He’s been called the voice of a generation, an indie icon, and one of the funniest men in America. Kevin Smith has been entertaining audiences for nearly two decades as an award-winning writer, producer, director and comedian, earning additional fanboy praise for his now legendary Q&A series, podcasts and Twitter feed.
With his latest film Cop Out hitting DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday, Film Junk’s Adam Volk recently spoke with geekdom’s Great Bearded Hope to discuss the highs, lows, and creamy middles of show business, his upcoming films Hit Somebody and Red State, and the Golden Age of the Hollywood nerd.
Adam Volk: Thanks for speaking with me. So how have things been with you? You’ve been busy these days I assume?
Kevin Smith: You know, I always like to spin a bunch of plates around here and something’s always kind of going on. And yeah, even though I haven’t made a movie in a while I seem to be plenty busy regardless.
Adam Volk: You’ve sort of become this symbol to a lot of geeks, this icon in terms of being somebody who’s into a lot of the same shit we are, but has sort of made it. Is that something you’re comfortable with?
KS: It’s always been really nice because it tends to manifest in ways that aren’t creepy or anything. People get a genuine sense that there’s like this global village that you’re a part of. It’s a fishing village. It’s in Nova Scotia in fact. And you’re like, “I’m going off to try and make my way in the world.” And you do well and everyone back home in the village is really proud…And that’s what I’ve got going for me. I don’t know why, I don’t know if I was dipped into the water and just held by my heels and coated with whatever it is that makes people go, “Your averageness, the fact that makes you so plain is what is the draw about you. The fact that you look so plain. Like the things we like, cop to the same interests” or what not. Because people in my position don’t normally put themselves out there so much I guess.
I mean here’s the thing. The more talented director you are, the less vocal you ever have to be. That’s why you don’t really hear things from Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, they let the work speak for itself. The weaker the filmmaker you are the more vocal you have to be as a proponent of your own work or the guy who’s explaining what went wrong and shit. And because of that you wind up developing a different set of muscles. Those dudes are natural born artists. They’re born to direct. I wasn’t born to direct, directing was something that comes much harder to me. It’s like being born with one leg shorter than the other, you’ve got to try overcompensate constantly. It’s not something that’s innate to me whatsoever, so because of that over the years I’ve just wound up talking a lot more about it.
And it all stems from like Houston WorldFest in ’94, we were showing Clerks. And at the end of the movie me and [Scott] Mosier got up and do a Q&A and it was funny. We were cute and charming. Dudes who’d just made it and we were still working at Quick Stop. You know, it was perfect. And now you look back on it and you’re like “Wow, was it written?” And no, it just was. It’s what the situation was. But you can kind of understand why journalists were like, “It’s kind of a fun story to write about, because you know these dudes are from nowhere and it kind of worked out for them and they seem like good guys and the movie looks like hell, but it’s funny.” That kind of thing. And at the end of the Q&A we’re kind of standing in the back talking to people as they’re leaving and I heard some dude and his friend go by and he was like, “What did you think of the movie?” and his friend is like, “I didn’t like it. I thought the movie was shit. But I thought they were really funny.” And I remember going, “Alright. That’s the game. If I can’t get ‘em with the movie, I can still possibly get ‘em with the Q&A after the movie talking about it.”
AV: Right, right.
KS: For me it comes from growing up fat. You find any way you can to get into the pussy, dude. You don’t have the natural athleticism or the good looking aesthetic going for you…You have to use every means at your disposal to make you seem useful. To make you seem worthy. To make you seem like, “Give me a shot, man, you know, I’m the little engine that could. So yeah, the neighborhood looks kind of shitty, but the house is really nice inside, come on in.” So my lifetime of doing that, it just kind of folds over into the work.
