Growing up in Highlands, New Jersey

Movies were my thing. I didn’t do sports. I didn’t engage in the normal activities of ’70s kids. They tried to put me on Little League, but I only think that’s because I loved the Bad News Bears—and I dropped out after two seasons. I was either out in right field or sitting on the bench. So sports just didn’t appeal to me, but sports movies did.

The first flick that I remember seeing at a drive-in was Jaws. I’d seen cartoon movies prior to that, but this was the first cinematic experience I can truly recall. My parents, who’d already gone to see Jaws in the theater, took me and my brother and my sister, who were both older than me, to go see it on the drive-in screen. And the only time that my mom and dad were like, “Close your eyes,” was for the part when they expose the human remains during the autopsy. Everything else, I was allowed to watch, which is so fucked up, because it scared me out of the ocean forever. I grew up in a beach town. Highlands, New Jersey, is very much like Amity Island.

I was just a movie kid. That’s what I loved to do. And that’s something that I shared with my father. My father figured out that of his three children, I was easiest to manage or spend time with because I liked movies and he liked movies. I’m sure my mother told him, “Look, you’ve got to spend time with Virginia. You’ve got to spend time with Donald. You’ve got to spend time with Kevin.” And he was spinning a lot of plates because he also had a job. He worked at the post office at night. He was the night shift guy working on the mail sorting machines. I know we’re in a time in the world right now where we all want to save the post office. But every day of my life, when I was a child, all I would hear about is how much my father hated working at the post office. 

It’s something that actually shaped my entire life and put me into film eventually. Because every day of my life, my father would get up at 9 at night, and then at 10 he would leave the house, so he could be at work at 11. And he worked from 11 until 7. Then he’d come home at 8 in the morning, eat some breakfast, see us off to school, go to bed for a few hours, then get up in the afternoon and try to have a normal day. And then go to sleep again at 5, to wake up at 9 and start all over. He would pull me out of school so we could go to a matinee because, number one, his time was limited. He couldn’t go at night, because he was sleeping and/or about to go to work. So we went to the early bird show, which was also the second reason: It was cheap, like a buck fifty. 

On Wednesdays, he would pull me out of school at noon, and then we would go to the 12:30, 1:00 show at the UA theaters in Middletown, New Jersey. It was the multiplex near us. And my father never once, across my existence said, “You could do this.” We didn’t come from that world. He’s not to be blamed. We just didn’t know anybody that was in the entertainment business, so that seemed like a world away. It would be like me watching a NASA launch and my father not saying, “Hey, you should be an astronaut one day.” Just because you’re seeing a thing doesn’t mean you could be a thing, at least back in the ’70s. 

I’m sure now if my father was alive—he died 20 years ago—he might feel differently about saving the post office. But back then, it was the bane of his existence. Like that was a job, it wasn’t a career.

I have a career, I chose film, and I’m fulfilled. My old man just had a job to pay his bills. He didn’t care about work. He cared about it inasmuch as it had to pay for his family, but he didn’t dig his job at all. So he loved either going on a vacation, driving to Florida, or going to the movies every week with me.

We didn’t sit there and talk about the movies or discuss them at any great lengths. It was just something we did together. And so, watching him every night shaped who I would become because I was like, “Well, he hates his job and that’s my future.” They were encouraging us to go to college, but my parents were never like, “You should be this or do this, or become lawyers or doctors.” They didn’t really have a life plan for us. They were making it up as they went along and figuring life out. My brother and sister did go to college. I kind of flirted and then dropped out, because it just didn’t fit. But because my old man worked at that job and hated it so much, I had a McJob working at a series of convenience stores where I grew up in central New Jersey.

The moment it clicked

Richard Linklater had made this film, Slacker, which I saw on the night of my 21st birthday. I closed up Quick Stop and me and my friend, Vincent Pereira, who was the only person I had known who was interested in being a filmmaker, drove up to Manhattan to go see Slacker at the Angelika Film Center. We’d read about it in the one copy of The Village Voice that Quick Stop carried. 

Vincent was younger than me. He worked at the store with me, but he knew about aspect ratios. I would be the guy going, “I got this movie. It’s got black bars on the top and bottom. Half the picture is missing.” 

And he’s like, “That’s not what’s missing. You’re actually seeing the correct aspect ratio and pan and …” So I guess my father was my first film school. He took me to the movies. Vinny was my second film school. He actually taught me the language of cinema.

