September 19, 2007

Comedy Connection: Kevin Smith

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Kevin Smith, better known onscreen as Silent Bob, has created a nice little niche for himself in his View Askewniverse of convenience stores, malls, heavenly creatures, and lesbians. Aside from that, he has some non-askew films up the pipeline, and, of course, will be coming to campus for a Q&A this Saturday. For those of you lucky enough to be there, this excerpt of the conversation between The Sun and Kevin Smith should be some indication of what to expect, and what should remain unexpected:

The Sun: Should we get started?
Kevin Smith: Let me just grab my smokes. Where the fuck are they? Ah, here we go. [Pauses, lights up] Fire away.
Sun: When did you first start writing?
K.S.: I think I was about 12 years old when I started writing stuff that didn’t have to do with school or homework, just for the enjoyment of writing a story. We had this old clunky electric typewriter at the house. I wrote a story about going to my relatives’ house, a kind of larger-than-life satirical version of going to my relatives’ house, just to make my brother laugh. He dug it and responded well to it.
Sun: Did you know what satire was at that time?
K.S.: Pretty much. Yeah, I’d been a big Saturday Night Live fan. The show debuted when I was a kid. I was a comedy buff to begin with, and a big fan of Michael O’Donoghue [SNL’s first lead writer] back then, so I was able to process satire at that age.
Sun: How long did it take you to know that you were going to be a writer professionally?
K.S.: I didn’t. I always felt like, well I know I could turn a phrase, but the only way I could figure out how to make a living off of writing was working at the newspapers, because nobody I knew wrote books for a living, or for TV or the movies. That didn’t even enter my frame of reference, because that just happened to other people. So I was like, “Well I guess if I got a job at the newspaper, that would be kind of writing,” because I was a big fan of some columnists like [New York area columnist] Jimmy Breslin. So, I hadn’t really thought about it much until late in high school I started thinking, “Hey, maybe I could write for Saturday Night Live?” And it wasn’t until a few years later that I started to think about film. My 21st birthday — that’s when I started to think about film.
Sun: On that day, did you know that you were going to be a writer and a director? Or did you just think you were going to write?
K.S.: When I saw Slacker, Richard Linklater’s flick, I viewed it with a mixture of awe and arrogance. Awe because I’d never seen anything like it before, and arrogance because I was like, “If this counts as a movie, then I could make a movie.” So that’s when I started thinking about writing and directing. It’s more just to be in control of the material, because I’d heard a lot of stories of people who’d written scripts and turned them over to somebody else to direct them. Then they completely changed, and it wasn’t quite what the writer had in mind. So, I was like, “Well, if I directed it, I guess I could make the exact movie I want to make and not worry about somebody else changing some of my dialogue or something like that.”
Sun: How do you know which of your projects you’re going to direct and which of them are for other people? Is it by the nature of who asks you to do it?
K.S.: I’ve rarely written something that I haven’t directed unless it was a work-for-hire, like I used to take rewrite gigs, where studios hire you to rewrite existing projects. But I’ve never really written anything from scratch that I didn’t intend to direct myself.
Sun: When did you come up with all the characters in the View Askewniverse? What, or who, was the initial manifestation?
K.S.: I guess the original manifestation was Clerks, and they only became the characters in the View Askewniverse because I kinda kept that world going in bringing Jay and Silent Bob back and referencing incidents that happened in the previous flick and whatnot. So the universe grew organically, but it wasn’t like I sat down in advance and, before even writing Clerks, said, “Hey, I’m gonna make a bunch of movies that are all going to be set in the same tri-county area or tri-town area in the same area of New Jersey. It just kind of happened more organically than not, but Clerks was the starting point for all the characters. They grew out of that one movie.
Sun: So did you make the decision before your second movie that the characters would cross paths in the different movies?
