Mr. Smith goes to Hollywood

by James Hebert | Aug 29, 2001
Mr. Smith goes to Hollywood In the world of movies, Kevin Smith is a moderately well-known director of quirky, independent features. In the world of comic books, Smith is the equivalent of a rock star. Maybe a quartet of them.

"Right now it`s a small pond, and I`m a pretty big fish," Smith says on a recent morning outside the San Diego Convention Center, shortly before he is due to sign autographs for scads of fans at the annual comics-biz blowout known as Comic-Con.

"And I`d be lying if I said I didn`t enjoy that. I walk onto the Comic-Con floor and I`m John, Paul, George and Ringo."

If Kevin Mania reigns among the Comic-Con crowd, it`s because Smith has stayed loyal to a scene he embraced - and that in turn embraced him - long before his movie career took off.

Since his first film, the black-and-white slacker comedy "Clerks," came out in 1994, Smith has risen from indie-movie obscurity to Hollywood presence, hanging out with such stars as Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (whose reputations he helped make) and inking film deals in the millions. But he still writes comic books - he`s now working on a fifth edition of the Green Arrow series for DC Comics, among other projects. He still runs a comic-book store back in his New Jersey hometown. He still comes to Comic-Con every year, to sign comics and to do Q&A sessions like the one the previous day, a standing-room-only event that had fans lining up hours in advance.

And the plot of his fifth and latest movie, "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," even revolves around a comic book. (Smith also appears in the movie as Silent Bob, the zip-lipped pinhead who has popped up in three of his previous films.)

"I love comics," says Smith, 31. "Comics right now are a really great place for me, because it`s the best-kept secret in the entertainment industry."

Still bleary-eyed from a late screening and other events the previous evening, Smith puffs on a Marlboro and sucks down coffee as he talks. His ample frame is draped in an unassuming sweater vest and denim shorts, something Silent Bob himself might wear under his ever-present trench coat. There is absolutely nothing silent about Smith, as the tirelessly talkative (and abundantly profane) director is the first to point out. He`s also not shy about touting his work: He notes with relish, for example, how the Bob character outscores Jay among test-screening audiences.

But Smith also likes to poke fun at his acting. He notes: "Chris Rock called me the white Buckwheat. He said: `Your reactions are so huge! If you were black, you`d be drummed out of the business. And out of the race entirely. Our own people would hunt you down.`"

When he cheerleads for his movies, which is often, he uses the pronoun "we" rather than "I." His cinematic role model is John Belushi`s Bluto, from "Animal House." His cell phone, for some reason, plays "Jingle Bells" when it rings.

Here is how intertwined Smith`s movie canon has become with his comic-book career: "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" follows the title duo`s bumbling quest to sabotage a movie project that is based on a comic book called "Bluntman and Chronic."

They`re on the warpath because the comic, and hence the movie, is based on them, and they`ve not only been cut out of the action but have become the subjects of ridicule on the Internet.

The "Bluntman and Chronic" comic actually first popped up in Smith`s 1997 film "Chasing Amy," which starred Ben Affleck as a comic-book artist. And Bob and Jay are based on Smith and his real-life childhood buddy, Jason Mewes - who portrays Jay in the movies.

Now you might begin to see why Smith calls this brain-warping aggregation of characters and stories the View Askew Universe. You might also begin to see why it was inevitable that Smith bring them all together in one big, movie-within-a-comic-within-another-movie orgy of inside jokes and self-reference.

Even if that isn`t quite what he set out to do.

"For years, I hadn`t been a fan of movies about making movies," says Smith, who attended film school briefly in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Particularly in the indie field. It seemed that in the time I was coming up, that`s what most filmmakers, or a good portion of them, wanted to do.

"Some of these people were first-timers, and you`re sitting there going, `What do you know about making movies?`"

As he began to write the script, though, "it turned into essentially one of those. But I felt OK about it because I do have the benefit of hindsight. I`ve been doing it for seven years, and you can compress a lot of material into it.

"And it certainly does not hurt in the least that some of our friends have become very famous and have a body of work they can comment on."

The movie is the fourth and last in what Smith calls his "New Jersey Chronicles." It closes out the semi-autobiographical odyssey that began with "Clerks" and continued with "Mallrats" (1995) and "Chasing Amy." (Smith`s 1999 religious satire "Dogma" was not part of the Jersey series, although it did feature appearances by Jay and Silent Bob.) Among the many "Chronicles" icons who return are Affleck and Jason Lee, two actors whose first teamings with Smith in "Mallrats" came well before they achieved fame.

