By his own calculation, writer-director-actor-Comic-Con personality Kevin Smith is not particularly imaginative. “I’m not very creative by any stretch,” the 52-year-old Smith tells Rolling Stone from his home in California, bobble heads bearing his characters’ names stacked in rows behind him. “I just take shit that happened to me and try to extrapolate on that.” The first time he tried this, with 1994’s indie breakout Clerks, he helped set a standard for mid-Nineties burnout culture. At the center of the film is Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), two best friends working at the Quick Check and RST Video stores on a nowhere strip in New Jersey, complaining about customers and debating the finer details of Star Wars. They’re just one of the “hetero-life mate” duos that populate his films. “My flicks are about dudes who are in love,” he says. “They just won’t fuck.”
Clerks hit a nerve — and so did the film’s comic relief, Jay and Silent Bob, the latter played by Smith himself. They appeared again in his follow-ups, which he produced through his company View Askew. In Mallrats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), and Dogma (1999) — as well as a short-lived Clerks: The Animated Series in the early 2000s — he started interweaving the characters and subplots that began with Clerks, creating what would come to be known as the View Askewniverse. He continued these storylines in three more films, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), Clerks II (2006), and Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019). Now, 28 years after it premiered at Sundance, he’s back with Clerks III, the most looping, meta, story he’s told so far, in which the characters from Clerks make Clerks itself. Or as he puts it: “We definitely make a movie within a movie and suck our own dicks and stare at our own navels.”
Meta works for Smith — for his entire career, he’s been self-referential and sentimental about its origins. From the moment Clerks was released, he used the internet to interact with fans, and they adored him for it. Smith harnessed that popularity, taking himself on tour, creating podcasts, comedy hours, special releases, talking about the making of his films and the motivations of the characters in them. “A lot of film Twitter is like, he’s so far up his own ass,” he says. “But I’m like, I always have been. Act accordingly.”
Even as he became one of the most prominent faces on the Comic-Con circuit, Smith continued to try his hand at more mainstream movies (Jersey Girl, Cop Out) and non-commercial labors of love (Tusk) outside his Jersey-based alternate reality. “I stopped working with my View Askewniverse characters because I read online people were like, ‘Oh he just always makes those Jay and Silent Bob movies,’” he says. “And I was like, ‘well I guess I better grow up and put on my big boy pants.’”
Then came the heart attack. In 2018, Smith experienced a “widow-maker” cardiac arrest, which had a profound effect on his outlook. “After I almost died, I was like, fuck you,” he says. He immediately got to work on Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, before turning his sights to his where it all began. Now, he’s got Clerks III coming out Sept. 13, and is excited about other possible projects, like sequels to Mallrats and Tusk. “Give me my little boy pants back,” he says. “That’s fun.”
How did Clerks III come about?
I was trying to make [this] one for the better part of the last 10 to 13 years. At one point, it was a very different version of the movie than it is now, very King Lear. Didn’t even take place at Quick Stop. And I think if we’d made it, people would’ve been like, ‘I don’t think this guy understands his own movie. I don’t think he fucking even saw Clerks.’
I had a heart attack about four and a half years ago. And that gave me a spine for the flick. I can’t really technically follow up Clerks. It was made by a kid who wished like, ‘Oh, I could be a real little boy, be a real director,’ and made in the same shop he was working at as soon as the camera’s turned off. So it’s insanely authentic. With the heart attack, I was able to bring some authenticity to the movie that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
“The new thing this time around, ironically, is the old thing.”
Clerks itself was based on my life with just names changed. By using my heart attack, giving it to Randal, and then having Randal be like, you know what, I think I want to make a movie. And then giving them my same experience in making a black and white movie in a convenience store.
I was able to replace that authenticity — it’s like, if the authenticity of working at a store is gone, what does it get replaced with? And that was my heart attack. And then also then making a movie. Suddenly it was like, well shit, now this follows very closely what I did with Clerks.
You’ve talked about how, writing the first Clerks, you put a lot of yourself into the Dante character. Was it strange then for you to have Randal be the one directing the movie-within-the-movie?
