In a three-part series for A.frame, Kevin Smith reflects on his first film school, how he created the Kevin Smith universe and the state of cinema today. This week, he shares why he’s diversified his business and why he’ll never tire of Jay and Silent Bob. Revisit Part I here and Part II here.
I’m a relic of the past. Like, “Hey, remember when indie film was a thing, and he was a guy?” I’ve been lucky enough to keep it going because I don’t ask for too much. I’m not out there going, “Give me a Marvel movie.” I just keep it quiet and make Kevin Smith type stuff over here.
And when I wasn’t doing that, I had to figure out how to feed myself in other ways—being onstage and performing and whatnot. For the last like 10, 15 years, that’s probably where most of my money comes from.
At one point, I directed four episodes of Supergirl and three episodes of Flash. It was fun to do because I’m a big fan of those shows, but at the end of the day, I made more money standing on a stage in a single night talking about directing an episode of Supergirl than I did the whole month I was up in Vancouver directing the episode of Supergirl. So I found that there are a lot of things I do in life, and money is never the motivator because I’m shocked I got any.
I came from a poor family. A thousand dollars is still a thousand dollars to me. If somebody gave me a thousand dollars, I’d be like, “Holy fuck, thank you,” and I’d spend that shit. I appreciate everything. I appreciate every fucking fan because they’ve allowed me this freedom to not have to live like other filmmakers, to not have choices stripped away from me.
I remember interviewing Martha Coolidge, one of my favorite filmmakers in the world, who made a triumvirate of fucking movies that should guarantee a long-ass career: Valley Girl, Real Genius and Rambling Rose. I probably wouldn’t be doing my job if I hadn’t seen Martha Coolidge do her job, or at least the product of her work as far back as Valley Girl, a movie that is not just in my creative DNA, but personal DNA as well. Every relationship I had from like 1983 forward, when I was 13 years old, was shaped by that movie.
So I’m interviewing Martha Coolidge at Lincoln Center for a movie series podcast that I was doing at that point called Moviola. And she’s talking about how she can’t get a job, how the phone doesn’t ring and nobody hires her. And my jaw hits the fucking floor. I was like, “What are you talking about? You made Rambling fucking Rose.” And she goes, “The offers weren’t many back then, and they’re certainly not now. There comes time when the phone stops ringing.” That scared the shit out of me, and I realized right then and there, “You’ve got to make sure that it don’t matter if they never call. You have to make sure that you are making films as long as you want to make films and not as long as they want to let you make films.”
So that’s why I started doing a bunch of other things, because I’ve got to be able to keep this going in case nobody ever wants to back my play. We got lucky on Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, in as much as Universal came in for half the world and Saban came in for domestic. Because it’s not like the whole world was crying out, “We need a sequel to a fucking 18-year-old movie, and we need it now.” I wanted to see it, but I also knew that there were a bunch of fans who would support it, too. If I just kept the budget smart and if we didn’t have to spend money on marketing, we could pull it off.
Some people, when the phone stops ringing, that was it for Martha. I wouldn’t let that happen to me. And I’m not saying I’m better than Martha. Not at all. Martha Coolidge is way better than me at everything—and not just as director. But I know for a fact that I don’t want that choice stripped away from me. So I’ve got to be able to pay for my art, not always rely on somebody else to pay for it or rely on somebody else to hire me to do it.
If I want to practice my art, just like I did at the very top of my career, I’ll find a fucking way. I’ll put it on some credit cards. I won’t turn to the audience.
We don’t crowd finance or anything like that because I need the audience to buy tickets later on. But you need to be clever: As long as you’re willing to pivot and drop the budget in the toilet, which I always am.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to forgo a salary to get a movie made. On Clerks II, I didn’t make anything whatsoever. I just made the movie because I wanted to see the movie. I’m always willing to be like, “All right, we’ll do it for nothing.” And it’s not because I’m rich, because I’m not. It’s because I can always go stand on a stage somewhere that night and talk for an hour and pay my bills.
As long as I’m able to do all of that, I can keep going until one day, I’m like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Then I get to make the choice. Diversifying early on has really helped, especially at a time like this. We haven’t had to turn the lights off. We haven’t had to fire anybody or let anybody go.
My handprints next to Clark Gable’s and R2-D2’s
There’s nothing that I haven’t done yet that I want to, and I think about that all the time. You’ve got to understand, Clerks for me was a fucking moonshot. The fact that it worked, I was like, “Oh my God, the rest of it is fucking gravy at this point.” So I’ve been doing this for—I previously mentioned many times, because I like saying it—a quarter of a fucking century. In that time, I’ve gotten to do everything I’ve wanted to do.
Jay and Silent Bob Reboot was the last big hill. It took about five years to pull off because it started as Clerks III, then became Mallrats II, before morphing into Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Then I almost dropped dead of a heart attack, so we had to wait. As soon as I got better, we fucking kicked into gear and made the movie. So, it was a total journey of five years to get to making the flick.
