Today it seems every leading man in a comedy is a nerdy, awkward, social deviant trying to get laid. But it wasn't always like that. Kevin Smith's iconic films of the 90's brought the often overlooked slacker to the leading role in this decade's films, offering comic book geeks everywhere the chance to see themselves represented on the screen. Now in his late 30s, Smith's fame has almost surpassed that of his films, and he's in a period of transition. I recently sat down with the filmmaker/writer/pop-culture godfather to talk about his new book, his upcoming projects and the heartbreaking realization that he's not the slacker he was 15 years ago.
When I arrived at Smith's hotel room, he opened the door wearing a long, black bathrobe, reminiscent of Silent Bob's trench coat. After we sat down on what we both agreed was an uncomfortable couch, I broke out my tape recorder and Smith munched on some bread and peanut butter. First we discussed his new book, "Shootin' The Sh*t With Kevin Smith: The Best Of SModcast," which he didn't really write, so to speak. It's a "best-of" transcription of his and best friend/producer Scott Mosier's podcast, where they discuss topics like the origin of Santa Claus, inter-breed dog sex and the effects on the digestive tract after eating four pounds of raw meat, among others.
"When they told me they wanted to do this at Titan, I was like 'I don't think it's gonna translate, dude. It's all about inflection," Smith said. "But what I loved about it is how they formatted it. It just made sense. You can just read it and just go 'Oh my God, I can hear it in my head!' That's why I give credit to the people who transcribed it, like they're the real authors. I mean they wrote the book."
In the introduction, Smith explains how he wanted SModcast to be a strictly "No money, no problems" oasis where he and friends can "shoot the shit" without working. Then he and Mos took SModcast on tour to do live shows, concluding with one in his hometown of Red Bank, NJ. "The whole thing is just such goofy fun. Sadly, [The Redbank Live SModcast] will be the last one because Mos and I had this long discussion like, 'If we're taking this out on the road and selling tickets, isn't that work?' Then we decided if we do live ones anymore it'll be for free. The next one will be at San Diego Comic-Con."
SModcast, while seemingly just "goofy fun" among friends, is actually an important part of Smith's new lifestyle. His last movie, "Zack And Miri Make A Porno," was a box-office flop and an indication that Smith isn't going to be making the same types of movies any longer. SModcasts, along with Twitter and his blog, provide a new outlet for Smith to continue doing the same kind of "dick and fart joke" humor without necessarily working it into films.
"At the beginning, [making films] was a communications medium. I was a dude from Jersey who was like 'Must make a movie; must communicate,'" Smith explained. "I've been doing that for years and now I found a shorter, easier way to do it. I'm learning to compartmentalize my life, like now I don't have to do everything in one medium. I'll tell stories with films, but not necessarily about me and my friends. Now if I wanna fuckin' be me and express myself, I can do it on SModcasts or on stage, or put it in a blog or a comic book."
Die hard fans might miss Smith's former movies, but the filmmaker has honest reasons for his transition. His latest films, "Clerks II" and "Zack And Miri" both had adult, almost melancholy overtones of the slacker growing up and getting too old to fuck around anymore.
"It's sad when you realize you can't be the angry young man anymore. The angry young man is barely ever interesting, and tolerable in his 20s. But his late 20s? Early 30s? God forbid late 30s? You can't anymore. I'm in a business where I get to make pretend for a living, so what the fuck am I angry about? There's nothing anymore; I'm a very content, middle aged man," Smith said. "People are like 'Ah when are Jay and Silent Bob coming back?' And I'm like 'I don't think they are. I'm fuckin' 39! I can't just put my fuckin' hat on backwards."
After "Zack and Miri," which grossed over $35 million worldwide, Smith fell into a slump. "I was depressed, man. I wanted that movie to do so much better. I'm sitting there thinking 'That's it, that's it, I'm gone, I'm out. The movie didn't do well and I killed Seth Rogen's career! This dude was on a roll until he got in with the likes of me. I'm a career killer! Judd's [Apatow] going to be pissed, the whole Internet's going to be pissed because they all like Seth, and the only reason they like me anymore is because I was involved with Seth! And now I fuckin' ruined that'," Smith said.
I was shocked at Smith's honesty, but I understood what he meant. When I saw "Zack And Miri," I had to keep reminding myself that it was a Kevin Smith movie. It just didn't feel the same as his previous work and signaled a turning point. For two months after the film's theatrical release, Smith didn't work. He even stayed away from the Internet, claiming, "It was like high school. I was like, 'I'm a dead man. I'll be the laughing stock.'"
With all this new-found free time, Smith picked up smoking weed on a regular basis, something he hasn't done traditionally, and tried to rebuild his life at the same time. "People seem kind of surprised by it, but I've never been a big stoner. I wrote stoner movies but you can watch those movies and tell, or at least I can now that I am a stoner, it's like a user-friendly version of a stoner,'" Smith explained. "It started as sort of a midlife crisis thing but it wasn't that. It was sort of me saying 'You can't write like that anymore Kevin, you can't write like a fucking slacker, you can't write dick and fart joke movies anymore because it's too easy. Now you do it in your sleep and that's not where good films come from.'"
Smith started to tell me more about his realization. This was not a midlife crisis, and Smith wasn't just upset he made a film with today's hottest leading R-rated comedy actor and still failed to draw enough attention. He was genuinely upset with the quality of his work, and he was doing something about it.
