Kevin Smith on Screenwriting: Part II
In the second of a two part series, Kevin Smith continues his journey through his early films, from Dogma to Jersey Girl.
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 one of the most famous directors 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 was the initial inspiration for the script of 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’s 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.
You wrote it around the time of Clerks. Had it been revised since then?
Yeah, oh absolutely. Every year I went through another draft of the flick.
What do you do in the revision process? Do you work on structure, dialogue, both?
Usually I start with very large drafts and whittle them down to more manageable, shootable drafts. In the case of Dogma from the first draft to the third some of the story changed a bit. 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, I think, the biggest change.
Everything else pretty much stayed the same. But it was just whittling it down or kinda sharpening the jokes or sharpening points of view. Over the course of five years I think I became a better writer, so I just polished that dialogue a lot more.
You shot other films while revising this script. Did you want to spend more time developing as a writer before shooting Dogma?
Not so much develop as a writer as develop as a filmmaker. It was a daunting little flick to face as your second film, and I didn’t want to pooch it because it was about something really important to me. I didn’t want to get out there and have it fall victim to the sophomore jinx simply by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t mature enough to handle the material either as a writer or especially as a director.
So I just kinda put it on the back burner until I felt we were ready, and after Chasing Amy I thought we had reached that point. Because Chasing Amy was a movie that did a little bit of what Dogma does, which is blend or balance the dramatic and comedic, although Dogma has far greater or more chasm-like tonal shifts. You’ll be laughing at something one second, and suddenly it turns dead serious or weighty.
Dogma also seems more complex in terms of genre. There are elements of comedy, adventure, road film, and then the whole religious epic or quest. How do you go about combining all these genres into something that is uniquely your own?
Carefully. The flick will never play as kind of actiony-adventurey as most of the Spielberg catalog or something like that. But there is a little hint of it in there. And it’s not as fall-down funny as, say, some of the Farrelly brothers’ stuff, but it definitely has its strong comedic moments as well. For me it was interesting finding the blend, and I think Pulp Fiction helped a lot. Seeing Pulp Fiction back in 1994 at Cannes was an eye-opener ’cause I thought that movie blended a lot of different styles and tone shifts quite well. And that kind of bolstered my confidence.
Your use of pop culture references seems essential in your work. You mentioned Pulp Fiction—obviously it is essential in Tarantino’s work as well. Now it seems like everyone is doing it. It is clever and fun, but is there a deeper purpose in pop culture references?
I just think, good or bad, our generation, generations that follow us, even some that precede us, have these cultural touchstones that pop up in conversation privately or among your friends, and why not reflect that in movies? It’s not taking it to the more obvious degree like the self-consciousness of the Scream flicks, of commenting on horror movies while being in a horror movie. It is kind of the awareness of pop culture and how little we wind up actually talking about except the movies we’ve seen, the TV shows we’ve seen, because we all share that in common. You come from any different walk of life, and you’ve probably seen the same films or watched the same TV programs.
How do you make decisions in the cutting room? It must be a tough balance getting rid of certain things and not breaking a certain flow or trying to maintain a flow.
Yeah, particularly with a script like Dogma because it’s intricately balanced and the dialogue is so much exposition. I’m one of those guys who tells you about things rather than shows you, which is a horrible thing to do because it’s a visual medium, but it’s the only way I know how to work. So sometimes it is kinda difficult. But through the course of Dogma we found it easier and easier to just go in there and line-trim. We just kept looking for lines and stuff that’s a little pretentious or self-serving.
If I had a major criticism of the third draft, I thought there was a problem along the lines of what you were just saying—having characters talk instead of doing. There are so many supporting characters, and every time one comes in they have to explain their whole backstory, usually what they were in Heaven and why they’re on Earth. It felt like it slowed things up a bit.
Yeah, believe me, it did. But we found ways to get in there and excise stuff so that people weren’t going on too much about themselves while still moving the story forward. I’m a pretty harsh judge of the flick, and now when I watch the final cut it moves. It really doesn’t seem to drag. At Cannes the last thing that kinda held on as one of these draggy sequences was the Azrael scene in the bar.
That scene I thought especially slowed things up. When we’re getting to the end and it seems like things should be speeding up, you’re introducing this new villain (although we’ve seen him a little bit before) explaining his whole story.
