There are some filmmakers who I like for their personality more than their films. Although he has made some great films and some of them are my personal favorites (and I will talk about them shortly), actor, writer, comedian and director Kevin Smith doesn’t compare to the man Kevin Smith. Every single time he does an interview, a podcast, a stand-up comedy special or one of his famous Q&A sessions, he is always saying something interesting. He gained fame as an indie film director and he owes his career to his films, but he now spends the majority of his career hanging out with his friends on projects like AMC’s reality series Comic Book Men and his YouTube show Fatman on Batman where he has talked all things nerdy with Hollywood jounalist Marc Bernardin since 2015.
Born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1970, Smith has always pursued doing things he loved at a young age but what’s amazing is that his pursuits have barely changed to this day. He would videotape school basketball games and edit them into comedy sketches. As a bonus, his comedy helped him in his social life.
The turning point in his life came at the age of 21 when he watched Richard Linklater’s film Slacker (1990), which set him down the filmmaking path, inspired by the fact that Linklater had shot the entire film in his hometown of Austin, Texas. For the first time, the possibility of being a director seemed real to Smith. He also drew inspiration from indie filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, and that is evident in his early films.
Smith actually attended Vancouver Film School, where he met future collaborators cinematographer Dave Klein and the co-founder of Kevin Smith’s film company View Askew, Scott Mosier, but he dropped out to save money for his first film. He was so determined to get it funded that he sold his comics and cast his own friends in major roles.
The film was called Clerks and it was shot in black and white. It was shot in New Jersey at the store where Smith worked in real life. Clerks follows a day in the life of convenience store clerk Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) who works at the video store next door. They both end up slacking off the whole afternoon but the day still ends up being quite eventful. The film also stars Marilyn Ghigliotti as Dante’s girlfriend Veronica, Lisa Spoonauer as Dante’s ex-girlfriend Caitlyn, and Kevin Smith himself stars with his real-life friend Jason Mewes as two drug dealers loitering outside the store named Jay and Silent Bob.
Smith first met Mewes while working at a youth center and their lifelong friendship grew out of their mutual interest in comics. Smith and Mewes have starred as Jay and Silent Bob several times following their appearance in Clerks, both appearing in six more of Smith’s films and even in television commercials and episodes of the TV series Degrassi: The Next Generation (Smith is a huge fan of the original Degrassi). Smith has a cinematic universe with his View Askew films that predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Jay and Silent Bob are like Nick Fury connecting each movie together. Smith’s fans refer to this universe as the ViewAskewniverse.
Clerks was praised at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes International Film Festival, eventually being bought and distributed by Miramax. Despite a limited release in 1994, the $230,000 film made a $3 million profit, so it was both a critical and a financial success for Kevin Smith and an influential film on the indie scene, which was booming in the nineties. Films like Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction were just a few of the ambitious film experiments of the late eighties and early nineties that paid off, and Kevin Smith was riding this wave.
A sequel called Clerks II came out in 2006 with Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Jay Mewes and Kevin Smith reprising their roles and introducing Rosario Dawson into the cast. The film was not as groundbreaking as the first film but it is still an enjoyable albeit highly raunchy comedy. Smith has recently announced that he is at work on Clerks III, which would round out his trilogy.
Clerks was so successful that Smith teamed up with SNL writer David Mandel (Seinfeld, Veep) to develop an animated TV adaptation of the film. Clerks: The Animated Series aired on ABC for only two episodes before being cancelled due to low ratings. However I’ve watched all six episodes of the series because they are available on DVD and they are hilarious. The show had a short run but it was a hidden gem that was more funny than I was expecting it to be.
Following Clerks, Smith directed Mallrats (1995) starring Jason Lee as a comic book artist in what was basically the mall version of Clerks. Most critics failed to give it the same love they gave Clerks.
He followed that with Chasing Amy (1997) starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams and Jason Lee. It told the story of a man trying to convince a woman who is attracted to other women to date him. The film received critical praise and many see it as Smith’s best film despite the touchy subject matter that continues to offend some lesbians.
Smith then directed religious satire Dogma (1999) starring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and other famous celebrities like Salma Hayek, Chris Rock, George Carlin and Alanis Morisette (who plays God). Not surprisingly, many churches protested the existence of this movie.
