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Heroes at Large

Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

It is Day 25 on the set of Kevin Smith’s raunchy new comedy “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back"--the final chapter in the director’s self-described “New Jersey chronicles,” which began with his 1994 cult fave “Clerks.” Smith is seated in a director’s chair, his beefy frame planted firmly near a row of aging bungalows on the sprawling grounds of L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel, that impressive but faded dowager alongside Wilshire Boulevard.

Someone on the set yells, “Rolling!” and the bearded, 31-year-old filmmaker leans forward and studies the camera monitors as three scantily clad young women appear on a second-floor balcony. These are the anti-Charlie’s Angels--Sissy, Chrissy and Missy--and, boy, are they whooping it up. They’re slapping and shaking their booties, running their fingers through their long locks and guzzling champagne from bottles.

In this scene, the girls--played by Eliza Dushku, Ali Larter and Jennifer Schwalbach (Smith’s real-life wife)--are also hurling insults down to the deck below at a fourth member of their sexy she-gang, a bespectacled girl named Justice, played by Shannon Elizabeth of “American Pie” fame.

The gang has just pulled off a daring diamond heist, but Justice is feeling blue because in staging the burglary, they set up two likeable hitchhikers as fall guys--Jay and Silent Bob, played respectively as always by Jason Mewes and Smith.

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As Dushku takes a swig of the bubbly, she strikes a sexy pose and says saucily, “Sarah Lawrence girls. Go figure.” Chrissy and Missy burst out laughing, but not Justice, who is thinking about the boys and what they did to them.

Sissy angrily tells her, “You know, I don’t get you, Justice. You used to be all about this girl stuff--stealing, [sex], blowing [things] up. And now you’re like this little priss with a conscience. It’s really a

“We all have to grow up sometime,” Justice replies.

And even directors like Kevin Smith have to move on sometime.

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“Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” which opens Friday, is a movie that has been eagerly awaited by Smith’s fans ever since they busted a gut watching Jay and his taciturn sidekick, Silent Bob, standing outside the Quick Stop convenience store in Red Bank, N.J., in “Clerks.” Smith has promised to retire the characters after his new picture, although they will live on in comic book form and possibly a “Clerks” animated feature.

There was foul-mouthed Jay, yapping away nonstop about who knows what, while Silent Bob drew down on cigarette after cigarette, hardly saying two words. How did the press describe them? Oh, yeah. Just like C-3P0 and R2D2 in “Star Wars.” The comparison seemed to fit.

Jay and Silent Bob would surface as comic relief in Smith’s other films: “Mallrats” (1995), “Chasing Amy” (1997) and “Dogma” (1999).

Now, in this “final chapter” in the Jay and Silent Bob saga, the dynamic duo seeks revenge as the pair heads from New Jersey to Hollywood to find old friend Banky Edwards, who has sold them out by making a motion picture about “Bluntman and Chronic,” a pair of comic-book superheroes who were created by Ben Affleck and Jason Lee’s characters in “Chasing Amy” and were based on Jay and Silent Bob.

When they learn that Banky is going to make a movie, they are upset because people are bashing them on the Internet, and that, they believe, will inhibit their chances of getting sex, so they vow to sabotage the production.

Along the way, they meet up with an odd assortment of characters--some familiar from past Smith movies such as Affleck, Matt Damon and Alanis Morissette--and others making cameo appearances such as Chris Rock, George Carlin, Will Ferrell, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Jason Biggs, James Van Der Beek, Jon Stewart and Shannen Doherty. Even directors Wes Craven and Gus Van Sant get into the act, appearing as themselves.

Smith’s wife (whom he met when she came to interview him one day back when she was a reporter for USA Today), and their infant daughter, Harley Quinn, are also featured in the film, as is producer Scott Mosier, Smith’s longtime producing partner, friend and editor.

Rated R, the film is replete with crude language, sexually oriented humor and even a rap song about smoking weed. It is also a broad sendup of things Smith holds near and dear, like comic books, “Star Wars” and the pulsating music of Morris Day and the Time.

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Released by Dimension Films, the youth-oriented label within Miramax Films, the movie is directed straight at Smith’s core fans, who don’t blink at flatulence, the F-word and references to female sex organs.

But Smith’s films have always been too idiosyncratic to become blockbusters. “Clerks,” for all the buzz, made only $3.1 million; “Mallrats” a paltry $2.1 million. “Chasing Amy” did better, with $12 million, while “Dogma,” which starred Affleck and Damon, grossed $30.3 million.

However, while some R-rated youth comedies have had a tough go of it in recent months (witness “Tomcats,” which made only $13.5 million for Columbia Pictures), “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” has the potential to do better than any of Smith’s previous films, if for no other reason than it is packed with stars.

