It’s fair to say that Kevin Smith is no longer one of the buzz names in Hollywood. Don’t get upset, Smith fans — the man himself said it during the interview for this feature. In the ‘90s, in the wake of the surprise no-budget indie hit Clerks, the critically panned but cult fave Mallrats and the left field rom-com Chasing Amy (all just three years apart, between 1994-97, by the way), the world was waiting with bated breath to see what Smith was going to do next. His “View Askewniverse” was in full flight.
Dogma (1999) took his grounded world in a religion-fueled, fantastical direction that left critics and fans split and maybe a touch confused, but the movie was still super-funny and sharp so they generally let it slide. Jay & Silent Bob Strikes Back (2001) fleshed out Smith and longtime friend Jason Mewes’ scene-stealing side characters, and then Clerks II (2006) allowed us to catch up with Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) — something we didn’t necessarily know we wanted to do until we did it.
But that’s where things go wonky. Smith’s next movie was the one which he thought would yank him up to the next level, 2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, starring Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks. Despite decent reviews, and the fact that it’s a genuinely funny film, it performed modestly at the box office considering the acting talent involved. It got worse in 2010 when his Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan buddy cop comedy Cop Out was universally panned. On-set tension with Willis contributed to a generally unpleasant experience.
So Smith turned to horror (while returning to religious themes) in 2011 with the unsettling “cult movie about a cult,” Red State. The critics were divided (pretty typical for a Smith movie), but the film placed Smith firmly back in the underground and was, to these eyes, a success. He stuck with horror for the first of what he’s calling his “True North Trilogy” — Tusk. That film saw Justin Long kept prisoner by a raving lunatic who, through some ill-advised surgery, transformed him into a grotesque walrus-man-creature. The critics thought Smith had lost it, but as body modification horror movies go, it’s a fun watch.
Then came Yoga Hosers. The second, and most recent, True North movie saw his daughter Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose (daughter of Johnny Depp) fighting Nazi hot-dogs. It was roundly hated, with the general consensus being that now Smith had lost his mind completely. In the cold light of day, after some time has passed, it’s not without its charm. Dogma had a shit-demon, after all (The Golgothan). Put that in a Clerks setting, and we’re on a similar path. But anyway, before completing his True North trilogy, after all the Yoga Hosers hate, Smith would need a palate cleanser, and that led him to start thinking about the View Askewniverse again.
“It had started with wanting to do a Clerks III, and not being able to because one of the cast didn’t want to do it,” he says, referring to Jeff “Randal” Anderson. “Then Universal wasn’t interested in Mallrats 2, but the only reason I started that was because my agent was all like, ‘You can make this under any circumstances.’ That turned out not to be the case. I realized that with Jay and Silent Bob, I own these characters. We could do a movie with them without asking anybody. But it had been a while. Clerks 2 was probably the last time I had played with those characters, and Jason and I had been touring at that point for close to eight years doing Jay & Silent Bob Get Old as a live show and podcast, selling out theaters and stuff. For me, I was like, ‘wow there is an audience.’ For years, Jason was like, ‘We should do another Jay and Silent Bob movie.’ I was always like, ‘I’m shocked we did one.’ We got away with one and that’s enough, when you think about it.”
Talking to Smith at length for this interview, watching his TV shows, listening to his podcasts, etc, it’s clear that he likes the self-deprecating humor. He has an ego like everyone else, but he hides it under jokes that are heaped with modesty, and are also probably a means of self-protection after a few years of critical pummelings. Smith knows his limits as a writer and director, and at this point he knows where to find his still loyal audience. Those people might watch Red State and Tusk, but they’ll definitely watch a Jay and Silent Bob movie. And if Smith needed any more convincing, he only had to watch his clean and sober friend Mewes, now a dad.
“Seeing him be a dad for the last four years, that was the real turning point factor,” Smith says. “Because the movie’s about him finding out he’s got a kid. Jason Mewes is the guy, our whole lives, least likely to be a good dad. It just wasn’t on the cards. If you thought about him rearing a child, you’d be like, ‘No! Not him!’ You would never put him in charge of another human being’s life. And then he had his kid, Logan, and it turns out Mewes is a spectacular father. It’s what he was born to do. I used to think he was born to play Jay, because it’s all that he can really do in this world. But it turns out, he was born to be Logan’s parent.”
