INTERVIEW: Kevin Smith, Part II
By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 23, 2009 5:00PM
We continue our chat with Kevin Smith. You can get up to speed with the first half of our interview if you haven't already read it.
CHICAGOIST: Now that you’re doing post-production on A Couple Of Dicks, and it's the first movie that you didn’t write, and that you don’t have Scott Moser at your side producing. You've been going this one totally alone for the first time. How is that going? Is it thrilling, is it scary?
KEVIN SMITH: It's interesting, for years I was like I could never do this without Scott by my side, but the first time I kinda stepped away to do something was the Reaper pilot, which I did for CW, but I directed it, didn’t write it. First time I directed something I didn’t write was a TV show, and I brought Dave Cline [as director of photography] who shot our first three and our last three flicks.
So me and Dave went off and did it without Scott and we had to work with brand new people, and basically we went into the production the way most people go into the production .. the way I've been running the show for years is just not normal, it's not bad, but it’s not average. Like I work with the same people, the same crew, the same keys, the same casts across the boards. And because you do that -- and I’ve been doing that for 15 years -- you’re just like O.K. everybody has their role and we all fall comfortably into those roles and the machine moves forward and blah blah blah. I just have to happen to be the on / off switch because I come up with the ideas and stuff.
But you get to a point where it’s just like I’ve been doing this for so long, and Scott is my enabler -- the notion of walking on to a set as long as I know Scott’s there I can walk onto any set, if he’s not there I don’t know if I can. And then one day I grew up and I found out I could do it without Scott. Because the longer you do something the more practiced you become at it, it’s now a trade, a vocation of mine. From being like this passion, or this thing that I wanted to do so badly, and continue doing for the last 15 years, it’s also just become my job. Like if they do the census again, I’m gonna have to write filmmaker as occupation because literally it’s my job.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate it or anything, I still feel passion for it, but you do anything long enough, you just become practiced at it, and a skilled practitioner and boom, it’s a vocation. So for me, I realize I can go out in the world and practice my trade any number of places without the same people all the time. I still work with the same people of course, but for me for years it was like “without these cats I can’t make it happen!” and these are the people, this is the whole reason. And I was right, in those moments; because without them, I’m just a guy alone going “wouldn’t it be great if a movie was like this?” But at the same time, any number of people could fill those roles. It doesn’t have to be the same people all the time.
That’s what I learned by doing Reaper and that’s what I learned by doing A Couple Of Dicks. A Couple Of Dicks I went into it with a New York crew, and I’ve never worked with a full New York crew for a whole production. I’ve worked with them for pickups. When we shot Clerks 2, we shot most of it out here in Los Angeles, a place called Buena Park, and then exteriors in Jersey for like 3 or 4 days at the end of the show [with a New York crew]. And it always felt weird, it always felt like a distance. They were lookin’ at you like, “Really? This is it? You’re the Clerks guy? I’m not impressed.” But that’s the New York attitude anyway. At least as viewed thru the prism as somebody raised in New Jersey.
So going into it, that happened on one or two occasions, like Jersey Girl we went to New York for a few days to shoot, and the crew is always a distance that wasn’t there with the other crews. Well, it turns out that’s just because when you spend 3, 4 months with one crew, and then spend 3 days with another, of course you’re not going to have the same level of closeness.
When I went to New York in March, April whatever it was, to work on A Couple Of Dicks -- and again it was like the Reaper situation -- it was just me and Dave, everyone else completely fresh, as you said, no Scott and that’s a biggie. At least the Reaper TV show, that was a TV show, it was a pilot, there’s a chance it’ll never be seen. This, you know, you got Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan, unless you really screw it up, chances are it’s going to see a theater. And without your can of spinach in your hand, what are you gonna do? And that’s when Scott turns into the fairy godmother, and is just like you know you could have gone home all along, you just had to tap your shoes together. And he’s kinda saying, you can do this without me, you know exactly how to do this. Dave will be there for comfort you’re going to be fine.
