Kevin Smith’s 1994 debut comedy, “Clerks,” was so foulmouthed that it was initially rated NC-17 just for its language. Even downgraded to an R, the movie’s frank talk wowed Seth Rogen when he caught up with it in high school.
“It just blew my mind,” he said. “I was like, ‘Holy (expletive), these guys are just talking like us. They’re talking about (oral sex), but there’s an emotional story to it.’”
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Katie Morgan, Traci Lords
(The Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 31 Oct 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 14 Nov 2008 (General release); 2008)
For Rogen, who went on to play featured roles on Judd Apatow’s TV series “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” the movie helped inspire his own screenwriting career.
“I really think that’s what let us know it was OK to try writing ‘Superbad’ - just that something like that could exist,” he said while taking a break from filming Apatow’s upcoming movie, “Funny People.” “And I just thought it was the funniest stuff ever, just how dirty it was. Even when we were making ‘40-Year-Old Virgin,’ I was a heavy proponent of making it really dirty and pushing the envelope with the friends and just making them very real guys’ guys, and a lot of that came from my love of ‘Clerks’ and Kevin Smith. I would say I’m a direct product of his work.”
Now the 26-year-old star of “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express” is repaying the favor, taking the lead in Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” which the 38-year-old director wrote with Rogen in mind. This very R-rated comedy, which opens Friday, has Rogen and Elizabeth Banks playing roommates who try to pay their delinquent bills by making and co-starring in a cheapo porn film.
“Seeing Seth in ‘40-Year-Old Virgin’ crystallized ‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno,’” Smith said. “When I saw Seth in that movie, I fell in love with him instantly, ‘cause I’m like, ‘This is like a living, breathing version of Randal from “Clerks.” He sounds like one of my characters.’ And suddenly I realized this is the dude who should be in that ‘porno’ flick that I want to do.”
So the Smith and Apatow/Rogen worlds have officially merged, and it all makes sense. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005) and “Knocked Up” (2007), the two comedies directed by Apatow and featuring Rogen, focus on emotionally stunted guys who learn to grow up with the help of an attractive woman and a foulmouthed male support system. Last year’s “Superbad” and this summer’s “Pineapple Express,” both produced by Apatow and co-written by and co-starring Rogen, also depict social misfits whose male bonds are far stronger than anything the females can offer.
These dynamics can be traced back to such Smith films as “Clerks” and its 2006 sequel as well as “Chasing Amy” (1997), in which Ben Affleck’s comic book artist struggles with his lesbian girlfriend’s past while his best buddy, played by Jason Lee, is threatened by the relationship.
“When I saw ‘40-Year-Old Virgin,’ the first impression I had was ‘Wow, somebody else is making the movies that I make,’” Smith recalled. “I’d seen many comedies since I made ‘Clerks,’ but nobody really did specifically what we did, and suddenly somebody was doing it - and they were a lot more successful at it than we were.”
Of Smith’s seven previous features, only “Dogma” (1999) and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001) have cracked $30 million at the domestic box office. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” grossed $109 million and $149 million, respectively.
But Smith, who said he loves Apatow’s movies, isn’t complaining.
“For years, I always felt like if you’re going to mix sweetness and sentimentality with raunch, you’ll never make more than 30 million bucks,” Smith said. “Judd and company shattered that glass ceiling, and for that I’m forever thankful because it means that our stuff now is more commercially viable than it had ever been.”
Apatow, who was unavailable to be interviewed, acknowledged the connection during a panel he shared with Smith at Comic-Con in San Diego last summer. When an audience member asked about the filmmakers’ influences, Apatow responded, “Well, Kevin Smith laid down the track.”
Smith bear-hugged Apatow onstage.
Still, the two filmmakers approach their material differently, and their movies have distinct flavors. Smith’s films boast more of a ramshackle vibe, and you never know when he’ll plunge deep into some scatological joke that cracks him up. Apatow’s works feel more polished and structured, with a bit more flesh on the characters’ bones.
Yet Smith is the director who preaches fidelity to his script while Apatow encouraged much improvising.
“Judd really discovers it as he’s shooting, and Kevin really knows what he wants beforehand,” Rogen said. “Kevin’s very open to change and to find new jokes, but he definitely has a much more specific idea of what he wants going in.”
Smith praised Rogen for “honoring” the script while also offering some of his own jokes without breaking character. “In many ways when we were working, it was like who could be dirtier, me or him? I’ve got to give it to you: Rogen’s way dirtier than I’ve ever been.”
“Zack and Miri” will offer an interesting test case on whether a porn-themed comedy can be considered mainstream - or whether Smith should view the controversy over the word “Porno” in his title as fair warning.
Said Rogen: “I feel like as porn gets pushed into the mainstream and everything just becomes dirtier - there’s ‘Big Brother’ on television where they show people having sex - that I think people are just becoming more and more open to it.”
At this point Smith thinks audiences should appreciate his movie’s topical value. “When I wrote the movie, we weren’t going through the economic crisis that we are now, so a few people who read it were like, ‘Come on, how plausible is this that they’re so broke that they turn to porn?’ Now it seems like a reality, dude.”