Kevin Smith: Tough Talk

Kevin Smith, perhaps best known as the director of Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is a fat, lazy slob who did good. He says so himself in the subtitle of his new book, Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good. The title is typical Smith, who’s hyperaware of how he’s perceived by many people. Namely his critics. But it’s also something of a lie, too, because Smith — a wildly successful podcaster with more than 2 million Twitter followers — is one of the most active “lazy” people you’ll ever meet.

Soon after this interview was completed, he announced that Clerks was coming to Broadway, possibly by next year. That will be at the tail end of a “three-year plan” that began in 2011, when he took to the stage at the Sundance Film Festival and announced that he was going to self-distribute his latest film, Red State, an homage to the films of Quentin Tarantino that was dark, violent, and short on humor — a vast departure for the director who developed a cult following by making comedies about people who looked, talked, and acted exactly like Smith and his friends — which was no coincidence, because Smith and many of his longtime pals (Jason Mewes, in particular) populate his films and speak dialogue that feels lifted directly from their open-book lives.

Smith shot to superstardom with Clerks, which was bought by the Weinstein brothers at Miramax Films. But the indie mantra that seemed to define Miramax eventually gave way to reverence for the almighty dollar, Smith says, and he and the Weinsteins — Harvey, in particular, whom Smith swore at during the premiere of Red State at Sundance — went their separate ways. Smith hasn’t suffered from the disassociation, though. In fact his influence has grown to the point that his friends have their own reality show on AMC, Comic Book Men. And his podcast is so popular he can record it in front of sold-out audiences in Australia and the United Kingdom.

In a recent phone interview, Smith discussed many of the salient topics in his career, including his clashes with Bruce Willis on the set of Cop Out and how Wayne Gretzky’s graceful retirement has informed Smith’s own plan to retire from filmmaking after his next movie. That’s right, the forty-one-year-old is going to walk away from the medium that made him famous. But that still leaves plenty of other artistic avenues for the so-called “lazy slob” to explore. —Cameron Martin

The Barnes & Noble Review: Why the title of the book?

Kevin Smith: I wanted to go with “Smonologues.” But when I went into Gotham, they were like, “I don’t know if that title translates.” Instead we went with “Tough Sh*t,” which really doesn’t translate when you’re trying to promote the book out in the world. I’ve taken to calling it “Tough Smith” instead on TV.

BNR: What was the impetus that got you into filmmaking? What was the moment when you said, “Hey, I can do this?”

KS: I saw Richard Linklater’s film Slacker for my twenty-first birthday. That was the moment when it all seemed possible. This guy gave me hope. I saw his movie in an indie multiplex, the Angelika Film Center up in Manhattan, and I was like, “God almighty. If this guy can make a movie with his friends in the middle of Nowheresville, Texas, then maybe I could do it in the middle of Nowheresville, New Jersey.” Thank god I didn’t know it was Austin, because then I never would have tried it. I would have been like, “Well of course he can do it; he’s in Austin, man. He’s surrounded by schools and artists and all that crap.” So a little ignorance can go a long way, kid.

BNR: You wrote of your second movie, Mallrats, “With its sex and superhero obsessions, it was about fifteen years too early for an audience to give a s—.” Why do you think people started caring more about comic books and superheroes?

KS: I think the advent of the Internet gave us all a big boost, because by the time the Internet became mainstream and you could get it in your home, a lot of us were used to dealing in fan culture, writing to magazines or anything at the back of comic books. The Internet allowed you to gather with people who felt the same way. By the time you gathered all those cats together on the Internet, it became about tastemakers. That’s eventually what happened. Those folks became that audience that studios wanted to court and come after, because the stuff they liked came into vogue.

BNR: AMC just finished airing the first season of Comic Book Men, a reality series set in your New Jersey comic book store. It’s pretty amazing that your reach has extended to where your friends are getting gigs on AMC.

KS: That is a dream come true. Actually, that’s not true, because I never would have dreamed something like that. Yeah, I get to watch my friends on AMC. That’s one of those “out of left field” kind of things. I was happy about it because those guys are really funny. And they can stand by themselves without me, as they do on the show. I’m there for the podcast wraparound, but they do the heavy lifting with most of the day-to-day stuff. Bryan [Johnson] and Walter [Flanagan] are sharp tacks. They trained me comedically, without it being a thing. It wasn’t, “We’re going to train you to be funny.” It was hanging out with those guys for a few years, and it became “boom.” You become super sharp. So they are the very reason I was eventually able to do what I do. So it’s kind of nice to pay ’em back. I only wish it was considered payback. Walter and Bryan didn’t want to do it in the beginning. They loved it after they saw what it was. But there was a lot of trepidation, like they’ll look stupid or something. But once they saw the show, that all changed. Bryan tells me that Walter — who swore that he’d never watch an episode — now he started watching them. And he started watching them repeatedly, he was so happy with the show. So that’s cool, too. Sometimes you gotta lead the horse to water and force it to drink by jamming its head down into the trough. And in this instance it worked out very well. The horse is happy. Both horses!

