Is Nothing Sacred? An Afternoon with Kevin Smith

By Steven D. Greydanus

Sitting in the center of a pool of light on the stage at the front of the darkened Walter Reed Theater in Manhattan, Kevin Smith is very comfortable. It isn’t just his totally casual, dressed-down attire (knee-length baggy denim shorts, sports T-shirt and zipper sweatshirt with deep pockets where his hands stay unless he’s reaching for his bottled water, white socks and white sneakers); though that certainly helps: slap a backwards baseball cap on him and he’d be transformed into his big-screen alter ego, Silent Bob. And it isn’t just the seductively comfortable chair in which he reclines, almost lounges, though that certainly helps too: "This chair is incredible," he mutters in amazement.

Kevin Smith is completely at ease with this whole interview-audience thing, with speaking at length before this large group of fans and film-school students. As Silent Bob he may say not a word (almost), but in person he’s capable of the same easy, breezy, articulate flow of words that runs through all his films. His tone is low-key and matter-of-fact, his delivery smooth and confident, his timing that of a stand-up comic. The audience laughs appreciatively. I laugh. He’s a funny guy.

Does he think of himself as being part of a generation of filmmakers? Smith reflects. "If I am part of a generation of filmmakers," he says with typically self-depracating candor, "it would be the generation that got in too easily." He recounts the epiphany he had after seeing Richard Linklater’s 1991 low-budget indie comedy Slacker: "I thought to myself, ‘This counts? This is a movie? ’Cause I think I could do that!’" The result of this epiphany was Smith’s first film, Clerks, a cheerfully obscene comedy that Smith admitted he "never expected to play outside Monmouth County" in New Jersey.

Getting back to Jersey

New Jersey is very much a part of who Smith is and what he does. He talks about his wife’s desire to live in New York: "I say to her, ‘What do we want to move to New York for? We’re already in Jersey — it’s the next best thing! Better, even! There’s no roaches or muggers!" Then again, when he does come to New York — for example, on occasions such as this — Smith has to admit there are some benefits: "And then I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s all this culture here.’ Like, in Red Bank we have no culture. At all. Not even a video store." Even so, he prefers to get his culture with day trips to New York "and then get back to Jersey before the roaches and muggers come out."

Despite its Jerseycentrism, Clerks surprised Smith by playing at Sundance, getting picked up by Miramax, and receiving national and even international distribution. "And everywhere I saw it screened, people laughed in the same spots," he remembers. "I couldn’t get my head around it. And then they would say, ‘It’s so New Jersey;’ and I’d be, like, no, you’ve got it all wrong — it’s so Monmouth County." With much relish he recalls one critical accolade praising the film as "a wail of ennui": "And here I thought it was just a lot of d*ck and f*rt jokes."

Later, someone presses him for some suggestion of deeper intent in Clerks: Despite the characters’ menial occupation and potty-mouth vocabulary, their dialogue is so articulate, so philosophical — was Smith perhaps offering a commentary on our assumptions about the people who wait on us in convenience stores…? Smith (who is fighting a cold) looks momentarily haggard. "I think you may be reading way too much into it."

A very simple philosophy

Not that Smith disavows any concern with higher things. He identifies himself as a Christian and "a real big God fan," adding, "I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Christianity… except @%#&*!$ Christians" (echoing Chesterton, sort of). At the same time, he says his "mind is in the gutter." While he’s not sure there’s anything profound about his profanity, "I believe it’s possible to be profane and profound at the same time." After a moment he adds: "I’m not sure I’ve ever been profound." That he has been profane, there is presumably no doubt.

Although Dogma was his fourth film, the script for it came immediately upon the heels of Clerks; but Smith found it was too ambitious to tackle immediately, "so we decided to do something everyone would hate" (i.e., the much-maligned Mallrats). But then came the success of Chasing Amy, the third film of the so-called "New Jersey trilogy." That success, plus strong support from Miramax, gave Smith the clout to command the relatively large budget that made Dogma the "event" film that it was, with respectable special effects and "name" stars: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, and Alanis Morissette. Later, though, the controversial production was dropped by Miramax (under pressure from parent corporation Disney), and subsquently picked up by Lion’s Head.

