Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Kevin Smith’s 1994 debut, Clerks, didn’t pretend to be anything but autobiographical. Its universe of New Jersey slackerdom was Smith’s own. So were its fixations: McJobs, hockey, Star Wars, sex. It’s no great surprise that the new Clerks II is equally self-centered, even if Smith has moved on in several significant ways.
The writer-director, who turns 36 next month, is now married, a father, and a resident of L.A.—although he doesn’t use that abbreviation. Sitting on the floor of a suite at the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton, Smith calls his former home “Jersey,” but he always refers to his new one as “Los Angeles,” as if to indicate that his address since 2002 is a place he doesn’t really know. The move to a house in the Hollywood Hills, he explains, came only because wife Jennifer Schwalbach told him, “‘I’m going. Whether you come or not is up to you.’”
The relocation, the filmmaker insists, hasn’t transformed his life. “I do the same things in Los Angeles that I did in Jersey. I rarely leave my house. And when I do, it’s to go to the comic book store, buy new DVDs, or sometimes I go out to eat,” he says. “My location totally changed, but in my head I still live in that same place.”
Smith first announced Clerks II at the end of 1999’s Dogma but then thought better of it. He returned to the idea, he says, after his first “grown-up” movie, 2004’s Jersey Girl, “fucking didn’t perform the way we all hoped it would. I would say shit-tanked, but it did do 25 million bucks. But it definitely under-fucking-performed.”
The film attempted to depict fatherhood realistically but, the director says, came out “mawkish, not as close to the real world, oddly enough. I really wanted to dial in more on what I thought it was like to be in my 30s. So I thought, Clerks was what it was like to be in my 20s—maybe I should use Dante and Randal to examine it. There’s a sort of built-in poignancy in going back to those dudes and seeing how far they’ve not come.”
Clerks II features more of the main characters’ talk about Star Wars, which is depicted as engaged in a bitter rivalry with The Lord of the Rings. (“All they do is walk,” Randal complains.) Though there’s less about hockey, the film delves into two of Smith’s other obsessions: gay sex and Christianity. The topics are, in their way, also autobiographical.
“On the surface level,” the director says, “it comes down to my brother’s gay. My mother told me that my brother was gay before my brother told me. For about two seconds I was just like, What!? And then it was like, Man, that makes total fucking sense. And I got real kind of hurt that my mother had to tell me. I’m like, I can’t believe he didn’t tell me. I’m kind of enlightened. I’m very liberated. Why wouldn’t he tell me? God, he must think I’m some sort of dickhead homophobe or something.”
That was right after the elder Smith brother, Donald, went off to college. Kevin didn’t broach the subject with his sibling until he was about 20, on a car trip from Seattle to Vancouver. “We talked about everything under the sun, but we didn’t talk about that,” he remembers. “So I see the Vancouver skyline in the distance, and finally I’m just like, ‘I hear you have an alternative lifestyle.’ He cracks up and says, ‘Well, that’s one way of addressing it.’ So we start talking about him being gay, and it was awesome. Finally I knew someone who’s gay and who would talk about it. I probably knew a lot of gay people who were quiet about it, but here was a dude I could ask, like, ‘Did you ever glory-hole? What would make Mom faint? How is it? Is it awesome? Like, you must get laid way more than I do.’”
Eventually, Smith asked his brother about movies. “He’s just like, ‘You know, it’s weird. Most movies are boy-meet-girl. I can identify with wanting a relationship, but I don’t see myself reflected up there.’ So early on, I was like, Man, If I ever do get to make films, I’m always going to throw in a little gay content for my brother.”
Still, Smith doesn’t allow his brother to vet his films. “It would be crushing if he said, ‘This isn’t gay enough, Kevin.’” Actually, he adds, “I don’t bring him to critique it, because he’s not really a hard-core movie guy. He’s got a DVD player that’s got dust on it—sacrilege, being that I share genetics with the man, but whatever. He’s got better things to do than I do, apparently.”
But the director thinks Donald will enjoy Clerks II, “because I feel like it’s the gayest film I’ve ever made. Right down to a big musical dance number.”
