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Indie idol Smith goes mainstream in `Zack & Miri'

  In this Sept. 8, 2008 file photo, director Kevin Smith from the film "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" poses for a portrait during the Toronto Internatio...
  In this Sept. 8, 2008 file photo, director Kevin Smith from the film "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" poses for a portrait during the Toronto Internatio...

Film Kevin Smith

In this Sept. 8, 2008 file photo, director Kevin Smith from the film "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" poses for a portrait during the Toronto Internatio...

Film Kevin Smith

In this Sept. 8, 2008 file photo, director Kevin Smith from the film "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" poses for a portrait during the Toronto Internatio...

The wonderboy who made "Clerks" now is officially an "influence" on a new generation of filmmakers.

Kevin Smith wrote his latest comedy, "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," with Seth Rogen in mind to play slacker Zack, who makes a skin flick with his platonic best pal to turn some quick cash.

When Smith started, Rogen was a supporting player just getting a foothold in Hollywood. By the time he was ready to pitch the film to the actor, Rogen was about to break out as a leading man with "Knocked Up" and then as a screenwriter developing his own material.

Smith figured he had lost his shot at Rogen. But it turns out, the actor's big dream always had been to work with the filmmaker he'd admired so much as a teen: Kevin Smith.

"It really comes down to `Clerks' as the gift that just keeps on giving," Smith, 38, said at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Zack and Miri" premiered in advance of its debut in theaters Friday. "It gave me a career, I met my wife because of it. It just goes on and on.

"And then suddenly, there's another reason to love `Clerks,' because Rogen loved it, and that's how he winds up in this movie, eventually. ... I felt like this dude's doing me a true solid, because suddenly, he's a movie star. The dude can do any movie he wants at this point. For him to choose ours is really cool."

With Rogen's fresh star power and sharp rapport with co-star Elizabeth Banks, "Zack and Miri" has a shot at elevating Smith beyond his loyal cult audience and into the mainstream.

Rogen's three big films over the past year and a half — "Knocked Up," "Superbad" and "Pineapple Express" — collectively hauled in $360 million domestically, nearly three times the total for all seven of Smith's movies, from the $3.1 million gross for 1994's "Clerks" through the $24.1 million take for "Clerks II" in 2006.

At just over $30 million each, Smith's highest-grossing flicks were the Roman Catholic comedy "Dogma," with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as fallen angels, and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," which elevated the director's alter ego Bob and old Jersey pal Jason Mewes' Jay to star status after appearing in smaller roles in his previous flicks.

Smith's movies find much of their audience in their afterlife, once they depart theaters.

"With our stuff, even though we don't kill theatrically, our home video's always been fantastic," Smith said. "I learned that very early on, from `Clerks.' That's been our savior many times in the past."

"Zack and Miri" has some commercial drawbacks that will scare away a chunk of the potential audience.

Its R rating is well-deserved for the subject matter, Smith's trademark profanity, and nudity involving some of the co-stars, including Mewes and porn star Katie Morgan. The movie initially had an adults-only NC-17 rating, though Smith received an R on appeal.

The title alone has proven a turnoff. Some newspapers, TV stations and other outlets have rejected "Zack and Miri" ads because of the word "Porno."

Yet the film has a sweetness beneath the crudity that could pack in bigger crowds than Smith normally draws. Rogen figured that if "Pineapple Express" could become a hit despite its drug themes and bloody gunplay, "Zack and Miri" has a good shot, too.

"In `Pineapple Express,' we sell drugs to 12-year-olds and we kill dozens and dozens of people," Rogen said. "A lot of people are put off by drugs and violence, but this at its core is a romantic comedy that traditionally can do very well. I definitely think this movie could be a breakout for him."

Smith has shied away from taking on bigger projects that could have brought wider commercial success. He once planned to make a "Green Hornet" superhero adventure but backed out, uncertain he had the directing chops to handle it. (Rogen now is developing his own "Green Hornet" project.)

If "Zack and Miri" clicks with moviegoers, it might be just the nudge Smith needs, co-star Banks said.

"I hope for Kevin's sake it's a big movie, because I want to see him make bigger movies. I want to see him branch out," Banks said. "I think he would love to direct a `Green Hornet' or an `Iron Man,' but he doesn't feel confident enough that he can make that kind of movie. And if this movie does well, then I think he'll feel like, `OK, I can do it.'"

Along with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater, Smith emerged as one of the maverick darlings who invigorated and inspired independent film in the early to mid-1990s.

Smith shot "Clerks" for $27,575 — not even spare change for a big Hollywood production — at the New Jersey convenience store where he was working in 1993. Shot in black and white, the film featured a no-name cast in a rambling tale of slackers jabbering about pop culture and sharing crazy urban legends, while creating a few of their own.

Harvey and Bob Weinstein's Miramax bought "Clerks" at the Sundance Film Festival, and they have continued to handle most of Smith's films at their new outfit, the Weinstein Co.

"I have a fervent belief in his talent as a filmmaker," Harvey Weinstein said. "Whatever journey he wants to take us on, we'll find a way to do it."


One project even the Weinsteins passed on is the film Smith hopes to shoot next, a political horror tale called "Red State." He is trying to find financing elsewhere.

Smith would not disclose the plot but said "Red State" is a bleak, dark, creepy story about American fundamentalism gone to extremes, a complete about-face from his work so far.

"It just feels like the right time to try something completely different, because we've done nothing but comedies since the beginning," Smith said. "To step outside that and try a different genre altogether, where there's no comfort zone, 180 degrees away from everything we've done. ... I never really feel like a director. I always feel like a writer who just happens to direct his films, so it would be nice to try a different genre to see if I'm a filmmaker, and if it works: Oh, maybe I am."

Updated : 2021-05-11 19:30 GMT+08:00