BIRMINGHAM, Mich. - To sit with Kevin Smith and talk movies is, to an extent, to be granted an audience with the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.
The similarity is uncanny.
Both are large, goateed men; both carry the extra pounds that come with a sedentary diet of Green Lantern comics and DVD sets of Battlestar Galactica; both own comic book stores (Smith owns two, actually); and both move slowly and talk slower. Words mumble from them with the theatrical exhaustion that comes from explaining, for the 73rd time, their position on the old Star Wars trilogy versus new.
At one point we hit on the topic of Lord of the Rings versus Star Wars. I wasn't going to go there, girlfriend - it's an emotional time bomb, certain to get ugly.
But he brought it up.
Can't help himself.
A Smith character is an erudite character, profane yet schooled in all things pop. In Clerks, the 1994 indie hit that vaulted him out of Sundance and into multiplexes, convenience store clerks debate whether independent contractors on the Death Star were innocent victims when the Rebels blew it up in Return of the Jedi.
And a running joke in Clerks II, which opens Friday in Toledo, is an argument between a thirtysomething George Lucas-centric fast-food employee (Clerks alum Jeff Anderson) and a teenage clerk (Trevor Fehrman) who insists there is but one Ring to rule them all - blahbidy, blah, blah.
I ask which he prefers.
Smith, 35, shakes out a smoke. (Indeed, I find his hotel room by following the toxic clouds in the hallway.) Fehrman, a baby-faced 25, wanders in, lights up, too. They think. Both of them, side by side, look like an illustration of the themes in Clerks II; rather than mark a retreat for the director, it's something of a meditation on the unwillingness of guys to put away childhood things.
Or accept new ones.
"I'm sure if I had seen Lord of the Rings when I was a kid it would mean more to me," Smith says, sounding bored by the subject though too much the fanboy to resist. "But come on, Hobbits, Orcs - those bald monsters?"
"Cave trolls," Fehrman says.
"Cave trolls. Not my speed. Those movies are proficiently made but I saw the original Star Wars as a kid and that was religion. Three movies that stand the test of time. If I had to pick a trilogy, it would be Star Wars. It reminds me of a simpler time in my life. I'm 9 and watching Empire Strikes Back and it's the best thing that ever happened to me - at 9, of course it was."
Fehrman nods sympathetically. "I don't want to seem neither here nor there, but I like them both. It's apples and oranges. Once a thing gets to a certain level of quality, why bother comparing them? It's not like I'm crashing in a plane and have to choose between the two, right?"
"Which trilogy would you take into the afterlife?" Smith asks.
"Which would save me from horrendous death in a plane?"
"Well, which is the lightest?"
And on and on.
Like many '70s babies, Smith shines on two subjects, pop culture and himself. It's a phenomenon the writer Christopher Noxon diagnosed in a recent book, Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up. But where Noxon writes that rejuveniles stick by the pop of their youth as "a way of maintaining wonder, trust, and silliness in a world where these qualities are in short supply," Smith's pop obsessions always seem to veil an insecurity so deep, it's reflexive.
"What's your shirt say?" I ask.
He turns his back.
It's a bowling shirt. The trim is red, the collar black. "It says 'Clerks II.' On the front it says 'director.' My wife made it. She plays Emma in Clerks II. She sewed it. I have others like it. I have one with 'Emma Loves Bob.'●" Meaning, Silent Bob, the silent, overcoat-wearing sidekick Smith plays in the Clerks flicks.
"One shirt says 'Hack.' There's also 'Total Whore' and 'Sellout.'●"
Before I even set up this interview I get a call from the studio publicist. She wants to know if I like Smith's movies. He likes to know his interviewers, she says.
It's disarming but not surprising, not for a guy who turned himself into a cottage industry, going from brash indie to a Tonight Show regular to maker of fiascoes (the Bennifer-afflicted Jersey Girl) and back again (Clerks II cost a mere $5 million). His career is like a comment on itself. Here are excerpts of our chat. It reads like therapy, the line between false modesty and a generous spirit almost erased.
Q: You're known for being something of a self promoter. I suppose one has to be a self-.
A: Totally. That's true.
Q: But I wonder. You hit in '94 just as Spike Lee, who is another consummate self-promoter, was waning a bit. Was his insistence on being the face of his movies - as opposed to say, using the actors - influential?
