Jersey boy Kevin Smith has come a long way from his $27,000 debut, the down-and-dirty 1994 slacker comedy Clerks that he financed by selling his comic book collection. Ten years and five features later, he's a small cottage industry unto himself. In addition to producing his own films through his production company View Askew (created with partner Scott Mosier), as well as a handful of offbeat indies, he's courted controversy with one of the more interesting movies to cast an eye on religion, faith and Dogma, written scripts for Marvel (Daredevil) and DC (Green Lantern), spun-off Clerks into a short-lived animated TV series, created a comic-book series featuring recurring characters Jay and Silent Bob, produced a series of short pieces for Leno, and created a modest merchandising empire. Oh yes, America's hero to slackers and pot-heads got married and became a father.
Thus his latest project: Jersey Girl, the comic-inflected drama of a widowed single father (Smith friend and familiar face Ben Affleck) and his conflict between career ambition and parental responsibility, set in his home turf of New Jersey. It's a change of pace from what we've come to expect from Smith and his familiar "Askewniverse." No Jay and Silent Bob this time; the vulgarity is toned down (though not completely absent), and a strong sense of family affection replaces the usual buddy banter. George Carlin is his Affleck's blue-collar Pop, Liv Tyler co-stars as a grad student who wants to make Affleck a subject in her thesis on single men and masturbation, and newcomer Raquel Castro is the smart and sassy seven-year-old daughter.
Smith, however, is still the same old Jersey kid made good, even in the midst of a month-long series of interviews and promo appearances. When he sat down - or rather, kicked back on a hotel room couch - for a mid-morning interview, he was relaxed, easy-going and modest. Just the kind of guy you might expect from seeing his films: "I've been on the road for the last 30 days, essentially. A regional tour. And we did about two weeks in New York, but it's been a lot of running around. It's really an interesting approach to a movie that I thought I'd never be talking about. I thought people would want to talk to the cast."
Ben Affleck and Raquel Castro in Jersey Girl
Is this the biggest press you've done for one of your films?
I would think so. It may rival Dogma. In Dogma we wound up doing an insane amount of press because of the controversy, but yeah, for a movie that we weren't getting death threats for, this is definitely the most press I've ever done on a film.
No death threats so far.
Not yet, not yet. Had a few post-Gigli, but thankfully, the word is getting out that we're not that film. We seem to be okay.
That brings up the obligatory question: What is it like having a potential publicity dream - high-profile couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez paired in your movie, for the brief amount of time she is in it - turn into a nightmare in the wake of Gigli and a tabloid-fueled break-up?
It's unpleasant. Thankfully, I always have the benefit of knowing that the movie is what it is, that it's not a story of those two characters. They're in it together, and when they're together in the movie, they're good, but she checks out pretty quickly. So I've always felt that once the word gets out that it's not really about Ben and Jen's characters, that it's really about Ben's character and Raquel's character, and Ben's character and George's character, and to a lesser extent, Ben's character and Liv's character, then we'll be fine. But it was a little frightening for a little while in terms of facing the marketing challenge, which thankfully, isn't my challenge. It's really up to Miramax at that point and it just made Miramax's job a lot harder to actually convince people to give the movie a try and come out and see it. The nice thing is that once people see it, they do get it. And Gigli wound up helping us in as much as it clearly lowered the bar. There is no expectation going into the movie because people are like, "Well, the last Ben and Jen movie was dog shit so this movie will follow suit." And then they get in and see that, "Oh, it's actually really sweet." So the expectations were lowered significantly and that actually kind of helps us out.
I notice that J-Lo is nowhere to be seen on the posters or in the advertising.
But I guarantee you that if Gigli had been a hit, Miramax would have slapped her all over the poster.
I'm certainly not the first and I won't be the last journalist to say, "So, what about Ben and J-Lo?" How do you steer the conversation back to the movie?
It helps when people see it, so even though it is, as you say, the obligatory question, most people that see the movie get that out of the way and wind up talking about the film itself because they realize that there's not much Jennifer conversation to have. It's convincing the rest of the world that it's not that movie, that it isn't Gigli 2. That's what the press run for me has been about. Ben is out there doing an inordinate amount of press, almost as much as he probably did for Pearl Harbor. George Carlin is out there doing press - Liv Tyler, Raquel, everybody except Jennifer, essentially. But it looks like it's changed the awareness of the movie. It's given them the correct awareness. I never understood that title The Phantom Menace until Gigli happened, because we're really fighting the ghost of a movie that no one really saw but everybody is convinced was terrible.
For what it's worth, I think the chemistry between Ben and Jennifer in Jersey Girl is so much more convincing and energizing than in Gigli. You are sorry to see her go because they make a sweet couple, a real happily-ever-after.
