Without a doubt, writer-director Kevin Smith’s Clerks has secured its place as the independent film success story of 1994. Resembling what “Seinfeld” would be if produced by a group of New Jersey teenagers, this story of a day in the life of a convenience store clerk is the product of two Vancouver Film School grads (producer Scott Mosier and director of photography David Klein) and one dropout (Smith), who filmed Clerks in the Leonardo, NJ Quick Stop where Smith worked. Rare in the independent film world is Smith’s obvious ability to elevate personal experience and perspective beyond the vanity project level to the realm of more universal truth. Rarer still is his genuine talent for character comedy, which overshadows the security-cam production values inherent in the film’s $27,000 budget and makes it both a formidable achievement and a very entertaining movie. Now signed to feature deals with Universal and Miramax, Smith and Mosier’s debut offers the hope that even in the studio-controlled multiplex jungle, any nobody who makes a good movie—even without money, experience or connections—can have their big time moviemaking dreams fall right into their lap. MM sat down with the pair when they were in town for the 1994 Seattle International Film Festival.
MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What series of events led to your making a film?
Scott Mosier (SM): We [all] met Vancouver Film School and become friends, and Kevin kept talking about writing a script that would take place in the convenience store he worked at back in New Jersey. We always wanted to make a feature after we graduated.
MM: What did you think of Vancouver Film School? And Kevin, why did you drop out?
Kevin Smith (KS): As far as film schools go, it’s no better or worse than most of them. If you go to NYU or USC or UCLA, it takes you four years to realize what a waste of time it was. [At Vancouver] all it takes is four months.
MM: Why a convenience store? Why not make your first feature a sci-fi movie or meaningful interracial love drama?
KS: Well, we tried that, but there are no black people in Leonardo, New Jersey (laughs). I had worked at a convenience store for a long time and then when we heard Robert Rodriguez speak, and he said, “Look, if you’re going to make an independent film, work with what you already have, don’t script something that’s impossible to get.” And we had the convenience store script, so I said, ‘Let’s make a movie here.’
MM: How much is based on personal experience?
KS: About 60 to 70 percent. With writer’s embellishment, of course.
MM: How much improvisation was there on the set? With your one-to-one shooting ratio, I’m guessing everything was pretty tightly scripted.
KS: Maybe about 2 percent. All of the improvisation was from Jason [Mewes] because he couldn’t learn his lines.
MM: Jason plays the drug dealer?
KS: Yeah, and in real life Jason is a drug taker. He’s aspiring to the level of drug dealer. He knew what he was supposed to say but couldn’t remember the words to save his life. In his final diatribe, when he’s telling Dante off and calling him a cock-smoker, that’s just him goin’ off. We never thought we’d use it, but it’s just so outta place it’s fuckin’ hilarious.
MM: What did the Hindu owners of the Quick Stop think of you making a movie there?
KS: They gave us a lot of leeway, I guess because they thought we were just gonna be runnin’ around with a video camera. They had no idea it was as involved as it was until they came in one morning after we had been shooting all night and sat there watching us and the crew tearing the place apart as the store was supposed to open. They finally realized it was the real thing.
MM: How did they react to the film?
KS: They were very supportive, him saying, “Oh this is a great thing you’ve done”—he loves to see anyone prosper. Her comments were, “Oh the language,” and, “Why does the boy in your movie have to give away free Gatorade, it’s not right…he always goes the wrong way.” And I would say, ‘Well, it’s just a movie…’
MM: What was your budget?
KS: We just took all our credit cards and maxed them out throughout shooting. It wound up being 10 grand.
MM: Where did the $17,000 balance come from?
KS: My parents kicked in $3,000 for the camera package, and Scott’s parents kicked in $3,000 for the answer print. The rest came from credit cards. There was also a comic book collection sold in the process, and there was flood money. My hometown, Highlands, was flooded and the government gave me $3,000 for two cars that cost about $450 total. That right there shows you how stupid the government is, and how willing they are to just throw money away.
MM: Any support from the local film community?
BOTH: We are the local film community.
MM: How’d you keep the budget so low?
SM: Ignorance. Not knowing anything meant that you say, ‘Okay, we need a camera, and something to record sound with.’ And so we just got those and made a movie. Film people are like, “You have to slate with a time code slate—it’s absolutely necessary,” and we went down to fuckin’ Suncoast Motion Picture Company and bought one of their toy slates and used that.
KS: Dave gave us this wish list of all the things he needed at the start of production. You know, a camera, lights, lenses, filters, gels, whatever. We looked it over and said, ‘Uh, ahhhh…you can have the camera.’
MM: I noticed you had a credit for “Sync Fix.”
KS: After Miramax bought us, we hired this chick to do our sync fix and we are in there one day with her, and she’s sayin’, “It was my birthday last night, but I still came in to do some sync fixing. I took some ‘shrooms beforehand, but I still came in.” And we were like, ‘WHAT?!’ So we actually had to get our sync fixed again after she had “fixed” it.
MM: Hundreds of homemade independent features are made every year that don’t even make it into festivals much less get sold to Miramax Pictures for $400,000. What did you guys do right? How are you different?
KS: It was a matter of people going for the story and its universality. If they never worked behind a register, they’ve been on the other side of the counter. People could say, “I know someone like Randal,” or, “I’ve had a conversation like that with my girlfriend or boyfriend.” That’s real important.
SM: The biggest thing at the festivals, I think, is that you’re inundated with films about guns and AIDS or heavy artsy things and people could just go into Clerks and have a good time. That’s what everyone tells us.
MM: Clerks to me is a very American movie. The whole icon of a convenience store and the way people relate to each other is very specific to the Tri-State area. How did people react to it at Cannes?
KS: We were worried because the French either love American culture or they totally hate it. We thought we were gonna go over there, and be like EuroDisney II, and amazingly, they were with every joke. So either it translated well, or the guy who did the subtitles wrote a much funnier movie than we did.
MM: Tips for those embarking on their own feature film projects?
KS: Get credit cards, lotsa credit cards. Lie if you have to. I did.
MM: What are you all gonna do for a follow up?
KS: I have a script called Dogma, which is a satire on Catholicism. It’s kind of a road movie and a big step away from Clerks in theme, but the humor is still there, only a more direct plot this time. There’s also Mall Rats with Universal. They asked me what project I wanted to do and I said, “Mall Rats,” just outta nowhere—just two words—and they went with it; “Oh yeah, that’s funny!” Amazing.