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kevin smith

Kevin Smith, who runs ViewAskew Productions, wrote and directed the independent hits "Clerks" (1994), "Chasing Amy" (1997), and "Dogma" (1999), among others. Here, Smith talks about how he wound up in the director's chair -- and why he was surprised by his success -- and why sentimentalism about Hollywood's supposed heyday may not be warranted.

This interview was conducted in May 2001.

What drew you to the movies?

I was quite drawn to the movies as a child, because I was always a portly kid, and sports was never really my bag, and escapism seemed to kind of be it. Life was so terrible that I had to go kind of unwind in "Star Wars" to forget who I was. ... You know, I was raised on television. I was a true TV baby, and the parents were never, like, "No, too much TV is bad." [They] were like, "Go ahead, you know, at least you're not doing drugs" -- and I was four at the time.

So I was really into entertainment from a young age, but never really thought about working in film. It seemed like other people did that, not people in New Jersey. So I never really considered it as a career until I was about 21. [On my] twenty-first birthday, I went to see a movie, Richard Linklater's "Slacker" at the Angelika Film Center up in New York. And it was a real eye-opening experience, because it was not the standard studio fare that I was used to seeing everywhere, was weaned on. It was kind of my first independent film.

And I was really just taken aback by it, like, "Wow, this counts as a movie? Nothing's happening really, just people walking around." We don't even have one main character; it's just one character leads to the next, and leads to the next, leads to the next. It was just a string of characters talking about nothing, no plot, just a lot of dialogue.

I was fascinated by that. I viewed it with a mixture of awe and arrogance. I was awed by the fact that this passed for entertainment ... that people would actually sit down and enjoy it as much as I was enjoying it. And then arrogance, because I was, like, "Well, I could do this. I mean, if this counts as a movie, count me in, I can try this."

So I got into indie film and started studying up on the past ten years of indie cinema. People like [Jim] Jarmusch, and people like Hal Hartley and Richard Linklater ... Spike Lee, stuff like that, and really kind of built a library of sorts to draw from. And then [I] went to film school for about four months, and dropped out, and went home and made "Clerks."

Were you surprised at the reaction to "Clerks"?

Yes. I was really surprised that "Clerks" played as wide as it did. Granted, it was an art-house release, a true art-house release, and never played on more than 50 screens. But I was surprised that it played on any screen outside of Monmouth County in New Jersey, where we lived. It just seemed so regional to me. But that's kind of the draw of indie cinema -- it is very regional. You have a bunch of people from small communities around the country and around the world, telling stories that a studio wouldn't bother to tell.

[On my] 21st birthday, I went to see Richard Linklater's Slacker [1991] ... I was, like, 'Well, I could do this. I mean, if this counts as a movie, count me in, I can try this.'  So I got into indie film and started studying up on the past ten years of indie cinema. ... And then [I] went to film school for about four months, and dropped out, and went home and made 'Clerks.'

When a studio makes a film, they're trying to tell a story that's going to appeal to the widest possible audience ... because that's what sells tickets. Indie cinema kind of allows anybody to pick up a camera and tell their story. And if it's interesting enough, you get a shot at a theatrical release, an art-house theatrical release, which is never very broad, unless you're something like "The Blair Witch Project," which really kind of takes off. But it's more theaters than nothing.

So I was surprised that "Clerks" found the audience it did, because it just never felt like a movie that many people outside of my friends and I would enjoy. But I guess the themes were kind of universal at that point. I think we tapped into ... a very important moment. I never felt that the movie succeeded because I was incredibly talented. I think it succeeded because we were in the right place at the right time. There was a lot of luck and timing involved. People were just starting to talk about the twenty-something slacker generation, and we had a film that spoke about it at the right moment. If we had made that movie a year before, or a year after, probably nothing would have happened. But we were kind of in the right place at the right time, and with the right distributor, and that really helped.

So after you did "Clerks," did the whole Hollywood machine swoop down on you?

Not really. After "Clerks" screened at Sundance, we got a few overtures from some studio folks who had attended the festival. So we did this meet and greet thing, where somebody flew us out to Los Angeles and we sat down with a few studio folks, and basically people were very interested in seeing what I would like to re-write and direct. And not even re-write -- some people were just, like, "We have these scripts, would you like to direct any of them?" Which I always thought was weird, because "Clerks" is a terrible looking film. It's not really the kind of movie you watch and go, like, "Now there's a guy that can endue visual life into one of our many scripts languishing in development." ... So I was surprised when people would ask if I wanted to direct something. I just never really thought of myself as much of a director.

