Kevin Smith: ‘I’m a Sellout!’

On Nov. 14, bearded and bespectacled director Kevin Smith sauntered onto the Tonight Show stage to greet Jay Leno. Dressed in his customary uniform of an oversized, button-down athletic jersey, baggy shorts and calf-high gray socks, Mr. Smith had come to introduce the 14th installment of “Roadside Attractions,” a recurring filmed segment where Smith travels the country highlighting cheesy road-trip destinations.

“Settle a bet for me. I’ve seen the Paris Hilton tape. Is that you?” Mr. Smith asked the talk-show host. “Because I remember that weekend you borrowed my video camera.”

Mr. Leno looked down and straightened his immaculate tie à la Johnny Carson. “I wish,” he replied. “Did you see the tape?”

“I watched it actively,” Mr. Smith said.

“I’m sorry I shook hands with you,” Mr. Leno countered.

It’s the kind of tepid repartee you might expect from one of the cast members of According to Jim , but not from the writer and director of Clerks , Chasing Amy and Dogma . Mr. Smith’s movies used puerile bluntness to crack open those tough nuts of social discourse-sexual politics, relationships, religion and slacker life-that had been all but sealed shut with an epoxy of political correctness. His characters didn’t make veiled allusions to masturbation or oral sex, they got down to the nitty-gritty. When Clerks ‘ Dante Hicks wanted to know his girlfriend’s sexual history, he asked her: “How many dicks have you sucked?”

Mr. Smith had a similarly blunt explanation for the change.

“I’ve been saying I sold out for years,” he told The Observer by phone from his newly renovated four-story home in the Hollywood Hills. “When Miramax bought the first movie, that was a sellout. And you know, we followed up with Mallrats . We sell so much damn merchandise on our Web site that it’s kind of become a joke that I like to make money. So, it’s like, ‘Well, obviously that’s what Kevin’s doing.'”

In the 10-year stretch between the debut of Jay and Silent Bob-the stoner characters that actor Jason Mewes and Mr. Smith originated in Clerks and have since reprised in five other movies-and the scheduled release, next spring, of Jersey Girl , Mr. Smith has fashioned himself as a kind of postmodern sellout, a filmmaker who, in his own words, is relentlessly “pimping” his work and his name without the residual backlash that would have plagued, say, John Cassavetes if he had done the same. In addition to his Tonight Show travelogues, and occasional guest-stints as a writer for Marvel Comics, the once-cult Mr. Smith can now be seen in an ad campaign for Panasonic’s DVD recorder that gets more TV play than Mr. Smith’s movies. He also operates a Web site (13 million hits since 1996) named after his production company, View Askew, on which he writes an almost-daily journal of his travails and peddles all sorts of movie-related tchotchkes, including Mallrat s “Inaction Figures,” Jay and Silent Bob bookends, and An Evening with Kevin Smith , a DVD on which he waxes scatological for over two hours to his target demographic: undersexed, onanistic college students.

But something else has happened to Mr. Smith in that time span that could also account for his recent spurt of mainstream activity. Five years ago, he met reporter Jennifer Schwalbach. Four years ago they were married and produced a baby daughter. Three years ago, Mr. Smith reached his 30’s. In other words, Mr. Smith didn’t just sell out, he grew up. And so, for better or worse, did the cast of characters that populated his movies. Ben Affleck would seem to fall in the former category. Mr. Mewes, who descended into well-chronicled drug addiction, into the latter. But after spending half a year in rehab, Mr. Mewes has come to live with Mr. Smith and his family as well as Ms. Schwalbach’s family in Mr. Affleck’s old bachelor pad in the Hollywood Hills. It sounds like a Gen-X version of The Addams Family , though Mr. Smith assured The Observer that “all of the ghosts of Affleck have been completely fucking exorcised. All the fluids that he might have left behind have been completely wiped out by the flood” that resulted when a water pipe burst in the house.

And if the subject matter of Mr. Smith’s next movie is any indication, he has exorcised some of the more adolescents tendencies of his earlier work-Jay and Silent Bob have been retired-and replaced them with the new perspectives he may have gained as a husband, a father and an in-law. Jersey Girl , staring Mr. Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, is a romantic comedy in which a father learns to cope with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. Its cinematographer is the very grown-up Vilmos Zsigmond, whose credits include The Deer Hunter and The Long Goodbye . The movie’s promotional tagline: “Forget about who you thought you were, and just accept who you are.”

It is also a film which, if you’ve been reading the gossip columns, may or may not be a mess. After intially being slated for release this fall,Miramax has now tentatively scheduled it for a spring 2004 release, Mr. Smith said this had nothing to do with the lingering stink of Mr. Affleck and Ms. Lopez’s first film, Gigli, rather he attributed the movie’s rescheduling to Miramax’s decision that Jersey Girl not go up against “the beast” that is The Matrix Revolutions .

