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The Beginner’s Guide: Kevin Smith, Director

The Beginner’s Guide: Kevin Smith, Director

Kevin Smith

The independent film movement of the 1990’s allowed for a range of young, hungry filmmakers to move to a forefront which many directors nary got a chance to experience in the past. Yearning for voices which were “out of the box” in story, dialogue and acting, these indie flicks began to span beyond just arthouse cinema. Creatives didn’t always have to rely on big studio backing to get their projects off the ground.

Often rough and raw, the films and their visionary maestros orchestrated their ideas into small budget foundations as a calling card for future endeavors. Gumption and innovation to bring non-Hollywood concepts to the screen on a shoestring budget helped to shape new ways of making movies rather than waiting for a big break to find them.

Although a majority of these productions might be looked at as pretentious and over the heads of the average audience, there were some directors who knew how to blend a mainstream – some might call crass – mentality with the intellectual verbiage and gravitas found in films released by their peers.

One prolific figure at this time was writer/director/(sometimes silent) actor Kevin Smith. An everyman with a knowledge of film, Smith bridged that gap for many moviegoers who may never have imagined stepping foot in an arthouse theater to see a little known film. Scripting lowbrow humor with highbrow dialogue, Smith made his first foray with the micro-budgeted Clerks in 1994, a raunchy buddy comedy about life behind the counter of adjoined convince/video stores. Pulling from his own experience as a clerk, this day in the life journey took a simple narrative concept and sculpted it into an outlandish farce of everyday life at a menial job.

Over time, his fan base has grown into an audience all his own. Foul-mouthed, optimistic, and self-deprecatingly honest, Kevin Smith has evolved into a creative whose work has expanded into television, literature, public speaking and, most recently, podcasting. The true definition of a self-made man, the following is a journey into the off-beat world of this New Jersey native.

A Film School Drop Out Makes Good

Born and raised in the town of Red Bank, New Jersey, this small beach community serves as the epicenter of where it all started for Kevin Smith. Often basing (or at least referencing) his cinematic misadventures in his hometown, Smith pulls from his roots, sometimes lampooning the life he led there. But his creative muse actually spawned after a trip to Manhattan where he saw Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991) on his 21st birthday.

Realizing story can outweigh budget, he enrolled in the Vancouver Film School, a venture which lasted a mere four months, but introduced him to friends and fellow creatives, Scott Mosier and Dave Klein, both of whom help to create Clerks. Maxing out a slew of credit cards, borrowing from family and selling his beloved comic books, the total spent on the entire production was $27,575. Assisted by local talent, friends and family as both crew and performers, Smith worked all day and shot all night using his workplace as the set.

Clerks tells is the bawdy tale of two friends dealing with getting older, relationships, living in the past and what lies ahead told through pop movie references, dirty jokes and eccentric characters. The film revolves around Dante Hicks, a self-loather who sees the glass half empty. Clerking at Quick Stop Convenience Store, he dreams of more but holds himself back even with prodding by his girlfriend Veronica to get back in school.

Clerks
Clerks (1994) – source: Miramax

The Yin to Dante’s Yang is Randal Graves, a sardonic wise-ass content with working at the neighboring RST Video, watching movies and making fun of idiotic customers. A “day in the life” story, Clerks had its characters deal with life choices through a mix of real emotion and outlandishly risqué comedy, a trademark of Kevin Smith’s voice as a writer. Based loosely on friends and relationships, Smith is famous for being candid with his personal life both on and off-screen. A reflection seen in several of his endeavors.

Not intending to be on screen at the time, Smith took on the role of a stoic pot dealer named Silent Bob, who, with his hyper-kinetic stoner cohort Jay, played by childhood friend Jason Mewes, spend their time loitering outside the stores. Their antics and observations serve to both annoy and enlighten Dante and Randal in an almost Greek Chorus of profanity throughout the film. Popular amongst audiences, Jay and Silent Bob eventually become the bridge which intertwines the plots of several of Smith’s future films, comic adaptations and a short-lived animated series which culminates into one banner called the View Askewniverse, affectionately named after Kevin Smith’s first production company View Askew.

