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Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash

IN PITTSBURGH NEWSWEEKLY.COM | COVER STORY | Volume 14, Number 37 April 22 - 15, 1998

Stairway To Kevin

Dogma may be a heavenly tale, but its director remains firmly grounded.


AT ONE END OF The Atlantic City Convention Center's colossal auditorium sat Martin Sheen, the star of all-time classic epic films such as Apocalypse Now and Gettysburg. People crowded in line for the opportunity to shake his hand and get an autograph.

Way across the hangar-sized room--site of the annual East Coast Video Show, where Hollywood and independent studios alike gather to show off their new small-screen wares--a burly, bearded guy named Kevin Smith was also signing autographs to promote the video release of his latest film, a low-budget comedic romance flick about lesbians and comic book artists called Chasing Amy.

Sheen's autograph line was long. Smith's was longer.

After he finished signing--more than a half-hour past schedule, because he hated to turn anyone away--Smith adjourned to a private conference room for an interview.

The 27-year-old writer/director spoke with the quiet confidence of someone who'd already spent a lot of time thinking about what he had to say. The first questions he fielded were obviously familiar to him: No, he never in his wildest dreams imagined that his very first film, the self-financed, foul-mouthed convenience-store vignette, Clerks, would win him the Filmmaker's Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival. Yes, it was a blast to work with Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee on his second film, the John Hughes-style teen angst comedy Mallrats. Yes, his movies' recurring characters Jay and Silent Bob (the latter played by Smith himself) were inspired in part by real dope dealers in his New Jersey hometown.

Then a more serious question gave him a moment's pause: Can a kid from the 'burbs whose multitude of fans adore him for the street-level "reality" of his stories hold on to that earthbound worldview despite the increasing numbers of Hollywood execs waving checks under his nose?

He shrugged. "You've just got to keep living your life the way you've been living it," he said. "You can't forget where you came from if you don't give it up."

Six months later, Smith has moved west, after all--but not far west, and not for long. Pittsburgh is his temporary home while he films the latest addition to the fictional world he's dubbed the "Askewniverse" in joking honor of his company, View Askew Productions.

Lucky Pittsburghers have caught glimpses of his crew shooting the principal photography for Dogma--an action-packed, spiritual road comedy in which fallen angels Matt Damon and Ben Affleck duke it out with heavenly saviors Linda Fiorentino and Chris Rock.

A few of Smith's stalwart fans are taken aback by all those Hollywood names. "I've been concerned lately that Kevin Smith is getting too big," says Clerks enthusiast Dave Zatz in response to In Pittsburgh's online survey of Askew aficionados. And Zatz isn't making a crack about Smith's weight. "All his comic book contracts, script deals, high-profile stars in Dogma....When I became a fan originally, there was no bandwagon--there was just a convenience store clerk who dropped 27 grand and went into debt to make a movie about our lives."

It would be unfair--indeed, downright ridiculous--for anyone to claim Smith has sold out. Even while he's in the middle of filming his most ambitious screenplay to date, he still makes time to hop onto the internet almost nightly to answer random questions from his fans. And while his Oscar-winning peers, Good Will Hunting screenwriters Damon and Affleck, reacted to their newfound celebrity by immediately stepping out on the town with starlets Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow, Smith has remained true to his philosophy, continuing to hang tight with his fellow geeks in Red Bank, N.J.

"Avoiding the trappings of the job is relatively simple when it's stuff that doesn't interest you in the first place," he told IP in a phone interview from the Dogma set on Monday. "I've never been Joe Socialite, so I'm not into the party scene. I know it's an old chestnut, but I am a down-to-earth guy--some might even describe me as boring."

Yes, some might--if they possessed the perceptiveness of a lump of dirt. It's no exaggeration to say that these days, just about everyone who cares about being hip--from Warner Bros. Studios, to aspiring film students, to Marvel and DC Comics--wants a piece of Kevin Smith. So the only question is: Can he give them all a piece without losing his grip on himself in the process?

Ask Vincent Pereira how he managed to get funding to make his first feature film, A Better Place, and he deadpans, "Well, a friend of mine made a movie called Clerks, and it was kind of a success."

