The last time Kevin Smith debuted a film at a festival it didn’t go so well. The year was 2011 and Smith was in Park City to unveil his first stab at the horror genre, “Red State.” The film debuted to negative reviews and harsh press following a lengthy 25-minute rant during which Smith revealed that he’d be self distributing his latest. Cut to three years later and Smith is experiencing a career all-time high. His latest, “Tusk,” another horror film, premiered in the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival and blew the roof off of the Ryerson Theater. Already acquired by A24 prior to making its way to Toronto, “Tusk” has drawn some of the best reviews of Smith’s career and has clearly invigorated the filmmaker, who was in great spirits during our interview and spoke excitedly of the film and its two follow-ups, the second of which, “Yoga Hosers,” stars his daughter, who also appears in “Tusk.” [Read more about that film and his “True North” trilogy here.]
READ MORE: Kevin Smith’s Tusk is Completely Insane
I’m still recovering from seeing “Tusk” last night. It’s funny as hell, but the horror really sticks with you.
The shot of him in the suit doesn’t affect me anymore, but that’s the gut punch. Somebody early on, I guess it was A24 right away, said never to show the fucking walrus. They got involved when we were at the end of week one and they said, “Don’t show anybody the walrus.” They know I share a lot of shit online, but they knew that would be the ticket in, that the walrus would be why people would come and it would fuel people’s imagination to come — and they were absolutely right. That fueled the whole project. Just that word: “walrus.” Had it been any other word — horse, python or dragon — it wouldn’t have mattered. But “walrus” makes people go “ew!” It makes people stop and ask and try to figure out the physics of it in their head, which gives just enough space for us to make sure people will come and see it. “Walrus” has some fucking magic to it.
What was going through your mind going into the premiere? Did you have any idea how it would play?
I was terrified. Up until this weekend I was like, “I fucking love this movie and I don’t care if anybody else does.” But going into this weekend I got seized with the notion that people may fucking hate it, which I was always prepared for. If someone came up to me loving it or someone came up to me hating it, I was ready to handle it both ways. You can’t argue with a movie like this. If someone says, “This is horrible,” the only thing I could say is, “Well, fuck, at least it’s in focus right?” It’s a matter of taste.
So I thought it would play that way, but before we came I got seized with the terror of people hating it, and I tried to figure out what that was and I just figured it out the other night. Everyone is always going, “There are too many sequels and remakes, why won’t they do anything original?” I was so scared that I was going to bring something original and they would be like, “Not from you! From someone better than you!” Thankfully they lived up to what they always said they wanted. I don’t need anybody to say it’s good or bad, I just want them to admit that it’s what they asked for, that it’s something new. To be able to do that, two decades into my career no less, felt good. Come on dude, I was at Midnight Madness! I’ve been at TIFF for four years but never for Midnight Madness. So to be able to come to them two decades in and say I have something relevant to be at Midnight Madness feels fucking hot. It puts a fire up your spine.
The film also played like gangbusters with critics too. Our critic loved it.
That was fucking shocking. That blew my mind, but reinstated my faith in humanity. It is what people asked for. Nobody said, “Give us the walrus movie!” But generally people always ask for something different or something new. I can’t say if it’s good or bad, but I do know it’s new enough that it will capture your imagination. Everyone will have his or her own take on it.
I look at the movie now and think that you could end it with Guy LaPointe [played by Johnny Depp in the film] holding up the rifle and not knowing what the fuck happens and go to credits, but I had to honor the podcast. In the podcast we wrote the ending, and it made me laugh so hard that we just had to do it. It’s just so depressing. At the end, after the song ends if you watch the credits, the podcast starts to play just to remind people that this is all a predicated on a joke. It’s taking a joke and taking it very, very far because people are willing to be earnest about it. It’s the cast. We got this movie because the cast played it as if the movie was “Argo,” as if the movie was a good, classy movie when it’s really dopey, shitty, stupid material. They elevated it.
Justin Long goes to some pretty fucking dark places.
He does! Fucking big time! And that’s why I think he liked it. His agents didn’t want him to do it because he was the Apple guy and they didn’t want him to become the Walrus guy. They didn’t want him to do it. But he went for it for that reason. He was a little scared, but he thought that was kind of cool that he was scared at this point in his career. The only thing that he was scared about was how he would end up being that “walrus” guy for life regardless of whether the movie worked or not. So would it be worth that? And he felt that it was worth it. He got to display a shit ton of colors. The dude is way talented, and we all know that because we’ve seen him do a bunch of stuff. But what was intriguing to him was like, “Imagine me with the thing I do best taken away. Can I still do the best job?” It’s like actor porn, actor bait. As much as it sucks to be covered in rubber for a whole scene and have to act wordless, that’s worth it for an actor. That’s fun for an actor.