But we weren't flooded with offers from quote-unquote "Hollywood." But we met with at least six studios. That was kind of an interesting process, because a lot of the scripts that they were trying to get us onboard to direct were really kind of bad -- and that was their description. We never got to the stage where I was, like, "Yes, give it to me and I'll read it," because I always maintain that I didn't really want to just direct somebody else's script. I was a writer and director, for what it was worth. And I just wanted to do my own stuff.

We did kind of get courted, but not hardcore. We got a few overtures, enough to bring us out to L.A. for a visit. ... We spoke to Jim Jacks, who produced ["The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns"]. But he had produced "Dazed and Confused," Richard Linklater's second film. And "Tombstone." He'd worked with the Coen brothers on "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona". And he kind of liked the idea of doing this movie we had called "Mallrats." So we got involved on a studio level there.

It was a different experience having just made the first movie by ourselves, with no involvement whatsoever. Working with a studio, and working with a budget was different, and kind of trial by fire. It wasn't that bad, but we had to learn how to work well with others, in terms of dealing with notes -- that's the first thing you have to deal with when you're working with a studio. They'll hand you notes on your script and tell you exactly how to tell your story, like, "You're not telling it right, this would make it better." And what it means is "This would make it more marketable," or "This would appeal to more people than the way you're doing it."

I remember having a discussion with [a woman], who was then at Universal -- I think she's over at Disney now. And she's a great lady, but she said, she was talking about the story, and I said, "I don't know, I just think it's kind of watering it down if we do this, if I address this note" -- one of these notes the studio had. And she said, "Yes, but Kevin, wouldn't you like your story to be seen by as many people as possible? Like, isn't it really about reaching the widest possible audience? Could that be a bad thing?" I was like, "No, I guess not." And later on I figured out, it's not like it's a bad thing, but it's not necessarily for everybody. There's some filmmakers who are definitely in it to reach the widest possible audience, because it's show business. There's a lot of business involved, a lot of money to be made.

And there's some people that just like to tell stories, and it doesn't matter if a hundred million people identify with it, or a thousand people identify with it. There's a certain satisfaction, a certain artistic satisfaction -- for lack of a better word -- that kind of draws them to filmmaking. And I was one of those people. I don't think of myself as an artist at all, but I think I'm just kind of pig-headed enough to want to do my stories my way, without any involvement, without any tips from somebody else.

So there was no big disappointment for you, from working within the system?

Working within the system? I mean ... it wasn't disappointment as much as it was eye opening, and you learn very quickly that it's about a business. Very seldom are they trying to communicate to the audience in a kind of real way, or in a genuine way. It's artifice. The whole business is artifice. And they don't care about really communicating with the audience. What they really care [about] is "beats." What they call beats that, like, the audience picks up on. Very easy, kind of broad beats, simple stories about overcoming adversity.

That's the biggest story in movies. Some guy, or two guys, or a girl, or two girls, or a guy and his dog, or a dog and a cat, have to overcome something really difficult to feel good about themselves. And then the audience feels good right along with them. It's kind of a very broad story. I mean, how many of those stories can they tell? Apparently a lot, because they do many, many a year. We just did one ourselves.

But I'm more of a fan of the stories that aren't necessarily about that, about being as broad as possible. When we made "Chasing Amy," it was a story about a guy who could not get over some girl's past. He was hung up on it. That's going to appeal to, like, this many people. And it just felt better doing that story. "Clerks," there's no adversity. It's a couple guys at work in a convenience store, hate their jobs, and by the end of the movie, they're still working there, and they still hate their jobs. Like, you know, nobody overcomes anything, really. Maybe it's pointed out to them a little more clearly, like, what Randall points out to Dante, "It's your life, you kind of chose it." And he's, like, "All right." And that's it. That's the story. I tend to like that story more, [but] a studio doesn't really like that story more. ...

