Kevin Smith’s Movies Make You Want to Make a Movie

The “Clerks” creator discusses filmmaking, following his inner child, and how weed is the ultimate censor blocker.
Kevin Smith’s Movies Make You Want To Make A Movie
Courtesy of Allan Amato

On a rainy evening right before the self-quarantine, I stood outside The Shag Store on Melrose with esteemed comedian and filmmaker, Kevin Smith. The Melrose gallery is one of only two locations dedicated exclusively to the artist Shag, who, on this particular night, was unveiling a collaboration with Kevin. Kevin, who had been on the road for four months promoting his latest film “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot,” was all smiles. “I’ve been a huge Shag fan since I discovered his stuff, which would probably be around the same time I came into extra money. ‘95, ‘96, ‘97. His graphic style is fun, playful and beautiful. I have a bunch of his pieces all over my house and for years would look at them and think, ‘Man, it would rock if he did one of Jay and Silent Bob.’ After my heart attack two years ago, I didn’t wait, and had my team reach out to do a Jay and Bob print. Shag got back, said he was a fan and would love to do a piece. And that’s what he did and it’s absolutely stunning.”

We talk a few more minutes about the gallery, but quickly pivot to the interview as more and more people come over to say hello to a man who genuinely embraces, appreciates and respects his large fan base.

With the success of “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot,” is there a new wave of people who are turned on to your work?

Kevin Smith: Never mind the new wave, I’m shocked the old wave is still remotely interested. It’s delightful. We spent the last four months going to see the movie every night with 1,000 people or more. It made me feel like I was going to a church where I was both the priest and Jesus at the same time. I can’t believe it. I’m very appreciative for it.

So many people on this tour were like, “Bro, I saw ‘Clerks’ in the movie theater when I was in college.” And then I saw 15 and 16 year old kids where I’m like, “You were cum when we made the first movie. What are you doing here?” And they were like, “I used to watch these movies with my parents growing up. I love these flicks.” That’s how I find new people.

I was on the Internet from like 1995 on, and as soon as I found a place where people gathered to talk about the shit I did, I’ve always fomented interest in our stuff. Not to get people to take over the world, but we could run a small state like New Jersey if we had to. It’s a wonderful, loyal fan base that allows me to keep doing what I did when I started.

Prior to “Clerks,” what inspired you to pursue filmmaking?

Kevin Smith: I knew I wanted to be a director only from age 21. Early on, I just loved movies. I went to the movies literally every week. Every Wednesday, my old man pulled me out of school for a half-day and we’d go to the movies. But never once was he like, “You should do this.” We just didn’t come from a world where people dreamed or anything like that. 

It took until I was 21, on my twenty-first birthday. Me and my friend went up to New York City to the Angelika Film Center and we saw a movie called “Slacker.” Richard Linklater’s “Slacker.” That was the [movie] that lit my fire. I viewed it with a mixture of awe and arrogance. Awe because I’d never seen anything like it before, arrogance because I was like, “I bet you I could do this.” 

So I started looking into film schools. I found this eight month program at the Vancouver Film School and ended up doing half the program before dropping out. That’s where I met Scott Mosier, who’d go on to produce “Clerks” with me, and Dave Klein who was our DP. I went home and started writing the script for “Clerks.” Those two dudes finished the eight months and came out to New Jersey. Then, with them and a couple friends, we tried making a flick.

I come from a low, low, lower middle class family. I was poor. But I had a bunch of credit cards I’d acquired in a race with my friends to see who could get the most credit cards. They just sat in a fucking drawer, I never used them. I heard Robert Townsend—a filmmaker who made the movie “Hollywood Shuffle”—do an interview on Howard Stern where he talked about financing some of his movie on credit cards. I was like, “You can do that sort of thing? I actually have credit cards.” So that’s how I financed “Clerks.” 

Twenty-seven-thousand-five-hundred-and-seventy-five-dollars later, we had this movie printed on 16 millimeter film. We took it to the IFFM (Independent Feature Film Market) where we were hoping to find somebody. We ended up getting picked up by Miramax at Sundance in 1994, and suddenly I went from having a job to having a career. I went from working at that convenience store where we shot the movie, to making movies for a living. And that was 26 years ago.

What was it like to finally be aligned with your passion?

Kevin Smith: There was never a thought like, “I’m going to get rich doing this.” I hoped to be able to pay back the credit card debt. It was all passion. My whole life I’d watched movies, never thinking I could do something like that. Then I see somebody, not that different from me, make a movie. It was like looking over the fence and seeing people play a game of hockey and being like, “That looks fucking fun.” You don’t really know how to do it, but you watch the basics, you kind of pick up. You’re not going out there to win a fucking medal, you’re going out there because it just looks fun. 