That’s definitely changed from the third draft. He’s in the flick a lot more throughout the beginning and middle so it’s not like he suddenly pops up in that third act. There was a lot of tying up loose ends involved, and then there was a big old speech that he gave, and the speech hit the floor as well after Cannes. At this point you want to get to the church. You want to get to the end as soon as possible.
I guess it’s tough because you like certain scenes, but you have to think of the overall film and how they fit in.
Exactly. You have to think about an audience sitting there for two hours and digesting all this stuff.
As the writer and director, do you make changes as you shoot, or do you pretty much lock yourself in to the script and try to stick to that when you’re shooting?
I’m really anal-retentive about using the script as the bible. I’m not real big on ad-libbing or improvisation, so most of that stuff stays intact. Periodically words will get shifted around, or you’re in a moment. There’s a moment with Chris Rock. It was his last day and his last take. There was a line that I was never really fond of, where Bethany says, “Christ? You knew Christ?” and Rufus says, “Knew him? I saw him naked.”
That’s in the third draft.
Right. I was never really wild about that line, and while we were there it was Chris’s last take. I was like, “Throw something else out there.” It was the one golden opportunity I gave to somebody to actually ad-lib, and Chris came up with this line that was phenomenal and will end up staying in the flick, where she goes, “Christ? You knew Christ?” and he goes, “Knew him? Nigger owes me twelve bucks.”
Were parts written with certain actors in mind?
Some were, some weren’t. I rewrote Linda Fiorentino’s part when Linda became the character because in the earlier drafts I think Bethany is like twenty-six. When I sat down with Linda to talk about the script and I kinda fell in love with her as the choice for Bethany, I became convinced that it was a better move to have somebody who is older play the character. This person had been through more in her life and seen some shit and had some wear and tear rather than some twenty-six-year-old who sounded more like she was whining than anything else.
This film seemed like a departure in the sense that you were working with more actors that you hadn’t worked with before. Did you change your style?
After you sit down with them and after you know they’re going to be in it, you go through and give it another once-over on those characters just to inflect a little better for the actors who are going to be playing them or maybe tailor some of the dialogue to their delivery.
The controversy surrounding Dogma as I understand it is that there is this conservative Catholic organization called the Catholic League that is talking about protesting the film. Is there anything else to the controversy, and how do you feel about it?
It’s pretty much that one organization, and it’s disconcerting. You just wish they had waited to see the film before they’d jumped on it so hard.
It may not have been their cup of tea because it’s chock-a-block full of harsh language or what-not, but at the same time they would have at least seen that it’s not a blasphemous flick. It’s not slapping the face of organized religion or spitting in the face of the Catholic Church. It’s actually pretty pro-faith. And at times actually pro-Catholic, and while it doesn’t play like a recruiting film for the Vatican, it actually does a pretty good job, an admirable job I think, of upholding or maintaining some of the tenets of the faith and doesn’t mock them.
So it’s kinda disconcerting to have a group, particularly one guy, the guy in charge of the group, Bill Donahue, attacking the movie, and also knowing that it wasn’t really about us or the movie, it was more about attacking Disney. He’s tried to do it before, and this movie was just the easiest way for him to do it this year. It kind of makes you a little sad or disappointed ’cause I knew going in that I was doing something positive.
You can accuse me of being tacky or raunchy, but you can’t really accuse me of being anti-faith or anti-religion or anti-Catholic or anti-God when the movie upholds so much of that.
I thought the Cardinal Glick character was a satire of liberalism in the Church— his touchy-feely “Catholicism—Wow!” campaign involving liberal silliness like taking away the crucifix and replacing it with a Jesus who gives the thumbs-up sign. That joke might be something conservatives would enjoy.
Absolutely. You would think so, but forget it. You have to have a sense of humor, and most of the conservatives don’t, especially when it comes to religion.
Since you were raised a Catholic, and are a practicing Catholic, obviously this is a personal film. Why did you choose an epic form for a personal story?
If you’re going to talk about religion, you better make it damn entertaining because most people will tune out. It’s one of those things that people don’t like to be talked to about or like to talk about or want to be entertained by. And I didn’t want to make this flick where I was on a soapbox for a couple of hours going, “These are the things I believe.”
If you’re going to do stuff like that or stuff that can be construed as that, you at least want it to be entertaining. Kind of that spoonful of sugar approach. Couch it in some humor, and maybe at the end of the day they’ll pick up on the message after they’re done laughing, or maybe they won’t, but at least you haven’t bored them to death.
