The Saturday Interview
Kevin Smith: ‘I got a phone call from Harvey Weinstein a week before the #MeToo thing broke’
As Kevin Smith returns in ‘Jay and Silent Bob Reboot’, the actor, director and podcaster tells Gerard Gilbert about the changes in his life post-heart attack, a third Clerks film, and why he doesn’t believe ‘woke culture’ is killing comedy
Kevin Smith doesn’t like to dash expectations. As expected, when we meet in a deluxe London hotel that would be completely alien to his stoner character, Silent Bob – from Smith’s 1994 classic slacker movie Clerks – he’s wearing his trademark back-to-front white baseball cap.
“It is a kind of branding,” the 49-year-old actor-director-podcaster says. “It just saves a lot of time. I tend to go with the hat… a wash ’n’ go kind of guy.”
For the record, he’s also wearing an oversized purple jacket, a T-shirt promoting his new film Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (more of which later), denim shorts (this is in deepest November) and yellow Vans. “For years I wore hockey jerseys but they went away after I lost a load of weight.”
The weight loss was the indirect result of a massive heart attack in February 2018 while filming a comedy special. Smith thought that he couldn’t catch his breath because he’d smoked too much weed that day, but luckily his manager made the decision to call an ambulance. “They’re just going to tell me I’m too stoned,” he said.
Informed instead he had an 80 per cent chance of dying, Smith remained remarkably calm. “I always figured you’d have to drag me out of this world, but I went through my entire life and realised I was really content.”
And that wasn’t just the marijuana speaking. A huge source of Smith’s near-death contentment was his decision 25 years ago to max out his credit cards to finance a black-and-white movie filmed and set in the local convenience store where he worked in New Jersey. Made for just $27,575, Clerks starred his friends Brian O’Halloran, as the main protagonist Dante Hicks, and Jason Mewes, as the talkative half of Jay and Silent Bob. Mixing witty filth with stoner wisdom, Clerks was made with the amateurish vim of Andy Warhol’s Factory movies, and had shades, too, of Richard Linklater’s Slacker. It won a prize at Sundance before being snapped up by Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax, going on to gross over $3m.
Weinstein and Miramax would go on to produce nearly all of Smith’s films for the next 14 years, including Chasing Amy, Dogma (Smith’s suitably controversial 1999 fantasy starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as fallen angels and Alanis Morissette as God), Jersey Girl and Clerks II. He says that if he knew then about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse, he would happily have foregone them all.
“Scott Rosenberg [the Hollywood screenwriter] wrote an article that said everybody knew [about Weinstein], but I didn’t know because if I had I wouldn’t have worked with the guy,” he says. “Around Miramax all we thought was like ‘Oh, Harvey cheats on his wife’ because he’d always be around pretty girls but it was never like ‘Harvey is a rapist’.
“I got a phone call from Harvey a week before the #MeToo thing broke. He hadn’t spoken to me for 10 years and I was so excited because this was the guy who started my career. He owns Dogma personally and he was like, ‘Maybe we could talk about a sequel to Dogma… we’ll speak soon.’ A week later the New York Times piece ran. It was a sick feeling. He was circling his wagons because he knew that article was about to drop.
“But I’m not the victim here,” Smith continues. “He never victimised me; in fact, he made my dreams come true.” To help the real victims, the actresses whose dreams Weinstein crushed, Smith pledged his future residuals from the films Weinstein produced to the non-profit organisation Women in Film.
His new film, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, sees the stoners from Clerks make a road trip to Hollywood to fight for the film rights of their fictional likenesses Bluntman and Chronic, just like they did in 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
“Technically it’s not really a reboot, it’s more a ‘requel’ – a reboot and a sequel together, like The Force Awakens,” says Smith, a massive Star Wars fan. “I want to say some stuff about reboots and remakes and sequels.”
If that sounds a bit meta and a million miles from the lo-fi grubby realism of Clerks, then it is. It’s one primarily for the fans, and there are enough of those that, in America, Smith was able to forego a marketing budget and advertise the $8m film on social media alone. He’s an early adopter. “By the time Twitter came around I could do this in my sleep,” he says. “I sold out my American tour just using Twitter and Instagram.”
