Sitting down with writer-director Kevin Smith is always a treat. Since he first burst on to the scene with 1994’s Clerks, Smith has cemented himself as one of fandom’s favorite sons. While some of his films are divisive, they’re always provocative and nowhere was that more evident than in this fall’s Tusk. Inspired by an episode of his long-running podcast, SModcast, Tusk is a harrowing journey into full-on body horror that finds arrogant podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) held captive by a silver-tongued madman (Michael Parks) in the backwoods of Canada and forcibly, surgically transformed into a walrus. If it sounds deeply disturbing, it is, but it also feels like a turning point in Smith’s directorial career.
Now, Tusk is making its way to home video release (it’s already available for digital download), so I caught up with Smith over the phone. You can never be sure of the tenor of the conversation or where its many peaks and valleys will take you, but you can be guaranteed that it will be unexpected, enlightening, and a damn good time. Oh, and it will be long too. To be fair, Smith warned me when we started the answer that he “can’t guarantee anything informative, but [he] can guarantee the answers will be insanely fucking long.” But that’s half the fun.
Nerdist: Tusk was existentially distressing to me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Now that it’s coming to home video, are there things that have been added into a director’s cut?
Kevin Smith: No. I mean, what we’ve got is sweet – I even saw it streaming in a few places, but Lionsgate is probably the last bastion of powerful, packed home video. Most people have kind of given up on bonus value content and DVDs and Blu-rays and stuff, and that was the shit that most people learned how to make movies from, when I was a kid. Folks who had early laser discs – I meet so many film school kids now, and kids who are actually having careers, who learned how to make their craft based on watching all of the bonus features on The Lord of the Rings DVDs.
So not many companies do that much anymore and nobody does it nearly as well as Lionsgate. They treat it like they’re almost Criterion good. They will pack a fucking disc full of shit. So anything you ever wanted to know is contained on that DVD. They went deep, man. We included cut scenes. I didn’t reinstate anything into the movie. I like to let the theatrical cut be the final cut. But I included two scenes – one’s like five minutes long, where Hal and Wallace talk about the Halifax explosion, when Wallace first gets to Hal’s mansion.
And then there’s another sequence – it’s not so much a cut scene, but it’s an alternate take on Hal’s speech, if we had used animation. We were like, “This is a lot for Parks to have to memorize, and we’re going to be holding up one person for four minutes, telling this story. Let’s help him out.” So we had all of this animation standing by, but he crushed it on camera, so we were like, “You know what? There’s no need for animation.” So we included it on the Blu-ray and DVD.
Then they got a bunch of making-of’s, which we were working on while we were shooting the flick, and Mewes was kind of the host of them all.. They cut them into a bunch of really cool features behind the scenes, so you get to see how we made the whole thing.
And then there’s a documentary – I mean, it’s barely a documentary, it’s, like, an interview with me, and we go over my entire career and stuff. It’s got the original podcast on there. So it’s a packed fucking Blu-ray, and it’s nice, because I look at it, and it warms my fucking heart. There it is, man.
I love the movie. It’s so strange. It represents to me a kind of closing of the circle between the guy that started the filmmaking journey and who I am right now. This is the movie I wish I could have made when I was a kid, but I didn’t have enough ability to do it. Now I have enough ability to do it. It’s not the movie you’re supposed to make late in your career. It’s kind of like my experimental film that I would have made in college if I had had that period, so, you know, it’s a blast doing it right now, and I just wanted to make sure we included everything we possibly could for anyone who gave a fuck about this movie. Or people who might find it decades from now and go “Why the fuck did this exist?” There’s an explanation of why Tusk exists.
N: That’s nice that it’s a very definitive edition. And as you mentioned, good things take time. If it’s the film you wanted to make earlier, better late than never. I’m glad you brought up Michael Parks, because he was far and away – he was incredible in this film, and I was pleased to see that he was going to be in your next Canada-set film, Yoga Hosers.`
KS: We shot that movie the same way we shot Tusk, in pieces. We shot Tusk for 15 or 17 days – 15 days in North Carolina, the majority of the movie, and then we spent, 3 months later, 2 days in Los Angeles shooting all the Guy Lapointe [Johnny Depp] stuff. So I had time to put the movie together, then kind of build the Guy Lapointe unit, then head back in and kind of shoot it like this weird little short film.
