Weinstein, who ran Miramax at the time, shelled out $227,000 for the black-and-white movie set in a video store. But their agreement allowed for Smith to receive a backend if the movie became profitable.
That fall, “Clerks” grossed $3.2 million in North American theaters. And it generated tens of millions more on VHS, as it became a cult hit.
Now, in a recent interview with Variety, Smith reveals that it took Weinstein seven years to pay him back some of the royalties that he was owed. And even then, Weinstein deployed sketchy accounting tactics, like billing “Clerks” for the costs associated with renting a yacht for “Pulp Fiction” at the Cannes Film Festival.
Weinstein, who is serving 23 years in prison after being convicted in February of a criminal sex act and rape, could not be reached for comment, according to a representative.
Smith spoke to Variety in March, as he prepared to head to SXSW for “Clerk,” a documentary that chronicles the high points of his career, from “Mallrats” to “Chasing Amy,” and the low points of his personal life, including a near-fatal heart attack in 2018. The movie, directed by Malcolm Ingram, is now on hold, as its producers are hoping to debut it at a fall film festival.
Here are excerpts from our far-ranging interview with Smith, who talks about how the movie business has changed, why he turned down “Good Will Hunting” and how working with Bruce Willis on “Cop Out” broke him.
How did this documentary come about?
There was a weird origin. There was a book company that wanted to do a coffee table book about “Clerks” at 25, the anniversary was last year. So they were like, “We need somebody to write it.” And Malcolm has been around in my life since “Clerks.” He had just finished his latest documentary, called “Out to Win,” which was about gay athletes, and I guess he hadn’t found a sale yet. He was feeling kind of bummed.
I said, “Hey man, there’s not a cure for everything, but there’s this book company that wants to do a coffee table book on ‘Clerks’ and my career. It pays like 10 grand. Do you want to do it?’” And he was like, “Yeah!” And then 10 minutes later, he calls back and says, “If I’m interviewing these people, I might as well bring a camera, because we could turn it into a documentary.” So long story short, the book never happened. It’s really heartbreaking for that book company.
How much has the movie business changed since you started?
As a director, my job has never really changed in 25 years. Exhibition has changed incredibly since I got into this business; it’s hard for a filmmaker to see their film onscreen. And that’s what they all dream about. Over the course of my career, I’ve watched the mid-budget movie disappear completely. People used to make $20 to $30 million movies, usually a rom-com or a relationship picture. They’ve all migrated to streaming outlets or they become TV series like “This Is Us.”
Even a big comic-book movie like “Birds of Prey” underperformed at the box office this year.
And that movie’s really wonderful. I’m not an armchair quarterback. Nobody needs advice from the f–king guy who made “Yoga Hosers.” But in retrospect, that was just a case of that movie didn’t need to be R-rated. Other than Ewan McGregor going, “You f–king moron,” there’s not much in the movie to require it being R-rated. If you dropped it to a PG-13, I think you would’ve hit your core. It’s an aspirational movie, right? It’s about ladies getting together, girl power. And I would imagine a bunch of tween girls would have really enjoyed the hell out of that. And that’s coming from a guy who’s been making R-rated kids movies his whole career. Believe me, I know.
One of the parts in your documentary that surprised me is when you say that Seth Rogen introduced you to pot on “Zack and Miri Makes a Porno.” Were you not a pothead before that?
No, not at all. I made all those movies never having been a stoner. I can count maybe four times on one hand, the amount of times I smoked weed prior to making “Clerks,” “Mallrats,” prior to inventing Jay and Silent Bob.
What made you start smoking pot with Seth?
He was just such a role model. Not only was he smoking, he was making my movie and three better versions of my movie via ad-libbing and stuff. And he was working on another flick with Evan [Goldberg] at the time in his trailer, between takes. And I was like, “Man, he’s supposed to be this stoner and stuff. He’s one of the most productive people I’ve ever met in my life.” And he introduced me to the notion of the productive stoner. There’s a lot of us in this business.
Were you disappointed that “Zack and Miri” didn’t do better?
We should’ve f–king done better particularly because he was coming off of “Knocked Up.” But I think [Bruce] Willis was the one that broke me to be honest.
Oh, Christ. That was way more challenging than anything, because that was the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. I’m a creature of pure passion who does this job not for money but just because I always wanted to do it. And then I met another guy who was from a different ethos all together. It’s not his fault. It’s my fault. I went into that with higher expectations. I’m a big Bruce Willis fan.