Most 25-year-old, minimum-wage-earning film buffs who are sure they have a great idea for a movie will never see that idea become reality. But Pereira occupies a special place in the dramatis personae of the Kevin Smith story: He's the real-life counterpart to Randal, the Clerks character who tells buddy Dante to get off his ass and make something of his life.

Smith and Pereira actually worked together as clerks in that now-immortalized Quik Stop convenience store, and it was Pereira who urged his friend to follow his dream of filmmaking. Once Clerks earned Smith the spotlight, he returned the favor by bankrolling A Better Place--which is now the top-billed movie playing as part of Flixtour, an independent film mini- festival that screens at college campuses across the country.

A significant chunk of the money that went into Pereira's film came through a deal Smith worked out with his distributor, Miramax Films. Miramax was once known as the king of the independent film distributors--an alternative to the Hollywood studios for unknown directors whose work drew attention at the big film festivals. A few years ago, though, Disney bought Miramax, thereby endowing it with the muscle of one of the wealthiest entertainment giants in the world.

Smith's production company, View Askew Productions, has what's called a "first-look deal" with Miramax. "They pay our overhead in exchange for the first crack at anything we're thinking about making," says Smith. "It's kind of like getting money for nothing, because deal or not, we'd always give the 'Max first crack--they're the only studio that'd know how to market our weird little films."

According to Pereira, Miramax until recently was also giving View Askew an additional $80,000 a year to fund the development of whatever low-budget film projects Smith considered promising. "To a company like them, that sort of money is absolutely nothing," says Pereira, "but Kevin made Clerks for less than half that."

And Clerks brought in $3 million at the box office. What Miramax is banking on is that, sooner or later, Smith will once again find them The Next Big Inexpensive Thing.

After all, he took a $250,000 budget for Chasing Amy and turned that into $12 million in ticket sales. And it was he and producer Scott Mosier who, after reading Amy star Ben Affleck's screenplay for Good Will Hunting, took it to Miramax and said, "Please make this movie; it's the best script we've ever read."

They trusted his judgment--and the $10 million budget they allotted the project has so far led to $126 million in U.S. ticket sales alone, plus $54 million overseas. That's a 1,700-percent profit--and doesn't even take into account the incalculable value of winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

By way of comparison, Titanic, though it's grossed $1.4 billion worldwide so far, due to its whopping $200 million budget only represents a 600-percent profit. So, dollar for dollar, the 1997 releases Smith had a hand in have been better investments than the biggest blockbuster of the year.

The pressure is on Smith to keep the ball rolling. But it's a ball he initially launched into motion more by stumbling over it than by carefully aiming and pitching. He certainly didn't plan a deliberate strategy to become the most potent creative force in the world of twentysomething filmmaking. So what sort of psycho-cultural motherlode has he tapped into that makes his words such precious gems? Or, in simpler terms: Who the hell is buying all those tickets?

Kevin Smith's fans, like their hero, are a thoughtful bunch. Their demographic leans heavily toward the young, the bright, the snide and the male--though Chasing Amy went a long way toward mitigating the gender bias. They tend to be fond of comic books. They speak with the same simultaneous profanity and profundity as do Smith's characters.

And they flock to the internet like--well, like Pennsylvanians to the Jersey shore, except that every day is Memorial Day.

Ming Chen, the webmaster for Smith's official View Askew company site, is the archetypal fan. He's a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Michigan who's managed to find decent work designing Web pages. But only a couple years ago, he was stuck in a lowly clerk job just like Smith once was.

"I worked at a combination video store/arcade on campus which oddly mirrored the one Randal [from Clerks] worked at," he says. "I worked by myself and had free reign to take off whenever I wanted to, as long as I was back in time to close the place--I knew the boss only stopped by once a day to grab the day's receipts and fill up the change machines."

To relieve the boredom, Chen created a Clerks-themed Web page in December 1995. When Smith discovered the page, he invited Chen to design View Askew's own site (www.viewaskew.com).

"The writing--and thus much of the personality--comes from Kevin," Chen says of the site. "One of his requests was that the site have some kind of chat program running on it so he could conduct weekly chats with the fans and get in touch with them somehow."

This turned out to be one of Smith's most wildly successful ideas ever--and the device that spurred the widespread numbers of Clerks lovers to evolve from a bunch of isolated fans into a recognizable body of devoted fandom.