Until [“Clerks”], I’d never finished anything. I didn’t even finish film school. “Clerks” was the first thing I finished other than high school. I dropped out of two colleges, dropped out of film school. I was just not a completionist. After I dropped out of film school in Vancouver, I knew I was going home to a bunch of people who were going to be like, “Hey Hollywood, what happened to your movie, Hollywood?” So I told myself I had to finish it. Even if nobody fucking saw it. Just to be like, “What would it be like to complete something? Maybe life would be different?” And suddenly it oddly was.

Passion makes you want to finish. I wanted to see “Clerks” more than anything else in this world and it’s like a magic trick I created that I can still perform today. You know, like every once in a while some mother fucker’s like “Hey!” and pulls a coin out from behind your ear. Wow, that’s fucking cool, how’d you do that? “Clerks” is my coin trick. No matter where I go in life people are like, “I know that fucking trick, that’s fucking cool.” It’s opened doors, it’s made me a friend to the world in this weird way, where when I see people who see me and recognize me, their face lights up like something cool is about to happen. I’m like a bootleg that got passed around to everyone. And because of that, I’ve had this really nice career where I’m always just on the outside of the business but still kind of firmly in my space where I started.

“Clerks” is kind of this siren song to anybody. It doesn’t matter what age you are because the film is in black and white. It has this weird ageless feel. So it really plays, of course, to people who are dreamers. The movie itself is about people stuck in the same situation as the audience. The guy who made it was also a dreamer, and that dream came true. It’s an easy movie to consume and instantly inflames artistic passion. It’s a movie that makes you want to make a movie. It presents a conceivable version of the art form. 

I’ve met so many people, thousands of people over the last 26 years who are like, “I saw your movie, and it made me want to make a movie.” It’s a beautiful compliment, but what it really says is, “Your movie looks so fucking easy. I realized I too can be a filmmaker.” That’s such a testament. That’s how art keeps moving forward.

“Passion” is your coin trick.

Kevin Smith: That’s all I’ve got. You don’t look at [“Clerks”] or any of my movies and go, “Fuck! They look amazing!” [People respond] to the passion behind them, man. I understand now it’s not the movies themselves, it’s the hope behind the movies.

The last few years I’ve been all over the place doing cooky things. I made “Tusk,” “Yoga Hosers,” just jumping all over. And the best compliment I’ve received is, “He just does what he wants, man. He doesn’t care if there’s an audience.” Which is kind of true. I know I’m supposed to give a fuck about an audience and making money, but I firmly believe as an artist you can’t ever make something for an audience. You can try, but you’ll never satisfy everybody. It’s impossible because it’s subjective. We’ll both watch the same movie and you’ll be like, “I love it,” and I’m like, “Whaaaaaat?” You can’t guarantee that you’ll make the audience happy unless you are the audience. Because then, you can make yourself perfectly fucking happy with your piece of art, and that’s what you were going for in the first place. 

Art is masturbatory as fuck. So the idea is, you were making something to please yourself, and then somewhere along the way, commercialism got mixed in and you were like, “I want other people to [enjoy it as well].” But the original dream wasn’t to make something for others, it was “I want to make this thing, I want to tell a story.” As long as you satisfy yourself, as long as you make the exact fucking movie you want to make, you’ll never be sad. Even if nobody sees that fucking movie, you accomplished what you set out to do and you’re also one of only 10 percent of the world that will ever have something they can present and be like, “This is my self-expression.” 

A lot of people mistake self-expression as jumping on social media and saying like, “‘Justice League’ sucked.” That’s not self-expression. Self-expression is like, “I made a thing that wouldn’t exist in the world without me, and this thing is uniquely mine and now it’s all of yours.” And then, oddly enough as you do that, because you’re telling your story, other people identify with it. Not everyone can [make movies] nor will they ever try. Some people out there just want to be in the audience. Like my dad. He was never like, “I want to do this shit. I want to tell my story.” He was content to be in the audience because he couldn’t express [the things he’d see in movies] for himself. So he went places where he could see people do it. 

And that’s what I’ve realized over a quarter of a century, that’s what people like about you at the end of the day. They’re like, “You can say the thing that I’ve always wanted to say, but I just can’t. You’re saying it for me, man. Keep fucking saying it.” Some people will stay with you, some will abandon you, but as long as you’re true to yourself, you’ll never be disappointed.

There’s two things I say to myself in success and failure. First, “You wanted this.” No matter what happens, you wanted this. You impositioned so many people to make [your career] happen. You went out and found millions of dollars, so don’t ever fucking be like, “Why me?” You wanted this. Number two, “What was the alternative?” What the fuck were you going to do if you didn’t make the [movie]? Your whole life it would have rotted in your heart like a cancer. Like, “What if I would have done that fucking thing?” We’re not talking about me wanting to go to Mars. We’re talking about some shit I wanted to “make pretend” in front of a camera. Some of the easiest shit in the world. Sometimes, it’s expensive, but it’s some of the easiest shit in the world to do. It’s “make pretend.” We’ve been doing it since we were fucking kids. At the end of the day, if I feel like I have the ability, what’s stopping me? The only thing that’s stopping me is me.