BNR: How did the first season go? Did it get picked up for a second season?

KS: We’re still waiting to find out. AMC was going to wait until all six episodes aired. But we had a really nice creative call after episode three. Our ratings only went up after that, so knock on wood. Our feeling is they liked the show, they’re very vested, they developed the show with us hardcore every step of the way. At the end of the day this show is very inexpensive and easy to find advertising for. If they pick it up, I don’t care if it’s because they think it’s a good show or they just think it’s a good deal. Just get me to a second season, man. I would just love to see those dudes do something more than once in life, and having season two would be that.

BNR: You were in on the ground floor of podcasting. What is so attractive about the format, and why has it become such a preferred way for you to communicate your thoughts?

KS: It’s such an inexpensive way to communicate. When you’re an artist, all you’re trying to do is self-express. If you’re a painter, you’ve got a blank canvas, throw some color on it and people know what you’re talking about. You’re a singer, open your mouth and in a minute or two people can see how you’re feeling. But when you’re a filmmaker, you’re one of the only artists in the group who says, “I need to express myself, so give me $20 million and Ben Affleck and I can do it.” So podcasting was sort of the antithesis of that. I can sit down with a jack and a microphone, press record and we’re off and running. For a guy who likes language as much as I do, for a guy who likes to talk as much as I do, podcasting just made more sense.

You know I’m not like a Spielberg, I wasn’t making these films that were like visionary. I make comedy, and comedy travels well in your ear without even pictures to go with it. And we all know this. The first few films I made didn’t look good at all, and I wasn’t trying to make them look good. People dig ’em because they like the content. They like to laugh. Film is a medium where people expect everything to look good. Podcasting you can just sit there and talk for hours. And so expensive comedic bits, you don’t have to figure out how to shoot them. The audience is building the pictures in their head, theater of the mind. So when you’re done with that, you can put it online. And if you want, you can do it again the next day. And you’re finished.

You know, none of this bulls— where you write a script, spend two years trying to find the money for it, a year to shoot it, then it’s in the movie theaters for one month, and then lives forever on DVD or home video. That’s a very long process, and so much time, money, and work. With podcasting, I just sit down. I don’t even have to sit down with talented people. I sat down with my mother.

BNR: [Laughs.]

KS: Yeah, that was a really fascinating podcast. In this day and age where there are so many entertainment options, where movies are feeling the pinch like theater felt the pinch when movies came along, and like literature felt the pinch with the advent of television. Nowadays films are competing with video games. Why would you want to watch something when you can participate? You have to court the audience. In my philosophy, you have to live in the audience’s time, not vice versa. You want to be there when they reach for entertainment, and they can listen to a podcast and multitask. They can mow the lawn and listen, paint and listen. You don’t want them to be like, “I’m ready to be entertained. Wait, where do I need to go? Some multiplex?” Sooner or later they’ll be like, f— it. But if they’re on your cell phone? Then you’re living in the audience’s free time. And then when you show up in their neighborhood for a podcast show, they show their appreciation and come out. That’s why I love podcasts. It’s giving away your art for free, like children do. The best of what I do now is every one of those podcasts. And in my estimation the worst of what I do on those podcasts is still better than the best films I ever made. It’s the direct-to-fan era, and we’re still trying to figure things out.

BNR: You describe your clashes with Bruce Willis on the set of Cop Out. Do you regret making the movie, which was the first you’d directed but hadn’t written?

KS: No, god no. In the immediate sense, Cop Out got Red State made. There was a guy from one of the main investor groups, I sat down with him and said, “Did you read the script?” And he said, “No, I don’t need to.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because I saw a movie this weekend that had your name on it and it had Bruce Willis in it, so I know you know how to make movies.” And that dude wrote me a check for two and a half million bucks.

BNR: That’s amazing.

KS: It is. And believe me, there were days on the set of Cop Out where I was like, “Why the f— am I doing this?” But a month later after the dust had settled, I thought, “That’s why I did it.” I went in head up, eyes open. I took an 85 percent pay cut because I wanted to work with Bruce Willis. And I had an agent and a lawyer who were like, “You’re out of your mind.” But I was like, no, if this is what it’s going to take to work with a guy who I’ve always liked and s—, boom, that’s what I’m doing to do. So even though it didn’t work out, I got to do what I wanted to do. It’s like that old saying, though, be careful what you wish for. But in terms of having high expectations shattered, I’d rather it be with someone like Bruce Willis than with someone like my wife or with, say, Jason Mewes [the actor who plays Jay in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and many other Smith films], somebody who really matters on a regular basis. He’s just a movie star I worked with once. There’ll be others.

