Kevin Smith’s legendary film Clerks hit theaters 20 years ago this month. Shot in black and white with a measly $27,000 budget, the film ended up being a critical success and launched Smith’s filmmaking career. He spent the next decade building a quirky and bizarre film universe that mixed his trademark brand of vulgar humor with surprisingly intense and personal stories; his movies were never box-office smashes, but they were cult hits that built him a loyal and passionate fanbase.
In more recent years, however, Smith’s output has slowed down and started to dry up. He tried his hand at some more conventional Hollywood movies (Zack and Miri Make a Porno with Seth Rogen, Cop Out with Bruce Willis) with limited success and seemed far more interested in engaging with his audience through the internet via his now-huge podcast network. Films started to seem like an afterthought. Tusk, Smith’s "walrus movie," has changed all that.
"I just took what I lived and put it in the movies."
"Honestly, I flat-out stopped [making movies] and I wasn't intending to come back, except for Clerks 3," Smith told me over the phone. While Clerks and the films that followed them were often polarizing to critics, they were also films only Smith could have made, full of details pulled from his own life. "I'm not a creative person," he says, "I just took what I lived and put it in the movies. And at a certain point, you strip-mine what little real life you had."
Going down the list of his initial films, Smith points out all the personal connective tissue running through each: "Clerks exists because I was a clerk, and Mallrats because I hung out at the mall, and Chasing Amy because I had problems with a girlfriend's past, Dogma because I was an altar boy and in Catholic school for eight years." By the time he got to movies like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Smith realized he was making movies about making movies, simply because he didn’t have "a real life to draw on anymore."
That realization is what caused him to nearly give up on filmmaking altogether. "Look, the only way I know how to do this job is to do it personally," Smith says. "That's why when people were like ‘Clerks sucks!’ I’d get tight about it — you're not just talking about my movie, you're talking about my entire life, my friends, everything I feel." Compounding the problem is Smith’s current status as a fairly successful, happy, normal individual, content with his work, wife, and child. "A lot of people go ‘make another Chasing Amy!’ and I'm like ‘I can't,’" he notes with just the barest hint of frustration. "That [movie] came from a really bad place — a horrible place where I tried to get over shit. Now, I’m happy, and happy people don't make great art" — Smith pauses, arriving at his thesis statement — "but they can make weird art."
The experience of making 'Tusk' has reinvigorated Smith's movie career
Tusk — an incredibly bizarre horror-comedy film about, in Smith’s words, "a guy who turns a guy into a fucking walrus" — and its forthcoming follow-ups Yoga Hosers and Moose Jaws are perfect example of his current filmmaking philosophy — Smith is back in the moviemaking game purely on his own terms, and he’s clearly feeling reinvigorated. "Rather than be like ‘I’m not making movies anymore,’ I just decided after Tusk that the mantra was more about, ‘I'll only make movies that only I would bother to make,'" Smith declares, following it up by noting dryly that "nobody would ever try to make that walrus movie." And while Tusk was considered a box office flop, Smith says that the low budgets he now works with have let him make films with very little risk. Tusk even helped him find a financing partner who is helping Smith complete his bizarre, Canada-focused "True North" horror trilogy — and finally get Clerks 3 off the ground.
That movie should mark a return to the more personal stories Smith told in the first half of his career. It’s a Kevin Smith film, so it’ll surely have its share of oddities, but it sounds like Clerks 3 (which begins shooting in June) will draw more on Smith’s life than any movie he's made recently. "This is what happens to Dante and Randal in middle age," he explains. "It's very much a movie about like…" Smith’s voice trails off, then he sighs deeply before finishing his thought. "It’s about The End. Realizing that, you know, fuckin’... ‘We can do this!’ and youthful exuberance eventually goes away, and you're left with the real life."
'Clerks 3' will be about what happens when 'youthful exuberance eventually goes away and you're left with real life'
Rather than focusing on the hapless clerk Dante who dominated the first two Clerks films, Smith says Clerks 3 will focus more on the disgruntled but hilarious man-child Randal. "This dude does not know how to function in the real world and [he] winds up escaping in a way that's kind of similar to the way I escaped from life from time to time," Smith explains. "There's something about being online a lot that informs this movie."
He may say that he doesn’t have another Chasing Amy in him, but it appears Smith is ready to go back and strip-mine his personal life at least one more time for the sake of his oldest and most beloved characters. "I don't know man," he says slowly, "it's just a really nice swan song for Dante and Randal, and I dig it." That said, fans shouldn’t worry about Smith throwing aside the overly vulgar yet hilarious humor that has characterized his the previous Clerks films. "It’s gonna have this weird earnestness to it... but there’s also a shit-ton of fuckin’ laughs."