A Convenient Truth
Kevin Smith on 'Clerks II'
New Jersey has been the butt of so many jokes over the years that, in the eyes of the rest of the country, having as a state nickname the phrase "Garden State" feels like some aging Catskills yukkster's musty punchline. Ba-da-bing! But, no, seriously, folks, you should hear the one about the portly comic-book geek from Red Bank who parlayed his stint as a snarky clerk monkey stuck in a nowheresville convenience store into one of American independent filmmaking's finest hour-and-a-halves. (And then the priest turns to the rabbi and says, "Imbroglio?! Funny, you don't taste Italian!")
So it was Kevin Smith, who, with the gleefully no-budget comedy Clerks, struck pay dirt first time out and hasn't looked back since, not even for film school, making it up as he goes along with a series of movies that are almost always both vulgar and endearing. Be it the bloodied but unbowed hearts of Chasing Amy or the entertaining Zen-master stoner-isms of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith has, almost inadvertently, emerged from the Jersey wastes as a wholly original American filmmaker, able to wring both howls of laughter and admit it, you the occasional tear of true romance from the blandest exurban backwaters of the Garden State, a place he still, and with no small amount of pride, calls home.
The Chronicle spoke with Smith about Clerks II before the film's recent regional premiere and discovered that, when it comes right down to it (or on it, or whatever), it's really all about the ass.
Austin Chronicle: In the 12 years since Clerks was first released, you've gotten married, had a child, and, for wont of a better phrase, grown up a bit. Which is something that would have been anathema to the Quick Stop crew of the original film. How difficult, or how easy, was it to slip back into the world of Dante and Randal and that whole slacky groove?
Kevin Smith: Technically, although I hadn't written it for Brian [O'Halloran] and Jeff [Anderson], they had a small part in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, after which we did a short called "The Flying Car," which aired on the Leno show back in 2002. So, I'd worked with them since then, but all the characters I do pretty much talk the same, all of them speaking in different degrees of my own voice. From that angle, slipping back into that head space wasn't a problem at all. I've never left that head space. Getting the gang back together was a little harder than I expected it to be. I knew Jeff might be a bit difficult, because he's had a love/hate relationship with his character Randal over the years. He's the dude who didn't necessarily want to be an actor. And then he did Clerks, it got attention, and ever since people will ask him why he hasn't been in any other movies, you know? Well, he's got a successful tile-import business, and Clerks was just something fun he did years ago. I imagine that can get kind of irritating. I remember one time he said, "You ruined baseball caps for me, man. I can't put one on much less spin it around without people hounding me as if I were this dude Randal." So, just when he was getting comfortable with that aspect of his nonacting career, I show up and go "Dude, let's do Clerks II!" But Jeff's argument was "Why do a sequel that's probably not going to be as good as the original and could even potentially damage the rep of Clerks?"
I'm not trying to be better than Clerks; I just want to be "as good as," while bringing everything we've learned over the course of making six movies to bear in the flick. Clerks was our first film; it was total amateur hour. But I've got a story to tell, and I think it's a worthy successor. And eventually both Brian and Jeff were on board. Jeff called me to tell me the script was hysterical, and then he said, "Oddly enough, you don't ring any of the same bells from the first one; it's not a retread, but, more importantly, you show some depth to the characters. But I want to ask you one more time: Are you sure this is what you want to do?" And, honestly, it was either this or The Green Hornet. And Clerks II was what was speaking to me right then. I gotta follow my gut. And my gut's pretty big, so I tend to follow it.
AC: Speaking of depth and nuance, let's talk about what's almost certain to be the hottest catch phrase of the year: "Ass-to-mouth." It takes a certain mad genius to mine comedy gold from such a nasty crack as that ...
KS: Every once in a while, I surf porn sites, because, A) I'm a dude; and, B) back when I worked at a convenience store, I had access to nudie mags, and then, after Clerks took off, life changed, and I haven't bought or even looked at a porn mag in years. And, five or six years later, I looked through an issue of Hustler, and it had kind of jumped in what they could show.
AC: By orders of magnitude.
KS: Yes! Now Hustler is like those old hardcore mags you used to have to spend $10 or $15 for at a bus stop. It's just flat-out porn. I could tell I'd fallen behind, and I felt like I was no longer on the cusp of cutting-edge porn anymore, you know, because I'd gotten married and hadn't surfed porn in years. So immediately I went online and came across an "ass-to-mouth" site. I thought, "Man, this feels so fictional and sad to me. Have we really kind of run out of aberrant sexual behavior to display on the Internet, so much so that we're now just making shit up? Like fucking 'ass-to-mouth'?" I mean, that and Brazilian fart porn really blew my mind. What the fuck?! So, I wanted to put that in the flick, 'cause I just thought it was such a horrible notion. Somebody's goodly enough to let you fuck them in the ass, and then you jam your cock in their mouth?! Nothing more horrible than that.
AC: Yeah, but doesn't Clerks II feature a half-nude leather-man banging an ass as in donkey as the backdrop to one of its most purely romantic, love-conquers-all sequences?
