Q&A with writer/director Kevin Smith

It's been more than a decade since writer/director Kevin Smith introduced his characters Dante and Randal. On the eve of the cult heroes' return to service industry hell, Smith participated in a brief roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., about the long-awaited sequel, Clerks II.

During the discussion, Smith admitted to being somewhat hesitant to revisit such beloved characters, afraid to ruin what he had established. Before starting production on the sequel, Smith watched the original and his fears subsided as he saw that the themes and characters remained consistent. He was surprised to find that his cast still held reservations, most specifically Jeff Anderson (Randal), who nearly drove past the exit for the set on the second day of shooting, afraid the film was a bad idea. A day later, Smith showed the cast and crew some cut scenes of what they'd been shooting, and everyone, including Anderson, was on board.

Smith had decided to make Clerks II after leaving The Green Hornet, a big budget update of the classic character. On that project, Smith was concerned about the amount of money at stake, the licensors who had production designs for things he hadn't yet created, and the pressure of handling an entire franchise. So, he amicably departed to answer the call of Clerks II.

Metromix: In Clerks II, you return to Dante as a character pursuing what he's been told he wants in life as opposed to what is right for him, which seems to reflect your returning to this type of film. Was this a conscious representation?

Kevin Smith: You know, it kind of represents that. It also just represents, 'Here's money. Go make a movie.' It's not the purest place from which to work, because when somebody hands you a check to finance your flick, suddenly you realize that what's behind that check is expectation. I love when we make flicks and there's no expectation, and I haven't really had that experience but one and a half times. The first time, where nobody knew about it, so there was no expectation. I wrote the check myself. Well, the credit card company wrote the check for me. Then, with Chasing Amy, there was a little bit of coming off of Mallrats. Most people said, 'He's done. He's finished.'

The $250,000 budget was not an insane vote of confidence. We were going for a $3,000,000 budget, but since we weren't using famous people, so to speak, they said, 'We're not going to finance it.' I was like, 'Well, give us $200,000, we'll go off and make it. If you like it, you can keep it. If not, give it to us, we'll sell it to somebody else.' Harvey [Weinstein, then at Miramax] gave us $250,000 so we could pay our actors. Sold. So there was no expectation there, or limited expectation. If it worked, they had something they could put on video, at least.

Following Jersey Girl, I felt like there was no expectation, or again very limited expectation. People were just like, 'That's it, he's done ... again.' And I kind of dig that. I hate going through the experience of a movie not living up to its potential. That kind of sucks. A movie tanking, that sucks, because it hurts. The box office is one thing, because I know we always do well on DVD, so financially we'll be okay. But I read all of those f-----g reviews. When somebody pans the movie in a big, bad way, it's a rejection of your ideas and who you are. I think it would be easier if I was just a director, and not a writer/director, because then at the end of the day I could say, 'yeah that writer, what an idiot.' But now I can't do that. Now, when somebody pans my movie, it's just 'F--k, they don't like me, and what I stand for, what I think.' Stuff like that. It's kind of a weird scenario.

I don't know if other people take it like that, if other writer/directors take it as hard, because I never hear them bitching about it that much. Then again, I don't sit around in an enclave with a bunch of writer/directors. ... So, it felt like I was in a place to not so much go back to square one, but do something where there is limited expectation. Then, stupidly, I chose to do Clerks II, which then comes with built-in expectation. People will say, 'I liked the first one,' so it better be as good as the first one, or else what was the point? But at the same time, I don't know. I was in a little vacuum making flicks, so I didn't give it as much thought as some people on the Net did.

I also knew I had the benefit of knowing what the movie's about. When people first read about it, there were three different -- well, two different -- reactions. One was like, 'That's great! I can't wait to see more Dante and Randal, but that title sucks,' because at the time it was Passion of the Clerks. Then the other camp was, 'What a f-----g stupid idea. He's retrenching, he's scared, he's f-----g just going back to the familiar.' And for those cats I never took it that personally because I thought, 'Wow, I guess it would appear that way from the outside,' and maybe it is that to a degree, but I knew what the movie was, and they didn't. Now, when they see it, if they still maintain that, then it would f-----g hurt, because it wasn't that. It wasn't just simply me going, 'Well, s--t, we f----d up. Let's go back to what we do best.' It was me going, 'This is the only movie I can make right now. This is the one that's kind of speaking to me.'

So, um, I don't know. I guess it'll take some time and distance to figure out if it was truly ... me needing to go back to the basics or square one. I guess by virtue of the fact that it was Clerks II, you had no choice but to go back to the basics, so to speak. If we'd made the movie for 10, 15, 20 million bucks, it would be a different movie altogether. It was uncomfortable enough making a five million dollar sequel to a $28,000 movie. $27,575. That was us wanting to pay people to work. When I first pitched it to [Scott] Mosier [Smith's producing partner], I wanted to do it for $250,000, a Chasing Amy budget, and he said, 'Then you're going to do it alone, because I have no interest in producing a $250,000 movie. It sucks. You can't pay anybody. You're begging for favors. You're asking people to take two, three months out of their lives and work on something for nothing, when at the end of the day you and I know that we'll make money off it eventually, like off the back end. So why can't these people get paid up front?' I said he was right, and that's where the $5 million came in.

Did that answer the question?

Metromix: To a degree. Moving on to what's coming up next, Green Hornet is off the table, Ranger Danger is still in development ...

Kevin Smith: Yeah, I don't see myself getting into Ranger Danger for a little bit. I need to get a little more work under my belt before I try to tackle something like that.

Metromix: What sort of ideas do you have in development for the immediate future?

Kevin Smith: There's this comedy that I want to do -- hopefully in the winter -- that's somewhat fleshed out in my head, but I haven't sat down to write a script yet. It's a stand alone comedy, not set in the View Askewniverse. It's also not set in Jersey, which is a big step for me. I felt like it was time to step out of the state and see what it looks like in other parts of the world. By virtue of what the story is, I can't have it based near a large metropolitan city. It can't be East Coast, it can't be West Coast, it's got to be the middle of the country. I think it's going to be Minnesota. So that's what I'm kind of kicking around right now.

Patrick Storck has also freelanced for Kevin Smith's MoviePoopShoot.com.

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