The director/screenwriter talks to The Onion about his new film Chasing Amy and his career as the low-budget auteur behind Clerks and Mallrats.
Kevin Smith wrote, directed and produced his first movie, Clerks, for a mere $27,000, and was subsequently hailed as part of a new wave of truly independent filmmakers. Since then, he's put out the critically and commercially disastrous Mallrats, and made a comeback with the new Chasing Amy, the story of a guy who falls in love with a lesbian. Smith recently spoke to The Onion about the movie, its supporters and detractors, and his work on past and present projects like Tim Burton's upcoming Superman Lives.
The Onion: For the most part, critics' reaction to Chasing Amy has been positive. Do you feel like people are getting from the movie what you wanted them to get?
Kevin Smith: They are, they really are. The chief concern, of course, was the real guy-guy fans. You know, the guys who dug on Clerks for the dick jokes. You know, "Jay and Bob rock!" Those kind of people. People who would come up to you after the movie and go, "What a great movie! Wanna get stoned?" So you hope that those people would really get the point of the movie, and they seem to be getting it. I've only heard one dissenting voice, and it wasn't even heavy dissension, it was some dude on our website who was just like, "Hey man, I saw the movie last night and I thought it was great. The first half rocked hard, but what happened? You got all soft in the second half. Leave that Bridges of Madison County stuff to the other people." And then he goes, "But I guess you know what you're doing."
O: You made a chick flick.
O: It seems like one of those movies where there might be a backlash against it, because of the sexual politics involved.
KS: I think the waves have come kind of in conjunction with one another. For as many good reviews as we've had, there's still an undercurrent. But it comes from a certain segment of the audience. And it's not even just the lesbian segment; there's a certain segment of the audience that does kind of have a problem with the sexuality portrayed in the flick.
O: You're not expecting a People vs. Kevin Smith type of reaction?
KS: If it was gonna happen, it would have happened by now. But then again, we do go out on 500 screens this weekend [the one that began April 18]. So I don't know, perhaps I'm underestimating the bile of the American public. Maybe that will come to pass after the 500-screen release. But it has played in most of the major cities, like the top 15 markets, and that's usually where your outcry comes from. Like, I don't think we're going to have lesbians in Alabama up in arms when the movie opens there. It would have been New York, L.A. and San Francisco, and so forth. And the reaction within the lesbian community has been kind of mixed. For as many people who do like it, there have been people who absolutely abhor it and think it's a 16-year-old boy's fantasy. You know, like, all it takes is one guy to turn a lesbian around, and the movie is so not about that. In the end, the movie to me has so little to do with lesbianism.
O: Just for the sake of argument, defend it against people who say it's a heterosexual fantasy.
KS: Yeah, you know, if that's the case, man, I don't know. I just don't see it myself. But then again, that's just me, and I kind of knew what I was going for. In the end I felt that I achieved it, and there's enough people who do see what I was doing, and support that, and that's nice. If there are some people who just don't, then there's no right answer. The only way you can make it better is if you go back and unmake the film, and I'm sorry, I can't do that.
O: Did you find that your friendship with Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner [the makers of 1994's groundbreaking lesbian film Go Fish] helped?
KS: More with Guin than anything else, because we still actually hang out with Guin. I haven't seen Rose since the days of Sundance. And, I don't know, I don't think it has as much to do with that as it does… It's more of a personal story. It's me and Joey [Joey Lauren Adams, Chasing Amy's female lead and Smith's real-life girlfriend since Mallrats] up there to a small degree.
O: I read an article that really painted it as if it were you and Adams to a large degree. Kind of like Annie Hall before the breakup, or to prevent the breakup. Is that what it was?
KS: Yeah, Joey's very fond of saying that it was, "either us or them—either me and you or Holden and Alyssa break up. Thankfully, you chose the right pair." But yeah, I mean, there's definitely very personal shadings in this movie. Holden's issues are very close to my own, or were very close to my own. You know, it comes from that place, that kind of jealous, "come on man, you had no past before me" place.
