With the release of his first feature, Clerks, Kevin Smith was right on time. He had the right story — sub-$30,000 budget, financed through credit-card debt — and the right mix of Gen-X ennui and film-snob pretension to be heralded by critics as one of the leading lights of independent cinema. As the ’90s progressed and that love affair slowly unraveled, Smith began focusing all his attention on super-serving his superfans. It is through that relationship that Smith found himself genuinely ahead of his time in terms of narrowcasting, podcasting, movies with a connected universe, and talking about nerd shit.
Now all these years and failed attempts to win over detractors later, Smith has embraced maybe being a bit behind the moment. His people are his people. Especially after his 2018 heart attack, he’s content making Kevin Smith movies for Kevin Smith fans. That included 2019’s Jay and Silent Bob Reboot and Clerks III, the third installment of the trilogy that he’s currently touring around the country.
On Good One, Smith talks about recurring Star Wars references in his movies, maintaining his comedic voice over the years, and how to take — or ignore — creative feedback. You can listen to the full episode below and tune in to Good One every other Thursday wherever you get your podcasts.
Every Clerks movie, at the beginning of the second act, has a scene where each character talks about Star Wars. In the original it is the legendary conversation about Death Star contractors. Where did it come from?
It’s the harbinger of the internet. When this movie came out, the internet hadn’t gone mainstream, but that conversation is what the internet would become. The origins of that scene go back to me watching Return of the Jedi for probably the 28th time with my then ex-girlfriend Kim Loughran at her house. We got to that third act where Luke finally goes for it, and Vader blocks the shot. So the movie ends, and for the next two hours, I kept talking to Kim about this scene — if he just spins and cuts through the back of the chair and cuts this dude in half. And she’s like, “Well, that’s not what happened.” So, the over-analysis of Star Wars begins with Kim Loughran.
Then, me and Scott Mosier met at the Vancouver Film School. I try a Star Wars conversation out on Scott because I watch the trilogy one night, and then we go to the coffee shop between classes and I start hitting him up with, “It occurs to me that with the Emperor being a kind of holy figure, this is a movie about theocracy.” Scott was agnostic to the point of atheist, I was Catholic, so we start breaking it down. I’ll never forget: There was a dude in my periphery who was reading a newspaper. And the deeper Scott and I got into talking about Star Wars, the paper went down and the dude just leaned back and started listening. And it occurred to me that, Oh, everyone likes Star Wars now. This was at a time when they were just three huge movies and then they stopped and that was that — they were memories.
So in 2006, a decade later, in Clerks II, the equivalent of that scene is a fight over Lord of the Rings, where Randal basically is pissed that anyone would put those movies in the same conversation as Star Wars. I know this started as something you’d talk about at live shows. How do you turn that material into a movie scene?
Well, Clerks II is an interesting beast. I love the movie, but it’s all artifice. Clerks came right out of my real life; I just changed names. Clerks III, same thing. Clerks II, none of that’s true. It’s like Dante and Randal fan fiction. So I was like, Well, I got to create this whole cloth. What could I use? What would extend it? And I was like, Oh, you know, it fucking kills every time I do that Lord of the Rings bit. So, Elias is not just a Jesus guy but a Lord of the Rings guy, and Randal is more like a fucking original trilogy guy, Star Wars guy. That’s essentially me being me. I performed that bit for a while onstage, and when I sat down to write Clerks II years later I was like, Oh my God, I’m totally cherry picking. I remember showing Jeff exactly how I’ve done the bit live. It was a nice little showcase piece, not because I’m talented or something, but because everyone knows those Lord of the Rings movies, just like everyone knew those Star Wars movies back in the day.
I was talking about you with one of our film critics, and we agreed it’s really impressive that you were able to maintain your comedic voice throughout your entire career. Is doing essentially stand-up to credit for that?
Absolutely. If I was just a comedy filmmaker, I would sharpen my chops once every two years. Maybe — if I’m lucky, if I can get the financing. But if I’m interacting with an audience on a regular basis 200, 250 nights of the year, that’s going to keep me sharp. Podcasting as well. When we started back in 2007, we just thought we were having fun, but it was comedy fucking boot camp. It really helps to stay in practice on a regular basis, and filmmaking is no regular practice. It’s a very special-occasion sort of thing unless you’re fucking Steven Spielberg or Tyler Perry.
I didn’t start as a comedian. I backdoored into it because of the movies: They throw you out there after the movie, and you’re supposed to answer questions. And from the first film, I never felt like I could wax erudite on filmmaking. I just made one. So, I was like, I’m gonna go the Carlin route. Somebody puts a fucking mic in my hand, make them laugh. So, instead I’d be like, “Let me tell you how we got the cat to shit.” Then you start telling the fun making-of stories, which later on would become the spine to Clerks III.
You’ve talked about having a massive realization editing Clerks II while rewatching the scene in which Randal says he wants to buy and reopen the Quick Stop. You’ve said it made you realize you shouldn’t just worry about what other people want from you and make your movies. But your next three movies — Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Cop Out, and Red State — are the antithesis of this lesson. They are your three movies you did make to try to please other people. This is not to call bullshit, but I was wondering if this is a big struggle for you?
Yeah. It ain’t like in the movies, where the moral happens and the motherfucker changes and “happily ever after” and then credits. Sometimes you get the lesson, and then enacting the lesson takes a long time.