A: I followed him, definitely. There would have to be something of an influence there. Spike was, side by side, a filmmaker and a personality. It was certainly not a plan of mine, but when Miramax sent us out on the road with Clerks in 1994, because the movie didn't have stars, I wound up being the face. After years of grass-roots marketing every one of my movies, that personality becomes almost as important as the filmmaker. But most directors are low key. If you ask 10 people what Bryan Singer looks like, they'd say "Who?" If you say who is Kevin Smith, they all go "Who?" Mention Silent Bob or The Tonight Show. They'll get it.
Q: In other words, playing the director, putting your face on the work, has become as much a part of the job as directing.
A: No. Well, it depends on the director. If I made really marketable movies, it wouldn't be necessary. To go back to Bryan Singer: When you're making X-Men 2 and Superman Returns, the work speaks for itself. For the stuff I do, marginal in terms of blockbuster audiences, somebody has to go out and promote. The sad thing is, I do wonder if I wasn't out there pushing, would it make a big impact? Any impact at all? And sometimes I wonder, because people know me so well aside from the work, do they go in with a sympathy vote? I never know if the work is judged for the work or because they like me.
Q: Does it affect what movies you get? Movies like Superman Returns, which you were connected with? If you're the face, there's less room for big stars.
A: I don't think it's mattered. In the case of Superman Returns - Superman Lives when I was doing it - I was only writing and it wasn't something I wanted to direct. Tim Burton was brought in. He brought in his writers and threw us out [he exited soon after]. In the case of Green Hornet, which I was doing for a long time, I stepped away because the dust settled. I thought, "Oh, I get to direct a comic book movie!" Then I said, "I never wanted to direct a comic book movie." I like watching comic book movies in a big way. But making them? I'm not talented enough to make those kinds. I never got into directing to make those. I got into it to make the kinds I do make.
Q: Which are?
A: People sitting around and talking. The idea of creating a visual spectacle was never that appealing, but being offered the chance is flattering. Once I got past the flattery I called Harvey Weinstein [founder of Miramax] and said "Dude, I'm not the guy for this movie." He said "Maybe it's time you challenged yourself." And that's one school of thought. But there's another that says this material is best left to people who are adept at it. My version of those would be far more talky than action-oriented.
Q: Which is interesting, because you're a definite member of the Star Wars generation and I'm betting the movies that got you into movies were big ones.
A: Totally. But the films that made me want to be a filmmaker are the works of Richard Linklater, Hal Hartley, and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Things that were more achievable, movies I watched and thought, "If this counts as a movie, I can do one."
Q: In the years since Clerks, do you think you've progressed?
A: Sure. In 12 years I've learned to tell a story better. I'm a sharper writer. If you look at Clerks now, there's no plot. It's just sketches. Clerks II has an arc. But at the same time I get an inordinate amount of people, be it fans or from financiers who say it's time to step up and grow. I'm just like, don't they get it? This is what I do. It's not a matter of me learning to do something better. It's me doing what I want to do.
Q: The Woody Allen model.
A: I guess. But even he makes visually interesting movies.
Q: You don't think you do?
A: Not really. Every time I go to a movie I'm seeing something better accomplished, visually.
Q: Do studios force the issue?
A: When I was doing Jersey Girl, Miramax paired me with Vilmos Zsigmond [the legendary cinematographer of early Spielberg and Robert Altman films]. When Woody got involved with Gordon Willis [cinematographer of The Godfather], his movies started to look amazing. So that was the thinking there. But the thing is, even if I work with Vilmos I'm still the guy composing the shots. He's still constrained by the way I want a shot to look.
Q: I remember a quote from you, something about you not having to watch older movies-
A: "Because the filmmakers I admire have seen them and I get it filtered through them." That haunts me to this day, and it's kind of true today to a degree. I don't feel the need to see every film that comes down the pike, particularly European cinema. Not that I'm a snob. They just don't captivate me the way American cinema captivates. But man, saying that, people drew the sharp knives: "He doesn't feel the need to see a Bergman film!" I've seen Bergman films but they don't speak to me the way a film in my native language does.
Q: So you haven't changed that much. The characters in Clerks haven't changed, either.
A: The idea was to get to a place where they would be the same characters they were in the beginning. The poignancy or the sadness is there and they are still the same people we left before. The world has left them behind. If they were creatures of their time at one point, now they're out of step. It's the Lord of the Rings-Star Wars thing. The older guy feels out of step. Everything was perfect the way it was. Why do there have to be new things?
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com
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To sit with Kevin Smith and talk movies is, to an extent, to be granted an audience with the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.