Interestingly enough, no. The weirdest thing was me going, “Well, Dante would never make a movie,” even though Dante was based on me and I did make a movie. But that’s where the character and I differentiate. There’s a big moment in Clerks where they talk about shit or get off the pot. I got off the pot. Dante wouldn’t do that thing. But at the end of Clerks II, we revealed that Randal, the hardcore cynic, is a secret dreamer. And that’s why I wanted to get to a Clerks III because I was like, oh my God, that fascinates me. The idea of the angry young man, you scratch the cynic and you find an optimist underneath. I would like to spend a whole movie with a Randal who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Even though Dante is very much modeled on me, I wrote the role of Randal to play myself, which is why Randal has all the best jokes in Clerks. But the closer we got to production, I was like, I’m no actor. I can’t memorize all this dialogue. So I gave the role to Jeff and he was phenomenal. But there was always this tie between me and the character. This draw to be the character. To not be Dante, but be the other guy. It was more like my friend [who also worked at the Quick Stop], Bryan Johnson. The person who just didn’t give a fuck what anybody thought. So with Clerks III, since Randal has my heart attack and has my idea to make a movie, it’s like, oh I’ve finally made it. I’ve graduated to Randal. I always wanted to be Randal back when I started this journey. And by Clerks III, I finally got to be Randal.
Let’s talk about how, in Clerks III, you address some of the parts of Clerks that may not have aged so well.
I got to do that in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot as well. There was a moment where we got to talk about how Chasing Amy is weird because it’s told from the perspective of the cis white male. The story [about the relationship between a bisexual woman and a straight man] should be told from Alyssa’s perspective. It’s much richer that way. But since I was the cis white male at the heart of it all, it’s basically told from Holden’s point of view. Same thing here. For years, people have been like, when you say “Asian design major” [the way an off-screen character was described throughout the first movie], what does that mean exactly? I was like, oh great. We get to address it in this moment.
One thing that’s not brought up is Randal’s so-called “reclaiming” of the racist term “porch monkey” in Clerks II.
That was me trying to — my take on racism, I guess, but through a humor lens or whatever. It works, the scene works, but it is a tough watch for me at this point. Anybody coming into Clerks III, hopefully they’re looking for something a little different than that. But at the root of it is Randal being Randal, which is like, “I’m going to be contrary to everything.” And the angry young man who illogically will just defend his position right into the ground.
So the humor has changed for Clerks?
I can’t impress you with potty language anymore. There was a time where I knew more bad words than you. But that time has passed because now we live in the age of streaming where Ted Lasso and all the characters on that show fucking cuss exquisitely. So there’s nothing I could really bring to the table in terms of like, have you heard of this? Snowballing? We live in the age of the internet. Everybody’s heard of everything. So as I was starting to write, I was like, well, don’t try to edgelord this. Don’t look for your Kinky Kelly or whatever. Let it just occur to you naturally because otherwise it’s going to reek of like, ‘Oh this is a dude who’s trying too fucking hard to find the new thing.’ So the new thing this time around, ironically, is the old thing.
This movie is a lot darker than the previous Clerks, or really anything in the View Askewniverse.
That, to me, is the impressive part of Clerks III is that you’re going to go in there, most cats are going to go in there expecting one movie and they’re going to get a far better movie than they probably thought they were going to get. We give them the movie they came for. We definitely make a movie within a movie and suck our own dicks and stare at our own navels. But then, we take a turn and I try to show you my growth as a storyteller between the first one and this one while using the first story to do it. It’s very crazy meta. I didn’t think anything would get more meta than Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. But with Clerks III, we found a way. I think this is it though. I don’t think I could go any more than this. You only really get to give your characters your movie to make once.
Does that mean no Clerks IV?
As long as there’s breath in my lungs, there’s a chance there’s a Clerks movie lurking right around the corner.
Let’s talk about the Askewniverse. Do all the movies take place on the same plane?
I always think of the Jay and Silent Bob movies as how Jay and Silent Bob see the world. It’s more like a cartoon — they live a cartoony life. Then there are the ones that are the reals, like Clerks, Clerks II, Chasing Amy. Mallrats is in a weird other world between Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back where it’s definitely heightened. Dogma is in a league all its own because you’re dealing with angels and shit like that. Then after Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, just big fat cartoon. And then Clerks II, which takes us back more to the real. And then Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, absolute fucking cartoon. And now Clerks III — as real as raincoats, kids. This is authenticity is what I’m always looking for when it comes to these Clerks pictures. And I love two, But it’s not authentic. Everything about it is contrived. Not in a shitty way, but just it’s made up. This one feels beyond autobiographical.
