Kevin Smith interview: Bruce Willis, Red State and the future

Interview Simon Brew 12 Oct 2009 - 19:47

Kevin Smith tells us why the wookie should win, about his new film with Bruce Willis, and how he’s changed the way he approaches his films…

There’s your intrepid reporter, knocking on the door of the hotel suite where our interview with Kevin Smith is set to take place. No answer. Uh-oh. And then he emerges, Reservoir Dogs-esque from around the corner, a big grin on his face and clearly in fine form.

But then he’s got much to be pleased about. His new book, Shooting The Sh*t With Kevin Smith: The Best Of SModcast has just gone on sale. His next film, A Couple Of Dicks, stars Bruce Willis and is locked for a February release. And he was on the eve of a series of Q&A sessions around the UK.

Without further ado, and after giving the man a Cylon, we sat down to talk about the book, the films, and being Kevin Smith. Here’s how it went…

You’ve half-covered the book before in other interviews, but I’m getting the impression that Titan came to you with the project, and you left them to it?

Absolutely. In fact Adam was just here, the guy at Titan who’s been my guy all along. He’s the dude who approached me a couple of years back. I think I was out here promoting Jersey Girl or shooting the Evening With Kevin Smith DVD, which might have been the same trip. I sat down with him at the Dorchester and we talked about this proposed book. And he said ‘we like the blog, and I think it would be an interesting book, would you mind if we published it?’ And I was thinking who would want to buy the blog when it’s for free online? It seems kind of ridiculous to drag new media back into old media.

But it worked and it became a New York Times best seller. So at that point I was like ‘Adam knows what he’s doing’. So Adam wanted to do another book, and he was like, 'we got to do it, just to put on the cover New York Times Best Selling Author, because it’s ridiculous!' And we were trying to figure out what to do, maybe a coffee table book. And I’m like I don’t know, maybe reserve that for the Kubricks of this world, or the Spielbergs.

[At this point, a big fly heads for Kevin, which he gamely swats away]

Are you not tempted when you’re 60 or something to do the coffee table book?

Maybe, because at that point my audience will have grown up with me, and we’ll all be ready for a coffee table book! That would make sense! But right now, it just feels weird. Adam came up with the idea of what if we took some SModcasts and just transcribed it? And I was just like ‘it’s kind of weird, man’. I don’t know that someone would necessarily read it. Because you can hear it for free online, and it’s way more entertaining when you hear it! Why would anyone want to read it?

And he said, 'well, we did a sample chapter and let me show you.' So I saw it and it made me chuckle. But I’m the world’s biggest Kevin Smith fan, so let’s get it over to Scott Mosier, because he’ll be a better judge. And Mose doesn’t listen to the finished podcast because he doesn’t like the sound of his own voice. He was like, he read it and said ‘this is actually funny, we’re pretty funny. I didn’t realise we were funny’. And I said ‘that’s because you don’t listen to the podcast’,and he was like ‘but I’d read it’. And so at that point I said let’s do it, let’s move forward.

And that’s the thing I like about it. It’s not just me, it’s a bunch of different voices in the book. So even if there are people who are like ‘I can’t stand him and his movies’, I defy you to read that book from cover to cover and not laugh out loud once. It may not be for me, it may be for somebody else, but there’s some funny shit in there.

Like it shouldn’t work but it does?

It really shouldn’t work! But it does! It’s shameful that it works even!

But that sums up quite a lot of what you’ve done over the past 10 to 15 years. There’s lot of things that…

… shouldn’t work! It does describe me to a T, actually. There’s a bunch of things on paper that you go ‘nah’, and it kind of pans out, you know?

And so much of that is to do with the good will of the people who pay to see our shit. People call them fans, the audience, whatever. I call them the employers, because without them I have no job. These cats, people who love my stuff, identify with me probably more than the material even. More so. The movies are kind of a way in with them. But it’s what’s at the heart of them all, what’s being said. The things you put up there. That’s what they really identify with. And it hits them square in the chest, so the people who those movies hit, hit hard, and for life. And they will at 60 buy a coffee table book.

