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October 31, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | | October 31, 2008 |

We don’t do a lot of interviews on Pajiba. We don’t often seek them out because we’re not interested in a filmmaker’s version of “We gotta play it one day at a time,” or “To win, you have to score more than the other team.” But Kevin Smith is different. Kevin Smith was one of the first filmmakers to make films that were not only about people like us — foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, sexually obsessed geeks — but spoke in our language. His films are more than just a gimmicky premise: They are a series of conversations that people like us have been having for years, even if — in some instances — those conversations for some people are about how they don’t like Kevin Smith. His movies took our bar talk, our late-night conversations, our after-movie rants, and our idle video-game chit-chat and put them to film. And he could do it because he is one of us. He speaks like he does in movies, which is how he speaks in real life, which makes a Kevin Smith interview an unusually candid one. Also, he’s Silent Fucking Bob, people. We’re in the tank for the guy.

In an interview we conducted via email, Smith talks about his new movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Seth Rogen, the death of the print critic, The Avengers, and more. Here it is:

Pajiba: A while back, before you began casting for Zack and Miri, we did a Supermovie Fantasizing piece, where — for shits and giggles — we mixed and matched our favorite directors, actors, and writers. We actually had Seth Rogen playing Silent Bob in a Clerks remake (God forbid). Do you see, in Rogen, a sort of younger generation version of yourself? And is that why you cast him in your movie?

Kevin Smith: I don’t see Rogen as a younger generation version of me so much as a younger generation version of Bill Murray. He’s the first comedic actor since Bill Murray who has that completely relatable, admirable, laid-back personality/presence. You just wanna be him — in that way that we all wanted to be Dr. Peter Venkman or John Winger when we were kids.

We were making Clerks II when The 40-Year-Old Virgin was in theaters, so I didn’t catch it ‘til DVD. But when I caught it, Rogen invaded my world, man. I instantly fell in love with his delivery, his persona. I felt like he was a real, live Randal (from Clerks). With all due respect to everyone in Virgin, for me, that is Rogen’s movie. When he’s not onscreen, you’re waiting for him to show up again. And the moment I knew I wanted to cast him in something — anything — was when he and Paul Rudd are playing video games (what most folks refer to as the “you know how I know you’re gay” scene), and at the conclusion of their game, Seth announces aloud what his vg character is doing to Rudd’s vg character — concluding with “Now I rip off your head and throw it at you. Fuck you!” I had to rewind that four times. That was just genius to me.

So I’d been thinking about this film set on the outskirts of the world of porn for years, and discovering Seth crystallized that for me. Suddenly, I had a Zack — and he was gonna make a porno.

Pajiba: Do you really want to be known as the guy who foisted a naked Seth Rogen onto the world?

Smith: Lemme tell you: A naked Seth Rogen is a thousand times preferable to an even semi-naked me. So I’ll forever keep my clothes on and give the world, instead, a naked guy who won’t make them throw up a little in their throats.

Pajiba: Was casting Brandon Routh in a Zack and Miri cameo a fuck-you to the people who made Superman Returns? Don’t be cavalier. Was it really?

Smith: Nah. But I did try to sneak some Supes references into the scene that Brandon was like “Can we not?” to. It was the wise decision. All credit to him for not letting me go too geeky.

Pajiba: Are there any actors you want to work with that you haven’t yet?

Smith: Robert Shaw. I’m about thirty years too late for that, though.

Pajiba: What kind of impact do you think that your movies, and Clerks in particular, has had on the current Apatowan R-rated comedy landscape. Personally, we don’t think you get enough credit (or blame?) for the semi-substantive raunchy comedies that have come out in recent years. You’re like the Dylan of modern comedies.

Smith: “Semi-substantive” — I like that. I’m totally stealing that line.

Aside from falling in hetero-love with Rogen, that first viewing of Virgin also had me smiling ear-to-ear, feeling like “Wow — someone made a movie that’s like the movies I like to make. But they figured out how to make a shit-ton of money doing it.” I always felt, based on years of empirical data, that mixing raunch and sweetness would only result in a thirty million dollar theatrical gross. It was like “Feel free to make these very specific types of comedies, but just know that you’ll always play to a small (but ardent) audience.” Then Judd and crew came along and shattered — absolutely obliterated — that glass ceiling, and I’m like “Ain’t I the asshole who doesn’t know what he’s talking about?”

It was weird in the beginning, because there were all these articles in the press which posited that a comedy like 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up or Superbad had never existed before — like the bro-mantic comedy was a new creation. Entertainment Weekly, particularly, wrote (and still continues to write) as if Judd single-handedly created the genre. And I’m off to the side going “Hi. ‘member me?”

