February 24, 2010 | 12:30 pm
Kevin Smith has a big mouth and he knows it. When he got bounced off a Southwest Airlines flight for allegedly being too fat earlier this month, he quickly spread the news, via Twitter, complaining about the unfair treatment he felt that he’d received from the airline. And when the media treated the story as something of a lighthearted farce, the beefy 39-year-old filmmaker was soon loudly assailing the media for its snarky take on the whole event.
Smith’s propensity to shoot from the hip has also gotten him in hot water in Hollywood. Years before Warners Picture Group President Jeff Robinov hired Smith to direct “Cop Out,” the new Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan buddy comedy that opens Friday, Smith had gone out of his way to insult the studio chief after they’d had a disastrous pitch meeting.
“I don’t even remember why things went so horribly — it was just like a bad first date,” Smith told me Tuesday, punctuating virtually every anecdote in our hourlong conversation with bursts of colorfully profane language. “Afterwards, I wrote somewhere that he was a balding studio clock puncher, which kinda’ cooled our relationship for a while.”
It turns out that Robinov managed to get over the insult. When Smith was at Comic-Con a couple of years ago, promoting his film “Zak and Miri Make a Porno,” Robinov happened to see the filmmaker when he was on a panel with such hotshot directors as Judd Apatow and Zack Snyder. “They’d all made movies that had made tons more money than any of mine, but Comic-Con was my home ice,” Smith recalls. “When I came on, everyone went crazy. They were my peeps. I guess Robinov was impressed, ’cause afterward he called to set up a meeting.”
Smith was still a little nervous when he showed up on the Warners lot, but Robinov put him at ease by saying, as Smith recalls, “When I leave this job, what I really want to do is produce your talk show.” Not long afterward, Robinov sent Smith the “Cop Out” script, then known by its original title, “A Couple of Dicks.” Smith loved the script, written by the brothers Robb and Mark Cullen, which felt like a throwback to the kind of buddy pictures Smith’s dad had taken him to see as a kid in New Jersey.
“I called Robinov back and told him it was funny, but I still didn’t realize why he’d sent it to me. I said, ‘What’s the deal? Do you want me to do a cameo as Dave the fat guy? If you want me to rewrite it, I ain’t buying, because it’s already really good.’ Finally, Jeff said, ‘It’s funny that you’ve made six guesses and you haven’t guessed director yet.’ It really floored me, because I’d never read anyone else’s script with an eye on directing. I always do my own stuff.”
But Smith realized that the raucous, R-rated buddy comedy was right in his wheelhouse. “It finally clicked — this is ‘Clerks’ with cops. Just two dudes hanging around, talking to each other, with the tent-pole action sequences thrown in to make some more money. It really reminded me of ‘Fletch,’ one of my favorite Michael Ritchie movies, where it was just a funny guy talking, along with the car chases. I finally went, ‘Hey, if there’s one thing I am trained to do, it’s shoot people talking a lot.’ ”
Smith is one of the pillars of the indie film world, having written and directed such quirky (and yes, talky) low-budget films as “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma.” But his career had been sputtering from a lack of inspiration in recent years, with “Jersey Girl” and “Zack and Miri” being disappointments, both with critics and at the box office. So he was ready to be a director for hire.
“A movie like ‘Fletch’ was a real role model for me,” he says. “It won’t cure brain cancer, but it goes down smooth, like a good milkshake. For years, I kept making movies that were like medicine. And finally, 15 years into my career, after ‘Zack and Miri’ collapsed at the box office, I realized I was spinning my wheels. I couldn’t write anything, I guess because I felt I didn’t have anything new to say. I mean, you have to write about your life, but what was I gonna write? That some fat guy’s movie tanked? I’m too happy now. If I’m not drawing from pain, and all I have is the rich man’s pain of privilege, then I had to find something new to do. I was staring at 40 and I was just ready to grow up.”
Smith also realized that it was getting more difficult than ever to find money for personal films. “The specialty film world is dead and dying like Krypton and I figured that I had to throw myself into the rocket and blast off the planet to survive. Steven Soderbergh had already done the hard work, showing the studio guys that these indie filmmakers could shoot good movies. And I have to say I was impressed by Robinov. I was only half right when I called him a bald clock puncher. He’s smart and really works his ass off.”
How did Smith get along with the notoriously prickly Bruce Willis? And what really bugs him about the media coverage of his dust-up with Southwest? Keep reading:
It is Robinov who has masterminded the Warners creative formula of pairing cutting-edge filmmakers with mainstream material, resulting in such successes as Chris Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” as well as clunkers like the Wachowski brothers’ “Speed Racer.” It turns out that “Cop Out” had a complicated history. The script had originally been set up at another company with Robin Williams and James Gandolfini attached to star. When that combination fell apart, Warners picked up the script, hoping to team Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, with “The Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin at the helm.