We’d gone to the Angelika Film Center the week before, to go see Adam Rifkin’s movie The Dark Backward because Judd Nelson, Lara Flynn Boyle, Bill Paxton and Adam Rifkin were going to be speaking after the midnight show. And I’d never gone up to Manhattan on my own accord before. My parents kept us out of the city. We were Jersey Shore kids, and they were like, “You don’t go up there. That’s where muggings happen.” Because in the ’70s, New York City was really dangerous.

And right before the movie, they put up a trailer for Hal Hartley’s Trust and there was also a trailer for Slacker. So we’d seen the trailer, and we read the review in The Village Voice. And I was like, “We should go see this.” So the night I turned 21, we close up and we go up to the Angelika Film Center for the second time and go see Slacker. And I loved the movie—still to this day, thought it was real clever, thought it was funny. It was more of an eye-opener in terms of like, “My God, it doesn’t take place anyplace. It takes place in like Texas. It wasn’t even made in New York or Los Angeles, where most movies are made. It was made in Bumblefuck, Texas.” 

I didn’t realize that Austin was the capital of Texas, and the seed of UT. And if you were ever going to make an indie film in Texas, it was probably going to be in Austin, but a little ignorance goes a long way. All I knew was that this was not L.A. This was not New York. This was Texas. And if this guy can make a movie in Texas, would it be possible to make a movie in New Jersey?

“Slacker” (1990)

On the way home from the theater that night, just when we got out of the Holland Tunnel and just as we’re about to jump onto the New Jersey Turnpike, I say out loud to Vinny for the first time in my life, “I think I want to be a filmmaker.” 

I was like, “If that counts as a movie, I think I could make a movie too. It was funny, but I think I could be funnier than that movie.” So suddenly I began studying film in earnest through means that were available to us. We didn’t have the Internet. It certainly wasn’t public. If you wanted access to indie film chatter, information, articles, Filmmaker Magazine, later on MovieMaker out West … These were the periodicals that you can kind of learn about indie film from. Spike Lee wrote a tremendous series of books after each of the first four movies he made. That kind of was a tutorial on filmmaking. 

Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices, Rick Schmidt’s book, teaches you how to make a film for the price of a used car, like 6,000 bucks. That was an incredibly useful tome to read. And finally, I was like, “I’ve got to go to film school. That’s what they all do.” But I felt I was already too late because I was 21. So I thought, “I can’t go to some four-year school. I’ll be 25 by the time it’s over. I’m an old man.” In The Village Voice, there was this film strip-shaped ad for the Vancouver Film School, and it had a 1-800 number. I’m at the Quick Stop and there’s a payphone. And so, I'm like, “You know what? I’ve seen this ad for weeks. I’m going to call for an application.” 

They weren’t a four-year film school. They were a tech program. So you didn’t get a film school degree, you got a certificate of completion or whatever. But they give you an overview on how to make a film. They say you are going to work on short films while you’re there. They’ll teach it soup to nuts. And then the idea is you start PA-ing on movies. The film school would directly feed students into it, into the PA system and productions around town.

But I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to make an indie film. I wanted to do what Richard Linklater did. I was an American kid, so I was full of piss and vinegar and that kind of can-do spirit. And here was this kid in Texas who did it. So I’m like, “I’m going to be the kid in New Jersey that does it.” 

So I go to VFS. It’s an eight-month program, and I dropped out at the halfway mark, because I realized that I wasn’t going to get to make a film. Basically, everybody submitted a script, and then they were going to pick four scripts. And even if they picked your script, you weren’t going to be guaranteed to direct it because then they did a round of picking directors. So I was like, “Oh my God, this film school is costing $9,000.” I came from a lower, lower, lower, lower, lower, lower, lower middle class family, like poor. So the idea of 9,000 bucks, I had to borrow half of that from a relative and the rest was with student fucking loans. So the idea of staying for eight months when I wasn’t guaranteed to make a short film of my own, I was like, “I can’t risk all this money on that.”

So I had this kind of hair-trigger decision to make like, “Do I finish or do I go with my gut and bolt? And then put that money [half the tuition] into my own movie?” because I’ve been reading about people who did that, aside from Richard Linklater. A lot of cats were making movies and some people putting it on their credit cards, like Robert Townsend, who made Hollywood Shuffle, financed the movie largely on his credit cards.

In the late ’80s, early ’90s, they were trying to get kids to sign up for credit cards, trying to get them hooked. 