But the audience isn’t always that. Those are the hardcores. You don’t necessarily get all the hardcores all the time, and you just kind of hope they follow you from thing to thing. But they only follow you because a) they like what you’re saying, and b) they recognise themselves in you. They look at you and they’re like ‘that’s exactly what I would be like if I was given a movie contract. I would conduct my affairs the same way’. And because of that, there’s a lot of good will towards me and what I’ve done.

At the same time though, I know that I’ll never get a movie fairly judged. Clerks was about the only one, and after that, the fan base started. And the fan base is wonderful, because they’ll forgive you for anything, even fucking Jersey Girl. But at the same time, you know you’re not getting an honest evaluation. It’s viewed through their affection for you. They want to see you do well, or you’ve done so many good things in the past and if this one doesn’t pass mustard they’ll be like, it’s alright, and they’ll gloss over its flaws and you’ll never learn as an artist. Apparently, I can do anything and it’ll work!

So how does that fit to moving to a studio movie, with A Couple Of Dicks for Warner Bros?

It came along at the right time after Zack & Miri [Make A Porno] kind of fizzled out at $31m or whatever it was in the States. It did do insane business for a Kevin Smith movie. It just didn’t climb the [Judd] Apatow-ian heights that everyone was hoping for.

So I was sitting there going 'if I make a movie right now, it’s going to be all about how Zack & Miri didn’t do as well as I wanted it to'. And who wants to see that fucking movie? I was like coming to the conclusion at that point actually that I couldn’t actually write the way I used to any more. I was not really connected to that any more. I don’t want to say I’ve grown up, but the older you get the more distance you get from the situation that created you as an artist. It’s just you can’t get in touch with the same art.

And some people say move back to Jersey or something, but I’m like no, I don’t want to keep doing the same thing. It’s a clear bell weather for me that you’re done with that. If it’s too easy to generate at this point, that it’s not even interesting to you, then it’s time to move on to something that does interest or engage you. Because that’s what the audience really deserves.

For years I was like ‘the audience wants this, I’ll keep doing this. I love doing this, the audience loves it, let’s keep doing it’. But the audience, god love them, would go and see Jay and Silent Bob movies until I was in a fucking wheelchair. But the returns are going to be constantly diminishing. It’s never going to be as good as Clerks or something like that. There’s always a kind of gradual descent to the quality of the material by virtue of the fact that I don’t live that life any more. It’s like Zack and Miri, and you talk about characters who can’t pay their bills. I’ve not had that problem in fifteen plus years.

Would you say you’ve been looking for a newer audience?

Not a newer audience. I assume that my audience will go with me wherever I go. If not, then I’ll learn that pretty quickly if they were all about Jay and Bob only.

I’m looking for something new to say, because I’m afraid that sooner or later, the audience are going to lose interest in me as a filmmaker. And also just because I can’t say those things I used to say any more. Judd [Apatow] can say them way better now, and in a way more mainstream profitable fashion. And other people make movies like I used to do, all the time. There’s no need for me to do it. They’re doing it, they picked up the ball and ran with it.

For me I just feel like, well, I’ve spent 15 years in film. For lack of a better description, it’s now my vocation, it’s what I do for a living. It’s the only thing I’m trained to do now. That and working in fucking delis and Quick Stops and shit.

So it’s weird when you hit that point where why I always did it was the passion, the brio. I gotta tell this story man, if I don’t tell this story of Clerks I’m going to fucking die! And now it’s if I don’t tell this story, I’ll tell another story because I’ve got a few and they’ll let me make them.

You don’t work under the same guise any more. You’re not being driven by the same engine, and when the passion brio engine of youth kind of goes away, you have to think of a different way to get the rest of the cars movie. It’s from Dogma, the glass half empty-half full analogy thing. Fill it up sometimes, that’s where I’m at right now. I’m in a fill-up, rebuild stage.

I don’t know how familiar you are with Stephen Fry…

Of course!

He gave a radio interview a while back over here where he said the people who he, not necessarily feels sorry for, but thinks they face the biggest challenge are the ones who achieve their ambitions young.

Yeah.

Because they get to a point at 30 or 40 and it’s 'what the hell am I going to do next?' Are you going through something like that?

