Any conversation with Kevin Smith, the loquacious filmmaker/geek god, tends to go to interesting places. The guy has no filter, and regularly regales colleges and podcast listeners with his industry yarns, from the hellish experience working with Bruce Willis on Cop Out to the living soap opera that was developing his script for the superhero flick Superman Lives, replete with a giant, killer spider (at the producer’s behest).
Following the disappointing box office for Red State, Smith said that his follow-up film, Clerks 3, would be his last. Later, he amended that statement to say that he’ll keep making movies, but only ones “I would/could ever make.” Which brings us to Tusk.
A couple of years back, on his comedy podcast SModcast, Smith and pal Scott Mosier discussed an ad for a man renting out a room in his house gratis—on the condition that the tenant dresses up like a walrus for a few hours a day. They had a field day with it, disassembling and reassembling it, until they landed on an idea: What if it was a horror film about a demented elderly seafarer who posts a misleading ad, lures a man to his cabin in the woods, and then attempts to transform him into a walrus. That, dear friends, is the plot to Tusk. Written and directed by Smith, the film stars Michael Parks as the seaman Howard Howe and Justin Long as Wallace Bryton, the poor podcaster who’s abducted. When he goes missing, Wallace’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and pal (Hailey Joel Osment) team up with an eccentric Montreal private eye, Guy LaPointe (Johnny Depp), to track him down.
Tusk was shot in 19 days on a budget of $2.9 million, and made its world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where The Daily Beast sat down with Smith to discuss the bizarre film, the 20th anniversary of Clerks, and much more.
I feel like my entire generation grew up smoking weed and watching Clerks and Mallrats.
See, that’s something I never did until fairly recently. It was [Seth] Rogen who turned me on to it. I’d smoked weed in the past, but treated it as a recreational, once-in-a-blue-moon thing. But Rogen was just so impressive and productive as a stoner, and the only stoners I’d known filled the stereotype, but this is a guy who works against the stereotype, since he’s always working on, like, nine things at once. He introduced me to the notion that there’s a whole community of productive stoners—not just in this business, but everywhere.
It’s a really mental wall, but once you concentrate and bust through that wall, you can be very productive.
Exactly. Some people are like, “I can’t imagine working stoned!” but for me, part of the fun is working through it, where it’s like, “OK, there’s something here but it’s clearing cobwebs and making me look at it from a new perspective.” It doesn’t give you any creative ideas, but it removes fear from any equation so you have no fear of what will happen.
Johnny Depp has a pretty sizeable role in Tusk as the Montreal private eye Guy LaPointe. How did you two hook up?
It’s the girls. I met him because his daughter, Lily, and my daughter, Harley, are friends. I met him back in 2005 when Harley started in this school called the Hollywood Schoolhouse, so I’ve known him through school functions and he’s cool to talk to, and he’s a fuckin’ icon. I watched 21 Jump Street the first night it aired on Fox. We’d talk about the business but never, “Hey, do you want to play Silent Bob’s uncle?” because he was just in another stratosphere.
It wasn’t until Tusk with the Guy LaPointe part where, when I was done writing, I thought, “Who would be the ultimate Guy LaPointe?” because it was a gonzo project anyway that went from podcast to movie in six fuckin’ months. So, in that stoner frame of mind, I thought, “Johnny Depp would crush this.” It was the matter of just getting over the fear of texting him and going, “Hey man, I know you probably judge shit like this, but I have this great part in a fun movie and it’ll take two days.” And I told him that the only regret I had about making Red State was, because I had to turn it into a circus to self-distribute it, Michael Parks never got the due that I was hoping he would. I took all the focus away and some people were like, “Well, fuck Kevin and his movie.” So, I texted Johnny and said, “Look, I’m trying to make this flick for Parks to try and make up for the fact that I didn’t shine a light on him, and you could really help shine a light on him,” and he texted back, “I love Michael Parks.”
And you two are hooking up again with Yoga Hosers, starring Johnny and each of your daughters?
He fell in love with the Guy LaPointe character. He shot it in two days. After it was done, he was like, “I’ll play this character anytime.” But we shot our daughters in that convenience store sequence in two hours, and it was fuckin’ adorable. At the end of that sequence, Johnny was joking around and said, “We should just put them to work and retire.” I’m cutting that scene and watching it over and over, and I asked my wife why I loved the scene so much, and she said, “Kevin, it’s two people behind the fuckin’ counter at a convenience store. It’s where you started.” Plus, the performance was so natural and fuckin’ deadpan. So, first I asked my wife about writing a movie for the girls, and then I asked Vanessa [Paradis], Lily-Rose’s mom, and she said, “Kevin, if you want to do it, do it.” And then I did it and gave her the script, and she was like, “Oh wow, you weren’t kidding.” We’re at the end of Week 3 of shooting and by the end of the first week, they were really fuckin’ good and making instinctive choices. I thought it would be like directing Jason Mewes on Clerks where I’d go over and have to say, “No, do it like this,” and it was a puppeteering job, but they’re standing on their own.
One of the first things that came up when I Googled your name for this interview was the headline, “Kevin Smith: Jennifer Garner Ended My Relationship with Ben Affleck.”
So stupid. For years, I’ve been telling the same joke where people will ask if I’ve seen Ben and I say, “Oh, he’s married now and his wife doesn’t like me,” so I said the same fuckin’ joke at Comic-Con and then it got blown up. It’s so embarrassing.
