“Ever fancied yourself a filmmaker? Guess what? You are!” Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith on Yoga Hosers, Mallrats the Series, and inviting Tarantino to direct The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
Kevin Smith is never lost for words. In fact, his entire career is built on characters talking to each other, starting with his 1994 self-financed, black-and-white hit Clerks. The movie launched Smith’s career, starting with movies like Mallrats, Dogma, and Chasing Amy, and then spreading to a wider and diversified series of podcasts and TV shows, such as AMC’s Comic Book Men and Geeking Out.
In 2008, after his Zack and Miri Make a Porno became a financial flop, Smith did his first director-for-hire movie Cop Out, which led to him return to his indie ways with Red State, a movie he famously brought to Sundance for distribution before selling it to himself for $20.
Since then, Smith has been making what he calls his “weird stories,” starting with Red State and expanding into his “True North Trilogy”. This began with 2014’s Tusk, a movie that grew out of a conversation one of Smith’s podcasts, and continues with the current, second installment, Yoga Hosers.
The film stars Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Johnny Depp (who also returns as Canadian detective Guy Lapointe) as two teenage convenience store clerks (ahem) who find themselves battling a group of miniaturized Nazis made of bratwurst and sauerkraut.
His recent output has received a mixed response, something Smith doesn’t shy away from. When Creative Screenwriting spoke to Smith for our third interview with the filmmaker, he admitted: “I’m making movies that don’t connect with anyone except fucking me.”
He also spoke about why he made Yoga Hosers, the influence of Tobe Hooper on his recent movies, and offered insight into his upcoming TV ventures, such as the Mallrats series and the TV adaptation of the cult, 1984 sci-fi film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, including how Smith hopes to get Quentin Tarantino to direct an episode.
Let’s talk about Yoga Hosers. It definitely felt like a Kevin Smith movie: it’s set in a convenience store, it has Canadian girls say “aboot” a lot, like your line from Chasing Amy…
Well remembered, sir. Well remembered.
…but this is targeted at a younger generation. Was that always your plan?
I grew up a John Hughes kid, but I never made a teenage movie and this was my chance to do that. When you get to a certain point in your career, you start doing shit just to watch people’s expressions change, so I made my version of a flick that I’d never got to take my daughter to see.
I used to take her to see all the superhero movies, because I’m obviously a big comic book fan, so I’d take her to see Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, Iron Man, all the movies that I love.
Then one day my wife said, “You’re adorable, you think she likes these movies.” I said, “She does! She sits there smiling all the time.” She said, “She’s smiling because she’s hanging out with you at a movie. There’s nothing for her in those movies.” I said, “Sure it’s about good versus evil.” She said, “Kevin: Iron MAN, SuperMAN, Spider-MAN, what does that tell you?”
And I said, “Well, they got Pepper Potts in Iron Man.” She said, “The fucking girlfriend? Listen to you. Take her to see Iron Woman. Take her to see BatWoman.” I said, “They don’t make those fucking movies.” And she goes, “Well there’s the problem isn’t it.”
And that fucking sucked to hear. There were definitely movies back in the day that were more geared for her, but every time I took her to a movie about a teenager, the girls were fighting over a dude and shit, and I said, “Where are all the movies about real teenagers that I grew up with? They didn’t get into stupid fights, they just liked each other and got into misadventures.”
And then when she was about fifteen, I remembered that I was a filmmaker, and, as a filmmaker, you can’t sit there and say, “Why don’t they make this kind of movie?” It always comes down to a moment where you say, “All right, well, you have the ability to do this, do you want to do it? What are you risking by doing it? What are you gaining possibly by doing it?”
And the potential risk was a bunch of people saying, “Ew, he’s making a movie with his kid” and all that nepotism shit that I got on the Internet, or catching shit for asking an audience to go over a very thin bridge like, “Hey, did you like Strange Brew back in 1984? Well, here’s the movie for you!”
So you’re going to catch hell either way.
