Kevin Smith was one of a handful of '90s directors heralded for proving that it doesn't take much more than a good script and a handful of maxed-out credit cards to make a great film. But while his debut film, Clerks, and 1997's Chasing Amy were welcomed as a breaths of fresh air, his subsequent projects—particularly those set within his New Jersey playground, known as the View Askewniverse—have usually produced diminished returns, with critics and all but the most fervent Smith fans accusing him of recycling ideas and tipping into pointless self-indulgence. Strangely, his most autobiographical film might finally put him back in their favor: Zack And Miri Make A Porno, a raunchy comedy about two platonic friends who make an amateur sex tape to pay off their debts, is not only one of the more surprisingly romantic films of the year, it's also a thinly veiled take on Smith's own origin story, with of-the-moment comic star Seth Rogen in his element as one of Smith's typically garrulous alter egos. Hiring the face of the Judd Apatow school of comedy—a brand of explicit but emotionally genuine humor that Smith arguably helped launch—as well as other Apatow players like Elizabeth Banks and The Office's Craig Robinson, has generated more buzz than any Smith project in years. Just before the film's release, The A.V. Club spoke with Smith about finding his muse in Rogen (and how it means dealing with inevitable Apatow comparisons), his protracted battle with the MPAA over the appropriate timbre of shit, and why nobody ever wins on the Internet.
The A.V. Club: The last time we talked to you, you said Chasing Amy started as nothing more than a title. Was that the case with Zack And Miri Make A Porno?
Kevin Smith: Yes and no. Since Chasing Amy, I'd been thinking about doing a movie set on the fringes of porn. Not so much the adult-film industry, because I thought homeboy did it really well in Boogie Nights, and there's no point in doing it again, because it's already been done so damn well. But after Amy, I'd had the idea of doing this movie with Joey [Lauren Adams] and Jason [Lee] and Ben [Affleck] that took place on the outskirts of the porn industry. Then we got the opportunity to make Dogma instead, so I was like, "Shit, I'm gonna go make Dogma." Because, you know, it was a flick that we'd had a tough time with in terms of finding someone who'd be like, "Here's a bunch of money. Go make this religious film." And after that, we went with Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, because I wanted to do something very light—because we fucking put up with death threats and hate mail with Dogma.
So we just never got back to my idea for this movie, which at the time was called Name. But every year, I'd kind of revisit it in my head, and it took shape and changed, and elements became different elements. The story that I originally wanted to do with Joey, Jason, and Ben just went out the door completely. I was like, "Now I want to make it about two people who do a DIY porn movie." And then when I saw Seth in 40-Year-Old Virgin, I was just like, "Oh my God, that's it. He's the guy." He was so fantastic in that movie, and just such a great presence. He sounded like one of my characters. He was almost like Randall come to life. So I wanted to work with him immediately. And then he got very famous, and I was scared he wouldn't work with me. [Laughs.] But mercifully, he liked our flicks and jumped on board.
AVC: If Seth had said no, would this movie exist?
KS: That's a good question, because while we were waiting for him to say yes, the Weinstein Company was like, "Who's your backup?" And I was like, "I don't have one." And then I guess on Ain't It Cool News, somebody was like, "I was on the set of Hancock"—this is when that was called Tonight He Comes— "and I heard Will Smith and Jason Bateman talking about Kevin Smith, and Jason Bateman said he was looking forward to working with him." So people were like, "He's Zack!" because we hadn't announced who Zack was yet. But while that's an interesting idea—I love Jason Bateman, and I love Arrested Development—he was just not the guy. It was always Seth. So I had no backup whatsoever. Mercifully, he said "Yeah," because honestly, if he had passed, I don't know what we would have done.
AVC: You've drawn criticism in the past for writing dialogue that all sounds like one extended monologue.
KS: I get accused a lot of every character sounding like me. Which I'm like, "Well, it stands to reason." [Laughs.] Because I did write every character.
AVC: Do you think writing with Seth in mind helped Zack And Miri sound different?
