Kevin Smith on Screenwriting, Part I
In the first of a two-part series, Kevin Smith takes us on a journey through his so-called 'Jersey Trilogy' of early films, from Clerks to Chasing Amy.
By Peter N. Chumo II, George Khoury and Steve Ryfle.
Clerks, Kevin Smith’s first film, came out of nowhere to shatter longheld notions of what independent film is all about. The movie looked like crap, it featured amateur actors, and was infused with the lowbrow humor (one girl copulates with a dead guy, another has given a record number of blow jobs) and pop culture sensibility that would become Kevin Smith’s trademarks.
Yet Clerks possessed a certain intelligence that shone through in the characters, their pop culture encyclopedia dialogue, and the absurdity of their situations. Clerks received both the Filmmakers Trophy at that year’s Sundance Film Festival and the International Critics Week Award at the Cannes Film Festival. In short, Clerks became a phenomenon, and Kevin Smith arguably the most famous director in the world (not even Spielberg or Tarantino has gotten work as a TV pitch man), if not for his movies then for his affable persona and multi-platform productivity (film, an animated TV series, comic books).
For better or worse, all of Smith’s films are his and his alone; they reflect his point of view on life, love, fart and dick jokes (he likes ’em), and important matters—like the DC universe. Many feature Jay and Silent Bob and/or other characters from Smith’s “Askewniverse,” effectively forming a series, and encouraging a cultish fan base that has followed Smith from film to film.
Kevin Smith has spoken with Creative Screenwriting several times over the years about how his writing has changed, and why. This article features highlights of those interviews.
What films have influenced you?
I’ve been a long-time movie fan but it wasn’t until I went to see Slacker on my twenty-first birthday, that I really got into independent film. It was an epiphany of sorts. And as much as I like watching Richard Linklater’s movie, I sat there thinking this was great but if this guy can do this, I can do this.
You were in film school. Is that essential in filmmaking?
Absolutely not. It also depends on what you want to do. I wanted to write and direct. I really didn’t want to direct all that much—basically I wanted to write. But I soon realized that to get the exact vision you’ve written up on screen, you have to take charge of the script, so that’s where the directing end came from. But they can’t teach you writing and directing in film school. They can teach you format, but you can teach yourself that by looking at scripts. In terms of directing, either you’re good with people or you’re not good with people.
Did you work on any other films before Clerks?
Scott Mosier and I went to film school together in Vancouver. The only thing we’d done was this ten-minute video documentary about a transsexual for a class project. Then the transsexual dropped out. We had to make this documentary on how our documentary fell apart. It was kind of interesting but that was the only experience; that and a little 8mm film for my ex-girlfriend for Christmas.
Have you ever had a bad case of writer’s block?
Yeah, Six Million Dollar Man. But it was as much writer’s laze as writer’s block.
Was Six Million Dollar Man something you wanted to do?
The producer on Mallrats asked me if I wanted to do it because he was going to be involved, and I said “yeah,” because I liked the guy. Then the studio told him he wasn’t the producer on that film. Then the executives I pitched the story to left and were replaced by another set of executives. The people I started the project with were all gone, and I didn’t know the new people coming in. That is a terrible situation.
How do you write in terms of structure?
Sometimes you know the ending from the start. Clerks basically started with the idea that this guy has a really bad day then gets killed at the end. The first thing I wrote on that was the scene when some video customer comes in and Randal’s reading the paper. It’s the ruse scene. Where he’s like, “I don’t like your ruse, ma’am.” That was the first thing I wrote for some reason and then I went in either direction—I did everything before that and everything after.
Do you think as a writer or a director?
A writer. I just don’t think I have a directorial instinct. I think it all comes from writing and that’s why the films don’t have a fantastic visual style to them. In fact, there’s no visual style to them. There’s a lot of banter and a lot of talk.
Is writing the best path to directing?
In my estimation, yeah. Because that’s really all I know, but again I came from a different school of thought in terms of directing. I come from the school of thought that you write what you direct.
Sometimes I can’t figure out the people who don’t write what they direct. I mean traditionally that’s pretty much what the director is, some guy who’s directing someone else’s script, but I always have a problem with that. There are people like Martin Scorsese, people of that cut…and you’re just, “wow.” They can take somebody else’s script and make something tremendous with it.
