Reel Talk is NME’s new weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV.
We’ve brought a couple of props along for NME’s photoshoot with director Kevin Smith: action figures of Jay and Silent Bob, the stoner duo who first appeared in his debut film, the homemade, self-financed slacker comedy Clerks, and are the subject of his latest, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot.
The action figure of Jay, as played by Smith’s old friend Jason Mewes, has a button on the back that triggers one of a slew of sex – or weed – related catchphrases when pressed, among them “snoochie boochies” and “I’m all about the brown”. The figure of Silent Bob, as played by Smith himself, has a button which, when pressed, does absolutely nothing, reflecting the character’s wordlessness. Even today, Smith has a chuckle about that gag. So when did he last see a pair of these collectables? “Every day,” he says, as if it’s the world’s daftest question.
It’s not surprising that Smith keeps his action figures on display at home. Long before The Big Bang Theory, Smith was king of the comics nerds, a man whose career straddled the line between the studied cool of the indie movie auteur and the boundless enthusiasm of a fanboy granted a laminated AAA pass to a never-ending Comic Con. He owns his own comic book store (Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, in his old hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey), he’s scripted Marvel and DC titles, he even named his daughter, who appears in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, Harley Quinn Smith, after the Suicide Squad character. Smith hasn’t directed any of the Marvel or DC movies, citing incompatibility of filmmaking styles (“If you want me to make a Marvel movie where they sit around and talk about the last 20 Marvel movies, I am your man. You want to see some eye candy and things exploding and action? I’m so not your guy”) but he did manage to bag one of the very last cameos from Stan Lee, the larger-than-life Marvel Comics figurehead, who passed away last year. “[Stan] was honestly one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life – a role model in many ways,” says Smith. “Stan Lee created so many wonderful characters and we’re seeing them all come to life in the movies now, but the greatest character he ever created was Stan Lee.”
Speaking animatedly in the London hotel room in which the NME interview takes place, Smith is full of the kind of joie de vivre you’d expect from a man who cheated death. And that’s with good reason, because in February last year Smith – then 47 – suffered a massive heart attack of the type known in the medical profession as a ‘widowmaker’, because only 40 per cent survive. He’s now a vastly slimmed down vegan – albeit a late-in-life convert to marijuana, too. “This is the first true stoner movie I’ve ever made!” says Smith. “When I watch [2001’s] Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back now – the first one – I’m so embarrassed because it’s a stoner movie made by a guy who’s only ever seen other stoner movies. …Reboot is a true stoner movie.”
Where once Smith was being pushed – with mixed success – towards bigger, more mainstream movies, he’s spent the past decade or so doing a fine job of simply being Kevin Smith, exploring his own world across multiple media. He performs speaking events for audiences, he’s a prolific podcaster and he’s been making films that only a person with a certain fanbase could get away with: 2016’s Yoga Hosers, for example, concerns two yoga-loving teens battling Canadian Nazi sausages. Nope, not a word of that is a typo.
It’s a body of work that has ‘cult status’ stamped all over it, and it’s won Smith legions of dedicated fans worldwide. …Reboot, in many ways, is Smith’s way of thanking them for sticking around. “This movie is the cinematic equivalent of me dropping down to my knees in front of a man or woman and just going to town on their bits and making sure they come like crazy,” he says. “It’s all about fan service, but to be honest, I’m the world’s biggest Kevin Smith fan.”
Part of that fan service is revisiting pretty much every familiar character from his ‘View Askewniverse’, the connected world in which the majority of his films are set (if it seems like the Marvel movies nicked that from him, he insists in turn he “stole it from Marvel Comics, because everyone in the comics knew each other”). Another is Smith taking the film on a tour of cinemas, in which Smith meets his audience for a Q&A. “I sit with, like, 1000, 1500, people every night – hardcore fans – who have overpaid to see the movie and who get every damn joke, who crack open every Easter egg and, like, roll the yolk over their face and it’s amazing,” he says. “It’s like going to a church where you’re both the priest and Jesus.”
