Interview: Kevin Smith and Zack and Miri

When I first interviewed Kevin Smith a few years ago, during his press tour for Jersey Girl, I apparently caught him on a bad day. He was tired, distracted, stretched out on a hotel couch and chain smoking with an oblivious reflex. You don’t really expect a connection when you interview a filmmaker or a screenwriter or an actor – it’s usually just another in a long, long line of obligatory promotional obligations for the artist. The best you can hope for is to interest them with a challenging question or a perceptive remark. I can’t say I came through with either when Smith came back through Seattle to promote Zack and Miri Make a Porno, but he was far more engaged in this return engagement interview. It was like kicking back with a guy you just met at a party, relaxed and laid back and without pressure. And he certainly didn’t edit himself for print. His language is what you might call colorful, dotted so offhandedly and naturally with George Carlin’s seven dirty words that you hardly notice it. Until you start transcribing. I published an abbreviated version for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and scrubbed much of that language out of the piece. It’s intact in this full version of the interview, which was conducted a couple of weeks before the release of Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

Did you go to your tenth annual high school reunion?

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks cast their porno
Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks cast their porno

We didn’t have a tenth but I went to my fifteenth and just this summer they had a twentieth and I went to my twentieth, which they held on a boat. A three-hour tour, kind of like Gilligan’s Island, so that was a little nerve wracking. And it’s the kind of thing where you can’t get off the boat. If you’re like, “This sucks, I want to go home,” you’re stuck, you’re on the boat. Thankfully, it was kind of cool. I didn’t have any adversarial relationships in high school, there was nobody that I was like, “I can’t wait to see this motherfucker and tell him what an idiot he is.” I’m pretty cool with everybody and I stayed in Jersey for years after Clerks so I saw a lot of these people anyway, mostly every month.

So your reunion experience didn’t inspire you to make your own home porno.

No, it didn’t push me over the top. I had the other career going on. I mean, I can never really think about porn in regards to myself because I would just never want to see myself in a porno.

I wonder how many people really would.

I think there are some people. Jason Mewes, I think, likes looking at himself and knows he’s sexy and can pull it off. But me… It would not only put me off having sex again, it would put me off sex in general, for others to be doing. I would go out campaigning against sex in general. Just like, “Come one, you look stupid doing it.”

Did you find your perfect alter-ego in Seth Rogen?

Very much so. Very, very much so. But then he let me down recently. I saw him two days ago, he came over to the house to record a podcast, and he lost so much weight. He’s getting ready for Green Hornet and the dude is fucking skinny now, and I’m like, “Oh no, dude. You made it okay to be fat again. Now you’re going to be all thin and we’re fucked.” So hopefully he gains it back. But performance-wise and attitude – absolutely. He has the same outlook that I have on life, comedically we’re very, very much in synch. It’s weird knowing that… He told me, often, while we were shooting, that “I got into writing because of you, because of Clerks.” And that’s weird because I’m like, “You’re so much younger than me,” but at the same time, he’s very instinctual about the craft. The dude is born to tell cinematic stories, he’s just very, very good at it, and you forget sometimes that he’s just 25. Like he doesn’t have the experience or the years that you put in but man, he’s right there, and we kind of shared a symbiotic mind while we were shooting the movie. It was creepy. For a dude who I’d just met months prior, we worked very well together.

I think of Rogen as part of the Judd Apatow extended family and I noticed that you also had a couple of other folks who have been part of the Apatow crew, like Elizabeth Banks.

"I would love to have pretend sex with her."
Elizabeth Banks: "I would love to have pretend sex with her"

