Kevin Smith – A Chat with Silent Bob
Updated: Dec 31, 2021
A Chat with Silent Bob
By Jay S. Jacobs
It’s been a long, winding road since the Quick Stop.
In the early 1990s, Kevin Smith was a film school dropout, living in his native New Jersey and working part time at downtrodden convenience store in a little local strip mall. Little did he know that little store would change his life.
Smith wrote a script about life working at the Quick Stop and its neighboring video store. He got together a bunch of friends who were looking to break into the film world and made Clerks, a low-budget black and white film about a day in the life of the workers at the store. Smith even wrote a supporting role for himself, the surprisingly soulful local miscreant Silent Bob, who hung out in the parking lot with his buddy Jay, played by Smith’s friend Jason Mewes. It was a total DIY production. The film cost a miniscule $27,575.
That was money well spent, because it led to a long-ranging and varied career. Clerks became a surprise hit – together with the films Do the Right Thing, Sex Drugs and Videotape, Slackers and The Brothers McMullen, it was pretty much responsible for the 1990s independent film boom. After the success of the movie, he launched into an acclaimed directing career, making movies like Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri Make a Porno and… of course, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
However, filmmaking was only one of a multitude of interests that struck his fancy. He became involved in comics, writing many acclaimed comic books and graphic novels. He opened a comic shop in Red Bank, New Jersey called Jay & Silent Bob's Secret Stash. That led to a reality show called Comic Book Men. He has done a series of speaking engagements and one-man shows.
He even bought the Quick Stop that started it all.
Now, all these years later, Kevin Smith is standing on the red carpet at the Philadelphia Film Festival, while the audience watches a documentary on his life, with the very fitting title Clerk. Almost 30 years ago when he was making Clerks, could he have ever imagined that all these years later, someone would be making a movie about his life and career?
“When we made Clerks, I didn't even dream about going to a film festival,” Smith told me on the red carpet at the Philadelphia Film Festival screening of Clerk. “We were dreaming about going to the independent feature film marketplace. I didn't think the film was festival-worthy, let alone Sundance. While we were making that film I never once thought, ‘Oh my god, what if somebody makes a documentary about me one day.’ That’s mind bending.”
Smith almost wishes that he could return to talk with the young man that he used to be.
“I'm sure if I go back in time and tell the young me like, ‘Hey, keep this up. They're going to make a documentary about you,’ he’d be like, ‘What did we do? Who did we kill? Why did that happen?’” Smith laughed at the thought. “Just you live long enough and fucking they make a documentary about you. But yeah, there's a lot of things I would love to tell that kid. I wouldn't change a fucking thing, because all of his choices led to this moment for me, which absolutely rocks.
“I would thank the fuck out of him, man,” Smith continued. “He was a weird, brave kid. I know that kid very well and the fact that he was like, ‘I'm going to try to make a movie’ was not in his DNA. But it got to a place where he couldn't not try. Thank God he made that decision to change my fucking life. So much so that like 28 years after we did it, I get to go to a film festival where the film is about me. It’s mind bending and heartwarming at the same time.”
Clerk was directed by Malcolm Ingram, a film journalist, blogger, podcast host, documentary filmmaker and long-time friend of Smith’s.
“Malcolm, I met in Toronto at the Toronto Film Festival in 1994,” Smith recalled. “We were showing Clerks, and he was working for Film Threat [magazine] at the time. We got along really well…. While we're making the movie [Mallrats] in Minnesota, I was like ‘you should come out and cover it for Film Threat.’ He came out for what was supposed to be a few days, but he stayed the whole shoot. He just kind of entrenched and became part of the group, the last new person to get in more or less in my family and friends.”
Ingram became a friend and confidant to Smith, and even helped out a bit in the filmmaking process.
“He was the one that suggested Shannen Doherty for Mallrats,” Smith said. “He's like, ‘You've got to get that Doherty.’”
Ingram’s first documentary was called Oh, What a Lovely Tea Party, which was about the filming of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and was co-directed by Smith’s wife Jennifer Schwalbach Smith. However, he has mostly made his name in doing documentaries on the LGBTQ lifestyle, including the acclaimed films Small Town Gay Bar, Bear Nation, Continental and Out to Win.
So, how did Smith and Ingram decide to work on a film on Smith’s life and career?
“It had nothing to do with what went before but [he] has been this perfect witness for all of it,” Smith explained. “He's watched my career [go] like this…” Smith mimes a rollercoaster going up and down. “[He] always keeps everything in perspective for me – good and bad. He's one of those blatantly honest people, so sometimes you're like ‘too much honesty.’”
However, he knew that Ingram could also keep everything on an even keel with him. He always helped Smith to keep things in perspective.
“We were about to start shooting Clerks III and Masters of the Universe had come out and there was a section of the internet was coming at me pretty damn hard about it,” Smith said. “In my perspective, I was in the moment so it's like the whole fucking world is talking about this shit. My news feed and my Twitter feed are programmed to show me the worst. Malcolm blew me up on text. He was like, ‘Oh my God, you must feel great. You have one of the most talked about shows in the country.’ I was like, ‘Is that how it seems?’ And he's like yeah. He's going, ‘You got the best reviews your career. Everyone likes this show.’ I was like you don't know about the people that think that I killed He-Man. He's like that's not reading out.”