KS: Well, there've been two really famous donkey shows in cinematic history. One in The Godfather: Part II, where Fredo takes Michael to the donkey show in Cuba, and then the one in Bachelor Party, which is actually aborted because the donkey gets high on drugs. To my mind, the donkey show is like an urban legend, where you're like, "Man, I wanna see one of those because I've been hearing about 'em for years." And they don't really fucking exist, or at least not in any way, shape, or form I could find. I went to Tijuana once when I was at the San Diego Comic Con, and we drove around that city for four hours and could not find one fucking donkey show. Now you can go online and see pictures of it, but still.
AC: Your MySpace page www.myspace.com/therealkevinsmith has 47,243 friends on it, which means you're either way too friendly or there's something to this whole Internet thing. Which is it?
KS: And I've got over 2,000 people in the "pending approval" queue, because I've been doing press nonstop. It looks like I might be hitting that 50,000 mark soon.
AC: Do you actually sit there and go over every wannabe superfriend? That strikes me as a minion's job if ever there was one.
KS: Nope, just me, the real Kevin Smith. We created MySpace pages for all the characters in the film, and there's somebody at our office that handles those, but I take my own MySpace page very seriously and do all the friend approvals myself. I did a promotion yesterday where Zach Braff and I interviewed each other for their new "artist to artist" page, and one of their employees offered to hook me up so that everybody gets approved with a single touch of a button instead of doing it 10 at a time. But I need to do it 10 at a time. There's something Zen about "10, click, 10, click, 10, click ..."; plus, you get to see everybody that way. I get to see people I grew up with join the page, people who normally I wouldn't see or hear from every again. It's fucking amazing.
AC: The whole concept of the Internet as a practical tool/plaything has become the norm in the 13 years since Clerks came out. I doubt the characters playing roof hockey atop the Quick Stop would have been far less interesting to watch had there been such an amazingly versatile procrastination/masturbation device at the time.
KS: I started getting into the Web really hardcore in 1994, after Clerks first came out. Someone asked me if I'd seen any of the Clerks shrines on the Internet, and I was like, what the fuck's the Internet? So I went over to this Internet cafe in Red Bank and had the dude show me how to do a search. I found this Clerks site that just blew me away. Because I had no point of reference, I'd never done anything like that before. I thought, "This is beautiful!" It looks like a book, but it's on the computer. I ended up asking the guy who made it to do one for our production company, View Askew, because it'd be a way to get in touch with the people who actually buy tickets to the movies. The notion that I'd be able to get into the headspace of that person who left their home, drove to a movie theatre, and bought a ticket to watch my work was very interesting to me. Suddenly I had this thing that, if I woke up in the dead of the night, you know, hating myself 'cause I'm fat and I need validation, I could get on the message board and have someone tell me, "No, you're good!" So, beginning in late '95, we've built up this almost Web empire, with NewsAskew.com, MoviesAskew.com, and MoviePoopShoot.com (which just became Quick Stop Entertainment). So, I've always had a number of Web sites going. Then, in March, after a year and a half of Jason Mewes telling me how much I'd love MySpace, I finally went in and checked it out. And, I'll tell you, I've never smoked crack, but I imagine that's what it's like. It's so insanely addictive it's like eating Pringles, one after the other. It's kind of what the Web version 2 represents. The old Web provided content for people, but now it's more like the Web provides the skeleton and you provide the content. And I find that so fascinating because it gives you a little snapshot into everyone's life, with pictures, videos, likes, and dislikes.
AC: And this has benefitted you from a marketing standpoint, as well. You've got a contest where the first 10,000 people to add your page to theirs get their name in the closing credits of Clerks II, right?
KS: Right. What we're doing is a two- or two-and-a-half-minute trailer, essentially, that'll be tacked on to the end of each print. So, it doesn't interfere with our credits proper, which have been locked for a while now. From what I understand they'll be running in three columns, so I think you'll be able to read your name. It's going to be interesting to see the parade of names because not everyone on MySpace goes by their proper name. You've got a lot of "Wampa1" and "Darth Douchebag" types on there, you know?
AC: When and how did you realize a sequel to Clerks might be either artistically or commercially viable? Your foray into semimainstream filmmaking, 2004's Jersey Girl, pretty much tanked, and there's been talk that that was somehow the impetus to return to square one.
KS: Jersey Girl played a role, but it's not the role some people, particularly the vocal minority on the Internet, seem to think it was. When we announced we were going to do Clerks II, that minority, the ones that kind of hate on the stuff I do, were like, "Jersey Girl tanked and now he's just going back to the well." They missed the target, but hit the tree. I knew I was doing Clerks II before Jersey Girl even came out theatrically. It had everything to do with me sitting there shooting Jersey Girl and thinking, man, the next movie I do is going to be low-budget and nobody famous. 'Cause it's weird working with celebrities. I mean, I love Ben Affleck, I keep casting him over and over again, but that was a movie where you're working with two of the most famous people in the world [Affleck and Jennifer Lopez], and you spend two years of your life trying to tell a story and then when you finally go out there to talk about it, all anyone wants to ask is did you see the big pink diamond ring, and what are they really like? Do they fuck a lot? Dude, I was not the third in a menage ã trois in that relationship!