KS: No more than so than writing with Ben in mind, or Jason Lee in mind, or Jason Mewes. Once I have the person, I start writing to that voice, so it wasn't different. It wasn't like, "Wow, writing for Seth suddenly made it completely different than everything else." To me, it was part of the same process. But I think for some reason, the movie scores points, or it gets looked at in a positive light by people, simply by virtue of the fact that it doesn't have Jay and Silent Bob in it. It's not set in New Jersey, it's not part of the Askewniverse, it's not interconnected with references to my other movies. So nobody's sitting there saying, "Oh, he's self-indulgently making that same fucking movie again." Suddenly, by virtue of the fact that it's got people I haven't worked with before, and it's set in Pittsburgh, people treat it like a "real movie." [Laughs.]
It's been weird to watch people's reactions based on that. Even people's reaction to Jason Mewes. Suddenly they're like, "Wow, he's become a better actor!" I'm like, "No, it's the same fucking dude with short hair." His acting chops are exactly the same as they were in the last flick. But you change elements this much, and suddenly it's looked at favorably. A lot of the reviews are positive in a way that we didn't have going for us on Clerks 2—and Clerks 2 is a movie where I was kind of taken aback that people didn't like it, or some people were like, "Oh, it betrays the first one." I was like, "Are you crazy? It's part of the first movie. It's a bookend." Obviously I'm biased, and I like the movie a lot. But it's been weird watching people react to this movie as if "It's a new step, a new direction for that fucking Clerks guy." And really, to me, it's just like the other ones. It just doesn't have Jay and Bob in it.
AVC: Because of Seth's presence, do you worry about comparisons to Judd Apatow's movies dogging this film?
KS: Let me tell you something: If the whole world mistook it for a Judd Apatow movie, I'd be a happy fucking camper. As long as it did that Judd Apatow business, fine, they can call it a Judd Apatow movie all they want. [Laughs.] No, not at all. I like Judd, and I like the movies that Judd has done quite a bit. When I saw 40-Year-Old Virgin, I was like, "Wow, somebody made a movie that I would have made." Since we did Clerks, I've seen many comedies, but nobody was doing that thing that we did where you mix raunch and sweetness and sentimentality. And Judd did it, and he was insanely commercially successful with it. For years, I thought that if you want to make a movie that mixes raunch and sentimentality, you have a $30 million box-office ceiling, because people aren't interested. You know: "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter." They want a raunchy comedy or they want a romantic comedy, or they want something serious or something comedic. The blend never seemed to go beyond our highest mark of $30 million. Then 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up and Superbad shattered that completely, and suddenly it turned the type of movie that I love making into something commercially viable. Suddenly I felt like, "My job just got much easier in terms of trying to sell this." So thank God there's a Judd Apatow. Not to mention he brought us Seth Rogen. Without Seth Rogen, I've got no Zack And Miri.
AVC: Speaking of raunch, Zack And Miri had a very long, public struggle with the MPAA. Do you feel as though the film was unfairly targeted?
KS: I don't know if it was unfairly, but I think we were definitely scrutinized a lot more closely than most other R-rated comedies, simply by virtue of the fact that we had the word "porno" in the title. It's definitely a red flag, and more attention was paid to us because of it. I don't think even the MPAA would deny that. In terms of whether it was fair or unfair, well, that's their job—to decide what is or isn't an R or an NC-17 or a PG-13. They're just going by their own instinct. I don't think it's a conspiracy, or some sort of evil cabal where they're like, "Let's fuck with this dude." They're like, "It's got 'porn' in the title, it's got elements of porn in it, it's got porn stars in it, and shit gets graphic. Fuck it, it's an NC-17." So I get where they were coming from. I just didn't agree with it. I think the raunch is balanced by this sweet little love story. If we pulled that love story out and it was all raunch, and then maybe they've got a case. But I think the balance makes it an R-rated movie. Thank God they have the appeals process, because then you have a chance. You get a second bite at the apple. You get a chance to flip it without having to make any cuts. It's the third time we were able to do it with a movie, so I was happy with that.