O: That's something that comes up, not so much in Mallrats, but in Clerks as well. Are you over that now?
KS: Lord, I hope so. I think this movie is the be-all end-all, and I think it says it. I think it pretty much goes into it as far as I'll go, and I think by the end, you know, I kind of walked from this picture, and I just, you know, I'm more… God, what's the word? A mature individual. I'm just a guy who now has choked down some of that stuff and won't be so hung up on it. Youth, I guess.
O: Getting back to the one dissenting voice on your website, Chasing Amy does shift gears. It seems like, in the past, you've used vulgar comedy to get at serious issues. And you shift away from that here, and you must be conscious of that. What was it like going into what is usually classified as flat-out drama?
KS: To me, that was exciting because it's just so new. Comedy we'd done twice for better or for worse, and it's not like I'm tired of it, but I'd done it before, so that was nothing new. Going into this—the idea of, "Wow, dramatic stuff"—is like getting a new toy. You're fascinated by it and you wish you had more. When the movie's said and done, I thought, "My God, we should have done more of this." More drama. That's just the excitement of something that's kind of fresh.
O: Are you happy with how it turned out?
KS: Yeah, very much so. I like that the movie is balanced very well, I think. For me, at least, and my taste. There's a lot of jokes and then there's, you know, a very serious side to the movie—an emotional side that plays fairly well—and we still get some jokes layered in there, which keeps it going. It's not like they shut down midway through the flick. It just works for me.
O: We should probably talk about what happened before. You seem to have a divided opinion about Mallrats now. I've heard that you've publicly renounced it, and I've heard another quote saying you were happy with how it turned out.
KS: Yeah, the public renunciation was just, like, taken so out of context. I was at the Independent Spirit Awards, and I kind of cracked a joke on stage. I was just like, "Look, I want to apologize for Mallrats. I don't know what I was thinking." And, you know, I thought it was funny. It was great. Here I was standing in front of my so-called peers, all of whom were looking at me like, "God, there he is, he made the movie that really tanked." So, it was a nice way to break the ice, but the movie is very dear to my heart. It was so essential to make, just to get to this movie. And to that degree it's very personal and very special. And also, you treat it like the red-headed stepchild, man. It's that movie nobody seems to like. It's the little movie that couldn't. That's how I always think of it.
O: I liked Clerks when it came out. I thought a lot of it was about potential, and I think a lot of people were looking forward to Mallrats for that reason.
KS: And that's what happened. People were just, like, "Oof, he didn't live up to that promise," I guess.
O: The problem I found with it—and this shouldn't be about my opinion of the movie—was that the material was a lot smarter than the genre you were trying to fit it into.
KS: Exactly. Yeah, to me it was kind of an homage-yet-a-spoof of that genre, or a revisitation of a more innocent kind of film that I hadn't seen in quite some time. Clueless beat us to it, man, and they got way more innocent, getting a nice fat PG-13 movie. They rediscovered the genre months before we did.
O: Would you say you were basically happy with it?
KS: Mallrats? Very much so. Of course, in the scripting stage, we were asked to tame the movie, you know, rein it in. At the time when they explained it to me, it made perfect sense. They were like, "Kevin, don't you want to reach the most amount of people you possibly can with your movie? Is that a bad thing, for people to see your movie?" And I was like, "No, I guess it isn't. I guess I do want the most amount of people to see it." You know, there was stuff that was kind of taken out. It had the whole Jaws scene from [Chasing Amy] where they compare their cunnilingus scars. It was in a draft of Mallrats and the studio was like, "That's too racy. Pull that out." And I was like, "Fine, I'll put it in a better movie." So, aside from that, at the end of the day I was very happy with the movie.
O: It seems to have given you the Kevin Smith ensemble as well.
KS: Yeah. If nothing else I got my cast for Chasing Amy right out of that movie.
O: Whose performance surprised you the most in this movie?