You know right away it’s going to be an uphill battle. 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!” Having to eat shit for telling a story you want to tell and all that.
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 girls who don’t necessarily get served – yeah, they got Pitch Perfect, don’t get me wrong, but not every girl’s into singing and shit. Some kids just want to see a superhero movie about them.
You know, if you see a hole in life, fill it. Sounds filthier than I meant it, but you know what I’m talking about. If we’re the dreamers and the makers, as the great Willy Wonka told us, why lament something that doesn’t exist? Create it.
So, for me, Yoga Hosers came from a place of like, “I just want to see this movie,” but mostly it’s me trying to make Strange Brew, a movie I happened across on cable in 1984 and it became my religion. In that moment, I felt that movie was made for me.
There was no Internet, so you couldn’t look up information about things, but I knew the movie didn’t do well. 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. I don’t ever make the characters Jay and Silent Bob if I don’t see Bob and Doug Mackenzie in Strange Brew.
Watching Yoga Hosers, I almost wondered if it was just going to be a teen comedy set in Canada. Did you ever think of going that route or were you always thinking, “Nazi bratwursts?”
No, originally, it was going to be a summer camp movie, more in the spirit of Friday the 13th. It was called Hero Girl Clerks of the Canadian Wilderness and is about the girls going to this mandatory school function, summer camp program and they encounter a homicidal killer in the woods.
But as we got closer to production, I said, “I don’t have a camp. Where am I going to get a fucking camp when we’re shooting in summer when camp is in session? You’ve written yourself into a corner.”
The movie started in the convenience store where we last saw them in Tusk, so I said, “Wait a second. Instead of doing the ’80’s summer camp movie, do the haunted house thing, do the Critters or Gremlins thing.” You let these things invade on their home turf and they have to defend it instead.
Obviously, I’m a fan of convenience stores as settings and the notion that we had this convenience store and we’re just going to leave it behind the whole movie to go to the woods never really made sense. So that woods movie became Moose Jaws, which is just Jaws with a moose instead of a shark, but it takes place at a kids’ summer camp. And we set it up with a t-shirt that Harley’s character wears in the movie that says “Camp Antlers Moosejaw, Saskatchewan” which is where Moose Jaws takes place.
So when did “Nazi Bratwursts” enter the script?
I owe that largely to my friends J.C. Riefenberg and Andrew Heaberlin. They were writing a movie called Teenage Hitler Hunters about these teenagers that find a lab that’s got one-foot clones of Adolf Hitler and I thought, “That’s amazing!”
So when I was working on Yoga Hosers I remembered that idea and I said, “hey, man can I do the one-foot tall Adolf Hitler clones? I’ll put you down as producers on the movie” and they were like, “Yeah, go ahead.”
They started out as “Hitlins” not “Bratzis” and they were literally just Jason Mewes dressed up as one-foot tall Hitler clones. Then, whether you believe this or not, I had a moment as we got close to production, where I thought, “That’s kind of tasteless.” I don’t know why I didn’t think that for the rest of the movie, but about the Hitler thing particularly I was like, “Hitler’s a real thing and some people can’t enjoy the movie because Hitler had an impact on their family.”
So I talked to Bob Kurtzman who is our special effects guru and said, “Bob I think we should do something to the Hitlins, I don’t think they should just look like Hitler, I think we should do some effects to them and stuff, like maybe cover them in something like rubber, since Tusk is a rubber monster movie, let’s make this a rubber monster movie.
The characters are supposed to be German, maybe their faces could be made from tree bark because when I think of Germany I think of the Black Forest.” And Kurtzman goes, “Well, when I think of Germany, I think of bratwurst. I said, “Dude! Do me a favor, draw me a rendering of Jason Mewes as a Nazi bratwurst.” And he hung up and two minutes later he texted me a drawing of Jason as an anthropomorphic hot dog with a little Nazi arm band on and I was like, “I think that’s the direction.”
And, you know, I’ll be haunted the rest of my life over whether I made the right decision – and most people will probably say I made a bad decision making the movie at all – but that’s where the movie takes off for me. I get that some people hate that shit, but oh man, I love that shit.