Kind of. I used to think it was a mid-life crisis. After Zack & Miri I was like ‘oh my god, Zack & Miri didn’t do well’. And then I thought it was a mid-life crisis. But then a mid-life crisis is generally for people who have not achieved their hopes and dreams.

I was so young and my life was in front of me and what am I doing wasting my time. I had goal and I achieved it when I was like 23. And all of a sudden people were like okay, in order to keep yourself entertained, create new fucking goals, dude! And I didn’t create big ones for myself. I know me, I create little challenges! I want to step over things, I don’t want to climb mountains!

So I set myself little challenges, and I accomplished them, and felt very accomplished and whatnot. But then you get to that point, man, where it’s just like I’ve been doing it a bunch, it’s now what I do for a living, so I can’t just walk away from it. Particularly because I enjoy it. I enjoy doing it for a living and the lifestyle it affords. I like that my job is to make pretend, and somebody pays me. And I’m like I can’t give that up, that’s awesome.

But the mid-life thing for me, it was like everything I ever wanted came true. So I feel like it wasn’t mid-life, maybe it is what Stephen Fry is talking about, where it’s like wow, it’s been 15-16 years straight of a really successful run. And I’m not ambitious enough. It’s not like I’ve done it all. I’m not Alexander, and I’ve reached the end of the world and there’s nothing left to conquer. But, I mean, for me, I’m just I can’t retread the same territory anymore, because number one, I can’t do it, and number two, it’s just like leave it alone, it speaks for itself.

So I reach a point now where it’s like well, now I’ve got to find a different thing that fuels me as an artist, or something I want to express without expressing it the way I’ve expressed it through my characters for all these years.

Thing was with Clerks, that was a way in, that was a way to start a conversation with the world at large. It wasn’t so much a film as an ice breaker. It was like 'hi, I’m Kevin Smith and I would like to talk to you for the next 30 years, 40 years. However long you want to speak to me' or something like that.

Now with the SModcast, with the Q&As, with Twitter, any number of other things, I could exercise and I can reach out and touch and get instant gratification. I can throw out something funny, ‘hey, that’s funny’, ‘thank you very much’. Everything really kind of on a much quicker basis. Compact. You don’t have to spend a year and a half of your life building it and constructing it.

Because that’s what the movies are. You get an idea and then it takes a year and a half to hear a response when all’s said and done. With SModcast, we put it up that night, we hear from people that’s funny, thumbs up, and there it is. So I can do those things or talk about weird things that I would use to fuse into the flicks in any of those formats, and I’m like 'alright, let me figure out what I want to do with film for the next few years'.

I know it ain’t going to be what I do for the rest of my life, because apparently View Askew wasn’t what I was going to do for the rest of my life. So I figure if that’s one chapter, maybe this is chapter two, or maybe it’s the end of the book. Who knows what’s in the cards?

But I feel like I’m closing View Askew for the time being, and now I’m opening a new book and I’ll see for a while if I can be this filmmaker where I don’t write everything that I direct, or create everything that I direct.

Like in the case of the hockey movie [that Smith is currently working on], Hit Somebody. It’s based on a Warren Zevon song that Mitch Albom wrote the lyrics for. So in that instance, that’s almost in my world that Story By credit goes to somebody else, and I would get Screenplay credit. That’s where the passion is. The story or that character is something I identity with, and I can infuse it with my own experience. It’s not strictly my story. But essentially it is.

With projects like Reaper and A Couple Of Dicks, do you still find yourself tinkering with the script, though?

I did, absolutely. I mean particularly Reaper. When you go into, I was like 'this is too good, man. Some of these lines are too stiff. We can take it up a notch.'

It sounded like you had a whale of a time on Reaper?

Yeah, we did. When we did that pilot it was a real door opener for me too because I’d never directed something I didn’t write. I was like I read it, and it’s kind of like Shaun Of The Dead. And I love Shaun Of The Dead.