It’s not really so much about the film it’s about the conversation. I love making the film. And film pays the bills, don’t get me wrong. But film is just the way to kick open the doors and start the conversation. I’m far more interested in the conversation. There’s like 120 hour of Smodcast. For free. Nobody asked for it. I’m just going to keep doing it because I like the conversation. That’s why all the Q&As and all the Twitter. So for me, it’s I kind of got to this place where just going out there and being myself and being honest was kind of enough…We’d go to colleges, screen the movie and talk about it afterwards and it was like, “This seems stupid to waste two hours watching the movie. We’ve all seen the movies.” If you’re coming to see Kevin Smith talk, then I imagine you’ve seen the Kevin Smith movie, so why bother showing it?
So we got rid of that and just went right to Q&A and shit. And for years and years it’s been evolving and evolving. And maybe it isn’t as easy as it was in the beginning. It certainly wasn’t as easy for me to understand. But now with hindsight and the benefit of longevity I can definitely look back and be like, “Kids, I love film, but obviously it’s about the conversation. Obviously it’s more than just making movies.” For me, it’s now this balance between these two things that I do, that I’m kind of most known for. The one is now catching up to the other, which I think is kind of cool. Because I’ll always have that Q&A thing going, and people have a real nice discovery thing to it. Where people are like, “I saw you in front of college kids on cable the other night. What the fuck was that?” Suddenly people start discovering it accidentally, because I never had a big coming out party, like “Hey everybody, I also do this!” Because I always felt so ashamed, like I didn’t really earn my spot up on stage. I didn’t make my bones. People that go up on stage and be funny for a living work for years to perfect like 15 minutes to a half an hour and go up there and kill. And I just kind of carpet bagged on to my day job. There’s always been this kind of Catholic-like shame attached to it, because I’m like “I can’t go out there and promote the fact that I do this as a secret fucking career I have no business doing!” So because of that, it had this discovery factor.
It really started last year with the Carnegie Hall gig. I sold out Carnegie Hall and that kind of sent this weird, loud message around the world to anybody who gives a shit about that kind of thing, like theatres started booking me and colleges…So I wound up doing a shit ton more gigs than I normally do. I honestly earned more doing Q&As last year than I did making films.
KS: Yeah, Yeah. So because of that. I suddenly become known as a raconteur and all that shit they hang on you, which is essentially a fancy way of saying “He talks. He loves to get up on stage and talk and sweat.” It’s this thing that’s kind of organically grown that’s grown out of the movies. And I guess the movies organically grew out of my need to start the conversation.
AV: So do you ever worry that that’s going take away from filmmaking?
KS: Not at all. I would love that. It certainly wouldn’t bother many of the people that can’t stand the movies I make. For the people that do like what I do, yeah I guess it might be a little disenchanting, but at the same time it’s like, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I offer you this. Here’s over 150 hours of Smodcast, hang out with me on Twitter while I just sit there and write funny stuff. Or try to be funny. Come to a Q&A.” For me that’s where it’s happening right now. Back in the day all the urgency went right into the screenplay because there’s no other way to communicate with the audience. Now, I can just jump onto Twitter, or pour it into a Smodcast and do it on a weekly basis or a daily basis, an hourly basis. And all that prep time that goes into a movie, it just like doesn’t compare in the least. Yeah, you get paid handsomely to do the movie but I think by now even my critics would agree that it’s not about the money with me.
Cop Out? 80% pay cut I took to make the movie. I made less making Cop Out than I did making Dogma over 10 years ago. It was kind of a passion project. For me, it’s like “what’s going to be a way to keep the discussion going?” And if the discussion is happening most fluently in these other venues and other means, I’m creatively fulfilled and I’m a happy camper. So yeah, I’m certainly not threatening to go away to film. I’m not doing that Anthony Hopkins thing and being like, “I’m going to retire!” But in a world, where it’s like, “Bullshit to you and your movies. You fucking ruined it! We gave you ten chances and you blew it every time after Clerks. Go to hell.” I’d be just as content to be like “I’ll see you on Smodcast.com.” Dude, even my most fucking hated critics, even the people that shred me a new asshole, even those cats are like, “You’ve got to give it to him on the Q&As.”
