Kevin Smith thought he was out. After his 2011 horror feature, Red State — his first stab at that genre — opened to a scathing critical reception, Smith believed that he had made his last movie. But then came Tusk. Based on a story that Smith told on his famous Smodcast podcasting network, the movie is a bizarre instant cult flick about a, uh, podcaster (Justin Long) held hostage by an insane old man (Michael Parks) who wants to turn him into a walrus. And it gets even weirder from there.
The horror/comedy hybrid is in many ways a typical Smith picture, and yet it’s not; it’s also earned him some of the best reviews he’s had in years. “You know, I’m used to getting kicked in the nuts and this movie has been a little different,” Smith says when we sit down in a Beverly Hills hotel room. “People are like ‘Hey, good for you. You fucking did something different for a change.’ And I’ll take that over ‘fuck you again,’ you know. So that’s neat.”
An interview with Smith is not exactly a typical question and answer session. Our allotted 12 minutes turns into 23, and yet I never ask another question beyond my first as Smith launches into an extended monologue not unlike the ones in his movies and podcasts. Asked if Tusk feels like a comeback, he says, “I never went away but it definitely feels like ‘comeback’ is appropriate, particularly since I did step away and then return. But it’s nice that it’s a comeback to the people who are in support of it. I was honestly terrified… after years of people being like, ‘Man, all they ever make are sequels and fucking remakes. Why don’t they make something original?’ I was like, ‘Here’s something original.’ And I was terrified they were gonna be like, ‘Not from you, you fat asshole, from Fincher or someone like that.”
The movie was inspired by an ad placed on a British equivalent to Craigslist, in which the person placing the ad claimed to have been lost at sea many years ago with only a walrus to keep him company. For free food and lodging, the person was looking for someone to dress in a walrus suit for two hours a day and make walrus noises. Someone tweeted the ad to Smith, who then brought it up on his podcast with partner and producer Scott Mosier and asked fans if they thought that Smith should make a movie from it (the ad turned out to be fake, but the fellow who placed it has a producing credit on the movie).
Smith says that Tusk was born out of the same desire that led him to make the movie that put him on the map, Clerks, 20 years ago: the fact that no one else would make it. “I was always looking for a movie about dudes who talk about movies,” recalls Smith about the seed for Clerks. “One day I realized nobody’s ever gonna make a movie about me and my friends because nobody gives a shit. Nobody knows who you are and you’re not interesting, so if you want to see that fucking movie, make it. And it was Clerks that changed my life.
“So two decades later we’re on this podcast and I’m like, ‘Fuck, I want to see this walrus movie. Why won’t they make the walrus movie? What’s their problem? How come some filmmaker out there…’ And then it’s like, ‘I used to be a filmmaker. I guess I could do it too.’ And there was the same kind of snap (as with Clerks) where it’s like, ‘Kevin, nobody’s ever gonna make this fucking stupid ass walrus movie. If you want to make it, make it yourself. You used to be that guy.’”
Smith had always had an uneasy relationship with the studio system — as a misfire like Cop Out with Bruce Willis can attest — but Tusk brought him fully back to his independent roots on a creative level. “You look at that movie and you’re like, ‘Oh, clearly he has reached the “I don’t give a fuck” part of his career,’” he says bluntly. “And that’s when most cats are interesting to watch, when they’re done trying to please others and stuff. And that’s nobody’s fault but my own. I came into this business telling my own stories, and then one day I’ve priced myself out of being interesting because they start paying me more and more to tell the same stories I told for less. And those movies aren’t gonna make any more money. I’m not a mainstream guy. And suddenly my ideas got less weird and more mainstream in order to fit in.”
He’s about to completely disown his “mainstream” movies — he admits he “bought a nice house” thanks to them — but it’s clear that movies made from his own peculiar point of view are where his heart lies. “There are considerations that go into crafting entertainment for a mass audience, and I just don’t belong in that room. The only way I’m interesting is if I’m off the fucking reservation doing what I think is right or what feels natural to me. And it doesn’t mean it all works but it means it’s a better moviegoing experience than fucking Cop Out or Jersey Girl which you can get from any director. I love those movies — they’re like my kids but they’re anonymous as any other fucker’s movie. Only Kevin Smith could have made Clerks. It’s nice 20 years later to have people be like, ‘Only Kevin Smith would have made Tusk.’”
Tusk was also the product of Smith wanting to make a personal film that wasn’t based on his personal life or the lives of people he knows. “Movies are about escapism and what is more escapey than a big rubber suit all over someone?” he explains. “These are the movies I grew up loving and watching and just could never make until this point in my career. So it was a happy coincidence of having the ability to tell a story like I would have liked to have told at the beginning but couldn’t, and having nothing personal to say and just being like, ‘All right, well, I guess we can make shit up.’
“I loved working in rubber,” he says about the elaborate walrus suit designed by special makeup supervisor Robert Kurtzman. “I wanted to be in prosthetics when I was a kid…So years later with enough ability, I’m like, ‘All right, maybe I’ll make one of those movies that like I grew up loving, man.’ Like the movies that I watched on cable in the ‘80s or ‘The 4:30 Movie.’ I grew up on the East Coast and we had this thing called ‘The 4:30 Movie’ on channel 7. When we were making Tusk, dude, all I could think about when I was looking at Justin was Roddy McDowall in Planet of the Apes.”
Justin Long had a small role in Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) but his lead role in Tusk as a self-centered and garrulous podcast host who is rendered mute halfway through the film presented a challenge to both the actor and director. “There’s something to be said for the makeup, man,” says Smith. “He has to work through it. If you take the sharpest arrow out of his quiver, which is like his silken voice and his ability to charm you and he’s just left with his eyes, could he still get a performance across? That’s what brought him to it man. When I was looking at him in the suit, it’s like, there’s Justin but everything else is not. And you get this humanity in the eyes. But he got what he wanted. He got to do this part where he couldn’t be charming.”
Aside from the veteran Parks — who starred in Red State and is riveting in Tusk — Long led a cast that took Smith outside of his comfort zone with actors like Genesis Rodriguez and Haley Joel Osment, whom he had not worked with before. Smith says that several of the actors, including the uncredited star who plays befuddled French-Canadian detective Guy Lapointe in Tusk (all right, it’s Johnny Depp, but you probably heard that already), are joining Smith in his next film, Yoga Hosers, as well as a third movie about a man-eating moose which will complete a loose “rubber monster” trilogy started with Tusk.
“We told the story (on the podcast) about like some lady was on her way somewhere,” Smith says. “She hit a moose with her car and it knocked her into a coma. She wakes up from her coma. Her sister’s driving to the hospital to see her and she gets hit by a moose and also goes into a coma. So when she comes out, she’s like, ‘You know, if I didn’t know better I’d say it was personal.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck you, take my money. I want to see a movie about a man eating moose.’ So Kurtzman, who’s our rubber overlord, when I told him about that he was like, ‘I’m building that now. The man-eating moose will be my crowning achievement.’”
Smith hopes that fans who heard the original development of the story for Tusk on his podcast will be inspired by having a front row to the creative process to tell their own stories, either on film or via their own Internet radio shows. Telling stories, in the end, is what it all comes down to Smith, and as he said at the beginning (after 20 minutes he’s sort of come back to where we started), he’s enjoying the fact that people seem to be responding in a good way to this particular tale. “It’s nice to be able to be like, Oh they see me like I see myself for once,’” says the director. “For one moment we’ve all aligned where it’s just like this walrus thing was a worthwhile endeavor. That might go away. Next movie they’ll be like, ‘Go fuck yourself’ again.”
Tusk is out in theaters now.