The rise and fall and rise of Kevin Smith's Mallrats
The writer-director recalls making his ribald comedy, whose cast includes Jeremy London, Jason Lee, Shannen Doherty, Claire Forlani, and Ben Affleck.
In the mid-'90s, writer-director Kevin Smith was riding high. His indie debut, 1994's Clerks, was made for less than $30,000 but — after winning awards at both Sundance and Cannes — earned over 100 times that much at the box office. Smith himself was hailed as an important new cinematic voice thanks to his filthy, hilarious, star-free detailing of a day's life at a New Jersey convenience store. And then? And then came Mallrats.
Smith's second movie hit many of the same beats and pop-culture-obsessed comedic tones as its predecessor. This time around, however, the film boasted a cast of "proper" actors including Jason London, Jason Lee, Shannen Doherty, Ben Affleck, Claire Forlani, and Michael Rooker as well as Jason Mewes and Smith, reprising their Clerks roles of Jay and Silent Bob. Released in October 1995, Mallrats was savaged by critics — Roger Ebert declared it "sad" — and barely made $2 million, less than the far cheaper Clerks. Smith would go on to make many more movies, from 1997's Chasing Amy to last year's Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, but he still recalls the film's reception with a shudder. "Movie comes out in ’95," he says. "Critics s--- on it. It died at the box office and it’s gone within a week. I was the whipping boy, the sophomore slump of the year. All of that stuff. So, for years, I referred to Mallrats jokingly and jokingly apologized for it."
Smith doesn't apologize for it anymore. Among fans of the director, the film has become as beloved as any other while the movie's obsession with comic book culture seems downright prescient in an age when the box office is dominated by superhero movies. This week sees the release of a limited-edition two-disc Blu-ray set from Arrow Video which marks the 25th anniversary of Smith's defiantly un-PC comedy. "Arrow did a beautiful Blu-ray of it, man, makes me feel so relevant," says Smith, who is currently prepping a Mallrats sequel, Twilight of the Mallrats. "It has gorgeous artwork on it, comes with a documentary I sat down and did new interviews for as well. They restored it, so it looks better actually than the theatrical cut of the movie. It’s packed, man, it’s packed. Arrow sent me three copies and I’m not giving any away!"
Below, Smith recalls the rise and fall and rise of Mallrats.
KEVIN SMITH: I’d spent a lot of time at the mall as a kid. As a Jersey boy, we’ve got nothing but malls. So, I’m at Sundance, 1994. Clerks had just won the Filmmakers Trophy at the awards ceremony and John Pierson (a producer's representative and Smith mentor) introduces me to Jim Jacks (Mallrats producer), who I didn’t know, but I knew his name. It was on Tombstone, it was on Dazed and Confused. Raising Arizona. He's been around. He said, "It’s a shame that Miramax bought Clerks, because I was going to buy it for Universal." I said, "Oh, that would have been great." He said, "Yeah, I would have let you keep 75 percent of the movie." And I said, "75?" And he said, "Nobody f---s a a dead guy in a Universal movie." And I said, "Fair enough." So, he goes, "What are you doing next?" And I said, "We’re thinking of doing a movie called Mallrats." And he was like, "What’s that?" And I said, "Clerks, but in a mall." He goes, "You’re going to come out to Hollywood, because Disney's going to fly you out, that's what they do. And when you go out to meet with all the Disney studios, you make sure you leave a little time, come to Universal, and pitch that movie with me and my partner Sean (Daniel)" — they had a company called Alphaville — "Come pitch it at Universal." So, I saved the idea for them, and worked on it with Jim Jacks, and then we went and pitched it at the Black Tower. I think it was May of ’94. And then suddenly we were off and running.
KS: Shannen was the green-light. They told us, "You get Shannen Doherty you've got a green-light." Shannen was the most famous person in our cast, she had just left 90210. So, getting her was a coup. She came and read and it was instantly like, "Oh my god, she’s the person." Universal was waiting for someone famous. Because I was like, "I want to hire this person, I want to hire this person," and they were like, "You’re not hiring anybody famous." Because we saw all of young Hollywood. Reese Witherspoon came in on f---ing Mallrats, go figure. So, for me, Shannen, I’ll always love because she literally got that movie made.
Our casting director was the great Don Phillips. Don was famous in town for casting Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He had discovered Sean Penn. For us, he discovered Jason Lee. Jason Lee was a professional skateboarder who had never really acted before. So, Don Phillips goes, "I got a kid coming in today, and he’s never acted before, and he’s a professional skateboarder." I didn’t know much about the skate game. He comes in and he's green as hell. He's never really acted. We’re making chit-chat and I was like, "So I understand you’re a skateboarder." And he’s like, "Well, I just retired." And he looked like he was f---ing 23. So, I’m like, "You retired?" He goes, "I’ve been skating at a professional level for ten years, yeah. I want to put it aside now and I want to concentrate on a different discipline." He was so well-organized. I loved his delivery. It was so not-polished and so real and rough and funny. All the guys came in to read for TS (the role ultimately played by Jason London), all the girls that came in read for Brandi (who would be played by Claire Forlani). So, when Jason was done with his audition, Don Phillips was like, "Do you want him to come back?" And me and Scott Mosier (Smith's regular producer) were like, "Well, he's a really good guy, I don’t think he’s right for the part, but bring him back, because he’s fun to talk to." We kept bringing him back because we didn’t know anybody in Los Angeles and we just thought he was a nice guy. Eventually, he wound up being better than everybody else. I said, "Listen, I think we’ve figured it out, we want you to play Brodie." And I’ll never forget, he was eating, and he looks up for a brief second, and he goes, "Yeah?" and he goes right back to eating his sandwich, looking back down. Eating was more exciting than being cast in his very first movie at that moment in time. But he came out and absolutely crushed, man, and he was a delight.
