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Ever since his emergence onto the national stage, writer-director Kevin Smith became the idol of aspiring filmmakers everywhere when his independent feature "Clerks" (1994) - made for a startlingly low sum of $27,575 - earned awards at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals and went on to become a wild success in limited art house release. Self-referential to a fault, Smith used his films to expand his fictional universe populated with a regular cast of characters who eventually crossed over into other mediums, including comic books and an animated television series. Smith was in top form with his third feature, "Chasing Amy" (1997), though he took critical hits for later work like "Dogma" (1999) and "Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001), both of which were admired by rabid fans, but panned by the public at large. Always assured with slacker characters, raunchy dialogue, "Star Wars" (1977) references and endless penis jokes, Smith did occasionally step outside his comfort zone - as he did with "Jersey Girl" (2004) - though such efforts were usually followed up with returns to more of the same, marking Smith as a champion of the Gen-X crowd, but often out of touch with wider audiences.
Born on Aug. 2, 1970 in Highlands, NJ, Smith was raised by his father, Donald, a postal worker and his mother, Grace, a homemaker. As a child, Smith saw his father's misery at having to work a soul-sucking job, which led to the young lad's determination to work at something he loved. An average student who received routine Bs and Cs, Smith videotaped basketball games and put on his own "Saturday Night Live" sketches while attending Henry Hudson High School. Though overweight, he had developed a sharp sense of humor in order to make it with the girls in his class. After graduating high school, Smith attended The New School for Social Research's creative writing program, but dropped out after only one year when the school administration called his parents to complain that their son was throwing water balloons from his dorm window. In 1990, after seeing an ad in The Village Voice for the Vancouver Film School, he matriculated for four months before dropping out once again. Unsure of his next move, Smith took a job as a clerk at a convenience store in Leonardo, NJ.
While seemingly trapped in a go-nowhere life, Smith was suddenly inspired when he saw "Slacker" (1991), Richard Linklater's independent comedy about shiftless youth. For the first time, he saw a movie that was set in the director's hometown, a notion that opened up the possibilities of low-budget moviemaking. Smith contacted former film school classmate Scott Mosier, who would serve as a producer on most of his films, and set to work on writing the script to his first feature, "Clerks" (1994), a somewhat plotless slice-of-life look at the lives of a slacker convenience store clerk (Brian O'Halloran) and his caustic best friend (Jeff Anderson) who works across the street at a video store. Sharp, witty and unapologetically bawdy, "Clerks" tapped into a fan base that reveled in the "Star Wars" references, non-stop male genitalia jokes and the adolescent obsession with female infidelity. With money raised from Smith's former college tuition fund, the sale of his extensive personal comic collection, loans from Mosier's parents, and maxing out 12 credit cards, Smith made "Clerks" in 21 nights, filming in the very Quick Stop convenience store where he worked.
A screening at the Independent Feature Film Market generated the initial buzz, which culminated into a sale to Harvey Weinstein at the Sundance Film Festival, where "Clerks" shared the Filmmaker's Trophy with Rose Troche's "Go Fish" (1994). "Clerks" was also notable for its introduction of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), two characters who made routine appearances in most of the director's films, stealing every scene they were in. After earning a distribution deal from Weinstein's Miramax Films, Smith's film went on to earn critical acclaim and further awards at the Cannes Film Festival. But the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board determined that his film should receive an 'NC-17' for graphic language, which delayed the commercial release of the film. Enlisting Harvard law professor and noted attorney Allen Dershowitz to their cause, Smith and Mosier appealed the decision and eventually got their sought-after 'R' rating. Playing in a limited number of art house theaters, "Clerks" grossed a surprising $2 million and garnered wide critical acclaim.
By the time "Clerks was released, Smith was already neck deep with his next effort, "Mallrats" (1995), an irreverent comedy about two New Jersey slackers (Jeremy London and Jason Lee) who look for solace at the local mall after being dumped by their girlfriends (Shannon Doherty and Claire Forlani). Funded by distributor Gramercy for $5.8 million, "Mallrats" earned lukewarm critical notices and bombed at the box office. Chastened by the blight on his fledgling career, Smith ate crow before a crowd at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, saying "I want to apologize for Mallrats. I have no idea what we were thinking." In fact, the only notable achievement of his sophomore effort was the launching of former skateboarder Jason Lee's feature and television career. But Smith redeemed himself to many with the critically-acclaimed romantic comedy, "Chasing Amy" (1997), which depicted the unlikely relationship between Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), a bisexual comic book creator, and fellow comic writer Holden (Ben Affleck), which causes untold fits of jealousy with his best friend and writing partner, Banky (Jason Lee). Made for only a quarter million dollars, "Chasing Amy" was a big art house hit, taking in over $12 million at the box office, while repairing the damage Smith created with "Mallrats."
