This summer, a prankster stole Kevin Smith's Twitter account and tweeted, "Before this comes out I want to state that I am a gay proud man." Ninety minutes later, Smith responded: "Not me. Been hacked. Proud to be bi-curious, not brave enough to commit." But the internet already knew that tweet couldn't possibly have been him. The real Kevin Smith wouldn't have been so succinct.
"If I was going to come out, you better believe it would be 96 tweets!" laughs Smith. He doesn't do anything quietly. Take the time he quit filmmaking. At Sundance in 2011, Smith invited every distributor at the festival to a public auction of his movie Red State. Once the buyers were assembled, Smith declared that the business had become "soul-killing" -- and bought his own movie for $20. Harvey Weinstein stormed out.
"I salted the earth and walked away. I didn't want to make movies at all," says Smith. "I really feel like I ran out of shit to say."
Kevin Smith, speechless? That's hard to imagine. But his recent films confirmed it. Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and especially the disastrous Bruce Willis-Tracy Morgan comedy Cop Out were generic studio flops that could have been directed by anyone. "Judd Apatow is making those movies," says Smith. "I made them before he did, but whatever." They weren't personal, and to Smith, that meant they were pointless.
"I made Clerks because I worked at a convenience store. I made Mallrats because I hung out at the mall. I made Chasing Amy because I was in a relationship where a girl's past fucked up my head. And I made Dogma because I was Catholic. I'd strip-mined my entire life," says Smith. "I'm not a filmmaker so much as I was blogging before blogging was popular."
Smith put down the camera, picked up a microphone and started podcasting. He just wanted to crack jokes and tell stories, like a filthy modern-day Mark Twain. It was an 80 percent salary drop, but it was freeing. Beams Smith, "I can sit down and do a podcast with my mother and nobody will say, ‘Kevin, $5 million -- can't you get Meryl Streep?' "
Last June, Smith and his longtime producer Scott Mosier recorded a podcast about a roommate-wanted ad from a Canadian recluse who offered a free room to anyone willing to wear a walrus costume. At first, it's a lark. But 10 minutes in, Smith imagines it as a horror movie. By the end of the episode, he'd shaped the entire script, estimated a budget, and committed to making the film -- this silly, lunatic, marine-mammal thriller -- if his listeners tweeted #WalrusYes. After three years in hibernation, the filmmaker was alive. And he knew he had to move fast.
"The moment we start thinking about this, better sense will prevail and someone will say, ‘Kevin, it's a walrus movie, and you were stoned,' " Smith admits. So three months later, he was shooting Tusk, a funny, dark, and oddly heartfelt film about a soulless podcaster named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) who tracks down old hermit Howard Howe (76-year-old character actor Michael Parks), who's known real tragedy. As a boy, Howe was orphaned and raped. As an adult, he was shipwrecked on an island. Wallace wants to mock Howe's life on-air, but instead winds up getting sewn into a walrus suit.
Tusk is the least personal movie Smith's ever made ("The closest thing that happened to me like that was that I worked with Bruce Willis -- it was that painful"). It's also the best film he's done in a dozen years. It plays like a goof, but under the surface Smith is wrestling with his own role in internet infamy. With nasty Wallace, he's decrying his own image as a cynical loudmouth and revealing himself as something surprising: a softie.
We could've seen this coming, even from a guy who recently Instagrammed a picture of his mother crying. Smith was genuinely hurt when the Web mocked his weight after Southwest deemed him too fat to fly. And he's always been touchy about critics. He's glad that the internet has given everyone a voice -- "It'd be amazing if the whole world podcasted" -- but is aware that all those voices can shut down a new filmmaker. (Or, hell, even an old one.)
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"Emerging artists are like, ‘Here's the trailer for this movie that I made for $500,' and it's their soul on a fucking platter. And there's all the comments under it of, ‘You fucking suck! This is terrible! You're Hitler!' " says Smith. "If that was me with Clerks, I'd be like, ‘I'm done, why did I fucking bother?' " (As Howe intones, "Man is a savage animal, Mr. Bryton. Better to be a walrus.")
Does Smith feel like an indie filmmaker again, like that 23-year-old New Jersey punk who once shook up the industry? "Fuck, yes!" he grins. "In life, I've figured out I only have one fucking job and that's to be Kevin Smith." He's now wrapping up his follow-up to Tusk, a horror-comedy about two yoga-obsessed teen girls who battle evil.
"I don't have to die with one definition of a Kevin Smith movie," he insists. In fact, now that he's found his voice again, it'll take death to shut him up. "You know what'll probably happen? Tongue cancer. Or I'll take a bullet in the mouth," says Smith. "I'll never run out of stuff to say."
Tusk opens in theaters September 19.