What Chen wound up implementing was not a live chat site, but a Web-based bulletin board--a page on which anyone can post a question for Smith to read and answer when he next logs on.

"The board provides a forum for aspiring screenwriters, actors, directors and just plain movie buffs to connect," says viewaskew.com regular Pedro Bissonnette, adding that no other filmmaker has done anything like this. "I have yet to see George Lucas log on the internet twice a day to talk about aspect ratios or give the final word as to whether he wears boxers or briefs."

As the news spread that Smith was accessible to fans through his Web page, the site grew ever more popular. Even people like Vincent Pereira who didn't need any special means of access to Smith found the board irresistible. "I go to my computer at night," Pereira says, "and end up posting on the View Askew board because I'm too exhausted to even think about working on my new screenplay."

Today, two years after the site's inception, many of Smith's admirers swear that, in the long months that stretch between his last movie and the next, viewaskew.com is all that keeps them going.

"I keep the View Askew board minimized all day on my computer screen at work," says Web site patron Emily Thomas, "and check it frequently in the evenings also. So at least 10 hours a day--God, that's scary."

Almost as scary is that many of the fans who log on to viewaskew.com for the first time see it as their golden opportunity to do one single thing: convince Kevin Smith to become their personal mentor. They're in for a big disappointment.

Much as he loves talking with his fans, this is where he insists on drawing the line--if he were to take every would-be creative genius under his wing, he would literally have no hours left in the day to do anything else.

It's part of Chen's job as webmaster to ensure that Smith continues to find the board helpful and efficient for him, not just his fans.

"Unfortunately, I did not see that when you have a free community like that, it's inevitable that people will also use the board for their own purposes," says Chen. "It got to a point where it was a waste of both limited board space and Kevin's time to have to sift through a lot of off-topic stuff when better time could have been spent answering relevant questions."

After a period in March when the board was starting to lose the original focus of its question-and-answer mission, Smith and Chen decided to shut it down for a week. As Smith headed to Pittsburgh to get the Dogma production off the ground, Chen rethought the interactive structure of the site. They weren't too worried about fans suffering withdrawal symptoms, since there's also an unofficial site called News Askew at www.newsaskew.com, where webmasters Brad Plevyak and Chris Alley post the fruits of their painstaking daily media search for any Smith-related tidbits.

When the View Askew board returned, it had split in two. The original board is now designated exclusively for posts meant to be read and answered by Smith--and for his own reports from the Dogma set.

"I've been checking in with daily updates," he says. "If I miss a few days, I'll let them know what I've been doing. It's kind of nice to have it as a journal of sorts of the whole production."

The second, new board is intended to give fans a completely open forum to chat with each other about whatever might be on their minds. And, many fans told In Pittsburgh in response to an online survey, the reason they love Smith is simply that he understands what's on their minds.

"He makes the kind of movies that make you nervous watching them with your parents," says 20-year-old Lexi Niblock, "but you ignore the discomfort because the film is so perfect and you want the folks to see and experience and learn."

That, in a nutshell, was the buzz that brought twentysomethings in droves to theaters to see Amy: The characters Smith brings to life are every '90s-era, hypersensitive, relationship-obsessed friend you ever had in college. And they're you.

Some critics have tried to dismiss Smith's films as poorly crafted. The man, they say, does not know how to gracefully cut from one shot to another. His fans, in turn, dismiss these naysayers as very much missing the point.

"Kevin doesn't make the movies that need huge explosions and a bunch of different camera angles," says 20-year-old Michael Howard. "He puts focus on the dialogue, and that is what makes his movies great."

And the characters who utter that dialogue, like most of Smith's generation, spend an amazing amount of time and energy fiercely analyzing what, from a traditionally "adult" perspective, would be considered the most trivial subject matter imaginable. Like, for instance, a certain 1977 space fantasy movie.

Twenty-one-year-old Pedro Bissonnette recalls the words of the friend who first told him about Clerks: "I remember her saying it contained a debate concerning contracted workers on the Death Star. I figured anyone with enough free time--and the inclination--to contemplate the installation of toilets on a fictitious battle station was my kind of guy."