And so same thing on Yoga Hosers. We’ve shot three-quarters of the movie, and we’ve got a quarter of the movie left to shoot, and we finish right after Christmas, we start shooting. So we go right after Christmas, we break for New Year’s, and then we finish right after New Year’s. We’ve got, like, about six days of shooting, and it’s all the Parks’ stuff. So all the stuff with Johnny Depp, but all the Parks stuff. He plays it with an accent this time – I don’t want to give too much away, but he’s delightful. He came over to the house not too long ago and dropped some of the dialogue in the accent, and oh! It’s killer, man!
This has been so fun for me, making movies with that guy. I remember watching From Dusk Til Dawn, at the screening at the Laemmle that Bob Weinstein set up before the movie came out, and I’d never seen Michael Parks in anything before. It was like that moment they show you in movies where somebody sees somebody from afar, and they fuckin’ lock eyes and fall in love. I couldn’t believe this man existed. I was like, “That’s not even acting! That’s something else. That guy is for real – he exists. That’s no longer a character part.”
And so I become obsessed with him. That was in ’95, but I never made anything that really I could put him in. I couldn’t be like, “Hey, man, you want to play Silent Bob’s grandpa?” I mean, he was a real actor and shit, and I didn’t really have anything for him. It took me years – 15 years later, I think it was, when I was like, “Oh, shit, man! Wouldn’t it be great if I could put him in Red State now? Red State is like a Fred Phelps-ish fucking type of character. He would crush that.” So that gave me the ability to work with him for the first time.
And then now, with Tusk, we got to go even deeper, and that was so fun to watch him kind of delve into character; to watch him kind of warm up to Justin over the course of the first week; to watch that guy work – I remember as I watched From Dusk Til Dawn all those years back, I said to Scott Mosier right after the movie, “That guy in the beginning – what an amazing acting Yoda! Can you imagine what you would learn working with that dude?” And it took me a few years to get to it, but I got to it.
And also Michael Parks gave me the gift of Johnny Depp as well. You know what I’m saying? It was because he loved Parks that he was like, “Oh, let me jump in.” And so that, to me, is like no clearer sign than keep Parks involved in everything you do. I’m going to try to get him into Clerks 3 if I fucking can, believe me!
But being on set with him is crazy. If you’re an actor, if you’re a fan of acting, watching him fucking take the dialogue and just make it seems real – and dude, I write this shit! So it’s like I’m there, knowing what he’s about to say, and still he finds a way to deliver it where you feel like he’s just saying it off the top of his head. He’s absolute brilliance.
N: He has that magnetism, and you’re drawn to him automatically. That definitely came through in Tusk. But I wanted to talk a little more about Yoga Hosers in particular. Obviously there’s a sense of connectivity, because we met the two titular characters in Tusk. Tell me a little bit about the film.
KS: In the beginning, we called it “Tusk for tweens.” The first draft was very much like Tusk. It was R-rated and shit. Not hard R-rated, but everybody cursed their fool heads off and whatnot, and it was very bloody and gory. And then I realized that as we got closer to direction, it was like, “Well, the movie is about two 15 year old girls. Who the fuck is going to see this movie if it’s rated R? We’re kind of blocking the core audience.”
So then I was like, “All right, man. Do the thing you never imagined you would ever do. Make a movie for teenage girls.” So that became kind of the fun of Yoga Hosers. Like, all right, make the movie for teenage girls that you desperately wanted to see back when you were a teenage girl, which is how I look at myself anyway.
So that’s kind of what Yoga Hosers is. We take the two girl characters from the convenience store in Tusk and spin them off into their own feature, and Guy Lapointe, the character, comes back, played by Johnny Depp. I guess the best way, to use the old Hollywood parlance of “It’s ‘this’ meets ‘this’,” Yoga Hosers is Clueless meets Gremlins, or something like that. It’s a weird, trippy movie, but it’s adorable at the same time.