For years, people have been asking, are you an independent filmmaker? Or labeling me an independent filmmaker. It depends what your interpretation of indie filmmaker is, or indie film is. It's so nebulous at this point. Miramax, which many consider the hallmark of indie film, they function like a studio. I don't mean that in a bad way, because I've worked there for a long time, and I like those guys. But they're very much a studio as well. The outlaws have become the law in that instance. It's not really the home of independent film, or seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, or "garage band" filmmaking. It's not really a low-budget filmmaking operation anymore.

We just made a movie with Dimension, which is the genre arm of Miramax -- which tells the story in and of itself right there, that an art house has a genre-house arm -- and it was a $20 million budget. So it's hardly an independent film. But still, people are like, "Oh, he's an indie filmmaker," "Indie filmmaker Kevin Smith."

My interpretation of indie film has always been about budget, how much the movie cost, and whether or not the film could ever have been made through a studio system. If you're going by budget, the only indie film we've ever made was "Clerks." We paid for it ourselves; it was incredibly seat-of-the-pants. And it cost $28,000. Everything else, the money has come from someplace else. "Mallrats" was paid for by Universal, and released through their art-house arm, Grammercy. "Chasing Amy" was paid for by Miramax, and that borders close to financially being an independent film, because it was $250,000. But still, it wasn't my $250,000 -- it was their $250,000. "Dogma" was a $10 million movie financed by Miramax. And "Jay and Silent Bob" was a $20 million movie, and it was about as broad as you can get. There's some satire in it, but there's no message, you know. It is a movie about two guys trying to overcome something. Hopefully it's funny, though.

The other side of that equation, though, in terms of can these films be made in the studio system, if that was the criteria, then I've only made one studio film, and yes, I am an indie filmmaker. "Clerks" never could have been made at a studio. When we were at Sundance, the studio exec Jim Jacks, who we wound up making "Mallrats" with, came up to me at the closing, the wrap party of Sundance, the big party they throw at the end. And he was, like, "I was sad to hear that Miramax bought 'Clerks,' because I was going to try to buy it for Universal and remake it." And I said, "Remake it? What do you mean?" He's like, "Do it in color, and keep, like, 70 percent of it." Which is just, like, 70 percent? Really? Just 70 percent? That's generous. So "Clerks" never could have been made through a studio system.

"Mallrats" could, and was, made through a studio system. "Chasing Amy" -- that never could have been a studio film. At the end of the movie, they would have wound up together, and it would have [had] a lot less of the subtext, of the really harsh subtext, or the text of a guy dealing with an issue that many people don't really deal with, that many people don't feel the same way about. In the movie, he proposes a three-way with his friend and this girlfriend to try to get over a very simple problem. The studio would have been, like, "Are you high? That's ridiculous." ...

"Dogma" really couldn't be made through a studio, as we saw when Disney kind of urged Miramax to sell the picture. No studio wanted it. The movie was up for grabs. We had a cast which included Ben Affleck and Matt Damon following "Good Will Hunting," following winning a writing Oscar for "Good Will Hunting" ... a movie that made a $125 million. Universal watched it and passed. MGM watched it and passed. And Columbia watched it and passed.

All of them didn't want to get involved, because it was raising the ire of a religious group called the Catholic League. All of them had to think about their corporate master, in terms of, like, "We can't afford this kind of ill publicity." Everyone loved the movie, and people said, "Yes, it's absolutely marketable with this cast, but we can't do it, we're owned by somebody." Universal at that point was owned by Seagrams. Edgar Bronfman, Jr. -- the guy who was running Universal at that time, before Vivendi bought into Universal -- came and watched it himself, and was just, like, "There's no way we can put out this movie without seeing our stock drop."

"Jay and Bob Strike Back" is a movie that really takes shots at the movie industry, and couldn't be made through a studio system, because the studio would have to be in on the joke, and most studios don't have a sense of humor. Miramax, on the other hand, has a great sense of humor, and the movie takes so many shots at Miramax. They take it across the chin, and that's what they're really good at. They've always been good at doing something a bit unorthodox. And them agreeing to make this movie, I thought was kind of bold, kind of risky, in a world where very few studios take risks at all anymore.

There was a time, all those great movies in the 1970s, where studios could take risks. Do you have any personal insight into what's changed in their lives over the last 20 years?