Same thing with Johnny Depp in Tusk. There were so many people who were like, “I love Tusk right up until Guy Lapointe comes in, he’s too cartoon-y.” But that, to me, is the interesting thing because it offsets the fucking doom and gloom and it reminds me of one of my favorite screenplays ever.
Whenever I make one of these dopey horror movies like Red State, Tusk, Yoga Hosers or Moose Jaws, I’m just trying to do Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 over and over again. So I understand why people don’t like the movies I’m making because nobody liked Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 except me and a few other people. That guy blended, brilliantly, just insane, terrifying horror, and batshit-crazy humor. That was my jam, man.
And I know that, if I just wait ten fucking minutes, people catch up with it. Or it catches up with people. Yoga Hosers, I think, will find its audience once it gets to home video or Netflix. It was made for ‘tween girls, weird ‘tween girls because the movie involves Bratzis and shit, but now I dream of a twelve-year old girl stumbling across it on Netflix and going, “Oh my God, it’s like he made this for me” the same way I felt about Strange Brew.
Sounds like you’re ready for any potential backlash.
Twenty years almost on, people say the same shit. 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. You know, three-act structure, four quadrant movies that make people happy.
And 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.”
But, unfortunately, I can only make Kevin Smith movies which means 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. You kidding me? I never want to hear that in my life.
It’s bad enough you have to hear that when the movie comes out and the critics say they don’t like it, but you never want someone to say that what you have to say isn’t good enough. If somebody tells you that, go find funding elsewhere or take it to somebody else. 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 and the forthcoming Moose Jaws don’t exist because you say, “This is how you plot a successful career” or “this the road to awards.” They exist because you say, “let’s just see if we can do it. Wouldn’t it be fucking weird if we pulled this off?” That’s the stage of my career that I’m in right now.
And I’m old enough and smart enough to know that, I don’t worry about the moment. It’s so weird. Movies are judged by a blip in time. Like it’s all about the box office horse race and the sexiness of the weekend numbers, but movies last forever. The story’s never told in that opening weekend and thank God or nobody would be talking about Mallrats right now.
Speaking of Mallrats, is that already written or have you just plotted it out for Universal?
Yeah, it’s completely plotted out. I’m looking at the white boards in my office right now. I walked Universal through the whole thing.
I’d been trying to make Mallrats as a movie, starting at big Universal and they were like, “eh, it’s not for us, try the other division, try Focus,” and we got kicked all the way down. It looked like we were going to go straight-to-video and I could care less I just wanted to see the movie. But then Jason Mewes was like, “why don’t you do it as a TV show?”
It came up on the set of The Flash, oddly enough. I was directing an episode of The Flash, which was something that wouldn’t have happened without Jason Mewes. He turned me on to that show, his wife called up my agent to suggest I direct an episode and, lo and behold, they did.
So Jason was up with me in Vancouver because he said: “My lady got you a job, so I’m fucking going with you!” So he was my assistant while I was directing the episode, and while we were sitting around on day four or five of an eight-day shoot, he said, “This is amazing. We should do this all the time.”
I said, “Direct The Flash? I wish.” And he said, “No, we should do TV. Write a TV show.” I said, “Fuck you, it’s not as easy as you think. You write a TV show.” And he said, “What about Moose Jaws?” because I was wearing my Moose Jaws jersey, and I said, “No, it should never be a TV show. It probably shouldn’t even be a movie but it definitely should not be a TV show. It shouldn’t be any longer than ninety minutes.”
And he said,” What else are you working on? What about Mallrats? Could that be a TV show?” And I said, “No, you fucking idiot, Mallrats could never be a TV show because…” And then I couldn’t come up with a good fucking reason!
I said, “Oh my God, dude, you’re right! I bet I could go into Universal Television and I bet you they’d be more interested because that’s where everybody’s watching things these days.”