 

A solid success for a limited release, Clerks garnered a name for the first-time director and helped him get his foot into the door to receive studio backing for his follow-up Mallrats (1995). Seen as a failure by critics, the mass appeal for two loafers rekindling love with their girlfriends at the mall would not find its audience until becoming a cult classic when it hit video. Bringing back fan faves Jay and Silent Bob, the film also marked the début performance of Jason Lee and co-starred Linklater alum Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams; all of whom would go on to work with Kevin Smith on his third film Chasing Amy (1997).

Boiling It Down to The Essentials

Getting back to his roots, Chasing Amy marked a return to the smaller more intimate tone which worked so well in Clerks. With a modest budget and a sharp personal story, Smith found his footing once more. The film tells the story of Holden McNeill (Affleck), a successful comic book artist who falls for a fellow comic creator named Alyssa Jones (Adams). Crushed by the realization that Alyssa is a lesbian, Holden begins to strain his life-long friendship with his own comic’s co-creater, Banky Edwards (Lee), as his attempts to win her heart.

Told from a personal place, critics and audiences praised the film and its director, proving that Smith may have tripped with Mallrats, but had far from fallen. The characters of Jay and Silent Bob also appear as both comic book illustrations of Bluntman and Chronic in the film as well as in a brief, yet profound cameo to cap off the picture, leaving a hint as to their next adventure in the View Askewniverse.

Dogma
Dogma (1999) – source: Lionsgate Films

Dogma (1999) gave us the continuing the saga of Jay and Silent Bob who become unwilling prophets in this religious comedy. When two fallen angels find a way back into Heaven through a dogmatic loophole, it’s up to a muse, a forgotten Apostle and Jesus’ ancestor to stop them from negating all existence. An ode to both his Catholic upbringing and comic book roots, the film plays with religious conventions and fantasy elements which would later suit Smith well as a comic book writer.

The film brought back his regular rotation of talent in addition to a cavalcade of star power including Linda Fiorentino, Matt Damon, Selma Hayek, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock and George Carlin giving the film an added boost at the box office. As to be expected the film drew the ire of many religious groups, though was well-liked by critics and fans alike.

His next feature would take the lovable miscreants on their wackiest adventure yet. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) afforded Smith to throw convention out the door and really let loose. Cartoonish in approach, the plot took our heroes on a cross-country adventure to stop the movie version of Bluntman and Chronic from being made.

Starring Will Farrell, Eliza Dushku, Shannon Elizabeth and more cameos than you can count, the movie also included nearly every character from past Askewniverse films, seemingly bringing the story of these intrepid stoners to a triumphant close. Or at least a brief hiatus. A fan film at its finest, Smith knows his audience and delivered a nostalgic romp to his fans, even if the critics were lukewarm with the end result.

The Curse of Bennifer The 1st

In true Hollywood fashion, the celebrity romance of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck made ink around the globe. It was at this time when they were cast in the widely despised film Gigli (2003) and Kevin Smith’s first foray into a non-Askewniverse picture, Jersey Girl (2004).

After the failure for Gigli to perform at the box office, the break-up of the power couple which soon followed took its toll on Jersey Girl. Only spending a few minutes of screen time together, critics and fans did not take to this romantic comedy about a single dad trying dealing with the loss of a wife and finding new love. A solid comedy in many respects, Smith would go on to bring levity to the situation through razing the film in a lighthearted way whenever mentioned.

Across the Askewniverse

Coming full circle, Smith made Clerks II in 2006. Continuing the story of Dante and Randal, now working at a fast food restaurant, the sequel finds the friends still struggling to find their way in the world.

Written from the heart, Smith spins a tale of friendship in the style he made famous over a decade earlier. Harshly compared to the original by some, fans of the franchise rarely wane in support for any effort by Smith. A director grown-up from his first feature, Clerks II is a more than worthy addition to the Jersey Saga. With a third Clerks and a Mallrats sequel already written, this universe is ever-expanding. And his fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hollywood Strikes Back

Zach and Miri Make A Porno (2008) and Cop Out (2010) had a strange and very personal effect on the veteran director on both his career and personal life.

With up and coming comedy talent in Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks, the story of two platonic friends making a skin flick to get out of debt seemed to have a strong chance with critics. Hit with middling reviews and a weak fan turnout, the film also was condemned for its use of “lewd” advertisements promoting the film. But what came next would take its biggest toll on Smith.

