The Two River Times - Kevin Smith -
Star Wars: This Generation
Photo by Danny Sanchez
George Lucas definitely wasn't thinking about Highlands, New Jersey in the epic introduction that set the stage for his "Star Wars" movies, but damned if a young Jedi Knight named Kevin Smith isn't leading a rebel force of independent movie makers from Highlands, his hometown, that he affectionately describes as "the asshole end of the movie universe."
Kevin Smith, the twenty-five year old movie maker, writer and director from Highlands, has made a legendary, light-speed ascent in the movie industry, a fortress reputed to be as impenetrable as Vader's Death Star. "Clerks", Smith's first movie venture, unexpectedly found its way into the popular culture through the art house door. Filmed in a QuickStop in Leonardo, New Jersey for some $30,000 borrowed on personal credit cards, "Clerks" has all the edgy, black and white rawness of low budget independent films mixed with Smith's genius for dialog and a story well-told, in this case one of a go-nowhere convenience store clerk who manages to reroute his dead-end life and find true love in the bargain, with very funny lines along the way.
"Clerks" went from an uncertain introduction before an audience of less than twenty at the Angelika in NYC to scoop top honors at every important independent film festival including Sundance and Cannes. It got picked up by a major movie studio, did $3.2 million at the box office, played in "almost every country around the world, except China", and won Smith a multi-movie deal with Miramax that includes the studio putting up the money for a comic book division and music label as well. "Mallrats", Smith's second film, a big-screen feature backed by $6.7 million budget and all the considerable resources of Universal Pictures, opened at 1200 theatres across the country in October, 1995.
But it all seems very far away from the calm center that is Kevin Smith's office at View Askew Productions, Inc. above the Bow Knot restaurant in Red Bank where a bigger-than-life-size version of the company logo - a burly, scuffy faced clown camping in drag - is stamped on the window over-looking Broad Street and "Star Wars" memorabilia is everywhere.
"I was seven when 'Star Wars' came out," Smith explains. "I was the target audience for that movie. I was in eighth grade when the final one came out, 'Return of the Jedi'. I though life was over. It is the mythology of our generation. At a certain point 'Star Wars' took over as the cultural mythology. Whereas it used to be the Greek gods, for our generation and beyond, it'll be the 'Star Wars' series." "Silent Bob", a character played by Smith in "Clerks", who appears again in "Mallrats" along with his side-kick Jay, played by long-time friend Jason Mewes, are patterned after the ubiquitous R2D2 and C3PO of 'Star Wars' fame.
"We screened Mallrats in San Diego," Smith explains. "When Silent Bob and Jay appeared on the screen, the audience went nuts. The recognition factor is huge. It's bizarre to see this through line between the two films. People recognizing characters from the first film. They pop up in the next two movies, 'Chasing Amy' and 'Dogma'." According to Smith, 'Chasing Amy', his next movie, "is about a guy who falls in love with a woman who is in love with a lot of other women. The love triangle between a guy, a girl and the rest of the female populace, from the guy's perspective." Fans will be happy to hear that Jay and Silent Bob are definitely in "Chasing Amy" "But by the time we hit 'Dogma'," (Smith's "Catholic apocalyptic road movie") they are leading material."
Smith's movies have a signature veneer of fast talk and, what his mother might call, filthy language. "With 'Clerks'," Smith says, "I had 136 page script full of dick jokes. But the core of both movies is very romantic at heart. What I had to do was bury that in a bunch of jokes so that people don't realize how heart-on-the-sleeve they are. Or how much more there is to it than the jokes. To this generation and the core audience for my films, a certain kind of language is integral. Without it, it just seems fake. Whether you're utterly foul mouthed or just at a minimum level, everyone punctuates or flavors their dialog with the kind of language I'm using."
There's a lot of hoopla that surrounds Kevin Smith now. Publicists and press junkets, premier parties and pricey hotels, red eye flights to L.A., openings in Tokyo...a maelstrom of fast moving currents that might threaten even the most experienced professional, but it is clear that Smith is in no danger of going under. For one thing, he's hometown at heart and not about to be hoodwinked by bright lights and big cities. Everything he wants right now , he says, is right here and he doesn't see any reason for that changing. "This is life," he says about living in Red Bank, teaching classes at Henry Hudson High School, his alma mater, every other week and hanging out with friends he grew up with, many of whom are going along with him into the movie business. "This other," he says, referring to the movie-world that he seems to negotiate so effortlessly, "it's just a job."
For Smith, the job is being the director of his own films, but his passion is for writing. "I used to write short stories in high school," he says, "but never scripts. Dialog always came easy. My short stories used to be all dialog. Doing the story part is nice for me, but kind of boring." According to Smith, there's nothing without the writers but the position is notoriously powerless in the movie industry. "It blows my mind that anybody who writes a script shouldn't direct it," he says. "Visually the whole scheme is in your head, the head of a writer. You are on the most intimate level with that script. The writer in hollywood, though, is still so unrespected. Thank god I am a writer director."
Kevin Smith is an unlikely Jedi Knight. Dressed in grunge garb, and spouting scripts filled with fart jokes, you might mistake him for a mallrat and nothing more. But in Jedi fashion, his strength flows from the force, for Smith a well-spring of true talent that has brought him a level of accomplishment far beyond his years. "I might just have two more movies in me," he goofs. "Then I'll kick back and run a comic book store." But as any 'Star Wars' fan knows, Kevin, "You cannot escape your destiny."
by Claudia Ansorge