Kevin Smith was still working at Quick Stop Groceries in Leonardo, N.J., for months after Clerks — the bare-bones black-and-white comedy he filmed in the store — had become the toast of the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, been acquired by Miramax Films and promised to launch the budding filmmaker’s career. Emotionally, Smith was on top of the world, especially when Clerks, which only cost Smith $27,000 to make, racked up $3 million at the box office.
Then came his highly anticipated follow-up, Mallrats, which Universal gave Smith $6 million to produce (or 222 times the budget of Clerks) and which featured red-hot Beverly Hills, 90210 alum Shannen Doherty along with such promising up-and-comers as skater-turned-actor Jason Lee, Jeremy London, Joey Lauren Adams and Ben Affleck in a story about comic-book-obsessed slackers dealing with romantic strife. Mallrats tanked, however, earning only $2.1 million in ticket sales and getting shredded by critics who only a year earlier had anointed Smith a budding Indie Film God.
“When it came out, nobody liked this movie and I was told, ‘You’re bad,’ and it flopped and my career was over,” Smith tells Yahoo Entertainment in a new interview commemorating today’s 25th anniversary of the film and its new special-edition Blu-ray (watch highlights above, and full interview below).
“The whole game was over pretty quickly. And then I spent years distancing myself from Mallrats. It became my whipping-boy joke. There was six months where things were very dark. I’ve never been truly depressed, or had true darkness, but that was definitely, in my career, a dark moment. Especially uncertain, because I was like, ‘What happens in this instance? Do I get to do this again?’ It’s not like Universal was like, ‘Hey man, so what do you want to do next?’”
Smith had wisely already plotted a long-term deal with Miramax, who would distribute his next two films, Chasing Amy (1997) and Dogma (1999), both of which fared much better. And somewhere over that time frame, opinion shifted on Mallrats, with audiences discovering the comedy on home video as it gradually evolved into a cult classic — our favorite term for beloved box-office bomb.
The writer-director, now 50, credits the film’s broadening appeal to its embrace of comic-book lovers, years before what was considered a fringe demo became mainstream with the explosion of Comic-Con culture and various cinematic universes. After all, this was a film that had a four-minute Stan Lee scene five years before the comics kingpin began making sport of such cameos in 2000’s X-Men, Marvel tradition that carried on until 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. (Smith considers Lee’s cameo in the ’90s-set Captain Marvel, in which Lee is shown holding a Mallrats script and rehearsing his lines — and by extension establishing Smith as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a life highlight.)
Like most popular movies with a young ensemble, there is a bounty of casting what-ifs when it comes to Mallrats. Smith worked with Dazed and Confused casting director Don Phillips to set up a round-robin “pizza party” and other meetings with performers that included Alyssa Milano, Amanda Peet, Seth Green and Breckin Meyer. (Universal originally insisted that Smith cast Green or Meyer over Jason Mewes for the role of Jay — Smith’s Silent Bob’s right-hand man — that Mewes originated in Clerks, essentially playing himself.)
The boldest of all bold-faced names that Smith met with was future Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon, who had already garnered early attention for roles in films like The Man in the Moon (1991) and A Far Off Place (1993).
Smith says he considered himself the ultimate film snob at the time, a living, breathing version of modern-day #FilmTwitter, and one innocent comment from the young actress rubbed him the wrong way.
“Reese Witherspoon is talking about Clerks, and she goes, ‘Oh, I was also in a convenience-store movie, [Jefery Levy’s 1995 black comedy] S.F.W. It’s the same thing.’ And that really f****** turned me off. I was like, ‘S.F.W.? That’s not Clerks!’ That was kind of the dealbreaker for us. That was not the only dealbreaker, but that was a big one.”
Though Mallrats, like Clerks, would be an easy R-rating for its coarse language, Smith also felt the pressure to include sex and nudity given he was producing a teen comedy for the studio behind classics like Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
But one scene Smith wrote went too far. “One of the changing-room gags was you see Gwen [Adams] getting changed and then you go through the wall and you see Jay and Silent Bob watching, and Silent Bob is jerking off below frame. And then all the sudden it hits the moment of truth, and you see his ‘oh face’ and you see something jet up super-fast and then all you hear is [screaming] from the other side. And then Jay and Silent Bob go running from the changing room. And then every time we saw Gwen after that in the movie, she had matted hair, hair that was tightened up and matted.”
Universal Pictures production executive Nina Jacobson nixed the scene.
“A couple years later there’s a movie called There’s Something About Mary where bodily fluids in the hair is such a thing that it’s on the f****** poster. I remember at the time being like, ‘Man, I could’ve been the first!’ Now, in 2020, I’m OK.”
Buy the Mallrats: 25th anniversary special edition Blu-ray on Amazon.
Watch our full Kevin Smith interview:
— Videos produced by Jon San and edited by Jimmie Rhee
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