Why was it hard to direct him?
Let me see. I’ve had years to think about this. I’ve written about it. I’ve done podcasts about it. But what is the best way to express it in 2020? He had a different way of working than I had ever worked before in my life. And our two mannerisms were not very cohesive in the least, which was weird because I was in ‘”Live Free or Die Hard” with him. And I really got along with him.
I spoke to [“Looper” director] Rian Johnson, he was on one of the podcasts once, and he was like, “It’s just so weird, because I never interacted with that version of Bruce.” And then I’ve spoken to other directors who were like, “Yeah, you got off light.” My guess is I wasn’t his cup of tea as a director. Maybe he didn’t respect me as a director? I mean, that’s f–king totally believable and understandable. Why would he? It was the weirdest experience of my life. I should say, “of my career.” The weirdest experience of my life was almost dying.
You talk about Harvey Weinstein in the movie, saying that you would have never worked with him if you’d known he was a sexual predator.
The Harvey part of the doc was one of the last things that made it into the movie. I remember the first pass of the movie. It was wonderful. But there was no mention of him. And there was an idea that maybe the story will be over at that point and does it need to be part of your story? But having watched the doc without any mention of him in it, it felt like — well, whitewashing. It felt like something was missing. You can’t tell this fairy tale story without mentioning the monster. And so that interview came afterwards. I think it would be weird if we didn’t mention him.
Harvey was known for not paying people what they were owed. Did you ever experience that?
He was notorious for that. I did encounter that. And I’m still out money. But you got to understand, I never cared about the money. My whole career, my reps were like: “You’re supposed to be making far more.” Money’s never been a motivator for me.
This much I know. They bought “Clerks” for $227,000. And the movie went out and made $3 million at the box office and stuff. And it took seven years for us to see any profit from that movie. For seven years, they were like: “Nope, the movie is still not in profit.” And we were like “How?” And then there were things.
We all went to Cannes. There were four movies that Miramax took to the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 — “Fresh,” “The Picture Bride,” “Clerks” and “Pulp Fiction.” Miramax didn’t get “Clerks” in. We were in the International Critics Week section, which we actually won. I get flown over by the festival. I was given a free hotel room from the festival. This is a long way of saying Miramax didn’t have to pay for anything. There was a yacht, the Miramax yacht, it was called. That’s where all the stars were. We hung out on it, hung out with Quentin [Tarantino] after he won his Palme d’Or and stuff. But that yacht wasn’t for us. When the festival was over, we got the financial statement. They had taken the entire Cannes bill, everything they spent in Cannes, and just chopped it up into four and “Clerks” was charged as much as “Pulp Fiction.” So we all paid an equal share.
I remember John Sloss, my lawyer, being like, “This is nuts. We have to audit them.” And I said, “No, I can’t audit people I’m in business with. That’s gross.” And we never audited them for years until after “Clerks 2.” And then we audited them years later and got a bunch of money. If I was a better business person, I would have gone for more money. But it felt like – “Oh, there it is. That’s their process. Movie math.” And, to be fair, I worked at studios and they have way more paperwork and you can see where every dime is going. But the nature of this business is everybody wants to keep as much money as they possibly can.
Why did you keep working for Harvey after that?
Because I got paid upfront for each movie. Believe me, I ain’t crying poor. And I got ridiculous escalating salaries. By the time I did “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” I think I made between $5 or $6 million. So come on, that’s ridiculous. But that was my salary. Upfront money was so good. I was never like, “Hey man, where’s those nickels and dimes on the back end?” And perhaps that’s why they kept making movies with me, even though my movies weren’t box-office profitable. Home video, they were goldmines. That’s really why they kept me around.
In the doc, you talk about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck bringing “Good Will Hunting” to you. Did you ever considering directing it?
I still don’t think I would be good at making “Good Will Hunting.” Even 22 years on. Gus [Van Sant] knew exactly what to do that with that. Harvey, at one point, when I brought the script in, he was like, “Why don’t you direct it? You know the boys.” And the boys were like, “Oh my God! You direct it.” They were coming from Castle Rock and Andy Scheinman wanted to direct it, and I think they were like, anybody but Andy Scheinman.
I watch that movie today and it still give me f–king chills, and the scene when he goes to knock on the door makes me cry. I did not have enough talent to pull it off then. Even now, I don’t think I do. I was happy to help them get their stuff made. And can you believe it? At one point in my life, I had enough juice to help somebody else? But I was always in it to tell my stories.