The time just seemed right to do the film. Smith suffered a heart attack in early 2018, and it had made Smith a bit circumspect and a bit nostalgic. He returned to the past to film Jay and Silent Bob: Reboot. (In the film Clerk, Smith admitted he really didn’t want Yoga Hosers to be his last film.) Smith knew that Ingram would keep the film honest but would also celebrate the past. He could trust him to show both sides and not let him look foolish.
“He's always good at taking the temperature and keeping me of grounded,” Smith continued. “That is saying a lot for somebody who wasn't there with me before I started the journey. He's right there at the beginning of the journey and stuff but yeah, he's one of my closest friends, especially considering we didn't grow up together like Jay [Mewes] and Walt [Flanagan] and Brian [O’Halloran] and stuff. That says quite a bit.”
While he is taking an overview of his life, of course things go back to Clerks. As he stated above, Smith is working on Clerks III, the continuing adventures of the characters from his breakthrough. (Clerks II was released in 2006, and the characters were also featured in a short-lived 2001 Clerks: The Animated Series and a series of Clerks comics.) So, how does it feel now that he has wrapped filming Clerks III (it is due to be released in 2022) to bring that chapter to a close?
“Really strong,” Smith enthused. “It's so strange because it's nothing like the first movie and everything like the first movie at the same time. The boys have kind of grown up. By virtue of the fact that they're making a version of Clerks like it's weirdly very relevant to the first movie. It felt like ‘Oh, I guess there's closure there.’ But I know me, in like five years I'll be like Clerks IX!”
Between Clerks III and Jay and Silent Bob: Reboot, Smith has been looking backwards a lot.
“That's all I do,” Smith admitted, good naturedly. “I mean, number one, the movies are old enough that you’re looking back to a very specific moment in time where I was working at Quick Stop. I just try to replicate that experience over and over and over again. But, for the last 10 years or more, I've noticed that I've become nostalgia guy. Like we have seven seasons of Comic Book Men (a reality series that ran on AMC about Smith’s shop in NJ). That show was just enlightened nostalgia.”
Who doesn’t want some nostalgia, right?
“Remember this fucking toy from when your life was good?” Smith asked. “That's nostalgia based. Masters of the Universe is based on the past, predicated on the past. We just finished Clerks III. It’s got ‘III’ in the title. That's predicated on the past. We just did Jay and Silent Bob: Reboot before that. So, I do spend a lot of time with my head up the ass of the past.”
However, the tumult of the last several years has not been to complete cause of his tendency to look back.
“Some people feel like, ‘Is that because of the heart attack?’” Smith admitted. “If you go back, it's been happening even before that. I'm one of the most nostalgic, sentimental people I know. I used to get nostalgic for episodes of Happy Days after it ended, that night. It stands to reason that I spend a lot of time looking back. But to be fair, most people hate the present so much they fuckin’ would love to live in the past. I'm like ‘I can serve it up to you, man.’”
Smith loves the fact that his characters have had long lives. The audience gets to check in with Dante and Randall (the main characters from Clerks played by Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson) every decade or so.
“There was Seven Up, 14 up… (a long-running series of British documentaries which checked back on a group of people for their entire life),” Smith said. “Most people point to [Richard] Linklater with the Before Sunrise series. To me it's active. It's like you jump in see their lives every four score or whatever. It's been lovely. Those characters have charted my growth.”
Not only have they charted his growth, but they have also led the way to his future – as well as his past.
“They are my favorite characters even more so than Jay and Silent Bob, because they gave me everything,” Smith admitted. “It's on Dante and Randall’s backs that I got to do anything that I did. People like those guys. They are the Clerks. I mean Jay and Bob are outside and shit, but they are the main guys. If you don't work with them, then the movie doesn’t work, and nothing ever happens for me. So, I love Brian [O’Halloran] and Jeff [Anderson], but I also love like Dante and Randall very deeply. They were the bridge to the rest of my life for my future. And my future is a bridge right back to my past.” He laughed. “As you can see, I’m very confused.”
So, taking that bridge to the past, is there any truth to the rumors of a Mallrats sequel (tentatively entitled Twilight of the Mallrats) coming after Clerks III?
“Yeah, that's really what we're driving at next, to be able to do that,” Smith said. “I think Clerks III really greases the wheels.”
Another film from Smith’s glory days was Jersey Girl, which was filmed not far from where the film festival was being held in Philadelphia. Two of the stars of that film – Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez – became a couple while filming took place. The couple broke up years ago, but recently got back together. Smith is glad to see them reunited.
“I was there at the beginning.” Smith said. “I saw it at the root when we were shooting right here in town…. That felt like the right relationship. They were so absolutely lovely falling in love. So, seeing it happen all over again… it's a breath of fresh air. It's like being given a tonic.