Then the marketing materials got kicked back as well, and every trailer, red band or green band, and we'd been submitting shit since May. It's not like we included a sex scene in the trailer. I mean, there's a shot of Craig Robinson's character sitting on Zack's bed auditioning a girl, and behind him is a poster for a fictional play called Girl Parts For Boys. And there's clip art on the poster of two little kids holding out their diapers and looking down. You don't see what's in their diapers. You just see two kids looking into their diapers. The MPAA kicked back the trailer and singled out the poster in the background. Their feeling was that we were communicating something obscene with two kids looking down each other's diapers. Crazy shit like that. There's a shot where Zack opens up the toilet and he says, "There's poo in there." And they said, "Brown material in evidence in open toilet." There's no water in the toilet. It's a fucking movie toilet! So I think because of the title, they started seeing shit where there was no shit. I mean, there's definitely shit in the movie. [Laughs.] They didn't miss that. But even in the trailers it was difficult.
And the posters: We submitted a lot of posters, and they kicked all of them back, because they felt that they went too far, or they were just too obscene, or the title was featured too prominently or something. We got to the point where we were so frustrated that we settled—which I thank the MPAA for, because it pushed us into making a more creative poster. Rather than having a poster like, "Look at this famous motherfucker standing next to this famous motherfucker," it's literally stick figures with a bunch of text. Which is kind of fitting for a movie of mine, to have an almost all-text poster. That works for me. So I definitely feel like we were looked at more closely than most other R-rated comedies, but it all worked out ultimately. Though it would have been nice to have a trailer on Pineapple Express or Tropic Thunder, but we couldn't get anything approved. That was kind of a hassle.
AVC: One of the specific things the MPAA didn't like was—to not give it away we'll call it the "cake frosting" scene.
KS: [Laughs.] The "Duncan Hines."
AVC: Which was mostly a throwaway gag.
KS: Very throwaway gag. Fourteen frames. Not even a second long.
AVC: So why fight so hard to keep it?
KS: Because I saw it in a test screening. If we had submitted the cut that got us an NC-17 and they said, "Lose the shit shot and you'll get your R," I probably would have done it. But we'd test screened in Kansas City, and it was huge. We watched 300 people jump in their seat and laugh for the next minute. And I was just like, "I can't lose it. It works." When we shot it, I was like, "I don't know if this will make it in. It's pretty out there." And all the way up to that test screening, I was always on the fence about it, worried that it wouldn't play. But once it played, I was just like, "I can't lose this." It was worth going to fight for. Worst-case scenario, if we lost the appeal, then I would just wind up cutting it anyway. But at least we tried our damnedest to keep it in, and in this instance, it worked out.
AVC: You've said it was actually the sound they had the most problems with.
KS: Well, no. It wasn't just the sound. They said, "The shit shot is gonna be a problem. There's no way it's going to find a home in an R-rated movie." And I was just like, "I gotta tell you, man, I'm married to that shot. We gotta figure out something to do here. There are precedents. I've seen shit in movies before." And they were like, "Well, maybe if you play with the sound. Maybe it's the sound that's egregious, not the visual itself." I'm like, "Really? The sound?" So when I submitted it again, I just jacked the sound way down on it. But still, the visual is pretty powerful without the sound. [Laughs.] I think no matter what we did, they were always going to have a problem with it. But once you win the appeal, it doesn't matter. All that shit just goes away.
AVC: You also got some people to contribute some surprisingly dirty cameos here. Do you think you may have ruined Justin Long's Mac spokesman career?
KS: [Laughs.] No, I think he's good. Although yeah, at that one point in the movie, he is holding up an iPhone. He never once balked at doing it with the iPhone. There was a moment where I was like, "He's gonna be like, 'I can't.'" But he was like, "I have no problem doing that." You know, on set I asked him, "Do you get tons of shit for free from Mac?" And he said, "No." [Laughs.] Maybe that helped.
AVC: You said at Comic-Con that you'd hoped Superman Returns would be "a lot gayer." Is having Brandon Routh play a gay porn star your subtle way of making that happen?
