New Jersey native Kevin Smith shot his first ultra-low budget film at the convenience store where he worked. The moonlighting paid off as Clerks went on to bag gongs at myriad film festivals, including Sundance and Cannes. His follow-up movie Mallrats was less well received, but with later credits including the offbeat love story Chasing Amy and religious comedy Dogma, he's never less than interesting. Teaming up with buddy Ben Affleck for the fifth time, Smith's family comedy Jersey Girl marks a significant change of pace for the one-time primo slacker.
Jersey Girl seems like a departure in tone for you...
A little bit. I think it's kind of close to Chasing Amy in tone, though.
But did you make a calculated decision to move away from the slacker movie?
Yeah, I did. I wanted to make this movie that's been swimming around in my head for a while, because I wasn't raised on movies like Clerks and Mallrats. Chasing Amy was more the type of dramedy that I was raised on, and that I was a big fan of. So sooner or later I was going to get to one of these - a feelgood tearjerker, so to speak.
Thankfully, this wound up being good timing, because I couldn't make a movie with Jason Mewes [aka Jay] again, because he was so knee-deep in heroine and OxyContin at the time. All the rehab counsellors were like: "You've got to cut him loose and turn your back on him and stop putting the net out for him, and basically practice tough love." So that freed me up to pursue this.
Aside from looking like Jennifer Lopez, what were you looking for when you cast Raquel Castro in the part of Gertie?
She just had to come across like a real little kid. I didn't want to just cast a movie-cute kid, because so often they're cloying and irritating, and they're so cute you want to throw them through a ******* wall, you know? But for my money, I think most seven-year-olds, or kids around that age, are starting to discover that their parents are as full of **** as anybody. That's when they start to figure out that there's no Santa Claus, and then it's, "Wait a second, you've been lying to me for all these years!" So there's a little incredulity to their character, and they're not always precious. It's like they've been to the circus and the clowns no longer amuse them, and that's what I wanted the character to have. Raquel really brought that to it.
What about the Will Smith cameo? That's quite a pivotal role, so what if he had turned down the part?
Thankfully he said yes, because the guy who I originally wrote the part for was Bruce Willis, and he said no - or didn't say anything. I wrote the script with Bruce Willis in mind as the guy, and the movie was set 1986 to 1994, that period in Bruce Willis' career when he became Bruno - suddenly he was a musician and he put out two albums, and started calling himself Bruno. It was very ******* weird. That scene where Ollie [Ben Affleck] blows up at a press conference was originally based around that. So I sent the script to Bruce Willis and never heard from him. I also sent him a really nice letter and still never heard from him. I told Ben and I was like, "You should really get in touch with your boy." And he was like, "I will, because me and him ran from the space rocket in that one movie." [Armageddon] And Bruce Willis never called him back either.
Suddenly Bruce Willis was out of the picture, so I set it in the present and went back seven years - which was roughly Gertie's age - to see what was happening at that time. It occurred to me that Will Smith wasn't Will Smith yet, so I rewrote the scene with him in mind and he signed on. Nicest guy on the planet. I used to think Affleck was the nicest guy in the movie business, but Affleck is a ******* ogre compared to Will Smith. No ego whatsoever, just a really great guy.
Was there a point when it dawned on you that the off-screen relationship between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez could have an adverse affect on your movie?
Well, while we were shooting the movie we were in a vacuum. Their relationship wasn't that public yet, and for the few people that did know, it wasn't like well covered everywhere. So, we got to work under these great conditions of nobody really giving a ****. The production was based in Philadelphia, and in the local papers they would write about them all the time, but just in the same way that they would write about any celebrity who was in their town shooting a movie. It was when we got to Central Park in the last two days of the shoot - we did New York exteriors - shooting those two sitting in a carriage going around the rotunda. They pull up in their truck to get into the horse and carriage, and a hundred paparazzi just appear out of nowhere and just start shooting away. I've never seen anything like it. It was like locust descending.
So suddenly I was getting the impression that their relationship is tabloid fodder. But I didn't recognise the point at where everything went critical mass. But my producer did, and he points to the moment when Ben appeared in Jennifer's music video for Jenny From The Block. He said then that it was bad ******* news. He was like, "I understand what they're trying to accomplish. The whole story of the video is about tabloid intrusion, but the point is lost and it just makes them look arrogant." And he was right.
That's where the worm started to turn and the backlash began, because people just saw it as them going, "We're so rich, and so successful, and so pretty - feel bad for us." But for me the moment I knew we were in trouble with their relationship was when we test screened the movie. In the focus group you ask people, "How would you suggest this movie to a friend?" And one guy said, "I would tell my friends to go and see it because J-Lo dies." And the audience laughed, and I laughed too because it was kind of funny. But then I was like, "That's a weird crimson sentiment, man." And it became clear that people just didn't like her, and didn't like the two of them together. It just created this enmity from the people. Weird.
As well as the Bennifer backlash, Jersey Girl didn't get much love from the US critics. Does that all affect the way you feel about the film now?
At the time, and still to this moment, I feel like it was a good idea. I love the movie and it means something to me, but unfortunately I'm still mired in the aftermath of all the **** that surrounded the release, so I think it'll be a while before I can kick back and appreciate it like I did when I first put it together. About a year ago, when I had the first cut together, I loved the movie and I still kind of love it, but it's clouded by the **** we had to put up with to get it into the theatres in the first place.
So I think, like with Mallrats - that got savaged by the critics and did really badly at the box office - it took a few years for me to able to appreciate the movie again. That movie found its audience eventually though. People rented it on video and wound up digging it, and it's the gateway film for all our movies when you talk to the fanbase, because that's the movie they saw first, and it led them to the other movies. So I wound up falling in love with it again, and I'm sure the same will happen with this.
Could you ever see yourself doing what Ollie does in the film, and sacrificing your career to take care of family commitments?
Yeah. Absolutely. For my kid? Absolutely. And it's weird because this is the one time where I've come up against journalists who get really dug in on this issue. Some people think it's inauthentic, or disingenuous, or very Hollywood. My take on it is: most people who take issue with the idea of giving up a career for somebody, they feel like they're being judged because they like their career. I'm always like, "Do you have a kid?" And they're like, "No." So I say, talk to me when you've got a kid because then it's a whole different story.
You're trying to be a role model and shape their existence, and you get a small window to that, and it becomes of paramount importance. Luckily I have this gig where I get to do both. But you're talking to me eight months after my father died and, believe me, if I knew my old man was going to die, I would have given up working for two years just to hang out with him. I would put my family ahead of my career in a heartbeat.