K.S.: Yeah, I’d written Dogma before I wrote Mallrats, but even in Dogma, I was bringing Jay and Silent Bob back, just ‘cause I like Jason Mewes a lot. He’s funny, and I thought those characters would be a nice way to keep that movie from becoming too heavy-handed. So I knew I’d use them again when I got to Dogma, but actually since Mallrats was the next movie, I started thinking about whether or not I’d want to include them in Mallrats, and I decided to go for it. Since Jay and Bob were in it, at one point they were the only touchstone, the only reference point, and then we wound up re-shooting the opening to Mallrats. After the movie was done, we test screened the movie, and the opening was long. It took about half an hour to get to the mall, so we just decided to shoot a new opening for it. That referenced the Julie Dwyer in the pool thing, and that really tied those two movies together in a subtle way. I mean, Jay and Silent Bob obviously in a very overt way too puts those two movies together, but the fact that the characters in Mallrats were referencing incidents from Clerks, and a character that we never even saw in Clerks, was a subtle reference to that movie. That kicked off the domino effect of including something in each film that tied it back into that same area, the same few towns.
Sun: So, you wrote Dogma before you wrote Mallrats. I always got the impression that you need to watch all of the View Askewniverse-Kevin Smith movies in order …
K.S.: There’s really no specific order to them, except in the order in which they were made. Technically, I guess, Mallrats happens the day before Clerks happens. That was kind of an accident, but based on a reference. The Julie Dwyer reference places Mallrats the day before Clerks actually happens, but really those movies were meant to be watched in the order in which they were made.
Sun: In the View Askewniverse, was Silent Bob always silent?
K.S.: You know, I never really gave it much thought. He’s always been kinda quiet in the movies, and that’s about it. I never thought of what happened before Clerks, except for that little throwaway gag in the beginning of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back when you see how they first got together as infants. But I never really thought about what was the point where the dude just finally fuckin’ gave up and stopped talking. I just assumed it was just because of hanging out with Jay. If you’re hanging out with a dude that’s kind of a motormouth, then eventually you probably just give up, because, really, you realize, “All I need is an ear to listen.”
Sun: I once heard that Silent Bob’s last name was Blutarsky. Is this true?
K.S.: Ahh, that was a joke we threw into the animated series as a reference to Animal House, but no I don’t think his real name is Blutarsky. I never really gave him a last name, but I think it wouldn’t have been that.
Sun: So he’s definitely not related to Bluto from Animal House?
K.S.: [Laughs] Ahh, no, no. Not at all.
Sun: Are we supposed to have different laws of the universe in that universe, or is it the same with just different people who look exactly the same as other people?
K.S.: Yeah I guess it’s the same laws as our universe. You’re asking me shit that I never really gave a thought to [laughs], so I’m kinda coming up on the fly. But yeah, same principles as our universe, but it just so happens that people look and awful lot a lot a lot alike, I guess. [Laughs]
Sun: So, you’re not really like J.K. Rowling where you know everything about your characters’ history that you never even put in a movie? You just take what you’ve got written down and make it up as you go along?
K.S.: Yeah, it’s pretty much all just kinda made up as we went along from script to script. I don’t know, I doubt if even J.K. Rowling knew everything about her characters, because I think she kinda makes it up as she goes along too. Like, there’s no way in hell when she was writing that first book that she knew what she was gonna do in the last book. Not to spoil it or anything, but I doubt that she was like, “And then, Harry’s going to marry Ginny Weasley.” I just don’t buy that.
Sun: How you decide if an idea that you have for a movie fits into the View Askewniverse or to our universe, or into another universe that you haven’t even come up with yet?
K.S.: Well for the first dozen years of my career, they were all just connected. Like there was no “Gee this won’t work in the real world.” I was just like, “I mean, I might as well connect them.” Even when I was writing Chasing Amy, which at one point wasn’t strictly set in the View Askewniverse, I was like, “Well, I’d like to use Jay and Silent Bob,” and suddenly that also became an Askewniverse movie. The only one that was the exception was Jersey Girl, where I was just like, “This should probably stand by itself.” Just because it didn’t deal with the same issues that the other flicks did, but Clerks II felt like a nice way to close the Askewniverse movies, so the next few flicks down the road won’t be interconnected at all. Like, you know, we got Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which we start in January, and that doesn’t take place in the Askewniverse. It’s standalone. And then Red State — this horror movie we’re going to do afterwards — that’s really standalone as well. From now on most of the stuff I do will be standalone.
