Indie filmmaker and comic shop proprietor Kevin Smith has a superpower akin to the Incredible Hulk's. It's not because of his rage, although over the past few years Smith has incited feuds, Twitter wars and online attacks, particularly following the controversial Sundance screening of his new horror film Red State in January. Nor is it because of his bulk, which he uses as source of self-deprecating humor, most notably after Southwest Airlines ejected him from a flight in 2010 for being overweight.
But Smith has a self-sustaining superpower comparable to "The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets." With Smith, the more he talks, the more talkative he becomes. His loquaciousness seems to feed off itself in an endless flow of pop references, raunchy jokes and occasional diatribes against the way Hollywood is run. Smith played deadpan druggie Silent Bob in multiple films, but off screen is the most voluble personality imaginable. He plays to his verbal strengths with his current Red State USA Tour, and his voice just might propel him to a second career away from the director's chair.
"[The tour is] like a weird victory lap, with one foot in the past, and one foot in the future," Smith says. The familiar part of the tour finds Smith traveling to large performance venues to screen his latest film. The screenings are followed by Q&As that typically turn into epic talk-athons. The Red State USA Tour looks to the future as Smith attempts to become his own film distributor and marketer for the 21st century. Smith claims that Red State will be his penultimate film, and that he'll retire from directing features after his upcoming hockey comedy Hit Somebody.
Through his View Askew production company, Smith has built a huge fan base with scruffy comedies such as 1994's cult hit Clerks. Film critics haven't been so kind to Smith's work. After the harsh reviews of last year's action comedy Cop Out, Smith has refused to prescreen his movies for reviewers. Red State reportedly marks a radical change of pace as a Hostel-style horror film set in the Bible Belt, with a group of horny college students trapped by a homicidal band of Christian fanatics. Michael Parks plays the paterfamilias, a preacher modeled after Westboro Baptist Church's Fred Phelps, who's notorious for his homophobic rhetoric and demonstrations at U.S. soldiers' funerals.
After several years of writing and raising the money for Red State, Smith planned to sell the film to a movie studio the usual way, despite his frustrations with the Hollywood model. "The movie cost $4 million to make. If you spend $20 million to market it, which is standard, then you have to make $24 [million] to break even. But the studio shares with the exhibitor, so then you have to make $48 million to break even. I've never made a movie that made that much money, and this ain't fuckin' gonna be the one."
Four days into filming he realized that Red State, his cheapest film since 1997's Chasing Amy, could support a DIY release model. "I asked myself if I could distribute like Trent Reznor and Radiohead, and deal with the audience directly," he recalls. He told press outlets such as national movie blog /Film that, "if it gets into Sundance, my plan is to pick the Red State distributor right there — IN THE ROOM — auction style." After the Sundance screening in January, Smith auctioned Red State to himself for only $20, in a stunt that seemed calculated to draw attention and annoy.
He acknowledges that Red State's grim thrills don't fit comfortably with his lighthearted, shoot-the-shit stage presence. "It'd be a much safer bet if it'd been Clerks 3. But, number one, I don't own Clerks, and number two, I don't have a Clerks story in me, and to do it again isn't what I'm about right now." Smith will be the first to make a self-deprecating remark about his faults. "Everyone knows I'm not a great visual stylist." He's unquestionably an entertaining and compelling raconteur, though, and ironically, "over the last two years, I made more money on stage, talking about being a director, than I made being a director."
He seems far more excited by the immediacy of social media through his Tweets as @ThatKevinSmith and his popular weekly podcast, the SModcast on Sirius XM Radio. Smith is frustrated with the long lead time to share Clerks-style comedy or the political arguments of Red State through the film medium. "The podcast conversation can happen daily, immediately, live. All my best jokes, anything I do humor-wise, is all poured into the podcast. These days the 140 character conversation appeals to me more than the four-year-long conversation," he says.
Though Smith is resolved to quit directing theatrical films, he's leaving the door open to dabble in other media. "I'm a bossy, opinionated piece of shit. I'll always be directing something." And if his Red State experiment works, he may release other people's films under the banner of SModcast Pictures.
Tickets are pricey — around $65 — for the Red State Tour, but Smith finds that his fans don't seem to mind, possibly because "they've been downloading the podcast for free for four years." Red State will open a conventional theatrical run this fall — the film's slated to open Oct. 19, the 17th anniversary of Clerks. On the SModcast, he even sheepishly admits that Red State will probably be available for free on the online sharing site BitTorrent shortly after its release.
Once Smith divorces himself from the film business, he seems eager to launch a new conversation that won't ever stop: "Is this the future? Who knows? For me it is."
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