KS: Umm… Jeez, that's a tough question, man. I would have to say Joey, though. And, of course, I'm a little biased, but I would really have to say Joey. 'Cause, I mean, God, I know the girl personally very, very well, and in the two years we've been dating I've never, ever heard her be emotionally vocal. The girl doesn't yell. If we fight, she doesn't yell. So when I watch that scene outside the hockey rink, and she's launching into her tirade, that is such a performance, because that's not her. You know, there are some things you look at, and you're just like, "Ah, I can see her shining through in this," or, "I can see Ben [Affleck] in this moment," or, "That's clearly Jason [Lee] being Jason while playing Banky." But that moment, for her, is very much a performance. It's just like, "Uh! This is what it would be like if Joey yelled. How shocking."
O: Was it a tough scene?
KS: Very, but of course, more tough on her than on me. And just painful to watch someone just go raw and then numb. You feel bad almost. There's almost, like, a level of guilt where you're like, "I can't believe I just put my girlfriend through this." But you get over it quick, 'cause you realize it was a great, great moment.
O: Chasing Amy originally had very different origins, didn't it?
KS: Yeah, it did. It started as a title, quite like Mallrats. There was nothing behind it but a title. At one point, while we were cutting Mallrats—the studio loved Mallrats to death and really thought they had a nice $20-$30 million movie on their hands—they were like, "What are you going to do next?" And I said, "I'm thinking about doing this movie called Chasing Amy. It's about a guy who falls in love with a lesbian." And they were like, "Well, why don't you do it as a PG-13 high-school movie." And, I was like, "You know what? That wouldn't be a bad idea." And I thought, "Yeah, we can get some of that Clueless money." And then for about a week, I thought about it. And a week later, I was like, "No." Then the movie tanked, and that sealed the deal. It was just like, that's the last movie I make that doesn't have anything on its mind.
O: And you went back to working with very little money.
KS: Chasing Amy was supposed to be a $2-$3 million flick, and the money was there for the taking, but we just didn't agree on the cast with Miramax. I wanted to use Ben, Joey and Jason, and Miramax was all about using other people. And so I had a meeting with [Miramax head] Harvey [Weinstein] where I basically lowballed it and said, "Look, man, we'll go off and make this movie with our cast for two hundred grand, and if you guys want it when we're done, fine. If not, we can take it to someone else." And he was completely sold. So we went off and made it, came back, and the dude fell in love with it. And now he loves my actors so much that they've been cast in other movies.
O: So let's talk about your Superman script. How's that going for you?
KS: It went, you know. I did my two contracted drafts, and now it's done, and they hired Tim Burton to direct, and I don't know if Tim Burton's bringing on his own guy or not.
O: The rumor was that he wasn't too happy with your script, but the studio was.
KS: Yeah, the studio loved it, man. You know, we spent six months developing the thing, and by the time I turned in my second draft, they were just like, "Uh, this is it. This is the movie we want to make." And then they hired Tim Burton and, you know… I still haven't gotten the straight scoop, man, but from what I understand with Tim Burton, he's just like, "I might want to go another way." The dude might want to use Akiva Goldsman, so the man who butchered the Batman franchise can now butcher the Superman franchise as well.
O: Hypothetically speaking, let's say your script got to the screen intact. As a comics fan and a movie fan, you're aware of how bad most comics adaptations are. What did you do to avoid that?
KS: You know what? It was all about dialogue for me. It was all about presenting characters as I read them in comics. Now, of course, you know, in some comics you have some very one- and two-dimensional characters and representations. But there are some—like Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns—where those are living, breathing people who happen to put on tights. And that's what I think I accomplished with Superman Lives. You know, it was just some of the best damn fucking dialogue any comic-book movie has ever had, and maybe any action movie of the last 10 years has ever had. I was really, really happy with it.
O: Tell me about the movie.
KS: Well, I was told by [producer] Jon Peters, "I don't want to see him flying and I don't want to see him in that red and blue suit."
O: You weren't going to have him flying at all?
