Kevin Smith is leaning into the frayed, yellow piece of newspaper that I've just laid on his hotel room table. It's the article I wrote about him in City Pages after the last time we met—just before Clerks came out—in 1994. "You can't deny that it's kinda cool seeing your name in print and stuff like that," the New Jersey clerk-turned-cult auteur told me then. Now, looking back, he says, "It's so weird to see quotes from 10 or 12 years ago." Do they still ring true? "Yeah—very much so. Like this part: 'Smith says the citizens of Leonardo, NJ [appreciate Clerks], though he thinks they "don't really get it—they're more into action flicks and shit like that."' It's nice to know that I was just as candid—and vulgar—back then as I am now."
Like Clerks II, the dozen-years-later sequel that finds Dante and Randal punching the clock at Mooby's, home of the Cowtipper, Smith appears much the same: Still chain-smoking cigs, still comfortably clad in a baggy baseball jersey, still peppering his laid-back banter with philosophical insight (and the F-word). But in the case of both the new movie and its thirtysomething director, it's the differences that are most compelling. To make Clerks for $27,575 in '93, Smith was forced to relinquish his beloved comic-book collection, then valued at $3,000; Clerks II, albeit a movie about downward mobility, collected its $5 million budget in foreign sales even before the first frame had been shot. That baggy baseball jersey? Now it has Smith's name on it.
City Pages: Dante and Randal haven't fared as well as you have in the last dozen years. Is it harder for you to relate to the characters now than it was in '94?
Kevin Smith: Not really, no. When you look at Clerks, you see that it's not really about working at a convenience store: It's about everything one does not to work at a convenience store—how Dante and Randal create this elaborate world in which they can basically forget what it is they really do. It's the same with [Clerks II]. When I was writing it, I never thought, "God, I'd better go get a job at a fast-food joint so I can put myself back in a wage-slave state of mind." For me, it was more about concentrating on how the characters feel about being in their 30s and perhaps not accomplishing what they had wanted to accomplish.
CP: Do you relate to that?
Smith: I would never bitch about where I am in life. I've been lucky enough to do a bunch of shit that I would've never thought possible 12 years ago. At the same time, because I work in a career that promotes kind of an ongoing, eternal adolescence—I pretend for a living, that's my job—I've never really had that I have to become an adult moment. Some people have adulthood thrust upon them: They have a kid or they get married or they're forced into a job market and have to fuckin' earn no matter what. Me, I got so fuckin' insanely lucky with Clerks that suddenly I had a career where it never felt like I was working. I had to seek out my path to adulthood in a different way.
CP: Would you say you charted that path in Jersey Girl?
Smith: Yeah. Jersey Girl was about having a kid and thinking, "What would it be like if I had to raise the kid by myself?" Ultimately, the movie was a very fantasized version of that story. I realized that not everyone has the luxury of making the same altruistic choice as [the Ben Affleck character], who's like, "Well, I could take that really great job in New York, but if I take a job as a garbage man in Jersey, even though I'd make way less money, I'd have a lot more time to spend with my daughter." A lot of the reviews really seized on that. They said, "It's very easy for Kevin Smith, who's in a financially well-off position, to make a movie in which the choice is in favor of a financially less well-off position." In reality, I never had to make that choice, you know? If someone was like, "In order for you to have a better relationship with your daughter, you have to quit making movies and work at a fuckin' Burger King," I'd be like, "Well, maybe I'll get to know my daughter a little later in life."
CP: Your dad worked a lot, didn't he?
Smith: My father worked at the post office and he hated it. Every day of his life, he would go to work from 11 at night to seven in the morning. It was a soul-killing experience for him. He did it because he had to support his family, and I guess he never thought about trying anything other than that. He never sat me down and said, "Son, the important lesson in life is to get a job that you don't fuckin' hate." But that's what he imparted to me nonetheless. He took early retirement, he had a couple of heart attacks and a stroke and then another heart attack that eventually killed him. I think it was probably because he hated his job so much.
CP: He lived to see that you had found your calling, right?
Smith: He did, yeah. He died right before Jersey Girl came out. He never really said, "Son, I'm so fuckin' proud of you for doing what it is that you really love." After Clerks, everything happened fast for me, and he acclimated to it pretty quickly. What he'd say to me was more like, "Why don't you do a Western? I like Westerns." I'd say, "Well, I'm not really a Western kind of guy."
CP: I think you could say that Dogma is a Western.
Smith: Well, that's good to hear [laughs].
CP: You get a lot of positive feedback from your audience. Among filmmakers, you're engaged with your fans to an unusual degree: You reply to them online, you tour the college and comic-convention circuits, you hang out. You're a presence in the lives of your fans, and they adore you. In terms of maintaining your creativity, is there a risk of being too engaged with your audience? Do you try to set limits on it?
Smith: Well, it's not like I'm lacking for outside opinion. I mean, I'll go on the Web and find any number of people who are like, "All he does is play to his fuckin' fan base." They say it as a negative thing. And I'm always like, "Well, doesn't every filmmaker play to his fan base?" Martin Scorsese plays to Martin Scorsese's fuckin' fan base. Steven Spielberg plays to Steven Spielberg's fan base. Their fan bases are much larger than mine, and they don't respond to the audience the way I do. But I mean, Spielberg doesn't set out to make a movie and go, "I want to play to the people who really hate my shit." He wants to play to the people who put him at the top of the fuckin' pantheon. So I don't see that as a bad thing. I guess I can kind of get my head around the idea of like, "Well, if he keeps playing to his fan base exclusively, he'll never grow as a filmmaker." But I don't agree with it. Nothing but good has ever come from my tight connection to the fan base.