Believe me, dude, when I say the joke of, “He’s got a wife, and she don’t like me,” there’s a seed of fuckin’ truth to it. She’s not like, “I don’t like Kevin Smith so you’re not allowed to hang out with him,” but I worked with her on Catch and Release, and we don’t have the same sense of humor. But to be fair, I haven’t seen Affleck since the Argo premiere at the DGA, which was like two years ago. And I just saw him as I was leaving and gave him the thumbs-up and he mouthed, “Thank you,” and that was it.
You two haven’t even had a Batman conversation yet?
I haven’t. I emailed him when he got cast, and I was like, “Motherfucker, you know I host a show called Fatman on Batman, you gotta fuckin’ come talk,” and he said, “I’m doing Gone Girl and then going right to Batman, but trust me, I will do the show.” For me, it’s weirdly wonderful. Now I know a dude who plays my favorite character on the planet, and this is an actor who I believed in from the jump, and everything he performed in I was a big fan of, and still remain a fan of.
You were really the first person to give him a juicy leading role, in Chasing Amy.
He was the guy who hit people with paddles in Dazed and Confused. I remember calling him and being like, “Dude, I’m writing this script, and I’m writing the lead for you,” and he said, “Get the fuck out of here.” I said, “Dude, I think you could be a leading man. You’re really fuckin’ funny and charming.” Ben is one of my favorite human beings on the planet because he’s so for-reals, funny, sharp, and witty.
What’s going on with Clerks 3?
We’re supposed to start shooting it in May, which looks like it’s utterly possible. But right now, the structure of Yoga Hosers is we’ll shoot four weeks on it, wrap, and then in February we’ll pick up Johnny when he’s done with the movie he’s shooting now. And in that hole, we’re going to shoot this Christmas picture Krampus. Then after that, we’ll shoot Clerks 3.
And it’s the 20th anniversary of Clerks, which is big.
That’s what I was gunning for. Tusk came out of the frustration of trying to put Clerks 3 together in time for the anniversary, and waiting for the Weinsteins to weigh in. Instead of sitting there by the fuckin’ phone I decided to occupy myself working on something else.
Are you on good terms with Harvey Weinstein? You two had a bit of a falling out over what you felt was poor marketing on Zach & Miri, and also passing on Red State.
Yeah. Bob, very friendly with, Harvey, friendly with. All that stuff is water under the bridge. I thought, “So, you got mad at a guy who took his eye off the fuckin’ ball.” I wanted [Zach & Miri] to work in the biggest way. I thought it was Apatow country and was gonna be a big hit, and it wasn’t. But when I think about it, I owe everything to Harvey. This guy picked up my movie, and because I make movies I get to do interviews, and because I do interviews, I got to meet my wife and have a family. Everyone bitches, “All movies are sequels and remakes,” but every time Harvey goes to bat, he does something original. The guy is a maestro. He got The Artist the fuckin’ Oscar.
Any crazy Clerks memories?
We’d shoot all day at the convenience store, so people would pop in. This big postman who’s about twice the size of me, named Guy, would come into the store and buy orange juice and cigarettes, and came in one night and said, “What are you guys doing here?” and I said, “We’re making a movie.” He said, “Well, I want to buy one… I want to be one of the first guys to buy your movie.” So, once we were finished cutting it together and before we took it to Sundance, I sold him a copy for fifty bucks. So, we go to Sundance and my life changes. But Guy, being a local and shit, would tell people, “Oh, you’ve gotta see this movie, man! I’ll make you a copy,” and it became the most bootlegged fuckin’ movie on the Jersey Shore. There were people in the Jersey ’burbs who would come up and say, “Hey, I love Clerks, man,” and I’d say, “Oh, you went to New York to see it?” and they’d go, “Nah, man. On VHS. My buddy burned me a copy.” And they were all viewing the uncut version, too—the one not in theaters—because of postman Guy.
The trailer recently got released for the documentary The Death of Superman Lives, about the aborted Tim Burton Superman Lives flick with Nic Cage, and you penned the first draft of that screenplay.
It’s awesome. It shows the fuckin’ footage of Nic Cage. And that was the look—with the long hair, and suit. I was long out of the project by that point, but I remember someone at Warner Bros. asking me, “What do you think of Nic Cage?” and I said, “Oh, Nic Cage can do anything, are you kidding me? Give him a fuckin’ hairpiece and he’s fuckin’ ready to rock.” That looks amazing. I talked to the dude who made the documentary, and he got everybody. Tim Burton’s flat-out sitting there talking to him and making self-deprecating jokes. I was actually hoping it would be at Toronto, but maybe Sundance or something.
Do you think we’ve reached peak comic book movie?
No way. Do you know how many westerns there are? You can just keep rebooting them and spinning them off. It’s a golden era for anyone who grew up reading these comic books and wants to see these characters brought to life. If anyone had any doubt that Marvel doesn’t know what they’re doing, Guardians of the Galaxy proved that not only can they take characters you know, they can take characters you don’t know. And on the Warner Bros. end, it looks like they’re finally building that universe up with Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and all of them. In the ’80s, there were a bunch of action movies that were all similar and they were basically superheroes, too. I’m content for the next 20 years watching them run this into the ground before it goes away, and then comes back again.
Do you still want to make a superhero film?
No. There was a point where I had Green Hornet to write and direct, but it just got too fuckin’ big. It was a $70 million version and I was like, “I don’t want to direct this… it’s too big,” so Harvey said, “Why don’t you just write it?” so I did. At one point, John Woo was circling to direct it, but then the big divorce happened with Miramax and Disney, and it went away. I would’ve chosen George Clooney to play Green Hornet, but the version we were doing was younger, so we met with Jake Gyllenhaal. He was the only actor I met with.
He’s turned into a really good actor. Great at playing detectives.
And gay cowboys, which he doesn’t do enough of! He nailed the part so well, and decided not to do it again. He needs to return.