When it comes to my greatest fears in life, I would put “being surgically transformed into a walrus by a madman in the backwoods of Manitoba” somewhere between “spiders” and “more spiders”. In case that wasn’t abundantly clear, it’s terrifying to me, and that’s exactly what happens to poor Justin Long in Kevin Smith’s new film, the deeply disturbing, darkly comedic horror film Tusk. As I mentioned in my review, I found the film unsettling on an existential level, but it was a wholly compelling viewing experience, which is why I leapt at the chance to sit down with the cast and crew to ask them “What the actual f–k?” Recently, at a press day in Los Angeles, I caught up with Smith, Long, and co-stars Haley Joel Osment and Genesis Rodriguez to pick their brains about how this project went from podcast to a feature film, what compelled them about , what animal they actually wouldn’t mind being turned into, and more.
But wait, there’s more! Our own Brian Walton is down at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX making all of us supremely jealous, but he also caught up with writer-director Kevin Smith to talk about the film, how he had to grow as a filmmaker to create it and the performances he hopes people take notice of:
Kevin Smith has always been straightforward about his lack of formal film education. In his latest film, his on-the-job training really shows through as the director has finally come to terms with creating a visually dynamic picture to complement his witty and compelling scripts. The fact that Tusk is being championed as a complete vision by positive reviews of the film is not lost on the one-time counter jockey. He’s proud of how far he’s come as a visual storyteller, and wears the growth on his sleeve. “I never knew anything going in,” Smith said. “That’s why Clerks looks the way it does, but, you know, it’s a game that’s not played with skill, it’s played with will. Clearly Clerks is a movie that was willed into existence. It didn’t come into existence by virtue of, ‘Look at these master thespians. Look at this master filmmaker.’ It was just everybody wanted to do it. So, starting the career in that scene, we thought that would be the calling card movie. ‘Oh, they know how to put shots together, we’ll give them a budget on the next movie so they don’t have to put it on their credit cards.’ But it wound up being Clerks and then from that point forward you need to learn your craft in front of everybody. So, I’ve always been learning the craft and it’s only recently where I’m pretty comfortable throwing down track. I have an idea of what things can look like and should look like visually. I know my lenses now.”
Smith’s early connection with fans came from his earnest screenplays that were dominated by his own personality and life. Dante and Randall from Clerks were two shades of Kevin’s personality, but with Red State and now Tusk, you can sense Jersey’s third-favorite son is more comfortable with subject matter rooted in something other than himself: “It’s been an interesting time because I don’t have the same personal content. In the beginning the movies didn’t look good, but boy they were full of f–kin’ personal content. Now the movies look good, but personal content is gone. I used to be able to say, ‘Well, Clerks was Clerks because I worked in a convenience store. Chasing Amy is because I had a girlfriend who’s past I couldn’t deal with. Dogma was because I was in Catholic school for 8 years and was an altar boy. Mallrats because I hung out at the mall. These aren’t films as much as what I did. Then I ran out of talking about ‘this is what I did’, because once Clerks got picked up I stopped doing anything but being an entertainer for a little bit. Suddenly that cool ass personal content’s gone, but then oddly enough you’ve got the ability to make a movie in a way you never have before. So, you know I walked away, I didn’t want to do this anymore. I was happy doing podcasts and stuff.”
As Smith has become more comfortable with what he wants to see reach the screen, he’s also grown more comfortable working with a team. Trusting his cast and crew to work with him where he knows he’s disinterested has helped him make better decisions, making him more comfortable with making those decisions in the first place. Smith explained, “On Red State I felt like – I’m not going to say I command the camera, but I think I know what I’m doing with a camera now. So when the Tusk thing happened, the podcast, I said I want to see this movie desperately. Then I was like, ‘Uh-oh, that means you’re going to have to visualize it.” He continued, “But at that point I felt comfortable enough where I was like, ‘I bet you I could make a f–kin’ spooky movie.’ As long as it was elegant, and I don’t the movie was elegant by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s on rails and everything just glides. That has everything to do with our DP, this dude James Laxton. He was a dude I just picked randomly because he had done an underwater shot in one of his music videos and we were shooting, at one point, an underwater shot. He turned out to be the key because he’s very good at the job. Totally f–king zen about it, man.”
How does working with a someone like Laxton affect Smith’s workflow? He said, “I’m never afraid to be like, ‘Hey man, can we try this?’ Without seeming like an idiot, like I don’t know anything. Now I’m okay to be like, look I don’t know anything. I’ll go out and tell cast and crew from the jump, like third week of Yoga Hosers, ‘Look, everything’s been easy up until now and I’m always happy to tell you what’s going on and I’m always in a good mood, but I’ll tell you right now, week three is all about shooting the action sequences and I can’t stand that shit.’ I don’t like shooting action, I like shooting dialogue. So as long as I communicate with everybody, keep them well informed as to what we’re doing, things tend to flow a bit more smoothly. So I’ll lean on James or the rest of the crew and be like, ‘I hate sequences like this, get me through this.’ And so we bond together a little tighter and because of that the movie looks better.”
