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Interview

Reluctant Raconteur

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Deep in the View Askew Production bungalow at CBS studios in Burbank, Kevin Smith lightly tapped his cigarette lighter on his desk. Like the desks of most creative people, it overflows with papers and random objects, among them an Advil bottle placed haphazardly atop one pile and a Playboy magazine shoved beneath another. For Smith, these objects seem entirely appropriate. Naturally the outspoken writer/director would need some headache medicine when facing studio battles and the unexpected controversies caused by his films, the Playboy for the 15-year-old inside of him who still derives a good chuckle from a fart joke or immature sexual innuendo.

Behind his desk hangs a black-and-white poster of Smith's two most popular characters, Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith, respectively), who have made appearances in each of his films, which include Clerks, Chasing Amy, Mallrats, and Dogma. In Smith's latest flick, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the satirical duo travels cross-country in an effort to stop Hollywood from making a movie about them. In a sense, the pic really could be titled "Kevin Smith Strikes Back." Peppered with myriad mockeries of Miramax, which co-produced and is distributing the film under its Dimension Films' banner, and a number of blockbuster movie spoofs, Smith seems to be paying Hollywood back for his last harrowing moviemaking experience, 1999's Dogma. As a sardonic vehicle for the filmmaker's views on religion derived from his experiences as a Catholic, Dogma provoked death threats and criticism from fundamentalist religious groups. Miramax couldn't take the heat, leaving Smith with no option but to distribute it domestically through Lions Gate Films.

In an attempt to avoid the overall unpleasantness of that experience, Smith decided to make his latest film his "least mature" effort to date. The film, which hits theatres this week, undoubtedly succeeds.

"After what happened on Dogma, after dealing with the controversy and the 400,000 pieces of hate mail and death threats and not being able to open my own mail for six months, I really wanted to make a movie where the worst thing that would happen at the end of the day was somebody would write on a website 'Kevin Smith sucks cock' and spell 'cock' wrong," said Smith. Unfortunately, the filmmaker has found himself embroiled in yet another storm, this time spawned by left-wing activists. Because of his unwillingness to provide political messages through politically correct means, liberal and staunch conservative organizations alike seem to misunderstand him.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation recently spoke out against Jay and Silent Bob, condemning it as homophobic, much to Smith's disappointment. "I'm not sorry, because I didn't make the jokes at the expense of the gay community,'' he posted on the View Askew website. "I made jokes at the expense of two characters who neither I nor the audiences have ever held up to be paragons of intellect. They're idiots." He donated $10,000 to the Matthew Shepard foundation without apology.

All in the Timing

Back in 1994, things were much simpler. Smith's breakthrough feature, Clerks, made for a mere $27,575, grossed $3 million, a feat unsurpassed by any independent film of that time. Although $3 million could be considered modest since the success of The Blair Witch Project, at the time Smith and fellow producer Scott Mosier tapped into the zeitgeist of a generation.

Smith believes that had Clerks been released either a year earlier or a year later it would have missed its mark. "You don't really need talent to get in the door," he said. "Timing certainly is everything." And because of that timing, the refreshingly candid director became a Gen-X leader of sorts and the unlikeliest of Hollywood types.

In a sense, many of the controversies surrounding Smith occur because of his refusal to play by Hollywood's rules. Virtually unchanged since the success of Clerks (aside from it enabling him to move out of his parents' house, open a comic book store, meet his wife, journalist Jennifer Schwalbach, during a USA Today interview, and became a father), Smith simply refuses to go Hollywood. He has chosen to remain a resident of his native Red Bank, New Jersey. As unabashedly displayed in Smith's latest movie, he's not afraid to bite the hand that feeds him. And he favors casting friends in his projects—Ben Affleck and Jason Lee have become quite successful since breakthrough roles in Smith's films—because, "Making a movie is always best when you're surrounded by friends."