AV: It seems like this is kind of the start of a new golden age for a lot of geeky shit. You’ve got the Star Trek movie that’s got a huge mainstream appeal. You’ve got TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, you’ve got Watchmen. Christopher Nolan doing The Dark Knight. All of a sudden there’s this huge surge of stuff that used to be considered only niche for really geeky people and now it’s getting mainstream attention. Do you think this is kind of the start of a golden age for where geeky shit is actually being accepted into the mainstream?
KS: Oh yeah, we’re in the middle of some kind of geek renaissance, man, when everybody is embracing the inner geek and going for it. The three examples you mentioned, Battlestar Galactica, Dark Knight…and Watchmen, all three of them have something in common. And that’s great source material. The script’s there, the story’s there in each case. And that’s always going to be the most compelling. It doesn’t matter what you can do with special effects. If nobody gives a shit about the characters it’s not going to pop. It’s not going to connect.
So first off, you’ve got good storytelling going on, great storytelling in some cases. And second off, technology has finally caught up to the imagination of the geek. Where it used to be like, “Can you imagine if you could make a Watchmen movie? Who would you cast?” Now you can make a Watchmen movie. Technology and CG is such that you can pull it off convincingly and it’s going to look amazing. Battlestar Galactica. You could put them into a believable looking world where the environment is such that people are like “It’s space, I see stars it’s gotta be Sci-Fi.” And you’ve got an audience watching some Sci-Fi show, but at the same time, what you’re whipping on them is probably one of the best analyses of post 9-11 America that’s committed to the art, that’s committed to paper, since that tragic day.
It helps that the CGI can match. It helps that Iron Man can fly, that the iron can build around him and boom, you’re off and rocketing into the stars. It helps that the Hulk can be eight to ten feet tall and beat the shit out of the Abomination. And yeah, it looks like a video game, but the technology is such that it’s not just two dudes painted… I think it’s just that technology has kind of caught up and in a world where that’s the case, people can focus more on the storytelling as well. And they’re matching the storytelling with amazing effects and presenting us with worlds we haven’t seen before.
AV: Speaking of storytelling, in terms of the stuff you were doing with Cop Out it’s the first film you directed that you didn’t actually write yourself.
KS: This is the first one that I just directed and someone else wrote it.
AV: So you’ve got the Cullen Brothers writing it.
KS: Yeah, the Cullen Brothers. It wasn’t the first time I’ve directed a script that someone else has written. I did that on Reaper as well. I had that first stab at it in TV. But this is the first feature I’ve directed.
AV: Did you ever feel the desire to rewrite any of the dialogue on set? Or was it just like “I’m taking the script the Cullen Brothers wrote and that’s what I’m doing.”
KS: The good news about the Cullen Brothers is that they come from a world of sitcom writing and comedy so it wasn’t a big deal. In fact, it was like, “best joke wins.” So you know on set, we shot the script, and then be like, “Let’s do this. Say this. Try this. Do this.” And the actor’s like, “I wanna try this.” And they do something. And it just keeps building this tower of Babel type of humor thing. So it helps to have sharpened prose. And if you can throw the ball really hard they can throw it back to you twice as hard. I wouldn’t call it a free for all by any stretch of the imagination because we definitely shot the script. But I’m a writer first and foremost so I was very conscious of, and very particular about, the writer’s feelings. I asked, “Can the boys be with us on this the whole time? Can we keep the Cullens and they come with us?” Bruce [Willis] had talked about at one point bringing in one of his punch up writers, but to me it was important to keep them [the Cullen Brothers] around and never have them feel like, “Back off man, this is a Kevin Smith movie!”
