Jay and Silent Bob go home -- Kevin Smith returns to Leonardo to complete his Jersey Chronicles
BY LISA ROSE
A long time ago, in a mini-mall not so far away, the saga began.
In 1993, Kevin Smith maxed out his credit cards making "Clerks," a slice of Slurpee jerk life shot at the Leonardo Quick Stop in Monmouth County, where he manned the cash register. The crass, no-budget comedy snagged several film fest prizes and was picked up for multiplex distribution by Miramax.
Eight years, three films and hundreds of expletives later, the tart auteur returned to the shopping center where it all started. Last week, Smith was on location in Leonardo shooting "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," a meta-farce that features characters from his droll trilogy, "Clerks," "Mallrats" and "Chasing Amy," collectively known as the Jersey Chronicles.
Slated for release Aug. 10 by Miramax arm Dimension Films, "Strike Back" is a road movie that follows the title slackers (played by Jason Mewes and Smith) from Monmouth to Hollywood. The cast includes Smith alums Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Chris Rock and Shannen Doherty. "Star Wars" sibs Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher step in for a few scenes.
Even Alanis Morissette, last seen as God in Smith's controversial 1999 Catholic satire "Dogma," has a cameo.
Though Smith shot most of "Strike Back" over the winter in Los Angeles, with back lots doubling for cross-country locales, the Atlantic Highlands native returned to his home state to film a few scenes in an authentic suburban setting.
"We shot in L.A. because that's where all the actors are," said production designer Robert "Ratface" Holtzman. "It was tough because we needed places that looked like Jersey, but everywhere we looked, there were palm trees. I went out into this farmland and I found the perfect road that looks like New Jersey. I look one way, no palm trees. I look the other, no palm trees. I turn around and there's a whole palm tree farm behind me."
The Jersey shoot called for one morning at Smith's Red Bank comic book shop, Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash, and three days at the Quick Stop. Production wrapped Monday with an all-nighter at the convenience store. Actors Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson were on hand to reprise their roles as Dante and Randal, the central clerks from Smith's debut.
Two hours before the first take, the director was nowhere in sight, but the set was bustling. Crew members hauled crates of gear from rental trucks and dragged cable across the pavement. Foil-wrapped trays of lasagna, baked by Smith's mother-in-law/personal assistant, were laid out on a buffet table in the adjoining Body Marks tattoo parlor.
Techs erected a hulking floodlight, a beast even brighter than the stadium lights blazing at the baseball field nearby. Twin police cars redirected drive-by gawkers as several dozen fans and neighbors braved the chill for a glimpse of Smith at work.
"Where were all these people when we were making 'Clerks?' " said Anderson, a Quick Stop shopper-turned-lead actor, who will direct his first film in Los Angeles this summer. "'Clerks' started with 10 or 15 of us, and by the end, it was only five people. It got to the point where I was working the clapboard on my own scenes."
The Quick Stop remained open for business while set dressers rotated mock products front-and-center on the shelves. Befuddled locals, darting in for Dove bars and eggs, watched production assistants stock out gag snacks like Battery Acid soda and Shprackers, aerosol crackers in a can. Mock cartons of Nails cigarettes, scripted with the slogan "Hammer your lungs," were stacked beneath the drip coffeepot.
"The local people love him because he's one of them," said Sarla Thapar, owner of the Quick Stop and the RST Video store next door, where Smith alternated behind the counter. "He's a good kid. When he came to me 12 years ago for a job, he said, 'I have to work in the video store because I want to spend all my life making movies.' "
Though years have passed since "Clerks," the crew tried to duplicate the setting, right down to the 1994 prices and the sign cautioning "If you plan to shoplift, please let us know." Except no one knew exactly where to hang the placard.
"You got 'Clerks' here?" Smith, 30, sauntered into the video store past the new release rack.
The sweatshirted writer-director flipped through the black boxes, sliding out Pauly Shore's "Son in Law." It turns out his pick was rented, but fortunately, a crew member had a copy for reference.