Mr. Smith admitted that some of the film’s scenes make him cry and said: “I imagine some people are going to be like, ‘Wow, Smith grows up and makes a grown-up movie.'”

Even in his moments of self-doubt (another sign of aging , by the way), Mr. Smith remains confident in his pimping skills. “I got into this kind of discussion the other day with John Gordon, who’s a friend of mine, who’s our executive at Miramax,” said Mr. Smith. “Periodically, you get into these zones where you’re just like, ‘I’m no damn good. What am I doing? I’m a fucking fraud.’ And shit like that. My argument to him was that I am not a great director, I’m just a really good self-promoter.”

In that context, the Tonight Show travel films and the Panasonic ads would seem like smart attempts to prime the pump for Jersey Girl by exposing Mr. Smith to a much more mainstream audience. As he himself said, “You can’t argue with an audience of six million people every night.” But the filmmaker also admitted that his fan base, which is comprised largely of comic-book-convention dwellers, goatish college students and stoners, resisted Mr. Smith’s decision to go with the most mainstream-and some would argue milquetoast-of the late-night shows. “I took a lot of shit in the beginning,” Mr. Smith said. “Why Leno, man? Why not Letterman, fucking Conan?'”

Mr. Smith’s answer: “You know what? Conan and Letterman didn’t ask.” Mr. Smith said he’s never actually been on Late Show with David Letterman and has been on Conan O’Brien’s couch only a handful of times. His fans, he added, have “a bizarre perception that I have the ability to go, ‘Well, I’m taking these things over to the fucking Letterman show.’ And you try to explain to them, a) it wasn’t my idea. It was their idea. And b) why would I go some place else? I mean, these dudes gave me my shot, so to speak.”

The Tonight Show gig arose following Mr. Smith’s appearance on Mr. Leno’s show to promote Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back . The producers concluded that Mr. Smith had great chemistry with the chin-wagging host, and decided to create a recurring role for him on the show. “Roadside Attractions” was hatched by executive producer Debbie Vickers and Mr. Smith in response to the public’s fear of flying following Sept. 11. Mr. Smith described it as a “tongue-in-cheek piece about what you see on the road because you’re not going to fly because you’re terrified of being killed by a terrorist.” There have been 14 installments thus far, as well as a short film-the first ever produced for the Tonight Show -called The Flying Car that reunited Dante and Randal from Clerks . More segments are slated for future episodes.

According to Mr. Smith, “Roadside Attractions” has reached an audience that ignored his movies. “I remember after I did the first ‘Roadside Attraction,’ I took the kid to Disneyland a week later. And there was some 50-year-old black guy who stopped me and said, ‘Hey man, I saw you on Jay Leno. You were funny.’ I was like, Wow, so not my audience.” And another time, “There was a dude I walked past and he was with his teenage son. And the dude goes, ‘Do you know who that was? That’s the dude from the Leno show.'”

Panasonic also noticed the dude from the Leno show, and Mr. Smith landed the job of “domestic spokesman” for Panasonic’s DVD recorder. Ironically, it wasn’t the first time Mr. Smith had worked for Panasonic. Previously, he had directed a commercial for the Secaucus, N.J.–based company’s E-wear camera that featured an obnoxious “little person” who kept shrieking “Eeeeeee” at people. The spots were pulled when a class-action suit was filed against Panasonic for its negative depiction of “little people.”

Mr. Smith said he loved the idea of starring in a TV commercial. “I fucking grew up watching TV and commercials. I would love to be the guy at the forefront. Y’know, like Crazy Eddie?” Mr. Smith was referring to Jerry Carroll, the manic, bug-eyed actor in the now-defunct electronics chain’s ads. “I was raised on seeing Crazy Eddie commercials.”

In the commercial, Mr. Smith is a “cultural historian” who travels back in time to mark all of the significant advances in human technology. The commercial’s sight gag-which is very much like his E-wear commercial-is a prehistoric man that shrieks and attacks Smith in varying time periods, allowing the filmmaker to flash that trademark Silent Bob, eyebrow-raised ‘What can you do?’ look.

Having brought his movie schtick to commercials, Mr. Smith said, “I waited for the fucking cry of sellout.” It never came, but being a guy who likes “to make fun of myself before somebody else does,” Mr. Smith admitted: “I’m a media whore to some degree.”

Mr. Smith may have happily sold out in terms of doing commercials and the Tonight Show , but he has different ideas when it comes to making films. “I think after Mallrats is when I figured out that there’s no way to pick a trajectory for your career unless you’re really concentrating on being a commercial filmmaker,” he told The Observer . “And I don’t really have that in me. I just want to tell the stories I want to tell. And even though we’ve never made a movie that made more than 30 million bucks, I’m 10 years in this business.

“Obviously, we must be doing something right. Our stuff connects on some level,” he continued. “So, it’s like why bother trying to be the guy that [says], ‘Alright, I gotta make a 100 million dollar movie, a 100 million dollar grosser, and then another and then another.’

