Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Kevin Smith, John Pierson on Linklater's Influence

We're knee-deep in South By Southwest here in Austin. With the film festival in full swing, this week's blog features an excerpt from UT film professor John Pierson's classic book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema — back in print this spring! Here, Pierson sits down with Kevin Smith to talk about one of his biggest influences as a filmmaker, Richard Linklater. Linklater screened his film Boyhood at this year's gamut of film festivals, including SXSW, was nominated for an Oscar for Before Midnight, and continues to nourish the Austin film scene through the Austin Film Society.

Read the truncated conversation below to get a sense of Linklater's cultural influence. Get the book to delve even deeper into a pivotal era in indie film.

John Pierson: So you saw Slacker on your twenty-first birthday at the Angelika. That theater opened in late 1989. Was that the first time you went there?

Kevin Smith: No, the first film I've ever seen outside of New Jersey, unless I'm on vacation with my parents somewhere and then it's still a mainstream film, the film I travel to New York to the Angelika to see is—let me back up a minute....

We're on the cutting edge, The Dark Backward, nobody knows about this and he'll be the one to make Planet of the Apes. At the bottom of the Village Voice ad, it said come to the midnight screening and receive free pig newtons-which of course were fig newtons with a sticker on them.

The Dark Backward, which was not good at all, was our first independent movie. That was the first thing we ever went to see outside New Jersey, at the Angelika. The first time we see the Angelika we're like "there's an escalator in this movie place. Look at this, it's hip man, you can get coffee
," not that we're coffee drinkers, but we buy like a ham croissant sandwich at the cafe. The lobby's all different from the usual multiplex lobby we go to because they hang up these huge reviews of films and suddenly we feel, "Oh, my God there's a whole different subculture here." We're seeing people who're there. I mean this theater's packed....

The The Dark Backward is just a footnote because it gets me out of Jersey to New York. And then I have enough courage to see Slacker in New York at a midnight screening.

JP: What attracted you since there were no pig newtons?

KS: The Voice review and the image of the Madonna Pap smear girl; it just sounded great. I know it opened in July [1991]. I went on my birthday, August 2nd. And that's the movie that pushed me. It was like "Oh, my God," The whole ride home I'm like "look how simple it is. It's like there's nothing going on, it's dialogue, I can do this." This is the movie because this is approachable. I can do this.

JP: Technically Slacker was not the first thing I did after Roger & Me. There's a film in between I don't talk about much called End of the Night.

KS: Not to be confused with John Landis's Into the Night.

JP: . . . that we took to Cannes in May 1990. It sold very well in Europe but never really happened here. It was by restaurateur-turned-filmmaker Keith McNally who, unlike you, was obsessed with European filmmakers, particularly Wim Wenders. But to most people Slacker really seemed like my next film. It was an immensely enjoyable experience for two reasons. It was the easiest sale in history because it basically happened in a day because the right person, Michael Barker from Orion Classics, wound up in the right place, in Maine where I was, at the right time in August. Also because I just loved going back to a film not a phenomenon. People said, "Oh, now you've done this multimillion dollar deal, you'll never go back." The fact that there was this enormous deal on Roger & Me didn't change the basic nature of the material I liked in the first place. So I was really happy to be back with Slacker. Let's talk about your own personal timing here. Slacker was basically made in 1989 and opened in Austin for the first time in 1990. It just took another year for everything to come together for it to finally open in New York. If it had all happened sooner somehow it might not have been your moment?

KS: Yeah, I know, I might have missed the boat. It all falls into place, this is the summer I break up with my girlfriend presumably for good, leaving me lots of free time. She tells me I'm directionless
—I'm not pursuing anything, just working in the store. She's going to college, she's on the fast track. I'm like, "Well, I write" but she's, "What're you going to do with it?" I'm realizing I am directionless and suddenly we're on the outs and I have nothing to do and I go see Slacker and bang! it happens. But, had Slacker come out any earlier, maybe nothing would have happened at all. Or maybe it would have happened slower.... When and why did Rick [Linklater] get into film?

JP: When he found out his curveball wasn't good enough.

KS: That's right, he was a jock.

JP: He realized he wasn't heading for the World Series. He's the Burt Reynolds of auteurist directors.

