It was a stupidly hot day in Los Angeles when I ventured to the San Fernando Valley to purchase two Kevin Smith–branded strains of weed that were created to promote the director’s new walrus horror movie, Tusk. As much as I dislike the perception of the Valley as Los Angeles’s swamp cousin, I will admit that the idea of leaving a hundred-degree apartment on the Eastside to travel to Studio City, where it was about 10 degrees hotter, did not thrill me. As I flew down the freeway, Axl Rose’s voice echoed in my head. “You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby. You’re gonna die.”
Every other store on Ventura Boulevard is currently a weed store, and the stores in between them sell vaporizers. Dispensaries come in all styles, from high-end to sketchy; Buds and Roses, which created the Tusk tie-in weed, is of the high-end variety. It sells its own merchandise and has an A/C-cooled waiting room stocked with books like To End the War on Drugs and Chess Pieces (an art book of blown-glass pipes) stacked on mirrored tables. According to the store’s owner, Aaron Justis, Smith reached out from New York to Buds and Roses and asked about the possibility of creating a custom Tusk strain. They cultivated two options, a sativa called “White Walrus” and an indica called “Mr. Tusk.” Both strains come packaged with Tusk-themed illustrated labels.
As a teenager I once spent a different very long, hot afternoon on Ventura Boulevard in the name of Kevin Smith, waiting in line with a friend all day for a meet-and-greet with the director at a now dearly departed proto-DVD store in Studio City called Dave’s Video: The Laser Place, which specialized in LaserDiscs, then DVDs, and then went out of business. Smith signed the bottle of sunscreen I had been carrying with me for hours while waiting in the line. I appreciated that Kevin Smith chose a dispensary in the Valley, because it felt right for the Kevin Smith brand. His fans are an unpretentious lot, and the Valley is essentially the New Jersey of Los Angeles. Coincidentally, Buds and Roses is located across the street from my junior high bus stop, a dusty traffic island where I spent many hot, sweaty afternoons sitting on my backpack waiting to go home. My suburban, middle-class childhood in North Hollywood was probably not too far off from Smith’s in Red Bank, New Jersey, located near minimarts, video stores, and the comic book section at the newsstand — although if Smith had grown up close to Porn Valley, his directing career might have turned out a lot differently.
Smith’s first three movies have all aged incredibly well. They are also an unpretentious lot, smart and smart-alecky. There is the Cassavetean ode to shooting the shit with your friends all day, Clerks, the earnest ’80s teen movie tribute Mallrats, and Chasing Amy, one of the most genuinely subversive rom-coms since Annie Hall. All three of these movies have dialogue that I can still quote chapter and verse. Smith’s movies, like a lot of ’90s Gen-X indie movies, feature characters whose nostalgia for the media of their childhoods peppers every other line of dialogue.
The 2000s were a confusing time for all of us, including Smith, whose ambitious road comedy about religion, Dogma (released on the eve of the new century), was considered a bust, perhaps because for the first time it felt like he was being overly self-conscious. At the Purple One’s request he made a documentary about Prince, which Prince deemed unsuitable for release (but boy would we like to see it!). Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was even more self-conscious, a metafictional spinoff for the two side characters who had become Smith’s most public alter egos.
Jersey Girl, Smith’s attempt to break away from the insularity of the View Askew “Askewniverse,” was pilloried for being overly sentimental (of all things) and having the unfortunate timing to involve a post-Gigli Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez just as “Bennifer” was melting down. A cowed Smith returned to his homeland for Clerks II, which earned the dubious distinction of being better than critics predicted. Smith was caught between catering to his fans — a captive audience who wanted the “old” Kevin Smith, Clerks Kevin Smith, to remain encased in ’90s carbonite — and critics who wanted him to make a movie they’d consider respectable (whatever that means). He tried to please both with Zack and Miri Make a Porno, his attempt at a broad comedy aimed at Judd Apatow’s audience. Having finally made what he thought would be his big lucrative crowd-pleaser, his Caddyshack, Smith became “depressed” when the movie flopped at the box office because he “wanted that movie to do so much better.” (Some people blamed the fact that Zack and Miri had “Porno” in its title, which led a lot of media outlets to drag their feet about running promotions for the film.) Smith’s final attempt at a big studio movie, Cop Out (originally A Couple of Dicks), was another misfire, and Smith talked on Marc Maron’s podcast about the “soul crushing” experience of directing his lifelong idol Bruce Willis and finding out that Willis was “a fucking dick.”
The silver-haze lining for Smith from his Zack and Miri experience was that he began smoking pot regularly for the first time in his life. Despite his Jay and Silent Bob reputation as a stoner, Smith had only ever dabbled. He said that Seth Rogen, who is both a prolific joint roller and a high-functioning stoner, convinced him that pot was a good way for Smith to channel his creative impulses and simultaneously off the part of his brain that was thirsty for fan feedback. Like a high school nerd who reinvents himself as a stoner and finds he no longer cares about being considered a nerd, Smith the stoner was able to let go of his need to please everyone (which is impossible, anyway) and focus on figuring out what he wanted for himself.
