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What makes Kevin Smith click?

‘Clerks’ filmmaker nurtures his fans, and himself, online
/ Source: <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a></p>

It may seem odd that “Clerks II,” which opens on July 21 and features graphic sexual banter and even an act of bestiality, is going to set its audience abuzz with warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia.

But then, most of filmmaker Kevin Smith's fans know this territory well, having seen and loved the characters from the original “Clerks,” the 1994 cult movie that pushed taboo as far as it could go this side of an NC-17 rating.And if anyone understands his fan base, it's Smith, 35, who lives, breathes and blogs for his devotees. He has already experienced their enthusiasm for “Clerks II” at a recent sneak preview at Vulgarthon, his annual film fest for his message-board posse, held in his home town of Red Bank, N.J. And he has spent much of his time, as he always does, reading and responding to Internet postings on such Smith Web sites as http://viewaskew.com/ and http://silentbobspeaks.com/. No other filmmaker has made it his business to nurture, kibitz with, heckle and engage his fans on such an intimate, day-to-day basis.

Where does this obsessive attention come from?

“I think it comes from growing up fat and looking for constant validation,” says Smith, sitting at a Mexican eatery and working his way through an order of tortillas, refried beans, rice and a side order of hot cheese. “You just want somebody to be, like, ‘It's all right that you don't look like us, you're fine.’ And interacting with the fan base is constant validation.”

The validation began with the seminal independent movie “Clerks,” which fans treated with the same life-defining reverence others have felt in previous eras for “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Easy Rider,” “Star Wars” and “Taxi Driver.”

The movie, for which Smith begged, borrowed and credit-carded $27,000, follows the travails of Dante and Randal, clerks at a New Jersey convenience store called Quick Stop, whose lives consist of graphic conversations about women, lengthy riffs about pop culture, and a little hockey on the roof.

“Clerks II” takes up with the characters 12 years later, all of them still heading nowhere. And in a sense, what Smith has made is not so much a movie as a tacit signal that he's older, but hasn't forgotten his youthful roots, or his fans.

For fans of the original “Clerks,” the film defined their generation — the one raised on McJobs, junk food and “Star Wars.” That a shoestring flick about real life could be picked up by Miramax and launch the career for a college dropout was deeply inspiring.

“This was a movie that talked like the people I know talk,” says Mike Cecconi, from Upstate New York, who saw “Clerks” when he was 17. “It was a revelation to see a film that had really smart people cussing and dealing with actual life.” Later, Cecconi changed his college major from newspaper journalism to film and, after graduation, moved to Los Angeles. He now works for Smith as a production assistant.

It was during the afterglow of “Clerks” that Smith discovered the Internet, a then-new phenomenon that promised to bring him even greater accessibility to his fans. Alerted in 1995 to a Web site dedicated to “Clerks,” Smith went to an Internet cafe in Red Bank and checked it out. He was so enchanted, he immediately hired its creator, Ming Chen, to do something similar for him.

When Chen suggested putting up a message board, Smith recalls his reaction: “I was, like, ‘So at 2 in the morning, if I wake up and I'm, like, I suck, and I'm alone in the world, I can jump on there and have somebody be, like, I like what you do, and sleep better?’ I was so dialed in to that notion.”

Since 1995, Smith has used the Internet to extend the profane but honest dialogue he has shared with his fans in films such as “Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma,” “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and “Jersey Girl.” Over the years he has posted the most intimate details of his life, including his emotionally harrowing battle to help his friend Jason Mewes (best known as Jay in Smith's movies) battle drug addiction. (In a phone interview, Mewes declared he has just celebrated 3 1/2 years of sobriety.) Other subjects have included his first sexual encounter with his wife, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, normally unmentioned surgery and, more recently, a blog on the sheer joys of nose picking.

“Kevin is very open on the Internet,” says Jennifer, who has been married to Smith for seven years. “People know exactly what's going on in our house, and he makes jokes about it. My only choice is to roll with it or I'd be mortified 99 percent of the time.”Along with that out-there honesty, Smith says, come “the trolls,” the haters and detractors who make their views known in message boards on Web sites such as http://aintitcoolnews.com/ and http://imdb.com/.

