Say it ain't so, Silent Bob!

Times Staff Writer

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 fiancee, 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, "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 1/2-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 1/2-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

If the cult is looking to blame someone for these predicaments, it could start with another Jennifer: Jennifer Schwalbach. She was a 27-year-old USA Today reporter assigned to interview Smith in 1998 as he was beginning to film "Dogma," his effort to come to grips with eight years of Catholic school and the contradictions of his faith. (Plot: Two fallen angels, played by Affleck and Matt Damon, try to return to heaven through a scheme that would inadvertently destroy the universe. Pitted against them is a linear descendant of Jesus, played by Linda Fiorentino.) Within a year they were married, and two months later Harley Quinn was born. A few months after that, Smith had an idle fantasy that occurs to most every new dad (to reveal it would spoil the story) and began writing the script that became "Jersey Girl."

Within the next year, Affleck, coming off the cartoonish "Pearl Harbor," told Smith he craved something more human in the mold of "Chasing Amy," in which he'd played a comic-book writer who fell for a lesbian (Smith's then-girlfriend, Joey Lauren Adams). Smith showed him 40 pages. Affleck signed on and eventually suggested Lopez, someone he'd met while shooting the yet-to-be-released mob comedy "Gigli," to play his wife.

Smith wanted to make "Jersey Girl" in 1999 right after "Dogma," but there was the Jay and Silent Bob problem. The duo -- neighborhood friend Jason Mewes as foulmouthed, id-dominated Jay and Smith as the taciturn Bob -- had been effective slacker characters in each of his movies. There was no room for them in "Jersey Girl," which, as Smith says, "stopped being 'a Kevin Smith movie' and became a 'Jen and Ben movie,' or a 'Bennifer movie,' as we call it now." Still, Smith wanted a sense of closure -- a way to acknowledge to the cult that without Jay and Silent Bob's presence in his earlier films, "Jersey Girl" never could have happened. So he made "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001), in which the two losers head from New Jersey to Hollywood to prevent a studio from corrupting a comic book based on their lives.

With that, Smith, wife and toddler headed East last August to shoot "Jersey Girl," using the Philadelphia suburb of Paulsboro, N.J., as a stand-in for Highlands, the town where Smith was raised as the middle-class son of a postal worker. By October, Paulsboro, a depressed riverfront hamlet, renamed a street Kevin Smith Way and presented him the key to the city. At the ceremony he was humble ("I'm glad the town felt the need to honor someone who doesn't deserve it") yet saw deeper possibilities ("If I could collect Boardwalk and Park Place, then I could have a monopoly").

The cult was able to keep close watch on all this because Smith recorded a diary on his Web site. It ranged from prideful gushing about the film ("Outside of marrying Schwalbach and being too lazy to rip open a prophylactic that apparently had Harley's name written all over it, though not necessarily in that order, it's the best thing I've ever done") to observations of craft ("If you're ever shooting a movie about two people falling in love, I can't urge you strongly enough to cast a pair of people who are actually falling in love").

One of the things new parents notice is how time speeds. "Between 16 and 28, I never noticed any difference in myself," Smith says, sprawled on a couch in his editing room. "I never thought about crossing 30 or crossing 40. And then here I was, on the threshold of 30, with a child. It's like having a clock in front of you, reminding you, and I never noticed until there was someone growing up in front of me."

It was barely a decade ago that Smith, who had dropped out of both a college creative writing program and film school, saw Richard Linklater's "Slacker" and thought: I could do that. He maxed out his credit cards and sold his comic-book collection, and three years later "Clerks," made in black-and-white for $27,000 in 21 nights at the Quick Stop where Smith clerked by day, was the hit of the Sundance Film Festival.

Three years after that, "Chasing Amy" won the Independent Spirit Award for best screenplay and grossed nearly 50 times its quarter-million-dollar budget for Miramax. That same year, Smith used his relationship with Miramax to get the Affleck-Damon script "Good Will Hunting" read and produced and used the then-unknown pair of actors in "Dogma," a film he'd written years before. "Clerks" was reborn as a comic-book series and short-lived ABC animated series. For the last year, Smith has been a fixture on "The Tonight Show," taping and narrating "Roadside Attractions," quirky Americana features.

"It works because he looks like what regular guys look like," says Jay Leno. "I find the most successful people in this business are people who make show-business money but live a normal life."

John Pierson, a longtime booster of independent filmmakers who helped get "Clerks" sold, says fans nervous about the mainstream trappings of "Jersey Girl" shouldn't worry about Smith too literally integrating his wife-and-kid experiences. "His magical gift, ever since and even in 'Clerks,' is to live it, observe it and then transform and transcend the actual experience," Pierson said. "Scatology aside, he started out with tremendous emotional maturity, yet it has continued to grow exponentially .... From 'Jersey Girl' forward, he will understand that he doesn't owe his fans anything except deeper, richer films -- that are still funny as hell."

No shortage of plans

Until now, there wasn't a moment during the making of one movie that Smith didn't have the next one planned. "It was an insurance policy, in case the movie we were doing then totally pooched." Finally, he's ready to take a deep breath. He might adapt Gregory McDonald's "Fletch Won," a prequel to the "Fletch" films that starred Chevy Chase. It would be a tribute to an author whose gift for dialogue and disdain for descriptive passages shaped Smith's writing style. (Best guess on the lead: Jason Lee, another Smith pal.) He's talking about a sci-fi project. He's talking about a couple of comic-book flicks. He's even talking about a vacation. After all, he just bought his first new car since the mid-'90s, a (cult members, don't read the rest of this sentence) Ford Expedition.

Some fans may cringe when Smith uses the word "heartfelt" to describe the kinds of movies he wants to make and watch. (" 'Jerry Maguire,' 'One True Thing,' 'Bridget Jones's Diary' -- I totally connected with those characters.") It's not that he hasn't made heartfelt films before. "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma" were praised by critics for reaching into deep-seated hopes and fears; they just operated on absurdist planes outside day-to-day life. Fatherhood has pulled Smith closer to the real world, where people do more than laugh.

"I'm in this place where a zillion movies have made me laugh," he says. "Now I want a movie to make me laugh and cry."



The undomesticated years

Writer-director-actor Kevin Smith rose to cult status with films that melded sex and absurdity -- themes his next movie, "Jersey Girl," dampens in favor of the struggles of a 30-ish father. Some of his previous efforts:

"Clerks" (1994): A relatively plotless but clever low-budget debut that probed the lives of two young convenience store clerks. It took in $2.8 million and earned Smith an agent and a distribution deal. Smith's pals Brian O'Halloran, left, and Jeff Anderson played the leads.

"Chasing Amy" (1997): Smith explored relationships through a complex love story: the doomed belief of a comic-book writer (Ben Affleck) that he can make a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams) fall in love with him. His discovery of her wild heterosexual past drives the writer away.

"Dogma" (1999): A nagging question of faith -- could his Catholic dogma be taken literally? -- pushed Smith to write a story in which good and evil clashed. Affleck and Matt Damon shot the movie before the release of their "Good Will Hunting," portraying two misguided angels.

"Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001): Smith dedicated an entire movie to the two slacker figures -- played by himself and Jason Mewes -- who had provided comic relief in each of his previous movies. There would be no room for them in the real-world climate of "Jersey Girl."

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