BNR: You talk a lot about your admiration for Wayne Gretzky and how you slowly came to recognize his greatness, not only for how he played the game — focusing on where the puck is going to be next instead of where it is now — but also with how he retired from the game before his body betrayed him. Until you looked to his example, whose career did you admire most, either in sports or the arts, and why did you maybe steer away from them and toward Gretzky?

KS: What a great question, dude. Nobody’s asked that. It is odd to be middle-aged and have a hero, but I think that comes from a place where I make pretend for a living, so I’m sort of emotionally and developmentally arrested to begin with. So you dream. And when you have to dream for a living, you tend to think younger thoughts. And younger thoughts tend to be, “I need a role model, I want a hero.” And for a while I was my very own hero. I mean, not for nothing, but I went from absolute obscurity to working in the film business. At the end of Clerks in the credits, you can see the people I thanked. Richard Linklater, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee, and Jim Jarmusch for leading the way. Those were the filmmakers who made me dream. There was no Internet at that point, really, so you had to go read everything you could about them in magazines or the library. So those were my heroes back in the day. John Hughes, John Landis, these were big heroes as well. But once you become a filmmaker and you known how it’s done, you don’t really have heroes per se because you know how it’s done. That’s not to say some people don’t do it better than I do and you don’t admire them.

BNR: So why Gretzky?

KS: This guy is an entertainer as well, but he’s a different kind of entertainer. He’s not curing cancer or figuring out how to extend our natural resources. He’s an entertainer, which is kind of what I do. But he played it with such intensity and so much passion that he made you feel like he was saving the world. He brought something to his profession that just flat-out inspired me. He’s seeing the game from a different perspective. His father’s advice (about focusing on where the puck is going to be next) seemed like million-dollar advice and could be applied anywhere, not just hockey. It was nice to look to somebody who recharged my batteries. His retirement thing was a really big deal. To see a guy who loved the game that much, to see him just walk away, kind of got me to a place where I thought it’s OK to leave it behind. It’s important to learn that lesson about film, which I’ve loved so much.

It’s all a life lesson. And I think the biggest life lesson is that everything we’re here to do is to train ourselves for the moment when we can deal with our own deaths. To where you can say, “OK, I can let it all go.” Right now I’m middle aged, and I’ve enjoyed a really cool, fun life, and the thought of that ever ending is just crushing, debilitating, brings tears to your eyes. But watching Wayne Gretzky and the passion he brought to his career, and then walking away as he did: what a great life lesson, not only for my career but a better life lesson for the ultimate walk-away moment.

BNR: Here’s a random trivia question about Gretzky and movies, and don’t feel bad if you get it wrong, because I had it wrong for years, but the question is, What Chicago Blackhawks player makes Gretzky’s head bleed in Swingers?

KS: Was it Jeremy Roenick?

BNR: It wasn’t Roenick. I thought it was, too. It was actually Steve Larmer.

KS: Why would they choose Larmer!

BNR: I don’t know, because Roenick was an absolute beast in that game.

KS: Yeah, and he was probably the most famous Blackhawk of that era, so you’d imagine it was him. I’ve seen that movie once in my life. And when I saw that scene, I wasn’t even a Gretzky guy then, I was an EA Sports fan. And in Mallrats, Brody [Jason Lee] was playing EA ’93 and the execs at Universal were like, “Hey, man, Sega is going to give us money to swap out that hockey game with their hockey game.” And I was like, “Well I don’t wanna do that.” And they were like, “You’re gonna do it.” And so that was one of the first corporate lessons I learned. And so out went ’93, which was the game we played.

BNR: Oh, yeah, I was raised on that game.

KS: Hell, yeah. And ’93 was the year you could make the guys bleed. And I had to swap it out with this Sega s—. To this day it bugs me, because a year later Swingers came out and they had that game in there, and I was like, “Dammit, man, we would have been first.” If not for some greedy corporate f— who was like, “We can get like a hundred more bucks by putting this other video game in the movie.” But I was a kid and I couldn’t fight that kind of thing. I was brand new on the farm.

BNR: If I didn’t know that Red State was made by you, I would never have guessed.

KS: Thank you.

