After making “Jersey Girl,” a very personal movie that got caught up in all the Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck publicity and made a poor showing at the boxoffice, writer-director Kevin Smith was uncertain about what project he’d undertake next. One possibility was a big-budget version of “The Green Hornet,” which Smith–a great comic-book fan–was very much drawn to.
“I was so happy to be offered it by Harvey [Weinstein],” Smith said during a recent Dallas interview. “I was, like, ‘You want to give me fifty, seventy million dollars to make a comic-book movie?’ And he was, like, ‘Yeah, you seem to like comic books.’ And I was like, ‘That’s the criteria?’ But the more I thought about it, I was just, like, I’m not talented enough to make a movie like that. I don’t know how to make movies that appeal to the mainstream. I know how to make movies that appeal, you know, to the dudes that you look at curiously when you get out of your car at the mall. I can’t make a movie like Michael Bay. Same with Bryan Singer. Same with Gore Verbinski. Or any one of those cats that know how to get a bunch of people to leave their houses on Friday night and pay ten to fifteen bucks to see a movie.
“So I was just, like, I can’t do it. And also, I’m not that visually talented, and also don’t have enough patience to shoot an action sequence. You’ll work two weeks on a three-minute action sequence. I’d rather work two weeks on four hundred pages of dialogue where people are telling, not showing. That’s what I do. So I backed out of that. I got some heat for it, but you’ve got to go with your gut.” And the rotund director added, “My gut’s pretty big, so I tend to listen to it. And my gut was telling me, this isn’t where you want to be right now.”
So instead Smith decided to take on a smaller, more characteristic project–a sequel to his 1994 no-budget debut, “Clerks.” He explained, “I’ve been thinking of doing a ‘Clerks II’ as far back as ‘Dogma,’” which he made in 1999. But the choice has earned him derision in some circles; critics have said that after the failure of “Jersey Girl,” he was just looking for something safe, just as when an Alfred Hitchcock bombed, the famous director was said to “run for cover” by finding something more in line with his past successes.
“I don’t see it like that,” Smith said in response to that criticism. “Because it’s essentially more risky to go and f**k up, you know, the sacred cow. The first movie does have this weird, hard-core fan base to it, people that for whatever reason call it a cult classic, or the seminal nineties indie film. I think it’s a little riskier sequeling that than doing something like ‘The Green Hornet,’ where you’re starting from scratch and it may not work, but nobody’s going to castigate you for doing it. I just want to become more talented as a filmmaker before I tackle that, because it will be a bit pricier.”
So Smith wrote his script and called back the old cast, with some new additions. He rented an abandoned Burger King near Knott’s Berry Farm to serve as the fast-food restaurant where the action was set–a rare find, he said, because “those places don’t close–apparently Americans really like fast food”–and began table readings.
“There was a unifying moment when we were in rehearsal,” Smith said. “Even when we went back to the Quik Stop [the convenience store where the first ‘Clerks’ was set], there was no sense that ‘Wow, we haven’t been here in years,’ because it felt like we’d been back there many times before [in the spinoff films made under Smith’s View Askew rubric]. But in rehearsals is when I felt like it was ‘Let’s put on a show’ time, and it reminded me of how it was in the day.”
The sense of camaraderie was strengthened when it was decided to rent a floor of a nearby Days Inn to house the cast rather than get separate trailers for them. “We figured people would be there during the day between takes, and that’s it. But it was such a ‘Let’s put on a show, let’s go to camp’ kind of affair that everyone just wound up staying overnight at the Days Inn. So even Rosario [Dawson] was happy to stay there–but she went to Target and bought new sheets! She was so happy to hang out and stay at the Days Inn. We had the whole top floor, and Jason Mewes was like the cruise director from ‘The Love Boat,’ organized poker games and pizza parties and s**t like that. It was weird, because usually when you’re done shooting a film, everyone wants to go home right away. It was sad to see the movie end for that very reason.”
Even the crew, usually very detached, got into the spirit during the scene Smith considers the centerpiece of “Clerks II”–one that occurs in a jail cell. “The crew started applauding” during the rehearsal, he said. “I’ve never seen it happen, man. It was really kind of touching–they were into the guys’ performance. For that few minutes they stopped being dudes working on a movie, and they just became people watching, like live theatre of something. The crew kind of fell in love with the movie along the way. We got lucky, man, we got really lucky.”
Smith felt lucky at the premiere in Cannes, too, when the picture got an extended standing ovation. “That was kind of cool,” he said. “I don’t know if Michael Moore still has the record–he had, like, fourteen [minutes] for ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’ But that’s a very important movie. Ours is a very unimportant movie. It was a terrifying year. Sophia Coppola went in there and got the widely reported booing at the critics screening [of ‘Marie Antoinette’]–which I don’t think was as bad as they made it sound, but that’s sexy copy. So I was, like, if they can’t embrace the movie about a French queen, what the f**k chance do we have? They’re not even going to let us finish the end credits, they’re just going to boo it right out of the theatre. So it was really kind of nice. In terms of my professional career, definitely one of the top five moments.”
Smith admits that “Clerks II” wasn’t an easy project. “It’s a weird concoction,” he said of doing a sequel. “You have to have some familiarity with the first one, but you have to move everything forward as well. I felt like it was enough to just know the guys, and know that they’d been in the first one, and know that they’d worked at Quik Stop, and everything else was going to be kind of different. I never tried to be better than ‘Clerks,’ because that’s a recipe for failure. I just wanted it to be as good as the first one. And if some people thought it was better, so be it.”