I’m not the guy that can be stalked,” says Kevin Smith, the Jersey auteur behind Clerks and now Clerks II. “Stalking is born from people—besides being fuckin’ insane—having an inability to get to the object of their affection. But me, you can always find me. If I’m not online, I’m at a college gig; if I’m not there, I’m at one of the two fuckin’ comic stores” he owns in Red Bank, New Jersey, and L.A. “I’m always around.” Smith’s availability to his followers is very trendy right now—well, as trendy as working at a comic-book store can be. In The Long Tail, the media-crystal-ball book of the moment, Chris Anderson argues that niches will supplant hits as the key sector of the 21st-century entertainment economy, pointing out that Netflix, Amazon.com, and iTunes earn more from the sum of their many-thousand low sellers than they do from blockbusters. The long-tail economy makes a passionate fan base more important to entertainers than ever: In the same way that the real money for rock stars has been in merchandise and concerts, a filmmaker’s fortune isn’t just dependent on ticket sales but on video-on-demand, online downloads, DVDs, and then special-edition DVDs; in short, on the ardor of his devotees. So, naturally, every with-it director is on MySpace—but Kevin Smith has them all beat by a mile. “He was so ahead of his time, because he was always communicating with his fans,” says Harvey Weinstein.
Smith’s is the great Horatio Alger story of nineties independent film. A New School and film-school dropout, he wrote the screenplay for Clerks while working at a Quick Stop in Leonardo, New Jersey. He shot in the store at night with $27,000 he raised in part by selling his comic-book collection. The grainy black-and-white comedy, with its vivid characterizations of foul-mouthed, sex- and Star Wars–obsessed go-nowheres, played at Sundance, was bought by Weinstein’s Miramax, and became a home-video sensation. Twelve years later, its sequel is opening on Friday after a triumphant Cannes midnight screening that garnered an eight-minute standing ovation. (I wouldn’t have believed it myself, but I saw the video on Smith’s blog.)
After the disastrous Jersey Girl, an attempt to branch out from his usual fare, Smith is returning to the characters he made his name with, picking up the original’s early-twenties anti-heroes in their mid-thirties, as they stress about parenthood, marriage, breaking free from their McJobs, and that defiler of Star Wars, Jar Jar Binks. As in most of Smith’s films, the camerawork is basic and the vulgarity frequent. (The escalation from Clerks’ comparatively innocent discussions of oral sex to Clerks II’s “interspecies erotica” says something about the impossibility of competing with the Internet for gross-out gags.) If you don’t chuckle at or in some way admire the phrase “a huge fuckin’ nerd of Potsie-like proportions,” chances are you won’t be stalking Smith anytime soon. But his screenplays also weave in weightier themes, and Clerks II is ultimately about maturity and responsibility—to friends, to family, to yourself. That, and donkey sex.
Smith discovered the Internet “in late ’95, after Mallrats shit-tanked,” he recalls. “I just remember that screechy noise, and thinking, Holy shit, this is like WarGames!” Soon after, he hired the designer of a Clerks fan site to create one for his production company, View Askew. Smith became a constant presence on its message board, which “really does feel like a big family,” says My Name Is Earl star Jason Lee, who’s been in every Smith film since Mallrats. “As a result of what Kevin gives, the fans give it right back.” Today Smith presides over a Web empire encompassing his board (Smith’s approaching his 3,000th post), an online short-film festival, and more. He’s making an “in-theater” audio commentary to entice iPod-toting fans to see Clerks II a second time. And Smith’s films may be the most merchandised comedies since Ghostbusters. There was a one-off joke in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back about a drug-dealers union: A UNITED JERSEY BROTHERHOOD OF DEALERS card sells for $2. A DVD of his Q&A sessions was so popular that a follow-up with the supremely unlikely title An Evening With Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder hits stores in November. There are shelves of action figures, even one of Smith himself—not Silent Bob, the pot dealer he plays. Just Kevin, standing around, doing nothing.
Smith’s newest addiction is MySpace: “I think it has a lot to do with growing up fat, ’cause you’re always trying to find acceptance and credibility. I’ve been on since March and I’m closing in on 50,000 friends. So I feel like, Wow, that’s kind of cool.” The Weinstein Co. hatched a plan to promote Clerks II by putting the names of the film’s first 10,000 MySpace friends in the credits. They thought the contest would go for weeks. They had the names in two hours.
Smith feels a compulsive need to win over an audience with the sheer tonnage of his verbiage; there were no short answers to my questions. Even though he’s now a 35-year-old father who lives in his pal Ben Affleck’s old house in L.A., Web surfers still have access to insanely intimate details of his life: One blog post this month touched upon his predilections for cunnilingus, anal sex, and picking his nose.
The question is whether the merch-buying boosters have too much sway over Smith. The potshots at Internet haters in Jay and Silent Bob have the aroma of a man who’s spent too much time on his own message board. Most indie filmmakers dream of breaking out. He tried to, then retreated to his cozy “View Askewniverse,” the shared world of Smith’s pre–Jersey Girl films (like Star Wars or Marvel comics, his movies have a strict continuity).
Smith says he was reluctant to make Clerks II, because he’d already decreed that Jay and Silent Bob would be the last film in the series. Why go back? “It felt like I had something to say about being in my thirties, and Clerks was me having something to say about being in my twenties.” He now plans for the Clerks films to bookend the series, but who knows how his next venture will be greeted? His films’ mythology isn’t about a galaxy far, far away—it’s about the town he grew up in, the register he worked. Smith’s life has changed unimaginably since Sundance ’94, but his fans are still looking for him at the Quick Stop.
Clerks II is not the first extension of the franchise. In 2000, ABC broadcast two episodes of Clerks: The Animated Series, which Smith developed with former Seinfeld writer David Mandel. The original actors revived their roles, joined by Alec Baldwin as the Mr. Burns–style evil plutocrat Leonardo Leonardo, whose catchphrase was “Well played, clerks.” The six produced episodes eventually aired on Comedy Central and were released on DVD, which have sold well enough to merit rumors of a feature-length follow-up, tentatively titled Clerks: Sell Out.