Kevin Smith talks 'Red State,' Wayne Gretzky and why he's ready to leave filmmaking
Currently, he often talks into a microphone at least four hours a week spread across four separate podcasts. He has plans to begin an online morning radio show next month and also frequently hits the road for speaking tours, talking directly and in person to his dedicated fan base. He has done so much talking of late that Smith –- who with his debut feature “Clerks” came to embody the credit-cards-and-a-dream ideal of independent film in the 1990s -– seems to have talked himself out of making movies altogether. He has announced that following the release of the new “Red State” and the yet-to-be-made hockey movie “Hit Somebody” he will abandon filmmaking to become simply a full-time talker or, as he puts it, “a storyteller.”
“Red State,” which stars Michael Parks, John Goodman and recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo, will have its first local screening Saturday night at the Wiltern with onstage appearances by Smith and special guests, ahead of a fuller release in the fall. Regardless of how one feels about the film’s quality, it is undoubtedly unlike any other film Smith has made, and his first since “Clerks” to be made completely as an independent. Rather than another of the snappy, raunchy comedies he is known for, the film is a chilling, deeply felt parable of human wickedness, as a small, anti-gay religious congregation becomes engaged in a Waco-style standoff with federal agents.
When Smith premiered the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, many in the audience were under the impression he would auction off the distribution rights after the screening to someone right there in the room, a pressure cooker of expectations and media buzz turned to a boil by protests outside the theater by controversial pastor Fred Phelps’ Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-gay congregation on which the group in the film is loosely based. When Smith used the moment to announce he was going to self-release the film, many were outraged by his piece of theatrical showmanship, some saying Smith had simply wasted the time of fellow film professionals, while others saw the stunt as a form of career suicide.
The Wiltern show will be the 15th and final stop of this first leg of the premium-priced “Red State” tour, with Smith mostly traveling by bus from venue to venue with a digital projector in the luggage hold. On Tuesday afternoon, with Smith just back from a screening of “Red State” in Seattle the night before, he took time to sit for a nearly two-hour interview .
By turns combative and conciliatory, reflective and on the attack, Smith is a candidly engaging and at times contradictory conversationalist. He certainly does not seem like someone near the end of anything, and at one point became visibly emotional as he spoke of the hockey great Wayne Gretzky and the pain of leaving something you love.
As he refashions himself into his next incarnation, he will most definitely keep on talking. And he'll likely have the last word on Kevin Smith.
-- Mark Olsen
M.O.: So I saw “Red State” as the serious, personal film a lot of people have been wanting you to make for a while now. It reads to me as a scream of anguish and confusion.
K.S.: No, no. What "Red State" is to me is about moral relativism. It’s a series of bad decisions made by a series of people who think they are doing the right thing. And that’s human nature. But it’s not a statement like I think we’re all doomed. I just couched it in a movie. Seeing it in a room with a thousand people that want to be there, it ain’t like seeing it at Sundance. You can’t penetrate that, you know how difficult it is to get through folded arms? These cats [coming out to Smith's tour stops], they paid their 65 bucks, they’re predisposed, you really gotta ... to lose them. You gotta be Charlie-Sheen-first-night-in-Detroit bad to lose an audience at that point. So we go out and deliver on the promise of that 65 bucks and they feel they’re getting their money’s worth.
M.O.: But the film seems to take such a dim view of humanity; there are no heroes, only villains and victims.
K.S.: Maybe there’s a little social commentary in there, but it’s a horror movie. People are going to read a bunch of ... into it, but I know what my intentions were. I wanted to make a parlor trick of a movie. I just didn’t want to make a Kevin Smith movie. Just once before I left this directing game, I wanted to make a Coen brothers movie by way of Quentin Tarantino.
M.O.: Some people might even take issue with your describing “Red State” as a horror film.
K.S.: They go, "that’s not a horror movie." Yeah, we’ve learned that on the road. But look, I don’t know what else to call it. I worked at RST Video, that same video store in "Clerks," for many years. We had categories that went drama, horror, comedy, children's. It only fits in horror.
M.O.: I’d say it’s a drama.
K.S.: Aren’t the things that happen in it horrifying? Seriously, isn’t it horrifying to watch a dude cellophaned to a cross and watch him shot right in the head just because they don’t like gay people? That’s horrifying, that’s a horror movie to me. Maybe to you a horror movie is a dude with a chainsaw. I didn’t know there was one label. Honestly, you call it whatever you want. After Sundance, people were like, "it’s not a horror movie, it’s an action thriller." I’m like, great, call it that. To me, it’s a horror movie.
M.O.: I’d like to ask you about Sundance. Would you have staged that event differently in hindsight? Some people seemed to feel there was a bait-and-switch with your auction.
