Raw, Uncut and Retiring: An exclusive DCP interview with the outspoken writer/director
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
You would be hard-pressed to find a less dogmatic person than Kevin Smith, the director of “Clerks” (and its sequel), “Dogma” and the new horror thriller “Red State,” which he is screening during a 13-city tour from March 5 through April 9 prior to its theatrical release in October. The writer-director has been making movies for close to 20 years, mainly comedies. And, if the rumors are to be believed, this tour will be the start of his victory lap, his farewell to feature filmmaking.
But before succumbing to sadness and depression, the best thing fans can do would be to grab tickets ($67) for his March 14 appearance at Kuss Auditorium in Springfield (7 p.m.), which can be acquired through the Clark State Performing Arts Center website (at pac.clarkstate.edu) and settle in for a wild ride. He will screen the film and conduct a Q&A as only Kevin Smith can, which means he will answer any question and shoot straight from the lip.
Over the course of covering film, I’ve interviewed Smith a couple of times and have to admit that he is one of the most fascinating and fun subjects I’ve ever worked with because it takes so little to get him going. Forget the standard question and answer format. It is best to sit down for a conversation, a real exchange of ideas and feelings and don’t worry about the time. It will fly, but he won’t cut you off without giving you his all.
So, I figured, as a treat, I would share with you as much of my latest chat with him as I could. Raw and uncut.
How was Springfield chosen as one of the sites for this tour?
Long in advance of Sundance, we were putting the tour together. We went out to a bunch of theaters quietly across the country – some I’ve played at, some I haven’t – to see if there was interest, but we couldn’t say what it [the event] was. It was like, “Kevin Smith doing a tour, his normal Q&A, but there will be something extra.” Theaters had to agree with little to go on and one of the theaters that got back to us right away was the one in Springfield, so they got added. [Kevin Smith]
You were on “Real Time with Bill Maher” recently and didn’t get to talk much about the film…
Yeah, which is cool. I’ve always felt, based on doing this for 17 years now and maybe its preference or experience, but I think you do a much better job of selling what you’re there to sell, by not really talking about it at all. You know, at the end of the day, I can’t sit there and be dry and talk about what the movie is and what the tour is all about in the four minutes of time that they allot you on television. So I find it best to be memorable in another way. Like, if you’re funny, then people will say, “Who was that? That was kinda funny. I’m gonna look up that ‘Red State’ thing.” And I’m more comfortable doing it that way. I didn’t expect to get on there and be like, “Yeah, we’re doing a tour!”
[After mistakenly starting off with the title “Politically Incorrect”] “Real Time with Bill Maher” is really the place to go and do a comprehensive selling of your wares. You’re kinda playing in their kitchen, so you go and play the ball where it lays. But I’m not a very political person at all, and I’m not the kinda person who can get very passionate about something that has nothing to do with me or that doesn’t affect me or the people I know. I’m kind of Catholic and I also grew up fat, so that dictates that you don’t feel like your opinion is the most important opinion in the room. And that show [“Real Time”] is all about that. It’s about being opinionated about very important subjects and I’m only opinionated about things that mean nothing. It’s an odd fit, so I found it best to just go there and try to be as funny as I could, which mercifully, I was able to be funny. On the Twitter feed afterward, people wrote in and said, “You just sold a ticket.”
So you see, the way I’ve conducted business over the years is to undersell. They say what you’re there for at the top of the segment and then they remind them again towards the end, which means that the movie is best served by me just trying to be as funny as possible. [KS]
I see what you mean, but you’re selling yourself short.
I’ve built a career on selling myself short and I’m happy with that. Here’s the thing. Over the course of two decades doing this thing, you learn what works and what doesn’t, like I said. So it’s always best for me to go in on bended knee with my head down and my hands spread wide going, “I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot,” because that way people give me a fair shake. There are a lot of people [filmmakers] I came up with who aren’t really around anymore. Some of those cats were very confindent. But, you know, this [approach] has been pretty good for my career. [KS]
But the reason I feel you’re selling yourself short is, for instance, looking at all of the press surrounding the film, there is a political/religious intent behind this film, which means there is something there that was bugging you, that you wanted to talk about.
Here’s the thing. At the end of the day, people have called me a filmmaker; people have called me an asshole. People have called me many things, but first and foremost, I would like to think that I’m an entertainer. An entertainer has no business having power. I’m a court jester, a person who comes in and tries to alleviate tension. That’s my function in this world and that’s where people like me should sit. I always find it strange when people on my side of the fence get real lippy and mouthy about who you ought to vote for and stuff like that, what’s fair and what’s not, you know … maybe it’s because of my Catholic upbringing or being a fat kid my whole life, but I have a hard time thinking my opinion counts for much, outside the stuff that I produce myself. My movies, my written work or my podcasts, that’s where I can be the foremost authority.