I’m not that dude at all. But at the same time, we let it be known: let the best joke win. Especially because you’ve got Tracy Morgan. I’m not funnier than Tracy. Tracy is just going to fart funnier shit than you’re going to think of in a lot of cases. You never want to cut yourself off. Sean William Scott is also about as sharp as Tracy. He’s an excellent ad-libber. He’s really fucking funny, he knows how to grab on to something in a character and just run with it. The funniest shit from Sean William Scott came up on the fly… So when you’ve got guys like that, even if I had written the script, and everyone knows what a fucking prick I am about the script and how I beat the actors and make them do every word and not deviate from the page. But I stopped hanging on to that during Dogma. When you have Chris Rock on the set, I was just like “Chris Rock is funnier than me. I can’t stand here and tell Chris Rock: don’t create funny lines.” He has one of the funniest lines in all of Dogma. “Knew him? Nigga owes me twelve bucks”, when he’s talking about Jesus. You couldn’t make that up. Chris ad-libbed the whole line and pulled it out of his ass. Since Dogma forward I’ve been like, “Whatever. Bring the funny. If it’s funnier than what I’ve got. I’ll take it.” At the end of the day when you’re sitting in the back of a test screening audience and they’re not laughing, you’re sitting there going, “Fuck man, I should have included those jokes that I know were funny but left them out because I’m a self righteous prick about keeping only my own shit in there.” I can never be that guy. So for me, I’m just like “Ad-lib shit, it’ll be used in this picture if it’s funny enough.”
AV: That’s the comedy side of things. You’ve got a lot of experience doing that kind of stuff. Obviously you’re super fucking funny. What about the action side of things? You’ve directed some action scenes before but…
KS: It was boring. It’s always boring. The bigger action shit was taken on by David Ellis who was the second unit director…When you saw that car going into a grave. That was David Ellis. I was on another set directing Bruce and Tracy. David Ellis was like half a block away in a cemetery doing it. I felt really uncomfortable about it at first because I’m like, “Oh man I’m not really the director.” And they’re like, “Do you think Bryan Singer directed all of Superman?” And I’m like “What you mean he didn’t?” Bryan Singer’s got a second unit director, man. It’s a waste of time to have you there while special effects are going off. So you know, for me it was like “Whatever, if that’s the case, so be it.”
The action that I did shoot when I was there, I’ll be honest, I can’t stand it. It’s fucking tedious. I’m like “Oh are we done?” Shooting action is boring, dude. You set up for an hour to shoot less than a second of film.…You think you’re going to get Bruce Willis to be in a car that’s being driven in the distance from a camera in a wide shot? Never in a million years, man. At that point, suddenly you’re like: “It’s stunt guys in a car. I can definitely direct that. But I’m going to be bored to tears and I’d be better used over here directing the talk. The dialogue and what not.”
You’re always on a schedule. That’s how they keep things inexpensive. So I don’t know, it worked out great. David Ellis is fantastic. Dude’s been around forever. Started out as a stuntman, and now he’s a bonafide director and every once in a while he takes a second unit gig. We got lucky. He’s the dude who directed Snakes on a fucking Plane! We were lucky to have him on board. …Whenever people talk about the action I feel obsessively compulsive about having to tell people that David Ellis deserves a lot of the credit.
AV: So is there a trick to filming good action?
KS: If you try to talk to me about the G20. The economic summit. You’re not going to get a lot out of me. You try to talk to me about the Habs and the amazing year they had. Or Canadian hockey. Or hockey in general. I could go on for hours. Passionately. For the action scenes though. No. Ask J.J. [Abrams] how much of the action he shot on Star Trek. A lot of it was CG and done on boards. It’s not like we’re not involved. We plot the shot list and still do the story boards but at the end of the day the stuff like that doesn’t require names or actors is going to go off to a second unit.
Now as the guy who designed it and edited the movie I feel a definite sense of authorship, but I’d be lying if I said the action was 100% mine…I don’t fucking like to work the camera, nor can I. I’m a total idiot when it comes to that. To be a true filmmaker maybe I should work the camera…But no, I certainly rely on my DP quite heavily to do my job. I know what I want. I can communicate it verbally, put it into print, put in on paper, but [I’m not] the sharpest knife in the block in terms of executing it…. It’s a dirty little secret. Name the director, and you’re like, “He’s there for everyone of his shots!” It’s not true. Spielberg doesn’t shoot all his movies. He’s the author of the entire movie, but if you think Steven Spielberg is there for the shooting of every frame of his films? I mean, there’s a very famous story of how he left Jurassic Park 2 before it was done. He leaves the set of every one of his movies before it’s done.
