interview: KEVIN SMITH

Fourteen years ago, New Jersey filmmaker Kevin Smith helped to change the world of independent cinema with his debut feature, Clerks. A caustic, no-frills, micro-budget portrait of a day in the life of convenience store workers, Clerks was a critically acclaimed hit, praised for its foul-mouthed, pop culture driven dialog and its raw, working-class aesthetic. At a time when arthouse indie films were mostly regarded as highbrow intellectualism, Smith came along with a lowbrow, everyman approach to storytelling, and became a hero to a legion of fans.

From the very beginning of his career, Smith has made no attempt to hide his appreciation for the world of porno. In Clerks, Randal (Jeff Anderson) was obsessed with porn, and references to smut have crept into many of the films that followed. As the title suggests, Smith’s new film—Zack and Miri Make a Porno—offers more than a passing reference or a character with a thing for porn.

Set in the Pennsylvania town of Monroeville—most famous for being where George Romeo’s Dawn of the Dead was filmed—Zack and Miri stars Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as the title characters, two life-long friends who live together. On the eve of their ten-year high school reunion, Zack and Miri find themselves in dire financial circumstances. With the utilities about to be shot off and facing eviction, both are hard-pressed to come up with a way to make some quick money. And then Zack gets the bright idea to make an amateur porno, which he is convinced will make money for him and Miri. But after they assemble a motley cast and crew, things become complicated for Miri and Zack, who begin to realize that the feelings they have for each other may run much deeper than platonic friendship.

Despite a title that hints as something a bit more exploitative or salacious, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a traditional romantic comedy. Smith uses the porn angle, and his regular helping of pop culture references to put a fresh coat of paint on things, but the story itself is a traditional rom-com. Essentially, Smith has crafted a mushy love story for his core audience, many of whom would never watch a romantic comedy otherwise. But by cleverly hiding his true intentions and his hopeless romanticism behind a profanity-laced story about people having sex on camera for money, Smith effectively tricks the audience into thinking they are watching something else.

Fans of Smith’s past work will enjoy Zack and Miri Make a Porno, although some might be a bit surprised by how sweet and sentimental it is. Those unfamiliar with Smith’s work will no doubt find any number of things to be offended by—including jokes about anal sex that put the bestiality humor of Clerks II to shame. I talked with Smith about the impact porn has had on his life and career, the therapeutic nature of his films, the importance of Spider-Man, and the current state of film.

There’s been a bit of controversy over the title, Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Why do you think, in the 21st century, people still get so freaked out about porn?
I don’t know, dude—especially the term “porno.” I would have no problem with the word “porn”, but of the two, porno is just cuter. It’s not even like I titled the movie Zack and Miri Make a Pornographic Film, or Zack and Miri Make Smut, or Zack and Miri Make a Skin Flick. Porno is just a cute word, it’s like “zamboni.” I could never understand why someone would object to the word. I can understand somebody objecting to the idea of porno, because maybe watching people fuck ain’t your speed, but the word “porno” is just adorable, and yet it’s gotten us into a little bit of trouble.

And when you really get right down to it, most people really like sex. Sex is one of the top things we all have in common.
That and pooping, man. We all share those two things.

Yeah, but I don’t mind watching people screw. I have no desire to watch anyone take a dump.
I go the other way. I’ve seen so many people screw over the course of my life—usually people I don’t know, watching it on tape—but you rarely get to see people shitting. I mean you see dogs shitting all the time, but people shitting? That would be kind of interesting.

You have made references to porn in many of your films, starting with Clerks. What sort of impact has porn had on you, both personally and professionally?
In terms of what impact it’s had on me, you gotta remember I’ve been involved with porn, in one way or another, since I was eleven years-old. Whether it be trying to steal some skin mags from the magazine store in town, to trying to track down stag films in neighbor’s house, friend’s houses—maybe their parents had ‘em, because my parents never kept that kind of thing, so I had to look for it elsewhere. Before the days of internet, where it is easily accessible, it was tough to get your hands on grown up stuff. Part of the reason I took the job at RST Video back when I did in 1989, was because it was a mom and pop shop, and they actually had a porn room, as opposed to Blockbuster Video. So, I’m like, “Finally, I’ll be able to take home porn flicks without having to rent them on my parents account. This is gonna rock.” And that led me to making Clerks. So, without porn, I’m not talking to you today.