Next Smith decided to put the two supporting characters Jay and Silent Bob in their own film called Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001). It received mixed reviews but like most of Smith’s early films it was not without merit. Especially since Smith’s passion and creativity can be detected in even his most mediocre films. For example, one of the funniest moments in the film is when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon parody their own film Good Will Hunting.
All of the films Smith directed outside of the ViewAskewniverse have not been well-received. Jersey Girl (2004) starring Ben Affleck was seen as a sequel to the universally panned film Gigli due to the inclusion of Affleck’s then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez in the film. Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) was not as repellant as it sounds but the name of the film certainly made it difficult to advertise and it was Seth Rogen’s first ever box office bomb. Cop Out (2010) starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan in an action comedy was the first time Smith directed someone else’s script for a major Hollywood studio and after his experience making it, he vowed to never do it again.
I have usually agreed with critics on Kevin Smith’s films, until the release of the brilliant 2011 thriller Red State, which Kevin Smith distributed himself. Starring Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo and Genesis Rodriguez, it sets an eerie mood and hooks you from start to finish. It was the first straight drama that Smith directed and his most mature film. Plus it was a genuinely scary horror film, the first in what would be the next phase of a career that would focus on films that attempted to be more serious.
Following Red State was what is still my favorite Kevin Smith film to this day, the horror film Tusk (2014). I love it because it does exactly what horror films are supposed to do: it disturbed the hell out of me and haunted me to the core. It starred Michael Parks as a psychopath obsessed with a walrus from his past and Justin Long as a podcaster who is kidnapped by him and transformed into a walrus by the mad man. I don’t know why critics didn’t like it but it may have been too ridiculous for some. Although Smith clearly knows this and he is not afraid to revel in it, which I love because he clearly shows no fear diving into this crazy story. Most of my friends who watched it couldn’t stomach it, but I was fully immersed in it.
Smith followed that movie up with a spin-off about the two store clerks from Tusk played by Lily-Rose Depp and Harley Quinn Smith (Kevin Smith’s daughter) called Yoga Hosers (2016). A movie that had the potential to be a wacky and light-hearted counterpoint to Tusk but was instead amateurish and unfunny. I liked that Smith tried something original that no other filmmaker would think of, but it felt completely void of any reason to exist other than as an indulgence in Smith’s wild imagination. Goes to show just how unpredictable Smith is as a filmmaker. I never know how I’m going to feel about what he does. It could seriously go either way because Smith flies by the seat of his pants.
Next Kevin Smith directed Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019) which I have yet to see but I am looking forward to because it is the first Jay and Silent Bob film since Clerks II in 2006 and I have truly missed those characters and I’m looking forward to seeing where they are now, especially since Kevin Smith’s filmmaking has changed since his early years.
Other films and shows he has announced are in the works include the third in his horror trilogy Moose Jaws, horror comedy Killroy Was Here, Mallrats 2, TV adaptation of the comic Sam and Twitch for BBC America and a Hulu adaptation of Howard the Duck. Depending on funding, some of these projects may not see the light of day. It’s fun to fantasize though.
Smith has also directed episodes of some of my favorite shows, including the pilot for the supernatural comedy Reaper on The CW, and also The Flash, Supergirl and The Goldbergs.
I have also read a few comics written by Smith that were really good. Superheroes he has written for include Daredevil, Green Arrow, Spider-Man, Batman and The Green Hornet, which was based on his own idea for an unproduced Green Hornet film. He even owns his own comic book shop in Red Bank, New Jersey called Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash which is where he shot the show Comic Book Men.
And he has had major acting roles in Daredevil (2003) where he reunited with Ben Affleck, Catch and Release (2006) a rom-com starring Jennifer Garner, and Live Free or Die Hard (2007) where he played a hacker opposite Bruce Willis. He also acted in popular shows like Veronica Mars and The Big Bang Theory, and has voice roles in Phineas and Ferb, Duck Dodgers and a few animated DC movies where he made cameos.
It’s inspiring to see an ordinary comic book fan from New Jersey become a film director who has gotten to play in the sandbox of such huge franchises. Kind of gives hope for the rest of the geeks who aspire to great things. That’s actually why I like Smith so much. He still seems like an ordinary fanboy who geeks out about the latest Star Wars trailers and loves talking endlessly about Batman. He is the indie king but he is also the king of the nerds. Which means I have respect for him as a film historian and as a comic book geek.