Clerks (1994): Kevin Smith’s Funny, Promising Debut

One of the highlights of the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, the prime showcase for new American independent movies, was the hilarious comedy Clerks, made by Kevin Smith with a no-budget of $27,000. Yes, only $27,000, which is probably the weekly expense account of a top studio executive.

There’s no doubt now that innovation in American movies, in both thematics and stylistics, can be found mostly in the works of young directors, who make movies because they have something interesting to say. I don’t mean heavy message or even socially conscious films, but rather works that express the singular vision of one person.

It’s not a coincidence that two of the most original films to be seen this week are Clerks, which was picked for distribution by Miramax after Sundance, and Darnell Martin’s I Like It Like That, which is a studio movie but still exhibits the eccentric vision of its director, touted as the first African-American woman director to have made a movie financed by a major studio (Columbia).

It’s also inconceivable that Smith or Martin, who wrote the screenplays for their movies, would let anyone else direct their pictures. That will present a major deviation from their independent, anti-conformist spirit.

Kevin Smith moved his camera, crew and cast into a tiny convenience store (called “Quick Stop”) in Leonardo, New Jersey, where he shot his movie, a black-and-white comedy about a day in the life of a convenience store cashier. Clerk’s other locale is R.S.T., the video store next door.

The comedy is replete with rough, foul language, which gave Miramax hard time, but also publicity until it got R rating, instead of the threatened NC-17. But the lingo is so integral to the characters’ mode of communication that after a few minutes, it feels most natural.

I am hesitant to use the media-created term, Generation X, to describe the humor of this film, for its characters are young people are hardly ambitious enough to be called slackers.

Director Smith fondly recalls the reaction of his Mom to his raw movie, “You spent $27,000 on this piece of trash.” Mom came strong, for the movie has charmed its audiences everywhere it was shown. Clerks won the Filmmaker’s Trophy at Sundance, which is voted by the directors, and it later won two awards at the Cannes Film Fest.

Smith, who also co-produced and co-edited his movie, stars as Silent Bob, a character that hangs out in front of the store and never speaks. The inspiration to make Clerks came after seeing Richard Linklater’s definitive expression of his generation, Slackers. There are some similarities between the two pictures: Clerks has no plot, no action, no car chases, not even a villain. All it has is funny dialogue, which is a missing element from most American movies. The dialogue may be offensive to some, but it rings true, and that’s what counts.

Smith reportedly raised $3,000 from his parents, sold his comic book collection, and eventually went into credit card debt, as did his producer, Scott Mosier. Just before opening night at Sundance, there were rumors that Smith had no money to fly to Sundance for the premiere of his movie!

Smith had to use some novice actors and to shoot the film quickly on a three-week schedule. He told reporters that each morning he would open the store at 6 a.m. and shoot until 11, then sleep until 4, at which point he would work the cash register until closing time at 10:30 p.m. Then he would shoot again until 6 the next morning.