I think that was the best medium to do it in, to do it as a kind of a comedic film, or to do it in that epic form, because at least even if the humor is not your cup of tea, there’s a kind of a story to it. Ticking clock. Got all the elements of good movie conventions in it while still not being like a typical movie.
With all the Catholic terminology in the film, it seems like it’s a film that Catholics especially would hook into in a way that maybe others wouldn’t.
Yeah, there was definitely a kind of fear at some point, like, “Wow, is this movie too inside? Are you not going to be able to appreciate this if you’re not a Catholic?” But I think this stuff is broad enough, and the Catholic technojargon, as it were, isn’t really off-putting. It all pretty much gets explained so we don’t leave anyone in the dark.
I’ve been kind of a Jesus freak my whole life. And being raised Catholic helps out a lot with a lot of the concepts. We joke about it, but it’s treated kind of reverently because these are the concepts and precepts I grew up with, and they do mean something to me. Even as old as you get, and sometimes things fall by the wayside—where you’re like, “A plenary indulgence, really? Where did God ever say that He was offering anybody a plenary indulgence?”—you still kind of embrace it or go, “Yeah. That was a big part of growing up.”
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Chiefly, I hope they’re entertained. And hopefully they’ll laugh a lot. But it would be nice if people walked out thinking about their faith or whatever that may be, or their degree of spirituality. The movie is chiefly for people who have let their faith fall by the wayside or dropped out of it for whatever reason.
Whether you’ve got issues with the Church or not, it’s not like you have an issue with God. You have an issue with an institution that speaks on God’s behalf but doesn’t necessarily have to be right in every instance. Just the idea that if you have a grievance with the Church or disagree with Church policy, it doesn’t have to be a stumbling block between your relationship with God or with Christ.
So often people kind of drop out of Church ’cause they’re disenchanted with the priest or with the Church’s stance on whatever politics of the day, whether it’s abortion or homosexuality or things like that. People fall out of their faith because they disagree with the Church’s stance on it. And it’s just that. It’s the Church’s stance on it. It’s not God’s.
We won’t know God’s mind on any subject until we die. So why blame God for something that some guy is putting forward and saying, “This is what we all have to believe”? It’s a manmade institution, and it’s just as fallible as the rest of us.
Was the Jersey Girl story conceived before or after you became a parent?
It was between the two- and six-month mark after I became a parent, after Harley was born. We were out in Los Angeles, working on the Clerks cartoon, which was as fun as hell to write but at the same time, it’s a little easy, a little superficial.
So I was thinking about writing something that was a bit more grown-up, just to balance out the cartoon. One night I came home and Jen and I were putting Harley to bed, and I don’t know, I was struck with that notion that most parents, particularly fathers, are struck with sooner or later, which is, “God, what would happen if I had to do this by myself?”
Because here I was, coming home from work at seven o’clock, and just catching the kid in time to put her in the crib for the night, and Jen was so wonderful with her. I was just kind of swept up with that feeling of, “Thank God she’s here, but what if she wasn’t?” It started as a what-if germ. “What if Jen hadn’t made it, but the baby had? Where would I be? What would I be doing?”
I sat down that night and for two hours, I wrote about fifty pages of what would eventually become Jersey Girl. It stayed pretty much the same, except that when I began writing it, I wasn’t writing it with Ben in mind. At that time, I was writing it for Bill Murray. He had just done Rushmore, and I loved his performance.
When did you finish the first draft?
I did those fifty pages and never touched it again—that was January or February of 2000—until July of 2001, when I went to Ben Affleck’s house for a Fourth of July party. We were out in Los Angeles, working on Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Ben was doing that thing he normally does, which is, “When are you going to write something we can do together?” …And I was like, “Of the two of us, dude, one has won an Oscar for screenwriting, so I think you could pretty much handle writing something for yourself at this point.” And he was like, “No, you should do it.”
I said, “I have this thing that I wrote fifty pages of, and I haven’t touched it in a while.” So I gave him the pages the next day, and he called me up and said, “This is it. Finish this, dude, I’m totally into doing this.” So I spent the next month finishing up what became Jersey Girl.
Your previous film opened with Jason Mewes farting into the camera, and now you’ve written a father-daughter story. You tend to downplay this sort of thing, but you’ve obviously grown up, just a little.