N: What was it like directing your daughter and Johnny Depp’s daughter?
KS: There are moments where it’s like, “OK, yeah, that take was good. Do the exact same things you did, I just want one different line reading on this moment here,” and she’s like, “OK,” and she walks away and goes to act, and your mind is blown because you’re like, “I’m talking to something that came out of my balls! Now she’s on a set saying my dialogue.” And then you get past that pretty quickly, because I’ve grown up with her, actually, as her father, so I’m used to her.
I’m over the stage of “You came out of my balls” anywhere else in life, but on a movie set, that was weird, because that was worlds colliding. And not just like – we’ve always put Harley in every flick I did when I was younger, when she was a kid, any flick we could, because we were like it’s this nice little family snapshot of the kid growing up. But she was never into acting, didn’t talk about wanting to be an actress or anything like that, so it was never like “One day, we’re going to work together.” And then suddenly, there we are, working together.
And you know, I’ll be honest with you – it’s like, fuck everything else. I’m not just saying it as a parent, but naturally it’s very colored by being a parent, but like, there’s no more satisfying experience than being on a set, making a movie with your kid. It’s incredibly fun, and she’s the perfect age. Most 15 year olds might be like, “Fuck you, dad,” but this one’s kind of easy. She knows we’re on a movie set, you can’t really say “Fuck you, dad,” because I’m the director, so it’s been cool making a movie with her dad.
That was unexpected and fun, and there was a moment, man, where I like to think I’m the hero of my own fucking story at all times – as we all should be! – and in 20 years, I went from some place where nobody ever talked about making movies to here, being me and shit. I feel like my own Horatio Alger or whatever the fuck, as we all should of our own stories. And you know, one day I was directing the kid on set, and she came over to the monitor and stuff – that’s how I direct.
And then I realized – I had this fucking stunning kind of realization as she went and started her take – I’m not the hero of this fucking story, am I? All of this, my entire career up until now, building something, going “I made all those movies,” and all that shit was just the trailer, the precursor to this moment, where I could stand on set across from my 15 year old kid and communicate something, this dopey, make-pretend thought, and she goes off and does it, and we get one step closer to a finished movie, and that kid is my kid. It’s a weird relationship, and one that you don’t normally do.
It was a version of make-pretend, so I’d practiced with her years before, and I’d practiced making films all the way to this point just so I could stand there and not crumble in the face of a 15 year old who’s, like, “Tell me what to do.” I could stand there and be like, “You know what would be funny? Say this, or do this.” And so at that moment I realized – I love Game of Thrones – I realized that I wasn’t Arya.
There’s that scene where Arya is being trained by the fucking dude with the wooden sword, who’s like, “I’ve trained everyone in Braavos” and shit like that, and they’re like, “This dude’s the man,” and then all of a sudden all of these fucking knights come in and take him out, and he’s like, “Run, kid,” and she fucking runs, and he stays behind with his wooden stick, and you realize that motherfucker is getting killed, and that’s it. You never see him again, and the rest of the time we’re with Arya.
I had that moment on my own set where I was like, “I’m the dude with the wooden stick! She’s Arya. God damn it! This has all been about her. It’s not really about me.” So it was kind of nice. As an artist, or a would-be artist, you spend a lot of time with your head up your own ass, chasing your own dreams. So it was really nice to be on a set with somebody where I was able to be like, “Hey, what are your fucking dreams? You’re about to get your journey started.” I mean, having two kids who I thought I would be working, like, marionettes, because they haven’t done much filming before. Other than Tusk, they hadn’t really done anything.
I wrote the movie based on the performance level they gave in Tusk, so I was like, they should be able to pull it off. But when we got to set, by the end of the first day, they were making their own choices, and they delivering. It wasn’t two kids sitting there going, “I-am-going-to-the-store,” they were acting, they were emoting, and that’s what acting is. Acting is just choices. An actor makes a choice, the way to deliver something, or actress, of course, and that choice defines that performance. They were doing that.