If you’ve been a Kevin Smith fan as long as some of us in the Nerdist offices have, it’s refreshing to see Tusk pull together all of the lessons Smith learned on past movies. The artist formerly known as Silent Bob says the professional growth came from taking himself more seriously and embracing the skill set he had developed. Smith expands on the thought, “If I can use a line from the movie, [Justin Long] talks about Old Wallace and New Wallace quite a bit during a scene. This movie feels like a blending of Old Kev and New Kev where it’s the stuff where I turn a phrase I’m pretty decent at, but now with the ability to move a camera with that dialogue as well. Old days I would have parked a camera on Michael Parks for like ten minutes and not cut, now we do the same thing and then we glide.”
The change has been refreshing, Smith admits. “It’s been interesting to kind of embrace. For years I was so stridently like, ‘I don’t need to improve my craft.’ We got approval on the first movie with no craft whatsoever,” he said. “All the reviews were like, ‘Sure it looks like shit, but it’s the content that counts.’ And that’s all a fat boy ever wants to hear. It doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s what’s inside. Right away I was like, ‘They get it! It’s what’s inside! Woo-hoo!’ So I never really thought about improving the craft and then it just happens with the time and experience. Even if you’re not trying to get better at the job, you just do things enough you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess we can do it like that one time.’ Things start to work, things start to make more sense. I never really thought visually. I’ve always thought in terms of dialogue.”
In addition to growing as a filmmaker, Smith has continuously had to adapt to challenges on the business and distribution side of things. When we suggest that it’s taken a certain amount of balls to carve out his own path he corrects us, “It’s not balls, it’s just boredom. If you do anything long enough and you keep seeing the same f–king results. I make small movies. I always use the example of Clerks II. It costs $5 million to make, they spent $10 million marketing it. That makes no f–king sense to me. We could have used $10 f–king million. Actually paid people on the movie who I was like, ‘Please can you do this for nothing, I’m trying to keep the budget low.’ And then we hand in the movie and they spent it all on the marketing. I was like, ‘I’m tired of seeing this happen again and again.'”
Smith says his reaction in distributing Red State himself was the only answer he had at that time. “Rather than whine, just be change.” Smith explains, “If you’re tired of seeing this over and over, do the other thing you’re terrified of, four wall it. That part of my career I got to skip, because Miramax picked up Clerks. So early on I was ready to four wall it, you know, call up theaters and book it myself. So that deep into the career, you know we could four wall this. It was scary, but it was exciting. It wasn’t like f–k the system, it was more I was so f–king bored with the results. I know what’s going to happen, they’re going to overspend on this to reach an audience that’s not coming. And I was always like, I bet I can get the audience to react without spending all that ridiculous money. So it became about that.”
That desire to strike out a different path left a bad taste in Smith’s mouth for a different reason than you may expect. Smith thinks his approach to releasing Red State may have overshadowed Michael Parks searing performance as a right-wing fundamentalist, something Smith hoped to correct with Tusk. He elaborates, “I loved that so much. The whole Red State thing, but I was always regretful of Parks getting obfuscated in the process. That performance he gives is so wildly entertaining. One of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something because he’s spitting out hate speech. But still, I was out there clanging cymbals together, ‘Look at this, we’re taking the movie out ourselves!’ So, we can try to get it out there without spending any money on marketing to the point that he was pushed to the background. People not even focusing on the movie, but the backstory or the after story of me taking it out myself.
With Tusk I thought this would be a way to correct that one failing. I regret still to this day that he got an award for acting at a film festival, and I felt like he should have done that everywhere. So with Tusk I was like, ‘Can you f–king give Michael a chance to take the stage again with an even nuttier part where you take out the sex, religion and politics and you just leave the bat-shit crazy and let him chew the f–king scenery?’ It’s nice, I keep seeing people write about the movie and talk about him and they’re saying all the right things.”
Smith has no illusions that Tusk isn’t going to be a divisive film. The movie is, after all, about a man being transformed into a walrus. But he’s got high spirits about people hating the movie as well as loving it, “About the movie, honestly, I’m old enough now to love it when I hear people say, ‘I love this movie’, and other people are like, ‘I’m shocked anyone could love this movie.’ I’ve wanted to be one of those filmmakers my whole f–king life. The currency that we traded in, the terminology when we were younger, when we watched movies it wasn’t like, thumbs up, thumbs down. We didn’t have blogs, so we didn’t do that. We would say, ‘This is f–ked up. Oh my god, this movie’s so f–ked up. Did you see this?’ You pass somebody a f–king tape and say, ‘Watch this, it’s f–ked up.’ That was the best thing you could say about a movie.”
That descriptor became a driving force in creating Tusk. “My whole career, I didn’t really do f–ked up. I did like, funny and shit, but never f–ked up.” Kevin illustrated the point by highlighting one of his contemporaries, “Richard Kelley, right out the gate he did Donnie Darko. So f–ked up that they held him in England, saying, ‘This lad is f–ked up.’ It’s just universally accepted as f–ked up. I never had a chance to do one of those, so this one I was like, ‘Go for it dude. Just make a movie you would love to see. There’s one in your head. There’s been a movie swimming around in your head for years and this is kind of it. Just going for it… and I’m so glad that I did. If people come up to me and say, ‘I love this.’ I’m like, ‘I understand.’ If people come up to me and are like, ‘I hate this’, I understand. It could go either way. The only thing I ask, good or bad, it is different and that’s usually what everybody wants.”
Tusk is in theaters now.
Additional reporting by Brian Walton.