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June 24, 2011 5:28 pm
The hills above the junction of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue are lush and green, with large houses nestled together on narrow, winding streets. It is a quiet, serene neighbourhood – a surprise, given the area’s proximity to the hustle and bustle of Hollywood – but that is one of the reasons the film director and writer Kevin Smith decided to move here a decade ago.
With an edgy sensibility and a taste for spicy dialogue, Smith, the director of films such as Chasing Amy, Dogma and Red State, has never really been part of the Hollywood establishment. Yet the portly director could not have chosen to live in an area more closely aligned with the entertainment industry.
Plenty of stars live in what is one of the city’s grandest enclaves. Dame Helen Mirren has a home nearby, for example, as does the director Penny Marshall. “Morpheus [Laurence Fishburne, the star of the Matrix films] lives around here too,” says Smith, easing himself into a chair in his living room.
Smith and his wife Jennifer, a former journalist, bought their imposing three-storey Mediterranean-style house from the actor and director Ben Affleck. Together with their 12-year-old daughter Harley – a vast portrait of her hangs in the entrance lobby – they have turned Affleck’s former bachelor pad into a welcoming family home. Smith, clad today in an outsize orange and blue ice-hockey shirt, says he got a good deal from the actor, a long-time friend who starred in several of his movies. Affleck renovated the house but gave Smith a great price. “He put a bunch of loot into it and sold to us for exactly what he bought it for.”
There is a terrace outside on the first floor that opens out on to a rooftop pool, and a little gate at the top of the stairs to stop Smith’s dogs from bursting in to the room unannounced. Inside, the walls are adorned with prints and paintings – including one work by street artist Shepard Fairey, who created the iconic image of Barack Obama before the 2008 presidential election. There is also a pool table and a fully stocked bar, although Smith doesn’t drink – marijuana, rather than alcohol, is his drug of choice.
The most unusual aspect – and the reason we are meeting – is that the living room also doubles as a fully functioning internet radio station, where Smith and Jennifer record a daily morning show that is streamed to about 100,000 listeners around the world.
Smith launched Smodcast Internet Radio (SIR) in May and broadcasts live Monday to Friday, building on the success of his podcasts, which attract as many as 300,000 listeners at a time, and his fans on Twitter, where he has 1.8m followers.
The move into radio came about partly because, after almost 20 years, he had grown tired of the movie business. “I’m done,” he says. “It’s been awesome but I can retire from film knowing I made enough movies. The radio thing makes it easier to walk away because I have something else to do. I will continue to work ... I just won’t be in film.”
The radio shows follow a simple format: he and his co-presenters riff on the day’s news, with no subject off-limits or too racy for discussion. It is a big departure from film, which has undergone some big changes since Smith first directed Clerks in 1994. There are fewer companies around to release the movies that Smith liked to make while the cost of releasing movies has skyrocketed. “If you’re telling a story that’s off-kilter then you can’t do it [anymore],” he says. “It requires $10m-$20m on marketing.”
With his last film, Red State, which explores fundamentalism in the US, he raised eyebrows at Robert Redford’s Sundance film festival when he screened the movie for potential distributors – only to announce that he would be releasing the movie himself. He was roundly castigated by many in Hollywood and admits to being surprised by the reaction. “They were like, ‘Kill the heretic!’”
What he wanted to do was go directly to the audience, without compromising the content of his work – or incurring the expense of a studio marketing campaign. So he did, taking the film out on the road across the country, Barnum & Bailey-style, promoting each screening on radio and local television and appearing in live question and answer sessions after the film had been shown.
Smith’s vast online following helped. “I just wanted to see if it could be done,“ he says. “Marketing is all about reaching an audience ... well, I reach an audience every day.”
Contrary to expectations, the film, which had a budget of $4m, has already earned enough to pay back Smith’s investors and, with more distribution deals in the offing, it should earn a healthy profit. This is not to say it was easy. “There were days when I was up at four in the morning selling the tour to the other side of the country. It takes a real dedication to the art form, to the product, to take it to the streets yourself.”
But why would one of the most outspoken and funny filmmakers of recent years want to quit the silver screen for internet radio? “It seems to be the most accessible art form,” he says. “Unlike film, which is way too expensive.”
He has secured a growing list of sponsors for SIR and was in the black from day one. But the continued success of the venture depends to a large extent on his wife Jennifer and her willingness to be on the air from her own home five days a week. So far, the omens are good. “She’s the big lynchpin here,” he says. “Everything depends on her digging it.”
Yet as I look around at the memorabilia from his film career, I cannot help but feel that Hollywood will be more boring without Smith around to liven things up. He has never been one to toe the industry line – self-releasing Red State is a prime example – and has never let film get in the way of other interests.
Smith also writes comics and tells me about a poetry reading he once held at the house when Stan Lee, the co-creator of Spider-Man, mercilessly needled a fellow guest – who turned out to be John Lydon of the Sex Pistols. The punk rocker “didn’t take it very well,” he says.
There are newspaper cuttings on the wall – including the interview Jennifer did for USA Today when she first met Smith 13 years ago. Was it love at first sight? “A fat man is never confident,” he sighs.
He may lack confidence but with an army of fans behind him and a killer sense of humour that shows no sign of losing its edge, it would be unwise to bet against the great Hollywood outsider in his new venture. “I’m lucky enough to not work for anyone anymore,” he says, laughing. “I can just work for the audience.”
My favourite things: Artwork
‘It’s beautiful, man’
On the statuettes of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck from the movie Dogma, by the sculptor Clete Shields:
“I saw some pieces he had done for Pulp Fiction and loved them. So after Dogma I had Clete make them for me, Ben, Matt and Jason Lee. Quentin [Tarantino] has his own pieces in his theatre at his house.”
On a portrait of Harley Smith, by Gottfried Helnwein:
“He does these giant pictures that look like photographs but if you get up real close you can see these tiny brushstrokes. I got home from work late one night after it had been hung up and went to the farthest wall and looked at it for a long time. It’s beautiful, man.”
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