We did have a blast doing it, and when all was said and done I could look at the finished pilot, and I could look at the script and say we seriously and honestly improved it. We brought something to it, like me and Dave [Klein]’s shoot improved it. It was better than the script. Not that we were better than the screenwriters, it’s just that the collaboration turned out something better, and I was like 'wow, that was interesting'. I never thought it’d be that way. But I’d never do it in features. And then all of a sudden I do wind up doing it with features.

And it was different, because, normally, I go into every project as the full author. So I have the storyboard in my head from day one. I know what it looks like. You get to the set and I’m just basically composing what’s in here [points to head] since I had the idea six months to a year ago, something like that. With A Couple Of Dicks, I wasn’t the author, so I never considered myself the foremost authority on the material.

You had a movie star on the set too…

A fucking movie star! Now that’s a different beast altogether, because you’re dealing with someone else who’s just as powerful, if not more powerful than you, on the set. And for me it’s not power games, but you learn very quickly when it’s just like I’ve got a shotgun director on the movie!

You recounted the story on the set of the last Die Hard movie where Bruce Willis rang the studio up and asked them who their second choice to play John McClane was when there was a disagreement over script pages.

Yes! Yes!

And then you’re directing that man!

All of a sudden I’m the guy on the other end of the phone! And it was fun as hell when I was the dude watching! And now all of a sudden I was like oh, okay, yeah, I’m the man!

So it took us like a week for us to figure out what it was we were doing together. I was going at it like, 'Bruce, do it like this.' I was directing Bruce the way I direct everybody else. And Bruce was like 'I’ve been acting like Bruce Willis for 25 years, do you really think there’s anything you’re going to tell me that I don’t know?' So he was very much the author of his own performance.

But we found a way to work together. It was funny, it was weird. But it was a very different dynamic from me and him as two actors in a scene to me and him as director and movie star.

It actually struck me as three different new dynamics you were dealing with in one go. You’ve got a studio, you’ve got material you’ve not written, and then you’ve got the movie star as well?

Yeah.

That’s almost a complete reset isn’t it?

It was, thank you for noticing that. It was a true baptism of fire. Not in a bad way, but I had been used to working my whole life in one way. And all of a sudden we were working in completely unfamiliar terrain, with a new studio, a brand new crew – Dave and I were the only returners, and Juliet Polcsa who’d done costume on one of our flicks – and we’re dealing with a quasi-action flick, in that there’s more action than we’re used to dealing with. 60% less action than Lethal Weapon, but still, 40% more action than Clerks. Or 100% more action than Clerks! Then add in the Bruce of it all, and I’ve never directed a movie star before. Don’t tell Ben I said that, but it’s true.

Bruce really is what you call a fucking movie star. He can act, but he’s a movie star, and he’s one of the last few. That breed doesn’t really exist any more. You’re talking about a guy who was trained in the 80s, and in the 80s, the actors ran everything, particularly big movie stars like them. I’ve never worked that way. I’m not a dictatorial director, but I’m like 'I wrote the script, and we’re all following this vision so here we go'.

All of a sudden you were dealing with somebody who was like ‘I got ideas’. And at first I was like ‘let me hear your ideas’! And he’d tell me his ideas and I’d be like 'yeah, well, it sounds cool but I just don’t see that in my version, because I’ve been thinking about it'. And that’s when you realise that you’re telling this dude essentially ‘ah, fuck your idea, I’m going to stick with my idea’. And you’re sitting in this world where it wasn’t a script I’d written, it was this arbitrary interpretation of somebody else’s script. So at that point I had to be like 'oh fuck, man', I couldn’t be the foremost authority.

And guess what? He wouldn’t allow me to be the foremost authority because he’s like ‘look, man, I have an idea of where the movie is as well, and this is what it is’. And so it was a combination of two, not different takes on the movie, but two separate takes on the movie that blended.

And look, everything I learned from life I learned from movies. I learned within the first week of that flick. I took my cues from Star Wars and said ‘let the Wookie win’ [laughs]. You know what I’m saying? Let the Wookie win, it’s his world. And god damn if he wasn’t right in almost every case.

That was the other thing. In editing you put shit together and he would repeat certain key phrases or aspects of the plot in almost every scene.

Were you still editing the film overnight on this one?