But salary disputes and debates over the R rating caused a split, with the actors heading off to make an entirely different buddy picture called “The Other Guys,” scheduled to come out this summer from Sony. When Smith came on board, he inherited a movie budgeted at $75 million without any stars. One day the film’s producer, Mark Platt, called to ask what he thought of Bruce Willis. Smith responded with a string of unprintable expletives that he says represented a sign of great joy. Soon afterward, Tracy Morgan hopped on board. Once Smith persuaded the studio to let him make what he calls “his parents’ kind” of R-rated movie, which he describes as “one with some bad language, but not a lot of tasteless [oral sex] jokes,” the project had a new head of steam.
“We all took pay cuts to keep it R-rated, which with me meant I gave up 80% of my salary, but it was worth it,” he says, explaining that, thanks to some tax rebates, the movie cost roughly $37 million to make. He certainly wasn’t worried about his actors having good chemistry, always a key ingredient with a buddy picture. “Tracy just oozes chemistry,” he says with a hearty laugh. “He could have chemistry with a ceramic ashtray. Bruce loved him. He kept calling him kid, even though Tracy’s over 40, so there’s not really that big an age difference. But I think calling him kid meant Bruce liked him.”
Smith insists that he didn’t have any problems communicating with Willis, at least once he realized that Willis wasn’t going to do anything that he felt was out of his comfort zone. Smith illustrates the issue with an unbelievably raunchy metaphor involving a detailed description of oral sex, then teasingly said, “Try and get that into your old-media story.” I asked him if he could offer a PG-13 version of the story.
“Put it this way,” he said. “On the first day of shooting, I started to mess with Bruce, trying to get him to do something crazy, and he took out his gun and went bang — and shot me in the head. His point was pretty obvious. He’s done this part so many times that he knows what works and what doesn’t. He’s the caretaker of the Bruce Willis persona. He’s been a star for 25 years while most of his peers have fallen by the wayside, so he knows what works for his image. Basically, we all tried to make him laugh, figuring if we got Bruce just to smile once we’ve have something to tell our kids about.”
It would probably be fair to say that, judging from the rough, sometimes insulting treatment Smith got in the media after the Southwest Airlines debacle, that the filmmaker has a lot to learn about the care and feeding of his own image. Most people who were bumped from a flight for supposedly being too fat would’ve kept the incident to themselves. But not Smith, who went after Southwest with a vengeance, first on Twitter, then on his website, which has been filled with a host of heated diatribes directed at the airline.
Smith basically makes two points about the whole imbroglio: He was treated unfairly and he had every right to shout about it from the rooftops. “Look at the pictures of me at the ‘Cop Out’ premiere last night and tell me — is that dude really too fat to fly?” he says, though I’ve excised a couple of choice profanities. “Does that dude really need two seats? Southwest just messed up and then they sold the lie that I was too fat to fly to support a policy that’s unfair in a million different ways.”
What really ticked Smith off was the media reaction, which he thought was snarky, self-righteous and lazy, in the sense that nearly every story simply went for the jokes and the outrage, but only offered the most cursory examination of the airline’s actual policies. Having read all too many of the stories myself, I can’t say it was the media’s finest hour, though I suspect that most reporters felt that if Smith was treating the whole affair with broad humor, why shouldn’t they do the same.
Still, Smith remained incensed. “They’re really pathetic,” he says, punctuating his rant with even more expletives. “It really sickened me that after all the years I’ve been so open with the press that they didn’t bother to dig at all. I was unfairly bounced and discriminated against, but they never bothered to tell that story. They just went with the easy fat jokes. Every TV show imaginable asked me to go on, from Oprah to Larry King, but I turned them all down because I didn’t want to turn into Octomom. I told the Warners marketers — don’t put me in front of the cameras at the junket because you’re just gonna get four minutes of a guy screaming about an … airline.”
Smith is especially peeved at all the media people who believe that he brought this whole thing down on himself by incessantly tweeting about it instead of keeping his mouth shut. “That shows you how much the old media knows about today’s universe,” he says. “In the world of social media, where everyone has a cellphone camera, this was gonna get out whether I wanted it to or not. So I’m not letting anyone tell the story but me. Once the airline started lying, I did what any good comedian would do — use comedy to soothe my pain.”
Smith paused for a rare moment of reflection amid his no-stop rants. “I grew up fat, so I know that you have to stick up for yourself because I know that you’re gonna get called a fat guy whether you like it or not. So when you’ve been wronged, you have to speak out. It’s like asking someone whose been assaulted or raped — why’d you say something about it? It’s basically self-defense. I have to say that the whole situation sickened me. All I saw was hatred and snarkiness and cynicism.”
Fortunately, he’s had a happy experience making his first studio movie. “I’d do another one in a heartbeat,” he says. “It’s just a popcorner. I mean, no one’s gonna ask, ‘What’s the message of ‘Cop Out’? But we had a lot of fun. The studio gave us the box and all the dimensions and we found a way to fit all the good stuff in the box without breaking it, Who could ask for more?”
Photo of Kevin Smith by Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.