Staying true to yourself, telling your stories, talking about what makes you happy. Was that always paramount in your mind or did that evolve organically by making movie after movie?

Kevin Smith: It sounds goofy as fuck, but there was always this cognizance of integrity. Where it’s like you’ve just entered a world [Hollywood] that is a stereotype, a joke. People make fun of it for the largesse, for the greed, for how quickly people lose themselves and “sell their souls.”

I was a Jersey kid and the business was predominantly out here in Los Angeles. So right away I was divisive like, “I’m not going to move out there. I can do my job right here [in New Jersey].” To stay pure. I’ve now lived out here for 18 years. I’ve been in the business for 26. And I feel like, for lack of a better expression, I’ve maintained my integrity. Not that others have not and I’m the king of integrity, but I’m proud people are like, “Wow, you’re the same fucking person I made ‘Clerks’ with.” That means something to me.

I just wanted to see if I could [make a movie]. And then, once I did it, I was like, “Let’s do it again.” I just kept my foot in the door, we kept going, thing after thing. It didn’t matter what it was, it didn’t matter if we had the next thing set up, because I was afraid of getting kicked out. The Jersey in us has kept us grounded. You can take the boys out of Jersey, but you can take the Jersey out of the boys, so-to-speak.

It’s helped that [Jason Mewes] and I live around the block from each other. We lived around the block from each other in Jersey and we live around the block from each other in Los Angeles. I’ve been standing next to him personally and professionally for the better part of thirty years now. That also helps keep you who you are and stuff.

An organic checks-and-balances.

Kevin Smith: It is. It’s also something you’re mindful of too, because it’s easy to get lost in this business and forget who you are. I live this life making the movies I make because of the decision that the kid Kevin Smith made. This sounds so dumb, but I try to conduct my career in the way that kid wanted.

What does the world look like if more people are tapped into what their “inner child” wanted them to do?

Kevin Smith: That’s exactly how I’ve tried to conduct myself. It doesn’t mean you make yourself the responsibility of others, which is kind of a kid’s position in life. You’re responsible for yourself, but you just kind of choose to live the way life made the most sense to you. Like, I’m an adult. I have a house. I pay bills and shit. I’d rather ‘make pretend’ than get a “real job.”

Do you try to say something with each film?

Kevin Smith: Sometimes. Most of [the characters] have something going on in their heads and hearts. Always their hearts. Sometimes you do have something to say, sometimes you just want to goof around. Sometimes it begins as one and becomes the other. “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” began as, “Wouldn’t it be fun to just make a sequel to that movie?” After the heart attack it became something much more, where I was like, “Oh, this is going to be my cinematic gravestone. I’m going to go back through my entire life in one movie.” Like the last five minutes of “Big Fish.” Do something that begins stupid and everyone is expecting to be one thing, and then sucker punch them with something else, with some weight.

How is cannabis part of your life?

Kevin Smith: I’ve been a pretty hardcore “wake and bake” stoner since 2008. So 12 years. 12 years a stoner. [Laughs] I was not a stoner when I was a kid—when I made [my first] movies—which a lot of people consider stoner movies and stuff. Now I’m a pretty ardent consumer. We have our own strains of weed—Snoogans, Snoochie Boochies, and Berzerker—that Caviar Gold fuels for us. We’ve been on the cover of High Times. Big figures in the world of weed, but I didn’t earn it. I became a stoner late in life, at age 38.

What I found is weed does not make me creative. At all. What it does do is it inhibits inhibitors. So, generally speaking, sometimes you’ll be like, “Oh my God, I have a great idea, this is awesome.” And then a second voice comes in and is like, “Come on. If this would have been something, somebody better than you would have done it.” And you talk yourself out of it. Weed allows you to take a hit and say, “Yeah, well let’s try anyway.” It gets through that second voice and brings you back to the first voice.

It blocks out the censor.

Kevin Smith: It dulls it. People paint stoners as absent minded, but really I’ve noticed [weed] is a thought organizer. It’s your “spidey sense.” Everything else is kind of slowed down so you can be like, “Oh, move this here, move this here.” When we’re being creative, we should concentrate just on that. Not on, “What’s the news say about coronavirus? What’s that dog barking at?” Weed has a nice way of smoking out distractions, allowing you to focus on the task at hand. Don’t operate heavy machinery, but we’re talking about being creative. The heaviest machinery you’re going to operate is a laptop.

Follow @thatkevinsmith and check out “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” which is now available for streaming.

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