"There had been a weird confluence of events. I thought I was breaking down after the failure to make $60 million, which is what I had hoped 'Zack And Miri' would do, but what I was really confronting was the notion that I can't be the same filmmaker I was 15 years prior. I'm not in touch with the person I write about anymore. It's been years since I paid my own bills or lived with my parents," Smith said.
"I thought, 'Oh I'm sad that "Zack And Miri" didn't do well' but really I'm sad because I shouldn't even have made 'Zack And Miri' because I'm beyond it now. Not that I'm too good for it but that one happened all too easily. The script came out so fast, and we were done with the movie so fast. Now there's nothing wrong with that, but the world I came from? My world was about digging my fingers into my chest, pulling open my cavity, pulling out a big chunk of fatty heart tissue, slapping it on a platter, putting another one on it and slapping it onto a projector. I didn't just make movies, I put my heart and soul into them."
Smith's growing pains in the aftermath of "Zack and Miri" begged the question: has Judd Apatow cornered the slacker/bromance comedy market for good? In a sense, yes. But Smith admits it's all part of the nature of filmmaking and a natural progression.
"I saw 'Slacker' and Hal Hartley's movies when I was 21. Richard Linklater's film was a wandering, meandering student film that was fascinating to watch. Hal Hartley's stuff had people speaking in surrealistic, almost theatrical speech patterns. These two dudes did something where I was like, 'Ok, I want to do that too but I think I can change it just enough where it's better,'" Smith said. "And now, Judd does the same thing. Judd watched a bunch of movies, some of them were mine and he's very kind about shouting me out, but all he did was say 'I liked this and if I change it just enough I can make it mine.' And now he's doing better, just like my shit did better than Hal and Richard's shit did in the beginning. Look, it's such an incestuous medium, film."
Smith doesn't resent Apatow for borrowing his realistic dialogue (think about the porn preferences conversation at the top of "Superbad") nor does he mind Simon Pegg (the British Kevin Smith in a lot of ways) using cues from his films in his own work. "They saw my shit and it informed their shit. I saw 'Shawn Of The Dead' and it informed 'Reaper.' We pass the ball back and forth because it's one of those mediums where you're always going to be influenced by everything you've ever seen," Smith said.
So what's next for Smith? Try a buddy cop movie called "A Couple Of Dicks" starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, to be released in February 2010. "Think 'Lethal Weapon' and 'Beverly Hills Cop,'" Smith said. "It's totally fun and very warm but let's be honest, it's not a movie that has a searing message at its center. It's pretty much the movie you imagine in your head but like 40% funnier."
"A Couple Of Dicks" will be the first film Smith has directed but not written. He also thinks no one will believe he directed it because "it looks really good." But the modest filmmaker had the right idea to direct someone else's work.
"I was like 'If I write a movie right now it's going to be about a filmmaker who made a movie that enough people didn't go see and it's really sad.' You know, I'm not gonna write that," Smith said. "So this 'Couple Of Dicks' script fell on my desk and I was like 'Wow, if I had written a buddy cop movie this is exactly what it would be like.'"
While "A Couple Of Dicks" doesn't sound too much different than Smith's old "dick and fart joke" movies, he thinks it's different, especially because he didn't write it. To prove that he's really done writing those kinds of films, he told me about "Ranger Danger."
"I've got a half-finished script for "Ranger Danger", which is kind of a dick and fart joke movie in space and its very funny but I can't fucking finish it," Smith said. "I mean, I could do it, but you'd see a world of difference between the first 50-60 pages and the last 50-60 pages. My head is elsewhere. Now I just want to make a hockey movie."
And a hockey movie is exactly what Smith's working on next. Based on the popular hockey song by Warren Zevon, "Hit Somebody" was recently announced by Smith as an upcoming project. The song adaptation tells the story of a guy who wants more than anything to be in the NHL, but is only good at one thing: beating people up on the ice. Smith says the tone he's going after is akin to a "Forrest Gump" of sports movies, but not as ambitious.
"It's not like my normal shit. Some people heard of it and were like 'Oh, you're gonna do a 'Slapshot'' and I'm like 'No,'" Smith said. "I mean it's set in that era [The 70's] but I'm going for something a little else, a little different on this one."
"Hit Somebody" will be one of Smith's more serious movies, although he admits he can never do something completely seriously. When he describes the main character's dream of being in the NHL only to find he's not playing the role he wants to, one is reminded of the recent shift in Smith's career.
"The great irony is that he's out there doing the thing he's always dreamed about and loves but not in the way he thought he'd be doing it," Smith said. "It's definitely right up my alley and that's where my head is right now. I think its gonna be kick-ass because when I hear that song... Ah, it reminds me of me."
With a new book, two movies in development and post-production and an online presence that requires constant upkeep, Smith seems content to leave the slacker genre to the people who have their heads around it at the moment. For now, Silent Bob has a lot to say, and not just about his films. He recalled a moment to me during a Q&A when he shifted topics: "I was like 'You know what? Let's not talk about the movies because I'm not fucking Spielberg. Let's talk about, like... Fuckin! Let's talk about the shit that bonds us, you know?'
"The movies get people into your house, and then you're like, 'Let me show you around!' And they're like 'This house is much bigger than it looks from the outside!' So I need the movies, that's how I get them inside, but then it's them," Smith said. "And let's be honest, it's about me too."