Kevin Smith popped onto the film world’s radar in 1994 with
Smith’s memories and anecdotes accompany the photos, concept art, and documents. It’s the first time he’s told his life story—at least in this format.
Kevin shoots a scene on location at Quick Stop.
A clapperboard used during the
Kevin sits on a pile of film—the work print of
The cover page for the first draft of Kevin Smith’s
And continuing with
I’d come up with the idea for my first film before I went to film school, and I actually wrote my first scene for the script while I was still at Vancouver Film School . They always say you should write about what you know, and at the time all I knew about was working in a convenience store. So the idea for Clerks, a comedy set at Quick Stop, came directly from my own experiences. When I got home to New Jersey, I went back to see Mr. and Mrs. Thapar, my bosses from Quick Stop and RST Video, and I told them, “I want to come back to work because I want to make a film at the store.” Bryan Johnson had been working for them in my absence, and Mrs. Thapar was very frustrated with his performance, so she was like, “Oh please, Kevin, come back. You can do whatever you want at the store, but just come back.”
Once I had the okay from the Thapars to make a movie at the store, all I had to do was finish the script I’d started writing in Vancouver. At home we had a Smith Corona electric typewriter that would make this loud humming noise when you plugged it in. My folks had bought this add-on package for it that turned it into a quasi–word processor. It had this big green screen monitor and a floppy disk drive that you could save things on. So I’d set up this gigantic Space Age–looking f**king word-processing system at Quick Stop or RST Video and write Clerks while I was working at the stores.
Essentially, Clerks is the thinly veiled adventures of me and Bryan Johnson—represented by the characters Dante Hicks and Randal Grave respectively—during our time working at Quick Stop and RST Video. I was the first one to get a job there back in the summer of ’89. I’d quit three different jobs that summer, and my mom was like, “You got to get a job. You can’t just be sitting around.” My folks never charged me rent to live at the house, but my mom always wanted me to stay employed. So I picked up the local paper, the Asbury Park Press, and there was an ad in the classifieds for a job at a video store in Leonardo. I was like, “That’s my dream job! You get to see all the new-release rentals first and have access to all the other movies.” At the time, working at a video store was the closest I assumed I’d ever get to working in the movie business.
So I called the number and got an interview with Mr. Thapar, who owned a place. He’d come to America from India using money his family raised. A few days after getting off the plane, he walked into a job as a yoga instructor at a university in New York and then later went on to open a bunch of convenience stores. After I filled out the application, Mr. Thapar asked if I’d be okay with working at the convenience store next to RST Video from time to time. I didn’t want to blow the interview, so I agreed. It turned out to be a big catfish, because the job was mostly convenience store–based. But although I never really wanted to work at Quick Stop, it shaped my entire existence from there forward.
A BUNCH OF CHARACTERS
It was me who brought Bryan Johnson into the store. I always think that if you absolutely have to work, you might as well work with your buddies. I’d become friends with Bry through the Rec, and he was just another Highlands kid like me. At Quick Stop, we had a great system where, just like Dante and Randal in Clerks, we’d switch off between working at the convenience and video stores.
Really, Clerks is a love story between two guys who aren’t ever going to f**k. And Bryan Johnson was very much like Randal—always the guy who would piss off customers. He didn’t give a shit if they got mad at him. A customer would say, “Can you reserve this videotape for me?” And he’d be like, “All right.” And then he wouldn’t do it and they’d f**king lose their shit. He’d also get into intellectual arguments with people who came in to buy cigarettes, lecturing them on how they were killing themselves. I always wanted to be like Bryan because he seemed so free and funny. And when I wrote the Randal character, I was intending to play the part, which is why he has all the best jokes.
The characters Veronica and Caitlin, Dante’s current girlfriend and ex, respectively, are both based on Kim Loughran, who I was dating again when we made Clerks. Veronica is the girlfriend who’s always there for Dante, and Caitlin is the girlfriend who he still pines for after she left him. When Kim read the script, I remember she was just like, “Wait, I’m both of the girls?” In those days, Kim was my audience—the world’s biggest Kevin Smith fan. She pumped me full of f**king self-esteem. She’d say, “You’re funny. You should write for a living.” She was one of the first people to read the script, and she became like an editor on Clerks, giving me feedback on my writing.
