Kevin Smith on Coining ‘Bennifer’ and Trying to Save His Hero Stan Lee
The celebrated cult filmmaker opens up about the new book “Kevin Smith’s Secret Stash,” his mentors Stan Lee and George Carlin, the return of Bennifer, and more.
“The only reason I ever have anything going on all the time is because I’m so fucking terrified of becoming irrelevant that I have to be in as many places as possible,” offers Kevin Smith. “If one stop doesn’t work, I can jump to another one and say, ‘Well, this was always the aim!’”
Smith is, of course, being modest—the filmmaker has a lot going on right now. His recent Masters of the Universe series proved a hit for Netflix; there’s an eye-catching new coffee table book chronicling his storied career, Kevin Smith’s Secret Stash; he is the subject of a documentary, Clerk, out next month; and he spent most of the summer shooting Clerks III back home in Jersey, which he says is “probably the best movie I’ve ever made.”
Oh, and Smith’s also putting together the pieces for Twilight of the Mallrats, a sequel to his 1995 cult flick “about the death of mall culture and one man’s desperate need to hold onto the past.” Smith says that he’s trying to reunite the original cast from the film, and that it will once again center the travails of Brodie (Jason Lee), who is now living in the mall.
As for the two retrospective projects, Secret Stash and Clerk, both trace Smith’s journey from Vancouver Film School, to his 1994 cult classic Clerks—famously made on a budget of just $27,575—to his later films, including Chasing Amy, Dogma, and Jersey Girl, where he coined the name “Bennifer.” In classic Smith style, they’re packed with humor, pathos and plenty of fucks.
“I’ve been looking back my whole life. I don’t know why,” the 51-year-old filmmaker says. “I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to recreate a very tender five-year period of my life that took place from, like, age 17-22. In some ways, everything I do is about trying to recreate that moment.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The book and documentary are coming out just a few years after your heart attack, so did that big health scare get you thinking about your legacy?
I wish I could say yes, but to be honest, I’ve been the most nostalgic, look-back person since the age of, like, 5. I was nostalgic for episodes of Happy Days when they ended when I was 7. I realized in the last few years that most of my career is predicated on looking backward. Even if you go back 10 years ago when we were doing the Comic Book Men show on AMC, it wasn’t about new stuff, it was about all these comic books we used to love to read. Masters of the Universe is an old thing that we breathed new life into, and I just finished Clerks III. The Secret Stash book is definitely a look-back, and the Clerk documentary is too. Most of my contemporaries live for the future, and at a certain point, I just fell back into the past. I’ve always been chasing the ’90s. If I could do my entire career again, I would have done Clerks as a series, although that wasn’t really an option at the time—and that’s really what I’ve been trying to do if you look at all my movies and how they’re interconnected in one way or another. I’ve been trying to tell one long story.
What’s old is usually new again.
If you can stick around long enough, they forget shit. They go, “Didn’t you used to fight with critics?” “Didn’t you direct Jersey Girl?” But if you can last long enough, even your career foibles become victories. For example, Mallrats comes out in ’95 and almost destroys my very nascent career, and now Mallrats is the movie I can eat out on and people go, “Oh, Stan Lee—he saw the future,” and stuff like that. So, you never can tell. And there’s nothing that’s happened over the course of my career where I’m like, “If only I could change that.” I mean, working with Harvey Weinstein—I never knew what would come out with that in terms of what we would find out about him and stuff, so I guess I would change that. But even the movies that flop don’t necessarily age like a fine wine, but a drinkable wine.
There’s a very lovely story in Secret Stash about Stan Lee, and how in order to agree to the cameo in Mallrats, his only stipulation was that he wouldn’t disparage his wife.
He didn’t want Joanie to be disparaged. Even in a fantasy world, Stan loved Joanie so much that he was like, “Can we put in one more bit where I reveal that it was all a joke to help the buddy get his girlfriend?” It wasn’t until years later, after I became good friends with Stan, knew him to the day he died, and loved him dearly, that I knew Joanie was his absolute beloved and that he couldn’t mention someone who came before her. That being said, Stan was also one of the great marketers this world has ever seen, and in asking me to add that scene, he literally doubled his part in the movie, which I think was chiefly his aim.
I edited a number of stories by the journalist Mark Ebner about Stan Lee’s final days, and the vultures in his orbit, and you were the one who really sounded the alarm about how he was being exploited.
It was such a bummer. It’s just a weird situation, because you’ll watch any number of true crime miniseries—like recently, we watched the Brittany Murphy documentary on HBO and they talked about how that dude, Simon Monjack, cut her off from the world, where you couldn’t call her on this phone or that phone, and he isolated her—and that’s what happened with Stan. I couldn’t get him on any of the lines I had, the people who were part of his normal life were no longer in his inner circle, and they isolated him at a time when he was his most fucking alone.