Jay and Silent Bob Reboot features a small galaxy of guest stars, including Chris Hemsworth (“I didn’t know him but I saw him say he was listening to a Kevin Smith podcast, and I thought, ‘Thor knows my name!’”), Rosario Dawson, Val Kilmer and Ben Affleck. “I cast the movie with my heart attack,” he says. “Basically, you call up people and say, ‘Hey, do you want to come down to New Orleans and be in a movie? You do remember I almost died last year, right?’”
There’s also a starring role for Smith’s 20-year-old daughter Harley Quinn, who plays the leader of a pack of rebellious vegan girls – typecasting perhaps, since it was Harley who persuaded her father, post-heart attack, to take up the plant-based diet that caused Smith to lose 11 stone (70kg). Nowadays he graces photoshoots in Men’s Health and Muscle & Fitness magazines. Harley is gleeful about his conversion, according to her dad. “Oh, yes, she’s ‘If I can flip this motherf***er what a gift for the vegan movement he is’.”
Smith doesn’t agree with the sentiment that “woke” culture is killing comedy. “If you ever punch down to make laughs, you can’t get away with that anymore,” he says. “I was always punching myself, so I don’t find it difficult to make comedy in a woke culture.
“I get to take my characters, firmly rooted in the Nineties, and introduce them to the Klan, to Russian collusion, to social-justice warriors, to diversity, and see what comes of that. The fish out of water thing. But my kid, who’s of an incredibly sensitive generation, had me second-guessing myself. She said you can’t put the Ku Klux Klan in a movie, they’re a hate organisation. I was like, ‘I know that, that’s why we dump s*** on them.’”
One irony of playing a character called Silent Bob is that Smith himself is anything but, his hands gesticulating wildly as he speaks. You can see why podcasting is his natural métier. Another irony is that he has gone from portraying a drug dealer to being in the real-life legal weed business, with his own brand of pre-rolled legal marijuana, a sample of which appears from his pocket now.
“This one is called ‘snoochie boochie’ [Jay and Silent Bob speak for ‘cool’] that’s got 20 per cent THC and 31 percent CBD – so it’s a joint that’s like a cup of coffee. The other two are more like ‘smoke this and it’ll knock you the f*** out’.”
Talking of knockouts, I wonder what his near-death experience has taught him. “I learnt finally that I’m living on borrowed time,” he says. “My wife [former USA Today journalist Jennifer Schwalbach] is like ‘that’s morbid’ and I say, ‘You’re living on borrowed time too, I’m just acutely aware of it.’”
One project that will now finally be made, after a false start in 2017, is a second sequel to Clerks. “The original version of Clerks III was very middle-aged and obsessed with death. Now that I’ve seen death I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he says.
“The new version is a lot more hopeful. In the very first scene Randall [the video-store worker played by Jeff Anderson] has a massive heart attack. So, in recovery he’s telling Dante, ‘I nearly died last night. I’m 50 years old and I’ve got nothing to show for my life. I’m not watching anyone’s movies anymore, I’m making my own movie about my life working here and you’re going to help me.’ So, Randall and Dante make Clerks, essentially.”
It’s a neat idea, drawing a full circle on Smith’s career and I hope Clerks III does justice to the original. By his own admission, he hasn’t developed as a director in the intervening 25 years. “I don’t think I’m born to be a director, like Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez or Chris Nolan,” he says. “I’m more of a carpetbagger… I’m a fan. I never wanted to make big stuff. I love watching Marvel movies but I’ve got no interest in making a Marvel movie.
“I’m in the Kevin Smith business. Sometimes I do it through a movie, sometimes I do it through a podcast, sometimes I do it on stage. What makes it all palatable is I give away my podcasts, which is where I do my best work, for free. But every other way, Kevin Smith is trying to separate you from your loot.”
Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is in cinemas now