Writer-director Kevin Smith admits that while his last film, Jay & Silent Bob Reboot — his first after a massive, life-altering heart attack — was more of a celebration of his quarter-century body of work, his latest effort Clerks III is more of a meditation on that work.
"The last one was me going, 'Oh my God! I can't believe I'm alive!' Because I just survived the heart attack," Smith tells Metacritic. "This one is more like, 'Am I truly alive?'"
Even at its most farcical, Smith's work — particularly in his shared View Askewniverse which encompasses his most beloved output, including the first two Clerks films, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, and two Jay & Silent Bob films — has always mined the filmmaker's life and personal experiences for story fodder. But when the time came for a deeper exploration of the emotional journey he'd been through, he returned to the well that his career first sprang from: Clerks, the grungy, no-budget 1994 indie that, despite its glaring lack of production values, nevertheless signaled Smith's arrival as one of the sharpest and most distinctive voices of Generation X, drawing on his own pop cultural obsessions and numbing experience in dead-end retail jobs that resonated both with the 20-somethings of the moment and subsequent generations who related to depiction for decades to follow.
While Smith follows much of the zingy, dialogue-heavy template of the first film, his personal medical experience is layered in to give the story a pair of contrasting turns: Randal (Jeff Anderson), the motor-mouthed clerk with more hardcore opinions on Star Wars minutia than actual personal ambitions, is nearly felled by a massive heart attack, and is motivated to live out a long-held secret dream: making his own movie about live at the Quick Stop convenience store, mirror Smith's own youthful endeavor.
More shockingly, by the end of the film, Smith's on-screen alter ego Dante (Brian O'Halloran), the more deep-thinking and often existentially tortured member of the duo, suffers an identical cardiac arrest after the film strains both his relationship with the self-obsessed Randal and his own neglected heart.
When Smith was in the hospital after his own heart attack, he was told that men his age in this situation often go through long bouts of depression after the cardiac event because it is a brush with mortality and you have to face that you might not be as strong as you thought you were. Although Smith didn't worry about falling into that funk because "I never thought I was strong. I'm a soft boy. I was raised weak," he says, he still pumped the idea of being left with one's own thoughts, feeling the ticking mortality clock, and wanting to do something different to make a mark into Clerks III through Randal's actions.
Smith already had a version of Clerks III written for years prior to this event — one he had shared with his friends and collaborators and one that O'Halloran calls "much more serious and dark" than the movie they eventually made. But one core theme remained: dealing with grief.
Set in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Quick Stop has been destroyed and Randal has a nervous breakdown and creates a shantytown version of the convenience store. "The problem with that movie was if we made it, you would've watched it and been like, 'I don't think they ever saw the first Clerks,'" Smith admits.
Smith used some of the material as the backbone of the revised Clerks III, choosing to zero in on the fissures the occur in the longtime Randal-Dante relationship when Randal becomes obsessed with his cinematic "vision," and Dante, still in pain and rudderless following the death of his wife (Rosario Dawson) years earlier, feels his efforts to help Randal — and especially the importance of his role in Randal's life — are unappreciated,
"The one thing I didn't see coming that became a real through line in the movie was the selfishness of the artist," reveals Smith. "I always like to think of myself as a nice person and people always tell me I'm a nice guy, but in order to be who I am and do what I do, it takes a lot of people that just get sucked into your orbit. Since I'm a writer who cribs from real life, everyone's a source. I write a movie, that's my movie. Then there are so many people in my life who are like, 'Yes, but that also happened to me!'"
"That was something that kept coming up while I was writing the movie," Smith continues, using that recognition as a turnkey to evolving and endangering Randal and Dante's seemingly unbreakable bond. "It's a weird position to be in when you're a filmmaker because it's full of arrogance. And not arrogance like 'I'm better than you.' But you start with this thought that, 'Well, everybody needs to know the story I have to tell.' It's like think of all the stories out there: Do we need one f---ing more? The arrogance of the creator, and in this case the director, was just like, 'Oh yes, they need to hear my story.'"
In Clerks III, that story really is a love story between Dante and Randal, O'Halloran notes, but it is a more meta and (nominally) mature one that the film series started with.
"If you went to do the same kind of original, funny, just Clerks 1 kind of humor at our age, it would seem hackneyed," O'Halloran adds. "I think the humor came with putting real life issues to these guys and making them more human. The development of these people at this age is experience."
Even though the characters have changed a bit, the Quick Stop environment helped keep the actors very connected to their Clerks roots.
"It's very helpful that the store is exactly the same way as we left it back in '94," says O'Halloran. "And the fact that the only thing that changed was the adult magazine wall turned into the hash and weed pipe wall."
The film leaned into its iconic setting — and its fans' love for that setting — hard, including recreating spot-on sequences from the original Clerks for the movie-within-the-movie that the characters are filming. But the film also paid homage to its indie roots in other ways.
"We had original cast members who aren't actors — they were literally customers in the store when we just needed bodies," Anderson explains. "And to see these people 30 years later and to see how professional everybody was really something. They were kind enough to do it in 1994 and they've done it here. And it was really amazing to just be back together with everybody and watch these people who aren't actors just come in and just nail their scenes. And it was just really surreal and incredible."
Ultimately, Smith says that in some ways he's grateful that his heart attack changed both his life and his approach to Clerks III "because it knocks you down a few pegs and actually gives you something worthwhile to talk about." While as a media personality he can always wax rhapsodic about the latest geek-chic pop culture topic, he needs personal experience to feed his artistic intentions.
"Thank God that heart attack happened. Otherwise, we wouldn't really have anything to talk about in Clerks III," he says.