Sun: I read that before Clerks, you were a staunch non-smoker, and since I’m sure that Bluntman and Chronic was probably informed by your life at some point, does this mean that you didn’t consider weed to be smoking, or that you just ingested your weed in brownie form?
K.S.: Yeah, I don’t know. When I started writing Clerks, I wasn’t a smoker, and then between the time I finished the script and the time we started the movie, I picked up smoking, which is stupid because I was about 22 at the time, and most kids usually have the excuse of peer pressure and I didn’t. I was just kinda bored at work one day, and there was a really horrendous storm out and people were still coming to the store in flood weather for cigarettes. So I was like, “If people are willing to leave their houses in this horrible fuckin’ weather, then smoking must be the best thing on Earth.” So I tried it out and discovered that, oh it really was! [Laughs] So I started smoking regularly and whatnot, but in terms of smoking weed, I don’t know, I always separated the two. Marijuana tends to not kill ya, unless you get high and operate heavy machinery, whereas smoking tobacco has widely been proven to be a cancer-causing agent. So I guess the two aren’t quite the same. But I was never a pot brownie guy. I don’t think I’ve ever had a pot brownie in my life.
Sun: Really?
K.S.: I think I would want to keep my sugar and my hallucinogens separate.
Sun: Do you live in L.A. now or do you live in Jersey?
K.S.: I live in L.A. now. Moved out here in 2002.
Sun: So you made a lot of your movies while you were still living in Jersey.
K.S.: Yeah, pretty much. The majority of them were made while I was living in Jersey, although we never shot them all in Jersey. Sometimes we’d go elsewhere to shoot them, but the lion’s share of what I’ve done so far … I’ve made seven movies and I would say five of them were made while I was still living in Jersey.
Sun: How did being away from Hollywood affect your movie-making experience? Now you can compare it.
K.S.: It didn’t really. At the end of the day, my job is such that it doesn’t matter where you are to do it. I’m a writer-director, so its not like I have to go audition for a job, whereas if you’re an actor, it tends to help to live in Los Angeles or New York where you can audition regularly. As a writer-director, you’re creating your own work, so it didn’t matter whether I was in L.A. or not in L.A. My job was pretty much the same. The location never really affected the work.
Sun: Did the reputation and, in some people’s perspective, reality of L.A.’s fakeness bother you?
K.S.: I tend not to leave the house that much, so it doesn’t really affect me. I mean, I spend an inordinate amount of time in my house, so I think the fakeness only affects you out there, dwelling in that world on a regular basis. And I don’t. Even back in the day, when I would come out to Los Angeles when I was younger, when we first started the movie-making thing — I’m not a partier. And I don’t schmooze. I don’t know, that aspect of it’s never really affected me.
Sun: What part of Jersey are you from?
K.S.: I’m from central Jersey, by Asbury Park.
Sun: Do you have more pride for central Jersey than Jersey as a whole?
K.S.: I guess I do have regional pride in that aspect of a state. South Jersey is more like North Pennsylvania to me and north Jersey is more like the south of New York. But central Jersey is in the dead center of the state, it’s where the shore is. Predominantly, it’s where the shore is. It’s what everyone thinks of when they say “down the Shore.” But really it didn’t come from that aspect of New Jersey that makes it the best; it’s just where I was raised. Like if I was raised in north Jersey, I would probably be a bigger fan of north Jersey. Same for south Jersey. But since I was raised where I was, it’s all I knew for like 22 years, so familiarity bred that loyalty I think more than anything else.
Sun: One of the View Askewniverse trademarks is kind of like, a ton of swearing …
K.S.: [Interrupting laughter] Go ahead
Sun: What’s your personal history with four-letter words? Did you get in trouble when you were younger for doing it, or are you no worse than anyone else from Jersey?