BNR: You write that the film is an homage to Quentin Tarantino, and it certainly has elements that are reminiscent of his films. I know you took the film out and self-distributed it. What was the reaction to that decision?

KS: The long, sharp knives came out. The critics had about a month to kick me around, but then they became innocuous. Because then it came to a point where I don’t need this, I can go direct to the audience and I don’t need you to tell the audience whether it was good or bad. My point is I know who this movie is for; it’s for people who like me and my movies, and that’s not everybody. So there’s no point in going for everybody. I was going to bring it to the ones who were really going to dig it the most, to make sure my investors got paid back, and not run this stupid gauntlet of, “OK, man, let’s drop $20 million of marketing on top of it.” It wasn’t designed to be mass entertainment. From the jump it was just supposed to be a movie that you’d watch and go, “That’s so bad ass.” I just wanted to make one of those movies that gave you that reaction. Like Reservoir Dogs or Donnie Darko, which didn’t really pop in the states. But in England? In England you would have thought [director] Richard Kelly was the greatest thing since sliced bread. A cult movie, if you will. Now I’d had cult movies, but not a movie that makes you go to a friend, “Oh my god, this is so bad ass you have to see it.” It becomes the currency of cool. Suddenly you’re passing the keys to a whole new kingdom to someone else. And I’d never gotten to make one of those flicks. So I said I’m gonna do it. That’s what I did with Red State. And if you’re gonna craft a movie like this, you have to take it off the scale. You can’t do it like you’ve done any other film.

BNR: Have other directors come out to you and said, “Hey, I’m going to follow this self-distribution approach”? Or do you think that because of your following you were privileged to be able to do that and pull it off?

KS: Right. Nobody ever said it to me. We did our thing at Sundance, announced we were going to self-distribute, and then seven months later at the San Diego Comic-Con, Francis Ford Coppola — maker of The Godfather, for heaven’s sake — he has a movie of his own and he said he was going to take it out on the road, with alternative endings, and he was going to do a Q&A afterward. Then Emilio Estevez and his father [Martin Sheen] took their movie out on the road. I’m not saying they got their idea from me, but it was just nice that somebody else was doing it. Thankfully I wasn’t alone out there with my cheese in the wind. But if a prospective artist can’t look at what we did and figure out how to do it themselves, then I can’t feel bad about it. You can’t spoon feed everybody. But what I loved about Red State is it taught us. I don’t think we played it publicly more than thirty times live on that tour. Made almost a million bucks. But we learned the venues, how to do it, where to go. And so now we know where to go in the future. Just the podcast alone was putting people in the seats. That’s what we’re going to do with Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie (which will blend live action and R-rated animation). We know how to reach the audience. Twenty years ago we didn’t know. But now we do. And we can do it more cost-effectively than the people who supposedly know how to reach the audience. Plus it’s just f—ing fun, living on a bus with your friends, going from place to place, showing a cartoon, playing pretend for a living.

BNR: That’s not a bad way to go through life.

KS: Know what I’m saying?

BNR: Harvey Weinstein was your mentor at Miramax, but you describe a falling-out. In particular, you told him to “shut the f— up” because he was talking loudly during a screening of Red State at the Sundance Film Festival last year. What’s your relationship like these days?

KS: I haven’t spoken to him since then. He sent me an email when Comic Book Men was going to premiere that said, “As far as I’m concerned, you’ll always be cool in my book.” I didn’t really understand what that meant. Apparently somebody said something about me that wasn’t cool. I don’t know, it was very nice, though. And I sent him a reply, congratulating him on his Oscar nominations, because it was around that time. But no, we haven’t spoken.

BNR: You claim that “After Hit Somebody, I’m going to retire from directing. Everything else I’m working on will continue as-is or hopefully grow, but I know it’s time to fold up the director’s chair.” What do people who are close to you say when you tell them you’re going to retire from directing?

KS: Anybody who’s close to me knows what the plan is. But they tell me you better do it quick. As organic as everything is, once it started clicking into place, there was this weird three-year plan. It started on the stage at Sundance, where we really kind of lit a fire. Now we’re sort of in the middle stage, and it’s a great time because Comic Book Men is working and the book came out and it seems to be doing well. And the Red State tour last year did well. And we’re selling out podcast tours overseas now. We just back from the United Kingdom and Australia, so we’re building Smodco into something that’s going to take care of us for the rest of our lives. So we’re in the middle of it now, and everything seems to be going insanely f—ing well, knock on wood, so we’re going to see how it concludes.

BNR: You’re not going to come back Gordie Howe–style and direct like one film every decade to keep your hand in the game?

KS: Heavens no. When I say I’m retiring, I’m just not going to make films. But I’ll still be around.