And I went off to do Reaper and I was fine, and I went off to do this one and I wound up being more than fine. Like I fell in love with the crew, and this is the first time like I was with the crew from the ground up, what wonderful people. Going into that situation where I left all my familiars behind and walked into a brand new world, that’s like starting a brand new school, I never had to do that as a child, never had to go into some new school and make that transfer , you’re the new kid. I spent my whole education with the same kids, so I had no practice making that move.
Going into this it was kind of frightening, and not in the way of like I thought I’d lose my life, but it’s a bit unnerving, a little awkward. Those folks, my cast and crew make it so; more the crew than the cast -- I mean the cast did too, but I was with the crew a lot longer because you do all the pre and whatnot. Oh my God, they all made it so comfortable for me; it was like I’d been working with them for my whole life. And it was such a great lesson in terms of I can do this job away from people I already know.
Here’s the thing about Scott, like I love Scott do death, but if I love Scott as much as I say, I’ve gotta stop making him the producer. Scott didn’t go to film school to be a producer. Scott has ideas. Scott wants to tell stories too and he put that all on the back burner while we built something. As he said, “I wanted to, but I wasn’t ready. Like I had the drive and the passion to do something, but I didn’t have the, I didn’t have what you have” -- this is Scott talking to me - “you’ve been writing since you were 11 years old dude, so you had 6,7, 8 years practice before you even hit film school. And then when we hit film school you were ready to hit the ground running, like you couldn’t stop Clerks from coming out of you, because you’d been practicing for so long.” He’s going, “So I wanted to do those things, but I didn’t have that thing that you have so I was happy to help you do your thing. But now, after 15 years, again, you do anything long enough, you just get good at it.” Scott’s ready to kind of do his thing.
Scott’s reached that point where he’s like I think I’m ready to go tell a story, and it’s not gonna be the way that I tell a story . Like, He wrote a script that is a completely, it’s 180 degrees away from what I do. He did the smartest thing in the world, he didn’t write a script about people sitting around talking about sex and Star Wars, he wrote an action script, totally fun and funny, but an action oriented script, and he doesn’t know if he’s going to direct it or not -- you know it’s weird when you think you know somebody, but you do know somebody -- I haven’t seen Scott write in 15 years, since way before Clerks. So he hands me this script that he writes and it’s this action script and it’s like wow, I’m seeing a new dimension of a guy that I thought I knew inside and out by this point.
At that point it’d be wrong to be like, “Scott, stand by me while I go direct,” because the honest truth is when I get on a set for the last like three, four movies in a row, It used to be like, “I don’t know what do you think?” and I’d be leaning Scott all the time. Now I talk to Dave, now I talk to the DP, because that makes more sense. The closest conversations the director should be having is with the DP, the guy who’s shooting the movie. So, I world lean on Scott less and talk to Dave or whoever my DP was more. Mosier’s job during the movie is that puts everything together in pre-, but during production, the job falls. Basically he takes the first period, I take the second period, and then together we take the third period. Like I write a script, but he spends all that time putting it all together. You know, this person’s gonna do this, we got this person to do this, here’s the budget, blah blah blah. He makes it happen.
Then we go into second period and that’s where I take over, and that’s when I'm directing, and making it all come together the way I saw it in my head when I was writing it. And then I'll include editing and post production, because my job, I feel ends when I'm done with my cut. And there are little things to do like the sound mix and stuff and stuff like that, pick music, but that’s easy. Putting the movie together, shaping it to, like, THIS is the story, for better or for worse, these 90 to 105 minutes represent all our hard work. And that’s where I feel like my jobs done, or at least that’s when I check out in my head and start thinking about the next thing, because then you hand the movie over to a bunch of artisans who move forward with their job, like the sound mixers and stuff like that.
So Scott, for the last few films, during production has basically sat around doing the crossword puzzle, and he gets bored. And it's not because he's lazy, it's the dude literally in production doesn’t have that much to do. I don’t, I'm not a director that requires a producer to put out a fire every five minutes, I'm not irrational, I'm very calm and visual and very mellow. And I'm the first person to like, if there’s the slightest bit of “This is gonna create a huge problem for the production or even a small problem for the production, or kill us time wise,” I'm not the guy who's like “WELL I'M THE DIRECTOR! DO AS I” ... I'm like well let’s kill it, fuck it. Let's find another way to do it. We don’t need it, I don’t know what I was thinking. You know what I'm saying?