On the second day, I pulled them aside, and I was like, “Is there some adult counseling you behind my back, because you guys are making choices – I’m not telling you what to do. You’re actually making some really fucking insightful choices, making this dialogue sound believable.” They were like, “No.” I was like, “Well, what is it?” They were like, “I don’t know. TV? We watch a lot of TV growing up.” I was like, “I guess.” I guess if you just watch a lot of performance, and this generation has the ability to rewatch something a gazillion times over, watch the entire run of a show and then watch their favorite highlights, and watch them study performance, like no generation before.
N: Do you think that is changing the way young actors and filmmakers approach their craft?
KS: You’ve got to remember, back when I was a kid, if you wanted to see Jaws, you saw it in the movie theater. And then you waited about two years for it, maybe, to come on television. This was before fucking cable. So these kids have access to watching performances over and over again, and maybe that helps or whatever. Maybe it’s in the genes. I mean, look, with Lily Rose, it’s definitely in the genes as well! Harley, not so much, because I’m not that talented. So hers comes from inside of her, but I thought it was interesting that they both cited watching Netflix over and over, watching many episodes of Gossip Girl, episodes of Desperate Housewives.
Sure, they wouldn’t necessarily think 15 year old girls would be watching, but it’s almost like performance school, because you get to see how a bunch of different people, particularly women, perform in front of a camera. You can kind of pick and choose, and most acting starts as imitative behavior anyway. And then these girls came to set and just started running with it. The parts were kind of written to their personalities a little bit. Like they had the benefit of growing up together, so that chemistry is fun to see, and it’s kind of very natural.
But I don’t know, man. It’s been fun. In a world where I was like, “Eh, I’m not going to do this anymore,” a few years ago, this has been worth it to do it again for this alone. To be able to work with my kid, of course, especially, but also Lily Rose, because they make you want to fucking make movies again. They put all the fun back into “Let’s make pretend!” That you’re going through a film school camp experience with people who haven’t done this a gazillion times, and aren’t like “Hey, I’m doing this for two weeks before I go off and do four other people’s movies.” It was their first time at the circus, and we had such a loving crew. The way I kind of conduct stuff on set, I’m always keeping people in the loop. Every step of the way, I’m like, “This is the first time the girls have ever done anything like this – give it up!” And then the kids, everybody on set loved the kids.
So it was a really wonderful atmosphere in which to make a movie. And in that way, for years I used to make John Hughes movies that were set in the Jersey ‘burbs, and everyone cursed a lot. That’s what I thought about Clerks and Mall Rats and Chasing Amy and stuff. They’re very Hughesian, because those were the movies that I grew up on, that sustained me in my youth. But this, if anything, it doesn’t feel like a Hughesian movie. My teenagers in this movie are not typical teenagers. It feels more like Weird Science, if I had to point to a Hughes movie.
And the characters are a little more, in terms of having a personality, they’re not coming across like “Man, these are the realest teens you’ll ever see in a movie!” It’s not like watching Palo Alto, where it’s like, “Wow, these kids aren’t even acting. It seems like it’s real.” They both have a character to play. So it was kind of fun to watch on that level as well.
I don’t know. I’m gushing like a fucking parent, I’m sure. When the movie’s out, I’m sure a bunch of people will be like, “Fuck you and your kid.” But I don’t know – it’s a really insanely user-friendly movie. Like, I didn’t go into it like “Hey, you’re going to love my kid!” I knew most people would be like, “Fuck you and your kid.” So I tried to build a movie around them, where even if you were like, “Fuck you and your kid,” you liked the movie, because it’s packed with a really cool cast, and then the rubber monster in this one – we’re in the middle of a trilogy. I started this trilogy with Tusk – “True North Trilogy.” Rubber monster movies set in Canada. Tusk is part one. Yoga Hosers is part two. Moose Jaws is part three, that’s just Jaws with a moose. For each one of them, Robert Kurtzman, the guy who made our Tusk make-up, the rubber effect, he’s coming back and doing them.