As far as me, I just don’t. I can never visualize people asking, “Would you direct someone else’s script?” I just don’t see how I could. I’m not a visual stylist. The only reason I can direct what I write is because I’ve written it; I know how it should sound.
How long do you take to write a script?
Chasing Amy, I did in a month. Clerks, in a month. Dogma, in a month and a half, I think. Mallrats was two months.
Where does the actual writing take place?
Whenever I get up at some point during the day and write. Each one was written under different conditions. I wrote Clerks while I wasn’t working at the store. Then I polished the draft while I was working at the store. Mallrats, I wrote while I was traveling with Clerks. I wrote part of it in Japan and part of it in France. Dogma, I’d written actually before Clerks hit and finished it right afterwards. Chasing Amy, I just wrote in a month.
How many drafts do you normally write for each script?
It averages around five. Basically, they never change as much as they start big and they kind of shrink afterwards. The first draft of Clerks was 164 pages. The first draft of Mallrats was 136 pages. The first couple of drafts of Chasing Amy were 136 pages. They just shrunk from there.
And, you know, I’m lazy, so I’d love to shoot the first one, but there’s always somebody with notes. Chiefly, the person I listen to most is Scott Mosier, my producer. He has the best advice, and really has great insight into the stuff I write. So I’ll write a draft, hand it off to Scott, and then tinker with it based on what he sees in it.
I tend to write very large and then rein it back in. I never use Final Draft or one of those screenwriting programs, I just use Microsoft Word, and then I make my own margins and stuff. When I print up the script, I shrink it down to 80%, so I can fit more on a page than normally [laughs]. You know, which is kind of wrong! I always get blasted by the production staff because they’re like, “Your 120-page script is really a 150-page script,” because it’s printed small.
So the whole page-a-minute ratio doesn’t quite work for me. It worked on Clerks because the dialogue was delivered so quickly, but it took me five films in addition to that to realize, “Maybe I should I stop printing it at 80%.” So basically, my first drafts come in really long, and Mosier is kind of the editing knife, he hands me back the draft with a bunch of cut suggestions. The next draft is usually the one I hand in, and then you start dealing with notes on the studio side.
Do you envision certain actors and friends in roles when you write?
Actually, yeah. Particularly on this film, Chasing Amy; all the leads were written with people in mind, people I knew. Mallrats not as much because we knew we were going to cast it with the exception, of course, of me and Jason Mewes. 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.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to enter the industry as a scriptwriter?
That’s a tough one. My point of view is write something and direct it yourself. Sometimes people can’t click with a script. They can’t make the connection. They don’t identify. They don’t see it on the page. Sometimes if you just shoot something and show it to them and they can see it performed, it’ll pan out. That’s basically what happened to us.
In Superman, did you write the initial script or did you join the project?
There were two writers before me.
So basically it’s the same story?
Actually the first guy wrote a story which I didn’t use. He came up with his own story and it was bad. The second guy used the Death of Superman storyline from the comics and it was still bad. I used the Death of Superman storyline from the comics too, because that’s what Warner Bros. wanted. Basically the whole script from beginning to finish is mine. Except that it all stems from the idea in the comics.
Is it hard to capture human emotion on screen without sounding too dramatic?
I don’t know. It depends who you ask. If you ask people that like Chasing Amy, they’d say “Oh God, it must be hard,” and if you ask people who don’t like it, then obviously it’s hard because he can’t do it.
The scene in Mallrats in which Brodie proclaims his love for Rene sounded overly dramatic but it really strikes the audience.
That’s what was so liberating about Mallrats. I read a review where the critic said he saw Mallrats and he wasn’t a fan but it made him go back and watch Clerks. The conclusion he came to was that underneath all the cynicism, foul language and what not, they’re both sweet romantic tales of hope and ideal love. His final closing thought was, “I now know why Silent Bob doesn’t speak, because if he opens his mouth people find what a sweet guy he is.”
It was a viewpoint on my work that I never really thought about. From there, I was able to work on Chasing Amy and not worry about it coming off too sappy. I just went for the heart and it panned out.
Are pop culture references essential for a script?
I don’t think so. I mean it’s kind of what I did before, before the whole Quentin Tarantino thing…before Quentin became a mainstay in popular culture himself. I just like to talk about things that me and my friends would talk about or did talk about.
