The Director's Chair Interviews

Clerks creator Kevin Smith heads for new dramatic territory with Chasing Amy
by Scott Roesch

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Kevin Smith's first film proved that, despite occasional reports to the contrary, convenience-store clerks can make change. His grainy $27,000 comedy Clerks came from out of nowhere (well, Red Bank, New Jersey) to become the most profitable release (on a percentage basis) of 1994. His studio-financed second effort, 1995's Mallrats, had trouble with larger bills: the $6-million comedy was trashed by critics and largely ignored by customers. Even worse was the fact that, in the minds of many onlookers, Smith had sold out.

 After taking some time to "enjoy the failure" of Mallrats, the twenty-six-year-old Smith got to work on his third movie, setting the stage for what could be the earliest comeback in the career of any filmmaker. For Chasing Amy, he found himself with a less intimidating budget--$250,000--and surrounded by his pals, bringing back producer Scott Mosier and actors Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, and that Silent Bob guy (Smith himself) from the Mallrats fiasco.

He also found himself with a story even closer to his heart than the semi-autobiographical Clerks. While that film drew upon his job at a local Quick-Stop store, Chasing Amy was inspired by his relationship with Adams, which became romantic after the making of Mallrats. The film chronicles the rough road traveled by a man (Affleck) who falls in love with a lesbian (Adams), and then takes issue with her past. Smith is quick to clarify that his girlfriend is not gay, and he jokes that his core audience--guys who like to get stoned--won't like the homosexual content much. But all levity aside, he's quite anxious to discover how moviegoers will react to his first post-Mallrats effort, and his foray into deeper emotional territory. Smith sat outside a Sundance Film Festival screening of Chasing Amy last winter and talked to Mr. Showbiz about the film and his career, before sneaking into the back of the theater to gauge the audience's reaction to the "new" Kevin Smith. So far, so good: the film earned a standing ovation from the festival crowd.

Mr. Showbiz: At the Chasing Amy premiere party, you told me that this is the movie of which you're most proud. Why is that?

Kevin Smith: I just think that out of all three it's the most satisfying. I've done comedy twice before, and I'm fairly adept at it; I know I know how to make people laugh. But this incorporates that--because I think it's some of our funniest stuff, I think there's stuff that's even funnier than in Clerks--and then there's also the dramatic side, which is so rewarding because I've never entertained notions of going there. And where I used to go into the theater and wait to hear the laughter, last night I was sitting there enjoying the silence. You hear people getting into it, and just being moved by it. Plus it's very personal; in some small fashion it springs out of my relationship with Joey. I mean, it was the first film we'd done together as boyfriend and girlfriend.

You and Joey started dating during the making of this film?

Right after Mallrats we started dating; when I was cutting Mallrats.

The premise of Chasing Amy, in which our hero falls in love with a lesbian, is perfectly suited to balancing your outrageous sense of humor with some more emotional elements. What's the origin of the story?

Actually, in all honesty, I've never told anybody this, but whatever. There were some issues in our relationship that kind of came up, there were some insecurities I was dealing with, and it kind of led to what the movie became. It started out as one thing, and then I just started building stuff into it. I never suggested, "Let's all sleep together," and [Joey's] not gay--there was nothing like that. But [in the movie], the Holden character hits a primary insecurity over somebody else's past, which is something that kind of came up in our relationship. So it actually wound up being kind of therapeutic doing the script.

You just alluded to a mTnage a trois that's proposed by one of the characters. Do you fear a negative response to that from your fans, who aren't used to seeing homosexual behavior from your characters?

That was an initial fear, when the film was finished. When we cut the flick together, Scott [Mosier] and I were just like, "This is really going to fuck with the core audience." Because our core audience is like the kind of guys who come up to us and be like, "Great movie, man--you wanna get stoned?" I think the core audience is going to be like, "Smith's gone gay!"