So, I'm the guy who is very quick to be like let’s just let it ride a different way, we don’t have to kill ourselves over this. It's only a fucking movie. Now, sometimes that hurts the work, you know sometimes you look at a flick and be like, “Man I wish I'd tried harder instead of just caving” -- well not caving. I believe in compromise. I believe in collaboration, and I don’t believe in making anyone’s life miserable particularly when they’re helping you bring your dreams to life.
C: What’s an example of where that might have happened, where you might have compromised...
KEVIN SMITH: Let’s say we're working on; let’s pull something from the last one, A Couple of Dicks. I've got a shot list that we did way in pre-production. And so me and Dave sit around in a room imagining the movie, and you write it down, and you kind of draw it in your head and you have a storyboard artist come in and communicate that thought to a page so that you can communicate what you see in your head to other people. I've generally never had much need for storyboards because my movies been people sitting around talking to each other. But an action movie like A Couple of Dicks -- well it's not full action, but it has way more action than anything I've ever done -- so you tend to storyboard sequences so it's easier to shoot too. You put all these little pictures up on a board and basically it's like a story book that tells the story of that scene. And an image represents each shot that you’re in your head putting together for the scene.
So as you shoot, you pull these storyboards one by one off -- well we did that one, we did that one, we did that one -- and then when the board is empty, you have all the ingredients, all the components for your action sequence and that’s when you go to the editing room and it’s a puzzle: that goes here, this goes here, this fits here, this fits here.
But the best laid plans of mice and men it doesn’t matter what movie it is, me and Dave, or well, let’s just keep it me and Dave, me and Dave going in with a plan. You sit there for like a week, two weeks, in pre and you’re like, “Alright it'll be this we'll do this, we've got twelve set ups in this particular scene and blah blah blah.” Then you get to the location and invariably, I've found, you just throw it all away. Whether it's the shot list ... storyboards generally won’t change, but in terms of working a shot list, in your head, you’re like, “We could swing the camera around here and do this blah blah blah.” You get to a place and suddenly you’re like, “Oh there’s only two feet to move, and we got to get a bunch of crew in here O.K.” Well the grand scheme of this shot, either you sit there going, “Alright fuck it, I’m not shooting in this location, let’s find a location where I can do what I had in my head. Sorry I thought this location was gonna work, but we didn’t have cameras when we location scouted so now I’m seeing it’s too tight. I know this is killing us schedule wise, but let’s move, let’s find a different location, do it on a different day.”
That the nice version of what a lot of directors would do. The true version is, “ARE YOU FUCKIN STONED? THIS IS TERRIBLE! I'LL BE IN MY FUCKING TRAILER UNTIL YOU FIX THIS.” And then they storm off and shit.
The nice version is just like, “Oh I don’t wanna do this.” The Kevin Smith version is, “Aw fuck, I don’t wanna tell all these people that we're here and it ain't gonna work, what I wanted to do ain't necessarily gonna work. So I gotta tailor what I've gotta do and as long as I'm getting the dialogue, I don’t give a shit about where the camera moves, so let’s just -- aw fuck it -- make it work. And you know I look at Dave and I'm like, “We'll do this and this,” and he smiles because he's like, “Wow when we shot listed this, there were 12 setups and now we're doing it in two.”
All this by virtue of the fact that I'm just like I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, or make 'em work any harder, they’re such nice people, they’re already helping me make my movie. That’s when the real, the Catholic guilt in me comes out whenever I look at the crew because I look at the cast and most of them get pretty well paid, so I’m like, alright, that’s fair.
I look at the crew, and they're not paid quite like say grammar school teachers, public grammar school teachers, but it ain't great. You know, they could be paid more considering that without them, it doesn’t happen. You know, like the guy, the loader, the guy who puts the film in the camera, without him it don’t happen. Sure you could hire somebody else, but this dude's really good at it, what if we hired somebody else and he was terrible at it? The film's just falling out of the camera, in the middle of a take or something like that. You start thinking about all that stuff, and so in a moment, like okay, I could play the director card and go after what I want or what I had in my head, quote unquote vision and quote unquote art and all this bullshit, Or I could take the human approach and be like, “Alright let’s do what we gotta do and get out of here, this is uncomfortable for everybody.” And I tend to err on the side of the human side. Look, sometimes the work suffers for it, but I would rather be a really great human than a really great director (laughs). I'm good at the Q&A thing so fuck it, if all else fails I'll just go talk on a stage for a while.
