It's not often that Kevin Smith finds himself speechless. In fact, he's made a living off his gift of gab: Between directorial efforts he does one-man shows across the country, speaking for hours onstage to thousands of devout fans, and regularly blogs and sends his thoughts to his more than 1 million Twitter followers. "My favorite part of what I do now, of everything I do, is talking," Smith said last week. "But a lot of it is predicated on having a job, a cool job that's worth talking about." After Halloween weekend 2008, he wasn't sure if he'd ever have such a job again.
It was the opening weekend of his last film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and Smith was confident that his trademark comic raunch, delivered by Judd Apatow golden boy Seth Rogen, would make the film appealing beyond his dedicated fan base.
"This was going to validate my comedy," Smith, 39, recalls. "In my head I had everything riding on it."
He awoke that Saturday to Friday returns of a minuscule $2.2 million, the lowest opening day for him since his early films. "My mind just snapped," he says. "I thought, 'I guess I'm just no damn good at this.'"
In the '90s, Smith hit the indie scene as the geeky fanboy writer-director from New Jersey, with an Everyman likability and an X-rated mind. Backed by once-powerful Miramax Films after the success of his debut feature, Clerks — which became one of the decade's landmark indies — Smith was given the freedom to make low-budget comedies, like Chasing Amy and Dogma, without interference. The pop-culture references his films are laced with made them ripe for mainstream appeal, and soon Smith was not just a brand-name filmmaker but a celebrity. But after the disappointing release of Jersey Girl (a more earnest variation on the Smith formula, stained by the public backlash against the film's stars, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez), in 2006 Smith dipped into the safe nostalgia well, making a sequel to Clerks. Clerks 2 might have appeased some of his fans, who were happy to see the director bring back their favorite characters, but just as many were beginning to tire of his act.
The underperformance of Zack and Miri put Smith in a rut. "I was spinning my wheels," he admits. "I'd been doing a similar thing for 15 years, and I needed a change."
The first thing he did — and perhaps the most painful — was to disconnect from his fan base. Feeling that he'd let them down, Smith stayed off his blog and stopped tweeting for close to six months, spending his time, he says, "smoking a shit ton of weed and watching a lot of hockey videos.
"I didn't want to write a script. I didn't want to make one of my comedies. I needed a break."
Smith didn't know it when he took the stage for a panel at the 2008 Comic-Con, but two years later, that appearance would prove to be his rescue. Warner Bros. president Jeff Robinov saw Smith do his shtick and asked him to direct the comedy A Couple of Dicks (during shooting, the title would be changed to Cop Out). Written by longtime TV scribes Robb and Mark Cullen, the project was an homage to the buddy-cop genre, following two veteran NYPD partners as they trade zingers, help each other cope with their respective domestic problems — and also fight crime. Smith liked the premise, having always been a fan of wiseass cop films from the '80s, like 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon. But he was puzzled that it had been sent to him — he only directed his own scripts.
Smith voiced this question, but Robinov kept on him through the release of Zack and Miri. "I read A Couple of Dicks again after Zack and Miri," Smith says, "and I thought, This is the kind of film that if my father were still alive, he would say, 'Oh, you do make movies for a living!' " Smith felt it was time to see if he could play with the big boys. Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan were attached to play the leads, and it was official: Kevin Smith would make a studio picture. "The 22-year-old me would be, like, 'You hack! You sellout!' But I felt it was a test."
Though Smith edited the film himself and brought on his longtime DP, David Klein, to shoot it, it was apparent that Cop Out was not A Kevin Smith Film. There are gunfights and car chases; there are no long, drawn-out scenes about getting off or the correct way to deliver a stink palm. "The main thing was, Let me see if I can apply what I've learned in the last 15 years to making a movie. Not A Kevin Smith Movie, just a movie."
Though he says he has more fun capturing dialogue, it was the challenge of shooting scenes that were out of his comfort zone that gave him a rush. "I wasn't comfortable doing foot and car chases, but those would be the days I would come to work and be more diligent in terms of the actual craft of filmmaking."
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Smith doesn't know what he'll make next. He's open to directing another studio film, and he's currently shopping a few of his own works. During his post–Zack and Miri weed sessions, he came up with a story idea based on Warren Zevon's ode to hockey, "Hit Somebody!", on which he'll collaborate with sports columnist and Tuesdays With Morrie author Mitch Albom, who co-wrote the song with Zevon. Smith is also searching for financing for Red State, which he's touting as a horror flick loosely inspired by religious extremism.
But his mouth has recently overshadowed his filmmaking. When I talked to him last week, he had just spent days online, explaining why he was unfairly deemed, in his words, "too fat to fly," and subsequently kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight. For days, his predicament (along with his unique way of dealing with it) was all over the media landscape, from CNN to Entertainment Tonight. He was even invited to share the desk with Larry King but shot down the offer. "I think I have more followers on Twitter than Larry King has viewers. And visually, I'm sitting next to one of the thinnest men on the planet."
Smith admits that what happened with Zack and Miri felt worse than a major corporation calling him fat. In fact, his weight is just one of the tamer tidbits he shares with his fans on Twitter. In a day's worth of tweets, he can segue seamlessly, from oversharing details of his sex life and talking hockey to answering whatever random question is thrown at him. But with all the controversy that seems to bubble when Smith says something, I ask him if life would be easier if he weren't so accessible to his audience.
"So much of who I am is being who I am," he explains. "I've been communicating with the audience since Mallrats. We've been in this long conversation for 15 years; it's impossible to stop. If I stopped that, I would stop everything else — they are all connected."