“They post things like [a profanity] and they don't even spell it right,” says Smith. In addition to casting aspersions on his lack of cinematic talent (“they're not wrong”), they have ridiculed the size of his wife's ears and suggested she is a gold digger; and they have questioned Smith's parentage of their 7-year-old child, Harley Quinn Smith.

“They throw stuff out there because they know you'll respond. You write something about Mel Gibson, he ain't gonna show up and be, like, you're wrong, or hurl an insult back. Since I'm known for doing it, people do it just to get a response.”

At first, Smith says, he responded hotly to everything — even e-mailing detractors personally. But lately, he has learned to let it go. (“I was, like, why am I fighting with these dudes?”) He also now charges a lifetime fee of $2 to post on his Web sites. (The proceeds go to a rape counseling organization.) It seems to have done the trick, he says, and allowed him to do what he loves best — with less turbulence. But he adds, “I gotta read what the opposite side says. I can't believe the good if I don't give credit to the bad. Otherwise I'm living in a fool's paradise.”

It comes as no surprise, then, to hear Smith declare the Internet “the guidepost of my day.” By his estimation, he spends a third of his waking hours visiting news sites and his own sites and responding to fans. Lately, he has been putting up promotional video shorts on the “Clerks II” Web site. And last March, “sadly and unfortunately,” he discovered http://myspace.com, the Internet's most popular social meetinghouse. In the space of three months, he says, he has approved more than 30,000 friends.

“I've never been addicted to crack,” says Smith. “But I imagine this is what crack is like. Who knew that I would be so desperate for friends that I would spend at least two to three hours every day approving friends?”

Says Jennifer: “All I need is my daughter, my husband and a few girlfriends. Kevin needs an audience of however many millions.”

Happiness, she says, means not reading his Internet chatter — so she's unaware of Smith's newfound friends such as “Vodka Bob,” “The Man Beast” and “Ilovebeer007,” and even such female posters as “Blue Ribbon,” who messages Smith to say: “if u werent married I'd sooo hit that...”

Marriage, Smith says, “has added a new friend to the mix.”

Besides, he says, he has honored his wife's wishes and gently asked Mewes to move out. The actor has been living chez Smith, on and off for eight years, during his difficulties. But now that Harley Quinn is becoming more aware of things, says Smith, it's time for their 32-year-old guest to leave.

“Mewes is kinda bummed about that,” says Smith, “because he's living rent-free. She summed it up: ‘I gave you the first eight years. Give me the next eight.’ Just me, her and the kid.”

And the Internet fan base. Scott Mosier, Smith's longtime producer, points out that “Mallrats,” Smith's second movie, was “a box office bomb.” A $5 million film that was shot down in reviews, it made only $2.1 million in overall domestic box office. But its sales in the video store were quite another matter, he says. Universal, which distributed the film (Smith's only venture without Miramax heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein), never told him how much “Mallrats” made in video sales but did say it was enough to reissue a 10-year-anniversary DVD.

Much more important than the money, or lack of it, says Mosier, were “the tons of people who found that movie on video. Our fan base grew out of that.”

Internet savvy has allowed Smith to have, and use, the kind of information most filmmakers delegate to studio research and marketing departments. Consequently, says Smith, he's a step ahead of his distributors when it comes to understanding the tastes and attitudes of his audience. For the past 40 weeks, for instance, he has been posting five-minute video shorts documenting moments from the making of “Clerks II” on http://clerks2.com/. It's a way, he says, of keeping his fans in the know — and piquing their interest.

“It's been a real education for the folks at the Weinstein Company,” says Smith, who says the Weinsteins were “kind of surprised” to find that sneak previews of the movie had played so well.

“We're, like, ‘We had a feeling because we're kind of dialed in to people who are potentially interested in seeing it.’”

And maybe, in another 10 years, “Clerks II: The Anniversary.”