Zach and Miri make a Porno Kevin Smith
Zach And Miri Make a Porno (2008) – source: The Weinstein Company/MGM

Cop Out marked the second, and last time, Kevin Smith would work with A-Lister Bruce Willis. Having met on the set of Live Free or Die Hard in 2007 in an acting capacity, Smith agreed to direct Willis in the buddy cop farce co-starring Tracy Morgan. Not quiet about his negative feelings towards Willis both on and off set, Smith has skewered the actor for his difficult and often “soul-crushing” behaviour during shooting. After being bashed by critics, the fed-up director fired back with several choice words, leaving a rift between the auteur and reviewers.

The Thing on the Plane

Adding injury to insult, in April of 2010 Kevin Smith was handed a personal blow in the form of public embarrassment. While boarding a Southwest Airlines flight, Smith was asked to leave the plane due to his weight being a safety issue. Not shy about poking fun at his size, Smith took the airline to task on Twitter, lambasting their policy and how abhorrently the situation was handled by the crew. The incident, nicknamed “Too Fat to Fly” by Smith, soon became national news, leaving him on the defensive against both his critics and the airline.

Deciding to take a break from directing, Smith concentrated on building his SmodCo Podcasting network. Known for his epic storytelling both on the mic and on stage, he built a powerful following with his wide range of talk shows and public speaking engagements. After months of soul-searching and getting out his aggression towards naysayers, inspiration found the director in the form of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. While watching all he could about “The Great One” a quote from the player’s father and coach, Walter Gretzky, motivated Smith to become the creative he wanted, but this time on his terms. The advice, simply put, “Don’t go to where the puck is, go where it’s gonna be.”

With hockey stick in hand, Smith announced that his next film, Red State, would be a true indie venture, free from the trappings of wasted advertising money and studio rules. Later that year, he toured the film personally, going city to city and ending each showing with a Q & A by himself and the actors involved. The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York to a crowd of excited fans.

The film, inspired by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, told the story of three teenage boys being held as sacrifice by a sect of religious fanatics. A genre not yet tackled by the seasoned director, Red State handled the heavy subject matter with a quiet pace crescendoing into a bullet riddled final act. Starring Michael Parks as the Bible-thumping head of the order, Smith admits that after re-watching his performance in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) he had to cast Parks in the lead. Not loved by the critics whom Smith had disavowed, fans of the director came out in full support of the picture.

True North Trilogy

Inspired by an article read on episode #259 of his popular Smodcast podcast, Kevin Smith and co-host Scott Mosier discussed an ad, later proved to be a hoax, where a man seeks a roommate willing to dress and act like a walrus for free room and board. Thinking it would be an odd idea for a film, Smith went to Twitter once more, asking fans to vote on whether to make the movie.

Tusk Kevin Smith
Tusk (2014) – source: A24

With a resounding green light from the audience, #WalrusYes won the day. Filmed in 15 days under his new production company Smodco Films, Tusk became the first in a horror series called the True North Trilogy. Receiving his oddest reviews yet, Tusk was a tough sell for some. Smith often talks about the wonderful time he had as he was able to bring in his daughter Harley Quinn Smith as well as father/daughter combo Johnny and Lily-Rose Depp to star in it. The three returned for the second part of the series Yoga Hosers (2016), a female driven horror-comedy. The trilogy will conclude with Moose Jaws, aptly titled to be Jaws with a moose.

Conclusion

With sequels to his classic films in the works, his assisting of young filmmakers through his company name, turning passion for comics into a store, later made the popular reality series Comic Book Men starring his childhood friends and writing on popular comic titles such as Batman, there is no end in sight for this motivated artist.

As stated earlier, Kevin Smith is a self-made director who has, love him or hate him, grown into a media icon. Heard on several podcasts, talk shows, public speaking engagements and social media, Smith’s lack for never pulling any punches about his personal life, has become an open book to his public. A refreshing change from the often apologetic nature so many celebrities are guilted into assuming. A late-in-life marijuana smoker, he is rarely seen with a frown on his face or a negative quip. Smith has always been honest about his projects and often inspires others with the advice found in his darkest time, “go to where the puck is gonna be.”

The career of Kevin Smith seems far from complete and it will be interesting to see where he leads audiences next.

What is your favorite Smith film?

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