[Laughs] That was definitely my lowest point as a writer. I certainly enjoyed writing it and I don’t disavow it—I know exactly why I did it, it made me laugh. But yeah, it’s certainly not the pinnacle of writing.
It’s weird—thus far, the quality of my writing from flick to flick has gone up and down. Not like some of it is better or worse than others, but even in Chasing Amy, for as much pseudo-intellectual or heady concepts we were throwing at the audience, there were a lot of dick and fart jokes in there, and a lot of pop culture humor too.
It’s also the film in which you coined the phrase “serious deep dicking.” Jay’s fart notwithstanding, your lowbrow jokes usually stem from dialogue and wordplay, whereas the Farrelly Brothers or Adam Sandler rely more on sight gags.
That’s the thing I’ve always enjoyed about screenwriting. There are elements in Chasing Amy that would put off the intelligentsia because it is kind of lowbrow, but at the same time, the stuff that appeals to the intelligentsia puts off the fourteen-year-olds who went to see that movie because of Mallrats.
I’ve always enjoyed mixing up the highbrow and the lowbrow. Jersey Girl is different, inasmuch as there’s not that reliance on the easy joke and there’s not the reliance on pop culture references. So that was a challenge, to be able to write something that stands on its own, and that rises and falls on the merits of the story and not the movie you did before it.
As your budgets get bigger, do you write differently, knowing that you have more money to work with?
Jersey Girl is our most expensive movie to date. We’re at $30 or $35 million. Which is kind of weird, because it’s not that much more involved or difficult a story to tell than Chasing Amy was, and that only cost $250,000. The world of difference is that everybody gets paid now, whereas on Chasing Amy everyone got scale, so suddenly that adds a lot to the above-the-line, and then the below-the-line gets bigger as well.
As for how it affects the writing, I think it depends. When you talk about doing exteriors on Park Avenue, I knew we were going to have the money to do it this time. I knew somebody in the crew was going to wind up getting permits, and we were going to do it above the boards, whereas in some of the earlier stuff, I don’t think I would have ever written a scene like that unless I felt like we could steal it real quickly, without getting shut down by the New York authorities. So yeah, that certainly helps.
The characters in Jersey Girl are more realistic than in some of your other movies. How did you change your approach to writing them?
I don’t know if I’ve changed my approach. It’s just that as you get older, you tend to be more focused, I guess. The longer you do it, the better you get at it, at least I hope so. With the exception of maybe Alyssa in Chasing Amy, who I thought was a fully realized character, these characters are the first I’ve written who live and breathe.
They’re not just walking fonts of pop culture knowledge, not just spouting things to make the joke. None of these guys reference Urkel so that the audience goes, “Oh yeah, man! Urkel blows!” Nobody’s sitting there busting about Star Wars, which is fun to write and I’d write it again in a heartbeat, but you don’t have to flesh out a character when somebody is just spouting jokes for a while, or just speaking in a clever fashion.
There are musical numbers in this movie, which may also surprise some of your fans.
It’s not Magnolia-style, where people just start breaking into song; it’s part of the movie. At one point, they go see a performance of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in the city, so we see a piece of the musical number “Joanna,” and then at the end of the movie, there’s a show where they put on the number “God, That’s Good” from Sweeney Todd. I was a big Sweeney Todd fan as a kid.
Are you a fan of movie musicals?
I think the first musical I saw on film that made sense to me—not that the others didn’t make sense, but people just suddenly stop and break into song—but when I saw Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, I remember thinking he nailed the musical, because he made it make sense within the story, as if people could break into song without people who aren’t really musical fans going, “What the fuck’s going on here?” Because it was in her head.
Chicago worked on that same level for me. I was really blown away by those two films, but I’m certainly not the movie musical guy. I can appreciate them, but Lord knows I could never make one myself. I can barely make a regular film, let alone a musical.
What were the challenges in creating a child character?
There’s a lot of extrapolation. I’ve not really been around a lot of kids. When I was about seventeen or eighteen I worked at the recreation center in Highlands, New Jersey, for about a year, and we had a lot of latch-key kids. But they were generally older; we didn’t have a lot of younger kids.
So, outside that first six months to a year with Harley, during which time I started and then finished Jersey Girl, that was the only hands-on experience I had with a kid. I never had a little brother, and my friends didn’t really have little brothers or sisters who were that much younger than us. So it was a lot of extrapolation, and I was trying to stay aware of it, because I didn’t want to write a precocious kid.