By the end of the decade, Smith was alienated from both the major studios who didn’t like the spiky dialogic edges of his original visions and the big indies that had launched his career. The failure of Zack and Miri ended what had been a long partnering with Miramax, which declined to finance Smith’s 2010 horror movie about Westboro Baptist Church, Red State. Red State was a passion project for Smith, and he self-distributed it through SModcast Pictures. Red State was widely panned and failed to make back its budget, but after it became available online it developed a cult following among horror fans, many of whom were initially unaware that it was a Smith joint. As Match Point did for Woody Allen, Red State freed Kevin Smith from the shackles of having to be Kevin Smith. And like Allen, who found new creative inspiration by leaving New York for Europe, Smith left the familiar environs of Jersey and the Askewniverse for a new final frontier, the wilds of Canada. As a hockey-obsessed teenager growing up on the East Coast, Smith had long been intrigued by Canada and its culture. Tusk takes place in rural Manitoba, and it tells the tale of an arrogant podcaster played by Justin Long who sees his life forever changed by an eccentric Canadian (Michael Parks) who wants to transform him into a walrus. Smith makes it clear that he wanted this movie to be a chance for him to just make something interesting without overthinking it or worrying about how it might be received. Smith’s technique is basically Dogme 95. On his blog Silent Bob Speaks, he wrote that he hoped Tusk “could grow up to be a weird little movie and not an indie film call-to-arms or a frustrated self-distribution manifesto. I just wanted to showcase Michael Parks in a fucked up story, where he could recite some Lewis Carroll and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to some poor motherfucker sewn into a realistic walrus costume.”
While Smith’s film empire wobbled, he had been diversifying his portfolio for years, writing comics, producing a reality show (the excellent Comic Book Men on AMC), acting in a several-episode-long plot arc on Degrassi: The Next Generation, and doing a popular podcast (the SModcast) on his own new podcast channel. Now in his forties, Smith seems done chasing the approval of fickle critics who were likely never going to give it to him anyway. He has promised fans Clerks III, and he has gone on his own weird trip with Tusk, which opens this week. Horror feels like a perfect fit for Smith — a place where esoterica and B-movie aesthetics are championed rather than maligned, and where directors and fans tend to have more of an ongoing relationship. New Smith fans are born every day; there are always kids seeing Clerks for the first time, recognizing themselves and their friends in Smith’s tenderly filthy ode to his early Jersey years. A mainstream studio film would not allow for Clerks’s endless digressions, its scenes of fucking around, its low-stakes plot, or its lack of Hollywood-handsome leads. And all those things are exactly what make it great.
It feels unfair that Smith has been so far left behind by the mainstreaming of comic-book culture, when he was the first real fanboy to invade Hollywood. He was almost involved in a number of major comic book film projects; he wrote a draft of the doomed Tim Burton–Nicolas Cage Superman and a draft of The Green Hornet that got killed after Jersey Girl flopped. Smith, who owns a comic-book store in his hometown and has written for titles like Daredevil, has talked about how excited he is for his old friend Affleck to play Batman in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, but you have to wonder if he doesn’t wish that directing gig were his instead. Having given up on going the direct route, Smith has decided to circumvent it by inventing his own superheroes in a new, currently filming project called Yoga Hosers that stars Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp; Depp himself; and Smith’s daughter, Harley Quinn Smith. Kevin Smith says, “Instead of yet another dude saving the day, our antiheroes are the two most feared and formidable creatures man has ever encountered: two 15-year-old girls.” Yoga Hosers is intended to be the second film in Smith’s True North trilogy, with Tusk as the first and the third called Moose Jaws. There’s also a Krampus horror movie called Anti Claus in the mix. Smith seems reinvigorated by his Canadian horror period, freed from both the Askewniverse and major studio meddling.
I got boxed out of a Tuesday-night screening of Tusk at the Vista Theater, which had sold out because real Smith fans are incredibly loyal, but I was granted entrance to the screening’s after-party at a local restaurant. Justin Long, the star of Tusk, was exiting through the alleyway when I got there, signing autographs and taking pictures with a few fans. If Smith had been there, he was gone by the time I got inside. Dressed in my professional reporting gear of a sleeveless Grateful Dead shirt and flip-flops, I may or may not have been under the influence of one of the Tusk strains, the White Walrus. I entered the club where the party was held and went to the bar, where I asked for a ginger ale. The bartender said, “Are you OK with the kind of ginger ale that is Coke and Sprite mixed together?,” and I said, “Uh, sure,” not really understanding what he meant. I drank my drink, which was Coke and Sprite mixed together. It didn’t taste like ginger ale in the least, but it wasn’t half-bad. My friend ordered a Tusk-themed cocktail called “#WALRUSYES” that we both first misread as “WALRUS EYES.”
It was the least “Hollywood” film party I have ever been to, unpretentious and full of civilians. Most of the partygoers were members of Cinefamily, the indie theater that had set up the L.A. Tusk screening. I went to the roof deck. There was no sign of Smith, but several guys in Buds and Roses shirts were circulating among the smokers, offering information about the Tusk strains of pot. I talked to the owner of Buds and Roses and its main grower, a guy who told me his name was Kyle Kushman. Kushman attempted to explain his original growing method, called “Veganics,” which I found confusing because I had been under the impression that all marijuana was vegan by default of being a plant. Kushman told me he thought marijuana culture was having a mainstream-media breakthrough, with comedian and lifelong pot activist Tommy Chong on the new season of Dancing With the Stars.
From the roof deck of the Tusk party I could see the sign next door of the car wash from Nathan for You. It was one of those glamorous Hollywood moments we all dream about. It was still hot outside when I left, and even hotter inside when I got home. I sat outside on the porch and watched a clip of Chong on the premiere of Dancing With the Stars. The 76-year-old cha-chas to a live version of “Drop It Like It’s Hot” with a dancer named Peta, wearing a verdantly green suit jacket. I laughed out loud as I realized that Chong can fucking dance, man, and for a moment I forgot that it was the middle of the night and still uncomfortably hot. I watched it again. I didn’t meet Kevin Smith that night, but it was a magical evening nonetheless.