With his supposed retirement around the corner, Kevin Smith has been busy promoting his horror film Red State, which opened to big, if not slightly manic, buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The movie, which stars John Goodman and Melissa Leo and is out on DVD today, follows a group of hate-mongering Christian fundamentalists and their Fred Phelps–type leader (played by Michael Parks). We spoke with Smith about watching Phelps footage in the dark, bailing on Green Hornet, and “Kevin Smith movies.”
How did you settle on the tone of Red State? It's very different than your other films.
Ah, well, Pulp Fiction was a huge influence. One minute you’re laughing, the next minute somebody gets shot in the face and you’re horrified. People don’t remember, but pre–Pulp Fiction, tone shifts were not prevalent. You didn’t see them a lot in movies. Quentin was definitely able to balance a couple of different tones, and I always wanted to do that. Red State takes that idea and takes it to the absolute furthest degree that I ever imagined taking it myself. The whole movie is not a “Kevin Smith movie.” I guess I just got tired of making “Kevin Smith movies,” like most people got tired of seeing them.
What do you mean?
Part of me was like, “Hey, man, make the movie you always wanted to make.” As much as I love my flicks — I mean, hey, I’m the world’s biggest Kevin Smith fan, in size and spirit — I also like other people’s movies. Quentin, the Coen brothers — these are people I look up to and think, Oh man, I want to be like those guys. I wish I had the talent. So after years and years and years of feeling that way, I thought: You know what? I’m out the door soon. The next one’s the last flick, so why not fit in all those different ways to make a film better? I’ve made “Kevin Smith movies” since the moment I got in the door, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do when I got in. I wanted to do a bunch of different stuff. So since the self-imposed ending is in sight, I thought, Well, let me try a bunch of different shit.
You mentioned not wanting to do any more “Kevin Smith movies.” I imagine that your onetime plan to make a Green Hornet movie fell under that imperative?
Back in the day — in 2003? 2004? — Harvey Weinstein said, “Hey, do you wanna do a comic-book movie?” “Fuck yeah!” “We’ve got the Green Hornet.” Suddenly I got scared. “I can’t make a comic-book movie.” I’m a huge comic-book fan. But that’s not the same as making a comic-book movie. Most of the guys that make comic-book movies go out there saying, “Oh, I don’t even read comics,” like Tim Burton. When he made Batman, he made a big point of saying, “I don’t read comics." Bryan Singer, who did the X-Men movie, he too said, “I’m not a comic-book reader.” So it was weird giving the project to me, who has no visual style whatsoever. And I was sitting there and thinking Harvey was being very sweet and I thought, I can’t do this. I can’t make a $70 million movie. I started choking. I had six meetings with marketers and toy companies and cross-promotion before I even sat down and wrote a word of the script. I was just like, “You know what, man? I am so not the guy for this. I had to think about it and I just can’t do this kind of thing. It’s not in my wiring.” At that point, I hadn’t made a movie for more than $35 million. So if I’m going to make a $70 million movie, I’d rather risk it on my ideas than somebody else’s.
Where'd the idea for Red State come from?
I’d seen my friend Malcolm Ingram’s documentary Small Town Gay Bar, which doesn’t bury its lead — it’s right there in the title. In it, one of the bars depicted is in Viridian, Mississippi, and that’s where [Westborough Baptist Church leader] Fred Phelps is from. So Malcolm sits down and interviews Fred Phelps, which is five minutes of the doc. But still, I said to him, “Dude, you sat down with the devil! What was that like?” And Malcolm’s gay as the day is long and fair. He looks like me except he’s got dicks all over him. So I asked him, “What was he like?” And he says, “Fuckin’ scary. He’s a scary dude. Gotta be honest with you, about twenty minutes into it, it’s all the same thing, just hate, hate, hate. My eyes start to roll, but he had this beautiful grandson sitting off to the side. I started staring at his dick through his pants.” I was like, “Right on.”
So he interviews Phelps for an hour, but my old lady won’t let me watch the footage. She goes, “Fuck them. Don’t you dare put the man on in my house" and shit. I said, “All right, I won’t.” So I had to go find a TV in the other room. I pop it in, and I feel so weird because I’m sitting closer to the screen than when I was 11 trying to watch Porky’s. Here I am, cheating on my wife by trying to watch this Fred Phelps video. And maybe it’s because I was so close to the screen and because all the lights were off and shit and the conditions for watching it were perfect — but it was creepy and unsettling. It’s all hate speech, it’s all Hitler, it’s all divide and conquer, it’s all intolerance.
Would you say it's part of your agenda to deliver a message that’s in some way guaranteed to piss people off?
Here’s the secret to that: If you’re passionate about something and you pour it into the work, you’re going to piss somebody off. That’s the reason why I’m still here. I mean, twenty years is a long [filmmaking career] for a man with no identifiable, discernible talent. Your perspective is your most unique aspect about you. It’s the only thing in this life, or in this art, rather, that might give you an edge. I’ve been trying to figure out, “Why me?” I’m a nice guy, but I just can’t help but irritate some people. And after years, I think, Maybe I’m just one of those fuckers that pisses people off.