“Having made four movies, you’re always sitting there going, ‘I don’t know if anybody’s going to like this,”’ Smith says during a break in filming at the Ambassador Hotel. “But this movie feels like it might be a hit. I’m so loath to say that because I know they don’t like calling it so far out, but who would not like this movie? Parents and priests....” Watching Smith direct is a little like watching those rock heads that adorn Mt. Rushmore. His demeanor is so stoic that you imagine he wouldn’t flinch even if a 747 were to come plunging out of the sky. Even when the anti-Charlie’s Angels flub their lines, he doesn’t get flustered. He patiently waits for them to regain their composure and go on.

During a break in the action, Smith cracks, “The real secret [to directing] is that a director does almost nothing and everybody else is responsible.”

Character development? That’s “kind of up to the actors,” he says dryly.

“I was watching this documentary on Michael Mann, and everybody except Michael Mann, they’re all talking about how great Michael Mann is,” Smith recalls. “Michael will do 50 takes. Really. That’s great. No wonder I’m bad.”

When Jamie Anderson, the cinematographer on “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” walks up, Smith comments, “Jamie is the real director on this movie. He is the guy in the shadows you don’t see.... Visually, I’m kind of a poor storyteller, but this cat,” nodding at Anderson, “has elevated me to the point where people look at the movie and say, ‘He didn’t direct this.”’

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But while Smith seems uncomfortable patting himself on the back, cast members know who’s in charge--it’s the guy in the rumpled clothes, long hair and cap worn backward.

Says Shannon Elizabeth: “Kevin has got a pretty clear vision in his head of what he wants, and if you are not hitting it, he’ll either come and tell you what he wants or he’ll say, ‘Try it a different way,’ until he’s getting exactly line by line what he wants. “He definitely has his own style and is really fun to work with,” she adds. “A lot of directors take their jobs so seriously. He seems laid back with it all. He takes it seriously, but doesn’t take himself seriously. He’s just like a big kid.”

Says Will Ferrell, who plays a goofy federal wildlife officer in the movie: “It’s been probably the easiest-going set I’ve worked on to date and, in some regards, the most fun. It’s professional but, at the same time, really relaxed. Making movies is all about setting the right priorities. Some people tend to sweat the more insignificant stuff. Kevin doesn’t. Not at all.”

One of the things “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” does is poke fun at Hollywood, spoofing “Good Will Hunting,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Scream.” It even lampoons Miramax. When Jay asks someone how it came to be that Hollywood is making a movie about Bluntman and Chronic, he is told:

“After ‘X-Men’ hit at the box office, all the studios started buying up every comic property they could get their dirty little hands on. Miramax optioned Bluntman and Chronic.”

“Miramax?” Jay responds. “I thought they only made classy projects like ‘The Piano’ or ‘The Crying Game.”’

“Yeah, well, once they made ‘She’s All That,’ everything went to hell.”

After learning that the Bluntman and Chronic movie will begin filming in Hollywood in only three days, our heroes hit the road. During their journey, they free an orangutan from a research lab and are promptly pursued across country by Ferrell’s federal wildlife officer.

In one scene, Ferrell, wearing a Smokey Bear hat, joins Utah police in surrounding a diner where Jay and Silent Bob are holed up with the orangutan.

“I come in driving in a cloud of dust,” Ferrell says. “We think we got them surrounded, but they come out and they put a baseball cap on the orangutan. So I think it’s a gay couple with a child. I don’t want to be politically incorrect, so I release them.” Spend a day or two on the set of “Jay and Silent Bob,” and you get the distinct impression that either this is a work of comedic genius being born, or everyone has gone a little bit bonkers.

Take Mark Hamill.

Once, he was Luke Skywalker dueling Darth Vader with light sabers in George Lucas’ seminal science-fiction film “Star Wars.” Now the actor is walking around on a sound stage at CBS Studios in the San Fernando Valley wearing spiked, canary-yellow hair, a blue-and-yellow superhero outfit complete with cape, and garish makeup painted around his eyes. He is also fitted with a fake fist the size of Chewbacca’s head, and inserted in the fist is a light saber (well, it’s actually a white stick covered with tape, but when he’s on-screen, it will be transformed by computer graphics into a light saber).

For Mewes, this film has to represent the crowning achievement in an offbeat acting career that nobody could have predicted. Who would ever think the lanky, long-haired Mewes would ever be destined for a modicum of fame when Smith asked him to take an acting role in “Clerks?”

Mewes is puffing on a cigarette during a break, still wearing that silly looking Bluntman outfit. He looks tired and, in fact, has just woken from an impromptu nap on a floor mat inside the vast sound stage.

“When I did ‘Clerks,’ I was so nervous,” the 26-year-old actor recalls. “They used to buy me beer, and they’d get me drunk because I’d be so scared of people watching me and stuff. I didn’t take acting school. I didn’t even want to act. I was roofing. Then Kevin said, ‘I wrote a character for you in my movie.’ A month later, he says, ‘Here’s the script’ and ‘We start in two weeks.’ I said, ‘Cool.”’

Mewes, who still lives in New Jersey, said he’s no longer the same guy he was when he began making movies.

