BIZ: Kevin Smith Talks Screenwriting, "Slacker" and "Superman"
(indieWIRE/12.12.00) -- Kevin Smith burst onto the independent film scene in 1994 with "Clerks," proving that a dumpy, overweight slacker dude with basically no film school education could turn his meandering existence into a jolting dose of originality and humor and make a successful living as a filmmaker.
So it's no wonder that Smith has inspired a new generation of aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters to pick up a 16 millimeter. And on Thursday, December 7th, Smith joined the ranks of Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Waldo Salt, Lawrence Kasdan, John Sayles and Robert Towne -- all previous guest speakers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Marvin Borowsky Lecture on Screenwriting -- to offer insight and encouragement to young writers.
Peppering his advise with tales of surreal script meetings at legendary producer Jon Peters' Hollywood Hills mansion, and hilarious stories about the controversy surrounding last year's "Dogma," Smith also addressed questions about his style of writing, his motivation for characters and choice of subject matter for scripts. In addition, he took every opportunity to skewer a frequent regular in his films, Ben Affleck. Smith promised an evening of "very honest answers." And much to the delight of the appreciative audience, he delivered.
Smith began by talking about how he financed his first feature, "Clerks," on various credit cards ("everything but AMEX, because they make you pay it at the end of the month") and he encouraged young filmmakers to take chances when they were young. Smith also suggested that first time writers should simply "make the flick," he said. "There is no sweeter reward than having done it yourself." Smith encouraged the budding writers to finance a small picture and submit the finished product to various film festivals, in order to maintain their original vision as well as the script's integrity. Smith also advised writers to "finish what you start, otherwise it will haunt you." Smith offered that he sits downs and hashes out volumes of dialogue, returning and trimming down along the way.
When asked about his writing process, Smith joked, "I write only when I have to, and now, only when I'm getting paid." Proving himself a pragmatist, Smith suggested writing exactly what you would want to see on the big screen. Smith said that his main goal is to make his friends and his wife laugh, but most importantly, to satisfy himself.
With an endearing blend of self-deprecating nonchalance, Smith also reminded the audience that his success was nothing more than a matter of luck and timing. Smith told his audience that critics are always to be taken with a grain of salt. While "Clerks" was heralded as a brilliant first feature, "Mallrats" was savaged by the very same people who had built him up as the great hope for the future of cinema.
However ironically, it was J. Hoberman's review in the "Village Voice" that inspired Smith to venture into New York City on his 21st birthday to see Richard Linklater's "Slacker," the unconventional, character-driven indie that lacked high production values or stars. What struck Smith about the film was that the audience was going nuts and laughing themselves silly. On the heels of this revelation, Smith spent 1 1/2 years immersing himself in independent movies, from Jim Jarmusch to Spike Lee to Hal Hartley films. As Smith remembered, "'Slacker' was the film that got me off my ass."
Still, Smith revealed himself as "a mainstream movie whore," citing the first two "Die Hard" movies as inspiration, as well as "Scarface," Oliver Stone's "JFK" and Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" as major influences. Smith also suggested that young filmmakers avoid 'how to' books on screenwriting, but rather, sit down and write from the heart, without over-thinking.
Smith also offered hilarious insight into the absurdity of big business Hollywood when he talked about his ill-fated stab at writing the still-unproduced "Superman" script for legendary hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters. Smith told the story of how he drove to Peters' fortress in the Hollywood Hills, a mansion reminiscent of the Batcave, and discussed with Peters the direction of the "Superman" film. According to Smith, Peters wanted to cast Sean Penn as the superhero, he didn't want Superman to fly and he didn't want Superman to wear a superhero suit. Peters also envisioned a huge spider playing into the action, Smith said. Bemused, Smith took a stab at the story, collected a hefty paycheck and ultimately, the film languished in development hell. Smith realized the next summer, as he sat in a theater watching "Wild Wild West," which Peters produced, that the high-powered producer had gotten his giant spider. Everyone wins and loses in Hollywood.
Next up on Smith's plate is "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," the last in his New Jersey film cycle. Smith is also tackling the origin tale in Andrew McDonald's "Fletch" series (made famous by Chevy Chase), in which he hopes to cast perennial favorite, Jason Lee.
If the audience at the Marvin Borowsky Lecture walked away with anything after two-plus hours, it's that Smith, at heart, loves to tell a story, entertain his audience and leave them with a sense of discovery. Not bad for an un-ambitious, former convenience store clerk from Redbank, New Jersey.
[Suzanne Ely is a freelance writer based in L.A.]