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It was hard to find the real Kevin Smith on Tuesday night at the Vista Theater in Hollywood. Fans of the Clerks writer-director showed up en masse at the red carpet, with quite a few look-alikes dressed up in matching hockey shirts and holding movie posters, in order to catch the L.A. premiere of his newest film, Tusk, a horror-comedy about a podcaster named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) who is abducted by a psychotic old seaman (Michael Parks) and gradually mutilated until he is finally transformed into the earth’s most beautiful creature — the walrus (Parks’ words, not ours).
Yes, the movie is just as crazy as it sounds. In Smith’s 15-minute introduction of the film, which sounded like a blend of a stand-up routine and a college commencement speech, the director warned that “just when you think it couldn’t get any weirder, it gets just a little bit more weird.”
The idea for the film, he explained, came from episode 259 of Smodcast, the podcast show he writes and performs with longtime friend and collaborator Scott Mosier. In the episode, which plays over the credits at the end of the film, the two discussed a viral Internet ad posted to Gumtree by British poet and hoaxer Chris Parkinson (although the two thought the ad might be real at the time) in which an old man claimed to be offering free room and board in his house in exchange for a small favor — that the tenant dress up as a walrus for just two hours each day. “Finally, you hear my brain snap and I’m like really interested in actually making a walrus movie,” said Smith.
Earlier in his career, he asked himself, “How come they don’t ever make movies like me and my friends,’ like not us specifically but like the stuff we’re into?” Then he came to the realization that nobody cared enough to ever make a movie about him and his friends. “If you want to see your world reflected, make it yourself,” he told THR on the red carpet. That’s where his career-launching comedy Clerks was born. “This is the same thing, 20 years later. I was on the podcast going, why won’t someone make that movie, that sounds so cool. And then it’s the same thought; I was like, dude, nobody’s ever gonna make this stupid-ass walrus movie. The only way it’s going to happen is if you make it yourself, and so boom, we went and did it.”
He admitted he had a little help from his fans, however. Following the podcast, which was recorded in June of last year, he asked his audience to tweet #Walrusyes if they wanted him to turn the idea into a feature length film, or #Walrusno if they thought the idea was too ridiculous. The next day, his Twitter account was flooded with hundreds of #Walrusyes tweets, and one #Walrusno, which had this caption next to it: “I just tweeted ‘no’ to support the democratic process.”
Smith joked, “I could have easily just been like, ‘Oh, that was a stupid stoner idea that I won’t follow through on,’ but, I don’t know, there seemed to be a lot of nobility in taking a stoner idea all the way through to fruition.”
Luckily for Smith, the cast he assembled was equally enthusiastic about the film, even though some didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when they signed on. Long revealed that Smith never mentioned anything about a walrus in his initial letter to the actor. “He described it as a character study between these two people,” Long said. But he had loved working with Smith in the past, and after reading that Parks would be co-starring, he knew he was going to do it regardless of what the script was like. “He really tested that theory when I read it,” he laughed. “I was like ‘What? I turn into a walrus halfway through?’ ”
In the same way, Haley Joel Osment, who plays the co-host of Long’s podcast, and Genesis Rodriguez, who plays Long’s onscreen love interest, told THR that they knew Tusk was something they were going to say yes to when they saw the names attached. But Rodriguez was also intrigued by the focus that the script put on the actors: “It was an actor’s movie first and foremost,” she said. “Fun fact [about Smith] is that he doesn’t yell ‘action.’ … He says, ‘Ok kids, have fun!’ and that’s it, so you kind of have to have fun and enjoy the moment and just enjoy the scene. So it was really refreshing, because he really just relies on his actors to have fun and enjoy that moment.”
Smith was quick to back up his cast, saying that they “treated it with all professionalism; they thought it was Argo or something. And the performances they gave were so earnest that it takes all this dribble and elevates it to something that’s really, utterly watchable.… We wound up getting one of the finest performances that I’ve ever been near or around with Michael Parks [whom he later described as an acting Yoda, who has forgotten more about acting that many actors ever come to know in the first place], one of the most amazing visual special effects, rubber special effects I’ve ever seen in a movie, Robert Kurtzman’s walrus, and then there’s this Guy Lapointe,” he said, enigmatically referring to Johnny Depp, who is credited in the film by his character’s name rather than his own. “I got to work with Guy Lapointe, and that’s like this generation’s greatest actor.”
There is no doubt that this film has all the star power and originality it needs to set it apart from crowd this fall, but will it be too original to be commercially viable?
Osment doesn’t think so. He said the film should be well received by Smith’s fan base, who have come to love his curious and experimental plot lines and characters, but may also appeal to a larger audience. “This is a really focused film that doesn’t have such a big cast and everything, and I think it will be easy for people to go along with this,” he said.
“If people want to see something completely original, this is the movie,” added Rodriguez. “This is.… It’s an experience. Tusk is an experience in the movie theater.”
Regardless of how the film fares in theaters, Smith said that at this point in his career, he just wants to make movies that he’s happy with, and that Tusk is his best movie yet. Long agreed wholeheartedly. “I think even if it was going to fail, what a fun way to fail, what a fun ship to go down with,” he said in a nautical pun. “And an experience, something to talk about good or bad, something memorable.”
Before the cast headed into the half art-deco, half Egyptian-themed building behind them, which coincidentally matched the eclectic flavor of the film, Osment teased that the movie is merely the first in a new film universe created by Smith. The True North Trilogy will feature recurring appearances from Osment, Rodriguez, Long, Parks and Depp, as well as give more prominent roles to Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, who portrayed convenience store clerks in Tusk. He also said the catchphrase “I don’t want to die in Canada,” which was used as the trailer’s tagline, will take on more meaning in the upcoming films.
“I hope it inspires a little more off-the-cuff creativity and originality,” Long said of the franchise. “Kevin is a very unique filmmaker, but he’s one of the few guys who has the means to do it in that way, in such a renegade way. He’s got an incredible following, he’s established, he’s already proven himself as a director, and he’s got this very maverick mentality, which is evidenced by this, more than anything else, by the fact that this is all born from a hastag. It’s a great story in and of itself.”
The film, which will be distributed by A24 Films, hits theaters starting Sept. 19.
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