What you realize is that, on a film like that, the backstory overshadows the story you're trying to tell. No filmmaker, no storyteller, wants to be involved in a situation where even people who worked on the movie are more interested in that than the story you're trying to tell. It just kind of defeats the purpose. Otherwise I would have made a Ben and Jen biopic. So, I knew early on that my next film would be smaller with no celebrities.
When I actually wanted to do with Jersey Girl was to tell a story about what it felt like to be in my 30s. And I kind of accomplished that, but not in exactly the way I wanted to do it. I didn't ring all the bells I wanted to ring. And then I thought, well, Clerks was a movie about what it felt like to be in my 20s, maybe I could use Dante and Randal as my proxies yet again, as a way into the story.
AC: The characters of Dante and Randal and Jay and Silent Bob [played, as always, by Smith] are enormously ingratiating fictions, but it has to be said and said loudly: Rosario Dawson completely owns Clerks II. As Becky, Dante's boss and star-crossed paramour, she just lights up the whole screen every time she's on it. How did she come to the project?
KS: She's fucking phenomenal. She doesn't come in and execute, she elevates, man. She came by way of Harvey Weinstein. Harvey was like, "Dude, you've got the four leads locked up with actors that people outside your fan base aren't going to recognize, so you've got to get somebody so that people who aren't fans of yours will recognize at least one one face on the poster." So, he gave us a short list six names of actresses, and told us to try and get one of them to play the female lead and then if none of them were interested, then we could cast anyone we wanted in the role.
For me, I didn't want to put anybody in the movie that was more famous than Brian or Jeff because I didn't want anyone pulled out of the movie, in the sense that you're sitting there watching it, and, suddenly, someone famous shows up, and you stop thinking about the movie's world and start thinking about the real world.
One of the names on the list was Rosario, and I thought there was no way she'd even think about doing Clerks II, because this chick was on a stellar career path and no way was she going to hitch her wagon to our fading, falling fucking star. We went to her first thinking we'd be done with it right away because she's going to say no, and the sooner we can get through this list, the sooner we can cast somebody in the movie. And then she said "Yes!" She must've lost a fucking bet or something.
When I met her the first time at rehearsals I figured out why she'd said yes: She's not a careerist; she's not one of these actresses who want to work with this director and that director and then one day win an Academy Award. She just does shit that she's interested in, stuff that strikes her fancy. And, too, she's also one of very few people I've ever sat down with and had a very knowledgeable conversation about [Jhonen Vasquez's cult comic book] Johnny the Homicidal Maniac with. She talked about her biggest career regret to date being the fact that her five-minute cameo was cut out of Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects! She was crushed. She loves horror movies, and she loves Rob Zombie, and I thought, this is a chick I want to hang out with. And so when I finally got around to asking her why she said yes to Clerks II, she said, "I loved the idea of being at a donkey show. I've always wanted to see that."
AC: There's a sequence in Clerks II where Becky is teaching Dante how to dance to The Jackson Five's "ABC, 123" and it's just perfect in every way, musically, comedically, romantically all across the spectrum.
KS: We had to secure the rights to the song in advance because we were choreographing to it, and it's not the kind of thing you want to leave up to chance. We had to jump through some hoops to get it, too. It was a pretty pricey piece of music, somewhere around 200 grand. I mean, getting that one song in the movie cost eight times as much as all of the original Clerks. But it was kind of essential to get, and we were eventually able to get everyone to sign off on it. There was some talk of getting an updated cover of the song, or a remix or something like that, but I thought, no, there's something really wonderful about the Jackson Five's original it's one of the most infectious pop tunes ever created and when I was writing that scene, that's the song I really, really wanted to use. It just makes you want to dance, and thankfully, we got it.
AC: How has fatherhood impacted your work? Or has it?
KS: I never would have made Jersey Girl had I not had a kid because the movie has a kid at its epicenter. I don't know that I would necessarily have thought of [the pregnancy of a Clerks II character] had I not had a kid. You get to that stage of your life, and suddenly kids become a factor, because now you have one. But that's it, it hasn't really changed my method of working. My wife and I have been very careful to be ourselves around the kid, and me particularly Jenn's [actress Jennifer Schwalbach Smith] much less of a potty mouth than I am. But I made a conscious decision when we had the kid to not rein in our more colorful aspects. If I curse in front of my friends, then I'm going to curse in front of my kid, because it would be so disingenuous not to. I tell my kid "Learn to curse well at a very young age because you can make a very healthy living off of it one day."
So to that degree, we raise her pretty honestly. There's no such thing as bad words, just bad intentions. I tell her to try not to repeat the words she hears from me when she's in school, and that has this weird effect on her, where you'll curse in front of the kid and because of that, she doesn't curse herself. I've never heard her employ any one of the terms I frequently use. It'd be fantastic to hear her say "Cocksucker!," you know, just because it's so funny to hear little kids curse. But she won't do it.
AC: Wait'll she hits puberty.
KS: Oh, man, I can't wait. She'll be cursing, and I'll be all proud. "Ah, yes, that was fantastique!"
Clerks II opens in Austin on Friday, July 21. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.