You have to understand: Stan loved his wife in a way that few people love their spouses in this world. No matter what he was doing, he would go home at 6 p.m., have dinner with Joanie, and take a nap. They were each other’s best fucking friends. So, to lose her when he did, he was by himself. And over the next year and change, all those vultures did was isolate the guy from people who would have kept him try company—not putting a pen in his hand at a Con and forcing him to sign more crap. He was 95, but he was still very, very sharp. And to isolate him the way they did from the people who loved him, and only bring him out like a show pony at Cons, they took years from his life. And there was nothing you could do, because his daughter was a part of it. It was a really untenable situation. When I think about it, it’s a real heartbreaking time, man.
It’s crazy to think about. They were literally draining him of his blood and using it to sell comics.
This is a guy who wrote about superheroes. Superheroes would crash through a fucking door to save a life, and none of us could do the same to the father of all our favorite superheroes. None of us could save this guy from the clutches of real supervillains.
There’s another really moving anecdote from the book I enjoyed about George Carlin, and how on Dogma, his only stipulation was that since his wife had just passed, he didn’t want to remove his wedding band for the film and asked if he could put a Band-Aid over it.
It’s funny, you don’t think about a move like that when you think about George Carlin. You think about one of the most insightful people who ever lived, ahead of his time, brilliantly funny, but he was a romantic. A huge softie and a big romantic. I was so incredibly touched by that. The two people who were major icons to me in my life loved their wives. You couldn’t ask for better role models.
It was fun how you had George Carlin in Dogma given that one of his more famous bits is about how conservatives only care about the sanctity of life before the baby is born—and then when you turn 18 so you can go fight their wars—and the film centers a woman working at an abortion clinic. And you always see that bit get recirculated every time Republicans pass some shitty anti-abortion law.
It was definitely a wink and a nudge to cast Carlin as the Cardinal, and he enjoyed the shit out of it. Having grown up in the church with all of the ceremony, and having long been out of the church, he did it to a T so ironically. I remember we were shooting a Cardinal Glick scene in his office, and there’s a bunch of us in the scene—me, Jay [Mewes], Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock, and then Carlin himself. Between takes, I’m just chitchatting with him, and we were talking about this bit where Jay wears the bishop’s miter sorta like a shark, and I said, “We can only go so far with it, because if we go too far it’s blasphemy.” And George looks at me like I’m crazy and goes, “I just got it right now. You still believe in all this stuff, don’t you?” And I was like, “Yeah. You don’t?” And he goes, “No! I’m smarter than that.”
I read that 9/11—and George W. Bush’s religious fervor—almost inspired you to make a sequel to Dogma?
Yeah, at one point. I always thought, “Oh, maybe we can make a Dogma sequel,” and then when the movie came out and there were death threats, I thought, “Maybe it’s not worth it.” When I started the process of making Dogma I was a single man, and by the time I finished I was married with a child. I thought, well, you can fuck around when it’s you by yourself, but once other people are counting on you, perhaps dealing with a subject as touchy as religion should be left to those with less to lose, I guess. Once we got a brick put through the front window of our house the day of my kid’s christening, and it was the window right next to my kid’s room, I thought that perhaps Dogma II can wait until my kid’s grown up. But good news, Marlow: My kid is now 22 and just moved into her own house, so now I don’t have to worry about the kid anymore, and maybe it’s time to get back to the good ol’ religious moviemaking. I’ve got two under my belt in Dogma and Red State, so I’m thinking it’s time to make one more—and it’s got to be about Satanism. As an old-timey Catholic who grew up in the era of The Exorcist and The Omen and Race with the Devil, there’s always been some Satanic cult movie brewing in me.
You mentioned Harvey Weinstein earlier, and one part of the book that struck me was when you described how Weinstein pulled Good Will Hunting out of theaters early to screw Robin Williams out of his back end.
I remember they pulled that movie out of theaters while it was still earning at the time. It was doing incredibly well, and the deal that they’d made with Robin was a high-percentage first-dollar gross—a movie-star deal—and it was great, because instantly by putting Robin in the movie their pre-sales paid for the whole fucking film. So, the movie was paid for and then the movie was making money hand over fist and made over $100 million. From what I remember, Robin’s split would be even greater and he’d get a bigger percentage if it crossed $100 million, so every dollar the movie made at the theatrical box office would have to be split—I’m not sure if it was a 50/50 split—with Robin Williams. I was on the movie as a co-executive producer, so we were privy to some details, and I remember the day when Good Will Hunting was leaving theaters and it felt weird because it was like, “Wait? There’s all this Oscar buzz, so why would you pull it if it was just making money?” And they did it because keeping it in theaters meant that more of the money would go to Robin, whereas the moment it went to video the split wasn’t Robin-heavy. It was hamstrung because greed.
