It's been 20 years since Clerks. It's a number Kevin Smith, wearing his signature hockey jersey and ensconced in a Toronto hotel room two days after the world premiere of his latest movie Tusk, repeats with self-conscious pride. Not every '90s wunderkind has lasted so long or come off a Toronto International Film Festival screening filled with cheering fans in walrus masks. "Twenty years into your career, you're really not supposed to be doing anything good or different," he told BuzzFeed News.
Well, there's no arguing that Tusk — the proudly batshit new feature Smith just premiered at the festival, which is set to open in theaters on Sept. 19 — is very different. And it's also surprisingly good. The unpredictable horror-comedy marries Smith's distinctive voice with some startling body horror, and stars Justin Long as Wallace Bryton, who travels to a remote area in Canada to interview a promising-sounding oddball for his podcast.
Though Wallace is looking for a crazy story to record, he becomes one himself when he ends up in the clutches of the insane Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who's fixated on creating a human walrus using a custom suit, amateur surgery, and brutal psychological conditioning. Haley Joel Osment plays Wallace's podcasting partner, Genesis Rodriguez is his girlfriend, and an uncredited Johnny Depp plays a quirky French Canadian detective.
The film was conceived during an episode of Smith's podcast called SModcast, during which he and producer Scott Mosier freestyled a potential movie based on a hoax online ad offering a rent-free place to live to anyone willing to wear a walrus suit. It's no accident that Wallace is also a podcaster, though Smith only sees a little of himself in the character, who was significantly shaped by Long's input. It was Long who pitched Wallace as a guy made callous and arrogant by his online success, suggesting to Smith, "I think there's something interesting to be said about a guy who's losing his humanity but who lost it already."
"As much as I would like to say Wallace is me and this is a metaphor, it really isn't," Smith said. "I thought about it one moment: If I go out there and start telling people, 'This whole movie's a metaphor for working with Bruce Willis,' that would get me a lot of press, but it just wouldn't be fucking true."
Willis played one-half of the duo at the center of Cop Out, Smith's scorned 2010 comedy over which he clashed with critics, threatening to withhold early access to his future features from anyone who wasn't willing to buy a ticket. He's talked about retiring from film, and has, in recent years, turned his focus to podcasting and his AMC reality show Comic Book Men. And, frustrated by what he saw as wasteful amounts of money being spent on movie marketing, he announced he'd auction off the rights to his 2011 movie Red State after its premiere at Sundance, only to buy them himself in what turned out to be a stunt to launch a self-distribution campaign.
But there's little sign of that discontent and exhaustion when Smith talks about Tusk, which was made on the cheap and is being put out by upstart distributors A24, which also handled Spring Breakers and Under the Skin. Smith attributes the change to getting back to his Clerks days of low budgets and creative freedom, assembling elements like the Canadian setting and Red State star Parks. "I priced myself out of being interesting for a while," he admitted. "I did it to myself." It's a "gilded cage" Smith is happy to have left behind, along with the considerable work of putting out a movie by himself. "At the end of the day, having distribution help is amazing," he said, relieved to have found a company he trusts to market Tusk the right way.
"I guess what it comes down to is not caring what anybody else is doing, not caring where this might wind up, never thinking about the future, not thinking about business beyond a fiscally responsible budget," he added.
And just as much as Tusk isn't a metaphor for Smith's career, the filmmaker also doesn't see it as an internet morality tale, though Wallace's lack of empathy for the viral stars of the moment that he targets is painfully believable. "The internet for me has been nothing but positive, even though I've had to deal with some of the most horrible fucking sentiments thrown at me anywhere in this world by anonymous fuckers — not just me, my family, my child," Smith said. Tusk, he points out, only exists because of the internet, which he's been active on since the mid-'90s. He even turned to his devoted online community on Twitter to vote (#WalrusYes or #WalrusNo) on whether he should make Tusk happen.
As for critics, who Smith lashed out against with so much vitriol a few years ago — Smith actually read and retweeted a review the other day. It helps, of course, that it was a rave, but he still described the moment as a "big breakthrough." "It was such a crazy emotional moment where I got a little wet-eyed, just by virtue of the fact that for so long, I was so fucking angry," he explained.
"It was nice to let go of that. I'm too fucking old to fight or care anymore. I'm old now enough to know some people are going to like it and some people are not going to like it. And that's way easier to say with something like Tusk, because yeah, some people are not going to like it."
He paused and added, "I'm more shocked that anybody likes it. I'm delighted."