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Kevin Smith interview – Red State 0

by Joe Utichi for Total Film

Kevin Smith has imploded. It’s January 2011, he’s just premiered new movie Red State at Sundance, and after luring a theatre full of potential buyers through the door with the promise of a post-screening auction, he’s just announced he’s selling the flick to himself. He’ll take it out on the road and sit people down in front of it – fuck multi-million-dollar marketing budgets, he declares – and if you miss the tour you can catch it in cinemas once he’s done. The fans in the room are loving it, but has he committed career suicide? Has he lost it?

Mike Fleming, a writer at Nikki Finke’s industry blog, Deadline Hollywood, certainly thinks so. The unidentified “buyers” quoted in his piece from the screening are apoplectic. “He stole two hours and insulted every one of us,” they may or may not have fumed. And Fleming’s not alone. Blogosphere stalwart Steve “Frosty” Weintraub is another teed-off tweeter. He’s vowing never to write about the director’s reactionary hysterics again.

Four months later, after a 15-date tour of the US, during which Red State has played to capacity crowds in some of the country’s biggest venues, Fleming and co are starting to seem like the hysterical ones. The screenings have been regular fixtures on Variety’s list of the highest screen averages ever since the first, at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, clocked more than $150,000 dollars in ticket sales in a single night. Adjusted for inflation, Red State is now the 9th highest entry of all time on that chart.

Not bad for a film without the endorsement of the media via interviews, junkets and puff pieces. Smith shunned press at Sundance and declared he’d be taking the conversation directly to his audience. “I’m not press- junketing at all, anywhere,” he tweeted. Instead he provided a press pack podcast for Red State. “From nearly 20 years’ experience, I know this much,” he wrote. “Folks are gonna write WHATEVER they want, whether I sit down with them or not. So I’ll just furnish all the information I’d normally serve up one at a time to a small, jaded audience that doesn’t really give a shit unless there’s someone famous in the room, to a much larger, APPRECIATIVE audience that would actually enjoy and benefit from hearing the same information.”

But TF has supported Red State since before Sundance and Smith’s been keen to talk to us for months. Of course, this one concession to the media is subject to the same meritocracy: our interview has to be available to all the fans. So we’ll be chatting on his newly-launched internet radio station SIR. We are now willing puppets in his grand scheme and, as with all of Smith’s enterprises, doing things on his terms.

“Mike Fleming reacted in such an old-fart way,” Smith tells us as we dial into his Plus One Per Diem show co-hosted by his wife Jennifer Schwalbach. “He’s saying I’ve turned my back on the industry and I’ve imploded? I felt bad for that dude. I met him, and he seemed like a nice guy. It’s like, ‘If you had just waited two months maybe you could have written a more damning piece, or you wouldn’t have written a piece that made you look like an out-of-touch old dick.’”

The tours confirmed what Smith always knew to be true: he has a passionate, voracious audience who’ll follow him regardless of how many millions get spent on flashy ad campaigns. And they’ll pay top dollar for the privilege. “The only people who were like, ‘$60 to see a movie?’ were people that were never going to go in the first place,” Smith says. “And they had no idea that’s what I get to just go stand there and talk without a movie! I’ve been doing that for two years now. Coming with a movie is actually a bonus.”

Having witnessed the Sundance spectacle, TF first visits Smith in LA in February, where we are invited to see the film that’s causing all the fuss. Considering Red State’s subject matter – a viciously right-wing preacher who engages in all manner of horrific torture – what’s most surprising Smith about the press he got out of Sundance is that no one seemed to want to talk about the movie itself.

Red State is part horror film, part political critique. As its dark protagonist Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) holes up with his family of gun-toting devotees, it becomes a siege movie, with veteran cop Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) increasingly frustrated at his superiors’ unwillingness to take action. Meanwhile, kidnapped teens Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner and Nicholas Braun try desperately to escape their extremist captors.

“The movie fucks with you,” says Smith. “It demands a lot of its audience. It doesn’t let you go in easy and be like, ‘This’ll be fun!’ It actually engages your brain, and makes you question your beliefs and go, ‘Oh God, I’m sympathising with people I shouldn’t!’ I’m trying to make art films again. It’s what I came in to filmmaking to try to do. I wanted to make all kinds of flicks, not just comedies. I focussed on comedy because I seemed to be OK at it, but there was always a part of me that wanted to try something else.”