Pauline Kael wrote this wonderful piece [in 1980, called "Why Are Movies So Bad?"] about what's wrong with Hollywood, what's happening, why movies are going to continue to suck more and more, after that golden-age period of the 1970s. ... It's a really prophetic piece. She really nails things that [hadn't] happened at that point and [have] come to pass, like the corporatization of the movie biz.

She kind of watched what happened with the release of "Jaws," how they dumped the movie on over 500 screens, or something close to that, which was huge at that time, and made a boatload of money in that summer -- the summer blockbuster, or the rise of the blockbuster. From the point "Jaws" came out in 1975 to the point she wrote her piece in 1981, studios just followed suit. It became a formula. And formulaic filmmaking supplanted filmmaking in general at the studios. It's a really great piece. ...

Now, with all due respect to Pauline Kael, there are always going to be people that say those movies were better than these movies. That period was golden, this period is shit. ... If you were born and raised in the 1970s, you don't really remember the early flicks of the 1970s ... unless you go back and watch them later in life, but most people don't. You know, most people don't sit back and watch "The Last Picture Show," or "Taxi Driver," unless you're a really serious film buff. The voice that people should listen to, to a large degree, about whether or not films are good, or what generation or what decade has better movies, is the audience. Because at the end of the day, they dictated it all.

There are a lot of people that take the pulse of the industry, and a lot of people that write about film -- film theorists, film critics. Now there's entertainment journalism, which didn't really exist 20 years ago, where people just kind of come on and shill their product -- because that's what it is to a lot of studios -- product. But if you really want to know how the movie business is doing, just go ask somebody, to borrow a cliché or trite analogy, in Peoria. Drop in and ask them, "Hey man, did you like this? Did you like that? How are the movies lately?"

You don't really hear much of a complaint from the audience. It's kind of the people that sit around and ruminate on a time gone past, and how business oriented things have become. Which, yes, I guess to some degree is kind of sad, if you lived through an age where that wasn't a problem. But coming of age when that's the norm, it doesn't really surprise you. You're not really taken aback. You're not really like, "Well, I remember the good old days, when movies were like this and this." To some degree, it's kind of interesting to see what can poke through, based on what the studio regime is like now. It's kind of even more fulfilling to watch a wonderful movie come out of the mire. ... Whereas in the 1970s, you threw a rock and you hit a seminal, wonderful film.

I've watched a lot of movies over the course of my life, and there's some wonderful movies from the 1970s, but there's a lot of dogshit as well, just as much dogshit as there is out right now. It always shocks me when people -- or it doesn't shock me, nothing really shocks me anymore -- but it's always kind of, I have to smile when people are, like, "Oh, the movies now are so bad compared to then." People remember a period, a decade like the 1970s, as being a wonderful period of growth for films, because they highlight the wonderful films that came out of the 1970s.

Well, you can do that for any decade. And it's very easy to conveniently forget that there was a lot of crap that came out in the 1970s. Nobody is championing that stuff. ... So it's kind of a loaded gun to say, like, "Things were so much better then, and things are so much worse now." Things are just different.

And that's the nature of the world. The world is getting smaller and smaller ... to the point where I'm sure in 30 years, Disney owns the world, Disney owns everything. There's one corporation, has big mouse ears on it. But right now that's not the case, thank God. And I think we should just enjoy what people are putting out. Vote with your wallet at the end of the day. That's the thing, A lot of pulse takers will say, "Oh, movies are bad, movies are crap." Vote with your wallet: don't go. And if the world agrees with you, if the audience agrees with you, then that movie will die a heinous death, and never be seen again, or be sequalized. So vote with the wallet; enough chitchat about it, about how bad things are. Just don't go if it's that bad.

But you know what? People will always go, and for the same reason that I started going to the movies -- because people want to escape, even if it's just for 90 minutes, just to forget about what's going on in their life. They'll take a bad movie. People will sit down and watch a bad 90-minute movie, as opposed to spend 90 minutes of their life doing what they normally do. They'll sit through crap if it means that they can forget about what their life is like. And hopefully, you know, you periodically give them something that isn't crap, so that they feel like, "All right, that was a well-spent 90 minutes."