I watch Real Time and I’m a pretty smart individual, but I can’t get that passionate about stuff that doesn’t affect me. Not to the point where I’m not empathetic, I’m a true humanist. It’s like when people get bent out of shape about a low minimum wage or something. I start feeling guilty, I make far too much money to begin with.
So when people say, “’Red State’ seems kinda political,” I thank them, but the reality is, the movie just seems more grown-up than I probably am. At the end of the day, I look at it and sure the title definitely smacks of politicism, but the truth is always so much more boring. It’s just red is blood. It was just a common horror movie name. I could’ve gone “Blood State,” but that would have sounded kinda shitty. Nobody’s ever called a movie “Red State,” so I’ll take it. And again, as the court jester, the idea of taking that title off the table, away from somebody who might make something political with it, I felt good about that. It felt good to take something away that could potentially hurt people and slap it on a horror picture. Look, I think its well-made, well-crafted, but at the end of the day, it is a filthy little horror movie and a filthy little psychological thriller and a filthy little action movie in the last 30 minutes.
But I would be hard-pressed to say I had something on my mind when I was doing it. Clearly I’m a liberal person. I curse a lot and I talk about smoking weed. I don’t mind moral casualness, but politcally I don’t identify as much of anything. I don’t think I identify as a political liberal. It is a weird place to be and I’m flattered when people say, “Yeah, Smith’s at it again, taking on religion and church and state and all,” but really it’s not like that. It’s just that I’ve made comedy for so long and I had a chance to make something that wasn’t a comedy. I wanted to cram as many genres in there as I could. I’ll be honest with you, it’s a weird movie. There’s nothing normal about it. It demands a lot of the audience. It’s true 1990s independent film, but political? Not really.
I mean I definitely have feeling about the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church, although not them so much as that type of religious fundamentalism. But remember this is the guy who couldn’t spit anything out on “Real Time” that wasn’t a joke. So, if I was going to do or say anyting I was going to do it comedically, or in this case, through satire. Rather than say that the Phelps people are bad, because I can’t say that they’re bad, although their opinions are kinda tough to take. But I believe in freedom of speech and at the end of the day, it sucks, but they’re not hurting anybody. They are hurting feelings, but they’re not physically hurting anybody. If we restrict them, then we risk that slippery slope where I’m not allowed to say whatever I want.
I’m protecting freedom of speech through satire. The premise is what if one of these really extreme remigious fundamentalist, sign-carrying families just couldn’t take it anymore. Nothing we do reaches them, so they took it into their own hands, re-interpreting the Bible to justify killing anyone who resists and you know the Bible’s a tricky little book, you can make it say anything you want. The passages that we put in the flick would seemingly condone violence. That’s nothing new. People have always used the Bible as a weapon.
For me though, the film isn’t some attack on religion. I’m a hugely spiritual person, huge in size and in spirit. I still idenitfy as Chrisitan, although sometimes people wince when I say that, but it’s not like we’re all fucking bad. Some of us actually practice the tenets of Christianity and feel for other human beings rather than practicing the tenets of Christianity where they are used to alienate people.
It’s tough to explain that to people when you tell them you’re Catholic and they ask, “How can you be part of that kid fucking organization?” And you’re like, “Look, man, I understand there’s kid fucking, lots of kid fucking, and you’re right. I’m disgusted by it too, but you can’t bring the whole organization down. It’s been around for thousands of years. There’s apparently corruption within, but look at all of the good this organization can do, what spirituality does. It motivates people to get out of bed in the morning. Some people wouldn’t be able to do so otherwise, so it has to mean something and that gets lost in the loud back and forth who want to use that debate to smack you around.”
So, again, nobody needs me on a pedastal yelling, “These people are stupid and fat. They hurt everyone’s feelings and they need to stop.” It’s more simple to make a horror movie. Sometimes you defang the beast by satirizing it. [KS]
That’s a great approach, but now you’ve got these people coming out to protest your film and this tour.
Listen, the first time I got protested by the Phelps’, I was scared. So scared that I actually told my mother to stay home. She was going to come to Kansas City on a bus with me. That’s how I tour now, because I couldn’t get on a plane for awhile, you know. Anyway, Westboro put out a press release saying, “God hates fag enabler Kevin Smith,” and all this shit from the Bible where God smites me, a guy who is helping others with their loose morals and is a terrible influence on others and is just as much a sinner even though I’ve never had a dick in my mouth.