But when I got to make it, fuck. It’s a comedy on the surface, but beneath it all, it’s one man’s memorial to himself. The whole movie is a big Kevin Smith fan film made by the biggest Kevin Smith fan on the planet. So taking it out and touring it and having people love the movie … I didn’t realize how fucking gratifying that would be, because I stopped giving a shit about other people’s opinions a long time ago. Now all I care about is how I feel about it.
Yoga Hosers is a movie we made which absolutely tanked. I could never feel that bad about it, because I was like, “That’s the exact fucking movie I wanted to make. If y’all don't like it, I’m sorry.” But it’s not like I fucked up. This was intentional.
I’ve already done more than I ever imagined I would do. Not because I’m an ambitious person with a lusty appetite, just because I’ve been around for a long time. Also, just because it seemed interesting. I dove into podcasting early on, because I was like, “You mean it’s like doing a commentary track on a DVD without a movie? Fuck, let’s do that for a while.” That built a strong muscle on which to take movies out and tour.
Me and Jay Mewes put our hands and our feet prints in the cement at the Chinese Theatre back in October. So we’re there with all the Harry Potter kids and Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, and Jimmy Durante, R2-D2, C-3PO. Fucking legends. We don’t belong there, but we’re there. I didn’t even dream about that shit. There was never one part of the journey where I was like, “Hmm, maybe one day.”
I remember we went to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1979. My mom and dad took me and my brother and sister on a train trip. My mom got cheap Amtrak tickets, so we went from New Jersey to California … and one of the first places we go is Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. R2-D2, C-3PO and Darth Vader had just gotten their footprint there a year before. My father’s showing me all the imprints, a lot of them I know, some old-timers that I don’t know and he’s explaining who this one is and this one.
There’s a picture of my brother and I kneeling in front of these imprints as kids. He’s four years older than me, so I’m 9 years old and he’s 13, I guess. My old man takes a picture, and he just said that shit that an old man says to their kid. Before we leave the Chinese Theatre tour court, my father said to me, “Maybe you’ll be here one day.” Forty years later, me and Jay were putting our footprints in the cement at the Chinese Theatre, 40 years after the fact.
I couldn’t have planned that shit. So at the end of the day, there’s really nothing where I’m like, “Yeah, but I’ve yet to do this.” Now it’s all variations on the theme, and the theme is, “Well, we’re still here. Let’s keep doing shit.” But there is one dream, a whimsy from early on that I wonder if will ever come to pass. I’ll never do anything to try to make it come to pass, but I do wonder before I leave this world … now, based on the age of COVID, it doesn’t look like it’s very likely.
When I was a kid, a movie making $100 million was a big fucking deal. It’s a big, nice round number, but generally for blockbusters. But then Quentin in 1994, the same year we made Clerks, makes Pulp Fiction and that movie makes $100 million. Pulp Fiction, decidedly one of the most different movies ever made. Truly an independent film, truly the voice of a visionary filmmaker.
When I saw that happen, I was like, “You know what? Maybe it’s possible that one of your goofy ideas makes a hundred million bucks one day.” There were two that I thought might’ve come close. Dogma, but we were $70 million off, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and we were also $70 million off. Thirty was my sweet spot. I remember when we made Mallrats, we had a test screening and Tom Pollock, who was the head of the studio at that point, came. We did it at San Diego Comic-Con at the Horton Plaza theater center. So it played through the fucking roof, man, because we’re playing to Comic-Con and that movie is designed for a Comic-Con audience before anybody knew what that was.
So the scores were huge, the fucking laughter’s rocket, and Tom Pollock goes, “This feels like Animal House.” He goes, “I bet you we’re going to make a hundred million bucks.” He was off by $98 million and change. But it was sweet of him to say, but it also made that weird notion burn brighter. Because I’d already seen Pulp Fiction make a hundred million bucks, and that’s a movie based on somebody’s very out-of-the-box ideas. I knew my work was always going to be out of the box, fucking way out the box, unwatchable for some people.
No dream comes looking for you
There are so many people I came up with in the ’90s who aren’t making movies right now or anymore. When you stick around, it gives you this legitimacy where you can tell people in good faith and conscience, “You could do this. Because I’m a chimp and I pulled this off, so this can still be done.” I just enjoy the elder statesman position now because you get to inspire people.
And I know that I’m not talented enough to have done all this. I lucked into a lot of things, but at the same time, the most important aspect is I moved toward it. It’ll never move toward you. No dream ever comes looking for you. You’ve got to go fucking looking for it. That means putting in the work in some small ways. You can’t be a filmmaker until you make a film. You could call yourself a filmmaker, but you’re never going to be a filmmaker until you actually make a film. A lot of people find excuses to put that thing off because it’s hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and everyone would have a film to show for their lives.
