Months later, he applied to Vancouver Film School, where he met his long-time producer Scott Mosier. There they made a pact that, whichever of them finished a screenplay first, they would both drop everything to get that film made.
The result -- made from $27,500 worth of student loans, credit-card debt and parents' help -- was the generation-defining 1994 film Clerks. A portrait of fast-mouthed misfits in dead-end jobs, the movie swept Sundance. Smith, heavy-set, with a trademark uniform of beard, backward baseball cap and cut-off jeans, became an icon of smart, anti-glamorous irony.
For the past decade, Smith has also been busy proving how much ambition he has. As well as writing comic books (Daredevil, Green Arrow), owning a comics shop, and serving as executive producer on the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, he has made four more films. After Clerks came the slacker ensemble piece, Mallrats (1995); the lesbian love story, Chasing Amy (1997); the Catholic satire, Dogma (1999); and the road comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001).
Now there's his new film, Jersey Girl, a family movie, appropriate for the 33-year-old Smith, who married USA Today reporter Jennifer Schwalbach five years ago and is the doting father of a daughter, Harley Quinn. The movie -- which opens tomorrow-- stars Ben Affleck as a music publicist learning to live again after his spouse (Jennifer Lopez) dies in childbirth, leaving him with a daughter to raise.
The story looks like a detour into the middle-of-the-road for the director, but Smith's audience is immensely loyal. Through his setbacks and successes, Smith has carried on a frank and funny dialogue with his fans through the website, http://www.viewaskew.com. The story of his depressing experience of coitus interruptus was told -- not in a reflective moment in the booth of a dark bar -- but before a sold-out audience of college students at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall a couple of weeks ago.
The evening -- organized by Ryerson University Student Administrative Council in conjunction with eight other post-secondary schools around the province -- sold out in 90 minutes. The question-and-answer session lasted four hours, a consistently entertaining exchange of unfiltered questions and uncensored answers. The audience, who greeted Smith with a standing ovation, treated him more like a hometown hero than a visiting star.
Questions were occasionally confrontative: Why would he cast Jennifer Lopez after seeing Gigli? Smith shot back: "Because Ben was in love with her so he didn't have to act and you want Affleck to do as little acting as possible. . . ."
The evening was inspired by a DVD documentary, An Evening with Kevin Smith, (2002). Columbia Tri-Star approached him about doing a Q&A session at five colleges for a low-budget documentary. Since then, college performances have become a regular part of his life, a way of doing his own market research with his fans.
On the Saturday morning after the show, we meet in his hotel room over chocolate croissants. Dressed as usual in an oversized sports jersey, he talks about his fan base with a fond sense of wonder.
"It's really weird. It's kind of like director-as-rock-star to some degree. I never realized it was extraordinary until a couple of years ago. That DVD was supposed to kick off a series of director talks but nobody followed. The Columbia-TriStar people said these other directors don't have an audience. I mean, I'd pay money to watch Tim Burton, Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese but they don't do this kind of give and take. Honestly, I'm not even there to talk about my art or craft. The audience is interesting in hearing anecdotes about my fly-on-the-wall perspective.
Standup comedians have been a major influence on his work (this is the third film where he has cast one of his idols, George Carlin), but he thinks of himself less as a comic than as a storyteller. If you put a gun to his head, he says, he'd probably describe himself as a "writer who happens to make films."
He wrote his first comic story when he was 12, about an enforced family visit. He finished a novel in Grade 8 for an Avon young-novelist competition and in high school, he wrote sketches for school talent shows. In his one semester of college, "I spent most of my time heading over to Rockefeller Center hoping [ Saturday Night Live producer]Lorne Michaels would walk past and see me sitting there and say, "In you I recognize a genius."
He decided to direct, he said, "after reading story after story in Premiere about screenwriters wanting to kill themselves after having their scripts screwed over. I kept thinking: So why not scale back and make your own movie? And when I had a chance, that's what I did with Clerks."
Smith shrugs off suggestions that Jersey Girl represents any kind of maturation. "They said I grew up with Chasing Amy. You can't grow up twice."
His only conscious change in direction was an effort to produce a good-looking film. After years of reading reviews criticizing his visual shortcomings, he hired Vilmos Zsigmond, the star cinematographer of such films as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Close Encounter of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter.
"Even Affleck said, "I can't believe I look good in one of your movies. What a switch. For a change I don't look like I've just been hit with a shovel."
When he's not being asked about Ben and Jen, Smith is fielding a lot of questions these days about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. That's because he had his own controversial religious film five years ago with Dogma, in which Jesus returns as a woman working in an abortion clinic. Though Smith's intention was comic, the experience was harrowing: At one point, star Linda Fiorentino refused to talk to him, actor Jason Mewes was strung out on drugs, and fundamentalist groups were issuing death threats against the cast and crew. Finally, Miramax dropped the film because of the protests ( Dogma was eventually picked up by the Canadian company Lions Gate).
Smith still hasn't seen Gibson's film, partly because he couldn't imagine anyone doing a better job on the life of Christ than Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and because he is uneasy with The Passion 's emphasis on violence and suffering. The only real point of comparison between his Dogma and Gibson's Passion, he says, is the disparity between the reception of the two films: "I only wish our statement on religion and spirituality had the same reception as his. We got 300,000 pieces of hate mail. The same people that tried to stop our movie endorsed his and he earned almost as much on his first day than we made in our entire run."
Smith knows he has his own blessings to count. There's his family, his new film and Miramax's recent announcement that he has been picked to direct the upcoming Green Hornet movie. At another college talk he offered an explanation of his own ongoing faith: "There can be no better explanation or proof of the existence of God than the fact that I have a film career."