I guess the thing with you and your career is that it's so much caught up in words...
It's all talk. That's what it is. Most people say [screenwriting], 'it's deeds, it's not words!' I'm the other guy, I say, 'words! Not deeds."
Was there a moment when you realised that you did have that power to write, that you could string together amazingwords?
This was 1981. I was 11 years old. I typed a story, kind of like an essay that I had read. There's an author named Jean Shepherd, who wrote a book called In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. If you ever sawChristmas Story, that whole movie is taken from the words of Jean Shepherd; he's the voiceover artist who narrates the whole movie, that's the actual author. He wrote a lot of personal essays about growing up that I loved.
I believe that anybody can be creative. I don't think it's like that there are talented people and then there are people that don't have talent. I think anybody can tell stories. We can all communicate. Telling a story is just a version of communication; put a plot in it, and some made up details.
And that's what you have to do. That's what every creative person does. Nobody starts off instantly doing 'them'. Do somebody else first, because you saw somebody do something once and it appeals to you, and you say, 'oh, I want to try that'. So you imitate until one day you think, ‘I can do that, but now I want to try my version of it’.
So the moment for me was reading, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, and thinking, I could do this. I love the personal voice - it was very reflective, sentimental, and nostalgic. Also funny, but not gross; not my type of humour. He's very gifted, so I was thinking, I might try this. I started writing a story about going to the relatives; our parents would always make us go to a relative’s house every weekend. So I wrote this ridiculous satire about going there, and turned them into monstrous characters, and I showed it to my brother, cos I figured he would get it, because he too was trapped going to my relatives every weekend. And he laughed.
I'll never forget the feeling of sitting there across from him and watching him laugh. What that felt like. That moment birthed an entire career. I wouldn't know for years what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to write.
And for a few years I thought, well, what does one do as a writer, like, where I grew up? Nobody said,’ you can go into the movie business, or go into TV.' From Highlands, New Jersey, what could I do? And I figured I could write obituaries one day, or maybe work for the newspaper? Something like that. I thought that was the only writing. I didn't know what else. Nobody in our world... nowadays, pre-schoolers have a film school class, and kids are told they can do anything. But where we came from that wasn't the case. It was much more of an overprotective generation. Like, 'don't do that! You might get hurt.' Or 'don't do that, you're going to be embarrassed'. So I was never pushed to try something.
So it was the imitation of Jean Shepherd that kind of led to that feeling; watching my brother laugh at something that I wrote, knowing that I engineered that laugh. Knowing that, he wasn't saying, 'this is stupid’. He said, 'this is funny, you should do it again'. So right then and there, I knew was a writer.
It wouldn't be until my 21st birthday ten years later that I figured out I wanted to be a filmmaker. And that was when I saw Richard Linklater's movie Slacker, up in New York City, at the Angelica Film Center. I was thinking, 'man, if this counts, I want to make a movie!' And Richard Linklater's a gifted filmmaker, don't get me wrong, we all say Boyhood, but Slacker was a call to arms for anybody remotely artistic, or anyone remotely on the fringe.
Watching this dude tell his story, not in New York not in LA, but in his world, and with no ongoing characters, no three-act structure, no car chases, no movie stars, or anything like that. That made me go, 'okay, I would like to try this. If this counts as a film, I would like to try.' And for years after that - when I made Clerks and thankfully Miramax picked it up and distributed it to the world - I would have people come up to me saying the same thing. 'I saw Clerks and that made me want to be a filmmaker.' And I know what that means. It means, ‘your movie looks so bad and doable that I figure, I should give this a shot'. And that's true.
Awe, because you're like, 'I've never seen anything like this before'. But arrogance because you're like, 'I think I could do this'. 'If this counts, if the bar is here, I think I might be able to cross that bar'. So I'm happy about that flick because it is the movie that launched a thousand ships. Now, not all of them are good ships, some of them are creaky and sank, but it made people take a step they wouldn't normally have taken.
The fact that a person who was never going to do that in this life, did that? That to me is better than an Oscar. And I say that because I'll never win an Oscar.
Hey, you're young.
I'm not that young. And we've seen the best I can offer, trust me, I'm not winning an Oscar. I think my best days are behind me.
Of your work, what do you think is the best thing you've done?
I love Clerks II. I think Clerks II is wonderful, but there are people that say it's not nearly as good as Clerks. But that's because Clerks is a punk rock song. It’s a call to arms. It makes you want to make some art. You look at clerks and you go, oh, I can do that. It's about something we all do, which is hang out and talk to our friends. It was the internet before the internet happened, and stuff. So you look at that movie and it makes you go, 'I could totally do that', and that's why I love that movie. But Clerks II is a better film. Clerks II, at that point in my career, was the absolute best I could be.