KS: Happy accident. [Laughs.] It wasn't until I was cutting the movie together that I was like, "That's kind of funny, considering how gay I wanted Superman Returns to be." But he came up in conversation with Seth. We'd finally found Justin to play Brandon, but we still needed a Bobby Long. There was an actor I know and like who would have been kind of perfect for it, since he's a straitlaced kind of dude. And he was just like, "I can't do it. It's got 'porno' in the title, I've got a 16-year-old kid." I'm like, "And? I'm sure your 16-year-old knows what a porno is by this point." But when he passed, we didn't know who to cast. I was like, "He just needs to look very salt-of-the-earth. Very middle America, like fucking Superman." Seth was just like, "Like Brandon Routh." I said, "Yes, like Brandon Routh." And he said, "Well, let's ask Brandon Routh." And I was just like, "It doesn't work that easily. Does it?" He was like, "Sure! You ask somebody, they say no, you move on. If not, boom, you got the guy." And [Elizabeth] Banks was in the room. She's like, "You're talking about Brandon Routh? Superman? My agent represents him." So we got him a script, he dug it, and he came out. Which was nice of him. Coming from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh for two days' work to play the straight man? It's a thankless role. But he was able to turn it into something kind of cute.
AVC: Speaking of Elizabeth Banks, as an Oliver Stone fan, did you feel guilty about all those "Porno actress playing Laura Bush" stories leading up to W.?
KS: I think it's awesome. I think it's phenomenal. [Laughs.] Every time I see that, it's just like, "Nice! More ink for us." No, I don't feel bad. Of course, I think it's ironic that she went from one movie about bush to another movie about Bush.
AVC: Nice pull-quote.
KS: [Laughs.] Totally. And certainly not the first time I've said it. But anyway, I don't think there's any fear of audience confusion between those two movies. I don't think anybody who's remotely interested in seeing a George Bush biopic, but not interested in Zack And Miri Make A Porno are gonna confuse the two. I think we'll be okay.
AVC: While Zack And Miri is ostensibly about two people making porn, it also feels very autobiographical. It could be almost be read as a story about the making of Clerks.
KS: Very much so. Bingo bango. A lot of people haven't brought it up. I've been bringing it up in interviews, "Did you notice?" And people are just like, "No!" It totally is. You remove the porn, and you remove the romance, and it's the story about how we made Clerks. While I was writing it, I was like, "I guarantee somebody's going to tag me up on it and be like 'He's so fucking self-indulgent now! He's making movies about the time he made a movie.'" But it's a good story, and we'd never really done it, because we lived it. I was just like, "What a great way to call back that experience, and put it to work in a different movie—just mask it with the love story and porn, and have it playing underneath." But yeah, from the moment I handed the script over to [Scott] Mosier, who also lived through Clerks, that was the first thing he said. He was like, "It's Clerks." I was like, "It is kind of about the making of Clerks, right down to the hockey-stick boom mic and shit." All the flicks I've done to some degree have been autobiographical. I just pull from my life, because I'm not very creative. This was just probably the biggest pull from my life I think I've ever done.
AVC: Do you have plans to ever explicitly revisit the Askewniverse?
KS: No, no. Clerks was a movie about what I felt it was like to be in my 20s, and Clerks 2 was what I felt it was like to be in my 30s. Maybe I'll want to make a movie about what it's like to be in my 40s, and the first people that would spring to mind would be Dante and Randall. But I don't know. There's certainly no guarantees. I don't know if I'll ever get to that point, because I like Clerks 2 a lot. I feel like I should just leave it be, right then and there. That's the chief reason why I felt like I don't ever have to make another Askewniverse film, because I'm so comfortable with that one being the final nail in the coffin.
AVC: What can you say about Red State?
KS: I can tell you that nobody wants to make it. [Laughs.] It fuckin' rocks. It's the first time in my career that everyone's like "No." Bob and Harvey [Weinstein] were the first, and that was kind of surprising, because they said yes to everything else. I've never brought them a script, either mine or somebody else's, where they didn't wind up making the movie. Harvey was like, "I don't know. It's a horror movie. I'll give it to Bob." And Bob was just like, "This ain't like a horror movie I know how to sell. I don't think there's an audience for this." And he's not exactly wrong. The movie is very uncommercial. It's very dark. There's nobody to root for, nobody to identify with, everybody dies. It's just a series of really poorly made decisions based on questionable morality. When you say that to people, they don't whip out their checkbooks. [Laughs.] Nobody's like, "Oh, I gotta pay for this!" So it's been tough pulling together financing.