A lot of people like to think it’s alchemy. The director has got to be there for every second. It’s a machine, dude. The director is the guy who turns the machine on and off and it’s his job to maintain the machine. But you have all of these moving parts and cogs and all of these people whose job it is to bring that movie to life. They’re all part of it. My job is to oversee it. Because somebody, in the case of Cop Out, was like, “we want you to tell the story. We want to see it from your perspective. So manage the film as you see fit.” So I go in and I’m like “These I think, are the best cogs that are going to turn the rotor the best. This motor is killer.” You build it and it’s the sum of all parts. That’s why you can’t take a film by credit. It’s such a communist effort. It’s such a collective.
AV: Getting back to what you were talking about earlier, you’d mentioned hockey. What’s going on with Hit Somebody, the hockey flick you’re working on?
KS: Hit Somebody? I’m on page 81 right now of the script. I want Sean William Scott as Buddy, he’s the main character. He’s the guy who I want to play in the lead. He just appears on page 71. The first 71 pages are just childhood. Through most of the 50s, through 1954 to like ’62. So I’ve spent a good deal of time in childhood kind of setting the stage and what not. Now I’m just getting into the WHA, the league of it all…Essentially if you know the song, I’m up to “We’ve always got room for a goon.”
AV: And I assume that it’s going to get set up? It’s a done deal as soon as you’ve finished the script?
KS: I feel like there’s definitely people who’ve expressed great, great interest in putting the money up. So shy of them reading it and going, “It’s nothing like we thought it was,” it seems pretty much like a done deal. Honestly this movie will have no problem getting financed. And if it doesn’t get financed in the States I could pull some Canadian money so fast, dude, just based on the script. Because essentially I set out to write the great Canadian novel and put it on film and so far, so good. I think Canada may be “Would you like to run for PM?”
AV: We’d love that. That would be fucking awesome.
KS: They wouldn’t even ask me to run. They’d just knight me as PM. It’s so infused with Canada. The movie is so Canadian. It’s a love letter not just to the game but to the land that spawned it. I cannot wait to screen the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. The first time anyone sees it there in Toronto at that film fest in the Roy Thomson Hall, it will fucking crush. The movie is so Canadian. I don’t know how it will play in the States, but up there it’ll play like the cure for cancer. It’s such a love letter. It’s a big fat hug to Canada.
AV: People are super excited about it here in Canada. And in the States too. Because since Slap Shot there hasn’t ever really been any other great hockey movies. It seems like it’s becoming a bigger sport in the U.S. And here Canada, we latch onto it like it’s ours. Nobody can take it away from us. But what is it about hockey? What is it about the sport that you love that you wanted to get across in the script?
KS: For me, I’m kind of using Buddy’s story and the story of a rebel league if you will, to tell a very personal story. Not just about me, but everybody, the story is kind of about people who get what they want in one way, but not the way they wanted. And how long it takes people to figure out that getting anything is kind of the best part. It doesn’t matter what you strived for, it’s what you’re getting back that’s kind of key.
It’s [a] pretty emotional flick. It’s also very funny, in a way that I’m not normally funny. For example, I’m up to page 81 and right now, this would be max, max PG-13. And I know a lot of people are going to be like “What! you can’t make a movie better than Slap Shot and not have it be R!” but again, I’m not making Slap Shot. I love Slap Shot. I wouldn’t even try to get close to Slap Shot. This isn’t Slap Shot, this is bigger than that. It’s way more ambitious in terms of telling 30 years of a person’s life. I keep telling people, I’m going for Forrest Gump, not in terms of the business or effects and shit, and I’m certainly no Bob Zemeckis, but just in terms of that feeling of spending a lot time with somebody and going through their life. It kind of plays like a book and I’m writing it like a book. There’s an omniscient narrator.
AV: That sounds fucking awesome. I know people are going ape shit about even the idea of it.
