Kevin Smith Celebrates 25 Years of Screenwriting And Making Indie Films
Kevin Smith believes movies were built for streaming platforms. “It wasn’t until Clerks went to home video that people were saying, ‘I know a guy just like Jay.’ That identity factor blew my hair back.” With this idea in mind, Smith created somewhat of a roller-coaster personality for Jay, occasionally making him dumber, or more innocent, to service the storylines.
“There was no grand film career plan for me after Clerks,” said Smith. “The plan was to direct it. Making this movie meant we could show it to other people and get a little money for our next movie. We didn’t think it would go out and hit a bunch of screens. I didn’t think as many people who saw it would see it. I didn’t think it would travel internationally.”
After Clerks, Smith wrote and directed a series of films, such as Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and Yoga Hosers, among others. “Each one was written under different conditions. I wrote a draft of Clerks while I wasn’t working at a convenience store. I wrote Mallrats while I was traveling with Clerks. I wrote part of it in Japan and part of it in France. I’d written a draft of Dogma before Clerks was released and finished it right afterward.”
Kevin Smith’s Writing Process
“Usually I start with very long drafts and whittle them down to more manageable, shootable drafts. In the case of Dogma, some of the story changed a bit from the first draft to the third. In the first draft, Bethany was a stripper, and I think the third draft is where she started working at a clinic. And that was about the biggest change.”
While working on scripts, Smith then starts to cut pages, sharpen the jokes, and change, or sharpen points of view. When working on the Clerks trilogy, writer-director Kevin Smith spoke with his agent about acquiring the use of a shopping mall to film in.
At first, it sounded like there was an issue, so he considered the idea of making Mallrats 2 rather than Clerks 3, but then another snag came up. His agent said there were a few options to get the film made. “One option would be having the studio pay for the film. The second option would be raising the money to have the studio make the film. And, the third option, which sounded most appealing, was to get the rights to the film and make it without studio interference.”
But, as it turns out, his agent was wrong. Smith spent the time writing the screenplay and gathering his production team only to find out that Universal did not ever give up the rights and that they also didn’t want to make the film. “I don’t begrudge them for not making the film, but it’s frustrating.”
Smith clarified, “I make Indie films. I’m used to making what I want to make. Not everyone gets it, but I get to make what I want to make. Simple things like making Clerks 3 or Mallrats 2, when all of the players wanted to be involved, seem simple but yet, there are many obstacles.”
“I felt like I betrayed my characters in Mallrats. So in Chasing Amy, they talk about the comic book – Bluntman and Chronic – which was a critic of Mallrats. That was me trying to reclaim their dignity from the first movie.”
This was the same problem as Yoga Hosers. “The one regret I would have had if I died, would be the last movie I made was Yoga Hosers.” “You know right away it’s going to be an uphill battle,” he said about Yoga Hosers. “So you think about the negative, which is people saying, ‘How come you’re not making movies like you used to before? Good ones that we all like!”
“You measure that against the certainty, which is: if you don’t do this now, you’ll never do it. You have the ability to make this movie, a movie for a bunch of female audiences who don’t necessarily get served – yeah, they got Pitch Perfect, but not every girl’s into singing. Some kids just want to see a superhero movie about them.”
For Smith, Yoga Hosers came from scratching an itch. He just wanted to see a movie like this, which was inspired by Strange Brew, a 1984 film he said became his religion. “That movie was made for me,” he joked. “I followed the box office enough to know it didn’t light the world on fire, but when I saw it, it lit a fire in me.”
Writing for Actors
Smith writes these characters with actors in mind. “In Chasing Amy, all the leads were written with people I knew in mind. Mallrats not as much because we knew we were going to cast it. Clerks, I didn’t know anybody. We just kind of cast it out of local theater and friends. I’ve gone back and rewritten Dogma based on people I know and want to cast.”
Going forward, he continued to revamp the image of Jay and Silent Bob in Dogma. “They’re street smart, but not that bright. It’s a mixture of the two versions from Mallrats and Chasing Amy. Then, with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he’s back to being a cartoon. I got crucified by religious folks for Dogma, so I went back to Jay and Silent Bob.”
For Dogma, “I think it came from a lot of places, and one was, of course, my having been raised and still being a practicing Catholic. The other was comic books, which I think shows in the movie. There’s no discussion of comic books like there was in the other movies, and there are no comic books in evidence. But the movie plays like a graphic novel and also some of the stronger comedic works of faith that people like George Carlin and Sam Kinison have done in their routines.”
In the end, even Matt Damon said Jason Mewes stole the show in Dogma, but the two never would have gotten their own movie without Mallrats, where he first introduced their characters as comic characters who got their own movie.
“He’s still sort of dumb, but he’s basically Pinocchio and I’m Jiminy Cricket. He’s a little wooden-headed, but he’s got a dude who keeps him on track. In Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, I had the benefit of looking back on 25 years of these characters, like now what do you do with them?”
Changing Jay for Reboot
For Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, the screenwriter wanted to make Jay a dad. You read that correctly. “Before, this guy would be the last person you wanted taking care of a child. He couldn’t even take care of himself, so why give him a kid?”
“I thought Mewes was put on his earth to be Jay in movies because that’s what he was good at. But then he had a kid. All of a sudden, I realized he was born to be somebody’s dad,” said Smith about his lifelong friend and co-actor.
