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Kevin Smith Talks Drawing From His Real Life For Clerks III - Exclusive Interview

It's hard to believe that it's been almost 30 years since the release of "Clerks" and our first introduction to the work of writer, director, and actor Kevin Smith. "Clerks" hilariously captures the possibilities and pitfalls of young adulthood and remains a beloved touchstone for fans everywhere. The film launched Smith's View Askewniverse, which has expanded into multiple films, most recently "Clerks III," the third (and presumably final) movie in the "Clerks" series.

Those who have been following Smith's work since the beginning will not only enjoy checking back in with "Clerks"' beloved characters Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran), Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), and hetero-lifemates Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), they'll also notice that the characters have grown up right along with them. Like the first in the series, "Clerks III" borrows liberally from Smith's real life, with Randal, who now owns the Quick Stop convenience store with Dante, having a massive heart attack, just like Smith did several years ago, early in the film.

After miraculously surviving, Randal decides to make a movie about his life set in the Quick Stop and shot in black and white — sound familiar? This gives "Clerks III" an excuse to recreate scenes from the first film acted out by the older and (slightly) wiser versions of the same characters. It's all as laugh out loud funny as you'd expect, and by the end, also surprisingly moving and poignant, ultimately the perfect end to a trilogy that captures three very different stages of adult life.

Smith was generous, grateful, and a whole lot of fun as he spoke to Looper about finally making "Clerks III," a movie he's been thinking about for the better part of a decade, including what it was like to revisit his heart attack through the film and how it felt to reunite with the original "Clerks" crew.

'The sweetest compliment'

It is a real honor to talk to you today. Your movies have been a big part of my life since my late teens.

Thank you for that. Honestly, when I started my career, that was something [that never made me think], "Boy, hope people tell me that I've been a big part of their childhood." The older one gets, that becomes the sweetest compliment, people telling you how intimately your dopey-ass movies are tied up with their existence.

It's the thing that makes me go, even if I fall out of favor, and when I've fallen out of favor with the mainstream, there're a bunch of people who are like, "No, man, that guy, I used to watch that movie in high school over and over again. I don't care that he f***ed up 'He-Man.' He's my guy."

That was us. In the dorms at college, over and over again with "Clerks."

Oh my God. That rocks, man. I wish young Kev had known that, had realized the impact that movie would've had with college kids. I never thought of it as a college movie because it's so much about a guy who people are like, "You should go to college," and he's like, "I don't know." When you're in college, that's the attitude as well. Maybe it's the perfect college movie.

It resonated with us.

I guess it would keep a motherf***er in college too, because you're like, "Well, I don't want to work there. I might as well stay here."

Talking about the end

With "Clerks III," you made me cry and you made me feel old....

That was our aim, in that order. "Let's make them cry and then make them feel old." Somewhere in there, maybe we'll make them laugh, because it is a comedy.

It made me laugh too, but ultimately I came away feeling like, "Oh gosh!"

That was so much the intent. Don't get me wrong, I love making people laugh, but the older I get, all I'm interested in are the feels. How do you let people carry something emotional out of this? They'll carry the laughs, but the people that I speak to over the course of my career tell me such amazing things about what the movies have meant to them. Whenever I am self-effacingly saying, "I should have done this differently or changed this," they're like, "No, they're all snapshots of where I was in my life at that time." [That's] great because, "Well, me too." That's why they exist.

I reached a place where I was like, "I'm ready to talk about the end with them." "Clerks" is about life in our 20s, and "Clerks II" is about life in our 30s, but "Clerks III" is about middle age to the end and what happens when we start having to say goodbye and stuff like that. It's something I think about because I went through it. It doesn't come from some dude who's like, "Man, death, right?" I was in it. I was close. Real close.

'Stealing from real Kevin Smith' for Clerks III

Why did you want to revisit your heart attack in a film? Was that hard for you?

It was so not hard. My whole career, I've been stealing from real Kevin Smith and sticking it in the movies and stuff. This was no different. It was crazy to me, eventually, when I was like, "Wow, I can't believe I thought about doing 'Jay and Silent Bob Reboot' before this." We were in the process of trying to put "Reboot" together when I had the heart attack. After the heart attack, I was like, "Holy s***, what a break. Let's make that movie." 

"Reboot" is something of a party movie. It's like, "Oh my God, I'm alive. This f***ing rocks." The next thing that I sat down to write was post-heart attack. "Reboot" was written pre-heart attack and with drafts after my heart attack, but the first full script post-heart attack was "Clerks III."

I had done a version of it prior to the heart attack that looks nothing like this movie. It took place outside of a movie theater, and Randal had a nervous breakdown after Hurricane Sandy destroyed Quick Stop. He went to wait in line to see this "Ranger Danger" movie, even though you could buy tickets in advance. A line forms behind him and suddenly he was in charge of this makeshift village and he replicated Quick Stop with a lean-to shanty version of it. 

It was about grief. Once again, this movie's about grief too, but that movie was me trying to do grief before I really knew what grief was. It's a guy talking about death without the experience of death itself.

Post-heart attack, when I was like, "Oh my God, I could give it to Randal." I was always worried about the authenticity that "Clerks" has, that "Clerks II" didn't have, and that "Clerks III" couldn't have. "Clerks" is dripping with authenticity, because I worked in the store. I was a retail person while it was going on. I was involved in a relationship just like the one with Veronica and Caitlin, although it was one girl and that was just her two sides of [one person]. I did work with my best friend. It's literally a snapshot of my entire life.

If you're doing a movie called "Clerks," most people go, "Oh yeah, it's about working in those stores and dealing with the public." I don't do it like that anymore. I own stores now. If some clerk was like [quoting a line from "Clerks"], "This job would be great if weren't for the f***ing customers," I'd be like, "You, sir, are fired." I need a clerk who will do a much better job on our behalf. I'm a "customer is always right" guy now.

Giving thanks for a key decision in Clerks

That authenticity that "Clerks" had is going to be absent from "Clerks II." I realized that when I was putting it together, so much so that I was like, "It shouldn't be anywhere near Quick Stop because I don't know a f***ing thing about working in Quick Stop anymore. Let me put it in a world entirely unfamiliar to me: fast food, something I'd never worked in."

"Clerks II" is one of my favorite movies, but I look at it as — I won't say it's artificial, but it's a movie. It's full of artifice. These things didn't happen. I never went to a donkey show. That was me going, "What would happen next with these guys" and making s*** up. It's not really informed by my life at the time.

"Clerks III" is so close to "Clerks" because it literally is informed by my reality. Not only did I used to work at a Quick Stop, but I had that heart attack and I did make a movie about working at a convenience store in black and white. I felt really good about "this is the time" and the heart attack really pushed it through. I was like, "This is a way that I can make an authentic 'Clerks' sequel and push the story forward and bring it to a place I've always wanted to bring it."

Without spoiling things, there's some characters I've been trying to kill off for years in this movie [Smith famously planned to kill Dante off at the end of "Clerks" before being convinced to go with a different, less fatal ending.] We're lucky this movie exists because the guy who made "Clerks" killed Dante at the end of it, so much so that we make jokes about it in "Clerks III." Luckily, some cooler heads prevailed and they were like, "You should cut that ending." I wouldn't have gotten to make two of my favorite films in the world if Dante had been dead at the end of "Clerks" like I intended.

[It] proves that it takes a village, man. There's no lone artist like, "Hey man, this is all me. I'm an auteur." Sometimes, the best ideas come from outside where they're like, "Don't kill that guy," and I'm like, "No? Are you sure? I think that's the way the movie's supposed to end." They're like, "F*** no."

Reuniting with the cast of Clerks

You're reuniting with the same crew for this one too. As a viewer, it's really exciting to check in with them over these big increments of time, because we already have a relationship with the characters. For you, what is it like to reunite with the everyone from the original "Clerks" and go make a movie again?

Absolutely blissful. I see Brian all the time. He was in "Jay and Silent Bob Reboot." I haven't gotten to work with Jeff since "Zach and Miri Make a Porno" and I've been trying to make "Clerks III" for the better part of 10 years. At one point, we had a falling out, so we didn't talk at all. Then, I never thought "Clerks III" was ever going to happen, so getting to that set and having Jeff be actively involved and loving the movie and stuff and bringing his absolute A-game, that was literally dream come true stuff. 

I dreamed about doing a movie where we dive deep into Randal and pick him apart and see what makes him tick and see the secret optimist hidden beneath the cynical exterior. I couldn't have done it without him, literally. My through line has always been, "Next time, it's Randal. Next time, I've got to go deeper into Randal" — which sounds dirtier than I meant it. I needed Jeff, absolutely, or else I never could have done it. I was so appreciative, so thankful that he eventually was like, "You know what? Let's do this."

Working with Jay [Mewes], it's any day of the week with a Y in it. He literally lives around the block and we do the podcast all the time. We do live show appearances all the time. I saw a story on people.com [before this interview] about "Jay and Silent Bob reunite for Ben [Affleck]'s wedding," and I'm like, "Yeah, the first time we reunited since f***ing Thursday." I never not see the guy. He's omnipresent. He's my shadow.

The joy of returning to the Quick Stop

It was beautiful to reunite with the location, because I have not shot a movie entirely in New Jersey since "Clerks." Even movies that were set in New Jersey weren't always shot in New Jersey. "Clerks II" was shot out here in California. That was awesome getting to go back to work at Quick Stop but not having to work at Quick Stop the way I used to, where I was selling cigarettes and watching the clock. I was happily walking in through the front door, snapping and whistling. I couldn't wait to be there. Then, I could walk out any old time that I wanted. It was absolute bliss.

I got more than I bargained for. I knew it was going to be fun to get the old gang back together, but there were moments where we were literally doing the exact same things in the exact same places where we had been 29 years prior, saying the exact same words. It was a lot of meta-fun for a bunch of middle-aged kids.

I loved the movie. It gave me all the feels.

That's what we were going for — the good feels, not the cringing ones. That was the aim. [We wanted to] get them in there with the promise of laugh[ing] and then be like, "Where's your tissue, mother***er!?"

Lionsgate, in partnership with Fathom Events, will be releasing Clerks III exclusively in theaters from September 13 through 18.

This interview has been edited for clarity.