Smith has said many times (and he reiterated it to us) that he cast Mewes in the first Clerks because he wanted to see if people outside of Jersey would find his friend as funny as he did. For a long time at least, Jay and Jason were pretty much the same person. Speaking to Mewes on the phone, the 45-year-old father to a child of four is still a relentless bundle of energy — charming and hilarious. All of the things we love about Jay are still there in abundance. But he’s also clearly grown up.
His battles with drugs have been publicized, and he hasn’t been shy speaking about them on tour and in podcasts. Indeed, Smith has said that he incentivized Mewes’ sobriety by keeping Jay & Silent Bob movies on the table. He’s now been sober since 2010.
“Everything fed off the movies,” Mewes says. “The reason I’m able to do stand-up is because of the movies. The reason I can stream is because of the movies. Really back in the day, it really was like ‘wow, if I mess up Kevin’s not going to put me in a movie. What am I going to do?’ I haven’t worked a regular 9-5 job in so many years. I don’t even know what I would do with myself. When I’m working, it keeps me busy and distracted, which helps me stay sober. It gives me something to look forward to. The Jay & Silent Bob Get Old tour was a big help for me in the beginning of my sobriety because we were going from city to city, anywhere from 500 to 2,000 people. I had a couple of dreams back in the day when I would wake up and I was drinking in my dreams. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I have a show tonight and I have to tell everyone I have one day sober now. They’re going to be so disappointed with me and they’re going to boo me. Not to mention Kevin being disappointed in me, and my wife.’ I’m just saying, that was such a big help.”
With Clerks III and Mallrats 2 off the table, at least for now, Smith needed to rethink his next move. But in 2018, after performing stand-up in Glendale, he had a massive heart attack.
“I was laying on the table and the doctor was like, ‘You have 100 percent occlusion in your LAD’ [a blockage of the left anterior descending artery],” Smith says. “That’s a widowmaker. He said it’s the type of heart attack with full blockage that in 80 percent of the cases, the patient dies. But he said, ‘You’re going to be in the 20 percent because I’m good at my job.’ I was processing it, going like ‘Well, I had a great life, I was happily married and got a great kid, I was loved by my parents and shit. Great brother and sister, great friends. Couldn’t really bitch. Suddenly I felt this sense of calm and peace. If this is it, it sucks that it’s coming this early but things went well. The only regret that I had was, ‘Oh man, we never got to make Jay & Silent Bob Reboot which was going to be heading back into that toy box that got us here in the first place. If I do die tonight, the last movie I ever made was Yoga Hosers. That’s no way to go out.’”
And so, just like that, the next View Askewniverse movie, which turned out to be Jay & Silent Bob Reboot, took on extra significance. With his mortality served up to him on a plate with blunt force, Smith wanted to make a film that summarized, or encapsulated, his entire career while doing justice to the many beloved characters that he’s created over the years.
“This is strike one and next time it takes me out,” Smith says, pragmatically. “Back in the day, when you were an apprentice and served under a master, you’d eventually present your ‘masterpiece’ to show them what you’ve learned under them. OK, 25 years after Clerks, I’ve been doing this shit a quarter of a century, let me present my masterpiece. This is how I see the story of my movie career, my life, everything I’ve done professionally, put through the prism of these two characters that I’m so closely identified with. Everything I have is because of Jay and Silent Bob, more or less. So it felt like the decent thing to do is let them grow up. This is a movie where the Jay character gets to still be Jay, but grow up like the creators grew up. I’m happy with what we did because now if I have a heart attack and I’m on the table, I’m like, if that’s the last I made that’s fine. It took on this different meaning altogether.”
So that’s how Jay & Silent Bob got made. As we said at the start of this piece, Smith’s star isn’t burning as hot as it was in the ‘90s or even the 2000s, but the heart attack gave him license to “guilt” (his word) some old friends into appearing in the movie, despite the fact that he shot it in New Orleans.
“You’d call a motherfucker up and say, ‘Hey, you wanna come down and do Jay & Silent Bob?” Smith says. “They’re like, “wait a second, it’s New Orleans, it’s really far.’ And I’d be like, ‘You do realize I almost died, right?’ They’d be like, ‘Alright I’m fucking coming.’ So we guilted most of the cast into making the trip down. But also, we were shooting in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and never underestimate the draw of a free trip to Mardi Gras. So we wound up having 44 cast cards at the end of the movie.”
