WASHINGTON -- In the original cut of Clerks, writer-director Kevin Smith killed off a main character (a less-lethal ending was substituted before the movie hit theaters). In the commentary for a laser disc release of the movie, the indie stalwart says an accompanying music video is "as close to a Clerks sequel as you'll ever get." When Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was released in 2001, bringing back the drug-dealing muses who serve as the Greek chorus for Clerks, he was widely quoted as saying that marked the last appearance by those characters.
So what's the deal with this Clerks II movie opening today, 12 years after the original? Can this guy be trusted?
"Everything must be taken with a grain of salt," a smiling Smith says between puffs of a cigarette, the second he's lit only five minutes into the interview. "The lesson I learned from that was: Never say never, and always leave your options open."
But the real answer to why Clerks II is being brought to the screen, why he's resurrecting Dante and Randal, the two work-averse, minimum-wage slackers who helped put him on the cinematic map, is complicated. The answer has to do with recovering from failure, his own comfort level and playing to one's audience. But most of all, it has to do with hitting your mid-30s and wondering just how -- if at all -- you're any different from that dude who made it through his 20s on a wink, a smile and a unique ear for contemporary dialogue.
"Back then, if you had asked me in '94, 'Would you ever sequelize Clerks?' I'm like, 'I've said everything I can. I'm done with these two,'" says Smith, who turns 36 next month. "Then I decided I really wanted to make a movie about what it felt like to be in my 30s. I was thinking of new characters. Then I stopped and thought, 'Wait, Clerks was what it felt like to be in my 20s. Maybe I can use Dante and Randal to tell that story, if those dudes would age."
In his 20s, Smith says, he could relate to two guys who preferred talking to doing, whose ambition was to be content with who they are, and not strive to be what everyone else thought they should be. The resulting film, with its embrace of street vernacular and infatuation with the slacker lifestyle, proved a major hit at Sundance. His follow-up, Mallrats, tried to do for malls and their habitues what Clerks did for convenience stores, but failed. His next film, however, the slacker-infused romantic comedy Chasing Amy, proved a hit, even scoring Smith an Independent Spirit Award for screenwriting. He followed that with his best movie, Dogma, a deceptively thought-provoking meditation on faith, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. In that film, he sent the stoners from Clerks (played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself) on a road trip to California, where they were determined to stop production of a movie based on their lives.
To Smith's fans, he could do little wrong. Still, Smith hesitated to reprise Clerks. For one thing, some of the actors he would be counting on to reprise their roles balked, especially Jeff Anderson, who played Randal, the know-it-all, seen-it-all chronic yapper who specializes in yanking Dante's chain. "He said to me, 'If it's terrible, people will retroactively hate all your other films. What's the point?'
"I said, 'You know what, dude? It's a fair argument, not unlike things that I've thought myself in quiet moments of self-doubt,'" says Smith, who attended high school with Anderson back in their New Jersey days. "I said to him, 'Let me write the script, and base your decision on that.'" Smith did, and Anderson -- along with Brian O'Halloran, who played Dante -- signed on.
Even tougher to get past, Smith says, was the feeling he might be jeopardizing his strong relationship with his fans. An early believer in the Internet, Smith blogs regularly. He uses his Web site, viewaskew.com, as a sounding board for ideas. He's a major player among comic fans (he famously sold his collection to finance the original Clerks) and a favorite at comic-book conventions.
The last thing he wanted to do was tick those people off.
"I was kind of scared at the notion of toying with a sacred cow, the first film, something that people hold in a lot of esteem and had called many wonderful things," he says.
But the realization that he had something to say, and that the characters from Clerks would provide the perfect vessel from which to say it, finally won the day.
Then there was his most recent film, Jersey Girl, an awkwardly conventional romantic comedy about a single father (Ben Affleck) struggling to raise his young daughter. The film co-starred Jennifer Lopez as Affleck's late wife and had the misfortune to play just after its co-stars' highly publicized breakup. The movie bombed, doubtless in part because America had had enough of "Bennifer."
Smith acknowledges that Jersey Girl's failure contributed to his willingness to revisit Clerks. But the idea, he insists, was not simply to resort to the tried-and-true.
"I think I've only gotten to make a pure film, unadulterated, three times in my life," Smith says. "One was on Clerks, because there was no expectation. The next was on Chasing Amy, because we were coming off the failure of Mallrats, so there was no expectation. And then, coming after Jersey Girl, there are no expectations. People are just, like, 'He's done, he's run out of ideas, and his movies are going to become more and more terrible.
"There's something really liberating about working in that place," he says. "Believe me, it's terrible when you're in the moment; it takes all you can to keep the shotgun out of your mouth. But the notion of, like, 'Wow, nobody expects anything' -- that's the best place for me to work from. I like to keep that bar of expectations low, keep it low to the ground."
As for charges that, with Clerks II, Smith is simply playing to his audience, Smith happily pleads guilty
"Show me one filmmaker who doesn't play to his audience," Smith says. "David Lynch plays to David Lynch's audience. Martin Scorsese plays to Martin Scorsese's audience. Even Steven Spielberg plays to his audience. His audience just happens to be everybody in the world.
"My audience is much smaller," he acknowledges, taking yet another drag off another cigarette. "But that's what we do. We play to the people who like what we've done."