Influential Directors: Kevin Smith

I'd see movies, comedies, and I loved 'Animal House', I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented.

I’d see movies, comedies, and I loved ‘Animal House’, I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented.

Of all the directors past and present it’s difficult to come up with one more influential than the guy who motivated me to pull out my credit card and buy merchandise from his website, so intensely enamored was I with the world he had created: the world which spanned from Red Bank New Jersey, to sunny LA and nearly reached the red sun of Krypton.  True, as a director he didn’t stand out a whole lot in the beginning; but what really made his work sing was the poetry he put on the page.  His scripts were so eloquent and unorthodox that half his cast usually didn’t know how to deliver the lines.  The rest honed in on the nerve of the somewhat unnatural dialogue and were able to unlock performances that others would only hope to imitate in the years to come.

An instant fan after watching Clerks I not only began snatching up videos and theater tickets for Kevin Smith films, I went after soundtracks, scripts, t-shirts, action figures, even a lunch box.  There was something accessible about Kevin, particularly in the early years, that I just felt like, “Yeah, this guy gets it.”  In a way, I think of him as a modern day Shakespeare.  The intelligence of his scripts may be called into question due to subject matter, but the targeted range of his audience is possibly wider yet more precise than any other auteur.

I was exposed to Kevin Smith a little late.  I believe Chasing Amy had hit theaters by the time I caught Clerks on VHS at my BFFs house.  I was disappointed at first that it was in black and white.  When I saw the View Askew production logo, it made me feel like I was having a secret sleepover at Neverland Ranch.  Before long though I realized that I was watching something special and it allowed me to dream about making a low-budget picture of my own one day and becoming a massive success.  Clerks and the Kevin Smith movies that followed resonated so well with me and came along at such a point in my development as a writer, that he had a lot of impact on my own style of writing as I tried to figure out what that was and how to do it.  To this day, two of my favorite stories that I have developed over the years can’t escape their Clerks and Dogma Roots.

There is also something admirable about the way Smith throws himself into the stories he writes.  The way Holden in Chasing Amy parallels Smith at the time.  Enthusiastic fans that love Bluntman and Chronic (Jay and Silent Bob), Equate them to Bill and Ted, or Cheech and Chong rather than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Vladimir and Estragon and all Holden wants is to put something personal out there like he did with his first success.  The primary differeces being that Bluntman and Cronic was a commercial success, suppressing Holden’s artistic side, while Mallrats ironically became a commercial Flop in its theatrical run, sending Smith in search of what made him stand out with his creation Clerks.  Next, he tackled his own ideas about religion and sought to arrive at a philosophy that was honest and true.  In spite of that deeper side, he never hid from the possibility of commercial success and was able to tell substantial stories just as easily as he could walk away when there was a disagreement.  An indie filmmaker who can walk both sides of the fence is pretty rare, indeed.

Though he never quite garnered the acclaim that Tarantino has and his career has taken an entirely different path, he still stands out as one of the greatest yet easily overlooked filmmakers of our time.  For starters, He has “The Jersey Trilogy.” Which is more of a trilogy than some things now that are considered such.  I love how original Smith is, while paying homage to his favorite movies.  Mallrats, like Temple of Doom, is the most disliked yet also my favorite of the three.  Also like Temple of Doom, it takes place prior to its predecessor, chronologically speaking.  Mallrats also alludes to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as does the later Clerks 2.  The first, with the boys trying to outrun La Fours, and the latter with a go cart montage.  Randal Graves also quotes Sundance in Clerks, responding to Dante’s whines with “Bitch bitch bitch.”  More than mere pop culture references, which I believe were widely popularized in the nineties by Kevin Smith.  These homages show us a kid at play riffing on the films that inspired him and keeping them relevant and timeless while creating something new to inspire others.  One of my favorite movies is Jaws, and the way that the scar comparing scene between Quint and Hooper is duplicated in Chasing Amy is truly something to geek out over.  Hooper X of course is also a character in Chasing Amy and the leads in Mallrats are Brody and T.S. Quint.

After the Jersey Trilogy, Smith went on to make three more films featuring the Jay and Silent Bob characters, plaid by him and Jason Mewes, including Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks 2, every one of them interconnected in the View Askewniverse as highlighted in the multitude of appearances in JASBSB.  Dogma was huge for me because it took on the topic of religion with an open, honest and artistically free approach, that allowed for a fully fictionalized depiction of Biblical characters and ideas, a sharp satirical look at the church, and a hopeful look at faith and the nature of God.  Of course you can’t do something like that without upsetting all kinds of people,, but he did it anyway, which is pretty cool.

Clerks has always been a big chunk of the parts that make the sum of Kevin Smith.  In between Clerks and Clerks 2 was Clerks the Animated Series.  I can’t confirm it, but I suspect the title is a play on Batman the Animated Series.  Though short lived it was a great attempt with beautiful art designs and a few really strong episodes.  My favorite of which intertwined the premise of The Last Starfighter with plots from The Bad News Bears and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  Smith’s new AMC series Comic Book Men inserts some Clerks and Mallrats flare into a Pawn Stars type show set in his comics store Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank New Jersey.

After what was essentially six Jay and Silent Bob movies, rather than go back and re-master them all with CGI or get right to work on an episode VII, Smith made a second foray into unfamiliar territory.  The first had been Jersey Girl, which I enjoyed, the next, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, introduced Kevin to Seth Rogen. Prior to the encounter, Smith reportedly didn’t really smoke weed.  In fact, so little was his interest in bud during production that it aroused concern from Rogen.  That story along with many others such as the Superman debacle with Jon Peters and the highs and lows of directing Bruce Willis is another reason I am such a fan of Smith’s.  Whether it’s a movie, a Smodcast, or a Q and A, he is one of the best storytellers ever.  Get the man talking about an experience out of his life and he will we’ve you an epic tale of fantasy and delights.  He’s taken on Hollywood for better or worse and along with the experience and the retelling of those experiences it seemed as though Smith had burned out on film just as he reached his pinnacle with the newly debuted Red State.  His first horror film, Red State, really showed how much he had grown as a director, but also has him at the top of his game as a writer.  Though unexpected in the wake of an entire career of comedy, Smith’s storytelling prowess in his latest movie is a triumph and yet he vowed to retire.

Fortunately, a Smodcast about a fake classified ad (a man seeking a tenant who would dress up like a walrus in lieu of rent) led to a “what if” scenario that captured Smith’s imagination and lead him on a journey to write, finance and shoot a feature horror script in a matter of months.  The script has Justin Long and Michael Parks attached and has created a lot of buzz.  More importantly, however, it seems to have rekindled the passion of one of my favorite, most influential filmmakers.

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Influential Directors: Robert Zemeckis

zemeckis

“I could never… do only one kind of movie. Anything that’s good is worthwhile.”

If I’m going to give credit to the directors that have influenced me throughout my life, I would be remiss to neglect one of the most influencial filmmakers of my young years. Randal Graves once said there is “only one trilogy,” but it isn’t Star Wars 4-6 and it isn’t Lord of the Rings. It’s not even Indiana Jones, though it is a tight race (maybe even a coin flip’s difference). The trilogy above all trilogies is Back to the Future and the director in question is none other than Robert Zemeckis.

To be honest, I tuned out when Zemeckis got into all of that mo-cap stuff. I just hate that style of filmmaking. It’s an incredible tool when used well to create realism and believability in films like King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Lord of the Rings, but when stretched beyond its strengths the technology destroys the cinematic experience.  In an animated film, one of the key challenges is finding that balance between over and under-defining characters.  A Pixar artist will add just enough detail to be breathtaking without going too far and making an awkward, eerie, too real representation.  When a film relies entirely on mo-cap technology the composition becomes muddled and it makes the job of the director so much harder than it should be, because ultimately he has to decide when it looks right and it almost never will.

Motion capture has the potential to be ultra realistic and yet it is the job of the artists to create a balanced look, or the contrast between realistic and cartoonish features clash on screen and can be impossible to adjust to.  Some films have to be animated.  Some are better as a live action feature.  No film ever needs to be mo-cap in it’s entirety.  However, despite his apparent over reliance on cutting edge technology, nobody incorporates state of the art tech into brilliant storytelling quite like Zemeckis.  I think of him as an efficient Spielberg/Cameron hybrid.  Take A Christmas Carol.  Though it failed to work as a whole in my opinion, there is some really great stuff in there that I think only could have been pulled off by Zemeckis.

Zemeckis made the riveting thriller What Lies Beneath and Forrest Gump, which I happen to just have been listening to Alan Silvestri’s score from.  but what really sets him up as one of my favorites is that he made Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Another massive technological achievement, Who Framed Roger Rabbit combines China Town with a wacky world in which animated characters interract with humans.  It’s one of my favorite movies as I love detective stories and film noir and I think the collaboration between the major animation studios is an achievement in itself (Daffy Duck and Donald dueling pianos!).  This film captured my imagination unlike any other.  I had seen Pete’s Dragon of course and portions of Song of the South, but for the first time the combination of live action and animation felt real to me and Toon Town, became a destination within my fantasies.

This was all happening in the midst of my obsession with Back to the Future which further cemented Zemeckis in my mind as a force to be reckoned with.  Though I was only 8 when Back to the Future part 2 came out (I desperately wanted a hoverboard) Robert Zemeckis next to Steven Spielberg is the first director I was actually aware of in a time when I was still learning to distinguish actors names from the characters they played.  Incidentally, Michael J Fox was my childhood hero on the strength of his roles as Alex P. Keaton, Teen Wolf, and of course Marty McFly.  I’m still immensely fond of him.  So, Zemeckis gets bonus points for being responsible for part of that trifecta.

Back to the future is one of the greatest films of all time.  I think it speaks volumes that it has survived so many other time travel and special effects movies of the decade, but I hope it will remain forever considered a classic.  Every generation should know and love the film.  It’s just so fun and clever and polished.  The characters are brilliantly developed.  The story is deftly plotted, piling set-up upon set-up for a lineup of the most amazing pay-offs.  It’s so thought out and thematically supercharged,  yet so whimsical and light and full of terrific dialogue.  While it carries itself like an average teen comedy it is so exceptional it is truly next to nothing in terms of its inherent value.  And if you want to talk about influece, lets talk about the torment I went through waiting for the third installment of the trilogy after Marty came back to 1955 and scared the hell out of Doc Brown.  The “To Be Continued” card was devastationg!  There is also something brilliant in the seemlessness of parts two and three, because they are a seperate story yet they have a momentum to them that makes the three part set feel like a whole.

Zemeckis has range, too.  From the wacky dark comedy of Death Becomes Her, to the Science fiction drama of Contact, to the solitary and desolate feature Cast Away, Zemeckis has revealed himself to be one of the industry’s top storytellers. What Lies Beneath, without the Z factor could have been shuffled away as just another Ghost story, but if you weary of the same tired concepts, Zemeckis’s creativity is a breathe of fresh air for the genre.  Another one of my favorites is Romancing the Stone, which I watched often as a kid. It had everything I wanted in a movie and I never tired of watching it. Now, I see it and I’m not exactly sure why I was so into the film, but at the time it was one of my favorites and certainly served to influence my tastes and expectations at an early age.

At home in Chicago, Zemeckis found creative freedom in an artless home through the family’s super 8 camera and became impassioned when he learned about film school on an airing of The Tonight Show. Though his parents strongly cautioned him, he applied for USC and though originally not accepted, he made a phone call to the admissions office and begged for a place. It was at USC that Zemeckis met Bob Gale, the co-writer of Back to the Future. The fact that he does a good deal of screenwriting and directing I think goes a long way toward making him one of the most effective and influencial storytellers of the last thirty years.

It was his expertise in incorporating special effects that imbued me with a thirst and excitement for knowledge about how films are made.  By addressing my belief in what I saw on screen, and learning a bit about behind the scenes planning, I began to piece together how to make the unreal appear real and put that skill to work for the first time, using forced perspective to create a monstrous giant in a student film of David and Goliath when I was twelve.  Though my dream was to become an actor, Zemeckis had opened a window that would eventually push me behind the stage and onto a computer which introduced concepts and production aspects I never dreamed of and eventually lead me to screenwriting.