I'm way off from everybody else on this but it's that movie we made? Tusk. That walrus movie. That, to me, is like, sublime. And I don't mean that it's genius; I get it, I know some people hate that movie, some people think that movie is religion... it's the one movie I've made that I can stand up in the face of criticism for. When people would attack Clerks or Chasing Amy, that was being attacked personally, because that was my life through different characters. Tusk has nothing to do with me other than 'this was some weird shit I just thought up'. So people could come up to be and be 'oh my god, I love Tusk, it's brilliant', and I go, 'oh, isn't it?’ And people can come up to me and say, 'I hate Tusk, it's the worst piece of shit I've ever seen' and I go, 'yeah, isn't it?' It totally works on both levels. So I like that. So it's a movie that nobody else could have made.
It came from a podcast...
We were doing an episode of Smodcast 259:The Walrus and The Carpenter and we talked about this story we read online where a guy in Brighton, England was offering a room for rent in this mansion. You could have any room you ranted, the run of the mansion, except for two rooms; his bedroom and his 'workshop'. In exchange all you had to do was for two hours a day dress up in a very realistic walrus suit that he had put together. He would then throw you fish and crabs and you would try to catch them with your mouth, and you couldn't speak as a human you could only speak in walrus.
It sounds true.
So very true, so much so that 2000 people applied for the room. So many people were like, I'll do that, and I’ll dress up like a walrus for a free room. It turned out to be a hoax, thank the lord. But we talked about it on our podcast and first we couldn't believe it, then we started making fun of it. I was saying, 'man, you show up, this guy is going to knock you over the head, he's going to sew you into that walrus suit, and it's going to be the human centipede, but the human walrus’.
And from that moment we start building this dopey movie that I start falling in love with, you can hear me on the podcast literally falling in love with it. And it was one of the only times in my life, the only time maybe, in my life, that we had a microphone on a moment of inspiration. That's what thrilled me about it. It's like oftentimes you show the audience the movie when it's done. They weren't there for when it began, for how it germinates, what it came from. That audience heard a movie come together that I desperately wanted to see. The stupidest movie ever came up with, but was like I need to see this movie. And in the middle of the podcast I go, I'm going to do this.
What was important about that for me was the audience was there to hear the moment when it was born. The audience had given me everything that I have, in life. I'm allowed to be this idiot that I am for a living where I'm wearing whatever I want, my face on my own shirts, because of the audience. So I try to give back as much as possible. The podcast stuff is free. When you make a movie there's millions involved so you've got to charge people for that. When you're doing a show, we gotta charge people for tickets but we tend to give the recordings away to people online. But that's not giving back enough. This audience afforded me the dream life. Anything I want to do, I wake up and I go, ‘what do I want to pursue today?’ because of them. The best way I could give back is to show them anything's possible.
I burned my career to the ground three years ago. I stopped making movies for three years. Then I talked about this dopey walrus thing and turned it into a flick. And if I could take it through, beat or beat, open source it; they saw the moment it was born. No audience really gets to see that. They see the finished product. So they were there for the birth of it, the idea.
You were saying that you quit movies - is that Cop Out? Is working with Bruce Willis that bad?
Absolutely. I take performance very seriously. That's my favourite thing in this world. It's the only reason I'm involved in film is because I love acting. Not acting myself, because I'm not an actor, but I love being around actors and actresses. If there's any way I want to spend my life, it's watching people tell the lie that tells the truth. That's what acting is. I didn't learn that much about me sitting in a classroom, and I never learned that much about me sitting in a church, but I damn skippy learned a lot about who I am watching art, reading books, listening to music, even devouring some TV and stuff like that, live performances. That's where found myself. It's sacred to me, it's a church. Every one of those movies that I made, dopey as they may be... every one of those people in the cast were there because they wanted to be there. You don't do a Kevin Smith movie to help your career, because it's not going to help your career. You don't do it for money because they're all low-budget, you do it because you're in it for the joy of performance. Willis was the person I worked with in my entire career who was a paycheck player. A straight up paycheck player. Nothing wrong with that, it's not against the law, but if you're going to get paid to do the job, do the job. He didn't want to do that.
So you're sitting in a directors' chair, you're watching this performance; what's going through your head?