So my friend Bryan Johnson and I had a contest to see who could get more credit cards, a race to see who could get more approvals. I worked at Quick Stop, the convenience store in Clerks, and I also worked at RST Video, which is the video store in Clerks. They’re owned by the same people. So when you worked at RST Video, quite like Randal in the movie, you’re by yourself. So I would fill out an application for a credit card and write that I was the manager of RST Video and that they paid me $50,000 a year in 1990. Invariably, I would get a phone call at RST Video going, “Hi, this is Visa. We’re doing a credit check on Kevin Smith.” I was like, “Oh, that’s our manager. We pay him $50,000 a year.” And then I’d get a credit card. So I had like 12 credit cards sitting in a drawer. And so, the notion that you could finance a movie on credit card, even though I never used the credit cards for anything, I was like, “Well, there’s money there apparently. Robert Townsend did it.” And so I decided to drop out of film school. 

Good news is, in film school, I met two very powerful individuals who’d go on to help me make my first movie: Dave Klein, who was the DP on my first three movies and a bunch of movies after that later on. He’s a world-class DP now. The other big key meet was Scott Mosier, who would be my producer throughout the whole beginning of my career. He too was a student at VFS because we were all in class 25 together. I got along with Scott famously.

When I took off, I told Scott, “I’m going to start writing my script for myself. You start writing your script for your film. And whoever finishes first, we’ll go out and help the other.” He was like, “Right on.”

I went home back to Jersey, and I was terrified because, basically, you’re coming home, going, “I dropped out of a Canadian film school, because I couldn’t hack it.” 

So living in Jersey, you’d get a lot of like, “Oh, Hollywood. What happened to Hollywood? I thought you were going to film school, Hollywood? I see you’re back here at the convenience store.” I went back to work at the convenience store, because I knew I wanted to make a movie there. The Toppers, who owned the store, asked me to come back to work because Bryan Johnson, who I based the Randal character on, was terrible at the job. And I was like, “Tell you what, I’ll come back if you let me shoot a movie here.” And Mr. and Mrs. Topper said, “Go ahead.” They thought I meant like running around with a little VHS camera, playing pretend. But we were talking about renting a 16-millimeter camera, lights and stuff like that.

So I went back home and finished writing Clerks. Scott sent me his script, and then a month later, I sent Scott Clerks. And he said, “Fuck my script. We’re doing Clerks first.” I said, “Why?” And he goes, “You wrote a script that feels like an actual movie. You wrote something that feels like you’ve been writing your whole life.”

Making Clerks

So Scott came out to New Jersey, and he brought Dave with him. And then in March of ’93, so about a year and eight months after I see Slacker, I’m making my own film. I shoot it at this convenience store that I’ve been working at, and I’ve got the video store next door, so I tell basically a reframed, renamed version of a day in my life. I’m Dante, Bryan Johnson is Randal. We work at these two different stores. I’m more responsible, and everyone has been telling me my whole life that, “Why are you just sitting around convenience stores and shit like that? You’re not living up to your potential.” 

Dante and Randal in “Clerks” (1994)

All of that was happening in my real life, so that’s what I wrote about. So we made this day-in-the-life movie, and then I took it to the IFFM, the Independent Feature Film Market. That was my end goal, because I’d found an article, once again, in The Village Voice.

Village Voice was my ticket to ride, man. It was my Bible. It gave me so much. There was this article that’s still hanging in my office right here, right behind the door, “Reels and Deals. Art and Industry by Amy Taubin, Village Voice, date: October 22nd, 1991.” And it’s an article about Richard Linklater playing Slacker at the Independent Feature Film Market, which was a marketplace that they held in New York at the time. So this article is like a roadmap to me, because it said exactly what Richard did: made this movie, then took it to the marketplace, and that’s where Orion Classics saw it and bought it. And that’s the goal. I was like, “All right, I want to do what this guy did.”

So I had this plan to go to the IFFM and hopefully, like Richard, we’d find a home. We did not. There was nobody at our screening. It was packed all week, but we were on Sunday, the last day of the thing at 11 in the morning and nobody was there. So I was like, “Oh my God, everything we worked for, what’s the point, man? It's not going to happen now. We’re not Richard Linklater. We didn’t make Slacker. Oh, fuck.” 