KS: No, as per directed, I couldn't have him fly. Basically, he did fly; we just didn't see it. Basically, Jon Peters didn't want to see the flying effect as seen in the other Superman movies.
O: So you won't have to believe a man can fly.
KS: Exactly. You'll have to trust in the red swoosh. And that's what I did. I just kind of lifted Frank Miller's representation of it from The Dark Knight Returns, which is like a red streak and a sonic boom. We'll see. We'll see if the quirkmeister doesn't go another way.
O: How do you think the state of comics compares to the state of movies right now?
KS: Well, the comics industry itself is in shambles. It's a bad time. I just bought a comic-book store about three months ago, and then someone told me it's the worst time to own a comic store in this country. And I was just like, "Thanks, thanks man." But it doesn't matter to me. It's just the idea of owning a comic-book store… Believe me, I'll take the small loss just to have something to call my own. But, I don't know, the movie industry seems to be in much better shape. I think it's much easier to get an indie film made than to get an indie comic published.
O: Or at least to get one read. You own a comic store, you're making movies. It seems like every wish you had at a certain age is coming true. Do you ever wonder what you did to deserve this?
KS: Uh, yeah. God, there were moments… I remember that when I saw Angel Heart when I was about 15, I was always terrified. Like, "God, I wonder if that's possible that you could sell your soul, and part of the deal would be that you can't remember." So basically you'd be walking around thinking you were a pretty decent guy, and meanwhile you're damned straight to hell. And sometimes I get that thought. That thought kind of wakes me up at night. And I'm just like, "God, did I sell my soul? Think, think, think." But, I don't know. I think it really comes from just, you know… karma, I think, is a real tacky word. But I don't know, I was given a gift to write and, you know, we're all given gifts, and depending on how you apply them, it makes all the difference. Thankfully, I applied mine in a way that kind of works for both the audience and for me.
O: You were part of a group of filmmakers who were working at the time of the price wars, the "how-low-can-you-go" type of budget, leading a lot of people to believe that anyone can make a movie. Do you ever look at the amount of bad movies out there, and think that you may have done the wrong thing?
KS: In terms of…?
O: That you may have inspired the wrong people, unlike Slacker for you?
KS: Yeah, but believe me, Slacker influenced more than me, and you just haven't seen the people it did influence. Yeah, that's the trade-off, you know? The indie field supplies itself constantly. Somebody puts out a movie, like Rick [Linklater] puts out Slacker, and I see it and it makes me go make Clerks, then people go see that, and it makes them go make their flicks. It's just the nature of the beast, and by process of elimination, some of those films have to be good. And even if they're good, that doesn't guarantee they're going to hit the screen, but further process of elimination dictates that, yes, at least one of them must come out and be seen and blah blah blah. It feels nice to be an influence of any sort. But at the same time, independent doesn't necessarily mean good. As many people as talk about how shitty Hollywood movies are, I've seen just as shitty independent flicks, low- or no-budget flicks that will never see the light of day, and that's kind of sad, but it's the nature of the beast.
O: What would you say to someone who is in the situation you were in, say, four years ago?
KS: The same advice I pretty much always give, which is that it's all about the script. It has so very little to do with anything else. You know, if my career has done anything, it proves you don't need a visual style to work in film—which is ironic, because it's a visual medium—as long as you have something worthwhile to say. And if my first film proved anything, it's that they will forgive you so many things. Clerks looked shitty. Some of the performances are downright wooden, you know, and God, for something that takes place in a visual medium, there's not much visual going on. But the script was there, the script was tight, the dialogue was tight, and people dug on it. If that's the case, they'll forgive you a lot. You know, they'll forgive the things that sag. You can get away with it once, but believe me, if you try it the second and third time, people will jump all over your ass. Like, "He better get a visual style quick." But at the same time, when you're making that first movie, man, believe me, you want to make sure that script is tighter than a fuckin' drum. Because that's going to be your life buoy. That's going to be the thing that keeps you afloat regardless of what the rest of the movie looks like, or feels like, or plays like. It's all about that script.