Let’s be honest, nowadays, with cell phones and the camera power megapixels they got in a fucking cell phone at this point, everyone can make a movie. You can make a movie on your cell phone that looks better than fucking Clerks, and you can upload it to YouTube and possibly have it seen by more people than ever saw Clerks across the course of my entire lifetime thus far.
So even though it’s in everybody’s hands and they could all do it, they don’t do it. And that’s what makes it kind of special for the people that do do it. If you’re one of those people that sits in a movie theater and watches all the credits, even if it ain’t a Marvel movie, where you’re not waiting for something to happen at the end, you just do it because you’re curious. “Who was the best boy? I want to see all the names. I just want to see what those positions are.” You’re a filmmaker, you just haven’t made a film yet.
I like having a long enough tail where, even if you’re a fucking ridiculous filmmaker like myself, they’ve still got to treat you a little bit seriously because you got longevity on your side. A lot of people out there who have been shitting on me for a quarter of a century have stopped doing it. They’re not like, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” but they’re like, “Look, you can’t stop it. For whatever reason, there are some people out there that like this Kevin Smith guy. I don’t count him as a filmmaker, but others do, so let him have that. He’s not hurting anybody anymore.”
It’s nice when you last a certain amount of time that even the hecklers just start falling off. I mean, how do you heckle a motherfucker that’s been in the business 25 years plus?
You can—believe me, there’s a way to do it, and they find that way, but it doesn’t feel justified.
I loved the movie business as a kid and it’s given me everything in my life, in my adulthood. I got married because of the movie business. I met my wife when she was interviewing me about my job for USA Today, and we fell in love and we’ve been married for 21 years. I got a kid because of the movie business, and the movie business has paid for that kid’s entire existence. All my friends that I brought with me, they all work in the business or have their own podcasts and whatnot.
Everything good that has ever happened to me in life came from love and movies, just diving in. I wound up getting this dream job, lucking into it, because I was smart enough to make a movie about what it felt like to be disenfranchised a moment before the whole world was like, “Hey, what’s it feel like to be disenfranchised?” Luck and timing play a huge fucking part in my career. If we didn’t make Clerks that year, if we make Clerks a year before or a year after, we’re not having this conversation. I’m reading your article about somebody else going like, “Man, I wish I was that fucking person.”
But because I took a chance, it panned out. So I’m always trying to tell folks, “Try the thing.” If you sit around watching movies, thinking you could do that, guess what? You probably can. Even if you don’t do it great, it could still work out. I stand before you fucking a quarter century career of a guy who isn’t particularly good at the job, isn’t born a visionary. I’m not Richard [Linklater] or Scorsese or Quentin or Chris Nolan or Patty Jenkins. Spike Lee, Hal Hartley. These are people who were put on this world to tell stories. They were born to be filmmakers. I was born to watch movies. Then one day I was like, “I wonder if I could do it too?”
So I got in and I kept my head down and my mouth shut for years because I don’t want to get thrown out of the party. Look, I’ll make many movies in convenience stores, but I don’t want to go back to working in one. To be fair, they started replacing us anyway. I walked into a fucking QuickChek in my hometown in New Jersey, and there was a robot clerk. So I don’t even have a job to go back to at the convenience store if this all doesn’t work out.
I look back all the time. My whole career’s predicated in the past now. That’s the thing. I’m not like Chris Nolan where I’m like, “Look at this fucking Tenet movie, it’s going to blow your fucking mind. We shot it forwards and backwards.” I’m the guy that’s like, “Hey, guess who’s back? Jay and Silent Bob.” Or, “Hey, guess what movie we’re doing next? Mallrats II.” Or, “Hey, guess which TV show I’m working on for Netflix? Masters of the Universe.”
I backed into the nostalgia business. I don’t mind it. It’s great because I’ve spent my whole life looking back, even when I was a kid. I’m not somebody who’s just like, “Here’s something groundbreaking.” I mean, I’ve done that a few times, but not the kind of mode I’m in right now. I was groundbreaking a couple of years ago with Tusk, and then a bunch of people were like, “Don’t fucking do that again.” I was like, “All right.” So I went back to making the View Askew, which I was really happy to do post-heart attack. It was nice to crawl up into the attic and pull down the old toys and start playing with them again. Because you tend to feel old after you have a heart attack. Suddenly playing with my ’90s toys, I felt young again.
I try to think about the other guy, the early Kevin Smith, the one I fucking adore, man. The kid that I’ll never understand, who literally thought for some fucking strange reason he could make a movie, just because he saw somebody else make a movie. He didn’t even see it in real life, he saw the end result. He went to a movie theater, and unlike all the other movies he saw in his whole life, this kid’s movie, the Slacker picture, made this fucking Kevin Smith kid think that it was possible for him to make a movie. So, he does and changes my life forever.
Reporting by Nadine Zylberberg