There were times when I was shooting the movie where I thought, "Boy, it's a shame that we don't have more time with her, that it's not really more about them." But post-Gigli, maybe that's a good thing. Maybe we give them just enough of Ben and Jen together and then she's on her way.
Kevin Smith directs Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in Jersey Girl.
Write your own thought balloons.
Now that the obligatory stuff is out of the way, let's talk about the movie. You dedicated it to "Pop."
It's dedicated to my father, but in the thanks at the end, I gave a shout-out to everyone who worked on the movie and to my wife, Jen, and my daughter, Harley. Because without Harley, there's no way I'd think about making this movie. It's a movie you can't really think about making unless you have a kid yourself. Otherwise you're doing a lot of extrapolation. I had to do a bit of extrapolation myself because Harley wasn't even one when I began writing the script. You have to imagine what a relationship with a seven-year-old is going to be like.
George Carlin plays Pop in the film. Was his character at all autobiographical?
It's a little bit based on my dad. My father was a lot more emotionally open as a parent. He certainly wasn't afraid to tell his children that he loved them, whereas George's character, the best he could do was tell his son that he didn't want to die alone. That's the closest that he gets to saying that he loves his son. So there's that difference there. But my father is also the one who kept me on the straight and narrow, kept me really grounded. He never let me get too full of myself, always kept my job in perspective. I'd come to him with a stack of reviews and say, "Check it out, Pop," and he'd have this innate ability to go through and find the one or two or three negative reviews. "Did you read this? What do you think about what this guy said?" It's like, "Alright, alright, I get it." It kept me really grounded.
I do what I do today because of him. He'd yank me out of school at noon on Wednesdays and Fridays and we'd just go to the movies. And he got that pretty quickly. He never said, "Hey, you should become a filmmaker," or anything like that because no one in our family did stuff along those lines. But he got it when I got the film career. He felt a certain sense of responsibility. He knew it was because we spent so much time watching movies together.
Did that affectionate name-calling and insulting come out of that relationship?
With Dad? Not really, no. I'd get the shit beat out of me if I called my old man names. I would call him the old man and he wouldn't like that so much.
How autobiographical is the conflict that Ben Affleck's character, Ollie, has with his career and fatherhood?
It's not as much as it is in the movie, to say the least. I came around pretty quickly: "I'm a father now, I'm a husband, so obviously, a balance has to be struck between the personal and the professional." Obviously, the personal is far more important, but the professional obviously has importance. Not just because it's how I make my living, but because it's how I am creatively fulfilled. If I were to totally cast it off, that's not really any value to either Jen or Harley. I wouldn't be living up to my potential. I'd be sitting around feeling drabby because I wouldn't be doing what I love doing. But it just took a very short time to figure out how balance things - wife, kid, job - at the same time. Thankfully, I have this kind of job that allows for a lot of free time. Six months of the year you're really busy, cranking on a film, and the other six, you're just kind of sitting around. So I get to spend an inordinate amount of time with Jen and Harley. All last summer, me and the kid were at the pool three times a day. I took her to school every morning; we got to hang out after school. Just the other night, we sat around playing "Clue," which is not a game for little kids, it really isn't.
How old is Harley?
She's going to be five in June.
The story of the press agent who gets so frustrated that he blows up at a press conference and insults his own client in front of a room full of press, and then directs a tirade at the press itself - that sounds like it should be some publicist legend. Is it, or is this something you simply made up?
No, it's just something I thought would be cool, because that's their job, to be super nice to people and always paint a rosy picture. I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if one of them just got lost and blew up?" I'd never heard of it happening, but as I travel with the film and do all the press, every time I meet a publicist, when they pick you up at the airport of whatever city you're in, you always hear from them: "That's the dream. You put the dream up on the screen." Not so much to lose the job, of course, but to actually say what you think.
So, where the heck did the name Ollie Trinke come from?
Ollie came from when I was writing Green Arrow over at DC Comics. That character's name was Oliver Queen. I liked that name - Oliver, Ollie. I still don't know where I got Trinke from. Somebody was asking me, "What is that? Is that Italian? Is it Latin? What is it?" I don't know. Neither of those dudes [Affleck and Carlin] look Italian or Latin. I don't know where it really stemmed from, it just had a nice ring to it.
Whenever I write flicks, I want to give people interesting names because so often you've got a lot of Bobs and Johns. It's fun to throw people a curve ball and give them an interesting name. Same with jobs. Someone asked me, "Were you trying to make a bold statement by making him a publicist, stacking the deck?" Not really. When I started writing it, I hadn't seen many movies with people who work in publicity - with the exception of Sweet Smell Of Success. It was an interesting job to me and I like to give people interesting jobs rather than making them cops and lawyers and shit like that. Just put something out there that you hadn't really seen before. Like in Chasing Amy, they drew comic books. One was a penciller, one was an inker, and it was a job that nobody had ever really seen in a film before. I like that.