New York, NY, July 26, 2010 — A few weeks back I found myself standing with Kevin Smith on the lawn of the Land’s End Inn in Provincetown, MA. It had been quite awhile since we’d crossed paths and we started chatting about the recent successes of the Mumblecore filmmakers. Kevin had a lot to say and I quickly fumbled for my iPhone to record our conversation.
This week’s column is being handed over to Kevin Smith because as he and I chatted, it struck me that a closer look at Smith’s own career and experiences in the film industry provides quite a window into both the highs and the harsh realities of the modern American indie film movement.
Famously made for under twenty-five thousand dollars, Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” inspired a generation of filmmakers in the mid-’90s. He was a catalyst a time when the cost of making a movie was dropping and a narrow marketplace for those films was emerging at the Sundance Film Festival. But, not many indie filmmakers from that era found longevity outside the traditional Hollywood system, making Smith’s career a rare one. While many American directors from the ’90s, and their films, have come and gone, Kevin Smith has carved out a niche of his own by pursuing name brand recognition for himself outside of just filmmaking.
I’d met Kevin at Sundance in 1994. It was awards night and he’d just won the festival’s Filmmakers Trophy in the wake of signing a quick distribution deal with Miramax. Fueled by the Weinstein Brothers’ PR department, Smith and producer Scott Mosier scored waves of attention, quickly signed an agent and then secured a studio deal for their next movie, “Mallrats.”
Fifteen years after “Mallrats”, the often raunchy and always hilarious writer/director was at the Provincetown International Film Festival where he was honored for his career in filmmaking. In that time, he’s seen a lot and his own experience in the film business has paralleled the rising and then falling prospects for speciality and indie films at the studios. Film critics championed his work early on, but as he gained fame, he noticed that something changed. Smith joined the Weinsteins in their heyday and was with them as their empire grew. He says he stuck with them as long as he could before heading to the studio system. Notably, Smith got a lot of attention for his smartly written, black-and-white movie that looked really rough around the edges. Now, he says if he’d made that movie today, he never would have achieved what he’s accomplished since.
It’s a career that Kevin Smith seems to think could end at anytime. And, he says, he’d be cool wih that.
So, It was fitting that the Provincetown prize was presented to him last month by John Waters since few other American filmmakers — Michael Moore and Spike Lee come to mind — have made a name for themselves like Waters and Kevin Smith. They can thrive financially on the road, just by being themselves. Both Waters and Smith command sizable speaking fees for their public appearances and at colleges around the country.
On the bright Saturday afternoon in Provincetown, apparently still licking his wounds a bit after making his first for-hire film (“Cop Out”), he spent some time reflecting on the seventeen years since he shot “Clerks.”
In just twenty minutes Kevin Smith spoke some 3,800 words on the state of indie film today, his own career and the role of film criticism. What follows is an edited transcript of the recorded portion of our conversation.
Eugene Hernandez: I was thinking about this idea of “Clerks” being 15 years ago…
Kevin Smith: Sixteen years ago. And seventeen when we shot it.
Eugene Hernandez: Oh, right. So, wow!
Kevin Smith: This year is the “Mallrats” fifteenth anniversary.
Eugene Hernandez: How are you going to celebrate that?
Kevin Smith: I made “Cop Out.”
Thank you, that’s for you, Eugene.
Eugene Hernandez: So, picking up on this idea of where independent film is going…
Kevin Smith: Independent film, well, I’ll tell you man, a lot of people gave me some flack for making “Cop Out,” which I enjoyed [and] I had a great time making. I think it’s funny, I’d go in with any number of reasons. I’m too old to make excuses for myself.
Back in the day I used to be like “I’m sorry about ‘Malllrats'” you know, jokingly. Roger Ebert, would take it very seriously, but you make yours choice. I was very very happy with mine. But, it was a shame that critically, you know, they didn’t agree, but whatever, I’ve been down that path before.
Eugene Hernandez: Do you feel there is a tension between you and film critics? You’ve certainly talked about them throughout your career a lot.
Kevin Smith: Look, I came up in a time when [critics were] important. Critics [built] my career. Janet Maslin saying nice things about me, Dave Kehr and the Daily News saying the Howard Stern meets David Mamet thing. I mean, come on, critics helped build my career. And then when I chose a path with that career, boy did they let me know that that was not what I was supposed to do.