Here I am trying to sequelize, theatrically, a twenty-one-year-old movie that flopped the first time. Naturally, no one gets hard when you talk about that in the studio system. But when you step into Universal TV and you’re like, “hey, what about Mallrats the Series?” they got it right away. They said, “Are you kidding me? That’d be perfect.”
I go to The Flash to direct my next episode this weekend so I come back at the end of the month and that’s when we sit down to pitch Mallrats to the five usual places: Amazon – who picked up Buckaroo Bonzai, so fingers crossed there – Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, HBO, and maybe some other places. You don’t go to networks because everyone curses and stuff.
It’s a real sweet, family story. It’s a multi-generational tale. It’s my chance to do John Hughes and Degrassi Junior High, because much like the Degrassi formula we know our legacy cast – we know Brody and Rene and T.S. and Jay and Silent Bob – and then we meet their kids. So we meet Brody and Rene’s daughter Banner Bruce, and the story takes place in his world and her world. Nobody goes to the fucking mall anymore, so the kids are baffled by it, and Brody still believes in it in a big, bad way.
The thing that I’m happiest about is that when I was doing it as a movie – I always saw the two inspirations for Mallrats as John Landis and John Hughes – and the Mallrats 2 script was very John Landis. Very antic, with guns everywhere, and lots of explosions and action, and less John Hughes.
The chance to do Mallrats as a series allows me to do more John Hughes than John Landis and particularly the area of Hughes that I never got to tackle as much as I did in Yoga Hosers: high school. Yoga Hosers was the first time I got to play with high school characters and, oddly enough, as a forty-six-year-old man I think my maturity level is just at high school level right now?
You’re hitting your sweet spot. You said earlier that you’re able to write whatever you want, so I’m wondering what is your writing and rewriting process at this point?
Rewriting process is: I don’t write full script, I write, and then I go back and rewrite, and then go back and rewrite, and then go back and rewrite one particular scene and then move forward. So I’m constantly redrafting in the first draft. That’s just the way I’ve done it for years.
I’ve been a hardcore stoner for the past ten years, so I have zero problems doing multiple drafts. You know, you just sit there and blaze out and “this is funny, this was funny when I wrote it but it’s not funny anymore, let me move this around” and stuff like that.
I’ll sit there and write maybe two pages and then I go back and re-read what I wrote and then, if I don’t like it, I start amending it right there or adding more to it. So I don’t just sit down and write from beginning to end or jump around with scenes, I just do each scene until I feel like, “Yeah, I can let that stand by itself” until there’s a first draft. And then I continue doing multiple drafts after that.
I got no problem digging in on the work. I know Yoga Hosers doesn’t seem like a movie that had many drafts of the script, but I believe we got to eight drafts of the script before we went. Perhaps we should of went nine, but eight seemed to do the trick.
What about adapting something like Buckaroo Banzai? Is the process different for something like that?
Yeah, because there’ll be other people involved. Generally, I write by myself but since there’ll be ten episodes, you need other writers and also this is not my source material so I’m able to tap into other people who are energized by Buckaroo Banzai.
A lot of people in this business love that movie so the moment they heard we were doing it, they were like, “Oh my Lord, I want to be involved in some way shape or form.” A lot of writers came out of the woodwork.
Our version of Bucakroo Banzai begins with their aborted beginning. If you’ve ever been online and saw the tests of his parents in the home movie, it begins with Rawhide doing voice over where he goes, “By the age of five and already a curious person, Buckaroo Banzai makes a movie of his own tiny feet.”
Then, from there, the camera lifts and shows off the first run that his parents make with the jet car. As soon as I saw that, on a DVD or YouTube, I was like, “Are you kidding me? What a beautiful, poetic beginning!” So our story begins there.
Something like that informs the way you move forward with the rest. For example, Episode 1 of our series Buckaroo Banzai begins out in the desert where his parents’ test run goes awry, and then jumps to the present where he’s doing the jet car run himself like twenty years later, and then we take the movie all the way up to Artie’s artery scene. That would be Episode 1 right there.
