a Catholic doesn't mean that I stoically walk around constantly praying. Christ himself didn't even do that, why should I? It's kind of ridiculous. And then faith is a real personal thing and it's not anything to constantly be throwing in other people's faces, they choose to practice or not if they don't. You know, but we all have a sense of humor and that's certainly something that we should all share in common. We're all human beings and we all kind of laugh at the same things more or less, just with different language around them. So that's really like a great universal communicator and you would just imagine that somebody could appreciate the movie on that level, even if it's not your cup of tea. That's the thing, if you don't like the movie or object to it, it's just like just don't go, but instead some people try to make hay out of it and create an issue out of nothing.
Those darn hay makers!
KS: Why bother? Life's too short.
Well, let's talk about some of the casting. I am so excited that you put Chris Rock and Bud Cort in the same movie.
KS: And they're both really good. Bud is quite wonderful.
I love Bud Cort, I'm a huge fan of his. How did you meet him?
KS: I met him through a mutual friend out in L.A., when I was spending time out there a few years ago, and his name came up around the time of casting and I was like, "Yeah, I know Bud, Bud would be good." So he was into it and came out and played around. He's a real nice guy. And something of an indie legend as well.
KS: And Rock is, Rock is Rock. He's tremendous and he also gets to stretch his acting muscles in this movie and do some dramatic stuff, which is nice as well. He gets to be funny and gets to carry some serious scenes as well.
Did you feel like you had to reel him in?
KS: No, not really. I mean he respected the material and that was key.
That's very cool.
KS: That was nice and so it made my job incredibly easier. It was never like, "Calm down Rock, calm down." I never had to do like one take for me, one take for you, he just kind of respected the material and we worked really, really well together.
Excellent. Can I ask you about another rumor?
Did you ask Robert Rodriguez at any point to take over the directing?
KS: I did. There was a time when I got scared of the movie in terms of, I really liked the script and I didn't want to see it "get pooched" in the hands of a inept director, and that inept director was me. It's a visually bigger flick than I'd ever done before, so I called Robert and I was just like, "Why don't you direct it, and I'll be in it because Jay and Silent Bob are in it, but you direct it because you're a way better shooter than I am, and I just don't want to make a crappy looking movie that everyone skips and they skip the content and they skip seeing it and hearing what it's about because it looks bad." But he talked me down off that ledge. He was like, "No, no, no." He said, "It's really not as difficult as all that." And also the DP [Director of Photography] I worked with was Bob Yeoman, who shot Rushmore, and he shot Drugstore Cowboy, he's been shooting for a long time. And that was the first time I worked with someone other than my other DP, and he gave me a really nice piece of advice which I guess I'll carry throughout the rest of my career, however long it lasts. I was like, "What do you think visually is wrong with the other movies, they're pretty flat?" And he's going, "You know, there's nothing really wrong with them, all you have to do is just move the camera about three feet." You know, he's going, "Most of the times you're shooting people against a wall and you're shooting them dead on," he said; "just kind of come over to the right or to the left and give it a little depth and suddenly the shot opens up a bit more." I was like, "Is that it, the big secret?" So that was nice. So I felt like I grew as a filmmaker with this flick.
Very cool. Well after Clerks came out, you inked a deal to do a Clerks sitcom, and is there the possibility that…
KS: At one point we were making Mallrats, and we came back from making Mallrats I found out that there was a Clerks sitcom which I had nothing to do with.
Oh you're kidding!
KS: Yeah, they went ahead and made kind of a deal without me and that's why I left CAA because I was just like, "Shouldn't somebody have asked me first?"
KS: And they made a pilot and it was really, really bad and they buried it.
KS: But now we're doing a Clerks animated series…
KS: I've been trying to do it for five years, and finally ABC said yes, so I have six initial episodes which air in March 2000 and they're really, really funny.
Are you writing it?
KS: Yeah, I'm writing it with this guy, Dave Mandell, who used to write for Seinfeld and wrote for SNL for a while.
Are you drawing any of it?
KS: No, I can't draw for sh*t. I'm a horrible artist, it just goes along with that visual thing, you know. But Disney animation is actually doing it, and this guy, Chris Bally, who directed this really great Mickey Mouse cartoon called "Runaway Brain," which played theatrically a few years back, and it was a really subversive flick and probably the best and most interesting Mickey Mouse cartoon I'd seen ever in my life.
KS: So he's doing the first six episodes, and it's really pretty sweet. And Mallrats, which was kind of the red-headed step child of the bunch for the longest time because it didn't pan out theatrically and critics didn't like it, we got to do the sweet DVD for it, which is kind of nice, because it seems to be getting its due a few years later. And I think we're going to do a comic book mini series… I'll sequelize it in a comic book mini series later this year.
Very cool. Well you know, you're friends are rabid! I went on a few message boards and they're pretty crazy!
KS: We like to call them avid!
Has there ever been talk about a Jay and Silent Bob show?
KS: A show? No, but a lot of people ask like, "Why do[n't] you do a Jay and Silent Bob movie?" which I can never quite get because one guy doesn't even talk.
Until Chasing Amy.
KS: Yeah right, and even then it's just probably too much. But Dogma, they have like 85 percent of the screen time, they're in a lot of the movie. So that to me is as close to an all Jay and Bob movie as we'll ever get. But they are in the animated series so they'll get a lot of time there.
Excellent! I saw your little gig on Space Ghost and I thought it was tremendous.
KS: Yeah, that was a good stuff, wasn't it? I mean that's a really interesting show and the way they do it is kind of cool, because half the things they asked me on the show they asked me on the phone to tape, like they got all switched when it was on air.
I was wondering how they did it, like how much of it…
KS: They ask you questions and then it kind of turns into a conversation where you're just kind of free-forming and they're free-forming, and the guy on the phone (I was in Los Angeles at the time)… there was a guy on the phone from Georgia who was asking me questions in this very un-Space Ghost-like voice. And then they just kind of choose the bits and throw together a sketch based on it. So the thing that made me laugh a lot was when he was just like, "Where did you get that sweater? It looks cheap." [Laughing.]
Do you have plans for a project after that or are you just going to work on the animated series?
KS: I think I'm going to take a year off and I just had a baby, so I want to raise my daughter for a little while, and I also just want to work on the animated series for a while because it's been a lot of fun, so far. So I just want to continue that for a little bit -- get that up and running.