One thing I can’t stand in movies is a really precocious, Shirley Temple-like kid. I just wanted Gertie to sound like a real seven-year-old, so I kind of extrapolated, because the few that I had actually come across in life weren’t overwhelmingly charming.
You know, seven is a weird age, where you’re beyond being a little moppet, but you’re not quite your own person yet. And most of them tend to be more quiet than chatty, at least the ones I’ve met, so I wanted to write a kid like that. You know, not a kid like Curly Sue, or the kid in Home Alone, who’s just adorable and always has something cute to say, or is wise beyond their years in a way that doesn’t make sense to me. So I worked as carefully as I could on Gertie.
You managed to keep the Jersey Girl script off the Internet. Why is it so important to keep the script under wraps?
For me, it’s a matter of keeping it a surprise, keeping the film as a fresh experience for the audience rather than people going in there and knowing what’s going to happen in every scene because they’ve already read the script.
We live in a world now where if Hitchcock made Psycho today, everyone would know that Janet Leigh dies right away, and that would have ruined the fun of it for that audience. Could you imagine being in the audience when Psycho was first released, and Janet Leigh, the star of the movie, gets killed? What a great experience that must have been.
I had a variation of that experience when I saw The Matrix. I knew nothing about it, had no fucking clue. So when I saw that movie, I was just blown away. I had no idea what I was in for, and I was so glad that I didn’t. It’s really nice to see movies that way, because now it’s so easy to find out what everything’s about long before a movie even goes into production.
Jersey Girl is a little more dramatic, less juvenile than your other films. How concerned are you about alienating your core audience?
The last thing we did was Jay and Silent Bob, and this film is kind of a 180, although it’s not a complete 180 from other stuff we’ve done—it’s very close in tone and spirit to Chasing Amy. There’s a lot of comedy and there’s also a lot of drama.
I was kind of worried that all the fans we’ve picked up from Jay and Silent Bob, the younger set… stoners and shit like that—they’d catch one look at this movie and be like, “Smith pussed out. What happened?” There are a lot of people who came on board because of Chasing Amy and Dogma, so I think they’ll stick around. But yeah, that was certainly a concern at the beginning.
Not so much that, “I better not even try this,” but I just knew that we’d lose some of the younger cats.
So you’re willing to risk losing part of your fan base in order to grow as an artist?
In the other movies, I knew if I got in trouble, I could throw in Jay and Bob, and I knew I’d at least have the people who’d been around for the previous movies referring to the other movies.
I used to do that quite a bit, bringing up other characters from the other movies, interconnecting everything. It was a really nice net to work with, because it always felt like, “Well, if nobody new comes to see this shit, I’ll always have the people who were around for the other stuff,” because it kind of builds this club-like mentality.
But I don’t really consider myself an artist. Technically, sometimes, the definition fits, but I’m just a storyteller, man. I just make movies. I never felt, “I gotta grow, I gotta continue to grow.” But it’s nice to be able to do something like Jersey Girl, where you’re working without a net.
Do you have a plan where your career is going?
I guess it’s pretty impulsive. You know, here we are. There was no grand plan after Clerks. The plan was to direct it. Make this movie we could show to other people and get a little money for the next movie we were going to make. 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. We never thought about that stuff.
Basically it was a calling card to say, “We can obviously make a movie technically, so give us money for the next one.” That was about as grand as the plan was and then everything just happened. My film career kind of exploded. So you just kind of go with it and see what happens.
This article was originally published by Creative Screenwriting in 2005.
Featured image by Gage Skidmore.
[woocommerce_products_carousel_all_in_one template="compact.css" all_items="88" show_only="id" products="" ordering="random" categories="115" tags="" show_title="false" show_description="false" allow_shortcodes="false" show_price="false" show_category="false" show_tags="false" show_add_to_cart_button="false" show_more_button="false" show_more_items_button="false" show_featured_image="true" image_source="thumbnail" image_height="100" image_width="100" items_to_show_mobiles="3" items_to_show_tablets="6" items_to_show="6" slide_by="1" margin="0" loop="true" stop_on_hover="true" auto_play="true" auto_play_timeout="1200" auto_play_speed="1600" nav="false" nav_speed="800" dots="false" dots_speed="800" lazy_load="false" mouse_drag="true" mouse_wheel="true" touch_drag="true" easing="linear" auto_height="true"]