So I didn’t know what to expect from being on the receiving end of a Phelps protest. I got nervous and told my mother that it was probably best that she stay home. When I got to Kansas City, there were like four of them. You see, Westboro Baptist Church has like 20 families, the members come from just 20 families. The four of them are holding signs, mostly about Easter. The bug up their asses that day was the Easter Bunny. “God hates the Easter Bunny.” A couple of guys who came with me went out and taped them. I didn’t want to engage them, but I sent them out and told these guys to interview them [the protesters].
And it was awesome. They’re very press friendly. That’s kind of what they’re there for, you know. The guys came back and said, “Dude, they couldn’t have been nicer. They couldn’t have been more well-spoken. They couldn’t have been more professional. They had talking points and an agenda, and sad to say, not much of it had anything to do with you. They used you because they knew people would be here. They’re heat-seekers.”
After that, they stopped being scary. So as they’ve announced their Sundance protest, I came to realize how rich this is. I put out a press release for a counter-protest and when we screened the movie for the first time there, they showed up and we had our counter-protesters. We turned it into a bit of a media circus and in that moment, I realized these Phelps’ are my marketing partners. They’re here and I can’t ask for a better favor.
I was on a radio show near Kansas City with Megan Phelps, one of the younger granddaughters of the family, and I said I wished they would protest every screening and she told me I’m going to get my wish. I was shocked. People in my line of work would hire people to do this and these guys are showing up for free.
They stand out there with their dopey signs and their intolerant messages of hate. However once you get inside the theater, during the first few minutes of the film, you see people holding signs and screaming at each other. It kinda makes the movie a 3D experience and if I can continue that along the tour, it might be worth the hassle that comes along with the intolerance that they spread.
It is better for people to come out and see them, because then you realize they’re harmless. They’re not harmful really. They’re like the internet. They’re loud and they say obnoxious things and that’s it. We’re all used to it by now. [KS]
If only all political discourse could come down to something that simple.
It all goes back to “Real Time” and my approach to that stuff. [KS]
Well, I’ve got to end things with a question about the whole retirement issue. How true is it all?
Absolutely true. “Red State” is the penultimate flick for me. The new movie, “Hit Somebody,” which is based on a Warren Zevon song about a hockey player; I’m doing that as a feature and after that I’m done directing. It will have been 20 years, more actually, and over that time, I’ve been a writer-director, but the writing was the engine that drove the train. I never meant to be a director. Indie film just made it seem possible that somebody without any visual talent could direct a film. So, I wound up directing “Clerks” because I didn’t want to give it to anyone else for them to screw it up. And when I did it, “Clerks” became … “Clerks,” for lack of a better description. I wasn’t planning that, dude. I made a movie that was supposed to be a calling card movie. It was there to prove that I could make a movie and convince someone to give me money to make another one.
For that calling card movie to turn into what it did and kick open the doors of a career, well, I worked hard along the way, but “Clerks” was the golden ticket into that world or at least my foot in the door. And 20 years later, I’ve emptied the fucking tank. I know there are people who don’t like “Jersey Girl” or “Cop Out” and believe I haven’t made a good film since “Clerks,” but there are lots of people who feel the other way.
For me, I look at the shelf of my movies, from one end to the other, and I never wince. Not at “Cop Out” or “Jersey Girl” even. I know why I made each one of those movies and I’m glad I did. I love them. But I’m afraid that one day I’m going to look up there and say, “Oh, that was for the mortgage or that other one bought my daughter a car and a pony for her 17th birthday. I don’t want to get there.
I got into film to tell stories and I told them. I got into the game not for the money or the fame, but because I’m a storyteller and the only way I figured I could do that was indie film. But now, thanks to indie film, I can tell those stories anywhere. I do a lot of podcasting [smodcast.com] and that’s where my heart lies now. The passion of all the early films is now going into smodcast.com.
Once you’ve made several films, you tend to get better at the craft, although my critics will say I haven’t. If you look at “Clerks” and you look at “Cop Out,” you’ve got to admit there’s a difference from one to the other. It’s hard to believe that the guy who made “Clerks” made the other one for many reasons, mainly technical. And I don’t think it’s going to get any better after “Hit Somebody.” In fact, there will likely be a sharp decline after that one because I’m not going to be writing anymore and at that point I’ll just be doing what I did on “Cop Out,” directing someone else’s work, which is not what I want or need to do.
The immediacy of a podcast allows me to be as dynamic as ever without having to sit and wait for money and schedules to come together. It can be taped, posted and done forever in less than two hours. It’s all about the theater of the mind, the words, which is all I was ever about. I’m a writer, remember. [KS]
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at T.T.Stern-Enzi@daytoncitypaper.com.