Kevin Smith: From Clerks To Cannes And Back Again

“All right, calm down,” director Kevin Smith says to the crowd. “It’s been done already.”

Smith is talking to the crowd in a sold out Red Bank, New Jersey theatre who has just seen a sneak preview of his new film Clerks 2 and are giving him a standing ovation. What has “been done already” is the standing ovation he is receiving, with Smith referencing the highly publicized, eight-minute one he received at the Cannes Film Festival following the film’s world premier.

The New Jersey screening of Clerks 2 is the final film of the day long Vulgarthon event, a mini film festival occasionally thrown by Smith to highlight his films as well as the work of his friends (You can read more Vulgarthon coverage here and a review of Clerks II here).

It is only a few days since Clerks 2’s thunderous reception at Cannes and Smith seems to be still overwhelmed.

“The whole time I was there [at Cannes], I was just like ‘I want to go home,’” he tells the crowd. “Then you start reading about screenings that were getting booed and I was like ‘This was such a mistake.’ Because if they booed [director Sophia Coppola’s] Marie Antoinette, which is a movie about a French queen, they’re going to boo the [crap] out of this picture.”

The audience reaction was vocal, but turned out to be the opposite of what Smith expected, becoming one of the more publicized events of this year’s festival.

“Harvey [Weinstein, head of Clerks 2’s distributor Weinstein Pictures] had said to us, ‘I’ve been going to Cannes for twenty years and I have never seen a midnight show get an eight minute standing ovation At the end of a midnight movie, most people just clap and go home. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,’” Smith relates. “So people were going ‘Eight minute standing ovation, that’s phenomenal!’ And then a few minutes later, people were like ‘I’ve never seen a TEN minute standing ovation before!’ And at one point Harvey comes up to me and is like ‘Are you kidding me? A FIFTEEN minute standing ovation?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, it was eight minutes.’ If we had let him go, he’d be like ‘It was a FOUR HOUR standing ovation!’”

It was a far different experience for Smith from the first time he attended the international film festival.

“When we were in Cannes in `94 with Clerks there was nothing like that,” Smith states. “We had just gotten in to the film business. Our movie had just been bought at Sundance a few months prior. I had never even been out of the country before.”

The intervening twelve years have been interesting ones for the indie film director. Smith followed up his critical success to his small film of two convenience store register jockeys fighting off the boredom of their jobs with another raunchy comedy Mallrats (1995). While Mallrats didn’t set box office records or get the same critical praise, it would find a following on home video. The relationship comedy Chasing Amy (1997) earned much critical notice and boosted the careers of stars Ben Affleck and Jason Lee. His 1999 religious farce Dogma drew fire from conservative religious groups. In 2001, Smith delivered the raunchy comedy Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, which headlined the two slacker characters (portrayed by Jason Mewes and Smith) who had appeared in all his films, uniting them into a self-contained cinematic world.

Unfortunately, his first foray outside of his Viewaskewneverse (so named for his production company View Askew), the dramedy Jersey Girl, found Smith caught up in the backlash against the film’s stars’ – Affleck and Jennifer Lopez – previous film, the flop Gigli. Although he had previously stated he had closed the door on more films set in his world of slackers and register jockeys, Smith surprised many when he announced a return to his roots as a film maker with the Clerks 2 project last year.

Following up on the lives of Clerks’ Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) was something that Smith had in mind for a while.

“Originally, when I was thinking about the whole concept of Clerks 2, there were certain elements that were in place as far back as 1998 when I was finishing off Dogma,” Smith explains. “I knew how the movie would open; I knew how the movie would end. One of the things I was originally going to set the film at a boardwalk on the last day of summer. But it became impractical to shoot on a boardwalk. The go-cart scene is a remnant that’s been around as far back as the boardwalk idea.”

But the boardwalk idea was only one of several things that changed about the film from its inception to its completion. A change was made the movie’s original title, Clerks 2: The Passion Of The Clerks.

