Kevin Smith on The Interview: ‘We Throw the Word Censorship Around’

The filmmaker on Hollywood’s North Korean moment and the true nature of censorship.

Kevin Smith is the rare Hollywood filmmaker who likes being a filmmaker and likes being in Hollywood, but doesn’t let either of those things define him. He’s an occasional member of the in-crowd and an occasional bomb thrower. He’s made big-budget films that made money (best example: Cop Out) as well as aggressive indies (best example: Red State). His last film, Tusk (now out on Blu-Ray), was the story of one man turning another man into a walrus. It was a movie that he wanted to make because he wanted to watch it. Nothing about the movie or Smith’s determination to make it felt cynical, because Smith is gimlet-eyed about the industry but endlessly enthusiastic about film.

And, yes, he’s been watching the furor around The Interview. He’s been watching and thinking and talking to people and wondering – just like everyone else – what exactly is happening and what exactly it means. Is this sort of internet-facilitated intimidation going to prevent him from making a movie about walruses? Probably not, but Smith doesn’t know what he wants to make next; just that he wants to make it on his own terms. 

Smith spoke to Maxim about the crisis in Hollywood and about his new approach to filmmaking.

Let’s talk about The Interview. How do you feel about that whole situation? What’s your hot take?

I’m an American and I don’t want to get censored. Because I’m a human being, I don’t want anyone to die. I know that if one person gets killed the game is off for entertainment. No one will get to do what they want anymore. I find it strange and telling that whoever is at the heart of the hacks – maybe it’s North Koreans and maybe it isn’t – they found the ultimate weakness in America: Fear of a lawsuit. The first people to pull out on the movie ran the theaters and that’s a decision based on this though: ‘I might lose my business.’

People in the entertainment business make business decisions.

Sure, but if Sony released it now, we’re talking about a guaranteed $200 million. That’s what is weird watching this thing. It’s so hard to believe it’s not just a brilliant marketing campaign, but if what they say is accurate it’s an act of aggression on the part of a foreign country, which is frightening for Americans and maybe more frightening for non-Americans. Sony is a Japanese country and Japan and North Korea have a long history.

You’ve made some controversial movies. Does this feel similar to experiences you’ve had?

With Dogma, we got 300,000 pieces of hate mail and some death threats, but those came from Americans who were like, ‘We haven’t seen your movie, but it offends us.’ This was an international incident. It was different, except that [Kim Jong Un] is God in North Korea so maybe there’s something similar there.

But you were never censored in this way?

We throw the word ‘censorship’ around like we throw the word ‘genius’ around – ‘the garbageman is a genius! ‘ – and we can definitely talk about the MPAA, which demands that you make certain changes if you want a rating and can push you out of a theater. I had long discussions with them about 12 frames in Zack and Miri Make a Porno – 12 frames. But that’s not true censorship. True censorship is over a hundred kids getting killed in Afghanistan for trying to get an education. They were censored forever. I try to remember that we have this privileged idea of censorship. It’s not the worst thing to not be able to do everything you want.

That’s a helpful perspective. But, at the same time, you want to be able to mock powerful people.

If you’re doing comedy, satire is one of the arrows in your quiver, but no one wants to alienate anyone in the audience. Remember that Muhammad slapstick comedy from a few years ago, the one that got blamed for Bengazi? That was a movie that was made inexpensively and it wasn’t going to be in theaters. The Interview was being made at a studio and it was ballsy – or difficult anyway. 

Ironically, being controversial is rarely this expensive. This just happened to be made at a studio.

They made the decision to take on Kim Jong Un.

The boys would have been safe as kittens if they just changed the name of the world leader, but it wouldn’t have been funny. The American sense of humor, which isn’t shared by everyone, cuts straight to the point….

What does it take to make a movie like Tusk that is transparently ridiculous – basically a meme?

Everyone wants to make something while they’re drunk or high or whatever, but the key to the thing is to not let it die, to keep pushing it up the hill. I was going to mortgage my house to get this thing done – fortunately I didn’t have to – because I wanted it to be concrete. That’s really the only thing you have to do. 

You’d say it’s mostly about stubbornness, not strategy?

There are some cats who didn’t realize that there are no fucking rules.

And this was an exercise in not having rules. You made the movie at a moment when you were on the outside as far as Hollywood was concerned.

In 2011, when we did Red State, I stood up on a stage and said marketing was broken and indie movies were back and a bunch of people were pissed. It wasn’t like I could go to a major studio with Tusk and get it made.

Now, Clerks 3 got financed and we’re making this Jaws-style movie with a moose called Moose Jaws.

This was not a ‘Kevin Smith Movie.’ It was a movie made by Kevin Smith. Does Tusk represent a new direction for you?

I don’t make movies like David Fincher makes movies. The guy comes in with a camera and it’s this standalone thing. I come from this personal perspective talking about stuff in my life and people like that even if there isn’t talent behind it. But it gets harder to make Chasing Amy because I’m happily married. To make a movie like that, I’d have to get my heart broken and I don’t want that.

Happy people don’t make good art, but they can make weird art. David Lynch looks happy. Cronenberg looks happy – and The Fly didn’t happen to him in high school. That’s why Tusk was different and why it’s my favorite movie to watch now. It’s my go-to….

May I add something else about The Interview? I’m really bummed I won’t see it in a theater. Seth makes me laugh. He’s just this funny kid from Canada and now he’s at the center of an international incident. It’s wild.

Photos by Carlo Allegri / AP Images