The movie takes great glee in skewering Hollywood actors and studios - including its own actors and Smith`s own patron studio, Miramax. (Although "Jay and Silent Bob" is being released by subsidiary Dimension Films, Miramax released "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy.")

At one point, a Hollywood drug dealer tells Jay and Bob on the street, "Miramax accounts for 78 percent of my business out here." Shannen Doherty, Mark Hamill and "Dawson`s Creek" heartthrob James Van Der Beek all take shots at their real-life selves ("You actually watch that show?" Van Der Beek asks Jay and Bob). Also dropping in: George Carlin, Will Ferrell, Jon Stewart, Shannon Elizabeth, director Gus Van Sant and a host of other cameos-makers.

Not everyone who was invited came to the parody party. Smith had heard Freddie Prinze Jr., who has starred in several Dimension films, was a fan. So Smith sent over a script.

"The word we heard back was he or one of his reps called somebody at Miramax to say: `Why do you guys suddenly hate me? Why would you let this happen?,`" Smith says. "As if it was a real character assassination. Rather than pursue it, and try to convince him otherwise, you just want to get away from a person like that as quickly as possible - (someone) who just does not get it."

By contrast, the most sporting self-target is Affleck. He not only tolerates being derisively called "Bounce Boy" by his buddy Matt Damon - a jibe at Affleck`s role in the sappy romancer "Bounce" - but also plays exactly the sort of pompous prima donna many people believe he is in real life.

Affleck "relished the opportunity to put the pin in the balloon, so to speak - to kind of deflate his own image," says Smith. "And whether it`s an image he cultivated or the media has cultivated for him, I think the idea of stealing the thunder really appealed to him.

"I think after this movie, he`s got a pass for a few years."

STIRRING THINGS UP

Smith, on the other hand, may never get a pass from detractors of one stripe or another. The mild-mannered director has a knack for stirring up controversies.

Most famous were the Catholic-led protests against "Dogma," which made Disney-affiliated Miramax squeamish enough to hand over distribution to Lions Gate.

Then there were his recent, not-so-complimentary comments about fellow director Paul Thomas Anderson and his "Magnolia," which stirred a mini-fatwa among Anderson fans.

"It`s not my favorite movie in the world, and I did find it grueling to sit through, for any number of reasons," Smith says now. "One of them being that (Anderson) spent $40 million to tell a story he could have, and probably should have, spent far less on.

"If you`re going to do an open wound of a movie that`s going to appeal to this many people," he adds, making a "pinch" gesture with his fingers, "do it on the cheap.

"But my big regret was ever saying something publicly. I do regret having said it. Not having felt it, but having said it in such a derogatory fashion. Because you know on some level it must have caused him duress."

And the tempests continue - including two fresh ones (in August) alone. First, the gay-advocacy group GLAAD condemned "Jay and Silent Bob" as "one big gay joke."

(Smith fired back: "I`m not sorry, because I didn`t make jokes at the expense of the gay community. I made jokes at the expense of (Jay and Silent Bob). They`re idiots. ... And by making them and other mental midgets in the film so leery of homosexuality, I`m making fun of a mindset that exists in our culture.")

Then there was a curious episode in which Smith intimated that "Planet of the Apes" director Tim Burton stole the ending for the movie from a comic book Smith did three years ago. Smith even posted a possibly incriminating image on his Web site. He later insisted the whole thing was a joke, and that he respects Burton`s work.

Burton nevertheless shot back, through his publicist: "I have not seen the image and anybody that knows me knows I do not read comic books. And I especially wouldn`t read anything that was created by Kevin Smith." The two directors do have a history: Burton once rejected a Smith-penned script for "Superman Lives," a movie that still has not been made. But to hear Smith tell it - slightly perversely - words like Burton`s are just the kind he likes to hear.

"I don`t stand behind the facade of, like, `There`s a fraternity of filmmakers,`" he says. "I don`t know any filmmakers, and I don`t feel a fraternity with them at all. Not because they`re idiots, but because I`m living in Jersey. There are very few choices out there.

"I don`t hang out with anybody in the industry. Except for Jay. But he`s barely in the industry."

That kind of separation is healthy, Smith argues, because "you need to be able to say, `God, it`s (dog poop),` without fear of repercussions.