But there was a guy at that screening, this guy named Robert Hawk, who had his own little company called ICI, Independent Consulting for Independents. Everyone wore a badge at the IFFM. So you’re looking for Miramax, you’re looking for Fine Line. You’re looking for, hell, even Arrow Releasing, but like this guy’s wearing a badge, you’ve never heard of this thing, ICI. 

So he comes up to us after this empty screening and he talks to Scott Mosier and says, “You guys should submit this to Sundance.” He told Scott that he only came because the black-and-white photo in the catalog was so pathetic that he was like, “I got to see what this looks like.” He’s like, “The write-up was one thing, but the photo was so amateurish and out of focus and shit. Everyone else put their best foot forward. This movie is not even trying.” And it made him want to see it.

The next morning, as a matter of fact, I got a phone call from Amy Taubin, the lady who wrote that same Richard Linklater “Reels and Deals” article. And she’s going, “Hi, this is Amy Taubin with The Village Voice.” And I assumed that it was my friend, Bryan Johnson, putting somebody up to it, because I was like: This is so specific for Amy Taubin to be calling me. And I’ve got Amy Taubin’s article hanging right in front of me. So I fight her for the first five minutes on the phone, where I’m just like, “This ain’t you. Who put you up to this? And stop lying. This is Bryan Johnson.”

And she goes, “I swear.” And she asked to see the movie. She said somebody who she trusts said that it was the undiscovered gem of the marketplace, and she had to see it instantly. “Instant” in those days meant we had to make a VHS copy and drive it up to Manhattan, to bring to the Village Voice offices. So it took about five, six hours to get it to her. We rushed and made it all happen. She wound up writing about it in The Village Voice the next week, like really featured it.

And then Peter Broderick, who wrote for Filmmaker Magazine, called. And we had been using this article that Peter Broderick had written in Filmmaker that broke down the budgets of three American indie films: The Living End by Gregg Araki, Laws of Gravity by Nick Gomez and Together Alone by P.J. Castellaneta. I remember that movie was a movie about two dudes in an apartment, relationship drama, and it only costs about 6,000 bucks. That captured my imagination essentially. It was a gay-themed film about two dudes in an apartment, one location, having a serious talk about their relationship. And I was like, “Well, that’s kind of what Clerks is, except my characters don’t realize they’re gay yet.” So that was always a model for me as well, where I’m like, “Wow, it’s cheap to put two people in a room and have them talk to one another.” 

“Together Alone” (1991)

Nobody ever shared their budget in those days because everyone wants to sell their movie for as much as possible. So you couldn’t get real information. And I was talking indie film, guerrilla film. I wanted to know what movies that I wanted to emulate cost, not like what a Martin Scorsese movie cost. Clearly, I wouldn’t get that kind of money, but maybe Laws of Gravity money, maybe Together Alone money.

Peter Broderick wanted to feature Clerks in this year’s version of that article. And I was like, “Well, first, you’ve got to tell me who told you about this picture. Because nobody was there.” And he said, “Bob Hawk.” That was the guy Scott spoke to. Bob had been insanely busy, influential, in Bay Area film. He’s got his name on The Times of Harvey Milk, which was an Academy Award-winning documentary. So he was hugely respected in the indie film world. 

When he said to Scott, “You guys gotta submit to Sundance,” we had never thought about that. Sundance was Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Those films were in color and had movie stars in them. So never once were we like, “Clerks is bound for Sundance.” But we submitted and we wound up getting in. Everyone had seen our movie by that point who could have bought it, so it was not like we went to Sundance and we were discovered. There were people at every company who loved it, but they were my age. Nobody who could pull a trigger was my age. Those people were like, “This movie’s foreign to me. It’s a bunch of young kids.” But all the young kids that worked at all those companies were like, “You got to get this Clerks movie.” 

So by the time we went to Sundance, there was no expectation we’d ever be bought. It was just nice to be one of the 16 films that was selected. That was huge. So we went up to Sundance like just to be in a film festival. Everything that we hoped was going to happen with Clerks in terms of it getting purchased, especially by someone like Miramax, was out the window.

We just went to have a good time, and it was our first time out the gate trying something like this. And then when we got to Sundance, the movie turned into this fucking buzz film over the course of a week, and suddenly people started returning about wanting to buy it. And Miramax stepped up, bought the movie and changed my life. So ever since then, I’ve been in the movie business, and it all started with my old man taking me to see flicks all the time. Seeing Jaws with my family.

Reporting by Nadine Zylberberg