I’m the first guy to be like yeah I read. I read everything. Why wouldn’t I? But, the last movie just cured me of it. And maybe it was because I didn’t write the movie. I used to read to see if anybody got it — you know what I’m saying. It wasn’t about ‘Ooh, I want the critics to like me’ – you just want to read somebody who gets it, right to the core. And back in the day that was the only way you could know, because there was no fucking internet. You know, you could see people at a screening and they would tell you how much the movie meant to them or what it did for them and stuff. But, generally all you had to go by was the critics, so I grew up in a world where you know one thing and one thing only.
Then into that world was introduced the Internet and suddenly everybody can give you their opinion on movies, which is what I was always chiefly interested in. So, I’m getting opinions from not just the same 100 people, now I’m getting opinions from people who actually paid to see the movie and you know, the critics don’t like that.
I’m doing it fifteen years now, as a guy who’s got longevity on his side, you do get to make comments. I’m not some fucking crack-pot that’s just like, ‘Down with critics!’ I’ve been here for a while kids, and this is what I’ve observed.
I don’t dislike critics, I’m just like, why are these 100 people any more valid than the people that, I don’t know, the 1.7 million on Twitter, or whatever it is. Or all those cats who pay.
[“Cop Out”] opened on a shitty day, snow and blizzard, literally. I can’t tell you how many tweets I got of people going like, ‘I mapped out a route, I had to shovel a walk’. It was like the Life of Job to go see this movie, and like ‘it better be fucking good’ and I was like, ‘Man I hope it is.’ If that dude comes home and is like ‘Fuck you and everything you stand for’ – then I’d be like ‘You’re right man, I’m sorry’. Because that dude, obviously, he was there, pre-disposed to like this and if he was let down, then that’s a dude that I’ll be like , ‘I’ll try harder next time, I don’t know what to tell you man, I’m sorry’.
I ain’t taking it from a critic anymore, you know what I’m saying, man? There’s no point. I’ll take it from them the same way I take it from like everyone else. Some critics – I know A. O. Scott – got real mad at me and shit, he’s fucking called me out a few times. Tried to poke the bear so to speak, and I won’t bite. I don’t want to fight him. Roger Ebert literally tried to call me out on my comments and he did this weird thing where he kept re-posting his review of “Cop Out,” where I’m just like ‘are we back in high school dude?’
Seriously though, I turned 40 in August, I’m done fighting with people. If you don’t like the movie, thanks for paying to go see it, um and I hope you’ll like the next one. If you didn’t see the movie, hopefully you’ll see it on video and hopefully you’ll like it. If you’ve written a bad review of the movie and you didn’t pay to see it, I’m sorry, I don’t care.
You know at this point, what I got into it for was to throw a message out there and have somebody go, ‘I get it, not like I appreciate it, but “I get it’. It’s communication. I’m all about the conversation. It’s not about filmmaking, and maybe that’s the thing. Maybe 15 years in I’m finally able to be like, ‘Look I’m not a filmmaker, you’re right’.
All the mother fuckers who are like, ‘You suck at this’. Fine. You’re right. I’m not a filmmaker, I’m some weird fucking hybrid of something. And right now, film isn’t even the primary conversation for me. For me, I’m way more interested in being on stage, or the SModcast stuff. And film is like, as much as I love it, it’s just one way to talk to the audience.
Like I ain’t here to get rich. Like money’s nice, but I’ve obviously left money behind with my career. I mean, Jesus Christ, money’s never been it. It’s always been about the conversation. So I’m not interested in the conversation when it becomes the blood sport of people like, ‘Lets just beat up the retarded kid that is ‘Cop Out.’ That’s not film criticism.
This was like a powerful group that gave me a career, that literally helped me get noticed.Tthey shined a light on me. Stick to that, that’s great, go shine a light on somebody that needs to be seen. I thought after “Ratatouille” they’d all behave better. You know what I’m saying?
After the end of “Ratatouille,” I was like, ‘Didn’t we all learn something mother fuckers?’ Apparently not, they went right on back to being Peter O’Toole. So you know, I don’t know, it’s easier. It takes no talent to be negative and just kick something around and be like, ‘How badly can I make fun of something in a way that nobody else has that’s original?’