Another backlash you might have to deal with is from those fans who look at the deeper emotions this film explores, and demand that you get back to focusing on the "dick jokes." Are you worried that people will think you've gone soft on them?

The first half hour of this, I'd say, is pretty much like the other two movies we've made. It's funny, there's nothing heavy going on, but slowly, subtly, it starts getting deeper and deeper. And so it becomes a question of whether the core audience feels alienated by that. We had a test screening where there was one guy who stood up in the Q&A and said, "I feel really weird because I identify with Kevin Smith's characters--I am like Brodie, I will walk around the mall with my shirt out, I wouldn't fuck Shannen Doherty, and I was identifying with the Banky character in this movie. And all of a sudden, in the third act, he turns gay. What does that say about me?" Well, it says you're gay, pal. But seriously, that's the thing. The core fans might think a statement's being made about them, but it's not, it's about this character. I don't even think Banky is gay, per se. He just has such a long, lifelong friendship with his friend, he's just very much in love with his friend.

Talk a little bit about the transition from Mallrats to this film.

I knew I wanted to make a flick about a guy who falls in love with a lesbian. Then Mallrats came out and just tanked, and I took some time to just enjoy the failure of Mallrats--appreciate it, I should say, because it's not often that you make a movie that fails. It's not often that you make a movie that succeeds, either, so you have to pretty much appreciate both sides.

What did you learn from making Mallrats?

Well, one thing I learned is that it's very important to tell personal stories. They're the ones that are always going to connect with the audience. With Mallrats, we did try to be a bit more commercial, a bit more mainstream. But people were asking me at the [Chasing Amy] screening last night, "Do you feel redeemed?" And I'm like, "I don't feel redeemed, because I don't think there's anything to redeem." Yes, I tongue-in-cheek apologized for Mallrats, but never was I like, "Oh man, I am so fucking sorry!" It was a joke. If anything, this film has kind of vindicated me, and us, because a lot of people wrote us off after Mallrats. And it's kind of sad. At the time we made Mallrats, I just had nothing personal to say. I had nothing on my mind. And I was just like, "This might be fun." And it's so horrible when you make what you feel is a fun movie and everyone bashes you for being so light or selling out. What, everything has to be deep, or honest, or real, or issue-oriented? You can't just make something light?

And let's be honest. Clerks is a terrific movie, and the critics loved it, but it isn't Shakespeare or War and Peace.

No, it's not in the least! That's just the thing. And for everyone to go, "Oh, Mallrats--how could he?" . . . If I had started with Mallrats, I think I would've gotten fat praise. I think it would've been like, "Wow, he made a really smart, dumb movie." Because at the time there were movies like Dumb and Dumber, and things like that. At least this movie had a brain. You're right, Clerks is not like fucking Shakespeare. Yeah, it had a brain to it, but it's like dick and fart jokes, with some thoughts behind it. My defense of it is, I grew up not on independent films, but on the films of the eighties. The teen films, like the John Hughes films, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, films like that. You know, Porky's, shit like that. And I think that if you grow up watching those movies, and then someone's like, "You wanna make a movie? We'll give you some budget for it." . . . Of course I'm going to lean toward that. I would like to invoke a genre that I grew up on; something that's very dear to my heart.

You came to the Sundance Film Festival three years ago completely unknown, and left as a rising new star. Now you've got a big name in the industry, a deal with Miramax, and you're dating an actress who looks like a supermodel. Has your perspective on filmmaking changed?

The perspective in general doesn't change because I still live in the same place, Red Bank, New Jersey. Everything's still the same--I'm still working with the same producer and cinematographer. It certainly hasn't gone to my head. And after Mallrats, how could it? There's a different kind of pressure, because we're following up a film that was poorly received, and we're still on the fence. We're like, "Geez, are people going to get it? Are they going to think it's too tricky? Are they going to think the whole movie's an apology for Mallrats, so it's trying to be more serious?" We just don't know what the reaction's going to be.

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