Banks was in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin as well and Craig Robinson was in Knocked Up and The Pineapple Express. That all came from Seth. Seth’s the kind of guy that doesn’t just do a movie, act in it and collect a check and go home. He’s all about the movie and how do we make it better and how do we make it rock and how do we make it last beyond its theatrical release. How do you make it an instant classic? So he always has ideas and he’s always thinking and one of the things he was always thinking about was cast, about finding the right people. Originally I’d written it for Rosario Dawson to play Miri, because we had just worked together on Clerks II and she was so great, but we wound up moving our start date. It was supposed to be November, we moved to January, and we lost her because she was shooting Eagle Eye at that point. So I was kind of crestfallen and scared, because I’m like, “Who else is possibly going to do this movie?” Rosario I knew we could get because she’d been in a movie with a donkey show in it, and so it was like, as outrageous as that was, this will be tame in comparison so I think she’ll say yes. But when she was booked into the other thing, I was like, “We are never going to find an actress willing to do this.” So we combed through the agency listings to see who was available from January to March, came up with that list and then whittled the list down to actresses who might possibly say yes to reading the script, and Banks, alphabetically, was at the top of the list of six names. So Rogen comes over to the house and we’re talking about the movie and I pass him the list. I say, “Here are our potential Miris,” and before I even finish the dude launches about Elizabeth Banks. He was just like, “You have no idea how much I love Banks.” He was going, “She was just so great in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, she got really far in the Knocked-Up auditions, she was almost in Knocked-Up. She’s a great actress, a wonderful comedienne, I would love to have pretend sex with her.” So boom, I met her and we were off and running.

Elizabeth Banks is in a growing group of actresses who are both beautiful and funny. Back in the thirties, that made them stars, but today the film industry doesn’t really know what to do with them. Why do you think producers and directors, with some exceptions – like you and Judd Apatow – have such a hard time creating roles for actresses who are both beautiful and funny?

When people talk about her, they will list every other attribute before her beauty: she’s a great actress, she’s really funny, and she’s very easy to look at. So it’s kind of nice and I think it speaks volumes about her as an actress if the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about her is her performance work. So don’t I understand. Now she seems like the best kept secret in the business but I think this month the secret’s out because W. comes out this week and she’s playing Laura Bush, a very high-profile role. You got her as the co-lead of a movie where she’s listed in the title, Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Then Role Models comes out the week after that, she’s got this other horror movie [The Uninvited] that comes out in a month or two months from now. So I think this is Elizabeth Banks’ year, particularly this corridor of this season. I’m not a sports guy but I like sports movies and she was in Invincible with Mark Wahlberg. She popped in a big, bad way for me, where you fall in love with here a little bit watching the movie. Even in Seabiscuit she really shines. In a movie primarily about Spider-Man and a fucking horse, she really shines in that movie as well. So she’s always been this fantastic performance Ninja who comes in, whips a little science at you and moves on. And now I think people are going to recognize not just the face but the name and be able to call her out by name.

Why move from New Jersey to Pittsburg for Zack and Miri?

We were done with the View Askewniverse movies, the ones that interconnected with Jay and Silent Bob, and it just felt like now was as good a time as any to step outside of Jersey. I also felt like Jersey, I could conceive of making porn in Jersey, I’ve seen it done, Mewes made a few homemade porn tapes in Jersey, so it didn’t seem like that big a stretch. I really wanted to go someplace that seemed like the last place in the world people would ever think about, not just taking their clothes off but actually shooting it as well, and that wound up as Pittsburg. Pittsburg has that western Pennsylvania steel town feel to it where you don’t get a read about sex at all. When you go to Pittsburg, there are two things that are very, very prominent: the Steelers and the Penguins. Everything else is way, way secondary. You don’t even so much in the way of adult shops in Pittsburg, it’s just they’re not preoccupied with sex there. And so I thought that this would be a good place to actually set it up because it seems like a very improbable location for the flick.

So what kind of research do you as a writer/director do to make a film about guys making porn?

You start at age 11 or 12, do a lot of years of it, you know. (laughs) Unintentionally you’re researching it the whole time. For me, it was always going to be easier because it’s not set in the porn industry. Paul Thomas Anderson did such a good job with Boogie Nights, you don’t want to even try to touch that because it’s been done so well. But the DIY world of porn, I felt like, this is fodder, this is definitely a place that hasn’t been that overexplored just yet. But really, you scrape away the porno aspects of it, it’s more informed by the making of Clerks. It’s about a bunch of people who don’t know shit about making a movie getting together to make a movie. Their movie just happens to be a skin flick. So I wound up borrowing from my real like experience more for this movie than I thought I would have, being that I never made a porn but I have made a first-time film, so I kind of married the two sensibilities.

For what’s it’s worth, the community that is created around the film reminds me of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.