CP: You said recently that Clerks II could get terrible reviews, even from the fans, and you wouldn't care, because you know that you've made a great movie. Your love for the film seems extremely genuine and believable. What is it about Clerks II that works so well for you when you watch it?
Smith: I think the actual quote was more like, "I love the movie"—and I do. It felt great to make it—the rehearsing, the shooting, the cutting, all the way through. Usually I'm in a position where I'm like, "God, I just hope people like it." And now I'm just like, "It speaks to me. I'm satisfied." It's not only that I think the movie is really funny. It's that, you know, I think it's my first movie about real heroes. Granted, there are heroic acts in Dogma—people taking on angels and demons, larger-than-life shit. But [Clerks II] is quietly, believably heroic—about the two dudes least likely to seize the reins of their own destiny and they do it. I know it sounds corny, but I swear to God, every time I see the last part of the flick, I get wet-eyed. I feel proud of the characters—which is weird, 'cause they don't really exist. My favorite scene in the movie is that moment [near the end] when they say, "Fuck it. I'm gonna be my own boss." I would wish that for everybody.
CP: The other key thing that happens in that scene is that Dante and Randal confess their true feelings for one another—as much as these guys can, anyway. I mean, Clerks II is really a love story, right? All those gay jokes are just the characters' momentary defense against this very real love that they're reluctant to admit.
Smith: Totally. I've had many male friends in my life—best friends, close friends, and what not. I've always been able to express myself in terms of saying, "You mean a lot to me, man. Your friendship has made me who I am." Some of my [male] friends are the same way—like, "I'm just gonna unburden myself and share my inner feelings with you." But most of 'em are like Randal—just fuckin' nihilists, closet dreamers; they bury their feelings. In the movie, the moment when Randal becomes an adult is the moment when he decides to fuckin' share something that he never would've shared before. He's always been the guy who has a quip or a smart-ass reply, and now he dares to show his weakness. The stuff I do [in my movies] is very much rooted in male relationships—how those relationships are like marriage without the sex.
CP: There are two pairs of "lovers" here, right? Do you think of Jay and Silent Bob as mirror images of Dante and Randal—their ids, maybe?
Smith: To some degree, yeah. I mean, [Jay and Silent Bob] are the dudes who have basically no self-awareness whatsoever. There's no spiritual or moral or intellectual dimension to those two. One of 'em doesn't even talk at all. But they're clerks in their own way: They do serve the public, if you know what I mean. So they're the flip side, yeah. I don't think that idea was intentional in the first Clerks—they were just funny dudes to put in the movie. In Clerks II, though, they become more of a mirror, like Dante and Randal as seen through a scanner darkly—to make a timely reference.
CP: That's funny, because I was just about to invoke [Richard] Linklater in another connection. I was going to say that Clerks II is your Before Sunset—a love story that revisits the characters a decade later, meditating on the inevitable changes that have come with their age.
Smith: I still haven't gotten around to seeing [Before Sunset]. Everybody says, "Oh, my God, you would love it—it's so up your alley."
CP: It's the greatest movie ever made.
Smith: I need to see it. I remember looking at a picture of Julie Delpy from Before Sunset and thinking, "Whoa—she got old." I never thought about it in relation to my movie until people started saying, "These [clerks] have gotten paunchy; they've got age written all over their faces." There's some kind of weird poignancy to that. We showed the movie to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as soon as we had a [rough] cut together. And Quentin, right from the first fuckin' shot of the guy getting out of the car and going to his job, was like, "Whoa! You've got this automatic emotion right in their faces! We're with 'em right from the jump! They're old!" Until he said that, I hadn't realized it. It's the before-and-after effect. When you've been around people for years, like I've been around Jeff [Anderson] and Brian [O'Halloran], you don't notice that they're aging.
CP: There's such unexpected melancholy, such ambiguity in the movie—particularly in the last shot. In sequel terms—and Dante and Randal would appreciate this, I think—Clerks II is more Empire than Jedi.
Smith: Ha! Right! That [last shot] was basically my bid to get away with the borderline mawkishness in that jail scene. I mean, with a line like, "I love you, man," you run the risk of really alienating some people. Not all of the twentysomething dudes who dig my shit are emotionally free enough to sit through that [jail] scene and not be like, "What the fuck, dude?" So the ending was my way to have my cake and eat it, too. Everything does work out [for Dante and Randal]: They achieve their goal. And that last shot is a way of being like, "They achieved their goal...but is it what they really wanted?" I mean, those dudes had the chance to go anywhere in the world once that fuckin' [Quick Stop] place burned down—and what they chose was to go back to it. In a way, it's kind of how I feel about doing Clerks II. I could've done any movie, but instead I wanted to do this. And as much as I love it, I do kind of sit there going, "Whoa—should I have tried something else?" So there's ambiguity there, yeah—a large dollop of ambiguity.