In an exclusive peek at Tom Roston’s I Lost It at the Video Store—out Sept. 24 from the Critical Press—directors Nicole Holofcener, Kevin Smith, Joe Swanberg, and Quentin Tarantino dish about their life-changing jobs at video stores. If you’re in Los Angeles or New York City, be sure to check out Roston and some of the filmmakers from I Lost It At The Video Store in panel discussions on September 24 at Book Court (Brooklyn) and on September 26 at Vidiots (L.A.)
But first, let us introduce Roston’s cast of characters, the esteemed directors who lived the Clerks life:
NICOLE HOLOFCENER — Known for helming indies like Friends With Money and Enough Said, Holofcener also directed Amy Schumer’s “Last F—able Day” sketch.
KEVIN SMITH — The View Askewniverse mastermind launched his career with Clerks, set in the actual video and convenience store where he once worked.
JOE SWANBERG — A prolific director and mumblecore pioneer, Swanberg is best known for his low-key dramedies like Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas.
QUENTIN TARANTINO — The Oscar-winning director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction has a new film—The Hateful Eight—hitting theaters on Christmas.
I LOST IT AT THE VIDEO STORE by Tom Roston
QUENTIN TARANTINO: I found Video Archives in Manhattan Beach and I thought it was the coolest place I had ever seen in my life.
KEVIN SMITH: My mother was up my ass, “You got to get a job.” That summer, 1989, I went through three. I worked at Domino’s for one day and I never came back. They made me wear slacks, and I look terrible in slacks. I went to work at a cemetery. And they asked me to dig a f—ing grave. Right then and there, I was like, “I am too young.” And I worked at an Italian bakery, which you’d imagine I’d love, but I hate Italian pastries.
TARANTINO: [In 1985] the owner asked if I wanted to have a job there. He didn’t realize he was saving my life. And for three years, it was really great. The case could be made that it was really too terrific. I lost all my ambition for the first three years. I stopped trying to act and trying to direct.
SMITH: So I am combing the want ads. And I see the dream job. “Help wanted. Video store.” And I go to RST [in New Jersey]. I was like, “This is the Cocoon of jobs.”
NICOLE HOLOFCENER: I was going to NYU and a video store called New Video opened up in my neighborhood on University Place. I got to take home stacks of movies and copy them, of course, to start my own collection. It was a whole movie culture.
SMITH: I didn’t want to be a filmmaker. I just wanted to work at a video store. I thought I was going to be sitting behind the counter on a little footstool for the rest of my life. And brother, that suited me just fine. My father hated his job at the post office. He worked nights as a letter carrier. I saw how having a job he hated affected my old man. Here was a job I loved, and I got it.
TARANTINO: I could definitely push the stuff that I liked, or what I thought was interesting and challenging. For the most part, I tried to gear it for the customer. A housewife comes and, say, she wants something. I am 24 and she’s 54, so I’m not going to try to give her Eraserhead or Forbidden Zone or some kung fu movie. If she likes Tom Hanks? I am not going to steer her toward Bachelor Party, but I could very well steer her toward Nothing in Common. “Have you seen Nothing in Common with Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason?” I was pretty good that way.
SMITH: I always liked being helpful, and I’d try to tell people what to rent even if it was the same stupid s—over and over again. I loved talking with people. There was no Internet, so you couldn’t jump on a message board or Twitter. You got to do that in person with people.
TARANTINO: Me and the other guys would walk into the local movie theater and we’d be heading toward our seats and we’d hear, “There go the guys from Video Archives.” We were known all over that town. In a strange way, Video Archives in Manhattan Beach was a primer to what it would be like to be famous. Everyone in Manhattan Beach knew who I was. I couldn’t walk down the street without people calling, “Hey, Quentin. Hey, Quentin!”
JOE SWANBERG: We were ordering fifteen films a day for the store, and the manager didn’t care. She was like, “Yeah, whatever. Here’s the password to order what you want.” The little store in Naperville, Illinois, this corporate video store, had a massive foreign film section. It had a massive documentary section.
HOLOFCENER: It’s very personal renting videos to people. For the porn section, it’s like, “Okay, you are into taboo sex. You keep renting the taboo series.” I would say, “Yeah, I heard this one is really good. You’re going to like it. Tell me how it came out.”
SMITH: There was porn at RST. And it was stocked, son. Blockbuster never did porn, and so the mom-and-pops stayed in business with their porn rooms. Watching people interact with the porn room was awesome. Once you get comfortable with people, they wouldn’t do this dance, “Oh, what’s in the kids’ section? Ah, this looks good.” Pick up a drama. And then saunter back to the porn room and reach for the filthiest thing on the planet and then have to bring it up to the counter with Turner & Hooch. It was one of the particular joys of the video store.
HOLOFCENER: I had a really big crush on this actor. He wasn’t famous, but he was well known and he rented a lot of movies. And then one day he rented gay porn.
SMITH: There was one lady, a married mom. She had to be maybe 45. She would rent the action movie, the kids’ movie, and a hardcore flick. She just got down to, “Just give me what’s new.” Once you’re comfortable with someone renting porn, you can have conversations with him or her. Having a frank conversation with someone about his or her sex life informed my work a great deal.
TARANTINO: The store was my Village Voice and I was the Andrew Sarris. At a certain point I got to know everyone’s taste. And after three years, it got to be a real drag putting movies in people’s hands. When I started getting sick of the place, I started to reconnect with my ambition.
SMITH: I was not the rude clerk. Bryan [Johnson, who also worked at RST Video] is a creature of pride. To serve anybody is not in his matrix. It makes his skin crawl. To kowtow to someone who’s renting Problem Child instead of a good David Lynch movie—that would drive Bryan nuts.
TARANTINO: At one point, I brought all of the employees together to talk with them about an employee takeover. Now, none of us had any money, but this was a legitimate business thing. “Go to your parents and borrow the six thousand dollars, you and you and you and you. This is all legit.” Nobody was interested. I loved the place. I was really, really invested in it. The truth of the matter is, if we had done that, I may not have made Reservoir Dogs. I would have been working at, and owning, Video Archives.
© 2015 Tom Roston; reprinted by permission of the Critical Press