On day one, I said, oh my lord. He wasn't giving a bad robotic performance. But I could tell a, he couldn't care less, but also b, Tracey scared him a little bit. Tracey Morgan is a comedic genius who will do your scene as scripted, and then do ten variations on that scene all equally as funny. You just have to find a way to make it germane to the script. But he watched Tracey adlib for like half a day and I saw it in his face, it was on the monitor. You could just see the colour draining out of his face. 'What am I doing here?' And that remained in that guy for the rest of the shoot. Which is fine. Again, it's idealistic and stupid and youthful and naive and childish to think he should want to be here because he loves it, not for the money. He's a movie star. They all do it for the money.
An adult would look at me… actually, most adults would look and me and say, 'grow up, you've got a dream job', and I understand that. But it was like there was a thief in the temple so to speak, and that destroyed me.
Movie stars like are like the NHL of performers, supposedly. They're the highest paid, so they must be the best at what they do. At least that's the logic we work under. We all know it's not true but they're high profile. This is the first one I got to work with. I've worked with people who have been in movies, but they're not a movie star. Ben and Matt became movie stars, but I worked with them before that. So he was the first bona fide movie star that I worked with, where I sat there and was like, here we go. This was me going, I'm going to get to work with one of my childhood heroes, one of my favourite actors in the world. Came from New Jersey man. I lovedMoonlighting. Never mind all the Die Hards, I loved those as well, I was in one of them. But then I got there and he's not interested anymore. He's really not. And I'm not the only one who feels that. When I first said it, people were like, sour grapes'. Woody Allen just fired him from a movie. Go watch any interview with him online.
I've done one. I know.
Which is fine. If you're over it, get out. Don't do it anymore. But he talks about not wanting to do action movies yet he still continues to do them because that's where the money is.
Let's talk about a good on set experience.
The flip of that is Johnny Depp. Bruce Willis was the biggest movie star I had worked with at that point, and after the Cop Out experience I went, if this is what it's like working with the best, I'm going to go make dirty cartoons with Jason Mews.
When I came back and did Tusk, Johnny Depp came and did two days on the movie. There's the biggest movie star on the planet. Sweetest dude in the world. And was there to absolutely play. Didn't get paid. Was in one of the world's stupidest movies.
You've got to stop calling your movies stupid!
That one is! That's indefensibly a stupid movie. And yet it somehow holds together. But that stupid movie attracted Johnny, and he was just like, I would love to do this. And working with him, even though we one had two days, it made up for all of Cop Out. He's just happy to play. walked into the makeup room on day one, and we said, is there anything we can get for you?' And he said, 'if you want to bring up my makeup artist, that would be amazing'. And I went to his trailer and knocked on the door, and he said come in, and he turns around and he's got this long prosthetic rubber nose on. He's like, buried in makeup. And I was like, oh my lord! Look at you! You're treating this so seriously! That’s crazy; you're actually putting on facial appliances! You could have phoned this in! Literally, you could have called a phone, and we would have shot it with a camera. If we heard your voice, the audience would have been, 'that's impressive!' But you're here in makeup! And he's going, 'what do you think? Doesn't it look like a dick?' And I said, 'now that I look at it, it does kind of have that appearance. And he said, 'me and Joel were talking about painting a blue vein down the side'. And I said, 'are you telling me you want to wear a dick on your face in my movie?' If you're ever going to wear a dick on your face in a movie then Tusk is the movie to do it!' That dude comes to work, ain't even getting paid, and is like, 'let's put dicks on our faces'. We had fun. The other guy's just not interested anymore.
I did want to ask you about another positive on set experience. I assume you can't tell us anything about what it's like to walk on to the set of Star Wars, but I want you to tell me what's going on inside your head.
I'm so ready to see the flick, as is everybody. We've now seen a couple of trailers and some more footage. We've had Force Friday where they released all the toys... you can't step anywhere in this world without stepping on a rolling BB8. So we're all loaded for bear. We were all loaded for bear back when they did Episode One. The difference I think between Episode One and Episode Seven is Episode One happened: JJ is going, all I have to do is not do that. So he goes, 'what's missing from Episode One?' Everything we loved about the first three movies. Haan, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, Darth Vader; all that stuff. Not Anakin Skywalker. Darth Vader. So right away the ingredients change up the game, where everybody's like, 'I'll eat that; I don't care what kind of broth it's in... every one of those meaty ingredients is what was missing from the last stew, so pour it out all over my face now.' So you start there, with the dude already taking a step up by doing the logical thing and bringing back everybody that everybody loves, all the characters.
Is that you saying Darth Vader is in the new Star Wars movie?
Smells like it to me, doesn't it? They show it in the trailer! Picture the burnt mask!
How hard is it for you not to give away stuff?
