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Tue March 20, 2012
Author Interviews

That's All, Folks: Kevin Smith On Leaving Filmmaking

Originally published on Tue March 20, 2012 9:40 am

When 21-year-old Kevin Smith decided he wanted to be a filmmaker, his sister gave him some advice: "Don't say you want to be a filmmaker; just be one." So he did. He made his first film, Clerks, on a shoestring, shooting at the convenience store where he worked.

Smith has gone on to have a long and quirky career; his films, including Chasing Amy and Dogma, bear his unmistakable imprimatur — the black humor, the verbose slacker genius characters. But Smith, who has already garnered a huge following with his podcasts, says he is taking his ideas — and career — into "other arenas."

He explains his decision to leave directing in a new book, Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good. Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep talks to Smith about the book and about the evolution of his filmmaking career.


Interview Highlights

On leaving filmmaking behind

"You know, for me it was never about, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. ... I was just like, 'You know what, man, I've got this audience, and they like the films, but they like when I do Q&As as well. They just like whatever I do.' So the audience made me feel safe enough to step away from filmmaking. It's weird — you feel conflicted as an artist, right? You want an audience, but ideally, you don't want them to have to pay for what you do. You want to give it away. That's where the podcasting came from. I was like, this is a way we can just give it away for free. And the podcasting — I swear to you — on its worst day, the podcasts are better than our best films. Because they're more imaginative, and there's no artifice, and it's far more real."

On the possibility of becoming someone who is just famous for being famous

"I guess there's the kind of Kim Kardashian version of that, where it's just like, ugh, she's kind of known for being herself. But to be fair, one of the greatest reality shows we ever watch in this country is about the president. He leads it every day, and we seem interested in that. So he's the opposite end of the spectrum. So I feel like I fall somewhere between the president and Kim Kardashian. And that's an OK place to be, man. It's a lot further than I ever thought I'd get as a fat kid, I'll tell you that much."

On becoming a filmmaker

"I was 21, I saw Richard Linklater's film Slacker, and it moved me. I said, if this guy can tell stories about his people in Nowheresville, USA (which turned out to be Austin, Texas) ... I said, this is what I want to do. ... I think so many of us, we get the golden ticket, and we're like, we're just going to do this until we go toes up off this planet. But for me, it was like, I want to tell these stories."

On telling his own kind of story

"I'd see movies, comedies, and I loved Animal House, I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented. Our wackiness [and] adventures weren't cinematic. You know, it wasn't like, 'We're taking on the dean!' It was more like, 'We're going to sit around and talk about Star Wars for like way too many hours, without booze or drugs.' Like, that becomes the booze and drugs. So I said, 'Let me create that.' And then I went out and made Clerks and stuff, and those movies now — throw a rock, you hit a movie like that."

On wanting a life different from his father's

"My father didn't have the luxury of going, at a certain point 20 years into his career, 'I'm going to change horses midstream.' He had one job — he worked at the U.S. Postal Service. And we were so proud of him, because he never shot anybody. You know what I'm saying? One of the few postal clerks who ever made it through the system without going postal. ... Alright, one of the many. But he hated the job. He absolutely hated it. ... I watched my father kind of wake up and not want to go to work, and I just said, 'I don't want to do that. I'll work, but that work has got to be something that I like.' With film, I did that for a while, and film was like a slot machine, if you find the right one. And boy, did we, with Miramax and Clerks and Harvey Weinstein."