It’s safe to say Smith is not shooting for an Oscar with Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. It begins as a Kentucky Fried Movie-like series of linked skits but picks up a compelling plot somewhere along the line. And that plot, the audience is left in no doubt, is basically the same as 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the duo’s preceding top-bill appearance. The film is meta-times-a-million. Smith stars not only as Silent Bob but as a fictionalised version of Kevin Smith, too. The plot sees the titular characters travel to Hollywood in an effort to stop the fictional Kevin Smith’s reboot of Bluntman and Chronic, the in-universe superhero comic based on their characters, created by Ben Affleck’s Holden McNeil. In turn, Bluntman and Chronic later had their own IRL comic under Smith’s own publishing imprint. McNeil is the comic creator protagonist of Smith’s 1997 movie Chasing Amy and is, himself, based on Smith. Confused? You might be if you aren’t familiar with the entire weight of Smith’s work, but there’s enough high satire and lowbrow humour in there to keep anyone entertained. Those who have been following closely will be treated to what essentially serves as a postscript to all of Smith’s significant works, among them controversial 1999 fantasy Dogma (the religious right didn’t like it – “there were death threats, so I won’t touch on that again”), screwball teen movie Mallrats and the aforementioned Clerks and Chasing Amy.
Jay and Silent Bob Reboot serves a higher purpose too. As well as being a celebration of his life and career so far, it goes some way to reclaiming Smith’s early works from a name that’s become a stain on his career: Harvey Weinstein. The disgraced movie mogul, whose systematic sexual abuses kickstarted the #MeToo movement, was Smith’s great champion, and bankrolled every one of his early movies. Since news of Weinstein’s abhorrent behaviour emerged, Smith has donated royalties from any Weinstein-funded film to womens’ charities.
“For me, […Reboot] was like, we get to make one that doesn’t have [Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s] names on it. Because after the #MeToo story broke, I was confounded, baffled, shocked, angry. And at the same time, I’m like, ‘Oh, my movies are tied up with this’. And it was really weird because you gotta remember, this is a guy who made all my dreams come true, and I paid no price whatsoever… In reading all those stories, you realise, like, ‘Oh, everyone else wasn’t as lucky… their dreams became nightmares’. So for me, there was a period of, you know, I don’t want to be involved with these things anymore. They’re tainted.”
Weinstein is pretty much the only Hollywood topic not lampooned in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (“Who wants to unsettle anybody in the movie, you know what I’m saying?”). It does, however, pick at Smith’s weight loss and veganism, at the culture of lazy, fan-service reboots (Star Wars, in particular, gets a kicking), at superhero movies, comic cons, cynical merchandising and the woke culture sweeping over Hollywood – much fun is had with the group of four strong, young female characters, among them a deaf black girl, a Chinese girl and a Muslim refugee. It comes from a place not of a grumpy older guy wishing back the good old days, rather a person who can see through the efforts of those doing it for appearances’ sake. Is it harder to be funny these days? “I think it’s tough to make comedy if you punch down, and I never really did that,” says Smith. “I always punched myself and my character. So if you self abuse, which my mother always told me not to do, you can keep going.”
Smith also takes a moment to right a wrong of his own. He’s faced some criticism for the plot of Chasing Amy, in which Holden McNeil falls for Joey Lauren Adams’ Amy – a lesbian – and eventually loses out because she is, of course, a lesbian. In …Reboot, it’s revealed that it’s been remade as a Netflix series told from Amy’s perspective.
“Chasing Amy was my umbrella movie – the one that like, no matter what I did, people would be like: ‘This could be crap because he did make Chasing Amy‘”, says Smith. “It was the film people let me off on. And then in recent years, it’s become more problematic for some folks. And so making that little Chasing Amy sequel in the middle of …Reboot, I kind of got to go and address the criticisms and accept them. Not like, ‘Hey, you’re wrong,’ like, you know, I literally get to have Joey say, ‘This is always a story that would have been better told from a queer perspective or a woman’s perspective – any perspective but a cis white male’. And that was the first time I got to use the term ‘cis white male’ in a movie.”
