The Dec. 13, 2012, edition of “Breakthrough Thinking: The Magazine” featured several soundbites from filmmaker Kevin Smith, whose filmography includes “Clerks,” “Clerks II,” “Mallrats” and “Chasing Amy.” The following is my full exclusive interview with him from which said soundbites were pulled.
Question: I want to touch on a potentially sensitive subject. You said some pretty nasty things about film critics like myself during your last EPIX comedy special “Kevin Smith: Burn in Hell.” Can you tell me where those comments came from?
Answer: I love “Red State.” Like, when I wrote it, I was like, “This is the movie I was born to make!” And I knew that I was onto something artistic in a way that I hadn’t been since “Clerks.” But the problem was that I had such a toxic relationship with critics. And not like, “I don’t like critics and they don’t like me.” It was this sick kind of dependency. I was brought into a world, with “Clerks,” at a time where what critics said mattered. You needed critics to kind of bolster your movie and even get noticed. Through my whole film career, that has always been driven into my head. And that always sat weird with me. The critics are just part of the audience and I am working for the audience – not just one specific group of the audience. And, at that point, “Cop Out” had gotten cut and slashed by critics – which never made me feel bad because I didn’t write it. I was solely the director. Thank God I didn’t write it because I would have taken that stuff to heart. I did think that it was unfair though.
Q: So then you were cutting your ties with film critics to help your focus on the film itself instead of what critics might think of it?
A: Heading into “Red State,” I said to myself, “I am falling all over myself, constantly worried about what the critics are going to say. Are they going to see that I was going for Quentin Tarantino by way of the Coen brothers with a soupçon of Kevin Smith? Or am I going to have my heart broken when they say, “This is another piece of [crap] by Kevin Smith?” I could not make the movie under those conditions. When I made “Clerks,” I was never thinking about what the critics were going to say just like I was never thinking about how much money it was going to make or who was going to pick it up. But I knew that I could not make the movie under the same conditions that I made “Clerks” because that time was gone. There I was, nearly 20 years later. I had done it a few times so, at that point, it was a different beast altogether. So I said to myself, “If you want to make this in the head-space that you made “Clerks,” you have got to burn down the village to save it. You have got to do something that is going to ensure that you don’t care what anybody says about the movie – particularly critics.” I was very fear-based. I was trained to fear the critical community because they can hurt your movie.
Q: So then how, exactly, did you move beyond that fear?
A: I said, “Look, if fear is what is holding me back from making a great art film, I have got to go fearless.” I pitted one fear against another – the fear of banality vs. the fear of not being liked. I figured, in terms of not being liked, maybe they will hear what I am doing and understand that it is not an individual attack. But I could not think about how they were gong to react. All I knew is what I needed to do so I went out there and was like, “I don’t care if critics even see the movie. Critics are useless.” You go out and say stuff like that and guess what that means. There is a good chance that every criticism of the next movie you make is going to tear you to shreds. And I suddenly felt calmed by that. If I could guarantee myself that everybody was going to hate the movie – critically speaking – then I would never have to worry about whether they were going to like the movie or not and I could just make the movie without second guessing the flick. It sucks to go out there and do it, man, but that was the only way that I was going to grow. And it sucks because I had a lot of friends who were critics. Some of them mostly understood what I was going for but then there are a bunch of cats who don’t know you from Adam and just see you blasting what they do and are like, “Who are you? You are Hitler! We used to support you!” I get it. I understand how people would take issue with it. But, at the end of the day, I needed to do that.
Q: And why is that?
A: As an artist, I needed to divorce myself from the dependency that I had grown accustomed to when it came to critics. It was kind of like being in a bad relationship with someone you love but you are just toxic for each other. So I said to myself, “Somebody has got to break up with somebody first.” I could do that and guarantee that I was going to be able to make “Red State” in this purely artistic head-space that was about as close as it would be to the making of “Clerks” – not so much the exact surroundings but the similar spirit and sensibility that went into making it. I weighed certainty against doubt. The certainty was, “If I am worried about what the critics are going to say about ‘Red State,’ this movie is going to blow. The doubt was, “Well, I doubt that they will ever return if I say i don’t believe in critics anymore so I am going to lose out there but I might be free-er because of it.” And, of course, you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I really don’t. Contrary to what anyone may believe, I don’t want to make anybody think that I was saying that what they do isn’t cool or something like that. But part of my process was to just dig it out like a tick. And it sucked, dude, because I loved being liked. I mean, everybody does to some degree. And they particularly want to be liked by people who write about their field. But the artist in my heart was just like, “Burn the boat and see what happens.”
Q: Do you have any regrets about that? And if you were to do it all again, would you change anything about it?
A: Even though I regret hurt feelings that people may have, I can’t regret what I did because I love “Red State” so much. Like, it was better than I ever imagined it could possibly be and that was because I was divested of all of that worry and fear. I took fear out of the equation for myself. So I apologize to critics – even the ones I can’t stand – because I never want to make someone feel bad about what they do. But that was part of my process and, at the end of the day, they have made me feel bad about what I do plenty of times so they can take this one on the chin. That was the most interesting thing. Critics are used to saying mean stuff about my movies and the moment I turned around and was like, “I think critics suck,” oh my God, there was an emo-bomb that exploded, proving that nobody likes to be criticized. If I had to do it again, I would probably still do the same thing but I might be a bit more gentle about it. But I had to kind of pull myself out of that relationship to move forward. It is one of those things, like, life is not always clean. Sometimes it is messy in an omelets and eggs kind of way.
Q: To be quite honest, I am – as a film critic – relieved to know that Kevin Smith does not hate me after all.
A: Don’t you lose any sleep over that. What you are doing is expressing your love for cinema. I express it by making movies. Right now, you are expressing it by writing about them. In 10 years, you are going to be making them yourself because you are going to come to a point where you are like, “I can’t write about this stuff anymore. I can do this.” You are going to watch enough stuff where you are going to be like, “If this counts, why am I writing about other people’s movies? I’ll do it myself.” I would be the same person if it were not for “Clerks.” I would be the guy who was writing about it because I am passionate about it. Because I love it. Because it speaks to me. Because film makes life worth living.