Where does the Clerks cartoon fit into the View Askewniverse?
What a great question. We push it a little bit into Clerks III. On the poster, if you get in real close on Jay’s hat, he’s got a pin on his hat and it’s Leonardo Leonardo, who was voiced by Alec Baldwin in the cartoon. So there’s a little Clerks cartoon reference. Marc Bernardin, who I co-host [the podcast] Fatman Beyond with, plays Lando, who was a character from the cartoon that the boys would code to and talk to for wisdom and stuff.
“As long as there’s breath in my lungs, there’s a chance there’s a Clerks movie lurking right around the corner.”
And then if you listen real closely, when they go in the cooler in Clerks III — something we only ever did in — when they first get into the cooler, the drunken Dante is just like, “It’s cold in here, Hoth cold.” He does his animated-series line. So there’s little allusions to it.
You’ve talked about all of these stories about the making of Clerks, in a lot of different settings. Was it strange to see those anecdotes then dramatized and watching them on the screen?
No. I mean, as the engineer, it’d be weird if I was watching it being like, how did this happen? It’d be like being in a threesome, and somebody’s having sex with your wife and you’re like, ‘How did this happen?’ And you’re like, ‘You were involved.’ I feel like for the kids in the movie, there was that. When Brian and Jeff, on separate times, Kim Loughran, now Kim Garby. She was my ex-girlfriend. She was the model for Caitlin and Veronica and stuff. She plays Heather Jones in the original, and then she comes back as Heather Jones in this one.
Her and Brian and Jeff separately all told me the same thing, which is it is so fucked up that we were standing in this exact same spot doing this exact same thing 29 years ago. It was so bizarrely meta, so strange, but so wonderful. It was like a Clerks fantasy camp. In a weird way, it was not intentional, but it was this bizarre celebration of life because it’s like, we’re still here. Sadly, we were missing one, missing Lisa, who played Caitlin in Clerks. On the poster for Clerks, there’s me, there’s Jeff, Brian, Marilyn Ghigliotti, and Lisa Spoonauer. She’s the only one that doesn’t return in all of this and that’s because she passed away a couple years ago. So the movie got dedicated to her.
I love the kids because not only are they my friends, but they are the co-architects of my entire future. And mercifully, we got to that place where we could all have this trip back in time while getting something done too. Anybody can have a trip back in time. That’s just masturbatory. But to make a movie while it’s going on, to have something to show for our masturbatory fucking journey, that takes effort.
Speaking of masturbatory journeys, Mallrats. Is there actually a sequel in the works?
Yeah. Twilight of the Mallrats. It’s been written for so fucking long. And it’s beautiful if I do say so myself. Very also heartfelt, but very multi-generational. Falls somewhere between Jay and Silent Bob Reboot and Clerks III in terms of how it deals with characters, legacy characters we all know and love. But it also deals with Brody Bruce’s daughter, Banner Bruce. It’s primarily their story together and about how our culture that we knew as children is completely gone — dead mall, shit like that. So I absolutely love it. And I think anybody who likes Mallrats would love it as well.
We did a podcast a few months ago, and Jason Lee came. [Smodcast episode 453: Tracing Banky] We just look at his entire career. But at the end of it, I was like, bro, I’ve brought a scene from Twilight of the Mallrats. Will you read it with me? And we read it. And hearing him fucking read Brody and read those lines, which I’ve been sitting on for years — same way I was sitting on fucking Clerks III script — [it] feels like maybe the moment’s coming. Post heart attack, now I’m like, it’s not like I don’t take no for an answer. It’s just like, if I get a ‘no,’ I’m like, fuck it. I’ll move on and make a yes someplace else or make the yes myself. I don’t know how many chances I get to do this thing. I don’t have the luxury of like, well, we’ll get to it when we get to it. Your heart may have different ideas. I may have gone vegan and dropped a bunch of weight, but I am at the mercy of my parents’ genetics. And my old man dropped dead of a heart attack at age 67. I’m living on borrowed time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.