And I get it, everyone’s out to build their own body of work. I’m just not into arguing with people anymore.
I’m sorry man, I liked it and I know a lot of people on Twitter liked it and the box office says we did ok and blah blah blah. So, you get to a point where it’s like, ‘Dudes, it’s a fun movie, do you really want to shit in its mouth that badly?’
Eugene Hernandez: Kids see you as a role model. So what do you tell them about how to navigate getting started?
Kevin Smith: Well, it is changing, it’s changing so much and I’ve said this before.
I feel like my home world of Krypton was dying, you know what I’m saying? And I threw myself into a rocket and got off just before it fucking exploded? And home world, Krypton, was indie film.
It just went away, like all of a sudden it just stopped. And it got scary man, when all of a sudden every studio was starting to sell or shutter their boutique label. And look, I went from Miramax to the Weinstein Company with the brothers because they were the ones that made me and brought me into this world and what not. Fierce loyalty for awhile. But, it became clear that it was over.
The party was just drastically coming to a conclusion. It wasn’t the world that it was, it had kind of gotten embraced, insanely monetized, over-hyped and was now collapsing under the weight. Suddenly the bottom just dropped out. And, right before the bottom dropped out I was just like, if I want to continue making film – ever – or at least have the option to do that, I have to go start making nice with people that make films, because it ain’t gonna happen where I came from anymore.
And let’s be honest, you look at my career, man, who knows. If anyone else ever believed in me, [the Weinsteins] did. Once you’re away from them, I was scared nobody else would be interested. I was scared that all that shit I read online for years was true like, “The moment Harvey’s not behind him he’s not going to work. Who’s going to hire this fucking dude?’
So, there was a part of that, too. I gotta see if maybe these fuckers are right. If indie films truly die I have nowhere to make flicks.
I mean I would have to start financing them myself. And we all know financing a Kevin Smith film is a terrible business. So I was like, I better make nice with a studio or see if I can make nice with a studio. So I went in — and I mean it didn’t happen just like that — but, it was just like suddenly I read the script and I was like, ‘Could I make a studio film? And it’s nice that they’re asking and they asked me right after ‘Zach and Miri’. And I’m not saying it’s the only reason I did it, but I was in such a low spot.
I was like man, that movie was supposed to do much better than it did and be the breakout one or blah blah blah. And when it didn’t, I got all emo and crawled up in a ball and just licked my wounds even though it wound up being the highest grossing Kevin Smith film. But, still I was so in the moment, it was a real miss-the-target. I was looking for one thing and one thing only and it didn’t happen. And I was like, “I failed , I irrevocably failed – and not only that; compound the interest with I had Seth Rogen and I delivered his first $10 million dollar opener, his first non-hit. He had done the Judd movies, he was now a $100 million dollar man — “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” even “Pineapple Express” had done $70 million — this dude was doing $30 million dollar movies and he came to ours and it did $10 million.
I felt this insane guilt for like, ‘I ruined Seth Rogen’, they’re going to hate me in Canada and in comedy in general. So, it was a really weird bad time, and I was like, if I write a movie right now its going to be about how a little fat boy who’s sad his movie didn’t make more money, I just didn’t have anything to say. That was the only thing in my mind at that point. So, I was kind of ripe for the plucking and I don’t think it was nefarious, I just think Jeff Robinov saw “Zach and Miri” and he told me, “Look dude, I watched that movie, I just think you’re ready to make studio movies now. You know what you’re doing.”
And you know, I don’t know. It was such a [pause] it’s too soon, I’m not able to tell every “Cop Out” story. When I do a lot more things will make sense, but it’s so weird that at almost age 40 I have to be like – in 6 months this will make sense. But, I get it, people hold you to a certain standard. But, I don’t know like, “Mallrats,” “Jersey Girl,” it’s not like every time out I say something brilliant. And this time, I was the director. For me it was like, I thought I’d take it out and people would be like, ‘Good job man, you can actually direct! We always thought you couldn’t’. But instead, people were like, ‘What a terrible movie’.
But, it was an education process. I don’t regret it. I would do it again in a heartbeat. If Warner Bros. were for some reason to sequelize it, I’d be like, ‘Sign me up’.