“I dropped the Passion Of The Clerks when the announcement that we were doing a Clerks sequel and the general consensus was ‘Yeah!’ for another Clerks story and ‘Boo!’ for the subtitle,” Smith states. “And as we were making the movie, I was like ‘This feels better than a joke title’. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back totally works because it is a joke title for a joke movie. But this flick, to me, is just too good for a throw away joke title.”

But first, in order to keep the simpler, streamlined title, Smith was going to have to convince Harvey Weinstein, an executive notorious for demanding and getting his way.

“The Weinstein Company was kind of like ‘We need another title, because Clerks 2 makes it sound like a sequel and people don’t go to sequels’ and I was like, ‘Not for nothing, but it IS a sequel.’” Smith relates. “’And didn’t you just release Scary Movie 4?’”

Even after the Weinstein Company suggested such subtitles as The Second Coming and Unwrapped, Smith remained adamant in keeping the title as it was.

“The rumor going around the internet was Clerks 2: Counter Terrorism,” Smith adds, laughing. “I think it’s funny, but they were like ‘You can’t use “terrorism” in a title.’

“There’s a reason it’s called Clerks 2– anybody who saw Clerks and is interested, will come see it. If you didn’t see Clerks, there’s probably not a very good chance that you’ll want to go see Clerks 2. No amount of subtitle trickery is going to change their mind. Unless it’s Clerks 2: We Will Give You Money, then of course you’ll see people going to be like ‘I’ve got to check this out…’”

Of course, returning to his roots meant returning to the suburban New Jersey convenience store where Smith worked as a register jockey by day while filming the first Clerks overnight when the store was closed. Smith has stayed in contact with the owners of the small strip of stores and has used the location again in both Chasing Amy and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.

“They’re great people and they’ve let us shoot there ever since the first movie,” Smith says. “But at the same time, they won’t close the store. They keep their priorities straight and their priorities say ‘[Screw] the Clerks boy, we sell milk.’ So we’ll be shooting during the day, I’ll call ‘Action!’ and we’re rolling through the scene and you pull back as some dude strolls across and says ‘Give me a Slim Jim.’”

Such things don’t seem to faze Smith; he certainly seems to be enjoying telling stories about the film’s production to the crowd. In fact, Smith has gone on record stating that he doesn’t wish to be responsible for the eight and nine digit budgets most Hollywood films seem to consume.

“We made the movie for five million bucks for a reason,” Smith states. “Five million bucks is a lot of money, especially compared to [the budget for] the first one. But when it comes to making movies, five million bucks is chump change, it’s the catering bill on most flicks. But, the movie’s done and paid for. They’ve already sold it in so many foreign territories that it’s already in profit. There’s no pressure to make money at the box office. For me, the money issue was taken care of, it was more about I want to tell a story and I want to tell it my way.”

While budgetary reasons may not have hindered Smith’s ability to tell the story he wanted to, some thing else might have- the film ratings board at the Motion Picture Association of America.

“We were sweating what the rating would be on the movie because we were afraid we would have to go hacking into the film,” says Smith. “But we wound up getting an ‘R’ without having to cut a single thing.”

An ‘R’ rating is a bit of a surprise as the ratings board has been known to deal harshly with foul language and sexual content. While there is very little depicted sex, it is certainly discussed.

“I’ve tussled with them so many times in the past,” Smith says of the ratings board. “We were given an NC-17 on Clerks and we went into the appeals process and got it overturned to an R without making a cut. On Jersey Girl they gave us an R rating, then we went into the appeals screening and got it overturned to a PG-13 without making any cuts. I think that maybe they were just ‘Why go down this road?’ I don’t know why they did it. I didn’t question it. I could care less. As long as they gave us an ‘R’, that means I don’t have to go in there and defend it.”

Avatar für Rich Drees
About Rich Drees 6997 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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