Raw and Retiring: Kevin Smith

The barnstorming filmmaker talks up a blue streak and says he’s leaving

You would be hard-pressed to find a less dogmatic person than Kevin Smith, the director of Clerks (and its sequel), Dogma and the new horror thriller Red State, which he is screening during a 13-city tour from March 5 through April 9 prior to its theatrical release in October. The writer-director has been making movies for close to 20 years, mainly comedies. And, if the rumors are to be believed, this tour will be the start of his victory lap, his farewell to feature filmmaking.

But before succumbing to sadness and depression, the best thing fans can do would be to grab tickets ($67) for his Monday appearance at Kuss Auditorium (7 p.m.) in Springfield, Ohio, which can be acquired through the Clark State Performing Arts Center (online at pac.clarkstate.edu) and settle in for a wild ride. He will screen the film and conduct Q&A as only Kevin Smith can, which means he will answer any question and shoot straight from the lip.

I’ve interviewed Smith a couple of times over the years and I have to admit that he is one of the most fascinating and fun subjects I’ve ever worked with because it takes so little to get him going. Forget the standard question-and-answer format; it's best to prepare for a raw and uncut conversation about protests, movies and what comes next.

CityBeat: How was Springfield chosen as one of the sites for this tour?

Kevin Smith: Long in advance of Sundance (where Red State premiered Jan. 22), we were putting the tour together. We went out to a bunch of theaters quietly across the country — some I’ve played at, some I haven’t — to see if there was interest, but we couldn’t say what it (the event) was. It was like, “Kevin Smith doing a tour, his normal Q&A, but there will be something extra.” Theaters had to agree with little to go on and one of the theaters that got back to us right away was the one in Springfield, so they got added.

CB: You were on Bill Maher recently and didn’t get to talk much about the film...

KS: Yeah, which is cool. I’ve always felt, based on doing this for 17 years now and maybe its preference or experience, but I think you do a much better job of selling what you’re there to sell by not really talking about it at all. You know, at the end of the day, I can’t sit there and be dry and talk about what the movie is and what the tour is all about in the four minutes of time that they allot you on television. So I find it best to be memorable in another way. Like, if you’re funny, then people will say, “Who was that? That was kinda funny. I’m gonna look up that Red State thing.” And I’m more comfortable doing it that way. I didn’t expect to get on there and be like, “Yeah, we’re doing a tour!”

So, you see, the way I’ve conducted business over the years is to undersell. They say what you’re there for at the top of the segment and then they remind them again towards the end, which means that the movie is best served by me just trying to be as funny as possible.

CB: Looking at all of the press surrounding the film, there is a political/religious intent behind this film, which means something was bugging you, something that you wanted to talk about.

KS: Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, people have called me a filmmaker; people have called me an asshole; people have called me many things, but, first and foremost, I would like to think that I’m an entertainer. An entertainer has no business having power. I’m a court jester, a person who comes in and tries to alleviate tension. That’s my function in this world and that’s where people like me should sit. I always find it strange when people on my side of the fence get real lippy and mouthy about who you ought to vote for and stuff like that, what’s fair and what’s not, you know … maybe it’s because of my Catholic upbringing or being a fat kid my whole life, but I have a hard time thinking my opinion counts for much outside the stuff that I produce myself. My movies, my written work or my podcasts, that’s where I can be the foremost authority.

So when people say, “Red State seems kinda political,” I thank them, but the reality is the movie just seems more grown up than I probably am. At the end of the day, I look at it and sure the title definitely smacks of politicism, but the truth is always so much more boring. It’s just red is blood. It was just a common horror movie name. I could’ve gone Blood State, but that would have sounded kinda shitty. Nobody’s ever called a movie Red State, so I’ll take it. And, again, as the court jester, the idea of taking that title off the table, away from somebody who might make something political with it, I felt good about that. It felt good to take something away that could potentially hurt people and slap it on a horror picture. Look, I think its well-made, well-crafted, but at the end of the day it is a filthy little horror movie and a filthy little psychological thriller and a filthy little action movie in the last 30 minutes.

I mean, I definitely have feeling about the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church, although not them so much as that type of religious fundamentalism. But remember this is the guy who couldn’t spit anything out on Real Time that wasn’t a joke. So, if I was going to do or say anything, I was going to do it comedically, or in this case through satire. Rather than say that the Phelps people are bad, because I can’t say that they’re bad, although their opinions are kinda tough to take, but I believe in freedom of speech. At the end of the day it sucks, but they’re not hurting anybody. They are hurting feelings, but they’re not physically hurting anybody. If we restrict them, then we risk that slippery slope where I’m not allowed to say whatever I want.

Nobody needs me on a pedestal yelling, “These people are stupid and fat. They hurt everyone’s feelings and they need to stop.” It’s more simple to make a horror movie. Sometimes you defang the beast by satirizing it.

CB: That’s a great approach, but now you’ve got these people coming out to protest your film and this tour.

KS: Listen, the first time I got protested by the Phelps’, I was scared, so scared that I actually told my mother to stay home. She was going to come to Kansas City on a bus with me. That’s how I tour now, because I couldn’t get on a plane for a while, you know. Anyway, Westboro put out a press release saying, “God hates fag enabler Kevin Smith.”

So I didn’t know what to expect from being on the receiving end of a Phelps protest. When I got to Kansas City, there were like four of them. You see, Westboro Baptist Church has like 20 families, the members come from just 20 families. The four of them are holding signs, mostly about Easter. The bug up their asses that day was the Easter Bunny. God hates the Easter Bunny. A couple of guys who came with me went out and taped them. I didn’t want to engage them, but I sent them out and told these guys to interview them (the protesters).

The guys came back and said, “Dude, they couldn’t have been nicer. They couldn’t have been more well-spoken. They couldn’t have been more professional. They had talking points and an agenda, and sad to say not much of it had anything to do with you. They used you because they knew people would be here. They’re heat-seekers.” After that, they stopped being scary.

So as they’ve announced their Sundance protest, I came to realize how rich this is. I put out a press release for a counter-protest and when we screened the movie for the first time there, they showed up and we had our counter-protesters. We turned it into a bit of a media circus and in that moment, I realized these Phelps are my marketing partners. They’re here and I can’t ask for a better favor.

CB: Well, I’ve got to end things with a question about the whole retirement issue. How true is it all?

KS: Absolutely true. Red State is the penultimate flick for me. The new movie, Hit Somebody, which is based on a Warren Zevon song about a hockey player, I’m doing that as a feature and after that I’m done directing. It will have been 20 years, more actually, and over that time I’ve been a writer-director, but the writing was the engine that drove the train. I never meant to be a director. Indie film just made it seem possible that somebody without any visual talent could direct a film. So I wound up directing Clerks because I didn’t want to give it to anyone else for them to screw it up. And when I did it, Clerks became … Clerks, for lack of a better description. I wasn’t planning that, dude.

I got into film to tell stories and I told them. I got into the game not for the money or the fame but because I’m a storyteller and the only way I figured I could do that was indie film. But now, thanks to indie film, I can tell those stories anywhere. I do a lot of podcasting (smodcast.com), and that’s where my heart lies now. The passion of all the early films is now going into smodcast.com.

The immediacy of a podcast allows me to be as dynamic as ever without having to sit and wait for money and schedules to come together. It can be taped, posted and done forever in less than two hours. It’s all about the theater of the mind, the words, which is all I was ever about. I’m a writer, remember.

RED STATE screens 7 p.m. Monday at Clark State Performing Arts Center in Springfield, Ohio. Smith will be on hand for post-screening Q&A. Tickets are $67 and can be purchased at pac.clarkstate.edu.
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