Uh-huh. Same thing. So all the time he’d be like - and I don’t want to give away the movie - he’d keep hitting these two points very hard in every scene. Where I’m just like 'there’s no need man, it’s in there once. There’s no need to hammer it to death.' But he did that because he knew that the two scenes it was in were never going to make it. And he was fucking right, and I’d be sat there editing the movie saying 'these scenes are chuffe'r. That was his word. You’d be on the set, and he’d be like this dialogue’s ‘chuffer’. By the end of the show everyone was like ‘this is chuffer, clearly this is chuffer’.

There were Bruce-isms that we all adopted. When he was explaining what was going to happen he was like ‘I’m going to be here, you’re going to be here, acting acting acting, and then I move over here’. So we would do that all the time too, with Bruce or without Bruce. We’d be like break down the scene. ‘Tracy’s [Morgan] going to be over here, Seann’s [William Scott] is going to be over here, and basically we move across, acting acting acting, and we move on’.

He’s a 25-year man, he’s been doing it longer than some people have been watching his movies have been alive.

Plus his roots are in comedy.

Yeah, yeah. And here we are going back into comedy. And this is an area where, this is where he was born, comedic performance, but he hasn’t really embraced it.

North in the 90s, and Whole Nine Yards?

Yeah, once you get into the late 80s early 90s forward, he becomes less about comedy, more about the action stuff, the drama stuff, Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and it’s less about the thing that he became well known for.

I don’t know, it’s like you’re still dealing with a movie star at any given point and that’s the weird thing, it’s tricky negotiation. He may be the first person I’ve directed who has a persona like that. I mean George Carlin has a persona like that but it was different. But [Bruce Willis] has a persona where he is this guy and he has longevity on his side. He’s been doing it for quarter of a century, and he’s outlasted all of his contemporaries. He has a method the way he does it. He was hitting these fucking things like 'boom', and he was right.

We’d be on set, we’d be ready to shoot a scene and he’d be like ‘we can skip this whole half a page’. The writers would be there like ‘oh my god’ and I’d be like 'Bruce, we can’t skip half a page'. And he’d be like 'seriously, look at it'. And you’d read it and go ‘oh my god, the central thesis doesn’t come in until there, this stuff is chuffer and it’s going to get cut. It’s totally going to get cut’.

And I’m an editor! I pride myself on being an editor, so I learned so much about editing from Bruce. And I know a lot about editing! I learned so much more because the dude can, after 25 years, open up a script and go ‘this will fall, this will fall and this will fall. Here is your movie’! And Bruce, in his head, was always on point making that movie, even when I wasn’t.

So when I got in the editing room at the end for the last two weeks and you’re putting your cut together, not just assembling along the way, suddenly you realise 'oh my god, this dude was constantly safeguarding what he knows are the through points. What he knows the audience responds to. And he put it in all these places so that when it fell out of here, it would still be in the movie'. The dude’s insightful.

What he needs to do more than anything else in his life, though, right now is direct. He’s ready. He’s absolutely ready. After 25 years of watching everyone else do it. He said that at one point on the movie. ‘I’ve been watching everyone else direct for 25 years’. And I’m like, ‘my god, you have seen it all’…

You should go and star in his film…!

Yeah! Yeah! I’ll be in his flick!

How do you feel about all the big flicks moving to February now? You’ve got Shutter Island and The Wolf Man against A Couple Of Dicks now?

I know! We were alone, dude! We were absolutely alone! Suddenly I’m terrified!

Have you finished on A Couple Of Dicks now?

Yeah. We’re down to an hour and 44 cut and we’re going to show that to the studio on the 20th. That’s where they’ll either say 'hey you did it, go test it, or what the fuck? You ruined it'.

And did you enjoy it?

You know, when all was said and done, I did. I’ve never really challenged myself. I challenged myself once back in 93 with Clerks, and then I never really had to challenge myself again. This was a real challenge. Like walking into a set with completely new people. Like, you know, I’ve been insulated and surrounded by the same people for almost 15 years. So they all knew I was an idiot but kept the secret. Suddenly, I was about to enter a world where these people were going to be like ‘this dude’s a fucking blooming idiot’.