Would you consider changing your style to attract a bigger audience?
I did that once. Never again. Mallrats was our commercial stab.
Did Clerks getting an “NC-17” affect your outlook on writing being censored?
No. There was an initial worry going into this film because Chasing Amy is very frank in its sexual discussion. Perhaps more frank than Clerks. We were nervous that they would give it an “NC-17,” but they did give it an “R” on first pass.
Just for language?
Language, sexuality, discussion of sexuality, sexual topics, and drug use or drugs—something like that.
What’s good dialogue to you?
Good dialogue for me is when it just pops. Nothing can be happening in a movie, and two people can be sitting in a room for the whole flick and as long as the dialogue pops, it’s there. It’s back and forth to me. It’s banter. Right now to me, good dialogue is something I listen to and go, “Gee, I wish I’d written that.” That feeling’s few and far between, that you ever hear stuff like that.
What were the movies you’ve seen that you thought the dialogue just “popped?”
Jerry Maguire is one of them. Larry Flynt’s another one. Fargo, of course.
Your characters definitely like to talk, so it must be a constant battle to keep it short.
They do like to talk. That’s another thing I’m trying to rein in. It’s a weird position to be in, because that’s what I like to do and what I get the most credit for—the dialogue. At the same time, I always get slammed for the dialogue, for making movies that some people think should be set on stage rather than a film, because they don’t lean toward using visuals to tell the story as much as they lean toward dialogue and character to tell the story.
We’re ten years into this now, and I’m hoping that by the twenty-year mark, people might just understand, “Well, that’s what he does,” rather than trying to correct it. These are the kinds of movies I want to make, where people are very chatty. Hopefully I can balance it out a bit more, as far as telling a story visually, but I’d rather hear people talk. Those are the movies I’m drawn to, and that I like writing.
Do you allow any room for improvisation from your actors? Does it trouble you when actors change lines?
They don’t, not when I work with them. [Laughs.] I rule with a pretty iron fist in terms of dialogue. It’s almost to the point that I used to be a big linereading freak, kind of telling actors exactly how to deliver a line by delivering it myself.
Sort of like George Lucas?
Does he do that?
There was something on the MTV special on how he instructed his actors by saying “faster” or “more intense.”
With Clerks, I was always like faster, faster. I mean sometimes I would get to the point that the actor’s weren’t doing what I heard in my head. So I would just say, “Look, say it like this.” Then I would do it and have them repeat it.
Your formula breaks a lot of Screenwriting 101 rules, like keeping scenes short and writing only dialogue that builds character or moves the plot forward. Yet it works.
I think it depends on what kind of movie you’re making. If you’re making a comic book movie, I guess that much dialogue isn’t necessary. If you’re trying to write a blockbuster, I would think the less said, the better, because it’s all about eye candy.
But for the movies I’ve made, they’re certainly not reaching for the $100 million mark, they’re more personal in nature, and I don’t think I’m really beholden to those rules. Every once in a while, I’m like, “Maybe I should go to one of those Robert McKee things, just to see what the dude says.” Because you’re always reading these testimonies from people, like, “Robert McKee is a genius.”
I’ve just never felt that screenwriting could be taught. Either you can or you can’t. Either you can tell a story or you can’t; either you can put dialogue in a character’s mouth or you can’t. The rest of it is just degrees of how people respond to it; it’s more subjective than anything else.
I like a movie where people talk a lot, and maybe Robert McKee doesn’t. Or maybe when he wants to hear people talk, he wants to hear them do it in a very concise manner. I certainly don’t want to pick on that dude; he’s just the name that always comes up when they talk about screenwriting. I’ve never looked into his courses, but on one level I’m kind of morbidly curious.
You could put on the Groucho mustache and glasses…
Yeah, and hide out in the back of the crowd. Actually I really dug that scene in Adaptation where the Charlie Kaufman character goes to the McKee class and has a breakthrough of sorts. I found that really amusing.
It’s not like you can’t grow and change; ten years in, I write differently than I did ten years ago. But at the same time, it’s not that much different. I’ve learned to edit myself a lot better, in terms of not writing quite so much for everyone to say, but still I’m not really into the three-act structure and whatnot. Sooner or later maybe I’ll get to making a movie where three-act structure is kind of important, but thus far, I really haven’t felt compelled to.
