Kevin Smith lets it all hang out in "Clerk," a SXSW doc about his turbulent career
Filmmakers Kevin Smith and Malcolm Ingram are both longtime friends and friendly combatants.
Filmmakers Kevin Smith and Malcolm Ingram are arguing about how much muck to fling in a documentary, “Clerk,” about Smith’s often turbulent career.
Smith, 50, wants it all out there: his movie bombs, his “near nervous breakdowns” and, most particularly, his early business ties to Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced movie mogul and convicted rapist and sex abuser.
Ingram, 52, the Toronto documentarian behind the “Clerk” camera, argues it’s neither fair nor necessary to air all of Smith’s dirty laundry, especially the Weinstein stuff.
“This is probably one of the first documentaries where the subject fought to get more dirt in,” Ingram sighs, over a Zoom link interview with Smith for the Star.
It’s OK. They do this a lot. They’re the best of friends.
“Clerk” is the true story of a small-town New Jersey guy, Smith, who wrote and directed a B&W comedy called “Clerks” 27 years ago, based on his experiences working in a variety store called Quick Stop.
A sensation at the 1994 Sundance and TIFF festivals, “Clerks” launched Smith on the road to becoming an indie film icon — “Chasing Amy” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” are other standouts — as well as a popular podcaster, standup comedian and pop culture maven. The career continued, albeit with many speed bumps, including several notorious movie failures (“Jersey Girl,” anyone?) and a heart attack in 2018 that nearly killed him.
Produced by Craig Fleming, another Toronto native, “Clerk” will have its world premiere March 17 at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, a full year after its previously scheduled debut — the 2020 SXSW fest was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
An unmistakable figure at any event with his familiar garb of board shorts, hockey jersey and backwards baseball cap, along with his liberal use of profanity, Smith agreed to let Ingram chronicle his career because he wanted a guy he could trust to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. The two met in Toronto in ’94 when Ingram was covering the Toronto International Film Festival for a film magazine and they’ve been almost inseparable since then.
“He’s the guy who’s there, the fly on the wall,” Smith says of his friend. “He’s seen me at my best and worst, both professionally and personally. He’s always been the dude unafraid to call you on your s--t. There are people who I grew up with who aren’t as brutal with me as Malcolm has always been.”
The two are so close that when a near-fatal heart attack forced Smith off the road in 2018 and he was hunkered down in his home and on a strict diet, his wife Jennifer Schwalbach Smith found that the only way to cheer him up was to summon his burly and bearded pal Malcolm to come live with them while Kevin recuperated.
For his part, Ingram credits Smith’s loyalty and honesty for giving him the courage to come out of the closet years ago as a gay man, and to explore his new-found sexual liberation directing such docs as “Small Town Gay Bar,” “Bear Nation” and “Continental.”
“Believe me, there’s a dark side as well,” Ingram says of his personality and his friendship with Smith. “We’ve had our moments.”
Smith gave Ingram carte blanche to chronicle a film career that included a skyrocketing debut (“Clerks”), a sudden fall to earth for his sophomore film (the messy ensemble comedy “Mallrats”) and a sudden return to critical grace with an envelope-pushing romantic comedy (“Chasing Amy”) that paired a young Ben Affleck as the determined suitor of a lesbian played by Joey Lauren Adams.
And this was all in just three years, from 1994 to ‘97, when he was setting the pace for indie film comedies that would inspire the zany creations of the likes of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, while at the same time forging a strong connection with a legion of diehard fans.
Since then, Smith has been as adept at gaining notoriety as making movies. He outraged conservative Catholics in 1999 with his religious-themed comedy “Dogma” (which paired Affleck and Matt Damon as fallen angels riotously roaming Earth). He set gossipy tongues wagging in 2004 with the risible romantic dramedy “Jersey Girl” featuring then-real-life couple Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, known to tabloids as “Bennifer.”
Smith drew angry picketers from members of the gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church outside the 2011 Sundance world premiere of his killer rednecks horror movie “Red State.”
More recently, he had to take his bizarro Canadian-themed comedy “Yoga Hosers” (starring his daughter Harley Quinn Smith and Johnny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose Depp) to premiere at Sundance. It had been rejected by TIFF on the grounds of being potentially offensive to Canadians, thanks to all of its dumb Canuck jokes packed into a story about two Manitoba convenience store clerks who battle a band of pint-sized Nazis made out of bratwurst (you read that correctly).
“They were like, ‘Kevin, we’re gonna protect you by not playing this at the Toronto International Film Festival because this movie is filled with insulting Canadian stereotypes!’ And I was like, ‘There’s such a thing?’”
Then there’s the Weinstein connection, which seriously tested the bonds of friendship between Smith and Ingram.
Midway through “Clerk,” Smith faces the camera and tells the audience it’s time to talk about his business dealings with Weinstein, which began when the mogul bought “Clerks” for distribution by his indie powerhouse Miramax (and later the Weinstein Company).
Weinstein continued to handle Smith’s films right up to “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” in 2008, a raunchy comedy starring Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks that also failed at the box office.
Hand on heart, Smith says he knew that Weinstein was a serial philanderer (“That’s it,” he insists, offering no judgment) but not that he was also preying on women in the coercive sexual acts that would later send him to jail and spark the #MeToo movement to expose and punish predatory males. Smith was so appalled when the truth finally came out in 2017, he announced he would henceforth donate all the proceeds of movies he made with Weinstein to a non-profit group called Women in Film.
Ingram felt that Smith shouldn’t be tarred with the Weinstein brush in his doc because despite his pal’s loyalty to the man — he once wrote that he “would take a bullet” for him — Smith had no knowledge of what Weinstein did behind closed doors.
“You’re not culpable. You’re not part of this,” Ingram says. He originally didn’t want any mention of Weinstein in “Clerk,” but finally relented at Smith’s urging, opening up his completed film to insert the material.
Smith says that to simply ignore Weinstein would only invite unwelcome press questions and suggestions of evading the truth.
“That’s part of the story. So it was all about the flick and I’m so glad that eventually it did get in because it would have been asked. “You would have been like” — he cocks an eyebrow at his press inquisitor — “well, that’s convenient to leave that guy out!”
There would also be no end to the blowback on the internet, something Smith knows all too well. An early adapter of the online world and its furious debates, he put a gag into his 2001 film “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” whereby the title knuckleheads (played respectively by Jason Mewes and Smith) discover bad things being said about them on the internet.
With a computer printout in hand of the home addresses of their antagonists, they drive across the U.S. to amusingly settle scores.
This was years before “mean tweets” became a thing and before social media even existed.
“I remember having to explain that joke to people and they were like, ‘I don’t get it,’” Smith says. “And I said, ‘Well, you see, on the internet, people can say mean things about you.’ And they were like, ‘What do you mean?’ Now everybody knows.”
(This column was originally published in the Toronto Star.)