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In Chasing Amy, the new film from writer/director Kevin Smith, Silent Bob finally speaks. The recurring character, who also appeared in Smith’s Clerks and Mallrats, gives a speech that provides both the film’s title and its message. That’s appropriate, because Silent Bob is played by Smith, and the film is based on the director’s romance with leading lady Joey Lauren Adams.
“It just kind of came out of my relationship with Joey,” says Smith of the film, in which Adams plays lesbian comic-book artist Alyssa, who finds herself falling for male comic-book artist Holden despite his irksome obsession with her sexual history. “We’ve been dating for, like, two years now. I was pretty much Holden. I was the guy who had a hang-up with his girlfriend’s past. I’m a real jealous kind of guy, one of those real guy guys, or at least I was. One of those guys who can’t stand to know that there was anyone before him. And then you meet one of those kind of people who lets you know that that kind of behavior is not acceptable.”
The theme of sexually experienced women and their naive, intimidated boyfriends also shaped Smith’s two previous films. Chasing Amy, Smith says, is “like the 37th scene in Clerks, a whole movie about that, but not played for laughs, as it was in Clerks.”
Calling from Miramax’s office in Manhattan, Smith shrugs off the suggestion that he speaks for the befuddled male youth of Red Bank, his northern New Jersey hometown: “I try to be as open as possible, but they tell you to write what you know, and basically my worldview is microcosmic. I just write from experience.
“The intention was always to make these flicks for me and my friends,” he continues. “The intention with Clerks was, like, I want to make a movie that will make my friends laugh, and make me laugh. Just to have a movie say something about roller hockey or working at a minimum-wage job. That was something I could identify with, and interestingly enough, other people seemed to ID with it too, and that was really refreshing.
“It’s the same thing with Chasing Amy. I think it’s obvious that I’m working through some issues in the movie. It’s just nice to know that other people can identify with that as well, ’cause then you don’t feel like such an asshole. When your girlfriend looks at you with disbelief and shock and horror that you’re still hung up about her ex-boyfriends, you want to do something about it. You want to make things right. And making Chasing Amy actually made things right. [Adams is] actually very fond of saying that the movie probably saved our relationship. Somebody had to break up; it was either going to be me and Joey or Holden and Alyssa. Thankfully, it was Holden and Alyssa.”
That odd couple is not the film’s only provocation. There’s also a gay black character, Hooper, who poses as a macho Afrocentrist when he meets the fans of his comic book. “You can’t go into a movie like this without some feathers being ruffled,” says Smith. “But the furor isn’t nearly what I thought it might be.” Even The Advocate and Out, he marvels, have given the movie friendly reviews.
The good notices have heartened Smith, and not just because Chasing Amy has the potential to offend. It’s also a return to grace after Mallrats, which was a critical and commercial flop. That reaction is clearly still on the director’s mind, for his new film closes with this testament: To “the critics who hated our last flickall is forgiven.”
“We’d taken some pretty nasty hits on Mallrats,” Smith says. “I just felt like saying, ‘Look, man, what you said you said. That’s fine.’ Some people went so far out there to bash Mallrats, and so far out there to say that I was finished. I didn’t want people to think that I came back smug, like, ‘Yeah, I’m back. I proved you wrong.’ Because it wasn’t about that.
“There was always a fear,” he continues, “that people would think this movie is a reaction to Mallrats’He’s trying to be more adult.’ And they’re half right. A lot of Chasing Amy is exactly a reaction to what happened with Mallrats. I don’t think I’ll ever make a movie again where I don’t have anything to say. Clerks is funny. It’s certainly not Shakespeare, but it had some thoughts on its mind. And that’s why people connected to it. Mallrats didn’t. It didn’t have anything to say, and it really shows in the movie. I just wanted to make a studio-style ‘popcorn’ movie. And I don’t think that’s what’s expected of me. I don’t think I can do that sort of thing.”
These days, Smith is motivated by the desire to stretch a little. Chasing Amy, he remembers, “was definitely a little more frightening and a little more challenging. Writing for a black character was completely new to me. Writing for a gay black character was completely new to me. Writing a fleshed-out woman, with complete thoughts and probably far more developed than any of my male characters to date, that was tough. And then making her gayit just kept upping the ante. At the same
time it’s kind of
scary, it’s also exciting and fresh. The new thing is always fresh, always fun. Like directing the drama
in this movie was more fun than directing the comedy.”
The director ultimately decided that Alyssa wasn’t that foreign to him. “At a certain point it occurred to me that I’m fairly decent at writing male characters, and Alyssa seems to me to be one of the guys. In the end, it wasn’t that hard.”
Still, when he finished writing the script, Smith did double-check it with an actual lesbian. He gave it to Guinevere Turner, a friend since her Go Fish premiered at Sundance with Clerks. “Give it a read and tell me if anything smells false, or if you see me coming through too much.”
Chasing Amy may mark another significant break with Smith’s previous work. The scene in which Hooper extols Darth Vader as “a spiritual brother” could be the director’s last reference to Star Wars, a motif in all his films. “I think I’ve said just about all I ever want to say about Star Wars,” Smith muses, although he notes that with Chasing Amy following the reissued trilogy into American cinemas, “the timing seems uncanny. I was just blown away by how many people latched onto that in Clerks, especially in the foreign countries. So then I threw more of it in Mallrats. And in this one, it just seemed to work with Hooper’s character.”
Smith has not abandoned, however, his other pop-culture obsession: comic books. Asked a simple question about the state of the business today, he launches into 10-minute dissertation on what’s happened to the comics distribution business in the last few tumultuous years. “I’m so into comics that I went and bought a comic-book store,” he says. “Comics are definitely my passion in life. I’m one of these guys who had to become a director so he could find some sort of entree in the world of comics.”
Symbolizing the vast chasm between Holden and Alyssa, Smith’s new film actually features some scenes shot in Manhattan, where Alyssa lives. But Smith vows he won’t follow another acclaimed suburban New York indie filmmaker, Hal Hartley, and start shooting in Tokyo and Berlin. “In the next flick we do travel a bit, though. The next film starts off in Illinois, a little suburb,” he reveals, “and then travels to New Jersey.”Mark Jenkins