But I never confuse the flick/filmmaker with their press or audience. I was then, and remain today, a fan of Judd and Co. I mean, how could I not be? They make flicks that I like making: dirty-mouthed, pure-hearted stories about normal people doing emotionally extraordinary things. He’s a loyalist: He works with the same cast and crew repeatedly — something I like to do, too. And they gave us (and me) Rogen — something I’ll always be eternally grateful for.

Confession time, though: This year, at the San Diego Comic-Con, I’m sitting on a director’s panel with Judd, Zack Snyder and Frank Miller, right? And at one point, moderator Marc Bernardin asks us “Who are your influences?” I cite the usual suspects (Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch). Judd goes next and says “Well, Kevin Smith laid the track.” And even though I’d only met the man a half an hour prior, I leap on him and give him a huge fucking bear hug. Someone finally said it, and it was the man himself. That meant a lot.

Pajiba: Do you feel that becoming more polished as a filmmaker has changed your artistic sensibility? Clerks was so fresh and new and out-of-nowhere, and then Dogma was more polished — it looked more like a Hollywood movie — but still with a lot of fresh ideas. Do you consciously resist becoming more “Hollywood”?

Smith: I don’t think I started polishing it up ‘til Clerks II, to be honest. Clerks II and the “Reaper” pilot were two projects where I actually put some thought into making them look like a grownup made them, and not just a retarded oaf with a budget who liked to cuss a lot. And for years, I’d resisted trying to make the movies look good, because … well, because I’m the laziest motherfucker you’ll ever meet. Seriously — it’s deplorable how lazy I am. I’m a big, sweaty, fat fucking lard-ass mess, not because I’ve got “big bones” or some kinda glandular problem; I’m just too lazy to exercise and eat right. I wanna do the bare minimum at all times. That extended to the work as well — and that’s chiefly because, on the first flick, we were insanely generously rewarded for one of the most amateurish-looking flicks you’ll ever see. Not only did it find distribution, but critically, it was adored. People gave the look a pass because they liked what was being said in the flick, or it made them laugh. And what I took from that, stupidly, was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Why try harder to shape and grow my craft when people don’t care about the visuals as much as the content — that was my philosophy for damn near 11 years. Even when they paired me up with Vilmos fucking Zsigmond — an Academy Award winning master of light DP — I never really put much thought into the visuals.

Then, one day, I grew up. I decided to be more diligent. I started putting thought into what we were showing, rather than just what we were telling. That, to me, isn’t becoming more “Hollywood” as much as becoming less lazy about my profession. It only took me a decade to reach that conclusion. I’m such an idiot, man.

Pajiba: Do you ever get the notion to completely sell out, to cast Adam Sandler and write a big family film with fart gags and talking animals?

Smith: I kinda tried that once. Got spanked critically (and somewhat commercially). The irony is, I’m reading some Zack and Miri reviews in which people invoke the dreaded Jersey Girl, writing, “This is the movie he was trying to make when he made the Bennifer flick: it’s non-Smith-audience-friendly and packed with heart.” But I still maintain a) I like Jersey Girl and b) even less people would’ve been interested in Jersey Girl if all the grownup characters ran around the flick screaming “cock-smoker” in the little girl’s face. That movie just didn’t lend itself to the sense of humor I’m known for. Zack and Miri Make a Porno, on the other hand? You can be heartwarming and filthier than fucking Salo and it works.

Pajiba: If Zack and Miri opens well, do you think it will grease the wheels for a bigger budget Red State? And is that still your next project?

Smith: Red State needs to be cheap. Even the $5 million budget we’re looking for might be too much, in terms of return-on-investment. If I’m gonna get all experimental (or, at least, as experimental as I can get) in a genre in which I’ve never proven myself, with material that’s 180 degrees away from what I normally handle, it behooves me to be economical as fuck. It’s simply the human, decent thing to do to anyone who’s gonna pony up the funds. The flick is not a home run by any stretch of the imagination; it’s the riskiest thing I’ve ever done (if I even get to do it). Based on that, I think less is more, in this case.

Pajiba: What’s the story on the “space” film you mentioned at Comic-Con?

Smith: Comedy. Set in space. Will be my biggest budget yet, but still not crazy (somewhere in the $50 million range — huge for me). Hopefully with Seth. Hopefully better than “Pluto Nash.” Much more than that, it’s too early to say.

Pajiba: So, what do you think: Is The Avengers going to fall apart under the collective egos of the people involved or does it have a chance to be a decent flick?

