Kevin Smith interviewed by Paul Greenwood, Glasgow, September 14th, 2011
Red State seems like a film made by someone with a lot to say....
Early in my career I had a lot to say and then in the middle of my career I didn’t have too much to say and now I've decided to end the career, and once you know there’s not much time to say anything, you start saying everything. It came from a place of not having had much on my mind for the last few years. I love Zack and Miri, but no one was crying for the story of that, and certainly not Cop Out, to be told, but this feels for the first time in a while I get to make a flick where there’s some real meat, some layers, and you get to enjoy it on several levels, and it’s got a bunch to say while saying nothing at all. I like the trappings of the exploitation film because it downplays what could be a very medicine-y message movie. You wrap it up in the gunfights and the fun of the chase and who’s going to get killed next, I think that takes the medicine-y edge off, and then you forget maybe it has something on its mind.
What was the catalyst for wanting to tell this story?
In the States we have to deal with the Westboro Baptist Church all the time in the media. You guys know them over here from the Louis Theroux doc, The Most Hated Family in America, these people wasting everybody’s time. They usually show up on the worst day of a person’s life, as they're putting a child in the ground and holding up their ridiculous signs and making lives miserable, and when you see that enough over the years you wish you could stop it, but you can’t stop free speech, particularly in my country, so your hands are tied to some degree. But you hate watching bullies of any kind, particularly bullies that run rampant in the name of God. So the movie is kind of my version of holding up a sign like they do, just to make their lives a little less pleasant, just irritate them a little bit. They’re monsters in real life and Red State kind of makes them cartoons, takes the idea of something like WBC and gun-toting religious nuts and throws them up on the screen - you take the monster, pull their teeth out, paint them up like clowns, and say look at these idiots. And that’s my version of them holding up a ‘God hates whatever’ sign.
If you do it all heavy handed it doesn’t work nearly as well, so you wrap it up in some entertainment at the same time. Bruce Willis said to me one time on set, ’It’s a movie, we should be moving’. And that stuck with me, so this is constantly moving forward, even when it’s not talking about issues, it’s designed to not let you get ahead of it. When I was writing it, every time I felt like I knew where it was going I just switched, jumped over to something else. I knew that if I knew where it was going, the audience would as well, so in order to make it fun for everybody you jump around and do genre mash-ups where it’s three different movies at once. That’s a great way to throw the audience, suddenly dropping one movie and picking up another. I've seen far better filmmakers than me do it for years, like the Coen brothers in Fargo - what a wonderful magic trick where it’s 30 minutes into the movie before the heroine finally joins; if you can pull that off I always thought it would be neat to have that kind of talent. And that’s kind of what Red State is, it’s me trying to do someone else’s movie, Quentin Tarantino by way of the Coens, with just enough of my sensibility in there so that people know it’s still me.
Do you want people to be surprised it’s a Kevin Smith film?
The highest compliment you can get is when some says to me ‘You didn’t direct this’. Every once in a while as an artist you should reinvent and give them something new, because once they get used to your bag of tricks, it’s so easy for everyone to go across the street and start looking for something else. If you want to maintain an audience or stay relevant or keep fresh, you’ve got to do something different every once in a while. And this was pretty drastic, I really feel like I took a nice chainsaw to the career of Kevin Smith, I took it down and then rebuilt it. But that’s a good thing, it’s not like ‘Oh, I hate my old career’, it’s just that I've done it and in order to step to the next place you obliterate the old and build something new. This is part of it, all the podcasts on the Smodcast network are part of it, and it feels neat. For the first time in a long time I feel on fire, and art should feel like if you don’t make it you’ll die, which is how I felt with Clerks and Chasing Amy and now Red State. With most of the stuff in the middle, it was more like ‘If I don’t make this movie, I'll just make another movie’.