I would absolutely do it again, because now I know how to make a Bruce Willis movie.
Eugene Hernandez: Its funny, you’ve been the poster boy for American indie film, through its high point and low points. I think that may explain some of the critics.
Kevin Smith: I mean, lets be honest, the only indie film I made was “Clerks.”
Everything else somebody paid for. In fact, everything else a studio paid for, with the exception of “Zack and Miri” which was the Weinstein Company. Every interview I do I’d be like, ‘You keep saying indie filmmaker, its just not…’
Say cult. Say something. But, you know, it’s not something where you try to run from it. I don’t mind, but it just sets you up for people to be disappointed. Like, ‘I thought you were an indie filmmaker? That’s supposed to mean something.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I mean, I made ‘Mallrats’ too, I told you by the second film it was going to be a bumpy ride.’
I’m just glad it’s still a ride.
Eugene, ’94 it started. Now I’m 16 years in and it’s a cool job where you’re allowed to express yourself and that’s kinda of why I got into it in the first place. But, by virtue of the fact that the job has opened so many other doors it’s also opened so many other venues for me to express myself. So, like to me, the movies are great, but like SModcast is some of the most sincerely creative original, now I’m at this place in my career where I’m like, ‘Those movies suck dude, listen to SModcast, that shit’s the bomb’.
So for me, I’m just extending ways to have the conversation in case one day somebody’s like, ‘We’re not going to let you make movies anymore, you’re not good at it and obviously you don’t care about it’ or something like that. And I’ll be like ‘All right, I’ll have the conversation over here’, but for as long as they’ll let me do I’ll do it, I enjoy doing it.
It’s just one more way to express yourself. And now it’s not even, you know, it used to be a very lucrative field but not anymore. Now, you kinda do it for the love more than anything else, you know what I’m saying?
You know I was talking to [John] Waters before and he was talking about how he makes more of his living on the road being John Waters, and I was like, “Brother, I hear ya. I made more money last year being Kevin Smith on stage than I did directing movies’.
So, you know it’s like guys like us — particularly guys like us — in a world where you’re an indie filmmaker but your something of a known quantity, as it starts drying up we’re the last to go because — and not because we’re grossly trying to overstay the party — when everyone else will be cut loose and we have something of name recognition value, so we’ll get a few more years before cats – well [Waters] will get forever because, number one he’s talented, but he’s just like beyond icon at this point.
So,you know it’s an ever-changing landscape out there and I’ve prattled on way too much about it, but I feel bad for people starting out in indie film right now. It was way easier to get started back in ’94, otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking to you.
If I made “Clerks” today nobody would hear about it. If I put it up on fucking YouTube in parts I’d be lucky if I got a hundred, two hundred hits. Timing being everything in life, we were at the right place at the right time. And it will swing back again, you know what I’m saying – it has to.
You get through these periods of, you could feel it, people just hated studio, well not hated, but were just so fed up – everything was bullshit and insincere, and just programmed to make money and that’s where the indie…when Disney kind of rebuilt their new model, when Eisner came in and kind of was like, ‘We don’t just make ‘Fox and The Hound,’ we’re full out, we don’t need anybody, we’re gonna drive everybody out of business’ – they completely changed the business, everything became family oriented, everything became about maximizing the dollar. R-rated movies went the fuck away. They were few and far between, and I’m talking about a period, ’85 to lets say ’91-’92.
Eugene Hernandez: The Jeffrey Katzenberg era.
Kevin Smith: Totally, I mean Eddie Murphy in “Distinguished Gentleman,” stuff like that, where it’s just like, nothing’s left, they’ve co-opted everything now they’ve got Eddie Murphy in a PG movie and the timing was ripe for indie film because people were just like, ‘Somebody say something fucking different!’ You know what I’m saying?
So Jim Jarmusch started saying something different or at least looking different and then Richard Linklater started saying something different, then Robert Rodriguez said like maybe you can make an action movie on $7 grand, you know, there are no rules.
Then I saw these dudes. And I’m like, ‘Shit man, if Quentin Tarantino can talk about Madonna songs in movies, game on, I’m going to talk about ‘Star Wars’. And it was just this period where it was ripe for the plucking because everything else was such turgid dog shit and sameness.