The Jay and Silent Bob characters, two drug dealers who hang out at Quick Stop, were inspired by Jason Mewes, who I’d gotten to know at the Rec through Bryan Johnson and Walter Flanagan. He was one of the most original people I’d ever met in my life. Jason was a few years younger than us and talked incessantly about pussy, even though he hadn’t seen pussy since the day he’d been born out of one. He was hyper as f**k but funny as hell, with an incredibly original, unique perspective. He even had his own language. I would always tell him, “Somebody should put you in a movie one day.” So when I was writing Clerks, I added him into the script.
I’d decided to make Jay a weed dealer because when the school bus dropped the kids off in the afternoon, Quick Stop became a way station for these stoner dropouts. They’d come in, try to buy smokes, and then get some candy and a soda and go outside to lean on the wall between Quick Stop and RST Video. Some of them were punk kids who would stay there into the night, and we started to realize these dudes were slinging drugs. They were burnouts, and they talked like stoners, so I thought, “Oh shit, I’ll include the stoners in the script and I’ll make Jay one of them.” I was making a stew of sorts from experiences and memories.
When I was writing the Jay character, I realized I wanted him to monologue. For his dialogue, I would just crib from shit that Jason had said to me over the course of two or three years and work it into the script. I didn’t need anybody for him to bounce off, necessarily, but I did want someone to stand next to him because those kids rarely hung out by themselves. And that’s where Silent Bob came from. He would be Jay’s muscle and stay silent throughout the entire movie. The name was picked at random, by the way. It’s not like my uncle was named Bob or anything like that.
Jay and Silent Bob were meant to appear in cutaway segments. Any time I needed to get out of the stores or transition to a scene, I could always jump out to them. Plus, I’d planned for Jay to give a big speech at the end of the flick that would deliver the moral of the story and make Dante realize that he wants to be with Veronica rather than with Caitlin.
I also packed the Clerks scripts with a lot of pop culture references, but it wasn’t something that I did consciously. It was just a reflection of my life. I worked at a f**king video store, for heaven’s sakes—movies were my language. Star Wars was a big part of my childhood, and I still carried a torch for it even though at the time nobody was talking about those f**king movies anymore. When I was up in Vancouver, Scott and I were in the Vancouver Film School building’s coffee shop one day. I started telling him that I’d watched Return of the Jedi the night before, and we got into this big discussion about it. I was like, “You know the Empire is run by the Emperor and he’s a priest. He practices religion— the dark side of the force and shit. So he’s kind of the pope of the dark side of the force, but he’s also the head of the government. So aren’t these movies just about a fascist theocracy and how these people are fighting against religious persecution and shit like that?”
There was a guy in the coffee shop sitting across from us reading a newspaper, and I could see him lowering his paper and tuning in to our ridiculous conversation. I always thought that was interesting, so I was like, “I’m going to use that.” And so that led me to write a scene in which Dante and Randal discuss the morality of working as a contractor on the Death Star. It felt fresh and funny. It wasn’t calculated. My friends and I spoke to each other in dialogue snippets from Raising Arizona or other movies that we loved. And that’s where Clerks came from. I literally put my life into every scene.
Once I finished the first draft of the script in December 1992, I gave it to Vincent Pereira to read. I initially titled it In Convenience, which I thought was very clever but Vinny thought it was too cutesy. I asked him to come up with some alternatives, and he gave me a list of funny, sarcastic titles. One of the titles was Rude Clerks, and it made me laugh because I’m like, “Oh my god, that is literally what this movie is about. These f**kers are clerks and they’re rude. But let’s just drop the Rude part. Clerks sounds kind of classy, like an indie film.”
I had written Clerks with the intention of playing Randal. The only other actor I knew was my friend Ernie O’Donnell, who I had performed with in high school. So I had written the script thinking Ernie would play Dante and I would play Randal. As we got closer to making the movie, we had to figure out where we were going to hold auditions for the other roles. In Atlantic Highlands, one town over from Highlands, there was a little dinner theater I used to go to when I was a kid called the First Avenue Playhouse. I went over there and met the couple who ran it, Joe Bagnole and his wife, Donna Jeanne, and asked them if I could use the place to hold auditions. They said, “Absolutely. In fact, can we tell the actors from our shows they can come to the audition?” I was like, “Yes, please. I need all the people I can get.” I wrote up a short audition notice and posted it at the Playhouse and around town in places that I thought were on-point with what we were doing, including the Inkwell, an eatery right next to Monmouth University, and Quick Stop itself.
We’d booked two days for the Playhouse auditions. I called Ernie and asked him to come along to audition for the Dante role. He read the script and was like, “Well, this is a weird movie. There’s a lot of cursing in it.” And I was like, “Yeah, but, you know, in the arthouse movies they show in the city, they curse a lot. I don’t think it’s a big deal.” Despite his reservations about the script, he agreed to come down and read opposite the other actors.