Finally a subtle truth begins to bubble to the top of the discourse like the carbonation in Coca-Cola: Those of us who, like Smith, grew up on a steady diet of Star Wars films--which are referred to by Smith's characters and his fans as "the Holy Trilogy"--are determined to somehow experience and express spirituality through witticisms and pop culture references.

"Kevin writes what he knows and uses his heart," says Karla O'Bryant-Dingle, a rare married fan. "He is unafraid of emotions and undaunted by the male ego. He redefines talent."

In the eyes of Hollywood execs, the ticket sales backing up that sort of praise have served as penance for Smith's second film, Mallrats, which in 1995 bombed so hard at the box office the explosion could be heard on other planets. Nobody would have thought back then that Smith--comic book fan or not--would end up getting tapped by Warner Bros. to write a movie it hoped would be a smash hit of galactic proportions: Superman Lives.

"I wrote two drafts of Superman for them," he says. "My script got Nicholas Cage involved. It got Tim Burton involved....I had a good time while it lasted."

It didn't last long. After signing on as director--and choosing Pittsburgh as the town where Clark Kent's Metropolis home would be created on film--the idiosyncratic Burton, auteur of Batman and Edward Scissorhands, did an abrupt about-face and threw out Smith's script. At least three more writers have tackled the project since then, but Warner Bros. isn't happy with what it's seen.

Last week--right on the heels of a big Post-Gazette story announcing the City-County Building would double as the Daily Planet office during the planned July shoot-- the Hollywood news magazine Variety announced that Warner has postponed the film indefinitely, until such time as the studio has more faith that the script will justify the proposed $125 million budget.

Viewaskew.com regular Michael Cecconi is one of many who have read--and loved--Smith's rejected screenplay after it somehow found its way onto the internet. "It was a blast of a script," he says, suggesting that "Burton ditched it because he knew it would become known as Kevin Smith's Superman film and not Tim Burton's. Superman ain't '90s. Kev understands that. Timmy doesn't."

While the project that is now unquestionably "Tim Burton's Superman film" twiddles its thumbs in development hell, Smith has taken on several other high-profile projects. In addition to directing Dogma, he's writing the third Fletch movie for Chevy Chase, and his series of Clerks-inspired short films collectively dubbed "Jay and Silent Bob's Video Stash" have proven a big hit on MTV. What's more, he's writing another comic book-related script already--an adaptation of Matt Wagner's popular Mage series.

So Smith isn't losing sleep over the Superman Lives debacle--he's just too damn busy. As he put it in a recent message on the internet: "I calls it karma, Mr. Burton."

Besides, if Smith reallywants to write comic book characters he doesn't need to do it in a movie. Not anymore.

When Mallrats was being panned by critics, one of the only nice things they had to say was that it was neat to see legendary Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee in a cameo role. The comics community--readers and creators alike--took notice.

Then Chasing Amy came out, and the world discovered--gasp!--that not only the adolescent males, but the women in the audience were perfectly willing to accept a comic book geek, albeit a hunky one, as a romantic lead.

"Without a doubt, women will buy comics," says Jeffrey Yandora, who owns the Phantom of the Attic comic shop in Oakland. "It's just a matter of telling stories that they'll like."

Amy strongly suggested Smith knows what sort of stories those are--so it was a natural leap from writing movies about comic books to writing the books themselves. He hooked up with independent publisher Oni Press and wrote a one-shot Jay and Silent Bob story that was published in an issue of the Oni Double Feature series. It was well received, so Smith and Oni followed it up in February with the first issue of what should be a regular Clerks comic. The comic disappeared within two days of hitting stores.

"We sold out several times," says Yandora. "I think they've done a second printing by now." Oni plans to follow up on their success with a Smith-penned Jay and Silent Bob title--with a cover image drawn by Mike Allred, creator of the independent comic Madman and also the artist responsible for the work Ben Affleck's character created in Chasing Amy.

The two-way crossover Smith is making between film and comics was probably inevitable given his background. "Comics are the poor man's film medium," Allred points out. "There's obviously the overwhelming visual aspect to both--you can have a silent film or a comic without dialogue if it's visually exciting."