Dude, I wish I knew. I'm terrible like that. That's why I don't get invited places. I went to the set and they had me sign a non-disclosure agreement to say that I wasn't going to talk about anything I saw.
And JJ takes that stuff very seriously.
Very seriously. So much so that his assistant Morgan was pointing to a sign; they made a poster, based on WW2 propaganda poster, and it's Imperial Starship commander going like this (fingers on lips). And it says 'Loose lips sink starships'. So I signed my NDA and said, 'this is awesome! Can I take a picture of this?' And they said, 'You just signed! Did you not read it?!'
I kept quiet on a lot of stuff until it got out. But now people know what Simon Pegg is in the movie, because he was in a little short that they showed at Comic Con. He was there the day that I went to visit the set and I never said anything, because I thought, obviously that's a huge spoiler. But when I was there, he didn't tell me about being in the movie either. I was like, you're here? And he was like,you're here? And he said, of course I'm here, JJ's here. And I was just like, man; this must be amazing for you. And he was like, dude, I live down the street. So I come here every day for a free lunch and to watch Star Wars.
So it was pretty sweet to visit. But I don't know anything more than what those cats know. I know little things, but not nearly enough. I'm like everybody else, chomping at the bit, waiting for day one, which hopefully for me a little before everybody else. JJ showed me a cut of Star Trek early, and of Mission Impossible III, way early. But I think he's probably going to be like, 'Kevin, if I show you anything - I let you come to the set and you told people. If I show you anything of the movie you're going to tell everyone!'
You're obviously a really huge Batman fan, and one of your friends is playing Batman. Of course the weird thing that happens when Ben Affleck got announced as Batman, there’s this quote that 80% of people hated it, 12% of were indifferent, and the rest were Kevin Smith.
How is it to watch a friend of yours to go through that amount of internet hate?
At this point for him it's probably no big deal at this point, because he lived through the Bennifer thing, which got really hostile and vicious at one point.
For weirdly nondescript reasons.
It seemed like people just got sick of seeing people in love, or something like that. That was the nearest beat I could figure. 'These people, they seem so in love'. And then they started turning on them. Gigli didn't help. But I feel like he lived through that, and that was really really bad, the Batman thing, when they announced it and people were like 'boo'... you know, I'm sure it bugged him on some level but that's just an internet gut reaction. But you noticed how it un-booed the moment they put up a trailer.
Now everybody is like, 'I believe in Batffleck’, and it feels good to be an early adopter, but I just think, all you had to do was see him in the suit. All you had to do was see that one shot in the trailer and everybody goes, 'that's Batman'. At that point it don't matter whether or not people go, 'I wouldn't choose Ben Affleck'. They're going to buy it. He's suddenly become the Batman for a generation. Which is so weird because ten minutes ago Christian Bale was the definitive Batman, and nobody would ever touch Nolan's most serious treatment of Batman. But now we've got Zack Snyder going, I think I can treat this even more seriously. That's what I love about that trailer. I was very heavily involved in the architecture of Ben Affleck Version 1. Version 2 I don't have nearly as much to do with, but it's nice to see him ascend. Honestly, the directorial thing was fantastic. He always had a good eye. He's a storyteller. So that was awesome to see, him as a filmmaker and standing on an Oscar stage. But the Batman thing is just... that's personally amazing for me. It's in my heart. This is a guy who is going to play my childhood hero. And now my connectivity to Batman is much deeper. I've seen Batman's dick! I can't say that about Adam West, George Clooney, Christian Bale... but Batffleck? I've seen it. Plus, I live in his house! I bought his house! So technically I live in Wayne Manor now. And I did direct him as a young man so that kind of makes me like Liam Neeson in those movies. I trained the Batman! Him being Batman has benefits. It's all about me, naturally, when he got cast, I was just like, 'well, this is great for me'.
Where in the world, be it on set, it could be a place, it could be a country, where do you feel most at home?
Hands down, my office, in my house, back in Los Angeles. That's where we do all the podcasting. Even though it was Affleck's house for half a year, and I've been there 13 since, we still call it Ben's house. He looms large.
That room; so many good things have happened in that room. I've watched my kid grow up. I've watched my kid grow up in that room in that room. I've written some of my favourite things in that room. I've recorded some amazing things in that room. I've smoked incredible amounts of weed in that room. Sat down and spoke to my heroes in that room. Grant Morrison came over, and we spoke there. All the people I've ever had on the podcast have been through there. So that's the womb for me. That's definitely the inner sanctum.
INTERVIEW BY MARC FENNELL
TRANSCRIBING BY MADELEINE PALMER @ THE FEED.