But the great irony to my life, Jim, is that if I don’t do the movies, I have nothing to talk about on that stage. So it’s like the only reason I do the movies is so that I have something to talk about when I'm done with the movies and I'm sitting on a stage in front of a bunch of people.
C: With that in mind, I just wanted to throw you maybe two questions that I would ask at a Q&A that should have pretty quick answers.
KEVIN SMITH: Fire away. Well, they should, but knowing me,
C: We could be here until tomorrow...
KEVIN SMITH: Exactly.
C: In Mallrats, who are the three guys that are melded into Jason Lee's shirt, because it said that they were the three who tried out for the part ahead of him?
KEVIN SMITH: Yeah, there were three dudes, I, if I even knew their names I would tell you and you'd be like oh that’s not very satisfying. It’s not like those three dudes were LEONARDO DiCAPRIO, you know mo-fuckin' TOBEY MAGUIRE, AND ALEC GUINNESS, you know, it wasn’t that, it was just like three dudes were kind of day player actors at the time, they were looking to make a move up, we liked them, and then we met Jason Lee and suddenly those three dudes didn’t exist anymore. So to honor them we took those three faces, morphed ‘em into one, and put it on Jason's shirt.
C: Which, thank god you met Jason Lee because that guy is absolutely hilarious.
KEVIN SMITH: Oh he's great, I mean there’s some people you meet and you’re just like, “Oh my god, it's like, it's not even like I gave birth to you, like I was shaking a pen, my pen, and you fell out of it yourself, to what it is that I think and write about.” Jason Lee WAS Brody. When I worked with him after Mallrats, then you get to know him even better and stuff and you can just really get into his head and voice so that when you’re writing dialogue...
Everyone would say “Ben Affleck is always good in your movies. And Jason Lee, I love Jason Lee when he's in your stuff.” That's because I'm just writing their voices, like I know them so well that I'm just writing to their strengths and to their voices. So, I'm not saying they’re not good actors, naturally they’re great at pulling it off, but they're playing, they've got a home ice advantage so to speak. I'm looking out for them before we even hit the set. As I'm writing the script, I'm going yeah, that’s the way Lee would say it. So, you know they’re never faced with this moment where they’re handed a script and they’re like "I wouldn’t say this, I can’t say this, how does somebody say this?"
C: Which brings me to my last question, speaking of actors' voices, it's a conversation my girlfriend and I have been having a lot, because I just recently got her into the old Fletch movies.
KEVIN SMITH: Oh right on.
C: And you were at one point connected to maybe reviving that series.
KEVIN SMITH: I was.
C: Who would you have seen in the role of Fletch?
KEVIN SMITH: Jason Lee. It was Jason Lee for me. For five years I tub-thumped for Jason Lee as the young Irwin Fletcher and Harvey Weinstein was just like "nope, nope, don’t see it, he's not a movie star, he's not a movie star.”
C: That was a huge mistake on Weinstein’s part.
KEVIN SMITH: I know! I was always like dude! He just, he couldn’t see it. And he liked Jason, quite a bit and whatnot, but he was just like, he couldn’t make the connection that so many of us could, I mean I could see it ... the moment I say it to most people, if anybody knew Jason Lee, they'd be like oh I could totally see that. But Harvey never could, he just couldn’t see it, or wouldn’t see it or anything like that, so
C: Oh well, our loss.
KEVIN SMITH: It is. Look, if Fletch is gonna be remade, and it's gonna be sooner or later, it just would've been better if it was Jason Lee. But who knows, maybe there’s some dude out there who will kill it in a way ah yeah.
Thanks so much to Kevin Smith for sharing his time with us. And a huge thanks to Michelle Meywes for transcribing the entire conversation!