My friend Walter Flanagan, who I’d met at the Rec, came with me to the auditions. He’d never been involved in something like this and wasn’t even part of the plays in high school. He was just interested to see how it all went. Walter was very much a lone wolf and didn’t normally join in with this kind of thing, but at the same time, I think film captured his imagination.
The First Avenue Playhouse was very helpful and brought in a lot of actors from their shows, experienced performers who knew what they were doing. Up until the auditions, I was convinced that Ernie had to play Dante. But on the day, Ernie’s delivery just didn’t feel like the character. Dante had to be a schlub, and Ernie was way too confident and good-looking. Plus, I had been hell-bent on playing Randal until we got into auditions, and then I was like, “I’m not as good as these people. They memorize lines and shit. Who am I kidding?”
GUERILLAS IN THE MIST
We were making so many decisions on the fly and figuring out ways around problems as we went. When we got to Jay’s big speech from the final act of the movie, Mewes had trouble delivering his lines, particularly the final line: “You know, there’s a million fine-looking women in the world, dude. But they don’t all bring you lasagna at work. Most of ’em just cheat on you.” I was like, “It’s a good speech, I don’t want anybody f**king it up. I’ll just do it.” Mewes said, “But Silent Bob don’t talk.” I thought it would mean something though if Bob suddenly spoke up right at the end of the movie, so I wound up taking the last part of Jay’s speech. Jay managed to get through the rest of it with multiple f**king takes. But it was never my intention for Silent Bob to suddenly chime in with something meaningful; it was just a means of solving a problem on the day.
Some of the shots we just had to grab wherever we could. For the scene where Dante and Randal cause havoc at the wake of their high school friend, Julie Dwyer, we shot at a real funeral parlor in Atlantic Highlands. We didn’t ask for permission, though. We just pulled up outside there early on a Sunday morning when it was quiet and there were no funerals going on. Dave started filming across the street, and we had Brian and Jeff walk up to the entrance for the first part of the sequence, and then had them run away as if being chased by angry mourners. It was pure guerilla filmmaking. For another scene, we had to shoot on the roof of Quick Stop because I’d written a scene where Dante, Randal, and their friends play hockey on the roof of Quick Stop. I didn’t tell the Thapars we were going to shoot up there, and at the time it wasn’t an issue.
A while later though, after the movie was released, the guy who owned the building found out we’d left a bunch of skate marks up there and went nuts. He was so f**king angry that he started talking about taking me to court. But I offered the dude $8,000 to pay for the damage and he became a pussycat so f**king quick.
The Thapars themselves were pretty understanding, for the most part. One morning though, I remember we pushed Mrs. Thapar a bit too far. We’d normally shoot all night and then we’d clean up whatever mess we had made so the store could open at 6 a.m. On this day though we’d been shooting the big fight scene between Dante and Randal. It wound up going on longer than we expected, and at 5:45 a.m., Mrs. Thapar came in to do stock inventory. She walked through the door, and Brian and Jeff were laying on the floor with all this candy and other f**king crap strewn all about the place. It looked like a war zone. I’ll never forget: She looked at the mess and then she walked outside and got back in her car. Everyone was like, “Are you fired?” And I really wasn’t sure.
Throughout the shoot we were all working insane hours, but it wasn’t a problem because we were cruising on the volition of our own passion. After closing the store at 10:30 p.m., we’d film all night and then I’d open the store at 6 a.m. and work there until 9 a.m. At that point Mrs. Thapar would come in and I’d go home and catch some z’s. Originally Scott and Dave were going to crash at my parents’ house during the shoot, but then a nor’easter hit in December ’92 and the town got flooded. My parents’ house was in shambles—the water in there was knee-deep—so I had to rent a room for Dave and Scott about twelve miles away in Long Branch at fifty bucks a week. To cut down on the commute, we started bringing pillows and blankets and crashing at the video store when we could. I even trained Scott to run the register so if I was obliterated at the end of the night, I’d be like, “Can you cover for me at Quick Stop for like an hour? I’m going to go sleep in the video store.” But sleep wasn’t a high priority because we were just on f**king fire. If you felt tired, you’d eat a f**king Slim Jim and go back to work—and shooting in a convenience store means you have unlimited craft service. We never had a day off. We shot for twenty-one days straight, seven days a week. And in three weeks we were done shooting the movie. It was over before we knew it.