Smith is quick to admit that concern for his brother isn’t the whole story. “The other part of it is, I tend to make these movies—I mean, that’s all I do—about dudes who are so insanely tight and hang out together,” he says. “And I’ve always thought of those hard-core friendships as being one cock-in-the-mouth shy of being gay relationships. So I felt, When I make movies, I have to address the homoerotic aspect, because all my male relationships are so insanely homoerotic.
“I was married to [producer] Scott Mosier for years before I met my wife,” he continues. “I had to get divorced from Scott so I could marry my wife. That’s how male relationships occur to me, so I tend to write about it a lot. But at the same time, I’d like to address the homophobia mixed with the homoerotica. Because there is that disconnect, where you don’t have that fluidity that chick relationships seem to have. There’s always that ‘Oh, dude—that’s gay.’ But meanwhile, it is gay—they’re very gay relationships. At least the ones I’m engaged in. Without being fucking gay, the strict literal definition of it.”
The supposed flexibility of women’s friendships is, of course, another Smith preoccupation, one embodied by the bisexual title character of 1997’s Chasing Amy. “I know a lot of chicks, and they always tell stories like ‘I was hanging out with her one night and we fucked,’” he says. “I could never be like, ‘I was hanging out with him last night. We were having such a good time, I wound up sucking him off.’ It would be like, ‘Oh my God, dude, you’re totally gay.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, no, we’re just real tight.’ It always seemed kind of unfair to me that that option wasn’t there.”
Friendly casual sex between males doesn’t appear in Clerks II, but Randal does book a “donkey show” that turns out to feature a leather-wearing gay man and a male donkey. “It’s playing with the convention of what a donkey show is,” Smith says. “We wound up getting a R rating on this movie, which I found shocking. I’m thoroughly convinced that if it was a donkey show that involved a girl, we would have gotten an NC-17. But because it’s a guy, there’s this bizarre kind of unstated homophobia where it’s, ‘Well, it’s OK—it’s a dude fucking a donkey.’ There’s some kind of political message being communicated there that I’m not smart enough to pick up on yet.”
Smith toyed with sending his own political message by calling the sequel The Passion of the Clerks, which, he says, is “obviously a one-joke title.” But it’s also a sincere reference “to the Christ mythos, or my thoughts about spirituality. I mean, there’s a reason those dudes are 33 in the movie. And there’s a reason that Dante wears a crucifix.”
Raised a Catholic, the director no longer attends church except for twice during the making of each of his films—“once right before we start production, and once right before the movie comes out.” But he has what he describes as “a very healthy spirituality, or a very healthy relationship with Jesus. I don’t force it down anybody’s throat. Some people don’t even believe the dude existed, even as a human being, never mind the divinity aspect. I can understand that.”
In Clerks II, Dante and Randal work with Elias, a youngster who represents values Smith rejects: Not only does he love The Lord of the Rings but he’s also an evangelical. “The Elias kind of Christian is the one that I’ve always been kind of uncomfortable with,” the director says. “Because I don’t believe in recruitment. I don’t need to convince somebody that Jesus is the son of God. I believe in God in a big, bad way. You know, I’m married to someone who’s a flat-out atheist, who has no compunction against telling me I’m an idiot for believing in children’s stories. But I can’t put it down. I was raised in it. Obviously, I have not grown as a filmmaker in 12 years. How can I be expected to grow in my faith in 35?”
That’s sort of a joke, just like Smith’s ultimate justification for his belief: “There’s no way I have a career unless there’s a God. That’s all the proof I needed. Suddenly, Clerks got picked up, and I was like, There must be a God. There’s no way a guy like me gets to make movies for a living unless God’s on my side.”
Though Smith recognizes that some Christians see his career as anything but God’s work, he suggests their point of view is unnecessarily limited. “I gotta believe that God has a sense of humor,” he says. “We’re all made in God’s image, right? So maybe God thinks about donkey shows, too.
“I guess we’ll see who’s right and who’s wrong, eventually,” he adds. “I’m hoping I’m right, because I would hate to get up there and it’s like, ‘Oh, you made Dogma, right? Fuck off!’” —Mark Jenkins