I remember the first porno movie I ever saw. It was Deep Throat, and me and my cousin watched it on VHS on one of those top-loading VCRs. Do you remember the first porn you saw—not a magazine, but an actually movie with people screwing?
I was at a neighbor’s house, it was a friend of the family and she worked up at the school. She was a divorced woman, and she was friends with my parents, and we were all over at her house, and they went to pick up a pizza, and I stayed home with her dog. So, while I was staying home, I rifled through her VHS drawer, because VHS was a fairly new technology at that point, in terms of home usage. She was one of the first people we knew that had a VCR. So, I’m looking through the drawers, and I see a lot of the homemade tapes—the tapes that you record stuff on, like TDKs and whatnot—and I saw one TDK sleeve that had a tape in it, which had a sticker ripped off the spine, and the remnants of the sticker looked very professional. So, I was like, “There must be a story behind this.” And I popped it in. I don’t remember the name of the title, but it was the first porn I ever saw and it featured a couple having sex in a pool, and the dude’s moment of truth happening in the pool on an underwater cam. So not only was I seeing insertion for the first time, I saw a dude bust a nut underwater. That blew my mind. But the thing that made the bigger impact that I still carry with me to this day, is that the entire score was done on a kazoo. So while they were fucking it just sounded silly. And that really kind of set me up for the rest of my life—sex really is kinda silly, because you can squirt with a fuckin’ kazoo.

Can I assume that you saw a porn flick before you lost your virginity?

How did watching porn effect you when you finally got laid?
I remember trying to do more than four positions, because that’s what I had seen. I saw this couple, fuckin’ up on the deck of the pool with her laying face-down, him behind her, missionary style on the side of the pool, then they get into some oral, then they moved into the pool and did multiple positions. So, the first time I had sex, I’m like, “Okay, I can’t just lay on top of somebody and do it, I gotta move around, apparently.” Which doesn’t go well if you’re not a petite dude. If you’re a fat dude moving around, you got shit moving on you when you stop. And that’s not the kind of thing that’s gonna help you get laid. There was that. And I learned pretty quickly that a lot of positions does not a good lover make. Find one position that hits the right spot, and you’re good to go. The other thing is that the first time I had sex, in the back of my head, all I could hear was a kazoo. To this day, every once in a while, bangin’ around with my wife, I hear that kazoo in the background.

Most of the porn I watched was with the volume turned all the way down to avoid detection, so I never really knew there was music.
I remember people would do the porno music impression, “wah chicka wah wah,” or “whacka chicka whacka chicka.” And I would be like, “What are you doing?” Porn is scored with a kazoo.

I was a bit surprised by Zack and Miri Make a Porno. It’s very much a traditional romantic comedy—kind of sweet.
It’s a very sweet movie.

I don’t want to insult you, but I was a bit surprised by how much of a softy you come across being with this movie.
Oh, I’m a total softy when it comes to relationships, man. I’m a total softy, period. There ain’t nothing hard about me whatsoever—particularly physically. But I’m just a softy when it comes to relationships. I find relationships fascinating—how two people, and why those two people stay together as opposed to just moving on and shit like that. I’m gooey inside, man. And that kind of carries through in all the flicks. Heretofore most of the romantic relationships in my flicks have been between two guys, who just don’t happen to fuck.

In some ways the film seemed autobiographical. First, you’ve got a guy, Zack, making a movie where he works. But then you’ve got this story about this sort of directionless guy, something of a slacker, who really finds himself once he starts making this movie.
Oh yeah, that was ripped straight outta real life. It wasn’t really the intention before I wrote it. As I sat down to write it, I have points in my head that I want to get to, and there’s scenes that I want to do; but the filling in—the shading in of everything—the movie really starts taking shape when I finally sit down and start writing from page one forward. As I’m writing, it’s occurring to me that this is a story about people who’ve never made a movie, trying to make a movie. Scrape away the trappings of adult film, that’s what it is. And so at that point I was like, “Well, I’m well-informed on this subject. I could totally do a feature about this, because I did it once.” I did wind up stealing a bit from our experience of making Clerks—right down to the hockey stick with the boom mic on it. That was our boom mic on Clerks.

How much of Zack and Miri’s relationship mirrors that of you and your wife? I mean here’s a guy who can’t seem to make it work with a woman until he starts making movies.
That’s a bit of a stretch. I can’t say that I was necessarily thinking about my wife while I was writing the flick, although being that she’s a woman, and the woman that I’ve spent the most time with, she kind of informs the characters indirectly anyway. What it was, I just remember being that guy, before I made Clerks, who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, worked in convenience stores and delis, and I assumed maybe one day I’ll own a deli, because I really know how to make a sandwich. But the moment I started showing interest in film, my girlfriend at the time was like, “Oh, man, you’re suddenly much more interesting to me, because you’re actually showing ambition.” I don’t know. I guess there was a marked improvement in my demeanor, because suddenly I had a passion for something.

I hear chicks dig that shit—confidence, a sense of purpose. I hear it’s attractive to them.
It seems to be. A lot people say it’s money—money does it for chicks. But I don’t know, because chicks can earn their own fuckin’ money. I think at the end of the day, everybody wants to be with somebody who has a clear idea of what they want to do with their life.

