The new film by Kevin Smith, “Tusk,” has its world premiere Saturday night as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. This is something of a surprise as Smith himself quite publicly declared he was quitting filmmaking during the release of his 2011 movie “Red State” following the high-profile speech he gave at the Sundance Film Festival that year which many interpreted as his double-middle-finger farewell salute to the movie world.
For a recent interview to talk “Tusk,” this reporter caught up with Smith at a former boys’ juvenile detention center just outside Los Angeles where he was shooting ”Yoga Hosers,” starring his teenage daughter Harley Quinn Smith and her school friend Lily-Rose Depp. (There's also a role for Depp’s father, an actor you may have heard of named Johnny.) If all goes according to plan, Smith will be leapfrogging work on three movies somewhat simultaneously over a yearlong period. There's more on the docket beyond that including “Clerks 3,” the second sequel to his breakthrough 1994 film.
After its Toronto premiere, “Tusk” is being released Sept. 19 by distributor A24. For a guy who quit filmmaking, Smith seems to be plenty busy working on his films.
“This is retirement, dude. This is quitting,” Smith said. “For years people said, don’t retire, just do what you want and I’d say I had nothing left to say.
“Then I realized, you don’t have to say you’re never going to make a movie again,” he continued, “just promise that you will only ever make a movie that only ever you would bother to make. If you do that, you’ll be pure the rest of your life."
“Tusk” is something of a departure for Smith, known for his heartfelt, foul-mouthed comedies, even as it is indeed hard to imagine that anyone else would make it. A gothic dark tale, the film opens with a cynical podcaster Wallace (Justin Long) lured to a remote Canadian home by a man (Michael Parks) offering free room and board in exchange for someone to listen to his stories.
Things take a turn as it is revealed the old man has a secret plan to surgically fuse the young man’s body with that of a walrus, creating a grotesque hybrid creature with which he will eventually lock into a battle to the death. In the meantime, Wallace's podcast partner (Haley Joel Osment) and girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) enlist investigator Guy LaPointe (an uproarious cameo credited to Guy LaPointe) to find him.
The film is a mix of body-horror, goofball humor and shaggy-dog digressions that builds to a finale which manages to be a psycho-tronic freak-out and worst-case-scenario sad.
Smith has since “Red State” pursued his interest in the burgeoning world of podcasting, overseeing a network of shows and going on the road for live events. It was from one of those podcasts – episode 259 on June 25, 2013 – that the seeds of "Tusk” were sown. Within six months of first telling the story, Smith had written a script and was shooting the film.
"This walrus movie is beyond stupid, but it’s the best movie I’ve ever made,” he said.
In the film’s end credits, Smith includes an excerpt from that initial podcast, and it’s him and his friend and partner Scott Mosier laughing their way through the story. It gives little hint of the dark, twisted tone of the film, transitioning somewhere along the way from a lark into a nightmare.
“It’s in the writing,” Smith said. “The version me and Scott did was funny, but that’s not a movie, it’s a bunch of elements that could be a movie. Since you’re already doing something wack-a-doo anyway, you can do anything. Make it a weird bouillabaisse, no movie has to be one thing. You think you know where it’s going, you don’t. Surprise me a little bit.”
At a key moment in the film, the pounding drums and marching band horns of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” kick in. (Honestly, try to say the title and not wind up with the song in your head.) Smith said he wrote the script while listening to the song, but had resigned himself to the fact that it might be too hard to license.
As it turned out, it was “not difficult, just expensive,” as Smith noted that at around $200,000 to use, the song “Tusk” was more than what effects wizard Robert Kurtzman had for making the actual "Tusk" walrus suit.
And so now following “Tusk,” Kevin Smith is busier than ever, writing his own rules, and giddily reenergized as an artist, storyteller and filmmaker.
“I’m a podcaster, first and foremost,” he said. “So I’m a podcaster who happened to make a movie.” And he says if he had encountered a company like A24 sooner – which is promoting the film in part by branded tie-ins with strains of medical marijuana – he never would have made that infamous kiss-off speech at Sundance.
However, he said he doesn't regret that spectacle, as “that was my favorite moment of my old career. Because you rarely get a chance to show yourself out. Most people show you out.”
Many assumed his self-imposed retirement from filmmaking would not last. In an interview before the Los Angeles premiere of “Red State” in the summer of 2011, Smith promised, he said for the 12th time, to pay $1 million if he made another movie. And he meant it, though now, he’s glad that “I was never clear on the currency.”
“A bunch of people said, ‘You said you were going to stop,’” Smith said. “Jennifer, my wife, was chief among them. My biggest fan and chief antagonist. She said, ‘I knew you weren’t done.’ I was done. That’s the only way we get here. You don’t bluff with something like that. I was done and out.
“I felt like by being in the mindset of I’m done, there was something poetic in finishing early and on your own terms. But I wasn’t right apparently. But I’ve been wrong about a lot.”
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus