The controversial 'State' of Kevin Smith

Courtesy of View Askew
Director Kevin Smith bought his own film at Sundance to distribute.

BY ANDREW LAPIN
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 6, 2011

One doesn’t interview Kevin Smith so much as prime him. Simply ask the writer-director-actor-podcaster about, say, the Sundance Film Festival response to his latest film “Red State,” and that will be enough for him to talk for a good 20 minutes about everything from his new distribution model, to the relationship between critics and filmmakers, to how he views his legacy as a director.

Red State USA Tour


Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
Michigan Theater
Tickets from $39.50

And then sometimes, as in a recent interview with The Michigan Daily, he’ll let loose with one of his famously profane sound bites like, “I don’t want to fuck indie film in the mouth anymore.”

Whether in a script, on stage or in person, Smith has never been one to mince words. And when he comes to the Michigan Theater on Thursday with “Red State” — his verbal high-wire act will be with a specific goal in mind: to change the landscape of independent filmmaking.

Smith broke onto the indie scene with “Clerks” in 1994, and he’s still making headlines 17 years later. After premiering “Red State,” his first work in the horror genre, at the Sundance Film Festival in January, he sold the film to himself instead of a distributor and plotted a nationwide tour to make back the movie’s $4 million budget well in advance of its wide release in October.

It’s a non-traditional strategy, and one not without its detractors — as the press had a mixed reaction following Smith’s Sundance announcement. But the director himself shrugs off the controversy.

“Why would a journalist or a blogger care? They’re not part of the equation. They’re not buying the movie. They’re not losing an opportunity to purchase it,” he said. “I know we did the right thing because everyone is still talking about it.”

At the show itself, audiences will pay premium prices to see the movie and attend a question-and-answer session with Smith and the film’s star Michael Parks (“Kill Bill”). Under his new SModcast Pictures label, Smith’s intention is to sell “Red State” without ever buying advertising in print or on television, saying that the film’s subject matter is too bleak to attract a wide audience.

“The idea of doing a marketing campaign for this movie seems irresponsible and absolutely, bafflingly stupid in an economy that has collapsed,” Smith said. “And if I can admit that, why can’t other people?”

The film itself, about a violent fundamentalist group with a pastor modeled after Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, is a far cry from the carefree slacker comedies of Smith’s past. He got the idea for the film watching footage of Phelps being interviewed for the 2007 documentary “Small Town Gay Bar,” for which Smith was an executive producer.

“I’m sitting there and watching this old man who looks like your grandfather talk like Hitler,” Smith said of the pastor best known for hate-speech slogans like “God hates fags.” Members of the church and like-minded individuals have been seen picketing the streets of Ann Arbor in recent years, and last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Church’s infamous staged protests of military funerals are protected under the First Amendment. Smith says his intention is to “defang” the organization through what he deems his “dopey horror movie.”

Reactions to the film’s Sundance screening have been mixed, which is just the way Smith likes it.

“People who hate it, hate it with vitriol and fire,” he said proudly. The filmmaker is billing “Red State,” also starring recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”), as his second-to-last directorial feature.

“I want to finish with movies that are fucking weird, out there, compelling, unnerving, disturbing, controversial,” Smith said. “That’s art, dude.”

But of potentially more interest to Michigan residents is the film Smith plans to make after “Red State”: his professed final movie, the hockey-themed “Hit Somebody.” The film will be based on the Warren Zevon song written by Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom, who licensed the rights to Smith after making him promise to film the production in Detroit.

“Detroit’s going to serve us so well,” Smith said. “There are certain parts of Detroit where they stopped building right around the time where our movie takes place.” He added that he plans to keep his promise even if Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent proposal to severely cut the state’s film tax incentives passes into law.

“If the rebate goes away, yeah, it definitely makes (filming) a little more problematic, but you know, a promise is a promise,” Smith maintained. “I’m locked in with Detroit and not in a way that I regret.”

No matter how his career plays out, Smith is making sure he doesn’t take the safe road. “I want to end making sure nobody goes ‘meh,’ ” he said.

And if the past is any indication, he’ll end with a hell of a sound bite.