This interview was originally published in the October 2001 issue of HIGH TIMES.
Since the award-winning Clerks was released in 1994, Kevin Smith has enjoyed a steady rise in the ranks of Hollywood directors. The hottest names in Hollywood regularly sign on to work with him. He was the creative force behind Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma. Now he’s pulling out all the stops in a pot-saturated epic, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
You were originally asked to direct Good Will Hunting, but you served as executive producer instead. In an interview you said you refused because you felt if you had directed, it would have been static. How do you feel about your abilities as a director?
Generally, I’ve been very simplistic, like a still camera – just shooting, not really thinking about making it visually interesting. Because I’m all about the characters. I think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is actually really improved. I hooked up with a director of photography who really brought out the best of me.
Every movie you’ve made seems to have made these huge jumps in quality. The difference between Clerks and Dogma is huge.
Yeah, they really do take jumps. This one takes a quantum leap from the rest of them. Not in terms of content, but visually. The last two Chasing Amy and Dogma, were like Bob Hope movies but with satirical ideas. The movies play off the laughs. They’re not message movies by any stretch of the imagination. We attack pop culture, the pervasiveness of “the Net” and entertainment culture. They go for the funny bone.
Dogma’s send-up of religion offended some people. In interviews, you seemed to treat criticism very carefully.
It was dangerous, man. There were death threats. We had almost 30,000 pieces of hate mail. At least four of those were death threats – serious death threats. t was a weird line to walk. You want to maintain what you believe, why you made the movie and how you feel about the movie, but at the same time you can’t incite these people.
Many Catholics loved the film.
There are a lot of Catholics in this country, but not that many practicing. Most people get to a certain age, then they know it’s time to throw off the shackles. It helped to be Catholic if you saw Dogma. Lots of people said you needed a catechism just to follow it.
Now you’re stepping strongly into the world of marijuana. Are you worried about getting the “drug warriors” up in arms?
We’ve been dodging that bullet for four films now. Jay and Silent Bob are weed dealers. We always try to soften it. Now watch some conservative critic finally bring it out.
If the Drug Czar says Kevin Smith’s films encourage pot use, how would you respond?
If the Drug Czar had enough free time on his hands to comment on this movie, I’d be totally shocked. I would just tell him to calm down. There have always been classic, wonderful characters throughout the history of film comedy who have imbibed – weed-smokers like Cheech and Chong, or Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Of course, the counterpoint to the argument is always: My movies are seen by American youth and youth the world over. If you glamorize weed-smoking, then you’re part of the problem.
How do you feel?
Anyone could guess from the flicks, pretty accurately, that my take on weed is not very conservative at all. It’s pretty liberal. While I’m not as out there for legalization as someone like Woody Harrelson, I’m certainly not one of those people who think it belongs on a banned substance list. It should be off and legalized.
I think weed for most people is experimental. You hit a certain age and you get into it. Some people stay with it. It’s like cigarettes or anything else. I’ve never encountered weed-smokers who have turned into anything horrible. I don’t think it’s a stepping stone to crack or heroin or anything like that. I think those who use weed and later wind up on crack or something harder have addictive personalities. It has nothing to do with weed. Some people are born addicts. But there are a lot of people like me who can smoke weed and still get a day’s work done.
They’re called responsible adults.
Exactly. And I’ve always been that way, even when I was eighteen, right after high school. I got into it. I enjoyed it as a social lubricant – great for chuckles, for getting into that zone where everything is funny.
Where did you earn your reputation as an independent, low-budget maverick filmmaker?
You know, we’ve only made one truly independent film, and that was Clerks. Mallrats we made through Gramercy, which was Universal at the time. Chasing Amy was made under the aegis of Miramax, but vey inexpensively. Dogma was made under Miramar, then they sold it to Lion’s Gate. This time we’re with Dimension Films, which is part of Miramar. I guess it depends how you define the term “independent.” The films I make are usually films no studio would make. They’re not super-marketable. No one considers putting them on 2,000 screens. The stuff is a bit off-center and challenging. I guess I skate into the independent category under that category. In terms of low budget, yeah, we’ve shot inexpensively. But Dogma cost $10 million, this movie is $20 million – it’s tough to say we’re independent when you have this much cash.
How does it happen that such high-profile actors are in your films?
When I’m writing, I try to include people I’ve done previous things with, like Ben Affleck. Ben was kind of easy. He was in Mallrats before he got famous. I told him I was going to write him into the script of Chasing Amy, and it was kind of his first big role. So he was appreciative and we also had a good time. Chris Rock is a friendship thing. Sometimes the schedule for him is a pain in the ass – like this time, because he was cutting Down to Earth and cutting another movie. Sometimes you have to dance around their schedules, particularly when they’ve got day jobs and they’re so good at them.
What is Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back about?
It’s basically a flick about Jay and Bob trying to stop the Jay and Bob movies from being made. Banky Edwards, played by Jason Lee, makes a deal with Miramax Pictures to make his “Bluntman and Chronic” comic book into a big-screen film. He plays the same character from Chasing Amy.
A movie within a movie?
Yeah. Jay and Silent Bob find out about the movie. Then there’s all this negative input on the Internet. The movie focuses a lot on internet culture – about how people who read the comic think the comic sucked, and they think the movie is gonna suck, too. Jay and Bob, not being very bright, really take that to heart. They think people are really talking about them. So they decide to go to Hollywood to stop the movie from being made.