And the second one, in Yoga Hosers, Jason Mewes was going to play all the monsters in the movie, but he doesn’t like to be confined. He’s got this thing about claustrophobia and stuff. He can’t be encased in rubber. And so a long time ago we knew this. We tried to have a life-cast made of him for the secret stash, for these Blunt-Man and Chronic dummies that were sitting in the Bluntmobile at the store. But Jason freaked out. They put all the rubber on him, stuck straws up his nose, and he freaked. It didn’t dry that much, and he was like, “AAAGH!” He pulled it off.
N: Oh Jesus, that sounds pretty awful.
KS: That was like a decade back. We figured he would be OK. He said “You know what? I can totally do it, man. I’m beyond that now.” We got to the green screen day for Yoga Hosers, and we were supposed to start with him in the make-up, and instantly, Robert Kurtzman puts the rubber appliance on Jason, and Jason starts pulling it off, instinctively. It was a pretty excruciating two hours on set for him – not for anybody else. We all felt bad for Jason, who is such a fixture all throughout Yoga Hosers, such a cheerleader, and we all knew, hey, at the end of this shoot, on the green screen, it’s all about Jay when he’s in the rubber make-up.
And then here were on the day, and he was like “I can’t do it.” And he was like “I feel like I’m letting you down.” I was like, “Dude, don’t worry about me! Somebody else will fucking do it. You’ve got to worry about you. You’re having a severe reaction to the idea of doing this. I don’t want to bury you in rubber. Number one, you’re not going to be able to perform. Number two, the whole time you’re going to be shaking, maybe going to hives or whatever.” His wife is one of the producers on this movie, and she was terrified for him, because she wasn’t on set when we were starting, and he called her and he was freaking out. She came to set and she was like, “I’ve never heard him like that.”
So it was like, “Dude, don’t worry about it. If you don’t do it, somebody else will do it, man.” He’s like, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, don’t worry.” And the moment it was off his shoulders, it was like a complete night-and-day change. He was like a broken man when he thought “I’m going to have to do this. I’ve said I wanted to do it all this time, and now I’m fucking trapped.” But I was like, “Don’t worry about it.” And then he got really uptight about “Well, who’s going to do it if it’s not me? This could be really tough for me to watch the movie and know that I could have done it, but I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t stand being in the make-up.”
So I said, “Dude, I will do it. The shortest route to all of this is if I do it, because then I don’t even have to communicate what I need to the performer. I know exactly what I’m looking for in the monsters in this movie, so I might as well do it.” So then he was like, “You think you can handle the make-up?” I was like, “Yeah. I walk around in 100 pounds of latex on me in the form of blubber inside my body, so I think I can handle the fucking make-up.”
So they did a full scan of me. I didn’t take my gear off. I kept my hockey jersey on, so my hockey jersey is part of the scan. But that’s how they do it now. That’s why they didn’t know Mewes was going to freak out, because he had a head scan, a 3-D head scan, and they didn’t put the make-up on him, the prosthetics, the latex, the sloppy goo that would then dry to make the positives and the negatives out of it.
Instead, he got the 3-D graph, and then we were on the green screen stage and they started putting the rubber appliance on him, he was like “Ah, I can’t hear. I feel like I’m underwater. I’m being choked.” He had some issues when he was a kid – his mom would take him to heroin dealer’s houses, and him and his sister would get locked in closets for like six hours while they went off and partied, so he’s got issues with claustrophobia.
So you know, I was like, “Don’t sweat it dude. I’ll do it.” So I got to stand and then Kurtzman put the rubber on me. That’s why I had to shave a couple of weeks ago, I put up a picture of me with my beard taken off. My mother called up and she was like, “Tiger, they’re talking about your beard on The View!” I guess it was a slow news week, but that made my mom very happy.
So I shaved off my facial hair so I could put on the rubber appliances. And so we shot for a day of green screen – I think it was October 27th – and it was so much fun! It was a long process. It took like 2 or 3 hours to put it all on, but oh! It was such a blast! And I was able to kind of move through the work quickly, because I knew what we needed. We have one more day of green screen now at the end of this other unit that we’re shooting – all the Guy Lapointe stuff, so I have to shave my beard again, go back into the rubber.