I remember Jim Jacks, the producer, said, "There’s a guy coming in today and I don’t want him in the movie." I said, "Who is it?" And he goes, "Ben Affleck. He was in Dazed and Confused and he's got a real potty mouth." He goes, "There were a lot of ‘f---s’ and curses in that script already and then Ben threw in like hundreds more." So, I said, "Well, there’s a lot of cursing in our script." He goes, "Yeah, and if you bring this guy in, he’ll keep adding more curses, so I don’t want him in the movie, he's got a potty mouth." I said, "Okay." So, Ben came in and the day he auditioned was the day they announced the sale of Good Will Hunting to Castle Rock. I said, "Why are you auditioning for this movie, man?" And he's like, "I still want to act!" I was like "Alright, man, let’s see what you got." He was big. Ben’s a tall f---ing dude. He read for TS, just like every other guy, but right away I was like, well, I know he played a bully in Dazed and Confused but he would be great as Shannon. And then Jacks was like, "Come on, man! He’s going to potty the movie up!" I was like, "Too late, Jim," and Ben joined our party.
KS: We were in Eden Prairie, Minn. That was where we got the rebate, so we wound up shooting there after looking for malls all over. I thought we would shoot in New Jersey. That was my first lesson in the movie biz, that you’re going to go wherever it’s cheapest to go. So we found the Eden Prairie mall, which at that point was at less than 50 percent capacity because up the road they had just opened the Mall of America. I remember the location fee was $10,000, which wasn’t bad. I mean, I didn’t have to pay a location fee on Clerks at all. I’m like, What, pay for a location? The mall itself functioned like a soundstage at a studio, because we shot the movie outside and all around the mall, but also all the fake stores in the mall were our production offices. So you would just go to the mall and live there all day long. It was bliss for production because you just went to the mall, parked all your trucks, and rarely ever moved.
The first day we’re shooting, when we’re done, the first AD is like, "Okay, that's wrap." As the crew starts picking up all the equipment and s---, so did I. I start picking up cable and then Ben — who’d been in the business much longer — came over to me and he’s like, "You don’t do that. They have people that do that. You’re not in the union. Put that down." He gave me my earliest tutorial on deportment on a movie set and what the director does and doesn’t pick up.
We had discovered Jason Mewes in Clerks, so we brought him along for the ride with us, even though Universal didn’t want him in the cast. Universal wanted either Seth Green or Breckin Meyer as Jay. I said, "Yeah, but the part of Jay is based on this guy Jay and he played Jay in Clerks." They were like, "Well, that’s not really acting." I remember Breckin and Seth felt awkward about having to audition for Jay’s part because they were like, "He’s really funny in that Clerks movie, I don’t want this part." Ultimately, Jay had to come prove himself and audition multiple times. Universal were like, "The first day of dailies, if we don’t like his performance, you have to fire him and then hire either Seth or Breckin." I was like, "Okay." Thankfully, on Jay’s first day, we picked a pretty low impact day for him, and Universal signed off on his dailies and we were allowed to keep him. Up until day two of the movie we didn’t know if Jay was going to be Jay in the movie.
I remember Shannen had a German Shepherd that responded to German commands. So like “Schnell” and s--- like that. She was a paparazzi dream, right? She was Brenda in 90210. They tried to follow Shannen everywhere, so she had this dog to keep space from people that were coming in there and trying to take her picture and s---. She would walk the dog through the mall and the mall people were like, "Only Brenda gets away with this."
It was like camp, because the entire cast was from out of town, we were all kids, living at a hotel. We had a mixture of raw kids who had never done much before and people who had some TV experience. Everyone met at the bar after the day was done and chilled out. We had a kick-off party and a mid-way party with a lot of dancing. It was real good times. You've got to remember, this was the first time I had made a movie with others. Clerks was just me and my friends and nobody there to tell you whether you’re doing right or wrong. The first time we made a movie with a budget, that was Mallrats, that was where we learned what the rest of our lives would be like. I didn’t know how to do the job. Some critics would argue I still don’t know how to do the job.
KS: When the movie came out Jim Jacks, on Saturday morning, he called with the box office results. I said, "How did we do?" He goes, "We made $400,000." I said, "On what screen?" He goes, "That was all the screens nationwide." I said, "What happens now?" He goes, "It’s over."
I remember being so sad and then he goes, "Hey don’t worry about it. We weren't wrong, we were just early." I go, "What does that mean?" He goes, "You’ll see, this movie’s funny, it’s just we were a little bit too early with it."
KS: He was absolutely right. Ten years later, I was like, Oh my god, Jim nailed it, we were just a little bit too early with the movie. I started noticing that the way people felt about Mallrats when it came out — or at least the way critics felt about Mallrats when it came out — was not the way that the world seemed to feel about it. In 1995, it painted a portrait of a world where everybody knew about Marvel comics and knew who Stan Lee was. And in 1995, my world looked like that but the world didn’t look like that. And then, years later, the world starting looking a lot more like my world and so the movie aged incredibly well. Thanks to the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Stan Lee cameo became a thing and suddenly we had one of the first of those. In ’95, you have to have Brodie explain that what Jay is doing is imitating Wolverine and his adamantium claws. Nowadays you wouldn’t even have to do that.
It eventually found its audience, and it's given me and my career wings long after the fact. If it had been as successful as I’d hoped in ’95, I don’t think it would have been as leggy as it is today. It had a cool cachet because only some people knew it.
Sometimes, when you’re first through the door, man, you take a lot of bullets.
Arrow video's limited edition 25th anniversary Blu-ray of Mallrats goes on sale Oct. 13.