K.S.: Who, what people? People who were never gonna help us out anyway. We would have had action, sales, but we weren’t interested. I knew from Day 4 of the movie that we should do this on our own. The way I did it, I don’t regret at all. The only regret I have is had I known that the Phelpses were going to protest the movie I wouldn’t have even floated that auction thing. The auction thing was floated long before we got into Sundance off me going, "You know what, if we get into Sundance I intend to pick my distributor in the room auction-style." Which I argue I did to a T. I did exactly what I said I was gonna do. Everyone else extrapolated. People said, “He’s going to auction it to the highest bidder in the room.” I didn’t say that. And I didn’t correct them either.
M.O.: But do you think the hoopla around the screening as an event got in the way of people seeing the movie on its own terms?
K.S.: I always get in the way of the movie; that’s the simple truth. It’s always something. I like making my movies and I know exactly who my audience is. And in this instance I’m just playing directly to them. I’m not going for your audience, I’m just going to play to mine. Why should that upset anybody? And that’s essentially what I said on that Sundance stage. I don’t have enough confidence in this movie to overspend on marketing so I’m just going to take it out myself, try to four-wall it and not spend any money. And, granted, it took 45 minutes to say that, some of it was funny and some of it a little too uncomfortable for some cats in the room and there were some people who were like, here come the long, sharp knives. It didn’t matter. Our way was clear; I knew exactly what I was doing.
M.O.: And this ties into your decision to leave filmmaking?
K.S.: It’s no longer just the movie. It’s not the movie, dude. That’s another reason I don’t feel like I’m a filmmaker, really. Most filmmakers, most directors –- Fincher, he makes a movie, puts it out there, he doesn’t say ... he’s making another movie. Spielberg doesn’t need to promote the movie. Clint Eastwood can’t be bothered to say word one about what he does. These are master craftsmen who do what they do and let the work speak for itself. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve been the guy who goes out and buttresses the work afterward. As soon as the movie is over, I’m like, "Hold on, let me tell you what happened –- me and Bruce Willis got into a fight and also I got kicked off an airplane." It’s never been just about the movie. For almost 20 years I’ve made that painfully clear. I’ll come out and talk for more time than the movie runs. Now we’re in a world where I don’t have to play by anybody else’s rules. In their world you have to spend millions of dollars to get people to see the movie. In my world I can just tell people on a podcast and they come to see it. I came to the conclusion I don’t have to work for anybody anymore, I can just work for the audience.
M.O.: Do you think you’re going to…
M.O.: Take some time away…
K.S.: No, never.
M.O.: And then come back.
K.S.: No. I’m done.
M.O.: Would I be the first person to say to you I think you’ll come back to filmmaking?
K.S.: No. Everyone says that. I swear to you, you’ll be the 12th person I say I’ll pay a million dollars if I return. I know me. I know my internal barometer.
M.O.: How do you know?
K.S.: Because I’ve done it for 20 years. Coming up on this August will be the 20th anniversary of that moment that I was like, I’m gonna be a filmmaker. Show me anybody who does a job for 20 years. I think I got into Wayne Gretzky at the right time in my life, when inside the artist in me knew that it was coming to an end. And watching and learning about the career of Wayne Gretzky gives you the feeling of, it’s OK to stop. You can stop doing something that you love. I love film, in a big way, but I don’t have to be involved with it for the rest of my life. You do it as much as you can, you give it your all, you empty the tank and you take the hits. It doesn’t matter what they say, but you have to be honest with yourself when you know I’m not going to be able to play the game at the level I’d like to play it at. When I got into Gretzky, he put that quote together and he made it much easier for me to make a really difficult transition. I don’t want to go. It’s awesome. If I can’t do what I was meant to do, if I can’t produce the same work, I shouldn’t do it.
M.O.: But you seem so positive about “Red State” and “Hit Somebody” and the place you’re at as a filmmaker. Why walk away now?
K.S.: Go out high. Win a Stanley Cup and leave. End magically. But end. I always hoped it would be on my terms and not somebody going, "You ... get out." I’ve seen it happen to people. It’s terrifying when you’re an artist. You can put on a good game and talk about how freewheeling and fun it is, but it’s scary when you see people lose their voice because they don’t matter, they’re not monetizable. And you’re just like, one day that’s going to come down to me. The business end of it, it’s run by people fueled by fear. They know when they accept the job they are going to get fired one day. And art can’t be fearful. You have to be fearless when you step on that stage. Going out there and being dangerous is where good art comes from. For a while I wasn’t dangerous, and this is dangerous. Not just the movie itself, but everything about it. It’s a reasonable amount of unreasonability to step outside the box and say I think I can sell this better by myself.
Photo: Kevin Smith Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Michael Parks in "Red State" Credit: Anthony Michael Rivetti
Photo: John Goodman in "Red State" Credit: Anthony Michael Rivetti