How heavily does marijuana play in the script?
A lot. Our characters have always been into weed, but depending on which movie we’ve done, it’s either very prominent or soft. In Mallrats it’s kind of soft, it’s in the background. In Clerks, you saw from the get-go what they do. In Chasing Amy, you saw a lot of pot paraphernalia around, and Jay and Bob spent a whole scene rolling. Dogma, I think, was the first time you actually see us smoking. In this movie we smoke quite a bit.
Is this the last movie that you and Jason Mewes will make?
How does Jason feel about that?
I think he’s all right. He likes to make flicks, but at the same time he’s just a few years away from thirty. It’s time to do something else, to show the world that he can do something else. I wanted to be a filmmaker. But I had to rope Mewes into being in Clerks. He never had aspirations for being an actor. I knew him before Clerks for a few years and always loved his energy. He has such a great aura around him. He’s so natural, but I had to spend the first two flicks teaching him how to just be himself on film. In the last two, he’s figured it out. He needs very little input. He’s tremendous in this movie. I thought he was great in Dogma, thought he really pulled out all the stops. But this movie is beyond that.
The great thing about the character of Jay is he’s really kind of sweet, but he’s also profane as hell. He doesn’t seem to have any moral barometer. So he’s allowed to say whatever the fuck he pleases and it’s not malicious. It never has the air of being nasty, he just doesn’t know. He’s a child.
How would you describe your character?
My character is the smarter of the two. That isn’t really saying much. He’s just the dude who’s kind of married to this cat, knows that he’s kind of a fuck-up, knows that Jay’s kind of a fuck-up. But he has nothing better to do.
Are you silent throughout this movie?
I speak at one crucial part.
Do you work in the mirror to get your facial expressions down?
No. We get to watch playback all the time when we’re shooting. I’ll direct and watch, see what I did facially. If I want to tweak or correct anything, we’ll do another take. I mean, I only got three looks. It’s not that tough. But it never really occurred to me how difficult it was to direct and act at the same time. This movie, we’re in almost every scene, so it’s quite trying sometimes.
The word is that you run an extremely relaxed set.
This is the first time we’ve shot almost entirely in California. We worked with people who work on many other industry flicks. The one thing we heard over and over is that things were incredibly laid back. I’m like, really?
The cue must come from you.
Maybe it’s trickle-down. I’m not much of a yeller. There are a few things, when you’re working with a multimillion-dollar budget, that can’t be worked out. Even in a worst-case scenario, throw a little money at it and the problem kind of dissipates. It also helps to be prepared in advance, and fantastic planners always surround me. I guess because I’m so well surrounded, there never seems to be a need to go crazy.
You’ve successfully developed a Jay and Silent Bob comic book series. Which came first, the movies or the comic?
That came after we’d done the movies. I’d been a big comics fan, but it got started about the time we were shooting Chasing Amy. The movie deals with two comic-book creators and the comic book they had. I wanted to make the comic book in the movie – like, let’s make our own product, put it out there and tie it in with the movie. And I couldn’t find anyone to do it. I approached Dark Horse Comics first, and they wouldn’t do it. They said, “We’re not making any comic books about two drug guys like Bluntman and Chronic. How are we supposed to sell that?”
But then Bob Schreck left Dark Horse and started his own company, Oni Press. He called and asked if I still wanted to do it. I went there and the first thing we did was this one-shot. It was an anthology with two stories. The first sixteen pages was just a day in the life of Jay and Bob as they go out and get stoned and get the dog stoned and the dog chases them around the park. Not much of a story, but it was fun. Then I said, let me do a Clerks one-shot, which did really well. I wanted to write a four-issue miniseries, right before Dogma came out, that took Jay and Bob from the end of Chasing Amy to the beginning of Dogma. It was kind of fun, it all worked out. Along the way, we did a Bluntman and Chronic comic as well. They’re reissuing a bunch of the stuff in trade paperback form. And we’re doing a graphic novel about Bluntman and Chronic.
When did you open Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash?
I think we took over in 1996. It was a small store in Red Bank, NJ in a different location than it is now. I always wanted to own a comic-book store, but I figured I’d do that after I got kicked out of the movie business. We stayed at the same location for two years, repainted, put our stuff on the wall and it was good. We did a healthy business. But then we started to see people from out of the area come. People from New York, Pennsylvania, then people from further west – then internationally. It became this kind of destination, the store with the stuff from our movies.
Now we’re in a better location on Broad Street. Rat Face, our production designer on the movies, came in and designed the place as a comic-book lover’s dream. That was ’98, so we’ve been there about three years now. And our production offices are right down the street from the comic-book store.
Pretty good life?
No complaints. I just think something bad is going to happen, an embolism or an aneurysm or something, and I’m going to die young.
That’s the Catholic in you.
It is. There should be more work to this. But it is work and that’s the thing. It feels so great and you enjoy it so much that you don’t think of it as work. I mean I think, this is what I do for a living? God, this is great. But there is a lot of work and now that I’m married, I’m reminded more than ever. My wife says I’m never at home, that I’m constantly working. It doesn’t feel like work, but I guess I do work a lot, whether it’s on flicks, the comics, whatever. And since I’m writing and directing, I’m it all the way. I can’t hand it off to somebody. This is from cradle to grave.