Clerks director Kevin Smith spends a lot of his life in California these days, but he’ll always have New Jersey in his blood – and his vernacular. As Bruce Springsteen once said about Frank Sinatra after their historic first encounter, “I was glad to find that his conversation was still peppered with the kinds of words that have made our state great.”
Kevin Smith can flat out talk. You could even say it’s his primary job these days, since he has repeatedly mulled retirement from directing and now hosts several popular podcasts. But the indie filmmaker, who made his convenience-store first film for $27,575, hasn’t turned his back on the independent-film scene. When he was at Sundance in 2011 with his horror movie Red State – when he famously spurned Hollywood – he vowed to eventually distribute other artists’ films outside the studio system. “Phase 4 called up like six months later and was like, ‘Were you serious, because we can help you with that,’” says Smith, who subsequently paired with the independent distributor to form the Kevin Smith Movie Club, a “handpicked collection of unique independent films that resonate with Smith’s and SModcast’s audience.”
On Oct. 4, Phase 4 and Smith’s Movie Club will release The Dirties, a top prize-winner at January’s Slamdance Film Festival about two high-school outcasts who make a revenge-fantasy movie about killing the group of bullies that make their lives a living hell. When their film project only makes their situation worse, the teens contemplate taking the scary next step, plotting and videotaping their own Columbine-style massacre. Starring Owen Williams and Canadian director Matt Johnson, the movie combines a variety of genres but results in creating something entirely new. “You’ve seen found-footage genre, you’ve seen faux documentary, and you’ve seen school shootings [movies] before, but you’ve never seen it done the way that Matt Johnson has pulled it all together,” says Smith. “The last time we saw a movie kind of compelling like this, Gus Van Sant, a filmmaking master!, made Elephant, but this is so goddamn different. I looked at this and I was like, “This is the f–king future, man.”
Smith is effusive in his praise of the young filmmaker – “I get more out of standing next to Matt than Matt gets to standing next to me” – but he also chatted to EW about his own future behind the camera and why he thinks his Chasing Amy star Ben Affleck really grabbed the role of Batman. (Hint: It has something to do with a panic room.)
Click below for Smith’s lengthy Q&A and an exclusive slightly NSFW video clip from The Dirties, which will play in theaters and VOD beginning Oct. 4.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I really appreciate the opportunity to see the movie before we chatted, because it’s very difficult to express in a mere press release.
KEVIN SMITH: It is an astounding film and I’ve been saying it since we got wind of it back at Slamdance last year. You know, I came from a world of bad-looking indie films, so naturally a film that’s shot by amateurs is right up my alley. I’m not sitting there going, “Uh, this looks disgusting.” I’m like, “Oh my God, these kids figured out how to do it, just like I did.” So right away, I’m kind of dialed into the DIY nature of the project. But then, maybe three minutes into the film, you get the feeling that you’re watching something very different, something far more accomplished that you’ve been led to believe. And then halfway through the movie, you realize you’re watching brilliance.
And anybody smart knows that you want to ally yourself with somebody who’s got talent. As my talent is on the wane, I like to hook up with people who are more talented than me. These kids are talented. Matt Johnson is a brilliant filmmaker. You quickly realize these cats don’t need much help beyond me throwing an imprimatur on there just to call some attention to it. But you can’t ignore this film. It’s so goddamn compelling and so important. In terms of first films, hands down, [it’s] the best first film in my life. People will be talking about this movie as a first film, as an important flick, for years to come.
There is a lot to absorb because it’s a very serious film. And I don’t want to be flip about it, but it’s also very funny.
Isn’t that amazing? I think that’s what’s subversive and dangerous about it to some people, because you like these guys. You absolutely like the characters – and not in a Hannibal Lecter way, not in a scenery-chewing, mustache-twisting kind of way. You actually like the guy that does something absolutely horrific. And it’s only when the worm turns where you start having to go, like, “Well, do I still like him?” That’s what makes people uncomfortable. It is a minor miracle of a movie and for some people, who are like, “Man, this movie glorifies the high-school killer,” they’re missing the point completely. These cats really researched it. Matt was like, “I watched the tapes and videos of the Columbine kids and what you see in the footage is not monsters or these dark, emo-goth warriors that are ready to go out and slaughter. What you see are two kids just having a good time with each other who somewhere went off the rails.” That, to me, is chilling, because right away, you don’t want to hear that the guy who blows away 20 kids had a sense of humor and perhaps aspirations that just went crazy awry. But that’s what good art is. That’s why The Dirties rocks. Because it makes you go to weird places while you’re watching the movie. You’re sitting there laughing and then you realize, “Oh sh-t, I feel what’s coming.”
Do you really feel like your own talent is on the wane, and if so, doesn’t a movie like this help you rejuvenate yourself and make you want to make another film?