K.S.: I’m probably no worse; I was actually probably more reserved because my parents were not big swearers. I think if I had sworn a lot in my youth, I’d have got the crap kicked out of me. I didn’t really kinda come into my own in terms of peppering language with expletives until I was like, maybe 18, 19. I mean, it started a bit in high school of course, but while I was in school amongst friends and whatnot. I didn’t get comfortable cursing around my parents until I was like 23, 24, until I could make a living off of it. Then it was like, “Look, man, this is how I earn. I’m gonna say cocksucker if I want!” And they didn’t really argue with it anymore. I felt like I cursed around my friends, I was far more liberal with what I would say with my friends, and I didn’t want to treat my parents differently than my friends. I wanted to be able to relate to them on the same kind of adult level so I felt like, “Well, if I curse in front of my friends, I should be able to curse in front of my parents.” My mother didn’t see it that way, and still doesn’t, but I think she’s learned to deal with it.
Sun: So do you include swearing in the movies in a sense to keep them more realistic for the dialogue or is it kind of just difficult for you at this point to leave it out?
K.S.: For me, I tend to draw from real life and just hold a mirror up to the culture and that’s the world we live in. People curse. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t curse, so it would be weirdly inauthentic to make something where people don’t. I guess within the context of Jersey Girl, maybe that’s how most average people swear? I.e. not a lot, but in the circles that I travel in, it’s just normal. Fucking as an adverb or an adjective — I guess it’s not an adverb, because that would be fuckingly — but I use it as a descriptive with almost anything. Or as a placeholder. Usually “fucking” takes the place of “um.”
Sun: It’s funny that you say that your movies are based on your life, all the Jersey settings and the swearing and everything else, but your book is called My Boring Ass Life.
K.S.: Yes.
Sun: So how and where do you create interesting, funny scenes loosely based on your life when your life is so boring?
K.S.: I think as a writer, you tend to take a kernel of truth and then dress it up so that it’s entertaining, because otherwise, it’s … not entertaining.
Sun: [Laughs]
K.S.: So you draw from your life and then you just kind of pad it out so that it occurs to the audience as something worth watching. I mean, if I exactly reflect what I see around me, it wouldn’t make for a very interesting movie. Most aspects of your life don’t have three-act structures to them, and don’t have dramatic impact or effect or any of those things that one kind of expects to see when they buy a movie ticket. Most of our lives are middle act. It’s all second act. I mean, you’re born and that’s act I. Then you die, and that’s pretty much act III. But most of your life takes place in act II. It’s just everything that happens between birth and death.
Sun: That was really, really deep. [Laughs]
K.S.: It’s kinda the same in comic books. They have a very quick origin, which happened a long time ago, then, presumably, there is an ending somewhere way down the road when the characters are no longer financially viable. But most every comic book story is kind of the second act. It’s all second-act structure; it’s all things that are happening between the start and the finish.
Sun: In some of your movies, there are of course the homoerotic undertones, or overtones like in Chasing Amy and in Dogma when we learn about Jay.
K.S.: Right.
Sun: But in your MTVu series, Sucks Less with Kevin Smith, which, as the title says, you play yourself, all of the students think that you’re gay. So what are we supposed to make of this?
K.S.: Yeah, it’s funny. I get that quite a bit. I don’t know, it’s kinda funny. It makes me laugh. It’s really not the truth, but sometimes I wish it was because I’d have gotten far more man-pussy than I would have gotten real pussy over the course of my life. Particularly if I’d have hung out at the right air bar, you know, where a guy who’s got a shape like myself is kind of sexualized. Unfortunately, I’ve always been attracted to chicks. But you know, it’s just the world I live in. I know a lot of gay people. I have a gay brother. So I always kind of liked to include that context for them, otherwise they’re stuck watching our straight antics.

Kevin Smith will be leading a Q&A session in Bailey Auditorium this Saturday. To read more of The Sun’s conversation with Kevin Smith, please visit