But it’s fucked up, dude. Not as fucked up as Tusk, where you’re like, “What the fuck were you thinking?” But it’s just this weird amalgam of movies. I don’t know how else to describe it except to say this is the movie I wanted to see when I was a 15 year old girl, and now I’m finally making it.
N: Well, that’s awesome. I’m glad to hear that there was that sort of meta moment of a coming-of-age story with you and your daughter behind the scenes, and I’m glad it didn’t turn into a real-life horror movie with Jason. The movie sounds fun, and I’m excited for it.
KS: It’s fun, man. Thank you. I can’t wait for people to see it.
N: I just have one last question for you, a bit of a non-sequitir, a bit of a Sophie’s choice. There are two films coming up that we’re very excited about. What are you more excited for –Batman vs Superman or Star Wars?
KS: Oh, you’re a bastard! I’m dreading this question! I knew sooner or later somebody was going to ask that, and it’s a fucking toughie, because I’ve got personal stakes in both of the games, so to speak. Not really personal – look, I’ve got nothing to do with either of these franchises. But Star Wars, I’ve spoken about it incessantly through all my fucking movies, my early flicks. And Batman has been a big fixture in my work as well. I do the Fatman on Batman podcast, PLUS the motherfucker playing Batman this time is the dude who’s been in a flick or two that I’ve made in the past.
So it’s like an absolute Sophie’s choice, and I’ve been dreading the day when some clever journalist was going to be like “Gun to your head!” I’ve got to build a scenario for it. It’s like “OK, you’ve only got this long to go, and you’ve only get to watch one. Which would it be?”
Now, I mean – Star Wars gave me so much, even when I was a kid. It gave me imagination, probably kicked off a love affair with movies. Jaws really did that, but Star Wars strengthened it. I’ve gotten so much from Star Wars. And then the last round of Star Wars movies I still liked, even though a lot of people kicked it in the balls and stuff, because of the childhood affection for Star Wars.
And then also, it wound up in my work. You know, when people talk about Clerks, they talk about that Death Star contractors scene and stuff. So, you know, I’m fully bathed in Star Wars. l like J.J. a lot. I went to visit the fucking set. I stood on the Millennium Falcon and stuff. So that’s the one side of the equation.
The other side of the equation is one of my favorite actors on the planet is playing Batman, and I used to work with the dude, and so I’m invested, and like, this is awesome! Plus, I love DC characters. I’m so delighted that DC and Warner Brothers now are making their cinematic universe, and building it brick-by-brick and shit. I love Zack Snyder. I thought he crushed with fucking Watchmen and stuff.
So, you know, again, Fatman, the guy who makes the podcast Fatman and Batman, yes, I’m anticipatory. Having seen the early images, in terms of the photos they showed in San Diego, where it looks like he’s taking liberally from The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s seminal work. The scene, the light-up eyes, Batman’s metal cowl as he stands beside the Batlight in the footage that they showed at San Diego. So there’s that on that side.
Between the two, that’s like who do you pick – mom or dad? And I’ve never had to do that in life. But if I had to pick one, if somebody is like, “Gun to your head, and you only get to see one before you shuffle loose to this mortal coil,” number one, I’d probably pick the longest one, because that’s probably going to buy me a little more time on earth! But I’ve got to go with Star Wars, man.
Especially having seen the teaser now, I’m like – that shot of the Millennium Falcon is one thing, but stepping on the Millennium Falcon there on set – not everyone is going to get that experience. But seeing that shot in the trailer, and then watching the internet react the same way that I felt when I stood on that ship. The way of like, “Oh my god, these are friends that I’ve seen since I was a kid. And some of these fake people I care more about than blood relatives.”
The Star Wars universe was such a massive part of my childhood, and shaped who I was, even into what I became later on, and things that I talk about still to this very day. So it edges out Batman slightly, but yeah, ultimately Star Wars has got to win.
N: Fair enough.
KS: I’ll watch them both multiple fucking times, and thank god we don’t live in some bizarre universe where I’m only given one choice. I get to watch both of those.
N: Thank goodness for that. And thank you very much for making that truly difficult decision. I really appreciate it.
KS: [laughing] What a first-world fucking problem!
Tusk is available now on Blu-ray, DVD,