"Not so much so you can sit there and say, `I hated (Steven Spielberg`s) "A.I."` But just to be able to say, `Not my cup of tea,` without worrying about the phone ringing and Spielberg saying, `You`re dead! I will bury you!`

"And if Spielberg really felt passionately about some of my (work) and wanted to say something, I would take it on the chin. In this weird way, I`d be like, `What a turn-on! Spielberg hated "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back"? That is so wicked!`

"You know, and then make a mental note: `In the future, I will destroy Steven Spielberg.`"

ENOUGH`S ENOUGH

But even Smith has his limits.

Part of what drives the plot of his new movie is Jay and Bob`s resolve to punish the Internet movie-site dweebs who are slagging the pair anonymously.

At one point, this entails having the two actually go to the offending parties` houses, to settle some scores mano-a-mano.

Smith is asked: "Was that at all...."

He breaks in, with a smile: "Cathartic? Yes! Absolutely. Very, very cathartic.

"I mean, I love the Internet. We`ve been on the Net with our Web site (www.viewaskew.com) since `96."

The upside, he says, "is that (movie fans) know where to find you. The downside is: They know where to find you.

"So you`ve got people who will seek you out just to tell you how bad you are. Like, how much you suck at your job. Which is fine. I`ll take good criticism, negative criticism, if it`s well-stated and well-thought-out." But the other kind - the kind where, to paraphrase Smith, someone refers to him with an expletive, and spells the expletive wrong - "that`s the kind of stuff where you pull your hair out.

"People say, `Let it go, let it go.` And you can`t, because the work is so important to you. I don`t care who you are; if you`ve written it, it is you."

Although Smith seems buoyant about the new movie`s prospects, he fully expects to see more of that sniping when the movie hits theaters. "This is our most expensive movie to date at 20 million bucks. You`d better believe I sweated bullets all through it, going, `$20 million? What if it doesn`t work, what if it just becomes a very (unsuccessful) inside joke?`"

He expects there might be even more sniping among die-hards over his next movie, because it represents a major shift in theme: Smith, who has a 2-year-old daughter named Harley, is working on a film about fatherhood. "The one I`m working on, that I`m 40 pages in on, is kind of a love story, but it`s really more a love story between a parent and a child than anything else," he says.

Smith is startled every day by things his daughter does, things that are "weird and fascinating to watch." Things such as "performance pouting. Where she`s acting. I`m like, this is sick. Stop it. Be real. Don`t act. Dad sees enough of that at work."

And how will his cult react to the film? Smith sounds almost gleefully pessimistic.

"(I`ll) be talking about the wonder of fatherhood or parenthood, and they`ll be like: What happened? Where are the (penis) jokes?," he predicts with a laugh.

"But you know, ya gotta grow sooner or later, I guess."

SIDEBAR: (With Sidebar - Looking Back)

By James Hebert

Copley News Service

Live from the Quick Stop in Leonardo, N.J., a look at the Kevin Smith filmography:

"Clerks" (1994): The movie that introduced Jay and Silent Bob to the world, it chronicles the lives of misfits in and around a convenience store in small-town Jersey. Financed for $27,000 on Smith`s credit cards, "Clerks" won the Filmmaker`s Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival and made Smith an indie darling. Miramax bought the movie for $227,000.

"Mallrats" (1995): The follow-up to "Clerks" was a flop by comparison, but it did feature a pre-celebrity Ben Affleck, along with Jason Lee, Shannen Doherty and Joey Lauren Adams. This time, the action moves inside a Jersey mall.

"Chasing Amy" (1997): Smith`s critically lauded third picture tells the story of a comic-book artist (Affleck) in love with a lesbian (Adams, Smith`s onetime girlfriend). The movie also sees the debut of the Bluntman and Chronic comic.

"Dogma" (1999): Smith takes a detour into religious satire in this controversial "comic fantasia," featuring Alanis Morissette as God. (Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, Affleck and Matt Damon also appear.) Catholics decried the movie. Critics were (marginally) kinder.

"Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001): Smith wraps up his "Jersey Chronicles" series with the story of Jay and Bob`s quixotic quest to stamp out a movie about them - or about the Bluntman and Chronic comic, which is sort of about them. (And so as to reach perfect closure: Smith`s 66-page Bluntman and Chronic graphic novel is about to debut.

(c) Copley News Service

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