You can definitely see shades of Ed Wood in there, you can see shades of Bowfinger, you can see shades of anytime a disenfranchised bunch of Wack Packers get to together to do something. So that is a great allusion, that makes me feel good, because it feels like we communicated that. The movie is called Zack and Miri Make a Porno but they don’t do it by themselves, they’ve got this wonderful supporting cast and I’m glad they rang through.

It’s really so much about the way these people start to care for and look after each other. The last thing you would think about a group making a porno is that they would want to hang out together after the shoot because they really enjoy each other’s company.

"Look at me, I've got to take it where I can get it, for heaven's sake."
Kevin Smith (at the "Superbad" premiere): "Look at me, I've got to take it where I can get it, for heaven's sake"

That was the thing that always interested me about porn, and it’s really one of my favorite subjects in the world: the difference between fucking and making love. When you watch porn, you’re watching two people – or three, or four – doing this insanely intimate act that you never normally get to see in the real world, and then when they yell “Cut,” most of those cats just go about their business and there is no intense, emotional, personal connection between them. And I’ve always thought that was weird because I know me. I’ve never had a one-night stand. I tried once and then I married the chick. So I’ve never been able to be the guy who does it with somebody once and moves on. Because look at me, I’ve got to take it where I can get it, for heaven’s sake. So I’ve never been able to get my head around the thought process of one-time-only sex or sex without the emotional connection, so I wanted to explore that a bit in the movie and start with this premise of two people who are like, ‘Okay, we’ll so this and sex ain’t no big thing to us,’ and then it changes things.

Katy Morgan, the real-life porn veteran you cast in a substantial supporting role, is really funny.

Yeah, shouldn’t she work a lot more? I watched her, when we were putting the movie together, and I was like, “Fuck, I think Katy will wind up getting work out of this.” She comes across like a Judy Holliday with massive boobs, you know, who’s not afraid to show them, either. And I asked her at one point, I said, “Katy, it’s conceivable that you could get a lot of mainstream work out of this. Would you then just quit the adult film industry?” And she was like, “I would like to be the actress who does both forever.” I was like, “Really?” She’s like, “Yeah. I like sex and I like doing porn. Porn didn’t find me, I sought out porn and I just kind of like it. But it would be nice to augment it with the mainstream thing.” Which she kind of does right now. Katy Morgan hosts this series of sex specials on HBO and it’s very bizarre because she sits on this stool completely naked and hosts the thing, but she’s so charming and effervescent that you kind of forget about the whole nudity thing. So she’s definitely had a bit of mainstream attention from those shows, but still, it’s late night HBO. I’m kind of hoping off of this that she gets cast as the friend in a bunch of stuff. Or why not the lead? Because she’s bubbly, she can do it, she’s funny. I found her on a YouTube clip that wasn’t a sex clip, it was everything that led up to the sex, it was the performance part, and she was acting with a dude who wasn’t very good but she was stellar. I’m sitting there going, “This chick’s not even just good for a porn actress, she’s just funny.”

Are you trying to tell me that you watched a porno for the acting?

I did! (laughs) That moment, it was the only time in my life where I was like, I gotta research some performance. Because Seth had the idea, when he read the script, was like, “I think we should cast porn stars in roles like Stacey and Bubbles, because they don’t have heavy, heavy lifting to do. So even if their performances aren’t as good as everyone else’s, it don’t matter, it’s just going to be easier when you need them to take their clothes off, because chances are, anything you ask them to do, the most outrageous thing you ask them to do, is going to be tame compared to what they normally do.” So I was like, “That’s sound philosophy.” So I started looking at porn actresses for the performance side of it, because they can all perform the sex and it’s very convincing, but doing dialogue? That was the tricky thing. I watched a lot of clips, I suddenly found myself buying porn online to watch the lead-up to the sex. Normally I’m all about the 15-second mpeg of the connection and money shot. So here I am watching performance and Katie’s not like an insanely well known adult film star but she definitely has a following. I saw her name come up a few times and one link led me to this YouTube clip where I’m watching her act. And I was like, “Thank God I watched it because she’s really good.” We auditioned a few adult film actresses that couldn’t pull off the dialogue, any dialogue at all, and if they were adlibbing, it immediately went to an insanely dirty place. They could do that but not carry a scene.