In real life, Mewes wasn’t drastically different from Jay. He never knew his father and his mother used him as a drug delivery errand boy in Smith’s hometown. “He got arrested at age nine and the cops kept him in jail until his mother turned herself in. She spent a day thinking about it before doing so. Jay had a difficult childhood and I think that informs who he is as a parent. He does the opposite. He’s the world’s best dad.”
“He spends all of his time with his kid because it’s the best thing to ever happen to him. He just enjoys spending time with this little person. So at one point, I realized that was the movie.”
“Seeing him be SuperDad was a mind-fuck for me. I knew him best in real life, but I never would have called it. He trusts me, so we played it. These movies are a snapshot of who we are at that point in our lives.”
The Ben Affleck Dilemma
When Ben Affleck agreed to be in the latest Reboot, Smith decided to put more of himself into the character of Holden McNeil. “Through Holden, I can take stock of my professional life and speak.”
In the main line Smith is referencing, he said, “People hate the present so much that they want to retreat to the past. And now, suddenly, all my bullshit is back and some of that bullshit meant the world to me when I was a kid.”
According to the writer-director, this small moment, wrapped in a stoner film, is one of the most honest moments of his life. “Everything he says for those 12 seconds is the author laid bare, looking back at his career.”
The touching moment actually came after a long break in the conversation between Smith and Affleck. But after Affleck mentioned Smith in an interview for Triple Frontier with Kevin McCarthy, Mewes and others inspired him to reach out to his old friend, who came back for the cameo role in Reboot.
Since the duo hadn’t seen each other since 1996, Smith assumed movie star / director Ben would get off the private plane (originally set aside for Snoop Dogg, but rescheduled for Affleck). “It was the same old Ben I knew back in 1996,” he mused.
“Last time we worked together, I was the guy who said you have to do the dialogue as written. Now I’m like, say what you want, I’ll get credit for it. Feel free to ad-lib and I’ll let you know if you need to say something specific.”
Based on their last moments together, Affleck came in off-book and had memorized his entire monologue without any problems. “He knew it frontwards and backwards. It was a fascinating process. He treated it so seriously and it’s a Jay and Silent Bob movie. He knew it was my biography, more or less.”
Smith has always loved entertainment journalism and he credits McCarthy’s question for rekindling the relationship between himself and Ben Affleck, but also for the powerful scene from Reboot.
“I love entertainment journalism because it’s the only way to talk about what you love. It’s always been a part of my life. Entertainment journalism was the bridge, so when I got a career, I wanted to stay involved. Sports writers can’t track down baseball, basketball or football players, but they can talk to hockey players because they want to sell the game. That’s who I wanted to be. That’s me. I want to interact with that world. That little throwaway moment changed my movie, changed my life.”
Over the past 25 years, Smith has dealt with a great deal of backlash. “You don’t necessarily get better as you get older in terms of being able to connect with an audience unless you want to play that game and make audience-pleasing movies. Three-act structure, four-quadrant movies that make people happy.”
“If you’re gifted like that, God bless. You’re J.J. Abrams, you’re my hero. I wish I could be J.J. Abrams. It’d be amazing to step up to bat every time and have people be like, ‘I love what you do dude, you make me feel happy,’” he said.
But in the end, Kevin Smith said he can only make Kevin Smith movies. “When I step up to bat, a good portion of people – like more people than I ever imagined – are like, ‘Wow, this made me feel good’ but it ain’t enough to build a studio career on or risk multi-millions of dollars on. So I tell the weird stories I want to tell and I keep the budget small and that means I can write whatever I want. I’ve never faced a time where a studio wants this or somebody tells me I can’t do this or they said my story, my self-expression wasn’t good enough. I never want to hear that.”
For Smith, it’s one thing for critics not to like his movies, but he hopes the fans find them. “People might not like what you say or do, but your ability to say it, that’s your gift. That’s something you can’t ever let anyone try to take away from you. Movies like Tusk and Yoga Hosers don’t exist because you say, ‘This is how you plot a successful career,’ they exist because you say, ‘Let’s see if we can do it. Wouldn’t it be fucking weird if we pulled this off?’”
“I’m old enough to know that, I don’t worry about the moment. It’s so weird. Movies are judged by a blip in time. It’s all about the box office horse race and the sexiness of the weekend numbers. But movies last forever or nobody would be talking about Mallrats right now.”
After the filming of Reboot was over, the writer-director realized the film was actually a “re-quel, but the joke was too late to make it in the film. The film also poked fun at the recent movement to put women in roles originally written for men. In one example, they made Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) the lead hero in the fake movie, Chronic.
“Jay and Bob have also sort of been left behind as the world has gone forward, so we get to make the fish out of water, or out of time jokes, but still get to trade in woke humor as well. I put up the girl gang on Instagram, and there’s [cheers] but also people saying, ‘Don’t tell me you’re cowering to this quota.’ But it’s not new for me to have women in movies. There’s one joke hidden in the credits about it.”
This mindset actually led to another project for Netflix, where Smith landed as the official showrunner. The writer is now working on an animated He-Man series for the streaming platform. The new series will be called Masters of the Universe: Revelation.
This mindset, which has perhaps made Smith more dedicated to his craft, mimics the ideas of the stoicism where Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” As such, Smith now thinks of every project as potentially his last. “I am happy to do this until I die,” he said. “It’s not morbid. It’s a fact of life, so I approach everything like that.”
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