When the writer/director isn’t spinning an engaging, amusing and distinctly Kevin Smith-styled story in one of his films, there's a good chance he's sharing an anecdote about making one of them..
And, of course, that’s what happened when the cult-favorite filmmaker and occasional comics writer sat down with Spinoff Online to talk about his latest, and easily most offbeat, movie Tusk. Originating with a particularly strange installment of one of Smith’s podcasts, the film’s roots lie in a bizarre online ad that turned out to be hoax, yet proved too compelling to ignore: In short, one man is driven to attempt to transform another man into a walrus.
It was enough to fuel Smith’s imagination, sending him on a journey to transform the unlikely premise into a full-on exercise in cinematic horror, a more chilling film than he had ever attempted – one that’s way more out there, but still bearing many of Smith’s trademarks.
Even a brief a conversation with Smith is a bit of an odyssey, and the filmmaker didn’t disappoint with this interview ahead of Tusk's limited release on Friday: Included within are yarns about making what easily could have been the most ludicrous movie in his filmography and delivering something full of atmosphere, pathos and fine performances; stepping away from the extremely personal features of his past to engage in pure, giddy storytelling; and how he got one of Hollywood’s most respected, expensive and in-demand actors for Tusk because their kids go to the same school.
SPINOFF was also provided with an exclusive first look at a comic strip created by celebrated artist Francesco Francavilla to promote the film, which stars Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Génesis Rodríguez and, yes, Johnny Depp.
Spinoff Online: After hearing some of your actors talk about how they had to convince themselves or their representatives to let them take on Tusk, the first question that occurred to me was how did you talk yourself into making this your next film, knowing --
Kevin Smith: -- knowing that it's stupid? [Laughs] I mean, there's no other way to say it! It was, honestly, the stupidity that kind of drove me a little bit, but you hear me on the podcast: We start telling this story based on this article that we read online, and then I started shaping it into a movie – and I was having a blast! I enjoyed it so much, that I was just like, all right, man, “I can go forward with this on another step.” But based on the audience interaction -- I said in the podcast, I was like, “Walrus – Yes” if you think it's a good idea; “Walrus – No” if you don't want to see this shit at all. So next morning, a lot of “Walrus – Yes” [tweets] and only one “Walrus – No,” and the guy was like, “I feel like I should say no for the democratic process,” so I was like “Right on! A little support.” So based on that, I was like, they liked the story on the podcast. They, too, like me, found it kind of interesting, so I could take it one more step. So I started writing a script.
Before I did that, I didn't want to make movies anymore, so I was like, “What would make me want to sit on a movie set?” in a real first-world kind of problems way. And I said, well, Michael Parks was awesome on Red State. Just watching that dude fucking act is like watching Yoda – he's forgotten more about performance than I'll ever know, so that would bring me to a set. If I could sit there and watch him say crazy, fucked up shit – like, spout lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or just watch him go on a crazy journey. So then I started writing based around Parks, and then I was like, what else would I like? Well, some of the stuff that we talked about in podcast: “I love Canada – let's set it in Canada,” and blah, blah, blah. So because of that, it was easy. I didn't even have to talk myself into it. If anything, I would have talked myself out. The actors I love from now until the day I die, I'll put them in anything, and I will always fucking give them work because they were brave enough to say, “Yeah, it's a fucking weird script.” Now, it's easier to be like, “All right, right on. Yeah, it's a fun movie to do.” But going in, it could go wrong, so many different fucking ways. Justin's agent was like, “Don't do it, dude!” Like, literally. “You're the Apple guy – you're going to be the walrus guy? Don't do it.” And Justin was like, “I was scared, and that's part of what made me want to do it.” Because he was like, “The notion of acting without acting, of being able to convey all my emotions without fucking speaking a word, that's a challenge – something I would like to fucking rise to.” So I applaud them. It's easy for me to talk myself into it. I was bored and stoned, so I was like, “This will be amazing!” I just needed to keep stoned long enough so that I never was like, “Walrus movie?!” And then pull the plug on it all. So it was the actors. It was them going “Well, this is your trip, but I think I can fucking bring something to the party.” And all of them did, every one of those actors came and played it as straight as if we were making Argo or something like that. Never once tipping the hat to, like, “This is a stupid walrus movie.” And because of that, it kind of sails on those very strong performances, brave performances.
You were bold, too: One thing I noticed was it had all these Kevin Smith sort of things, things we love and enjoy about your work, but you also took it seriously overall. There's genuine atmosphere, more cinematic qualities than you’re usually given credit for …
That's age. That's what comes of just doing the job for two decades, but luckily – or unluckily – I ran out of personal shit to say. I stripped my personal life for the early movies, so I don't have [anything new]. I used to work in a convenience store, so I made Clerks. I used to hang out at the mall, so I made Mallrats. Chasing Amy is kind of about me and this girl. So at that point, you've got like 20 years of experience in knowing how to doing the job. Maybe not well, but well enough to mount an entire production, but you don't have the same anima that you used to have that made you go in the beginning. Like, the only way I knew how to do this job was to be like, “Clerks is right from my heart.” I was the guy. I worked in a convenience store up until the movie got picked up. I was still working in a convenience store, so when people would be like, “This fucking sucks,” I'd be like, “Fuck you, because you're talking about me!”