Not even like everything else was terrible and what we did was great, but it was just monotonous sameness, over and over. Three act structure.
So, when indie film came along, surprising and fresh, and this is, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe what this guy said’ and ‘Did you seen that scene with the needle in that fucker’s heart?’ or blah blah blah. And its exciting and people talk about it ad then it gets purchased by Disney. And Harvey and Disney maintain a pretty great relationship for many years, but that’s the beginning of the end. You can see it right there.
The moment indie film became a commodity.
It was only a matter of time before people lost interest. I mean like you’re seeing it now, Blockbuster Video has been with us for 20 years and I would imagine that Sears, Coke, Cadillac, that those… that was a company I’d see at the moment I left this plane of existence As I died that Blockbuster would be there. Funeral sponsored by Blockbuster. And Blockbuster is on the ropes. They’re about to go away.
This business has drastically changed.
You know, everyone got real fat and happy for a while, and then suddenly, nobody put away for the winter. I don’t know what to call it but the good times are over. Really, really over. Which is — you know — a shame, but the good news is, I mean, you can look at my own career or anybody’s career, the best work always comes out of lean desperate times.
So, as much as I’m like man I don’t envy any filmmaker trying to break in right now, you are going to see the most amazing shit happening right now because you’re talking about people who are running – there’s no hope left – so they’re running on pure passion. And when you’re working on pure passion, come on what are you going to turn out? Memorable, breathtaking, groundbreaking work.
I think that’s just on the horizon. You can feel it because people are starting to get frustrated. You’re seeing box office grosses as they slip, you know what I’m saying? TV becomes far more entertaining and way more creative, you know. And they’ll keep you involved for a story that keeps going that doesn’t feel like a bullshit sequel because it’s serialized. So, you can watch it over many years, so it’s like anything else.
Indie film also got dopey and fat and I’m a part of that as well. We were making stuff, but that’s the thing you get hung with — the indie title — and suddenly people are like, ‘Well that’s not an indie film’ and I’m like, ‘Well I’m not an indie filmmaker, I don’t know what to tell you!’
But, they don’t know what to call this stuff, but I’m just glad it existed. I’m glad there was that moment, because otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
Eugene Hernandez: I wouldn’t either.
Kevin Smith: It’s true. Even when I saw [photographer] Henny Garfunkel before, I was like god, man, I haven’t seen so many of these people for like 16 years.
And it’s been a cool world, but if someone was like, ‘It’s over, you gotta go’, I’d be like, ‘Ok. I’ve enjoyed it so much.’
PREVIOUS WEEKLY COLUMNS:
07.19.10: Good People & Good Ideas | 07.12.10: The Social Network | 05.18.10: Six Down, Six To Go | 04.15.10: Cannes Roster Reveals Great Divide | 04.12.10: (Re) Introducing Eric Kohn | 04.05.10: I want it, but what do I *do* with it?? | 03.29.10: “Breaking Upwards”. Breaking even? | 03.17.10: 5 Hot Topics at #SXSW | 03.03.10: The *new* Miramax | 03.01.10: Megabucks v. Made on a Shoestring or “Avatar” v. “Hurt Locker” | 02.10.10: Before Berlin Begins, The Ten Best from Sundance 2010 | 01.11.10: The Doctor Is In | 12.21.09: New Year, New Model | 12.14.09: Tracking the Critics | 12.07.09: The Future of Festivals? |11.30.09: Paris, City of Cinema (or, In Bed with Agnes) | 11.23.09: Frederick Wiseman = The Greatest | 11.16.09: For The Love of Movies | 11.09.09: Building Buzz | 11.02.09: I want it like I wrote it. | 10.26.09: “Precious,” $1 Million or $100 Million? | 10.12.09: Critics (still) Matter | 10.05.09: Is There a Doctor in the House? | 09.28.09: The Indie Summit | 09.21.09: The Oscar Marathon | 09.14.09: DIY v. DIWO | 09.08.09: SPC v. IFC | 08.30.09: Saving Cinema | 08.23.09: Nadie Sabe Nada | 08.16.09: Movies, Now More Than Ever | 08.09.09: It Came From The 80s