Smith: I think it’s gonna work, because the studio is into it, and the lynchpin (Downey) seems grateful to Marvel for affording him the opportunity for a massive Act II in his career. That kind of gratitude in an actor is hard to come by, but Downey’s a grownup who’s been to the circus many, many times, and knows that life is better on the wire than in the stands. I’d wager that, even if everyone else lost interest, Robert Downey Jr. would still cheerlead the Avengers movie; and that makes me like him even more than I do. I met the man at Comic-Con 2007 for forty-five seconds, and he was such a class act. I’m smoking on the loading dock, and he and a bunch of folks emerge from the freight elevator, en route to cars. He stops and says hi to me. I’ve never met the guy. He didn’t have to do that. That kinda rocked my world. Here’s a guy who’s just come from a panel that made 5,000 people cum in their pants (the first unveiling of any Iron Man footage anywhere; footage that fucking rocked), and he still takes the time to come over and say hi. People like that in this business are golden, man. So I’m gonna amend my answer to question 3 and add Robert Downey Jr. to that short list beside Robert Shaw. Aside from being a motherfucker who can drop a performance clinic on your ass, he just seems like a good guy.

Pajiba: Keep acting. That’s not really a question. It’s more or less a request. You were the only part worth watching in Catch and Release, and you’re making a name for yourself as a character actor. Keep acting.

Smith: Thanks, man. But that’s not up to me. If someone’s foolhardy enough to cast me, I’m there.

Pajiba: This is an overly broad generalization, but looking over the reviews for Clerks II and past movies, online critics tend to like your movies more than print critics. Famously, there also that incident with the punfucker, Joel Seigel, who walked out on Clerks II. Are you sad to see the slow demise of the print critic? Do you find online criticism more reflective of popular tastes?

Smith: Circa ‘94, when I came up, there was no such thing as an online critic. Sure, the folks who had the most primitive forms of dial-up could talk about movies on Dalnet or someplace, like that back then, but they weren’t being read outside their small community. So all I had to go by was the print critic. I mean, picture this: There was this NY Times ritual that John Pierson introduced me to that had us going down to the NY Times building at 2 in the morning the day of release to get the first copy of that day’s Times so we could read the review. Can you imagine that? Now, you click on the Times link the day before the flick comes out, and you can read what’s what. We’re talking about an era in which there were maybe 75 to 100 legitimate people who, in print, would tell you whether you rocked or sucked. That’s the world I came from, because that’s how it was done when I first got into the business.

Now, there are more like 7,500 to 10,000 people who’ll tell you whether you rocked or sucked (oftentimes before they even see the flick) and they’re all legitimate. And I gotta be honest: That’s better for any filmmaker. You get more bites at the apple. If those original 75 to 100 didn’t like your flick, you were fucked. Now, 500 critics can dislike your flick, and there’s still many more voices to be heard who might save you from a box-office disaster. The democratization of film criticism, thanks to the internet, has been a huge boon for filmmakers. It’s also been a huge bane, because now literally everybody’s a critic.

My relationship with the printed critics started out so impossibly strong, there was nowhere to go but down. Clerks was so crazily well-reviewed it was almost a foregone conclusion that they were gonna hate Mallrats (and most of them did). How Mallrats escaped irrelevance in the annals of movie history is largely due to the internet critic: People who identified with that movie because they were age-appropriate and wrote nice things about it.

That’s where the internet critic has been very helpful: Most times, they’re the same age as the filmmaker. The print critic tends to be at least ten years your senior (in the old days, much older than that), so there’s a cultural disconnect. That’s rarely an issue with the internet critic.

It’s not like we’re witnessing the death of the print critic; it’s just that the game has changed substantially over the last ten years, and way more players are now allowed onto the field. As cheap as words have always been considered, you used to have to pay to read them in newspapers or magazines. Now words are really cheap because you can read millions of them for free, if you have an internet connection. And yet, even though film criticism is legion now, the impact of a good or bad review remains the same. A bad review at Pajiba hurts as much as a bad review in the NY Times. A good review in Pajiba will put as big a spring in your step as a good review in the NY Times — probably even moreso. I got some really nice printed reviews on Clerks II, but none of them made me as happy as the Pajiba review — because I felt like “This motherfucker just gets the shit out of this movie, and what’s more, this motherfucker just gets the shit out of me because he is me — except probably thinner.”

Here’s a telling sign: Once Clerks got picked up, anything that ever ran in a newspaper or magazine about the flicks or me would get cut out, laminated to preserve it, and placed in a binder. I’ve got fifteen, sixteen thick-ass binders bursting with shit because a) my parents liked to read them, and b) I wanted to have them for my kids and my grandkids, so they’d be able to know a little bit about who I was when I’m no longer around. For years, it was some poor motherfucker’s job in my office to laminate all these articles and get ‘em in binders (and laminating, mind you, ain’t a fast process). Then, two years ago, I just stopped. Because it finally dawned on me that the internet virtually laminates everything. Google will direct people to tens of thousands of articles about the flicks I’ve made, so my kids and grandkids don’t need those thick-ass binders anymore. And just like that, a decade-old tradition in my house died. It was kinda sad (also kind of a relief; all that laminating was a real pain in the ass), but as the game changes, so too must the players, the audience, and the refs.

October 31, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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