The fact that they played it so earnestly elevated bat-shit, daffy, goofy, stupid material and turned it into a real story where you care about the people and where you give a shit if he will be a walrus or not. Anyone who listened to the podcast already knows because we mapped it out. We said he remains a walrus forever.
How did you go about surprising your audience then, knowing full well that the bulk of your fans already know how it ends?
Well some shit you want to keep because it got you invested in it in the first place. I love Scott Mosier, he’s one of the most clever people I’ve ever met, so every idea he spit out I knew I wanted to see the movie version of it. It was easy to incorporate that kind of stuff. If I just went with what we had in the podcast, it wouldn’t be a movie, it would be a stoner conversation of a podcast. Basically I had to fill in the gaps and I just used a bunch of shit I was into.
I wanted to see a movie of “Tusk” so bad and I knew nobody was going to make it so I had to make it. It was the same thing with “Clerks,” where no one was making a movie about people talking about “Star Wars” and pussy, and the only way to make that kind of movie was to make it myself. That’s how I had to approach “Tusk,” so going forward the first thing we had to do was structure the podcast and fill in the gaps by asking, “What would make me want to sit on the set of a movie again?” I didn’t want to make a movie, but if I had to in order to bring “Tusk” to life then what would I want to see?
The first thing was Michael Parks. I loved watching Michael Parks in “Red State,” it’s like watching Yoda, so before he leaves this world — he’s 73 years young — I knew I had to put in as much face time of him as possible and watch this man who knows more about performance than I will ever know. He fascinates me. I knew I wanted him, but what else would bring me back? Well I knew I loved talking about Canada and joking about Canada. I have all this Canada lore piled up, so maybe I can fill in the movie with that kind of shit. We didn’t talk about Canada in that episode, but in every other podcast we talked about Canada. So I put that in. Because I didn’t really give a shit if it happened or not, we were just pushing whimsy here, we just put as much as the stuff we liked in it because I loved it or someone I like loved it. It ended up being a lot like “Clerks,” where you’re not thinking about how it’s going to play for a focus group or what the business will be or what the marketplace demands. It’s all about what makes you happy. If you can please yourself, generally others will follow. And the best way to please yourself is doing something you haven’t done before.
On “Red State” we went into different territory, it may not have worked in every area, but it was something different. I took three years between “Tusk” and “Red State” because I thought I was done and out, but by the time I came back the ethos was still the same, which is that you were on to something when you walked away and then you wrote “Clarks III,” which I love but which is still the third iteration of what I wrote 20 years ago. Writing “Tusk” was breathtaking because I had the “Red State” experience of just throwing out structure and doing whatever the fuck I wanted, like going back and forth in time, and then added to that was this bulletproof absurdity. At that point, suddenly, it becomes easy. You’re filling in the script with everything you want and you love. Your childhood informs it — your father’s fascination with the sea, your love of fucking “Jaws,” so somebody has to say something about a great white shark, Canada, Nazis, World War II, basically anything to make it interesting for you. Then it becomes something that people find fucked up, but that’s all because of Parks. You give him enough weird shit to say and he’ll make it sing like it matters. Just hearing him quote “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” makes you want to hear the rest of the poem.
“Tusk” is the first installment in your planned “True North” trilogy. Was making two follow up installments always a plan from the outset?
I didn’t know it was going to be a trilogy, but we were in the middle of making this and had such a great time with “Tusk.” We did 15 days in North Carolina for “Tusk” and that was the bulk of the shoot. When we were done, we moved back to California and two to three months after the wrap we got Johnny [Depp] and we did two days with him and finished the movie. While we were doing it, the girls did a scene. Harley [Quinn Smith, Smith’s daughter who appears in “Tusk”] was always going to do it, and then I asked Johnny if Lily [Rose Depp, Depp’s daughter who also stars in “Tusk”] would want to be in the scene because she was already coming to visit Harley, and that scene went from being a fun scene to something magical. We watched them go from six-year-olds to this, and they were entering our world so we had to break it down for them. They had no training. It was kind of sweet.
When I went to cut the scene I lingered on it and watched it over and over. I asked my wife why I kept watching it so much. Was it the smocks? Was it because they were both so fucking brazenly anti-American? And she was like, “Kevin, it’s two people standing behind a counter at a convenience store. It’s the story of your life.” And I was like, “Oh my god, it’s ‘Girls Clerks’ isn’t it?” So I asked Jen [Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Smith’s wife] if she would give a shit if I wrote a flick for the kid and she gave it the go ahead, so suddenly there was another movie, “Yoga Hosers,” and that’s what we go back to on set tomorrow for week four. While we were in that mode we were just like let’s finish it out and go to an episode on SModcast, where we had this story about two sisters who have separate accidents involving a moose, and turn it into a movie. Let’s make moose “Jaws.” A man eating moose, it’ll be awesome.
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