So it’s nice to feel the desperation again, it makes you feel young. I just turned 41, so the notion of being involved in punk rock filmmaking in any shape of form, as we did with Red State, it makes you feel vital, just kind of gasses you up, and gives you enough energy to get through what will be the last flick I'll do after this, Hit Somebody. And then I'll be able to close it down. I'm kind of in love with the idea of completing a career, being able to say this was my movie period, for 20 years I made flicks, started with Clerks and ended with Hit Somebody, and there it is. That way the work never really gets a chance to start sucking, go out strong. I’d rather do that than sit around and collect a cheque. Some movies work, some don’t, but if I don’t have the fire in my belly for it, you make stuff like Cop Out and Zack and Miri, just movies. They can be fun and I love them, but they're not screaming to be made. There’s a lot of me in them but it’s not me opening up my mind and my heart and pouring it onto celluloid. When someone asks what my favourites were, it’s easy to point to the cheap ones. Clerks, $27,000, Chasing Amy $250,000, Clerks II $5m and now Red State $4m – the less money we had, the more creative we got, the riskier we could be. Jersey Girl was $35m and you can’t take any risks. The less money we had, there’s a sense of, fuck it, we can’t get in trouble, let’s go for it.
Will you pay much attention to the film’s critical response?
I got into a thing with critics after Cop Out where I had a real weird relationship with them and I’d started paying them too much attention. Even from day one with Clerks, I was always told I had to love and respect and kiss the ass of the critical community because they're the conduit between you and the audience, particularly if you’re a weird filmmaker. We’re talking pre-internet in 1994 where if you're making indie flicks, that’s the only way anyone is going to hear about it. And then the world changed, and I can now get in touch with the audience directly. I don’t have to rely on the opinions of a few people who’ve been canonised as people who can tell you whether your movie is good or bad, I can literally ask someone who bought a ticket, I can hear from anyone with an internet connection. So for years I played the game all filmmakers play where you smile through the bad reviews and engage when the reviews are good, and I got kind of sick of it. How can anyone tell me that I failed at self-expression? Art is subjective, when someone self-expresses, there’s no failure, there’s no wrong way. It got to a point where I thought ‘I'm done with this backwards nonsense’. I realised with Red State that I had to cut ties with the critical community, there’s no way I could have been as free as I was making this movie if I was worried about what people would think about it afterwards.
What were some of your horror influences going into Red State?
Rosemary’s Baby was a huge influence, because the creepiness of that flick is how normal everyone comes across. Ruth Gordon and all those senior citizens in that movie, they come across so sickeningly normal that it makes it even more terrifying. There’s also an exploitation film from the 70s I was always scared of called Race with the Devil, with Warren Oates and Peter Fonda camped out in the desert and they discover a Satanist cult who chase them across the desert in their Winnebago. So those devil worship movies really captured my imagination.
The distribution of the film in the States was unusual, where you took it on the road one city at a time. What was your thinking behind that?
The conventional wisdom is you got to spend money to make money, but I thought if I could just take this movie out there, we could make the money back without spending any more. My philosophy was we already spent the money, we made the fucking movie, but spending more than that to reach the audience in a world where I could tweet them or do a podcast or a radio or TV show for free, why are we spending all this money to get to the same place? So I then took the philosophy of less is more to the next degree in terms of marketing, just go after the audience. I've been through the release of a movie nine times prior to this, so I pretty much know what to expect. But the nice thing about Red State is it’s being going on now for almost a year since we found out we were in Sundance, so for a year without spending a dime I've just been stoking fires, showing it places, showing it over here in the UK, which brings it back to life again while it’s still live in the States. My hope is it never totally goes to sleep, like a conventional film with its theatrical run, home video and then that’s it. I want to see if, let’s say two years from now, I can still take Red State out, sell out a 500 seat venue and still charge a premium for it, even though the movie will be on DVD. I could literally go anywhere in the States or the UK and throw a screening of Red State on, I'll do a Q&A after it, 20 bucks, and people will still come out. And you put that money into a box office chart every month and that movie is still alive, generally you don’t see a two year old movie in the box office chart. I'm not doing it for financial gain, I just want to see if it can be done, and that’s the very essence of art.