KEVIN SMITH IS LOST. NOT "lost" in some existential, I-just-turned-40-and-don't-know-what-I'm-doing way (although he may be that, too). Smith is lost in the sense that it's a Thursday night in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he has no idea where he is. "Wasn't it a right back there? I think we missed it." Smith is in the back seat of a rented GMC Yukon, his longtime producer Jon Gordon at the wheel. They're here in Michigan to promote Smith's new movie, a thriller called Red State. It won't be in theaters until October, but because Smith is taking the unusual step of releasing it himself, he's trying to build free buzz by barnstorming the country on a 16-city tour. In a way, he's going back to his roots. Seventeen years ago, Smith made a splash with the Sundance hit Clerks, which he shot for a paltry $27,000 at a local New Jersey convenience store. This Red State tour is almost as DIY: staying at Comfort Inns, eating lots of pizza. They have a tour bus, too, but the way the route works, driving to Ann Arbor would have meant backtracking, so Smith and Gordon rented the Yukon for tonight and will meet up with the rest of the seven-person crew in Indianapolis tomorrow. It's a shoestring budget with no room for frills — including, apparently, maps.
"Let me just pull over a second," Gordon says. It's starting to snow now. He's sounding anxious. He hooks a left into a church parking lot, ignoring a sign that says EXIT ONLY.
"Careful," Smith warns. "Those church people don't like it when you go in the entrance marked exit." Gordon laughs. "I think they've got bigger stuff to worry about from us."
He's talking about Red State, a dark, bloody satire of the radical Christian right starring Melissa Leo as a leader of a murderous right-wing church and John Goodman as the ATF agent who takes them on. The hot-button script seems calculated to stir up controversy — much like Dogma did for Smith a decade ago - but so far, most of the chatter has been about the director himself. At this year's Sundance, after announcing that he would pick his distributor "auction-style," he instead staged a mock auction and sold the lights to himself for $20. The stunt was greeted with widespread jeers and brutal headlines: RED STATE FAILS ONSCREEN AND OFF; KEVIN SMITH . . . TELLS HOLLYWOOD TO SUCK IT; WATCHING KEVIN SMITH IMPLODE.
According to Smith, he couldn't be happier. "This is me taking a chain saw to the career of Kevin Smith," he says. "You've got to know your strengths and weaknesses, and being a filmmaker was never my strength." Which is why he's decided to call it quits. After Red State, he'll do one last film, a hockey flick called Hit Somebody, and then he's hanging up his skates.
But first he has to get out of Ann Arbor. After a few more U-turns, Gordon finally makes it to the interstate. By now it's past midnight, and the snow is coming down hard. The road is blanketed in white; Gordon seems a little nervous. He looks at Smith in the rearview. "Just to let you know," he says, "I will be going slow."
"And just to let you know," says Smith, "I will be getting high."
Smith cracks a window and sparks a joint. Pot usually energizes him, but it's been a long day of traveling. "I'm just gonna shut my eyes for a minute," he says, resting his head on the window. Pretty soon he's curled up on the seat. By the time we hit Ohio, a few minutes later, the only sound coming from the back seat is snoring.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON Smith is in Indianapolis, rested and back on the bus. It's a nice bus: It used to belong to Bonnie Raitt, and before that Donna Summer. There's an Edmonton Oilers rug on the floor (blue and orange, like the hockey jersey Smith always wears) and a fully stocked minifridge. In the back there's a bedroom with a queen-size bed and a photo of his daughter, Harley, 11. Up front, his wife, Jen, is riding shotgun.
Smith shuts the bedroom door so the smoke won't escape and sits down to discuss one of his favorite topics: Kevin Smith. He grew up in Highlands, New Jersey, the youngest son of a postal worker and a housewife. He was a chunky kid ("It never kept me from doing anything — except a pull-up!") who loved comic books and TV; in high school, he was the videographer for the basketball team. He decided to become a director after seeing Slacker on his 21st birthday, and he spent the next few years as a cult-favorite indie darling, from Clerks through Chasing Amy and Dogma. But then he admits he got complacent, and the films that followed — the sub-Apatowian Zack and Miri Make a Porno, the infamous bomb Jersey Girl — lacked the early spark.
Lately, the man most recognizable for playing a character named Silent Bob has spent most of his time talking. Over the past few years he's logged thousands of hours speaking publicly, be it in his myriad personal appearances, marathon Q&A sessions, 24-hour tweet-a-thons or the four Internet podcasts he hosts each week. The podcasts are his favorite: Smith gets to be himself, unbound and without filter, entertainingly holding forth on everything from sniping with studio executives to anal sex with his wife. He loves yakking into a mic so much that he set up a brand new Internet radio station called Sir, debuting in May, and a small empire of programs to fill it with. Between hawking tickets for tapings and selling ads, he thinks he can make podcasting his full-time job. "Dude, motherfuck a movie," he says. "You sit there listening to a podcast, and in your head you're building a far better movie than I ever could."