But I was like 'let’s try it'. Working with a New York crew’s always a little frightening, because they tend to be rougher, a little more coarse and whatnot, but they were wonderful.

You’ve got the Jersey rivalry too!

Yeah! There was that as well. It was good, and the movie turned out well. But it’s odd. I feel like, not a little divorced from it, but I used to really care, like I hope the movies do well, I hope they make a lot of money. And then I’m just like 'I’ve done my job'.

And they’re pushing it for you?

Yeah! And my feeling is like all I can do at this stage in the game is make a funny movie. I made the funniest movie I can with the material. Now it’s up to them to sell it. And these cats know how to sell movies, so I’m not too worried about it. And it’s a cop movie! When hasn’t Warner Bros been able to sell a cop movie!? So I feel like it might work out, but ultimately, I don’t care as it worked out for me, and it did what I wanted it to do.

I’ve got to ask about Red State, and where that is at the moment.

Right now, and historically for the last four years I guess when I first talked about it with Joe over at Rotten Tomatoes: no money, can’t find cash for it. It’s been very difficult finding financing for it. Very uncommercial movie. Very bleak, dark. It’s dark, it’s tough material. So I could understand. I totally get it.

Then I just caught on the recent press tour that a lot of people were asking about it. So I just thought sooner or later I’ll have to remember that I’m the guy who made Clerks, and put my own fucking money into it to get it made. I got a call at about 2am last night from Bruce on the flick and he says 'I think we’ve got the money for Red State'. I was like 'hot damn, because investing in a Kevin Smith movie is such a bad idea I didn’t want to put my own money into it!'

So you’ve got the money?

I think so! I think we’re actually very close now.

You told an interviewer last week about smoking weed when you’re doing your writing. I checked this out on the way over here and 44 news sites were currently linking into the story.

Were they, really? That’s so weird. What I said, and whatever they want to write I don’t give a shit, but what I said was I love smoking weed and writing Batman comics. And what that became was that Kevin Smith uses weed to instigate the creative process!

So did you get searched off the back of it coming into the country?!

No, I’m not famous enough! They would never fucking recognise me!

I’ll send them the links…!

[Laughs] The chick who like did the passport thing, she did not know who the fuck I was, man. She was like ‘what are you doing here’ and I said I’m doing press this week and she said ‘what?’. And I said 'doing press', and she said ‘what’s that?’ And my wife said ‘he’s on a book tour’ and she said ‘why didn’t you say that then?’!

Welcome to England!

We’ve got a dream project for you at our site, and we think you’re the guy for it, appreciating everything you’ve said about what you want to direct might have just pissed all this out the window. Bruce is obviously going off and doing his Expendables thing, and we want someone to do the comedy version of the Expendables. To get the 80s comedy giants together. We’ve got a list for you.

Who are the names?

We’ve got Judge Reinhold…

Ok.

Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy…

Ok.

Herr Fleck from ‘Allo ‘Allo who you don’t know, but you need a German character.

Ok!

Chevy Chase…

Yes!

Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, he needs something…

Anthony Michael Hall deserves to be in it.

Absolutely. And Burt Reynolds, Julie Hagerty…

Wow! Julie Hagerty! What a great call….

You’ve got to have Paul Hogan too, because that’s the law.

Yes!

And 80s Tom Hanks….

So you’ve got to have Bachelor Party Tom Hanks, wearing the shirt over the sweatpants?

Or you could do a reverse Big? Take Tom Hanks now and turn him into Zac Efron or something?

[Laughs] It’s not like an Expendables as much as…

Expensive?

Yeah, very expensive!

I don’t know, though. With that cast, cheap. I think you could do it cheap. What was the Alan Moore book, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Basically you take one legend from every 80s movie…!

Absolutely! If you could do that for us, that would be amazing.

I’ll get on it, dude. Ironically with the hockey flick since so much of it is set in Canada and Canadiana, I wanted to get every 80s SCTV, SNL, Kids From The Hall, and get them in cameos, man. But that flick sounds way better!

We’ll take story credit, you take screenplay? It keeps with your ethos!

[Laughs] Yeah!

Kevin Smith, thank you very much!

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