Did having two veterans of adults films in the cast help you in setting the right tone when filming a scene?

Yes and no. [Traci] Lords, I love Lords to death, but Lords and porn don’t mix anymore. She hasn’t made a porn in twenty years and she spent the last twenty years trying to live it down, doing any number of other things. So much so that we never thought she’d say yes to this because it had porno in the title. But she loves Seth and I guess she liked Clerks and she read the script and dug it and she was like, “Look, I’ve tried to keep this shit at a distance for twenty years, I’ve been trying to escape it. It’s clear I’m not going to escape it, so maybe I should just embrace it and make fun of it.” I was like, “Yes, please do it, and please do it in this movie.” But Traci couldn’t tell me anything about making an adult film. It’s all a blur, it all happened two decades ago. Katie still works in it and so Katie was insanely useful. When it came time to shoot her sequence with Mewes, the first porno we shoot, Katie knew how to shoot it in such a way that we disguise the fact that they’re not actually having sex. She was just like, “Whenever we shoot my porn stuff, we’ve got one camera that covers it for a porn and one camera that covers it for, like, the hotels that don’t run hard X-rated stuff.” So she’s used to being able to play to camera and hide the fact that penetration is going on. So that was great. And just having a sit down with actors and go through that scene with any two actors other than Katie and Jason Mewes might have been difficult, it would be like, “Okay, you’re going to do three positions here, come around here, and you’ll be naked the whole time.” Doing it with these two cats, it was so easy. They almost looked at me like, “That’s it? Don’t you want more? Don’t you want to be more outrageous than that?” I was like, “I’ll be fine with this.” So you have one person who spends most of her professional time having sex and you have one guy who sprang forth from the womb pretending to fuck everything in the room. So it was a great combination, it really informs that scene in a big way.

Was she able to bring some of her own comic stories from the sets of different shoots that you were able to add or adapt to your script?

No, but she was able to confirm shit left and right. When we got to the egregious bodily fluid shot later in the movie, the “shit shot” as we call it, I was like, “Katie, true or not true?” She’s like, “It happens. Maybe not to that degree, but it totally happens.” I was like, “All right.”

I’m not the kind of interviewer who asks ‘Where do you get your ideas?,’ but I do want to know: did you and Seth and whoever just get together and start lobbing ideas back and forth to come up with the porn names in that montage where they try to come up with a title?

No, but we wound up cutting so much, we had so many. There were a bunch in the script and then everyone else was just coming up with their own on the day. So ultimately that sequence, where they’re trying to come up with the title, was about three times as long as it is now. I kept coming back to them coming up with titles, so I shaved a bunch out. But yeah, I would say that was very much a collaborative effort. The one I’m proudest of is Lawrence of Alabia.

Is that something you did back in your clerking days? I did years in a video store and recall many porn pun titles.

You didn’t even have to do it back then. Back in those days they did it for you. We have the whole ‘take a movie title and porn it’ like Edward Penishands because that existed.

We had that one in my store.

Yeah, totally, my store as well. Indiana Bone was a real feature at one point.

Saving Ryan’s Privates.

Yes, absolutely. So it existed, but I don’t know if it exists so much anymore because I don’t know if anyone goes out and actually buys porn anymore because they can watch 15 second mpeg clips online. So I don’t know if people are as familiar with it but that started as a real practice. The porn industry would just take a title and porn it. So I think those jokes work because people remember that, recognize that.

What is it that Americans find so funny about foul, outrageously filthy language coming out of people’s mouths in a movie?

I think it’s just because most people don’t do it, wouldn’t do it publicly or do it just with their friends, and maybe don’t even do that. So hearing people say what is supposedly taboo, particularly if you set it up in a funny fashion, allows people to feel a little naughty while they’re laughing. They get that laughter of like, “Ho ho ho, I hope my mother’s not watching me laugh at this.” I don’t know but thank God that exists. Otherwise I would not have career. I’ve built a career on being able to say things that make people laugh that they would never normally say themselves and if it was a completely candid society, the movie wouldn’t even register with people. So thankfully that exists.