But despite his stance on the press, the film isn’t, Smith says, a reaction to the critical mauling he received for his last picture, Cop Out. In fact, Red State had been on the agenda as far back as 2006, but he couldn’t get the project off the ground at the studios. Cop Out became Smith’s biggest studio production – and the first to come from material he hadn’t written – but while he only was a hired gun, critics aimed their sights at the director himself.

It probably had something to do with the opinionated Smith’s lack of self-censorship through Twitter, blogs and interviews. He’s vented his spleen on everything from working with Bruce Willis to Southwest Airlines’ fattist flight policy (he was chucked off a flight for being too large for the seat), a candour that works as self-promotion.

“The only special effect in my pocket is me, standing there after the movie, talking,” he reflects. “Michael Bay can make robots look like buses and have them fight each other, and he’s very good at that. David Fincher brings true cinematic craftsmanship. I don’t have enough talent to be a stand-up filmmaker like those cats. I have to rush out and be like, ‘Wait; let me explain what just happened… Me and Bruce Willis got in a fight, and I got thrown off an airplane!’ I’ve been buttressing the work like that for a long, long time.”

Despite sterling flag-waving, Red State, Smith admits, won’t be for everyone. But it’s forged from the same spirit that bore Clerks in 1994. “It’s a mid-’90s independent film,” Smith says. “I’m a movie fan like anyone else. I always wanted to make Tarantino movies by way of the Coen brothers, and that’s kind of what Red State is to me. It’s an experiment. I may be 40, but this is the 22-year-old Kevin Smith just moving on from Clerks. If I had had my way, it would have been straight on to Red State. But I had to learn a bunch before that.”

To bankroll Clerks, Smith took $27,575 worth of credit he’d scrounged from applying for several cards. Seventeen years on, and Red State’s $4m budget has come from private investment. But between tour revenues and impending US and international distribution deals, it looks like the film is already in the black. It’s a rare example of a movie of its scale recovering its budget months in advance of its theatrical release.

“I want to change the way distribution works,” Smith says. “Right now, a movie comes out and you’ve got three days to make it pop. I don’t want to do that, I want to keep exhibition going.”

Smith’s grand plan will provide a model for his next film, a hockey comedy called Hit Somebody, which will reunite much of the cast of Red State. It will be his last movie, he says. His priorities now focus on SModcast, the podcast series he started with producer Scott Mosier in 2007, which has ballooned into a network of shows. But he won’t abandon cinema entirely. SModcast Pictures, the production house he formed to release Red State and Hit Somebody, will morph into a distribution company that’s focussed on acquiring high-quality independent films struggling to find a home elsewhere.

“I’m not trying to find the next Kevin Smith,” the director explains. “But I loved my movie career, and it was a one in a million shot that wouldn’t have existed without an audience of people dreaming about doing something like that. You feel like you want to pay it back.”

But aspiring filmmakers will have to show their work if they hope to become a part of Smith’s rapidly expanding empire. “SModcast Pictures is meant to be a last resort,” he says. “You’re going to have to produce proof of being passed on by every fucking distributor in the game. You can’t just be handed it by the guy who did Clerks because you feel like he can do you a solid. You’ve got to put some skin in the game yourself, so to speak.”

The idea, then, is that Smith will take his stable of acquisitions out on the road, and it’s easy to imagine a travelling film festival, with Smith providing extra entertainment with live podcasts and Q&As. It’s a win-win situation – audiences get entertained by the hugely eloquent, devil-may-care Smith and he gets feedback on his films.

On the Red State tour he sat in on every single screening, live-tweeting audience reactions. “That was scary, because I’m an honest guy, and if they’d hated it, I’d have had to write that.”

He needn’t have worried. “Those rooms were religious to be in,” he enthuses. “A lot of people joked that this was a movie about cults and when you go and see it you’re watching it with a cult. It’s kind of funny, and maybe a little true, but it really was like a Gospel brunch. It was a celebration. It was like the wedding in Cana, and they’ve run out of wine and I’m snapping my fucking fingers and they’re drinking more and shit. And I’m not saying I’m Jesus!”

Schwalbach bursts out laughing. “Rein it in, motherfucker! Rein it in!”

Rein it in? Not likely.

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