“Back in ‘Clerks,’ that is how I was then when I was that age,” he says. “Not anymore. I’m not that obnoxious. I curse ... [but] I don’t smoke pot every day. Now, I’m mellowed out.”

Smith said one of the great things about his new comedy is that it’s just fun.

After “Dogma,” he says, “it’s kind of nice to do a movie where you’re not trying to say anything, and if you’re offending people, it’s because they are easily offended, not because they feel you’ve violated their philosophical or spiritual beliefs.”

“Dogma,” an irreverent comic fantasy featuring outcast angels, Lucifer and God in modern America, drew the wrath of the Catholic League, which branded the film anti-Catholic. The league launched a protest against the Walt Disney Co., which had intended to release the film through its Miramax Films label, but the protest prompted Miramax to sell off domestic rights to Lions Gate Films.

Smith can’t forget those dark times.

“We got death threats--over 10,000 pieces of hate mail,” the director recalls. “We had to stop opening our mail at a certain point. They gave us bodyguards [at the Cannes Film Festival]. It was creepy.

“There was that one piece of mail I will never forget,” he continues. “It was addressed more to Bob and Harvey [Weinstein, co-chairmen of Miramax Films]. They took a lot of heat. Me, I’m Catholic, so I kept saying, ‘Look, I’m Catholic.’ So, they didn’t go after me as much as Bob and Harvey for being Jewish. They tried to tie them into a Jewish conspiracy against Catholics. There was a piece of mail we received that said, ‘You Jews better take that money you stole from us and start investing in flak jackets because we’re coming in with shotguns.”

Smith adds, “Oddly enough, I have never pursued controversial subject matter. I just want to make flicks that I find interesting, like stuff I would want to see. Sometimes we get tagged for it. Like ‘Clerks.’ Never in a million years did I think someone would be like, ‘This is too foul. This deserves an NC-17 [rating].”’

Smith added that “Chasing Amy,” a movie about a straight male comic-book artist who is smitten by a lesbian, is also not about the gay community.

“It’s more about relationships or how people function in any relationship, gay or straight,” Smith said.

But even “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” has created a storm in recent weeks. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation sent him a letter charging that the film made stereotypical jokes at the expense of homosexuals.

Smith countered that the jokes in his new film were meant to satirize today’s young male culture and noted that he was a big supporter of the gay community.

“Gay or straight has never been a big issue with me,” he wrote back. “Sex is sex, as far as I’m concerned. Some cats dig on the opposite gender, and some cats dig on their own.” He added, “Neither ‘Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back’ nor myself are homophobic.”

To show his continued support for gay causes, he sent a $10,000 check to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which seeks to educate the public about the dangers of homophobia.

Whether it’s GLAAD or conservative Catholic groups protesting Smith’s films, Smith does not shy away from controversy. Indeed, he is extremely savvy about marketing. How many directors have their own Web sites where they explain their movies, invite feedback from fans and hawk their own movie merchandise?

By logging on to Smith’s Web site, https://viewaskew.com, Internet surfers can read the director’s diary, compiled while making “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”

Some examples:

Posted on Feb. 11: “I put my wife on film for the first time, and in all honesty (and I’m not just saying this because she makes with the sex)

Or, posted on Feb. 18: “A good week all around, with the weirdest moment being watching my wife and the other girls clad merely in their undies, simulating sex. What a strange job.... Tonight, we’re having our ‘Mid-Way Party’ to celebrate 25 shooting days with no one having killed anyone else yet.”

Not only does the Web site give Smith a venue to hype his films, but the public can buy all kinds of merchandise. For instance, there’s a signed ‘Jay and Silent Bob’ poster that goes for $22; a copy of the screenplay for $10.95; a Buddy Christ Dashboard Statue from “Dogma” for $12.95; and a Banky hat that Jason Lee sports in ‘Chasing Amy’ for $19.95.

Smith’s ability to connect with today’s youth culture is a big reason that Miramax bankrolls his films, and that stars such as Affleck, Damon and others have been attracted to his edgy material.

“I think, like, part of what works in my favor and why I’ve been allowed to continue making flicks is because I just tend to write about stuff or make flicks about stuff that any person that is not a filmmaker, never thought about filmmaking, would if they were given a chance.

“If somebody walked up to some dude on the street, some dude working at the convenience store, some dude working at the mall, and said, ‘Here’s a bunch of money. Go make a movie,’ they’d probably make something like I made,” he continues. “It’s kind of a ‘He’s one of us’ thing that works in my favor.

“It also works against you in places like the Internet, where everyone fancies themselves a cineaste . They’re like [saying], ‘He’s lucky. He’s overrated. He’s a hack'--which I could never quite understand. I could see lucky and overrated, but a hack? I don’t get that. A hack is someone who is hired to do it for the money and has no tie to the material. The one thing I can always say about my flicks is, I have nothing but ties to it.

“But it works both ways. Some people embrace you because they feel like one of us made it inside and that is a great thing, and then it works against you because there are people that are just like, one of us made it in and this is the [stuff] he does?”


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