KS: What I like about it is that it’s very Warren Zevon. That sense of humor, which is not too far removed from my own. It just feels like Warren’s song. It feels like a Warren song. He just has a very wry sensibility, but very human and obviously very much a humanist. I don’t know, I’m happy with it. So far it’s working.
AV: I’ve just got one more question for you. This is kind of a broad question, but with Hollywood these days it seems like there’s a fairly dramatic change going on. We’ve got new revenue streams, this last year the recession hit and a lot of the basic processes of making a film have changed. Do you think it’s a good time to be a filmmaker right now in Hollywood? Or has it become even more difficult?
KS: I don’t know. It depends on who you ask. A buddy of mine is very good friends with a commercial director. A person who makes a living directing commercials. And that dude has seen a sharp decrease in his work doing commercials because now Ridley Scott is getting the jobs he used to get. And I’m certainly not saying Ridley Scott is hungry and poor. Ridley Scott has made a career of making commercials. But generally speaking he [Ridley Scott] does one here or there. There’s not a lot of movies getting greenlit right now. So I guess the trickle down effect is that Ridley Scott is like “yeah I can do that commercial.” And this dude who normally would get the spot is like, “Damn! Ridley Scott got it!” So there’s something out there. Here’s the best example: We’re making this movie Red State next. In the last week alone, I’ve gotten calls from four agencies, the big agencies in town, pushing star clients, three of whom won Academy Awards. And I’m like, “You do understand this is a $4 million dollar movie? A horror movie.”
AV: An indie horror movie basically.
KS: Yeah. And I’m like, “What are you pushing Academy Award winners for?” And I’m talking recent Academy Award winners. “Why are you pushing Academy Award winners?” And they’re like, “Hey man, everyone wants to work with Kevin Smith.” That’s bullshit. So I’m like “Why?” And he’s like, “It’s just dead right now. Nobody’s making anything. Nobody’s working. So everyone is trying to fight over scraps. You’re one of the only games in town up and running.” So I don’t know, maybe there’s not a lot of work. At least here in Los Angeles there’s not a lot of work going on.
AV: But then you’ve got flicks like Avatar that cost the GDP of a small country.
KS: That’s the thing. Right now it’s an awesome business to be in if you’re a blockbuster filmmaker. If you’re somebody that makes vastly commercial movies. Tent pole films as they call them. Because that’s a sure thing. That’s what studios are okaying left and right. The sure-thing movies. Previously, we had the mid-ground, the mid-level movies, the 30 to 40 million dollar movies. Those have retreated deeply because the 30 to 40 dollar budget is now being taken up by movies that used to have 70 to 80 million dollar budgets. For example Cop Out. When I joined it, the budget was 70 million dollars, by the time we made it, it was 32 million dollars. The one [Cop Out budget] that was 70 million dollars had Mark Wahlberg. You know. Marky Mark? And what’s his face? Will Ferrell.
AV: Right. The Other Guys.
KS: And the studio didn’t want to pay them. They wanted to get paid. And those two dudes get chunks of change. And that studio was like, “We don’t feel comfortable making an expensive R-rated comedy because they don’t do that well.” That was before they released The Hangover. So they’re like, “If you want to make it as an R, we want you guys to take a pay cut, take the ride with us.” And those two dudes were obviously unwilling to do so. And so they separated from Warner Bros. and did a different buddy-cop movie.
So Warner Bros. was like, “How much can you make it for?” And I was like, “I can make it for a lot fucking less than 75, I can tell you that much.” The trickle down effects is that you’re going to see a lot of the mid-level, mid-low-budget famous people who do dramatic turns in Miramax-like movies, that’s going way. Because people don’t want to pay for that, because it’s not making a lot of money. What’s getting people out of their seats is the promise of 3D. God knows why. If you’re a commercial blockbuster filmmaker it’s a great time to be in this business. If you’re Sam Mendes I’d be a little afraid.
AV: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me Kevin. It was awesome talking to you. Take it easy!
KS: Thanks, man.
Adam Volk is a freelance journalist, film critic and video game writer. To read more of his witty pop cultural blatherings please visit: www.zombie-geek.com.