This piece is a part of Sexpositions, a weeklong Vulture celebration of sex scenes in movies and on TV.
As a veteran of battles over his films Clerks, Jersey Girl, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Kevin Smith is intimately familiar with the MPAA Ratings Board. The issues with those first two efforts were largely linguistic. Zack and Miri, not so much. The ever-voluble writer-director explained how, exactly, he was able to avoid having his Seth Rogen–Elizabeth Banks sex romp branded with a dreaded, box-office-killing NC-17 rating.
The initial NC-17 rating for Zack and Miri and Make a Porno was predicated on the thrusting in one scene, and the shit shot, and that was stolen from Barry Sonnenfeld. I’d heard him tell a story about working on a porno set early in his career and being there when — splat! — he got sprayed on. That drove him out of porn. So I was like, Wow! There’s a real basis, and if you’re a movie geek, you’ll get the reference. Even though it’s such an inside reference, it’s a funny bit, so we included it in the movie. And you know, it’s very tastefully done, as tastefully as one can do someone shitting in one’s face, or spraying, if you will, in one’s face. It’s certainly not my finest hour, but a good bit. So the whole movie, man, Zack and Miri, we figured they’re probably going to try and tag us on some level.
Knowing that going in, I made sure everything kind of worked within the boundaries. And [the MPAA] were like, “This movie will never get an R as long as that [shit] scene is in the movie. You got to cut out the shot all together.” I think it was a one-second shot? Fourteen frames. I was like, “You’re telling me the difference between a NC-17 and an R is 14 frames? Well, I submit to you Jackass Number Two and the fart helmet. A kid’s wearing a helmet with a hose, and he’s trying so hard to fart that he actually shits down it. And you guys let that fly, so how is fake poo any sort of real threat to a 16-year-old more than the real poo of Jackass? Why should Zack and Miri be penalized?” And then, with the thrusting, I brought up the example of the Angelina Jolie movie that had just come out, Taking Lives. I was like, “Her and Ethan Hawke go from kissing to fucking on the dresser, and the thrusts are so intense, I got a little turgid watching it. Clearly, that is meant to be realistic fucking. Our fucking is ridiculously comedic fucking. Nobody buys in a million years that our people are actually fucking.”
In Zack and Miri, the first time they were shooting the porn, there was a thrusting, and [the MPAA] was like, “We want less thrusting.” That was the bit I was ready to horse-trade. I was ready to go, “I’ll take all the thrusting out of that scene if you give me the shit shot.” That’s the kind of weird situation you get into with the MPAA. I know that there are some cats who are like, “I put in ridiculously fucked-up shit in my movie hoping that it’s a lightening rod and that will attract their attention, and then I use other stuff that I don’t care about as a sacrificial lamb.” I didn’t want to game it like that. I’d seen enough movies to know that what I’m showing might push a little bit, but it does not go beyond the edge. The shit shot, even that, it’s a cause-and-effect shot. You’re not seeing it emit, and it was 14 frames. I never felt like, Ah, man, this is going to be the one that takes us down. I’d seen Boogie Nights, and there was a lot of thrusting in that movie. You see a fake dick. So I was like, “All right, we’ve seen these things before,” and that was years before Zack and Miri Make a Porno. We had a barometer. We had a title that intimated a lot, and there was a little bit of, “Look at this!” but we didn’t break any new ground. It wasn’t like, “We’re going to show you cinematic sex in a way you’ve never seen it!” Like every stupid Kevin Smith movie, it’s more about people talking about sex than anything else.
A dude named Ethan Noble was the first person to talk to the MPAA for us about Zack and Miri’s rating. He arranged for me and Joan Graves [head of classification and rating administration for the MPAA] to get on the phone. We were trying to figure out exactly what we were focusing on. There were things where I was like, “I can cut some thrusting. I can bring the sound down on the shit shot.” But even though she was like, “We don’t have a deal,” and I had to go in and appeal it, I still made those changes, because that was kind of easy. I brought down some squishy noises. It’s a sound mix more than anything. But I never had to recut a scene to avoid an NC-17 rating. I’m a lazy filmmaker. I don’t want to go back over the same tracks that already I’ve gone over. It wasn’t “This is a First Amendment battle for freedom of speech!” It was “I don’t want to go back and cut this!” So maybe that’s why it worked, because it wasn’t so much like, “Man, this is about freedom of expression.” The MPAA didn’t say, “Cut this!” and I wasn’t like, “Okay, I’ll cut that.” That’s why I went to the appeal.
At the appeal, Joan and I had both said our parts. I was nervous because you can’t really say, “Those 14 frames should be included as an R rating for the betterment of society.” Like, you know, it’s a crap shoot! Literally, pun intended. So this was the only time I thought I might lose the appeal, and once you lose the appeals process, you’ve got to cut. That’s it. I was getting ready to ask Joan, “All right, I’ll horse-trade. I’ll get rid of the thrusting or I’ll lose another shot if you just let me keep the shit shot.” I was literally starting the conversation, because we were outside the theater where the appeal was being held, and then the door opened, and we both turned, and the lady coming out goes, “They overturned it. You’re an R.” And so I said, “Joan! Excellent to see you. Hopefully I won’t see you on the next one!” And she was like, “Good to see you, Kevin,” with that look of like, You prick. Like, I can’t believe they overturned it, but very nice. Then off I went, and they never had me in again.