“I just have to stick to what I like doing. Because at the end of the day, you can’t really guess the box office of this shit. I remember Mallrats ,” a movie that co-starred Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee and was a critical and box-office flop. “Universal thought it was going be huge and it made two million bucks. And Dogma , everyone thought it was just going to die and it made 30 million bucks. Y’know, there’s just no way to figure shit out. It’s the Polonius thing, ‘To thine own self be true,’ and just kind of do the shit that you want to do and hopefully people will follow.”

The $64,000 question is whether the fans who saw Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2001 and who continue to buy Inaction Figures from the View Askew Web site will follow Mr. Smith and file into theaters alongside Tonight Sho w viewers when Jersey Girl opens.

But like the tagline of the movie says: “Forget about who you thought you were, and just accept who you are.”

If there is a symbol that there is no turning back for Mr. Smith, it would have to be his friend Mr. Mewes, who after pleading guilty to probation-violation charges in late March, and finishing his time in rehab, has abstained for eight months now from the alcohol and drugs that his character, Jay, ingested with abandon.

“I was always like, ‘Don’t you want to get fucking clean?'” Mr. Smith remembered about earlier struggles with Mr. Mewes’ drug addiction. “Because we’ve gone through rehab five or six times. And when I say ‘we,’ it’s fucking him, but you go through it, too.”

When Mr. Mewes hit rock bottom following the release of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back , Mr. Smith said he adopted a “tough love” strategy to coax him into rehab. “I saw him throughout the course of last year. You can talk to him, but you are not supposed to become close with him or stay close with him, or let him around your family until he gets clean,” Mr. Smith said. That meant when Mr. Mewes came to visit Mr. Smith-with whom he had lived on and off since 1994-the filmmaker would talk to the actor in his yard instead of inviting him into the house.

According to Mr. Smith, though, Mr. Mewes is a changed man. “I hate to say it, but for lack of a better description, he seems to have grown up a bit,” he said.

“It’s weird because he’s never been this guy, never been the dude, who cares about his image. But suddenly, I guess now that he’s clearheaded and whatnot and looks good, he’s kind of thinking about it more.” To illustrate his point, Mr. Smith explained that recently Mr. Mewes had attended a party for Kid Rock and asked Mr. Smith to go online and see if any photos of him had made it onto the WireImage photo Web site. When Mr. Smith couldn’t find anything with Mr. Mewes named attached, he asked his buddy who he’d accompanied to the party. It turned out to be Kim Stewart, the daughter of rocker Rod Stewart.

“So, I was like, ‘All right, let’s look up Kim Stewart. And there’s seven pictures of Kim Stewart. And there is a picture of him with Kim Stewart and it says ‘Kim Stewart and guest.'” Mr. Smith recalled. “And [Jason] says, ‘Why am I the fucking guest, dude?!’ And I’m like, ”Cause nobody fucking recognizes you anymore, my man. You look too good. You gotta go back to the fucking drawn-out junkie look. And people will go, “Oh, it’s fucking Mewes.”‘”

By coincidence, Mr. Mewes walked into the house while Mr. Smith was discussing his housemate with The Observer .

“Oh! He just walked in,” Mr. Smith added with a little bit of theatrics. “What is K-I-M? … You got a fucking tattoo for her?” Raspy laughter could be heard in the background, the kind created by years of smoking. Mr. Mewes had gone to a Christmas party for the Osbournes the previous night with Ms. Stewart, and on the way to the party, his date convinced him to tattoo her name on his back. “When did you do that, dude?,” Mr. Smith exclaimed. “You can’t even claim, ‘I was drunk.'”

Mr. Mewes got on the phone. “Yesterday, we were driving by the tattoo shop. And [Kim] said, ‘Jay, get my name on your back. So I said, ‘Why not?’ She paid for it. I didn’t. I wouldn’t pay for it. I’m not that crazy. I’m crazy, but not that crazy.” At the party, another of Mr. Mewes’ celebrity friends, Jack Osbourne, saw the tattoo. “And Jack’s like, ‘You’re so stupid, Jason,'” Mr. Mewes recalled. Mr. Osbourne’s reasoning, according to Mr. Mewes: “He’s like, ‘I’m one of her best friends. And I wouldn’t get her name tattooed on me.'”

Mr. Mewes seemed in high spirits: “I’m feeling a lot better than I was, how I felt. And I feel great. It’s good. It’s fun. It’s funner now.” And he had some choice words for Mr. Smith, who left him out of Jersey Girl : “I begged Kevin to let me be in Jersey Girl , but he was like, ‘Nawf.’-I’m only joking,” Mr. Mewes said. “I didn’t beg him. It was my fault. I was all on the run. And I was real messed up and stuff.”

Mr. Smith took the phone off his buddy. “Yeah, he’s been fucking bugging me about [it, saying:] ‘Fucking y’know this movie ain’t going to make any money, ’cause I’m not in it.’ I said, ‘Dude, if this movie don’t make any money, believe me, you’re not the problem.'”