His preference for familiar faces has enabled the director to avoid the formal casting process. For Jay and Silent Bob, he rounded up Affleck, Lee, Matt Damon, Shannen Doherty, Chris Rock, and Joey Lauren Adams—all of whom have worked with the writer/director/actor before. His tendency to cast from among his friends, however, does not limit him from working with actors new to him. Working with casting director Christine Sheaks (Boogie Nights, Scary Movie) on Jay and Silent Bob, Smith hired newcomers to his fold, such as Eliza Dushku, Ali Larter, and Shannon Elizabeth.

As Smith explained his criteria for casting, he is not so much interested in auditioning actors as he is in getting a feel for who they are as people. "Really, it's not about judging someone's talent, because if you're meeting, chances are they've done something you've seen. You know they can act," said Smith. "It's really more a personality litmus test to see if you can get along with somebody for six weeks or however long the movie takes."

For Jay and Silent Bob, Smith pooled a wide array of talent, in some cases the actors playing themselves. In addition to some of Smith's usual suspects, the all-star cast includes Jason Biggs, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, George Carlin, Judd Nelson, Jon Stewart, Jason Van Der Beek, and Will Ferrell—a seemingly random mix, to say the least.

The Acting Game

While Smith certainly values good acting, he doesn't take acting nearly as seriously as most directors do. To Smith, it's just not rocket science. He views acting as a game and actors as adults who play pretend for a living. Though he admits he used to be more "dictatorial" in his approach to his actors do, Smith believes he's grown into a director who trusts that most of his actors nowadays can deliver the goods.

Smith recalled, "I used to give line readings like crazy. Used to go up to actors when they weren't giving the performance that I had hoped for, and I would just relate the line to them and say, 'Say it like this.' Most actors can't stand that. People like Shannen Doherty, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, and Joey Adams, to some degree, were all like, 'What are you doing? Stop!' But it always seemed like the fastest method to get to [the end result], rather than playing the game of leading a horse to water and saying, 'I need this kind of emotion.' Instead, I'd be like, 'Fuck it. Just say it like this.'"

Smith has found that when actors are good at their jobs, they can say a line of dialogue not only different from but better than what the filmmaker originally imagined. Smith recalled working with Alan Rickman, who co-starred in Dogma. "There's very little for you to do but make sure the camera is on him. If you provide actors like him with the material and they provide you with the performance, you don't necessarily have to chisel that performance out of them."

The same could be said of many actors that Smith works with repeatedly. "When you make four or five movies with people, you eventually don't have to hone them anymore. They know what you're looking for."

The director has always known what he's wanted from his actors: trust and speed. Jason Lee, who has starred in four of Smith's films, said he earned his leading role in Mallrats after asking Scott Mosier (who's produced all of Smith's projects) what Smith wanted for the part. The producer told Lee to deliver his lines quickly. Lee got the part.

Lee, who is now a good friend of the writer/director, considers Smith's directing style "specific" rather than "dictatorial." Lee said Smith focuses on dialogue, rhythm, inflections, and timing more than any other director he's worked with. The filmmaker usually doesn't stray from the script, because of his aversion to improv, but he has no qualms about rewriting dialogue on the set, moments before shooting, and throwing it at his actors.

"Kevin has always been older and wiser than his age," said Lee, who since breaking out in Mallrats has worked with directors Lawrence Kasdan, Tony Scott, Cameron Crowe, and Barry Sonnenfeld (for the upcoming Big Trouble). "When we did Mallrats Kevin was 24, but he seems so much more mature than your average 24-year-old. He's always been incredibly grounded and determined and very intelligent and very professional, and just one of those people who knows who they are and why they're here."

Smith's no-nonsense attitude and confidence shine through when asked what advice he gives to actors on making it in this business: Do it yourself. "Don't be snowed into thinking that you can do only one job or that people who make movies have some sort of secret ingredient. Take charge, write a script, and shoot it yourself," said Smith. "Don't wait for the break. Create the break." BSW

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