Yeah, it’s tough not to look at a movie this good, made by rank amateurs – and they’re not amateurs because they’ve been doing it since they were kids – but tough to see a movie like that and not have it rub off on you in a good way. But it doesn’t make me go, “Yeah, film!” Because film is just so long, dude. It takes so long to say anything. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but I’m getting older. I have less time to say whatever it is that I’m going to say before I shuffle loose this mortal coil. I don’t want to spend two years waiting for, you know, Seth Rogen to be done with something so I can say that thing. I’d rather just put it into a podcast, because the thought of six months from now, I can maybe say what I was trying to say six months or a year ago in the script that’s been sitting in my desk and nightmarishly I’ve been trying to get financed and it’s falling apart – all that crap kills creatively. So I tend to pour everything into podcasts, especially the funny stuff. I get to do comedy so frequently that the idea of putting it into one movie script just seems archaic to me. It’s not the big sexy but podcasting allows you to do so much more without restriction, without asking for people to help out, and you can be as creative as you want. That’s why I’m more attracted to [scary] movies like Red State or this movie Tusk that I’m about to do.
Tusk is the movie about a real guy with a walrus fetish who placed a Craigslist-like ad for a roommate?
It’s about a guy who turns another guy into a f–king human walrus. As weird as it is in my head when I talk about it, they finally sent me the costume designs by Robert Kurtzman, and I was like, “Holy sh-t, it’s a monster movie, I had no idea.” I thought I was making a kind of sister thriller to Red State. As soon as I saw the designs, I go, “Of course this is a monster movie and he’s Dr. Frankenstein.”
Who plays your Dr. Frankenstein?
It was written for Michael Parks, who I loved in Red State. That was one of the best times I ever had my career, sitting on a set, rolling a camera on a true f–king genius, who is pretending to be somebody else and I forgot who the real guy is because his performance is so good. I wrote the script around him, so it’s nothing but Michael Parks dialogue porn. Justin Long is the guy in the walrus suit. I needed a guy who has expressive eyes because once you’re in that suit, you’re covered. I reached out to Justin and he wrote back and was like, “This is awfully scary but how can we not? Let’s fall down this hole.” So it’ll be Parks versus Long trying to answer the age-old question, “Is man indeed a walrus at heart?” It’s a f–ked up movie, dude.
Which should I expect to see in theaters first: Tusk or Clerks III?
Tusk. We start Oct. 21. And I think Tusk will be an ivory bridge, if you will, to Clerks III. I finished up the script [for Clerks] in May or June, but the timetable is pretty tough because the budget is larger. Tusk is a moveable feast at like $2 million and change, so it was way more nimble to put that together. Tusk was just something to do while waiting for news back on Clerks III. Suddenly, people were like, “Really? A human walrus? That sounds f–ked up.” It suddenly took pole position. Then I started going, “Look, I do this, it’s going to make Clerks III even easier to do. I can warm up for Clerks III. It’s been a couple of years. Maybe I need some warmup pitches. But you definitely will see Tusk before you’ll see Clerks III. And if I have my way, you’ll see Tusk up in Sundance in January.
I know you’ve discussed it extensively on your podcast, but I wanted to ask if you were surprised by the news of Ben Affleck taking the role of Batman. Surprised in the sense that he seemed to moving in a different direction after The Town and Argo, towards being almost like the Warren Beatty of his generation. It almost seemed he had closed the door on this type of thing a few years ago.
It caught me off guard because I too thought he was on this different path. He fought his way back from wherever he was and is now at the top of the mountain. I never would’ve guessed this move. Why wouldn’t he just be like, “Argo f–k yourself,” to any superhero movie at this point. And then I realized why: If you ask an 8-year-old, “Hey, who’s Robert Downey Jr.?” they go “Iron Man!” If you ask an 8-year-old, “Hey, who’s Ben Affleck?” they look at you blankly. Now, at the end of the day, when he plays Batman, he’ll have career vitality. He’ll have bought himself another 10 years as an actor, not just as an director.
But more importantly, there are two personal reasons. One I know for a fact: the guys always wanted to play Batman. He loved Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and one of the reasons he did Daredevil was because [he thought] they were never going to do another Batman after the disastrous Batman & Robin. So he was like, [Daredevil] is the closest I’ll ever get to Dark Knight Returns.
He’s always wanted to play Batman. I live in Affleck’s old house, and he built a panic room and the entrance was built to look like a Batcave entrance. It’s a bookcase that you click a button and the bookcase slides back. He’s the only guy I know that would go to do something like that. I asked him, “What did that cost to do?” He was like, “50 thousand bucks.” I was like, “Worth every f–king penny, man.” That’s amazing! If you’re going to have Pearl Harbor, Armageddon type money, build a f–king Batcave entrance in your house. So he’s always loved the character.
But the real reason, I suspect – and I haven’t spoke to him in probably a year and half, two years – but he’s got three kids, including a son. What father doesn’t want to bend down, lean down into their little boy’s ear after the movie’s done and whisper, “I’m Batman.” C’mon! That’s amazing! That’s an emotional enough reason there.