After his new movie “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” reaches theaters Friday, Kevin Smith plans to start counting his calories. Since his doctor called him morbidly obese, he’s giving up the all-you-can-eat lifestyle and taking a “health sabbatical” intended to shed extra pounds he packed on while filming the raunchy, Seth Rogen-starring romantic comedy in Pittsburgh last year.
“I’m going away for a while,” Smith said, puffing a menthol cigarette on the patio of his Hollywood Hills home, “to concentrate on myself. To save my life.”
At a time when Smith has been heavily promoting “Zack and Miri” -- perhaps the most commercially viable movie in his 15-year career as a multi-hyphenate actor-writer-director of crude comedies and art-house bromances -- the issue of his weight has remained front of mind. The director has been complaining about being fat in radio interviews and fretting about it on his blog much to the chagrin of Weinstein Co. publicists for the film, who have openly wished the director would “talk about something else.” Like, for instance, how closely in tone and casting the movie resembles something conjured up by comedy rainmaker Judd Apatow?
Adding insult to injury, Smith’s girth contributed to an embarrassing incident last week. “I broke a toilet. That’s how heavy I am,” said Smith. “I can’t take all the credit -- that was an old toilet and a very waterlogged wall -- but my size took that toilet down. I cannot cognitively reframe it and be like, ‘It wasn’t me -- it was the toilet.’ It was definitely me. And that’s a wake-up call!”
Early word is good
Sweating steadily but not quite profusely, enveloped in a long wool overcoat (in implicit homage to Silent Bob, his screen alter ego in several of his films) despite the 90 degree heat, the New Jersey-born auteur seemed both exhausted and keyed up. He’s immensely proud of the film, which earned a number of glowing reviews when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
It follows a couple of lifelong platonic pals sharing an apartment, Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), who devise to shoot and star in a porn film after they hit financial skids. Before you can say “stimulus package,” they enlist the help of a supporting troupe that includes characters played by Traci Lords, Craig Robinson (of NBC’s “The Office”) and Smith’s stalwart comedic cohort Jason Mewes. And somewhere in the midst of a blue streak of swear words, splattery toilet humor and gymnastic copulation scenes, romance blooms between Miri and Zack.
“The reviews have been good, and quite a few of them have focused on the flick’s box office prospects, which is definitely a first for me,” said Smith, whose movies, such as “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” regularly connect with a core constituency of pop-culture-loving fan boys but have yet to reap windfalls of money during their theatrical runs.
“What it says to me, though,” he continued, “is a bunch of people are saying, ‘This dude never makes any money. He might now. This might be the one.’ ”
Smith was less enthusiastic about addressing the stink of controversy that has clung to “Zack and Miri” since an early cut was slapped with an NC-17 rating (the edited version making its way to the screen arrives with what’s known in the industry as a “hard R”). As well, “Zack and Miri” billboards were banned in Philadelphia and Salt Lake City for their reference to “porno,” and newspapers across the country have refused to carry advertisements for the film. (The studio responded by printing posters that read: “Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks made a movie so outrageous that we can’t even tell you the title.”) “It’s ‘Dogma’ all over again, where people hear about this movie long before they see it,” Smith said, referring to his 1999 religious comedy starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon that similarly managed to push cultural hot buttons in advance of its release. “It also does that thing I can’t stand where it builds expectations.”
Except he wasn’t even remotely troubled by the idea of putting off viewers. Smith’s main fear was that the controversy would contribute to a sense he had over-promised and under-delivered in the raunch department. “If people keep hearing about an NC-17 and how some cities won’t let the billboard go up, they go into the theater with high expecations, man!” he exclaimed. “Sometimes that bar is too high to match. You may have people coming out saying, ‘That wasn’t as bad as people said it would be.’ I don’t want to be blamed for crying wolf!”
Godfather of a style
There is also a secondary consciousness about “Zack and Miri” -- an easily understandable misunderstanding -- that it’s in some fundamental way a Judd Apatow production.
In terms of potty-mouthed conversational dialogue, adult characters who behave like stunted adolescents and improvisational joie de vivre, the movie certainly resembles Apatow classics like “Superbad” or “Knocked Up.” Then there’s the casting. “Zack and Miri” stars Apatow’s go-to guy, Rogen, and enlists actors familiar to comedy lovers from having appeared in Apatow-produced films: Robinson (“Pineapple Express”), Banks (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) and Gerry Bednob (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”).
Turns out that Apatow considers Smith one of his primary influences. At a panel discussion at this year’s Comic-Con pop culture and comic-book convention in San Diego, when asked by an audience member what filmmakers inspired his career, Apatow said: “Kevin Smith laid the track.”
Likewise, writer-actor Rogen -- whose improv acting style and curse-word vocabulary defines the Apatow ouevre -- credits Smith’s 1994 Sundance hit “Clerks” with forming his filmic worldview.
“I’ve been a fan of Kevin’s since I was 13,” said Rogen, reached by phone on the set of Apatow’s dramedy “Funny People.” “I was hugely influenced by ‘Clerks.’ It was extremely real and conversation-based -- a lot like how our writing is now. It was how we talked but a way you almost never saw in movies: people having really filthy, frank conversations about porno or ‘Star Wars.’ I had never seen guys talking about ‘Star Wars’ in a movie!”
For his part, Smith is untroubled by the comparisons.
“It’s this weird, snake-eating-the-tail thing. If what I did early in my career opened a window for these cats, they kicked open a door for me with this movie. Judd found a way to do this really successfully. And it cleared my road for this. It made a type of comedy that is the only comedy I know how to make financially viable.”
In “Zack and Miri,” Robinson plays Delaney, Rogen’s character’s coffeehouse co-worker who ends up producing the titular porn film. The “Office” cast member compared and contrasted Apatow’s and Smith’s on-set demeanors.
“With Judd, it’s more holding your hand. He’s going, ‘Keep it real! Keep it real!’ ” Robinson said. “Kevin’s more laid back. He’ll watch you dance. He’s laid back in the chair just going, ‘Bee-yoo-tiful. Bee-yoo-tiful.’ The common denominator is that they both got the raunchy humor and that heart.”
A taste for success
Hours before Smith would catch a flight to screen “Zack and Miri” at the Chicago Film Festival, he again pondered its commercial prospects. “This is the first time my sensibilities and mainstream sensibilities have met,” he said, lighting his umpteenth cigarette. “Not in a perfect way. But better than I’ve ever met the mainstream before.”
But he wasn’t quite finished on the topic of his weight.
“The results of this movie will be interesting. Come opening weekend, if it does well, I’ll want to reward myself by eating more. And if the movie does poorly, I imagine I’ll want to self-medicate and eat more. Hollywood’s a hard town to be fat in!”
Lee is a Times staff writer.