KS: I mean what kind of stretch is that, to go from being like a jock to being like, "Yeah, I'm a filmmaker." Is it as big a stretch as going like, "Yeah, I worked at a convenience store and now I'm a filmmaker." Which is the bigger stretch?

JP: Well, he did the transitional step that people used to do, though. He went from being a jock to kicking around in whatever jobs he had, an oil rig job, a little bit of school, and then he started the Austin Film Society. He took his interest in film and became interested in purveying and conveying that to other people and out of that grew his own sense that he could be someone who made movies.

KS: So he was basically an exhibitor.

JP: Well, yeah, but an exhibitor who had a much bigger cultural influence in his community than a standard operator would because he was providing a unique service. Apparently on the University of Texas campus, film wasn't a big thing, so he was seizing on the available university crowd that was handy. I think he was doing a very traditional American thing. He was creating a community, a support community, that shared his interest, and eventually became the same core group that worked with him to help him realize his vision in a movie. In a way, your experiences were at the Quick Stop, and you didn't have an in-between—no film society, you skipped the oil rig.

KS: I thought about it, but I was like, "It's in the water, it's cold, I don't chew tobacco." Of my leaders, Rick is the most accessible cause he's a guy that was kinda like myself. He made his movie even cheaper than mine. He was young like I am. He was older though. I don't know, maybe it has something to do with that; it's a youth thing....

JP: You don't have anybody out of the independent world who's moved out into bigger studio films to use as your perfect role model at this point, right?

KS: Of course Richard is the predecessor. One would almost think I sold my soul to the devil just to get Richard's life. First I want to make my small independent, made for like twenty-seven grand and I'll sell it to a company and they'll distribute it well and it'll do at least a million bucks.

JP: Well, you're past that now. Up to that point it is like a mirror image.

KS: And then I want to make a comedy with Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel at Universal. It's almost the same mirrored existence. But, it begins and ends there. Dazed and Confused is really entertaining. But in terms of the execution, what I want to do and what Richard wants to do are really two totally different things. Richard basically is doing what I was intending to do with my first draft. Now it's gotten much bigger than that. The budget does go up a beat, but I mean bigger in terms of scope and who I want this movie to get to. You asked me the other day how I see Mallrats. I want this to be like every comedy I saw as a kid and was wowed by. John Landis when he was good, Ivan Reitman when he was really funny.


JP: Meanwhile Rick's dream is to meet Michelangelo Antonioni. Actually when you backtrack, the mirror distorts a bit right away because Clerks was seen by almost three times more people than Slacker—although it hasn't added a word to the language.

KS: He didn't add that word to the language. All one has to do is go back and watch Back to the Future Part II which pre-dates Slacker. When Marty McFly comes back from the future to the past or from the past to the future or whatever, he somehow screwed up the time line and Hill Valley was in a ruins and it was this degenerate town. The principal's on the porch firing his shotgun and when he's firing at the kids over Marty McFly's head he's like, "Eat lead, slackers."

JP: No less an authority than New York Times language columnist William Safire credits Rick. He analyzed a Clinton speech about American youth being "a generation of seekers, not slackers" by invoking Slacker, the movie.

KS: C'mon, giving Richard credit for adding the word to the icon. That's like suddenly I'm taking credit for the word clerks—which in France they buy, because they don't have that word, but here ...

JP: You're lucky they didn't call it Dante Darling there.

KS: More than just the leap-off point that gets me making movies, Slacker also serves as an example of what to do and work beyond even. Of course, you have your icons, the people you look up to. It's not a competitive thing, but you always want to go to where they've been and you want to take it beyond there. Whether it was conscious or subconscious, when you hear things like "You're going to pass Slacker's gross" or you read something in the press like, "The obvious comparison is Slacker but I like Clerks better" it does you a little good. I'm not blowing myself up here, but something I bring up in every interview is Richard's name. You see it in almost every article after my name and my producer's name. And that's because at every point when journalists ask, "Why, why, why?" I say, "Richard Linklater's movie Slacker." So I feel like I've done justice by giving credit where credit's due and bringing to the forefront a movie that inspired me, so that maybe people who didn't get a chance to see the movie are going to get a chance to see it now.

From Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema by John Pierson (Copyright © 1995, 1997, 2014).

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