Asked to comment on the inspiration for Dogma, Smith becomes reflective. In some ways, he says, "it’s more personal than anything else I’ve ever done"; it expresses "everything I’ve ever thought or felt about religion." Yet he’s quick to preempt religious criticism: He insists that the film is "no indictment of religion," and should be taken about as seriously as "an episode of Laverne & Shirley." After all, this is a movie "with a rubber poop monster"; how serious could it possibly be?

Having thus established that his most personal expression of everything he’s ever thought or felt about religion is nothing to take seriously, Smith proceeds to sum up what is at the heart of these thoughts and feelings, using an Animal Farm-type mantra: "Faith good; religion not good." A "very simple philosophy," he adds, really only what most of us know to be common sense.

Not so good

Eventually Smith’s time is up, and the hour is at hand for the screening of Dogma promised on the tickets; but the audience seems unsatisfied. "How many people have seen the film?" he asks. Nearly every hand in the room goes up. "How many people would like to bag the film and keep on talking?" Strong applause. "How many want to see the film?" Faintly scattered applause; clearly the ayes have it.

The theater, though, feels obliged to show the film, to prevent anyone complaining afterwards. Fortunately, Smith is game for continuing the session in another venue, and there is a side gallery available capable of accomodating the crowd that migrates out of the theater to follow him. I go with them. Almost no one stays for the film.

The gallery is a much more informal setting. Smith sits in a far less comfortable metal folding chair, with fans gathered around his feet like disciples. Smith’s one-year-old daughter Harley Quinn Smith (named after the Joker’s sidekick in Batman: The Animated Series) is in attendance, and proceeds to compete with her daddy for the audience’s attention as she wanders back and forth between her daddy’s knees and her mother, Jennifer Schwalbach, a tall, slender brunette standing off to one side.

Smith continues to take questions. I say: "I’d like to ask you to talk a little more on the ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ topic…"

"Oh. Was that supposed to be the topic?" His surprise is unsurprising; speakers often aren’t told how their appearance would be billed to the public.

"You said earlier that Dogma wasn’t an indictment of religion…"

"I said that? No I didn’t. I have never used the word ’indictment,’" he says with certainty.

"Well, actually, I wrote it down…"

"You’re taking notes?" He seems genuinely startled.

I read aloud: "’No indictment of religion.’ Those are your exact words."

He snaps ruefully. "Damn."

"But you also summarized the philosophy behind the film with the words ‘Faith good, religion not good.’"

"’Not so good,’ I think I said," he amends quickly. Duly noted, I smile.

"I believe faith is important," he continues. "When you believe in something… that’s something that’s inside you, something nobody can take away from you. But that’s not the same thing as religion. In church, you know, the emphasis is all on ceremony, not what’s inside. I don’t see what’s important about standing, kneeling, bowing, lighting a candle, whatever. You know, just because we all say the same thing at the same time, that doesn’t mean anything — all that means is we all learned the same book. I can’t really get my head around the whole corporate worship process. You know what my idea of church would be, would be to get ten, fifteen people together in a room, and then all just sit there in abject silence."

He eyes me quizzically, perhaps wondering if he’s given me what I wanted. Smiles apologetically. "I’m just really tired right now. I’ve kind of spent the last few years working through all this." I am thinking: That’s Kevin Smith’s beef with religion? An anti-ceremony hang-up?

Then it’s time for the chimp story. Smith summons his flagging strength and regales the audience with one more wacky behind-the-scenes tale, the story of the time he shot a scene with a chimpanzee just to see if he had the clout to get the animal. With his listeners hanging on every word, Smith vividly describes the contrast between his own amazement at the arrival of an actual live chimpanzee and the jaded boredom of the handlers. The audience roars with laughter at the growing apprehension of co-star Jason Mewes ("Jay"), who is dismayed by the handlers’ warning that adolescent three-year-old chimps can be rebellious and violent ("How old is this chimp?" — "Two and a half").

Jason won’t shoot the scene. The audience eats it up. Jason trembles as they each take one of the chimp’s hands and proceed to walk down the road, away from the camera. Smith can actually feel Jason’s trembling through the quivering monkey hand in his own hand. The audience feels it too. Jason breaks to the side, runs out of the scene, off the road, out into the middle of nowhere. The image is as vivid as if the film were rolling in a projector behind us.

At last it’s all over, and Kevin Smith stands to leave, the audience rising with him. There’s a press of flesh at the door, with autograph seekers and last-minute questioners crowding on all sides. A side door stands unused. I take it. It’s time to get back to Jersey, before the roaches and muggers come out.

Tags: Interviews

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