Back on top of his game, Smith began to expand his horizons beyond writing and directing when he served as executive producer on "Good Will Hunting" (1997), written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Meanwhile, Smith merged his passions for film and comics when he wrote a screenplay for "Superman Lives" which Tim Burton was assigned to direct. Conflicts with Warner Bros. and Burton, however, relegated the project to the trash heap. When he returned to his bread and butter, Smith departed from the boy-girl relationship format of his previous movies in directing "Dogma" (1999), a controversial religious satire about two fallen angels (Affleck and Damon) trying to re-enter Heaven despite the apocalyptic havoc they aim to create. Also starring Linda Fiorentino, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Salma Hayek and Alan Rickman, "Dogma" featured some witty dialogue which was largely buried by an avalanche of exposition that was required to move forward a convoluted and often pointless plot. Regardless of the attention created by Smith's skewering of Catholicism, the film ultimately proved that the director's talents were better served in more slacker-friendly fare.
With his next effort, Smith tried to deliver a lighthearted romp starring his recurring side characters Jay & Silent Bob in the madcap "Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001), a hodgepodge of several amusing, but ultimately pointless sequences that showcased some classic Smith dialogue that nonetheless proved too meandering and exposition-laden to bear. Smith brought back many of the characters from his previous films - what he called the View Askew universe, named after his production company - including his close buddy Ben Affleck as both Holden from "Chasing Amy" and a parody version of his movie-star self. Ultimately, the movie made a decent showing at the box office despite being panned by critics. Always a dazzling raconteur and canny self-promoter, Smith made forays into television, turning "Clerks" into a short-lived animated series for ABC, which both aired and ended in 2000. In 2002, Smith joined "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (NBC, 1991-2009) on a recurring basis for short filmed comedy bits. Among the more amusing were the collection of Smith's snarky road trips across America, visiting "Roadside Attractions" like giant balls of twine, and short films like "The Flying Car" featuring the "Clerks" characters trapped in traffic discussing what they would do to have a flying car like the Jetsons.
Smith also put his career as a writer of comics firmly on track with the debut of Clerks (the Comic) (1998), followed by the adventures of Jay & Silent Bob in Bluntman and Chronic - which was first featured in "Chasing Amy" - as well as his collaborations on Marvel Comics' Daredevil and DC's Green Arrow. His track record faltered in 2002, however, when he put his focus back on movies and failed to finish his runs on the miniseries Spider-Man: Black Cat and Daredevil: Bullseye, something his fans skewered him about afterwards. Indeed, it was his collected paperback run of Daredevil that lured his friend Ben Affleck - another childhood fan of the character - to pen a glowing introduction, which in turn inspired Marvel Productions and 20th Century Fox to lobby successfully to cast the actor as the blind superhero in the 2003 film. Smith also had a cameo role, playing a morgue attendant named Jack Kirby, after the prominent Marvel comic book artist. He also became one of the first filmmakers to engage in regular, near-direct dialogue with his audience, communicating via the Internet through his web sites MoviePoopShoot.com and ViewAskew.com.
During the media furor surrounding the "Bennifer" romance between Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Smith often found himself acting as an unofficial spokesperson for the couple, given his closeness to Affleck and the fact the couple were both appearing in his romantic comedy "Jersey Girl" (2004). When the pair's previous film outing "Gigli" (2003) was labeled a bomb of epic proportions and the relationship subsequently fell apart, Smith and his film's marketers made a painstaking effort to point out that Lopez's role was pivotal, but brief in an effort to distance his film from the "Gigli" catastrophe. Instead, "Jersey Girl" - which opened to mixed reviews and unspectacular box office, but came nowhere near the flop that was "Gigli" - focused on Affleck as a driven, urban public relations executive who becomes a widowed single dad stuck in the Jersey suburbs with his dad (George Carlin) and his daughter (Raquel Castro), and who unexpectedly gets a second chance at love with a video store employee (Liv Tyler). Smith threw out much of his juvenile humor - along with Jay & Silent Bob - out the window and attempted to tell a more straightforward, romantic story, albeit with mixed success.
Perhaps in a sign of his creative well starting to dry, Smith returned to comfortable ground with "Clerks II" (2006), another raunchy look at the slacker lives of Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson), who - after years of still working behind the counters of the Quick Stop and video store - are forced to find new jobs when the strip mall burns to the ground. Having already been there and done that, Smith offered very little that was new - some even accused him of retreating to familiar territory after taking uncertain steps onto new ground with "Jersey Girl" - though the sequel did have flourishes of classic witty Smith dialogue. Made for a paltry $5 million, "Clerks II" did well enough at the box office to turn a profit. Meanwhile, Smith made a rare foray into television, serving as executive producer and directing the pilot episode on "Reaper" (CW, 2007-09), a supernatural dramedy about a young man, Sam (Bret Harrison), who learns on his 21st birthday that his parents made a deal with the Devil (Ray Wise) to give him the soul of their first born in order for his father to recover from a grave illness, leading Sam to serve as a bounty hunter for souls escaped from Hell. Back in features, Smith wrote and directed "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" (2008), a romantic comedy about two roommates (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) who decide to make an adult film in order to pay their ever-mounting bills. The film marked the first time since his debut "Clerks" that Smith had no role - not even a cameo - for Ben Affleck.
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