Kevin Smith Makes 'Clerks' Sequel

Kevin Smith hit the Big Time, and the bottom, all at once. In 2004, he directed Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (remember Bennifer?) in Jersey Girl, a Hollywood flop. He'd come a long way from Clerks, the black-and-white film that launched his career a decade earlier.

Kevin Smith Makes 'Clerks' Sequel

Kevin Smith hit the Big Time, and the bottom, all at once. In 2004, he directed Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (remember Bennifer?) in Jersey Girl, a Hollywood flop. He'd come a long way from Clerks, the black-and-white film that launched his career a decade earlier. And now the 35-year-old director has done the sensible, grown-up thing: he's made a sequel. Clerks II, which opens next week, cost 182 times more than the original, and it's in colour. But the budget is still a paltry US$5 million. And Smith's street cred seems safe. When Clerks II premiered in Cannes last May, he took the stage in a tuxedo with shorts, sneakers and no socks. "I misplaced my pants," he said, confessing the tux made him feel "a little gay." Puncturing French protocol by declaring it was a "massive f---ing honour" to be in Cannes, he introduced a wildly profane yet sweet romantic comedy that pokes fun at The Lord of the Rings, Jesus freaks, homophobia and middle-class manners - culminating with a donkey scene that suggests bestiality may be Hollywood's final frontier.

Smith is a living cliché of indie success. In 1994, after dropping out of FILM school, he wrote and directed Clerks for US$27,000 - drawing on his tuition refund, parents' generosity, credit cards, and the sale of his comic book collection. He shot it by night in the same Quick Stop mini-mart where he worked in New Jersey. The slacker comedy became a cult hit. And its stoner savants, Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and the director), became franchise fixtures in films such as Mall Rats, Chasing Amy and Dogma.

Smith, who stirred religious controversy with Dogma, was going to call his sequel The Passion of the Clerks. "But it's a one-note joke," he says, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. "We wound up going for the undersell. I believe in lowering the bar. I like to keep as close to the floor as possible." He adds that he's still "fairly" Roman Catholic - "I believe in heaven and hell." But he also accepts abortion and gay marriage, "the kind of stuff they kick you out of the club for."

Clerks II reunites Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson as Dante and Randal, who find jobs at a burger joint after the Quick Stop burns down. Dante is finally facing adulthood with a domineering fiancée (Smith's wife, Jennifer Schwalbach). But he holds a secret flame for the restaurant's manager, Becky, played by a sensational Rosario Dawson (Sin City). Smith had originally cast his wife as Becky. But executive producer Harvey Weinstein told him, "You got to give me a name, someone we can put on the poster." The director says his wife didn't mind being demoted to the role of the bitchy fiancée - "Jen would be the first to say she's not an actress." They first met when she interviewed him as a journalist for USA Today. Now you can read about their marriage in his blog, "My Boring-Ass Life." In a recent entry, he mounts an eloquent defence of nose-picking and lays out the gentlemanly etiquette of anal sex.

Like a Jersey Gen-X answer to Woody Allen, Smith is a schlump with an effortless knack for converting his life into comedy. But behind the slacker pose of the punk auteur is a shrewd showman. He was one of the first filmmakers to exploit the Internet. And in an inspired bit of marketing, fans going to Clerks II for a second time can download his DVD-style commentary as a podcast and listen to it in the theatre, synched with the movie. "Not a lot of filmmakers have an audience who would be into that," he says. "Most people aren't like, 'Let's go watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest with a commentary track.' Our audience is so groomed on our DVDs, it's natural."

Smith's work is an ongoing satirical commentary, and in that sense it's akin to Canadian humour. "My ties to Canada are deep and long," says the director, who's a huge fan of CTV's Degrassi: The Next Generation and appeared in three episodes as Silent Bob. "I've always been dialed into Canadian culture, whether it's Degrassi or Glossette peanuts, or Kids in the Hall. I often feel like Kal-El [Superman], the adopted son sent to Canada from Planet America." Smith wants to direct a Degrassi episode, but public funding rules require him to be Canadian. "I'd take out dual citizenship," he says, "if they'd give it to me for nothing, like an honorary degree."

Maclean's July 24, 2006