I’m curious how you feel about everything that was exposed about Harvey, because I know that he was something of a mentor to you, and there is a strong association—
—Careful, Marlow. Careful. “Mentor” is a big word. Carlin and Stan Lee were mentors; Harvey was a guy that produced our movies.
And fucked you out of a lot of money.
That too. The other day, I was talking to my friend Jon Gordon—he used to work at Miramax and produced the David O. Russell movies, like Silver Linings Playbook—and it’s something I never think about, because money was never a big pursuit of mine. I was born lower, lower, lower middle class, so any money I got in the movie business was more money than I was ever going to see in my life. But I forgot that we were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars from The Weinstein Company—if not more—when that whole thing went kablooey, and I was reminded about it the other day by Jon Gordon, because there was a ruling where the company that holds all the assets of The Weinstein Company doesn’t have to pay out any of their debts.
Well, you can always say that the last thing you said to him in person was to go fuck himself at Sundance’s Red State premiere.
That is very true. And I remember being terrified that he was just gonna come through that curtain and fucking punch me in the face. For all that he was, and all that we know he is now, he was also a very large man, and he could be the screamiest person you’ve ever met in your life. Me and Jon were just talking the other day about the time Harvey crawled across the couch on all fours to scream in my face at The Peninsula—but as we all know, way worse things happened to far better people than me at The Peninsula. I saw his rage a lot, but to be fair, this wasn’t a guy we were around a lot. We were in Jersey when we were younger, and our movies didn’t make enough money for them to care that much about us. We were part of the Miramax stable, but Quentin [Tarantino] was their guy. Miramax was The House That Quentin Built. The only time we ever saw him was when we were going to pitch a movie or at a test screening. I’ve made four movies where Harvey never even came to set while we were making the flick.
In the Jersey Girl chapter of the book you reveal something I didn’t know: You were the one who coined “Bennifer.”
Dubious honor! A dubious honor at best, man. Most people out there, including Ben and Jen themselves, are like, “Thanks, asshole.” But yeah, while we were making the movie the [portmanteau] just presented itself. That would be what I would say on the set of Jersey Girl—“Where’s Bennifer?”—and someone would say, “They’re in the trailer.” So, I was talking to someone from the LA Times and doing an interview after we wrapped, and I was like, “Bennifer.” And then it showed up in print and started being everywhere.
Is it a trip for you to see them together again? Because they were first falling in love while making Jersey Girl, and it seems like no time has passed. They appear so in love and I think the public is enjoying the nostalgia hit they’re getting from it.
I do too. Everyone loves a good love story—especially when it comes around again. These two went off and had entire lives without each other and found each other again. It doesn’t hurt that they’re impossibly fucking pretty. And look, she’s fantastic, but he has looked better than he’s ever fucking looked in his entire life—and I’m a Ben Affleck fan! It took me until recently to be like, “Dude, you look so fucking good.” He looks twenty years younger than he did even last year, and that’s love and what it’s done for him. And as spectators, people on the outside who thumb through the news for pop-culture entertainment, it’s a heartwarming story. People are like, “Oh my God, they went off, lived entire lives, and here they are reconnecting.” It gives you hope in your own life.
But, man, they are just so easy to look at. And again, I can’t say this enough—I literally told him via text, “I’m having a hard time figuring out which one of you is the more attractive these days.” She brings out the best in him, and she even did back then on Jersey Girl. They made you try to be better in your relationship because you’re like, that’s what love looks like. I’m happy to see them back together again and he deserves it, because he’s such a good guy.
There’s one tidbit in the book that I was not aware of. You say that Ben Affleck called off the wedding to Jennifer Lopez three days before it was supposed to happen, and that you were going to be a reader at that wedding.
I was supposed to be a reader and then all of a sudden there was no wedding—I think a few days before. I was, I think, the second reader, because we were just a year out from making Jersey Girl, and then I got the call—not from him, but somebody else—saying the wedding was off. And I saw it in the press. I don’t know if he called it off, but the wedding was called off. Can I ask you this real quick, though? If they decide to get married again, do I get called to be the reader this many years later? Or do new friends take my place? I wonder what the protocol is.
I think you’ll play a part.
Maybe I’ll at least get to go.