But for some reason, that just makes me want to make it more, because I feel like, "Wow, we must be onto something if everybody's kind of scared of it." It's not like people hate it. They're not like "This is terrible." They're like, "I don't know, dude. It's touchy, and it's a hot topic. I don't think there's going to be box-office returns on this movie." And they're not wrong. So it's been tough finding the cash for it. But I think we're zeroing in on it right now. It's weird. It's not a lot of money. We're talking 3 to 5 million bucks. But if I went to all those same people, and said, "Hey, I got this comedy I want to make," boom. [Snaps fingers.] Everybody opens their checkbooks. But when you're like, "Hey, I wanna do something that I've never done before. I'm untested in the genre, and I may not be a good enough filmmaker to pull it off…" People don't want to pony up for that.
AVC: After the reaction to Dogma, are you hesitant about tackling religion again?
KS: Yes and no. I think the type of religion we're talking about in [Red State] doesn't have the ardent… I was going to say "fan base," but I guess in terms of religions, that's not the correct term. It doesn't have an ardent group of supporters like Catholicism did. With [Dogma], it's not like we were ever attacked by the Catholic Church. It was the people who represent, or say they represent the Catholic Church. Bill Donohue and the Catholic League: Self-appointed media watchdogs who go after what they consider to be any unfair portrayals of Catholics. There's nothing about Catholicism in this movie, so I feel like we're safe from the Bill Donohues of the world. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church—the "God hates fags" people—are the models for the family in the movie, and they're so marginalized in terms of their belief structure that I don't think you're gonna get a bunch of people coming out of the woodwork to defend the honor of Fred Phelps and his family. It's not about Fred Phelps, but he's definitely a model. So worst-case scenario, I'm attacked by Fred Phelps and his family. That's like 10 people mad at me.
AVC: You've been very open with engaging people who have criticized you in the past—arguing with Joel Siegel on the radio for walking out of Clerks 2, and even getting online and defending yourself against message-board commenters. For you, do the lines between artist and audience exist?
KS: In my world, no. Other filmmakers make their movies and put them out and that's that. For me, for some odd reason, it goes deeper than that. It's something I've definitely tried to scale back on. The older you get, the more you realize you cannot win on the Internet. There's no such thing as "I'm right! Whew!" I saw this cartoon that, if I worked in a cubicle, I would totally hang on my cubicle wall. It was a wife talking to her husband who's at a computer, and the wife is like, "Aren't you coming to bed?" And he says, "I can't. Somebody's wrong on the Internet." And I was like, "Wow, that's my fucking life." I spent the first 10 years of my career being that guy. I don't feel like that guy so much anymore. Now if somebody writes something that's absolutely untruthful and incorrect, then I go out of my way to do something about it. But if somebody's like, "Fuck him and his movies," I've got nothing to say to them. It's just like, "Okay. Fuck me and my movies. Maybe we'll get you on the next one. Or maybe we won't."
The Joel Siegel thing I always felt bad about, because I didn't engineer it. [Radio hosts] Opie and Anthony were like, "We've got Joel Siegel's number. We're gonna call him." The dude seemed kind of oblivious, and then later it came out that he was oblivious because he's on all sorts of fucking cancer medication. It was just such a fucking hassle. It was one of those things where I felt like I could just never put a movie out without something happening right before it comes out. Like Clerks, we had the NC-17 battle with the MPAA, then Harvey hired Alan Dershowitz to defend the movie, and it turned into a circus of sorts. Mallrats… Well, we didn't have any kind of controversy. That movie just bombed. Chasing Amy had some lesbian groups unhappy with what they felt like was an unfair portrayal of a gay woman—but, you know, our point was like, well she's kind of more of a bisexual.