In the interim, I was trying to have a career. We made Clerks II for like nothing — I gave up my salary to make it, which wasn’t that huge. With Zack and Miri, I thought, Oh, everyone’s going to get paid, and we’re going to have a movie star. Also, I was already committed by the time we were editing Clerks II. Cop Out came from having a nervous breakdown because of Zack and Miri, and I could’ve been talked into anything. Somebody was like, “What about during a script you didn’t write?” And I was like, “Soderbergh does it,” despite never in my life me being like, Well, me and Soderbergh are alike. But in that one moment, I was like, Well, he’s a director and he also directs other people’s stuff, and then he directs his stuff, so maybe I should investigate this. And I thought, I’m going to hang out with Bruce Willis every day. And I wasn’t wrong!
And Red State I compare to the scene in The Freshman, when Marlon Brando looks around Matthew Broderick’s dorm and, apropos of nothing, goes, “So, this is college. I didn’t miss anything.” Red State was me going, Jesus, they’re always on my dick about making Kevin Smith movies. Let me try to make a movie that I’m supposed to make. Let me see if I can make a fucking movie that somebody else would make. Let me try to make a Quentin Tarantino movie by way of the Coen brothers. If I took my name off that, nobody would fucking know it was me. And when I was done, I was like, So, this is “good” filmmaking. I didn’t miss anything. That’s when I was like, I’m retiring. There was a three-year period where I was like, I’m done with this. That was also Soderbergh inspired, because he retired and I was like, We can do that! We could just stop! Okay, I guess I’m stopped.
Do you feel like you are more sensitive to feedback than other directors because you’re out there on the road with your fans?
I always have been more sensitive to feedback than other filmmakers are. I’ve met so many over the course of my career, and like yeah, of course we want to be loved, but so many of them are like, “I don’t read the reviews.” I don’t do it anymore. But that took a lifetime — literally. It took 20 years or more of my career to be like, Why are you bothering? You did this for you. This is an act of masturbation. When you jerk off, you don’t go to others for approval afterwards. Why the fuck are you looking for approval?
There was a time when that was so important to me. I mean, my career was born from that. Critics particularly carried Clerks as far toward the mainstream as they could, considering the movie never played on more than 50 screens. I was always very amenable to feedback. I hate bringing up the name, but back in the day before he was known for being a fucking convicted rapist, Harvey Weinstein was known for being Harvey Scissorhands, cutting movies up and shit. He never did that with me because I’d beat him to it. I was like, I don’t want people sitting there any longer than they need to.
So slowly over time, you learn to listen to what’s important and leave out what’s opinion. People can definitely have fucking great suggestions. And when you’re making a comedy, it’s very easy. Don’t even need to say words — you just be in a room with them and if they’re not laughing, you know, Got it. That can go. But I have always been very open to suggestions, and I listen far too much. I think that’s because I was raised Catholic and I was raised by Grace Smith. That’s just the way it is. It’s death before discourtesy. You would never hurt somebody’s fucking feelings, even if they’re hurting yours.
In Clerks III, Dante is trying to figure out who he is in Randal’s life and is putting it in terms of characters from Star Wars. How has what you’ve been able to get away with reference-wise changed, and why was this the Star Wars scene this time around?
Yeah, you can drop a Lobot reference. We still have to explain it just in case for those that don’t go that deep, but it’s pretty clear everyone’s familiar with these characters at this point. So, if you are making a Clerks movie, there has to be a Star Wars something. This is sort of a remnant from the old version of Clerks, where there was a scene that was cut where Randal and Dante were down on themselves and insulting each other by calling themselves action figures. And at the end of the movie, Dante’s message to Randal was like, “Don’t be Darth, be Luke.” So, a variation of that got rewritten and put into this, and it kind of became one of the parting thoughts in the third act.
That had everything to do with while I knew I had to include a Star Wars something, I felt like rather than just be clever like the Death Star contractors, it could be useful to the story. As a young artist, I wouldn’t have known, but as an old artist I’ve got experience with like, Well, let’s call this a setup and let’s call back on it later as a payoff. No one’s going to see it as a setup right now. They’re going to see it as the guys talking about Star Wars and all is right with the world. And then when you get to the end, you’re going to realize, Oh, yeah, Kev was threading the needle, wasn’t he?
What is it about you that turns your fans into giant nerds about your work, myself included?
There are some people who are successful with their films, and that just prolongs their career. If we were based on my shit on monetary returns, I would have been out the door years ago. But I think it’s been the constant engagement, the constant Here, I’m going to tear out my heart and tell you what’s inside. I’ve never been like, I’m better than you at this. I’m the first guy to be like, They’re all fucking better than me. So there’s nothing threatening about me. I don’t put on airs. I think that makes people like rooting for me, and that’s worked in my favor forever.
Jersey helps. Like, you can never fucking discount the working-class hero vibe that you get just coming from that fucking state. And I was literally a working-class hero, like the people who built that mythos before me. Like Bruce, like Bon Jovi, man. Like fucking Frank Sinatra. I was schlepping it. And then my dream came true, and then everyone found out about it. But that state is aching with credibility. People will say, “You’ll be honest, Jersey.” “Why do you think that?” “Because you’re Jersey.” That makes the difference as well. If I was born in Rhode Island, my career would be over.
This interview excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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