On Harvey Weinstein, who bought Smith's first film and guided his career

"The relationship I had with Harvey was definitely more like that father-son relationship that you read about in literature and whatnot. I love him to death, but, yeah, I definitely had some issues along the way. ... I was an idealist. I was a young man, and I believed kind of everything I was told. And back in those days, we were told, like, 'This is indie war, man! We're taking on the studios! They're making commercial crap, and we're making art!' But you know what happens is, a good idea becomes a business, and suddenly there was a day where I was like, we're listening to marketing data that you're getting based on trailers. Not even like test-screening a movie — we're test-screening trailers and poster images. There's no more gut instinct in this."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As a 21-year-old in New Jersey, Kevin Smith decided he wanted to be a filmmaker. His sister gave him advice: Don't say you want to be a filmmaker, just be one. He did. With hardly any money at all, in movie terms, Kevin Smith made "Clerks" at a convenience store where he worked - about guys like him who'd rather talk about "Star Wars" than work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLERKS")

JEFF ANDERSON: (as Randall) What did you like better, "Jedi" or the "Empire Strikes Back?"

BRIAN O'HALLORAN: (as Dante) "Empire."

ANDERSON: (as Randall) Blasphemy.

O'HALLORAN: (as Dante) "Empire" had the better ending. I mean Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader is his father, a hand gets frozen and taken away Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean that's what life is, a series of down endings.

INSKEEP: Kevin Smith has gone on to a quirky and distinguished career, including movies like "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma," so it is of some note that the guy who just decided to be a filmmaker has now decided to stop being one. Mr. Smith tries to explain this in a new book whose title is as profane as some of his movies, a title that is actually bleeped on the cover. So which we cannot say it on the radio except that the first of the two words in the title is "Tough."

Mr. Smith, welcome to the program.

KEVIN SMITH: The second one, we could go with - you know what's a good interjection for radio, let's call it "Tough Smith."

INSKEEP: I like it, "Tough Smith."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: And most people, you know, my critics would tell you like those words are interchangeable. So...

INSKEEP: Oh, well.

SMITH: ...it actually works out. It's weird. I was listening to the intro and that's 20 years ago now. I'm 41 so it was 20 years ago that my sister was like, be a filmmaker and I kind of went for it. But 20 years later, man, you will find no end of people who are like, well, we're still waiting for you to be a filmmaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Well, I'm not one of them. I loved "Clerks."

SMITH: Oh.

INSKEEP: And there've been many distinguished films since, a few that have been panned as well, but that's life. Why stop making movies?

SMITH: You know, for me it was never about, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I was 21. I saw Richard Linklater's film, "Slacker," and it moved me. I said if this guy could tell stories about his people in Nowheresville, USA, which turned out to be Austin, Texas - a lot of people seem to know it. I didn't at the time. Didn't know it was the state capital of Texas either. But this guy made a movie on his own and that inspired me. I said this is what I want to do.

You know, it's like I think so many of us, we get the golden ticket and we're like, we're just going to do this until we go toes up off this planet. But...

INSKEEP: Sure.

SMITH: ...for me it was like I want to tell the stories. I see movies, comedies and I loved "Animal House," I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented. Our wacky misadventures weren't nearly cinematic. You know, it wasn't like we're taking on a dean.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: It was more like we're going to sit around and talk about "Star Wars" for like we need too many hours, without booze or drugs. Like that becomes the booze and drugs. So I said let me create that and then I went out and made "Clerks" and stuff. And those movies now - throw a rock, you hit a movie like that. You know?

INSKEEP: But let's talk about this. You're still a creative guy. You've gotten into Podcasting in a big way, if people don't know that. You're into other creative endeavors. You're still having to come up with ideas, come up with thoughts.

SMITH: Absolutely, but I get to take them into other arenas. I think about my father - as you know, in the book I talk about my father quite a bit. But my father didn't have the luxury of going, you know, to a certain point, 20 years into his career, I'm going to change horses, midstream. He had one job, so...

INSKEEP: That job was?

SMITH: He worked at the U.S. Postal Service. And we were so proud of him, because he never shot anybody. You know what I'm saying? One of the few postal clerks who ever made it through the system without going postal on anybody.

INSKEEP: Now, come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Well, that was the...

INSKEEP: Not one of the few, come on you.

SMITH: Alright, one of the many.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: But he hated the job. He absolutely hated it.

INSKEEP: But you're saying this is actually a fear you had.

