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Interview

Kevin Smith Creates 'Porn for Actors' With 'Red State'

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Kevin Smith Creates 'Porn for Actors' With 'Red State'
Photo Source: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
At this point in his career, Kevin Smith is as well-known for being a raconteur as he is for being a filmmaker. For good reason: Few people can speak as knowledgeably and humorously on any number of topics. Witness his take on growing as a director after "Clerks," his 1994 low-budget breakthrough known more for its incisive dialogue than for its visual strength: "I'm like a high school kid who got lucky and had sex with a porn star. Then I spent the next 20 years learning how to fuck properly."

His latest film, "Red State," is probably Smith's most visually striking yet, showing he has indeed come a long way since casting his nonactor friends in a black-and-white indie. It also might be his most controversial—a lot to say about the man who took on organized religion in "Dogma" and wrote and directed a flick called "Zack and Miri Make a Porno." The plot is contentious enough: Three high school boys looking to get laid find themselves kidnapped by a religious cult. But the film's notoriety comes more from Smith's marketing plan. First he said he would auction the film at its Sundance Film Festival premiere, only to sell the rights to himself for $20. (For some reason, this seemingly innocent publicity ploy outraged more than a few.) He then announced his plans to distribute the movie on his own—touring the country and renting out theaters for screenings combined with Q&A sessions.

The tour continues (check Smith's website for details), and "Red State" will also be available via VOD beginning Sept. 1 and on DVD Oct 18. And now for a few words from the filmmaker about the road to "Red State":

1. Michael Parks is the reason "Red State" came to be.

"This whole movie exists because of Michael Parks," Smith says of the 71-year-old character actor who plays preacher Abin Cooper—a character not so loosely inspired by Fred Phelps of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church. "I saw [Parks] in 1995 at the beginning of 'From Dusk Till Dawn.' In the first 10 minutes of that movie, he comes on as a local law enforcement agent, and I had never seen him before. It's always amazing to me when someone can take words written on a page and inflect them to make them sound like they're saying them right there in that moment. I certainly can't do that!" Smith says he was captivated. "He was making choices I've never seen any other actor make. He was the movie and I wanted him to stick around, but of course they kill him off. I was like, 'No! He's the most interesting thing I've ever seen in cinema!' I remember saying to my producer Scott Mosier, 'My God, I have to work with this guy.' This guy has forgotten more about acting than I'll ever know. But it took me years to figure out what to do that I could cast Michael Parks in. I didn't want to call him up and offer him the role of Silent Bob's grandfather—he's far too good for that. It took me a long time to think of something, but it was 'Red State.' "

2. "Red State" is "porn for actors."

Smith adores actors, and he says actors love "Red State" because of the great performances from Parks, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman. Smith says he has been able to work with so many amazing actors because he writes scenes they can sink their teeth into. "That's how you get strong talent for your script: You write actor-bait scenes. Write some dialogue that any actor, even if they hate the films of Kevin Smith, will want to speak. Let them drop a monologue—actors will line up to work with you. Because that's what they want to do; actors want to act—they're artists and it's in their soul. So if you give a real actor, not just some fly-by-nighter who wants a check, a chance to do something they don't normally get to do, they will line up." He points to his "Zack and Miri" star Elizabeth Banks as an example. "That movie didn't burn up the box office," he explains, "but she said it changed the game for her. People got to see how adorable she was in a lead role opposite Seth Rogen. I asked her once if she had fun, and she said, 'Kevin, how often does a woman ever get to play a part like this? Plus, I got to show off every chop I've ever wanted to.' "

3. Ben Affleck is a thief.

Smith's good friend and frequent collaborator Ben Affleck borrowed a print of "Red State" but never mentioned watching it. "I thought he didn't like it. Then I find out he cast John Goodman in his new movie, 'Argo.' Then he cast Kerry Bishé and went after someone else in the movie. I was like, 'Why is this guy cherry-picking my cast?' He finally wrote me an email saying, 'I assumed by the fact I stole half your cast that you knew I did, in fact, like the movie.'"

4. Smith didn't really direct the film.


Smith says he is the biggest fan out there of "Red State," adding, "I can say that because I take none of the credit—I directed none of these people. You don't direct Michael Parks—you don't walk in there and say, 'Let me give you the benefit of my wisdom from 15 years as Silent Bob.' " He notes that his style has changed dramatically over the years. "I finally figured out, after nearly 20 years of doing this, that you don't so much direct a movie as much as host a production. For years I'd be like, 'Do as I say!' I used to treat them like puppets; I'd practically stick my hand up their ass and work them like Charlie McCarthy. But in the last few movies, I've learned to trust people more, and I've been turning it back on the crew. When someone asks how I want something to look I'd say, 'What do you want it to look like?' And they give you 110 percent."

5. Smith's gamble has paid off.

Although some questioned Smith's choice to take his movie on the road, it has certainly paid off. "We had a $4 million budget, and we've already made it back through our foreign sales and the tour and VOD and DVD deal," he reveals, adding that he never considered the venture risky. "I tour all the time anyway, just standing on a stage with a microphone, without even having a film. So I knew this would work." Smith has wanted to get away from the traditional model of spending millions on marketing to open a film big, hoping to make all the money back in the first couple of weeks. He credits Harvey Weinstein, whose Miramax distributed "Clerks," with teaching him that filmmaking is a marathon, not a sprint. "Harvey once said, 'The movie doesn't begin and end when the lights go down and come up. The movie begins long before they get in the theater, and if you're a fucking magician, the movie never ends—they take it with them and it stays with them.' And I took that very seriously. After a Q&A one night, I overheard two guys walking out, and one guy says, 'Did you like the movie?' The other guy says, 'Nah, I thought it sucked, but I thought the fat guy was funny.' Right then and there I realized I missed them with the movie, but I got them with the Q&A. If he had just seen the movie, he probably wouldn't come back again. But if I came through with a Q&A, he might be back!"

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