Dogma, there was a fucking shit-ton of trouble in advance of that movie, including death threats and hate mail. Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back looked like it was going to be smooth sailing, and then GLAAD got upset because they felt like we were gay-bashing. Which I was like, "C'mon, man. You can call that movie many things. You can call it a piece of shit, call it self-indulgent, call it stupid. But gay bashing?" There's a scene where one of the main characters says he would suck the other one's dick—what's more gay-friendly than that? I felt vindicated months later when The Advocate and John Waters both put us on their top 10 that year, but I had to put up with that right before the movie came out. After that, we did Jersey Girl, and of course there was a lot of shit going on—the "Bennifer" implosion and all that.
And then Clerks 2, we were running up to the release date and I was like, "We might finally have a controversy-free release." Then the Joel Siegel thing happened. I should have and could have just let it go. But it just bugged me on this fundamental level. Like, leave the movie. Fine. Just don't make a spectacle of yourself as you're leaving. That's unfair to me, that's unfair to everyone else watching the movie who maybe don't see it as you see it. And then he died, and that made it even fucking worse. Because I was like, "Oh my God, I was yelling at a dying man." I wasn't yelling, but I was getting into it with a dying man, who I actually liked prior to that.
We're out of the MPAA woods on Zack And Miri, but when it happened, I tried to keep it so quiet. I knew the moment it got out, somebody would be like, "Oh, the movie must suck, so they're trying to drum up publicity by riding this fucking MPAA thing." So I was like, "Let's see if we can quietly handle this." And then Seth started talking. [Laughs.] "We got an NC-17, what the fuck is that all about?" I stayed uncharacteristically quiet through the whole thing, because I didn't want to add to the discourse. But sure enough, there were people online who were like, "This is a vulgar publicity grab. They're going to get their R. It's preordained." It's such horseshit. It's so easy to stand outside the situation and judge it. Be in the situation as the filmmaker, who's just like, "I don't wanna take shit out of the movie. This is what I intended for the movie to be, and I don't wanna have to cut it because of a fucking rating thing." Why not fight it? Why not? It just would have just been nice for us to do it without anybody knowing. But it got out. Whatever.
AVC: You were part of that first wave of American indie filmmaking that showed how anybody with ambition and a few thousand dollars could make a film.
KS: A modicum of ambition. [Laughs.]
AVC: Now, as Zack And Miri illustrates, it takes even less ambition and almost no money. Do you feel like if Clerks had been released in this era, you would have taken off the way you did?
KS: No, I think that if I released Clerks now, people would say, "This rips off Judd Apatow." [Laughs.] And I would have to say, "Yeah, I guess it does." So no, I don't think so. If we released Clerks today, I doubt it would have been given a second thought by most people. The reason it stuck out is because we did it when nobody was making movies where people spoke that frankly, that candidly, with that many colorful euphemisms, or that much harsh language—and yet were still married to humanity. It wasn't just foulmouthed people being foulmouthed for the sake of being foulmouthed. There were people that actually had hearts, minds, lived, breathed, weren't one-dimensional. They just happened to be very frank in their discussions. Nobody else was doing it.
Then you couple that with the great backstory: "These dudes worked in that convenience store, they made this movie at night," and blah blah blah. I actually never thought the backstory would mean anything, because we were following El Mariachi, the $7,000 movie. There was no better backstory than that. That is the backstory to end all backstories. At Sundance in '94, I was like, "We don't have anything as cool as Robert Rodriguez selling his body to science and making the movie for fucking seven grand." But I guess they needed to manufacture a story—or they genuinely found it interesting that I worked at the convenience store, and that I had intentions to go back the Monday after Sundance. Which I did. That became a focal point. Our budget was high, too, compared to El Mariachi. I expected we'd get in the fest and people would be like, "What did you spend it on? Robert Rodriguez made one for seven grand. What'd you spend your other $20,000 on?" But they didn't. For some reason they liked the backstory. Then you add the last-minute MPAA thing, which Harvey whipped into this freedom-of-speech circus. I don't think that could happen for me again. If I release that movie today, nobody gives a shit.