The people that write about movies and talk about how important film is, and blah blah blah, it's ridiculous. Because at the end of the day, film's not important. What's important is kind of the simple things: Family, survival, life. Film is just entertainment. And let's not forget that that's our job. If you're in the film business, if you're in the entertainment business, your job is to entertain; it's to make people forget, just for a little while. Life is pretty hard, and one day they're going to die. And so I think it's weird when people tend to treat things, particularly film, so seriously. It's bizarre.

What do you see as the most exciting trend in the business right now?

I think the most exciting trend in the business, and I'm sure it's kind of hackneyed at this point, is indie film. ... It's no longer as fresh and invigorating as it was even before I got there. Indie film had been co-opted by the time I got there. Miramax had been bought by Disney at that point, so when Miramax put our film out, we were in heaven, because they were Miramax. But at the same time, they're owned by Disney, so there's a bit of a corporate influence there already.

I think one of the big reasons that Miramax bought our movie at the time they did was they had just been bought by [Disney], and they had had a big success with "The Piano." Industry watchers and pulse takers were sitting there saying, "Oh, Miramax has sold out, clearly now with the Disney money, all they want to do is more expensive art-house flicks like "The Piano" or "The Crying Game." And by picking up "Clerks," which is a scrappy, terrible-looking little black-and-white American indie film, it sent a clear signal. It said "Yes, we may be owned by Disney, but we'll still pick up something like 'Clerks' and throw it out there, and that's because we're Miramax."

So even though indie film had been co-opted by the point we got there, I still think that indie film is exciting, because you see stuff come out of nowhere, and voices come out of nowhere, that will later on probably take up studio gigs. Darren Aronofsky -- the guy that did a little black-and-white movie called "_" a few years ago, and then last year did "Requiem for a Dream" -- is a guy that's probably doing the next "Batman" movie. And some people say, "Oh, why on earth would he do a 'Batman' movie?"

Why on earth would you complain about that? Why would somebody who's a big fan of film not want to see somebody who's apparently a very good filmmaker take a stab at something mainstream? Maybe Darren Aronofsky brings something to "Batman" that hasn't been brought to it before, and you get a big mainstream movie that a lot of people go into that has a little more going for it than the average popcorn movie. I think that's a good thing; that should be celebrated. He shouldn't be castigated for making that crossover. That's an instance where an indie filmmaker goes studio, and something good can come out of it. ...

The Internet, to me, is always the most fascinating aspect of filmmaking now. And not so much for the reasons, like "The Blair Witch Project," [which] takes off because of the Internet community they built around the movie, the Internet buzz they built around the movie long before anyone saw a frame of film. But just because it's instant feedback. You're talking about a time where you can put a movie out and get a reaction to it from people that see the first show on the East Coast at noon, the first matinee. You go check the Internet at two, two-thirty, you can get instant feedback. I mean, you didn't get that kind of thing back in the woebegone 1970s. ... You saw numbers and grosses, which always kind of indicates something. But really, all that indicates is people bought tickets. You don't find out what those people who bought tickets thought.

That's what I think is great about the Net. ... You can follow the life of the movie before it comes out, from the moment it's announced as a concept to the moment it finally hits theaters. Being in touch with the audience in that way, and being able to read right from the horse's mouth, not necessarily from a critic's mouth, because you're used to reading film criticism at this point. But reading some guy's, or some woman's, completely misspelled, honest thoughts about your movie, not worrying about grammar, not worrying how to be clever with a turn of phrase, how to express something new in criticism, just flat-out saying it sucked with, you know, missing a "c," "S-U-K-E-D." That's honesty. That's a ... kind of honesty you don't get from a critic, from somebody who reviews for The Times, or something like that. ...

Because indie film's kind of, like I said, been co-opted, the Internet is probably the most exciting thing that's going on in movies right now. And not so much for, like people think - "Oh, the Internet is where movies are going to go one day, you can download a movie." I don't care about that. I don't care about the technology. I care about being able to hear what somebody's reaction is to what's going on, to what's being made out there.

Every filmmaker should care about that. Every entertainer who puts something out there to be viewed should really give a shit about that. That's the kind of thing that's important, because that's ultimately what you're doing it for, if you're not doing it for the paycheck. Ultimately what you're doing it for is communicating -- to throw your idea out into the void, into the black, and see if anybody identifies with it. And [the Internet's] the most incredibly instant way to find out if you've done your job correctly ... if you're not alone in the world.

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