Doing a series allows you get into a lot more character. We still keep that same, almost Thomas Pynchon-like sense of humor, but in order to tell an ongoing story, people have to care deeply about the characters.
You can also expand moments. You know the moment in the movie where they talk about the War of the Worlds broadcast and how the aliens came from Planet Ten or the 8th Dimension? In the movie, that story is told. It’s very expository dialogue. But we’re going to do a whole episode about that night, complete with Orson Welles and how the aliens arrived and stuff like that. Being able to script ten episodes of a series allows you to go deeper into moments like that.
You also have to decide if you’re the best person to write the script. You have to ask: “Who would be best for that? Could I write a script like that?” Or is it something that you turn to someone like Zack Stentz, who wrote the Flash script that I directed last season, and wrote Thor and X-Men: First Class, and say, “Your strengths on this are far greater than mine. I could do this episode but I bet you would kill at this flashback episode.” You start figuring out who would be better at doing what.
Same thing with the directors, if we finally go to camera it ain’t going to be me directing all of them. I’m going to collect the best-of, ragtag fucking indie filmmakers you’ve ever seen. Like the cats I’ve met over two decades who love this movie.
As soon as we got budget and time, I’m totally reaching out to Quentin Tarantino. People are like, “You’re crazy, he ain’t going to do it.” But I’m like, “He might! He’s directed TV before and he loves Buckaroo Banzai!”
He did ER, so why not?
Worst thing he could say is, “Nah, I can’t do it.” But imagine he says yes!
That’s a guy I would love to have in my camp because you’re talking about passionate fans of this stuff who will keep me on track. You’ll never have to worry about it becoming “a Kevin Smith joint” because we’re all staying true to the movie we love so much. We’re just expanding it so we can get to the story of Buckaroo Banzai Versus the World Crime League, which would be Season 2.
Would you open a writer’s room for Mallrats as well?
No, that one I’m going to do solo. I’ve thought about it good, long, and hard and I’ve got enough story and enough time to do it myself and those characters are near and dear to my heart. Buckaroo Banzai I didn’t create so it’s much easier to invite people in and recreate it with me, but Mallrats that would be tough. That would be like me having someone else do Clerks.
I’ll definitely write every word of that, and I can’t wait to do it. Mallrats is high school and family melodrama with cursing in it. It’s like Degrassi Junior High if everyone said “motherfucker” and it was set in America. I love it so much. I cannot wait to do that. It excites me just to think about it.
You’ve been making movies for well over twenty years; what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
This is one thing I’ve learned in over two decades of doing this shit. I’ve met a lot of different filmmakers and I’m talking about geniuses like Quentin and Scorsese and the non-geniuses like myself and all of them – man, woman, don’t matter race, creed, color – all of them share one single attribute in common: all of them are movie fans.
And that’s taught me this one thing: anybody who sits at a Q&A to listen to a filmmaker talk about a movie, anybody who knows more about movies than they know about their own blood relatives, anybody who knows what’s opening on a Friday and plots their weekend around how many new movies they can see? Those are all filmmakers.
They’re not just film lovers, they’re filmmakers, they just haven’t made a film yet. I was that guy, and I’ve met a lot of us and we were all that person at some point.
If you’re like me 22 years ago, complaining that you didn’t see yourself up there – and believe me, I know not everyone wants to see themselves, some people just like to go to movies to escape – but I’m speaking to whoever’s reading these words and their fucking skin is tingling because I know you, motherfucker.
I was you, and I’m speaking to you directly. If you think you can do this shit, if you’ve ever fancied yourself a filmmaker? Guess what? You are. The only people who ever go, “I wonder if I can do that?” are people who can fucking do that thing and are passionate about doing that thing.
Every movie fan is a potential movie maker. And that’s not pie-in-the-sky bullshit about like, “hey, you can all follow your dreams.” It’s absolutely possible to do and now they’ve democratized the technology and stuck it in your phone so there’s no excuse not to do it.
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