Right now he tapes most of the shows at home in Hollywood, at a house his buddy Ben Affleck sold him after Affleck bought Drew Barrymore's place. He says quitting movies shouldn't affect his lifestyle. "I ain't earning off movies anymore," he says. "All my money comes from chitchat."
Smith opens a stash box and produces another joint. It's hard to overstate the role pot plays in his life these days. He'd never been a stoner — never been into drugs or booze at all, really — but when Seth Rogen got him high one night while editing Zack and Miri, the drug just flipped a switch.
"It's kind of like The Matrix," he says, with the zeal of a convert. "That moment when Neo sees all the zeros and ones. Suddenly, you see everything clearly. The negativity goes away. The doubt goes away. You get a little burner Tony Robbins in your head, going, 'Come on, Kev, you can do it!' I hate to sound like a stoner - but there's a reason, like, it grows everywhere." When he first started getting high, Smith vowed that he'd always tie it to something creative, so as not to become a TV-watching slug. "You gotta be writing," he told himself. "You gotta be recording, you gotta be tweeting." Red State is the fi rst movie he's made as a full-on stoner - ironically, it's also the least stoner-y movie he's ever made. It's dark, violent, disturbing -very un-chill. Yet Smith insists that it's not meant to be angry, and - despite frying-pan-to-the-head-subtle allusions to the Westboro Baptist Church, the Patriot Act and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas - it's not political, either. "I'm not mad,"he says. "It's just dark fun." Smith says there's no single reason he's packing it in, no alternate history in which he could see himself sticking around. But it's hard not to suspect a couple of possible turning points. The first was last year, when he got kicked off a Southwest flight because he was too large to fit in the seat. He handled it with humor, blogging (and tweeting, and YouTubing, and blogging some more ...) about it self-deprecatingly. But in reality, he says, the ensuing media mockery hurt him deeply.
"It was a joke to everyone except the fucking dude at the center of it," Smith says. "Think about the thing you're most insecure about, your fucking Kryptonite, your Achilles' heel, the thing you've built your entire sense of humor around so as to deflect from it, and suddenly everybody's shining a light on it. It was really fucking tough. For three days I sat in my room not wanting to engage with life. I shut off the fucking Internet. Couldn't even enjoy weed. I was sick. People are shitty."
Right on the heels of that came his buddy flick with Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, Cop Out. Smith loves Morgan — "If Tracy Morgan ever comes to me and says, 'I've killed somebody, help me bury the body,' I would seriously consider it" — but he calls Willis "soul-crushing" to work with. He says Willis would insult him, shoot him withering looks. "I was like, 'I want to play with you, why won't you play?' But that dude is beyond play."
The film opened to some of the most negative reviews of Smith's career. At the time, Smith likened it to "bullying a retarded kid"; a year later, he still sounds wounded. "They just cut its throat," he says of the critics. "Oh, my God, dude, they raped that movie. They beat the shit out of it still."
Again and again, Smith insists bad reviews have nothing to do with his wanting to get out. And yet, again and again, it keeps coming up. He can quote a pan that the Los Angeles Times gave Mallrats 16 years ago. "If Sundance or the AFI ever offers a course on what not to do as a second feature," he intones, "Mallrats should be at the heart of the curriculum."
The truth is, he says, "I do care. Obviously too much. That's why I'm getting away. I'm exhausted, trying to prove myself over and over again in a field I'm not good at." He'd much rather do something he knows he's good at, which is just talk. "Even the people who hate the fucking movies will be the first to say, 'He's great in Q&A.' So I'd rather go there, where there is no fucking criticism. If I make films, they can judge me against every better filmmaker on the planet — and that's almost everybody. But if I stand there and be Kevin Smith, they can't judge me against anybody else."
For all Smith's sensitivity, he's also cocky. Asked how he'd rate his skills as a director, on a scale from one to 10, he thinks for a minute. "When I started? I'd say content, five, and form, negative one. And Red State? I'd put me at eight for form, and 10 for content. Just cause it's fucked up. Say what you will about the movie, but that shit ain't phoned in."
He worries, though, that one day it might be. "It's gonna be diminishing returns," he says. "In the beginning, I felt about film the way you feel about that woman you desperately want to fuck. You'll do anything for her, you'll let her hurt you — you're desperate. Now it's more like, 'We only fuck once a year, but it's cool, we're best friends.' I don't want that relationship with film. I want to tear its clothes off and eat its pussy. And that's where I'm at now: tearing its clothes off and eating its pussy."
As he talks about his own narrative arc, Smith sounds more than anything like a guy trying to script his own perfect ending. "If you want to look at my career and apply the fucking Behind the Music formula," he says, "you know, it was a wonderful first act. Then shit went south. And now I'm trying to make sure it ends on a happy third act."