I ask if there’s anything else in his movies Smith looks back on with regret. “There’s one moment in Clerks which makes me bristle,” he says. “We’re in front of the store and Jay is looking off-camera and he calls somebody ‘f****t’. And, man oh man, like, I remember it’s not in the script, I didn’t write it and stuff, but I was like, ‘Well, whatever – that’s how people talk.’ And now whenever I watch that movie, 25 years later, it punches you in the face, it sings out to anybody.”
It speaks to the good nature of Smith’s own character that Jay and Silent Bob Reboot has a money-can’t-buy superstar cast that includes Chris Hemsworth, Jason Lee, Matt Damon, Val Kilmer, Justin Long, Joey Lauren Adams, Rosario Dawson, Craig Robinson, Jason Biggs, Fred Armisen, Method Man, Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong fame) and James ‘Dawson’s Creek’ Van Der Beek.
Smith, unashamedly, says he used the goodwill following his brush with death to get them on board. “We joked that we should put ‘Casting by The Heart Attack’ on the credits,” he says.
One star not initially due for a call was Ben Affleck, who had fallen out with Smith for reasons the director says he doesn’t quite understand. It’s reasonable to think it might have something to do with Jersey Girl, the 2004 film starring Affleck and, in a minor role, his then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, considered to be a career wobble for all concerned, but Smith reasons it’s probably because “I have a big fucking mouth”.
Smith was going to reach out to Affleck in public, on Twitter, but was instead convinced to send him a private text message. After a bit of back-and-forth, Affleck cracked an aeons-old in-joke that instantly thawed the ice. “He texted me: ‘This is your father’, which is something he would always say when we were kids, like he’d grab me in a headlock – ’I’m your father!’” says Smith. “When he met my kid, Harley, he was like, ‘I’m your father’. And my wife is there. She’s like: ‘No, you’re not. I would remember that.’”
Jay and Silent Bob Reboot sees Affleck reprise his role as Holden McNeil, now co-parenting a young girl with Amy and finding a renewed purpose in life. And at heart, amid the weed jokes and the slapstick and the sideswipes at Hollywood, Smith and the cast, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is simply a kindhearted film about fatherhood. Smith makes many asides about the nepotism of casting his daughter in a major role, as Jay’s daughter, funnily enough (“Some wiseacres are like, ‘I don’t know, bro, she looks more like Jay than Silent Bob’, so I was like, ‘Fuck you. I’m stealing that idea’,” he says), but you suspect it’s her doing him a favour rather than the other way around.
A line that comes from McNeil’s mouth seems apt given Smith’s enduring popularity, cult audience and the resurgent interest in all things 1990s. “All of my own bullshit is back,” he says, meaning that his work as a young man is back in fashion and finding new fans. And yet as much as he’s enjoying his success, he’s realised his daughter is the most important thing in his life. I put the line to Smith and – to my surprise – he’s soon welling up.
“Every time I watch the movie, I break up at that moment because it’s like, whenever the flicks are on, my childhood dreams come true. And in the beginning, I worked so hard to be like, considered seriously and a part of this indie film movement, stuff like that. And then you get older and you just kind of like let go of all those things that meant the world, that you thought was your career, and then you realise later on that, like, it’s not this, it’s not that, it’s all of it – collectively.”
If it seems like Smith’s tying up loose ends and putting his house in order, think of this more as a mid-career victory lap. At 49, and now fighting fit, there’s much for him yet to achieve, including – next up – Clerks III. And he’s only going to get better at being Kevin Smith.
“They got a million people who make Oscar movies – we see them every year – and they got a million people who make them Marvel movies man, like, talented people, and the DC movies and Star Wars movies all the things that I enjoy watching and shit,” he says. “Ain’t nobody lining up to make a Kevin Smith movie. That’s it. Like, rarified air. So I could either go compete in another arena where I’m fighting with one hand tied behind my back and one leg like lifted beyond my hands. Or I can go to my own arena where I got all my appendages plus six more, because in that world, I’m Krishna or Vishnu or something.”
‘Jay and Silent Bob Reboot’ is in cinemas now
Photography by Andy Ford
Design by Tom Tutaev