There’s something about all of your films that seems to be a bit therapeutic.
Absolutely. Never more so than in something like Chasing Amy, which is a completely therapeutic film, and I was very much the Holden character who had that male sexual insecurity that most guys don’t like to talk about…

But we all have it.
But we all fuckin’ have it at one point. Making that movie helped me shake it, so it was absolutely fuckin’ therapy. Ultimately, I think that’s what people kind of gravitate toward in movies that aren’t big, bombastic popcorn-type movies. If you’re gonna have a movie about people, they want identifiable characters—they want to be able to look up on the screen and see themselves. That’s why I kind of got into films. I love movies, but I never saw anybody in a movie that I necessarily identified with. There were people I wanted to be. Like I remember seeing Bill Murray in Meatballs and being like, “I wanna be fuckin’ him.” Or seeing him in Stripes, and being like, “I wanna be John Winger.” Or seeing him Ghostbusters, and being like, “I need to be Dr. Peter Venkman. I wanna be more like that guy.” But generally, I look up on the screen and never see myself represented, and so I kind of got into it [film], so I could represent myself and make movies that at least I identify with too.

It seems that a lot of people identify with the characters in your films.
“I’ve got a friend who’s just like Jay.” I get that a lot, man. Or they recognize themselves in the Holden character in Chasing Amy, or they feel like Randall. Even with Zack and Miri, I’ve had a few people say, “I’m totally Zack.” And I’m like, “Wow, that’s quick, man. The movie is just coming out now, and you already feel like that guy?” But that’s nice. When you create something that people can identify with, ‘cause it connects them to the material deeper, and then they’ll fuckin’ defend that movie with their lives.

I was talking about this with someone recently, and saying that’s why Spider-Man is such a popular character. People identify with him, or more importantly, they identify with Peter Parker.
Stan Lee had a wonderful quote about Spider-Man that I think works like crazy—not so much about Peter Parker, but about the character of Spider-Man. He said that the beauty of Spider-Man, unlike Superman or Batman, is that under that mask, he could be anybody. He could be a black kid, he could be an Asian kid, he could be a white kid, he could be a Hindu kid. He always liked that about the character, because a kid reading that comic book, until Spider-Man takes that mask off, they can see themselves swinging around Manhattan.

But even when he takes of the mask, and he’s just Peter Parker, his life is filled with all the things the rest of us can relate to—paying the bills, taking care of his family, all the crap the rest of us regular people stress out about. Spider-Man is cool, but Peter Parker, even with his powers, is still a regular guy.
It’s kind of a beautiful character that a lot of people don’t give him a lot of credit for. You think about the works of Shakespeare that people hold up, and wisely lay plaudits on, they just give it all sorts of insane credit, and it’s a masterwork. But is there any more enduring character than Peter Parker?

Not really. When all is said and done, he’s one of the greatest characters of 20th century fiction.
The tale will really be told a hundred years from now. If Spider-Man, or Peter Parker, continues to work as he does now—and he should, because kids will always feel awkward and geeky—he’ll stand the test of time. Just like Shakespeare’s characters have stood the test of time.

Clerks has managed to hold up well for the last 14 years. But a lot has changed since that film came out. If Clerks came out today…
It would be lost, dude. It would be utterly lost. It would be like one of the mumblecore movies.

I think people need to rethink what they want out of being a filmmaker, and how they define success.
The one thing that people should really be thinking about now instead of filmmaking is film distribution, because we need more distributors out there. The list of distributors is getting smaller and smaller every year. And rather than make a first film, create a distribution label.

Well, the whole business model is changing. You can now reach an audience in ways that never seemed possible ten years ago.
You’re seeing it with viral video. It’s just a matter of figuring out to take that from a three-minute clip to a ninety-minute clip. The method of delivery has changed substantially.

The problem is that the studio system still doesn’t know how to make it work for a lot of films. If it isn’t a big, mega-budget film, it’s almost like they don’t know what to do with it, and a lot of films are getting lost in the process.
That’s why I just hope word of mouth on Zack and Miri gets out, and that people who are kind of like, “I don’t know if that’s for me,” hear that it’s not what they think it is. It’s something totally relatable. But if not, it doesn’t matter—they’ll find it eventually. Maybe on DVD.

DVD seems to be the best place for many films to find some sort of life.
It used to always be about theatrical life, man. Like that was your one and only bite at the apple, but now the theatrical window is so short, and home video lives forever.

Theatrical only works for a select few these days. It’s a bit like mass market paperbacks—by and large you only see books by the same handful of authors. You mainly see the same types of movies over and over again going theatrical, with less room for indie films that resonate on a more personal level.
It’s being lost, and thank God home video is there to play catch-all, so you can eventually find those things that mean something to you. Entertainment that speaks to you, that’s a treasure—something that can take your mind off problems for a couple hours, but at the same it’s not pure escapism, it’s actually relevant to you—that’s a gift. That’s a good thing to have.

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