He’s not kidding. View Askew players such as Jason Lee, Brian O’Halloran, Rosario Dawson, Diedrich Bader, Justin Long, Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth and Matt Damon return, and we also get Fred Armisen, Melissa “Supergirl” Benoist, Val Kilmer, Chris Hemsworth, Molly Shannon, Redman, Method Man, and so many more. Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams even return to reprise their Chasing Amy roles. That movie, which has seen Smith take some criticism over the years, is about a guy who falls in love with a gay woman and can’t come to terms with her sexual history. In Reboot, Adams’ character Alyssa Jones gets to jab at Smith for being a “cis white man.”
“I got to sequelize Chasing Amy in eight pages,” Smith says. “But I also got to touch on every criticism that I ever got. These aren’t things that were said when the movie came out, but as the movie ages and is viewed by a different generation, suddenly it’s put through a different prism. I’m used to reading online things like, ‘Why is this about this lame ass guy who can’t get over the fact that she’s had sex. That’s not interesting and she’s the hero.’ I love everything about that Chasing Amy scene. That was my big geek out moment. That scene didn’t exist when we started shooting the movie. We shot it on the last day, and we only knew we were going to be shooting it one week out from the end.”
It’s another example of how this movie healed Smith; he hadn’t spoken to Affleck for eight years, and now he feels like he got his friend back. Meanwhile, his daughter Harley Quinn Smith plays Milly (short for Millennium) Faulken, Jay’s long-lost daughter. She recently played one of the Manson kids in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and it’s obviously been a pleasure for Smith to watch her grow as an actress.
“First of all, Harley did all the work,” Smith says. “She didn’t want to go to college and that broke her mom’s heart. I didn’t want to be the parents from that movie that force their kid to go to college when she knows what she wants to do — she wants to act. For the whole first year after high school ended, she took Stella Adler classes. She had auditions and didn’t get shit. It was a year of rejection.”
Against the odds, she landed the role in Tarantino’s latest epic, surprising even her dad. She also recently put out an album, Dunes with her “bubblegum punk” band The Tenth.
“I definitely love to work and stay busy,” Harley Quinn Smith says. “The whole experience [with Tarantino] was crazy. It was a crazy audition — we had the choice to write a monologue. I spent a week preparing — watching every documentary and reading whatever I could. I didn’t get it and I was pretty bitter so I tried to let it go. Months later, I heard that he wanted me in the movie. I thought that ship had long sailed. It was a time of growth for me. I felt like I was back in school, because I was watching this master do his craft.”
“When she came to us on Reboot, she’d spent a month working with Quentin,” Kevin Smith adds. “She came to us an actress. Really acting. Day one with her, Jennifer [Schwalbach Smith, his wife] goes, ‘How did she do?’ I had to respond as a director: I thought she was great, but I think she’s in a completely different movie than the rest of us. We’re all making a comedy, this fucking kid thinks it’s serious. Three days in, I really fell deeply in love with her performance. But I’m a dad, and I also loved what she did in Yoga Hosers.”
That’s the main theme of Jay & Silent Bob Reboot — growing up. It’s about Mewes growing up and into the role of a real life father, and his character Jay being forced to do the same thing. It’s about Smith growing as a director after his heart attack, and reassessing his life and career. It’s about Harley Quinn Smith growing as an actress. Through all of the typical Jay and Bob goofy shit, the growth is tangible.
“I think that [Jay and Silent Bob] change, mature a little bit,” says Mewes. “Their relationship of course has not changed. They’re still hanging out, they try to change with the times. They bought the store, and now marijuana’s legal so they try to do a grow shop and stuff. But they grew up.”
“Jay has been a huge, huge part of my life,” adds Harley Quinn. “He lived in our house for a while, he’s our family, I love him with my whole heart. He has my name tattooed on his back. Playing his daughter was an absolute honor. I’ve watched his journey to fatherhood so to recreate that was really special. It was a sentimental experience for sure.”
The only question now is, will the View Askewniverse grow further after this movie? Will Smith and Mewes return to Clerks III or Mallrats 2?
“When we were starting it, I was like we can kick open the doors to the universe again,” Smith says. “But at the end of the movie, it really felt like we’re done for now. It feels OK where it is. However, our co-financiers on the movie are Universal. They asked what I want to do next. I was like, ‘Well, you guys have Mallrats and a couple of years ago I wanted to do Mallrats 2.’ They said, ‘Let’s figure it out, should be easy.’ Now, universes are in vogue and shit. Adam Goldberg [The Goldbergs] said it’s very much like my Avengers: Endgame, and I only get to do that because I have these deep characters going back years.”
Who knew that “Snooch to the motherfuckin’ nooch” could go so far?
Tickets for the October 15 release of Jay & Silent Bob Reboot are available at FathomEvents.com/Reboot.