The bearded, heavyset guy who walks into a darkened editing studio and starts shoving the two big couches back into alignment looks like Kevin Smith, the writer-actor-director-cult hero beloved for his vulgar, cockeyed yet sweetly human dissections of life through the eyes of the young and disaffected. There's the oversized Brooklyn baseball jersey he wears over a long-sleeved sweatshirt, the sneakers with gray socks, the baggy below-the-knees jean shorts, the Marlboro Ultra Lights, the cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, even the new make-it-yourself snack discovery he offers you, frozen peanut M&Ms.
But then Smith starts watching the assembled scenes from his new movie, "Jersey Girl," which wrapped shooting in New Jersey, Philly and Manhattan in November, and something seems weird. Amid his trademark rapid-fire-wisenheimer dialogue are scenes of pregnancy, childbirth, stinky diapers, school plays and harsh words between a father (Ben Affleck) and his 7-year-old daughter.
Smith, the creator of low-budget, high-wit films including "Clerks," "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma"-- ribald, outrageous comedies that probed the underside of dead-end work, gender wars and the Roman Catholic Church -- is making a movie with as many tears as laughs and a couple of moments that feel almost Capra-esque.
The film has its offbeat twists and wry air. (Only in a Kevin Smith script would somebody at a small-town meeting protest a public works project by warning, "If you tear up the street, Bay Avenue's gonna look like Bei-rut!") But what's unmistakable is that the same Central-Jersey suburban guy who may have inserted a certain four-syllable profanity into his work more than any other filmmaker in history has fallen in love, gotten married, had a baby, turned 30 and is making a comedic drama inspired by it.
Affleck, Smith's old pal who has appeared in the last five of Smith's six pictures, is paired with his real-life fianc? Jennifer Lopez. If that's not glossy enough, Miramax Films, which is bankrolling the picture, insisted on a more polished look than Smith's previous films and hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.
When Smith reacts to Zsigmond's presence by posting a shot of them together on his Web site that refers to "Visually Challenged Director Kevin Smith," his cult understands he is mocking his penchant for telling a story through conversation rather than action. When Smith, during one of his periodic campus Q-and-A sessions, volunteers to telephone the boss of a student who got fired from his pizza-delivery job for coming tonight, the cult understands he is not show-boating. It knows that Smith, a self-described prisoner of Catholic guilt, will whip out his cell phone and follow through in his customary deadpan delivery. The cult loves him because he is the fat kid from the neighborhood of Nowhere who made it on straight-up talent without compromising, who'll never sell out.
And yet, as he edits "Jersey Girl" for release this summer or fall, Smith is conscious that his evolution as a filmmaker and a man is certain to alienate some cult members who revel in the perpetual adolescence his films have often celebrated.
"Every day I work on this, the more I encourage myself to get ready for the backlash," he says during a break in editing on the Lot off Santa Monica Boulevard. He knows some fans regard the presence of J. Lo as a perverse celebrity invasion; he's already bade them goodbye on his voluminous, good-natured Web site, http://www.viewaskew.com. "A good number of the folks who've loved our previous flicks will probably abandon us after seeing 'Jersey Girl,' " he typed in mid-December. "I'll save you the time of having to post this on our Web-board and let you know that I understand you feel I'm a ... 'sell-out,' I've 'lost it' (whatever 'it' was)."
Emotional bond to the film
What the cult can't see is a director who, at 32 with a 3?-year-old daughter and a three-story house in the Hollywood Hills, is finding himself emotionally drawn to a movie in ways he never felt before. No matter how many times he edits this one, he says, he winds up rooting for Affleck's character, a self-centered public relations executive overwhelmed by fatherhood. "I've become one of these dudes who talks back to the screen," he says with amusement. "I'm saying, 'I hope the dude makes the right choice.' "
There's one scene in which father and daughter exchange a certain, knowing look while dad is addressing that town meeting. Something about it, said Smith, brought him to tears during one all-night editing session. A lot of artists could tell you that. But what friends love about Smith, and what the cult has always sensed, is a self-deprecating genuineness that compels him to add a few minutes later to a reporter he barely knows: "The bitch about this film is that you're making a movie about being the perfect father, and you're doing this all night and not spending any time with the kid."
Hollywood can be tough on directors who are suspected of trying to break out of their mold. Smith already suffered this once, when his second film, "Mallrats" (1995), a more conventional albeit sex-obsessed comedy about youths in a mall during a weekend, flopped at the box office, earning back a fraction of its $5.8-million budget. (The film's only "name" actress, TV star Shannen Doherty, struggled with Smith's high-velocity patter.) When it came time to make his next film, "Chasing Amy," Smith fended off Miramax's offer to spend more on well-known actors, instead casting Affleck and several other pals on a $250,000 budget. ("They said, 'Kevin, it's not about making a movie with your friends,' " he told a college audience. "I said, 'Really? Because that's been the whole point of my career.' ") Today the stakes are far higher: Miramax is spending $35 million to make "Jersey Girl," $10 million alone for Affleck's salary.
One afternoon in December, Smith was writhing over the first measured length of "Jersey Girl": two hours, 32 minutes, not counting another four-minute scene to be shot in early January. During shooting, he'd figured it would come in at two hours and 20 minutes and that he and his longtime producer Scott Mosier, a friend since film school, would trim it to two hours.
He had one target for cutting in mind: an easily dispensable 6?-minute bedroom scene between Affleck and Lopez during her character's pregnancy, in which she keeps waking him up to murmur sweet nothings like, "This baby is the only way I can express how much I love you" and "I think you're gonna be an excellent father" and "I can't do it all myself; there're gonna be days when you have to take her to work...."
But there was a problem. The day before, he'd shown the film to a couple of his wife's girlfriends, and they loved that scene -- just the things a woman would say near childbirth and that a husband would slumber through, they said.
Imagine: Kevin Smith, who once wrote a scene for "Clerks" in which a young woman matter-of-factly told her boyfriend she had previously performed oral sex on 37 men, now worrying about the female demographic.
He and Mosier devised a rationalization to offer Miramax in defense of a longer-than-expected two-hour, 15-minute film: "'Jerry Maguire' was two hours and 18 minutes." Smith had gone through this before with Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, who is notorious for finding trims where his directors can't or won't. Smith knew he'd have problems selling two hours and 15 minutes. There were montages that could be sliced, but that would make his already talky style seem verbose. "This will be the hardest movie we've ever had to cut," he said. "It's easy on a comedy. You just cut what's not funny. That's the big difference." He worked through the holidays, spending several days on each scene, and by last week he'd whittled the movie down to about two hours and 10 minutes.
Interview changes everything