Kevin Smith exhales a cloud of pot smoke. “Does this bother you?” he asks, looking up from his pipe as I enter his backstage dressing room at Denver’s Paramount Theater. Smith has retreated here, alone, after an hour and 15 minutes spent onstage answering questions from hundreds of his rabid fans following a screening of his new film, Red State. “Do you want some?”
For the record: I answered no to both questions. But the fact that this is how Smith greets a journalist whom he’s never met is emblematic of the 40-year-old’s current modus operandi: totally unpretentious, fully accessible, completely self-indulgent.
It’s been 17 years since Smith’s starless, black-and-white, credit card–financed filmmaking debut, Clerks, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was bought by Harvey Weinstein for distribution by Miramax, which itself had only recently been acquired by Disney. Clerks grossed more than 100 times its $27,000 budget in its theatrical release before becoming a hit on home video, and in terms of pure return on investment it’s still considered one of the most profitable films of all time.
This success earned the neophyte from New Jersey what he calls a “catbird seat” for the American so-called independent film boom of the 1990s. From that seat, along with contemporaries such as Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, Smith was able to build a career incorporating many of the freedoms afforded an independent, while still making films generally financed, marketed and distributed with corporate money.
It’s a position of privilege that, Smith is the first to admit, he landed in by chance. “I got into this business by a fucking fluke of history,” he tells the crowd in Denver. “A very fucking rich man” — Weinstein — “wanted to prove to the world that he still had balls and could pick up an American independent film, even though Mickey Mouse owned him.
“I’m not a filmmaker,” Smith continues. “It’s difficult for me. This is not my first language.”
That the audience applauds Smith’s self-deprecation with the same boundless enthusiasm they accord Red State — the new film that this self-proclaimed nonfilmmaker wrote, directed and edited — offers a clue to one element of Smith’s appeal. His success is almost an inverse Horatio Alger story: It’s not so much about hard work paying off as it is about the dream of living large (no pun intended) on as little effort as possible.
Smith has often said that seeing Linklater’s Slacker at New York’s Angelika Film Center on his 21st birthday was a personal turning point. He left the theater thinking, “If this counts as a movie, I think I can make a movie, too.”
If Slacker was an ode to hanging out, roaming the city streets and chatting as a kind of sport, Clerks is a celebration of the same pursuits (well, maybe without the walking) as sanity-maintaining subversions of service-industry drudgery. In simplest terms, Clerks is a movie about collecting paychecks while maintaining a constant conversation.
Nearly two decades later, in more ways than one, Smith is coming full circle. Red State, his 10th directorial effort, is his first film since Clerks to be financed and produced independently. And in October, Red State will become his first movie that he’ll distribute himself, under the banner of Smodcast Pictures.
The new company is named after his popular independent radio franchise, which includes a series of podcasts featuring the ramblings of Smith and friends, some of them recorded live in a small Hollywood theater he’s dubbed Smodcastle. Smith is using his podcasts to promote a road-show tour — launched last month at Radio City Music Hall, and concluding at the Wiltern on Saturday night — during which he’s visiting large theaters in 15 cities, screening Red State and engaging in lengthy, rowdy conversations with his audience about the movie, his previous work, his podcasts and various other pursuits.
Within these conversations (which fans pay dearly for; the cheap seats at the Wiltern go for $69.50, including fees), Smith confirms that the Internet rumors are true: He’ll make one more movie after releasing Red State — a script he’s writing called Hit Somebody, a hockey movie inspired by the Warren Zevon song of the same name — and after that, he’s quitting filmmaking.
“I’m so, like, sick of movies and shit,” Smith tells the Denver audience. “All I want to do is talk, talk, talk.”
Post–Hit Somebody, Smith says, he’ll be able to do just that, devoting more attention to his speaking tours — an annual ritual that grew out of, and eventually outgrew, the college screening circuit that Weinstein forced Smith and producer Scott Mosier to travel to spread the Clerks gospel in between Sundance and the film’s October 1994 theatrical release. He’ll also expand the Smodcast network by launching a daily two-hour morning Internet radio show, and he eventually hopes to turn Smodcast Pictures into a distributor for other people’s movies.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes