Kevin Smith Reveals His Craziest Movie Pitch Ever (Guest Column)
The "Clerks" creator details his plans to sell his house to make "Tusk," a horror movie about a guy forced to wear a walrus suit.
Settle in, kids. It's gonna be a loooooong story.
As is so often the case with the best-laid plans of SMice and SMen, since the last blog, shit with Tusk went all sorts of astray. And shitty. And hopeless. It was almost as if I'd become the main character in my own script, and fate was trying to sew me into a walrus suit.
When we last left our zero, he was trying to pull together this weird little horror movie called Tusk, based on Episode 259 of SMODCAST, "The Walrus & the Carpenter." The idea had quickly gone from a goofy, stream-of-consciousness sketch in a podcast to an exercise in possibility and momentum, where I casually guided the whimsy of every artist's first question ("What if…?") toward the unruly and expensive moviemaking process -- just to see how far it could go. I wanted to bring together the two great passions that have governed the last two decades of my creative life: first indie film, then indie broadcasting. Tusk would be the world's first movie based on a podcast.
For those not playing at home, the podcast episode was inspired by a listing from GumTree.uk, a website that specializes in living situations and apartments to rent. In one memorable listing, a homeowner offers a living situation free of charge -- the only caveat being the lodger would have to dress like a walrus from time to time.
Yes -- a motherf---ing walrus.
The listing was written eloquently and briefly mentioned that the writer had once been lost at sea with a walrus he nicknamed Gregory as his only companion. The author writes of being heartbroken by the separation from the walrus and identifies the whiskered beast as better company than any humans he'd ever known. To this end, the author is interested in recreating the best time of his life with a would-be lodger in a realistic walrus costume standing in for the beloved Gregory.
The listing got my creative juices flowing, and I began reconstructing the whole thing as an old British Hammer horror film, in which a mad scientist intends to sew some hapless lodger into counterfeit blubber, creating a chimera in an effort to answer the ultimate riddle, "Is man, indeed, a walrus at heart?!"
Mosier and I took the tale in more and more ridiculous directions, cracking ourselves up. And then, in the midst of all the fun, you can hear something strange happen: As stoned as I always am, this walrus picture was starting to sound like a worthy endeavor -- or at the very least, a movie I'd like to see.
I wrote the script in 20 days.
Miracle of miracles, Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions had read the script and said, "Let's do this." My idea was to debut at Sundance 2014, 20 years after Clerks had visited the festival and altered the course of my destiny from register jockey to naughty auteur. And I was scheming to revisit my roots so I could try to tell the lie that tells the truth one more time. It would be just like it was in the old days, when everything was easier, like making movies. And jogging. And breathing.
But it's not a movie if everything's going well. No flick gets out of the first act without the main character facing a hurdle -- and I'm nothing if not the main character in the ongoing movie of my life.
The long story short is this: On Aug. 5 (about two weeks after I posted the first Tusk blog), the e-mails and the phone calls from Blumhouse started slowing to a crawl. That weekend, I could feel the ice cracking below my enormous girth as I waited for some sign of life for our little walrus picture. On Monday, I got a couple of e-mails that were bullets to the head of the Sundance 2014 #WalrusYes vision quest: Turns out Jason wanted to wait ‘til January to start shooting -- a start date that was based on the availability of an actor he felt was commercially appealing enough to get an audience to come see a walrus picture. It was disappointing, but Jason wasn't saying no; he was saying yes to January. With a star.
But to suddenly delay Tusk when momentum was on our side? While that is always the absolute right of the entity funding the flick, it was counter to what I was trying to accomplish with a punk-rock production of Tusk. Making the project dependent on casting arbitrary box-office bait seemed completely disloyal to the spirit with which Tusk was conceived and turned into a screenplay. This was meant to be a punk-rock movie, pulled together with spit, glue and passion. Waiting for a "star" makes sense for a studio movie, but not for a $2 or $3 million dollar horror flick. For a film of this size and scope, casting should be done based on who's right for the part, not who'll sell the most tickets. Besides, I imagine the eventual ticket sales generator of Tusk will likely be the audience's desire to see what a human-walrus movie actually looks like.
After the jump: How Kevin convinced one of his favorite actors to star.
So I thanked Jason Blum for his interest but told him I had to try for Sundance in January -- and that was tough, because Blumhouse has a pretty stellar track record lately. Jason Blum wrote that he understood and told me to come back if I couldn't make the movie happen elsewhere. We'd lost about a month with nothing to show for it, so I sat down with my financial major domo Carol and asked her to see about pulling money out of my house with a second mortgage. "I might have to finance this one myself," I told Carol. Normally, Carol would try to talk me out of using my own money to make a movie, but since I haven't made a movie in a few years, like everyone else in my life, Carol's just happy to see me taking an interest again. So she went off on a money hunt.
Right about then, I was regretting saying I wouldn't use Kickstarter or IndieGoGo to make Clerks III. Granted, I didn't say I wouldn't use those sites to raise the budget of Tusk, but even though I love the crowdsource financing model and wish I could go swimming in their deep, cash-rich waters, it's just not to be for me. There's a reason I said that shit about not crowdsource-funding Clerks III out loud and in print: so I wouldn't ever leave myself that option. As easy as it would be to pull together a few million for Tusk from the SModcast audience alone, I've gotta leave that money for the new generation of filmmakers -- none of whom are gonna find fat patrons if said Medicis are busy funding the ideas of someone like me. I already have connections in the movie business and can always find backing if I apply myself. And as much as I'd love to hip it up with the youngsters, I know that if I make use of the vast network of contacts and colleagues I've built up over two decades making movies, I should still be able to forge a flick without hitting up the audience for their cash until it's time to sell tickets.
Before Blumhouse came and went from our lives, the intention was to shoot the Canadian-set flick in Canada. Jay Mewes and his wife, Jordan Monsanto, knew Andrew Rosen at Aircraft Pictures from their time spent working together on Todd & The Book of Pure Evil. We asked Andrew to build a Toronto-based budget that had gone into a drawer for the few weeks it looked like we'd be shooting Tusk at the Blumhouse offices in Los Angeles. Now, with no sweet Blumhouse infrastructure, shooting in Los Angeles was going to be cost-prohibitive. So out from the drawer came the Toronto budget as all signs pointed to the True North.
Meanwhile, I went walrus hunting. In making a picture about a guy trapped in a walrus suit, you need an actor with expressive eyes. And while I wrote a script chock fulla dialogue, it's always smart to hedge your bets with a quick-thinking actor who can also ad-lib when the cameras are rolling. So I reached out to a guy I've loved whether I was acting beside him and or acting like his director. He's a dude I've adored watching work since he first stepped into my fictional basement in Live Free or Die Hard and then crashed my high school reunion as gay porn star Brandon St. Randy in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. I gravitate toward actors who not only crush at their vocation but who can also make the 16-hour days on a movie shoot fun as they fly by. And Justin Long makes shooting days feel...Justin short.
I emailed Justin and asked if he was free in October. When he said he was, I sent him to the first Tusk blog I'd written -- the one that'd told the story of how Tusk went from a podcast to a script. I wrote, "If this interests you, I can send you the screenplay." Justin was intrigued enough to give the script a read. This is what he wrote back…
"I don't know what to say...I'm nauseated, I'm terrified, I'm thoroughly confused in the most entertained way, I'm in. I'm definitely in. I didn't think Ed Gein and Boxing Helena would ever fuck and have a more deranged baby. You are a twisted imaginative talented motherf---er and I'd love to go on this trip with you."
Justin came over to talk about his character, which he felt was a little underdeveloped. Considering the frantic nature of the podcast-to-script origin, he was not wrong. "We're so close to saying something about being human and humane," Justin observed. "We might as well try to say it." So together, we rebuilt his character's background. Justin came up with this great idea involving the tears of a walrus, which I included in the next draft. And just like that, the flick took a jump in quality with smarter subtext. If you reach out to the right people they can make your shit better.
Rather than be glum about no more Blum, Jordan, Shannon McIntosh and I started looking for a new home where Tusk could put up his flippers. Naturally, we reached out to Phase 4, our partners in SModCo's indie film distribution initiative Kevin Smith Movie Club (with whom we release Slamdance and Fantastic Fest award winner The Dirties on Oct. 4). Phase 4 could come up with about half the budget, so I looked into providing the other half.
But Carol was telling me that getting money out of my house was going to take six months -- which didn't help my timeline. My wife, Jen, has loved Tusk since she read the initial pages, so she gave me the go-ahead to raid our savings. However, I haven't made a flick in years, so I don't have a liquid million dollars sitting around as some sort of break-the-glass plan. "We'll sell the house if it comes to that," Jen said. "But we gotta make this movie, and we gotta make it now, before life gets in the way." Schwalbach rocks so hard.
Shannon and I met with Anchor Bay/Starz, and they were into Tusk as well -- so much so that they offered us half the budget, too. For a minute, Shannon and I thought we could pair up Phase 4 and Anchor Bay and voila. But since they're technically competitors, that idea didn't go over huge at all.
It was a looooong three weeks, during which a mid-September start was looking less and less likely. And after sending the script out to a few other financing entities, it was clear my tight turnaround window of six months from podcast to Sundance premiere was counterintuitive to a business in which some movies can be developed over the course of decades. Everyone we sent Tusk to liked the script -- they just didn't care for the rushed timeline. The sun was slowly setting on my Sundance dream.
Then, just about when we could've used some good news.... We got more bad news instead.
TO BE CONTINUED...
(Pictured: A Tweet from Justin Long, #WhoIsTheWalrus)