It's not as simple as, you spend a day with [David] Fincher, you'd be like, “Gone Girl blows,’ he'd be like, “Right on – I got paid either way.” He's happy because he made his art, and if you like it, great; if not, no. Me, I was always playing it so personal and stuff, so I ran out of personal shit to say. Just at the time, right about now, where I'm like, “Well, I've got the ability to tell a story, but nothing I want to pull from my heart.” I could do all the personal stuff on the podcast – it's probably better served there because it's free. If people want to follow it, they can, not go to a movie on a Friday night and watch a guy try to figure out whether a girl loves him or not and shit like that. Maybe I can reserve movies for the second stage of my career to just be movies, escape journeys, weirdness, shit that I grew up, like, loving watching. I didn't watch movies like Clerks and Chasing Amy. I found that when I was 21. When I was a kid, it was fucking From Beyond and Re-Animator. It was David Lynch, David Cronenberg, shit that I would watch on cable, early video and stuff. So years after having nothing personal to say – because what would I say? I'm happily married, and I've got a kid and everything worked out. Happy people don't make good art – or interesting art, at the very least -- unless you make shit up. And so I thought about it. I was like, “Man, David Cronenberg – his movies aren't personal.” It's not like, “This happened to me.” He makes shit up.
We assume …
Well, if he doesn’t, holy fuck! Same thing with, like, George Lucas. He didn't go to school thinking “Wookiees!” He just made up a Wookiee and suddenly it existed. So I was like, “All right – I've got the ability to tell a story. Now, let me try to tell fucking made-up story, but of the same kind of ilk that I loved when I was a kid, just scary movies.” When we got cable in the early ‘80s, man, like suddenly the notion of watching movies not on the ABC Sunday Movie, cut to shreds – you could literally sit there and watch Friday the 13th, and you're fucking home. You could watch it and, two hours later, probably watch it again, over and over, throughout the night. And all these movies that I never would have seen in a million years, like Re-Animator and From Beyond, all the Rubber movies. Of course, I would have seen American Werewolf in London, but that's a movie that informs this movie in a big, bad way. I watched that repeatedly on cable because that was a huge hit. When I was a kid, that movie was, like, sheer terror, and I don't mean in the way that people talk about other movies: “Oh, that's scary.” That movie did some stark, fucking horrible imagery. Remember those Nazi wolves that cut that family's throat? That shit's fucked up for a 9-year-old! I had a family! It was like, “Ahhhh!” So that shit would happen, or the transformation or the fucking hunt, but then he would put in a scene that was funny. Like, not just like funny for a horror movie that lets the tension out – like, this is hysterical.
So I loved that formula of “Scare the fuck out of them and then fucking make them laugh,” because those buttons are very close. Man, you can fucking make somebody giggle. You can make somebody gasp. They're very, very similar. So John Landis and American Werewolf was kind of a spirit animal for me on this flick because that was the tone that I went for -- that wonderful mix of utter macabre and, like, a bunch of good-time humor where you're like, fuck, what a fun night that was. Because you've got to go to sleep as a 9-year-old, and think about fucking what I saw, those Nazis cutting up those fucking people's throats. But then my cousin Johnny would be like, “Remember when that one dead dude picked up the Mickey Mouse doll?” And you're like, [smiles] “Yeah.” You're not as scared anymore.
Tell me about working with Johnny Depp – a great actor and a great movie star. You let this eccentric character Guy LaPointe kind of go in this loopy direction, and the two of you might have ended up with your own Clouseau.
Yeah. I've known him for like a decade through the kids. The kids go to school with each other. And a lovely human being – we talk about movies, but we never go like, “We should work together,” because he works in a way different stratosphere than I do on stuff. But such a nice human being – he's just a really good guy. So when I was done writing this – I'd written the Guy LaPointe part on an earlier podcast. We did an episode where we introduced the character of Guy LaPointe, and so I put him in Tusk. When I was done, I was like, “All right, who would be the absolute best?” I was, like, if this don't work, I was never going to be upset. I was like, “Why would it work? Fucking walrus movie!” And so I pushed a little whimsy. So I just looked at Guy LaPointe when I was done with the script, and I was like, “All right – fuck everything else. Scrape away the money, business – scrape it all away. Who would be the best actor for this role?” And I was like, “Depp would crush this. He would crush the fake Montreal, Quebec accent. All this would be fucking amazing.”
So I've known him through the kids, and I texted him. I was like, “Dude – hi. You know, I never wanted to be this guy, but I'm going to be this guy, man.” And I said, “I'm making a movie, and boy, there's a part you'd be great at.” And so I said, “Before you fucking turn your phone of, here's the blog that I wrote about it” – because I had just written about it – “I'm going to make this walrus picture. I'm going to move forward.” So he read it, and after I started explaining while I was reading in text, I was like, “There's this guy, Michael Parks, who was in Red State …” And I always felt like the way I released Red State that he got fucked out of the attention he was due. I was creating such a circus atmosphere. Some people hated my guts. They reflected it in their feelings on Michael. He should have gotten – he won an award, but he should have gotten a lot more. His performance was really great. So I was like, “I want to showcase this guy. He's 73. Man, I want to shine a light on him. He's fucking amazing. He's Acting Yoda and shit. So that's what this movie Tusk is kind of about.” And Johnny wrote back, “I love Michael Parks!It's going to happen!” And so we shot 15 days in North Carolina, and then three months later, we shot two days in California with Johnny. All the Johnny stuff is two days. He's just that good a fucking performer. We blew through like 30 pages of dialogue in two days. Now, he's sitting in one place, so you're not doing a lot of camera movement and stuff, but my lord, it was fun. That's the thing. He came to set – your job's easy. You don't direct that day because you just make sure, like zoom, focus. Here we go. There's nothing to do. He's a genius. He does it all. So he brought like a performance that – our budget was under $3 million – it was like, $2.7, $2.8 movie. Everyone got scale. This was a guy who gave us the same performance he'd give a $20 million, $25 million dollar movie where he was getting paid $20 million bucks. A $100 million performance in a fucking under-budget movie about a guy who turns another guy into a walrus. And so he came to play, and he had such a good time. So much so that he lent us his daughter, and we put her in the movie. And that spawned the movie that we're all working on now.
So I mean, it's crazy, the whole project was chasing whimsy, but I remember sitting there trying to text him and being like, “Don't be that guy. Everyone does this to him.” But I was like, “You know what, man? He'll say no. If he wants to say no, he's such a class act, he'll say no in a way that makes you think, he could have done it, but he just can't because of his schedule.” So I was like “You'll be able to see him again in public. It won't be weird and shit like that. I'm sure he gets asked all the time.” So I felt like, all right. fucking based on that, let me just go for it. Let me just chase the whimsy because he would love this, I think. And sure enough, when he read it, he fell in love with Guy LaPointe so he called me right away. He was like, “I've always wanted to do a French Canadian accent – I have an internal dimmer, and I can dial it up or as low as you want!” And I said “Dial it to comedic.” And he was like, “Gotcha.” So we set cameras on him, and off he went. And it was the least amount of directing I've ever done in my life. Like after he was done with the take, I'd go over and be like “Holy fuck!” And then just go back to the monitor. Like, what do you say other than that? It was just astounding. So he had a good time doing it, and we had the scene in the movie with the girls – Harley is mine, Lily-Rose is his – and at the end of that scene, he was like, “This was awesome, man!” He was like, “We should just retire and let the girls work for us!” And I was like, one of us has an island. I won't be retiring any time soon. But I love the idea of working with the girls. It was honestly, the best two hours of my life I ever spent on a movie set, and I've been on a few. But I was, like, with my kid, and I'm standing next to, like, the greatest actor of his generation and he was like in a big rubber nose and doing a funny French accent –and it's like in the middle of this walrus movie and shit! And there are kids who I've seen since they were kids grow up and they're in front of the camera. So for me, I was like, man. I would love to prolong this experience. It was only like two hours. That was fucking short.
And that's where Yoga Hosers came from. I hit him up. First, I hit up Vanessa [Paradis], Lily-Rose's mom, and was like, “Do you mind if I write a whole movie for the girls?” And she's like, “You cannot do that.” And I said, “Yeah, I can do anything. I'm a stoner.” And she was like, “If you want to, go ahead.” And I did, and she liked it. And then I hit him up. I was like, “Dude, I don't know how else to say this, but I think I got a way for you to play Guy LaPointe again.” And he loved playing Guy LaPointe, so he was like, “Oh, I'm in. I'm in!” So we were off and running on Yoga Hosers. And it's been lovely, man. Again, you try not to think about this man is an icon, the greatest ever. Like, if they did a fucking Mount Rushmore of actors, his face would fucking be up there and shit. And all you see is the guy who just loves character acting. He shows up, and he kind of buries himself and goes nuts. And because of that, it takes a weird movie where you're like, “Oh, my God!” At one point, we saw the Apple Guy as a walrus, and suddenly, it adds this layer of weird where you're like, “It's not weird – his performance is stellar,” but you're like, “It's weird that he's even in this.” That's what Scott Mosier [Smith’s producer and podcasting partner] said to me: “Dude, this movie is full of weird things, but the weirdest thing of all is that that man is in the movie to begin with.” I was like, “I know! It's just one more layer of weird!”
Let’s quickly wrap with what's next on your plate, comic book-wise?
Comic-wise, we're still doing the Batman/Green Hornet miniseries …
Which has been terrific.
And Ralph [Garman, Smith’s co-writer] deserves all the credit for that. That's his fucking baby. But then after that, I finish Batman: Bellicosity pretty soon -- although we've been talking to the folks at Dynamite about doing Tusk universe comics, because I can pre-tell Howard Howe's stories. That would be fun!