Obviously, the dialogue-heavy Smith is unlikely to write either a screenplay or a comic script with no words--but that doesn't bother anyone. The suburban Jersey kid who was able to turn actual film into his "poor man's film medium" has a touch that's as golden on the page as it is on the screen--so the big guns of the comics industry are rushing to woo him just as the Hollywood studios have been doing since Clerks.

DC Comics, of Superman and Batman fame, has given Smith its super-archer Green Arrow to play with. Meanwhile, industry rival Marvel, publisher of Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and The X-Men, has hired Smith to write a six-issue run on one of their flagging veteran titles, Daredevil.

"I knew he had a huge affection for the character," says Daredevil artist Joe Quesada, whose small company, Event Comics, has been contracted by Marvel to produce that title as well as three others in need of a sales boost. "He was the first person I contacted about doing Daredevil. His first reaction was, 'You're kidding, right?'"

But it was no joke. And this Sunday, Smith will be the guest of honor at the huge annual Pittsburgh Comicon. He, Quesada and Allred will each appear at some point during the weekend-long comics convention, held at the ExpoMart in Monroeville. The event will also spotlight more than 100 other comic personalities, including Superman artist Ron Frenz, Captain America writer Mark Waid and Thor artist John Romita Jr. Quesada will auction off an original piece of Daredevil artwork, with proceeds benefiting the Ronald McDonald House.

Smith's devotion to the idea of writing real superhero comics is impressive: Even though Sundays are the only days he gets to rest during the intense, six-week Dogma shoot, he says he spent last Sunday "locked in my room, writing Daredevil all day."

"It's just the idea of telling a story I'm not used to telling" that excites him, he says. "It's not joke-oriented--just a flat-out action-adventure story. It's kind of a challenge to do something without my signature characters."

It's also the sort of challenge not many comic book readers get a crack at.

"He's basically living a geek's dream life," marvels viewaskew.com fan R.J. White. "I mean, the guy has a job writing two of his favorite comic books, he owns a comic shop and he's able to direct his own material and get talented people to want to perform it. Plus, he has his own production company to help his friends get their films made. Everyone should be so lucky."

Which brings usright back to where we started: Smith has an awful lot going on right now. Dogma, Daredevil, Green Arrow, Fletch and Mage in the creative arena; running his offices in Red Bank--both View Askew and his comic book store, Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash; and keeping other possible future projects with partners like Miramax and MTV on the back burner. And to top of everything, Smith's fans and backers are expecting all these projects to kick ass. Is he starting to feel the heat?

"I do think I'm a bit of a commitment freak," he admits. "I don't think I'm a workaholic--just a commitment-aholic. But sooner or later I do get around to everything. And I don't think the quality of my work suffers. I never turn in something I'm not 100-percent happy with."

One thing he's 100-percent happy with is that he's shooting Dogma here in Pittsburgh. "This was absolutely the all-around right location," he raves. "Initially it was going to be Memphis, but Pittsburgh was better across the board....It has a good crew base. Hopefully this will show people more films can come through here."

Certainly this film has shown that more people can come through here. Local casting agent Nancy Mosser, who handled the casting of all the non-speaking extra roles in Dogma, says she's never seen such a response. "There are people calling from all around the country," she says. "They started calling even before we officially announced it. And then when Kevin posted our address on his Web site--hundreds and hundreds and hundreds."

All those people are swarming to Pittsburgh at their own expense just so they can enjoy the privilege of maybe having their elbows get have a whole second of screen time in a Kevin Smith movie. Isn't that just a little bit intoxicating? Isn't there just the slightest hint of temptation to go for the power of being a Big Hollywood Player?

"I have zero interest in spending a minute longer in L.A. than I have to," Smith says bluntly, "so Jersey will always be home. And I'd rather drive myself someplace than be driven in a limo or something--that way, I control the radio."

Managing editor Stephen H. Segal last wrote about Encyclopædia Britannica spokesman Donavan Freberg.

Kevin Smith will host a panel discussion at the Pittsburgh Comicon at the ExpoMart in Monroeville on Sunday, April 26 from 1-2 p.m. Joe Quesada's Daredevil art print will be auctioned on Friday, April 24 at 5 p.m. Call 814/467-4116 for Comicon details. Mike Allred will make an in-store appearance at Phantom of the Attic in Oakland on Thursday, April 23 from 4-7 p.m. Call 621-1210 for details.

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