When you wrote the unmade Superman for Warner Bros., weren’t you obligated to use the three-act model?
[Laughs] I guess you are, which may explain why that movie never got made. I haven’t gone back and read that script in years, I think I was working on it in ’96. Maybe I should go back and read it and see if I did write a three-act structure story.
But even then, I just remember being so in love with the dialogue, and being told, “Nobody wants to hear what Superman has to say!” And I’m like, “I do! I know Superman can do all these great things, but what’s on his mind? That’s the thing I’m most interested in.”
I can imagine if I was doing a work for hire thing, where I was trying to write a big mystery movie, I would concentrate more on that. I guess the guy who has that down is Mamet. Mamet’s stuff is very Mamet, but at the same time, when he writes something like The Untouchables, it doesn’t strike you as being overly Mamet. It sounds a little bit like Mamet, but at the same time it adheres to the rules of three-act structure.
In Clerks, did you ever consider playing the role of Dante yourself?
I was actually writing the role of Randal to be played by myself. That’s why Randal has all the best lines. But as we got closer to filming it was just impossible to work at the store, memorize lines, and direct the flick. It was tough. So I had to defer and find a different person to play it.
Have you done a lot of rewrites on set?
No, not many. I’ve thrown in a line from time to time. The actors try to throw in lines and I’m like, “No.” But from time to time, I’ve thrown in a line which I would incorporate into the script later on. On Mallrats, I wrote a sequence or two while we were actually shooting the movie.
Did you actually shoot a different beginning to Mallrats?
Oh yeah. There are parts of it that are neat. It’s just the problem that there isn’t a single laugh in it until the eight-minute mark. So I started with a crane shot, I don’t know, it was kind of difficult. I wanted to put it on the laser disc but they ran out with it before we could put on anything extra.
Are you a perfectionist in terms of the creative cycle?
On Clerks, I was. On Mallrats, we got loose a bit because Universal hired an editor, and with Chasing Amy, Scott and I edited the flick completely. I was able to choose every damn take. There was a scene in Chasing Amy comprised of ten different takes. I wouldn’t have gotten it if an editor was in charge.
Did you experience a lot of pressure from having a bigger budget on Mallrats?
No, not really. Sometimes the studio would be like, “Open it up, open it up.”
Was having Mallrats fizzle a depressing experience?
It was definitely depressing having Mallrats tank, but there was no pressure making the movie itself. The studio loved the movie right up till the release, even including the release. We got so many call-in apologies like, “We kind of screwed up” or “we’re sorry.”
It seemed liked they backed off the marketing.
Yeah, we were just with the wrong branch of Universal. They stuck us with Gramercy, which was such a bad move. Gramercy is fantastic at marketing platform releases like Fargo and Dead Man Walking. They can’t do dick one with a wide release.
Witness Dazed and Confused, Mallrats and even something as no-brainer as Barb Wire. They can’t even make that work at a time when Pamela Anderson was a goddess on the planet. The movie tanked. They just don’t know how to go wide. They just don’t know who to touch.
With Chasing Amy, you went back to basics. How was that? Did you write it knowing the budget was smaller?
There was a point when the movie was going to be made for two or three million. I talked to my producer, Scott, and I was like: “Why don’t we do it for two or three hundred grand, ’cause it’s a small movie that doesn’t require much and if we pull it off, we’ll look like geniuses.” We got two hundred and fifty grand for it and we didn’t go over budget; in fact it came in under budget.
To me, honestly there was no difference in directing Clerks, Mallrats, or Chasing Amy. ‘Cause my job is always the same: write the script, rehearse the actors, and make sure they give the performance I heard in my head when I wrote the script. No matter what the budget level that job is constant. It doesn’t change.
What was the common theme of your “Jersey Trilogy”?
The theme of the trilogy, I don’t know. Basically, the whole idea was horseshit from the beginning. People liked Clerks, the press liked Clerks and they were asking, “What was gonna happen next?” We were trying to get our foot into the door and keep it there. I was telling people it’s the first part of a trilogy, there’s more to come. So we figured that would guarantee we could make two more films. That the people in charge would go, “Well, they said it was a trilogy. Let’s give them two more tries to see where the story’s going.”
This article was originally published by Creative Screenwriting in 2005.
Featured image by Gage Skidmore.
Don’t go just yet! Read the second part of this interview Here.
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