SMITH: Well, it wasn't so much a fear. But like I watched my father, kind of, wake up and not want to go to work. And I just said, I don't want to do that. I'll work, but that work has got to be something that I like. And with film, I did that for a while. And film was like a slot machine, if you find the right one. And boy, did we, with Miramax and "Clerks" And Harvey Weinstein.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about Harvey Weinstein. This is a guy who bought your first film, who guided your career in many ways; you praise him in many ways. But you also seem to have had some difficult times with him.

SMITH: The relationship I had with Harvey was definitely more like that father-son relationship that you read about in literature and whatnot. I love him to death, but yeah, I've definitely had some issues along the way.

INSKEEP: Oedipus, that's what you're thinking here.

SMITH: Yeah, I guess. But does that mean I want to have sex with him, 'cause I don't have sex with Harvey.

INSKEEP: I think it's killing your father. That would be the Oedipal...

SMITH: Boy, I've had it wrong forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: You're really turning around here, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: I don't know how I got this far, having those confused.

INSKEEP: Maybe now you got an idea for a film you've got to go make.

SMITH: Yeah. Hollywood, I'm back.

INSKEEP: Well, what went wrong in that relationship with Harvey Weinstein?

SMITH: It wasn't so much what went wrong. You know what it was? I was an idealist. I was a young man, and I believed kind of everything I was told. And back in those days, we were told, like, this is indie war, man. We're taking on the studios. They're making commercial crap and we're making art.

But you know what happens is, a good idea becomes a business. And suddenly there was a day where I was like, we're listening to marketing data that you're getting based on trailers - not even like test-screening a movie. We're test-screening trailers and poster images. There's no more gut instinct in this.

INSKEEP: Well, there is the question of your brand. You write about Harvey Weinstein having a particular brand as a head of a studio, and maybe damaging that brand over time. You, I think it's fair to say, have a particular brand as a filmmaker.

SMITH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: People have some idea of the kind of film that you have made up to now. Now you're in these other forms of entertainment and art. What do you think is the Kevin Smith brand?

SMITH: I've been trying to figure that out, man. It's not filmmaking anymore. And, you know, you're not talking about the mainstream. You're talking about people who are kind of into the stuff I do, which is enough for me to build an entire career on. Like, that's what I figured out.

I was just like, you know what, man? I've got this audience and they like the films, but they like when I do Q&A's as well. They just like whatever I do. So, the audience made me feel safe enough to step away from filmmaking. It's weird. You feel conflicted as an artist, right? You want an audience, but ideally, you don't want them to have to pay for what you do. You want to give it away, dude.

That's where the Podcasting came from. I was like this is the way - we can just give it away for free. And the Podcasting, I swear to you, on its worst day, the Podcasts are better than our best films. Because they're more imaginative and there's no artifice, and it's far more real.

INSKEEP: Do you worry at all, that at some point in the future - after you stop making films - that you, well, that you kind of become, well, like Kim Kardashian? Just somebody who people, they know the name. They're not quite even sure why they know the name, just somebody famous.

SMITH: You know, yeah. I guess there's the kind of Kim Kardashian version of that, where you're just like, ugh, she's kind of known for being herself. But to be fair, one of the greatest reality shows, like we ever watch in this country, is about the president. He leads it every day and we seem interested in that. So he's the opposite end of the spectrum.

So I feel like I fall somewhere between the president and Kim Kardashian.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: And that's an OK place to be, man. It's a lot further than I ever thought I'd get as a fat kid, I'll tell you that much.

INSKEEP: Kevin Smith's new book has a title we cannot quite say on the air. So let's euphemize it, as he suggests, as "Tough Smith."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: The subtitle is: "Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good."

Mr. Smith, a pleasure to talk with you again.

SMITH: A pleasure, sir.

INSKEEP: Alright, Kevin Smith is at work on what he says is his last movie, the hockey comedy, "Hit Somebody," which is due out next year. Then he's done.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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