"This film is a quantum leap backwards from 'Dogma,' " said Smith, during an interview in Red Bank the first day of the Garden State shoot. "Love it or hate it, 'Dogma' had a lot on its mind. This movie has nothing on its mind. Just broad, broad comedy. It's a welcome relief from what I went through with 'Dogma,' getting death threats and hate mail. People might hate this movie, but they're not going to try and kill me for it."
The film school dropout is mum on most "Strike Back" plot points, but we can tell you this much: It will be the last time he holds his tongue as Silent Bob. The film is the final chapter in the Jersey Chronicles, retiring the characters and interlocked subplots of his early films. Smith plans to move away from autobiographical tales towards genre pictures. On the horizon is a new installment in the "Fletch" series of mordant mysteries.
"It's time to move on to something else," said Smith, whose wife Jennifer and 1-year-old daughter Harley Quinn both appear in "Strike Back." "I think we took this as far as we can take it. In fact, we probably overstayed our welcome by a picture or two."
The Greek chorus of Smith's vulgar oeuvre, Jay and Silent Bob graduate to lead characters in the new flick. When the pair learns about an unauthorized movie based on their "Bluntman and Chronic" comic book alter-egos, they plot to sabotage the film set. James Van Der Beek and Jason Biggs play the actors cast as the nickel-bagging superfriends.
"It's all about Jay and Silent Bob trying to stop a Jay and Silent Bob movie from being made," said Smith. "That's what I've been feeling the last six years. I didn't think you could stand them for a whole movie. I think I found a way to do it where they're the stars of the picture but it's such a large cast that you get away from them and enjoy other people for a while."
During Friday's shoot in Red Bank, the crew dodged horizontal rain to complete the sequence when Jay and Silent Bob first learn they're being Hollywoodized. The scene is set in a comic shop run by Brodie (Jason Lee), last spotted prowling the food court in "Mallrats." Designers transformed Smith's real-life retail outlet into the fictional "Brodie's Secret Stash," complete with a cartoon likeness of Lee on a prop sign out front.
"Nobody does what Kevin does," said Lee, currently on the big screen as Jennifer Love Hewitt's romantic foil in "Heartbreakers." "Of all the comedies that are being watched by younger people, none are as intelligent, as witty and dialogue conscious as Kevin's."
Smith chum Walter Flanagan, whose comic collection and habitual use of Dixie cups inspired the Brodie character, dropped by to watch Lee recreate his celluloid likeness.
"I feel honored," said Flanagan, who met Smith in 1988 when the two worked at an Atlantic Highlands activity center. "It's great seeing him go from a black-and-white movie like 'Clerks' to 'Dogma,' which had digital monsters, to this."
Fold-out chairs were clustered around video monitors in the back of the store, near the glass-encased Buddy Christ display, a winking, thumb-flipping statue of the deity used in "Dogma." Smith, shrouded in Silent Bob's signature green trenchcoat, hopped from monitor to marker, doing double duty as director and thespian.
"Picture's up," a head-setted barker cried, as crew members scrambled into place. "Roll sound!"
Smith and Mewes strolled before the dollying camera while Lee spoke his lines out of frame. Struck with the news of the renegade flick, Smith's stoic hero didn't have much to say, but Mewes gushed F-words for two and delivered several obscene hand gestures.
"My character has changed," said Mewes, puffing on a cigarette between takes. "In 'Mallrats,' Jay was more 'snoochie boochie.' Here, I'm more potty-mouthed than usual."
While cameras rolled inside, a clutch of fans huddled under an awning across the street.
"On April 1, it will be three years to the day since I met him the first time," said Josh Mileski, 19, who traveled five hours from Gallitzin, Pa. "We visited the set of 'Dogma' several times, and I saw him at a Pittsburgh comic convention. I have a really good question to ask him. I based a high school senior report on a comparison between 'Clerks' and 'Hamlet,' and I want to know if those parallels were intentional."
Unaware that Smith was shooting in Jersey, Tobey Hanwell and Kate Hoggett flew over from Plymouth, England, to tour the various Shore locations of his films. A shopping expedition to the Secret Stash turned into a serendipitous meeting with the director.
"We planned to visit a comic book store, and we're on a movie set," said Hoggett. "We're in heaven at the moment."