What Can We Steal From Kevin Smith’s Clerks?

Title of Work and its Form: Clerks, feature film
Author: Written and directed by Kevin Smith
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: Clerks has been released on DVD. The tenth-anniversary edition includes a ton of bonus features that will be of interest to fans of the film. As of this writing, the film is streaming on Netflix.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Discussion:
Kevin Smith was working at the Quick Stop when he decided to sell his comic book collection and max out his credit cards to make Clerks. The story is relatively simple; Dante Hicks is called in to work in the Quick Stop on his day off. He’s not even supposed to be there on the day the film takes place! Dante is in a bit of a rut; his sweet and beautiful girlfriend, Veronica, urges him to go back to school. Instead, Dante seems resigned to a lifetime of jockeying the register and dealing with the crazy customers. Randal Graves is his best friend and works at RST Video next door. The two play hockey on the roof and attend Julie Dwyer’s funeral and even deal with the news that Dante’s ex-girlfriend is engaged to an Asian design major. (Things don’t end well for poor Caitlin Bree…)

Clerks represents Kevin Smith playing to his strengths and getting the most out of everything at his disposal. Smith couldn’t afford a ton of lights and could only film at night, so the script calls for the store’s security doors to be jammed shut. In the days before digital video, cost was a huge roadblock for beginning filmmakers. Mr. Smith made his budget realistic by filming in black-and-white. At the time, Nicolas Cage wasn’t willing to take a role in exchange for a ten-dollar bill handshake. Therefore, Smith cast local actors, some of whom had no experience in front of the camera.

These limitations were actually fortuitous accidents for Mr. Smith. David Klein’s black-and-white cinematography lends a rough, rock-and-roll look to a film that was decidedly NOT a product of the Hollywood studio system. The film is about young people who don’t make that much money and don’t have much going on in their lives…the look of the film fits perfectly. Liev Schreiber, one of our finest actors, would not have fit in the film. Being forced to cast relative amateurs like Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson meant that Mr. Smith got a fresh kind of passion on the screen that most films just don’t have. Having the shutters over the windows through the whole film reinforces the sense of claustrophobia in the protagonist’s life. Dante is scared he’ll never get out, but he doesn’t know how to get out.

Mr. Smith made the most out of everything he did have. When writing his script for the film, he clearly thought about everything that could be done in a convenience store and a video store. He might not have been able to afford a thousand crane shots and to film each dialogue scene with the perpetual spinning you find in a Michael Bay film, but he could give one of his friends the role of a customer who searches for the “perfect dozen” carton of eggs. The building has a roof, of course…Mr. Smith had his characters play their hockey game up there. What does a video clerk need to do from time to time? Order videos. So Randal reads a list of porno movie titles in front of a mother and her two-year-old.

At that point, Mr. Smith was not a highly experienced filmmaker, so he made up for it with loads of passion. He didn’t have a ton of money, so he wrote a script that he could afford to make. Most importantly, he just went out and DID IT. Shouldn’t we all follow his lead?

What Should We Steal?

  • Exploit your setting and your characters. As you’re writing, make a list of everything that you would find in your settings. Let’s say you’re setting a horror movie or book in a hardware store. Wouldn’t you expect to see your characters use a wide range of tools during the story? What if a character happens to be a plumber? Plumbers are generally good with their hands and have a good sense of how to fix things. How could you exploit that in your story?
  • Turn your limitations into advantages. Do you have trouble writing stories that are very, very long? Write an epistolary novel that consists of lots of very short sections. Maybe you’ve only lived in one place your whole life. That’s fine; write the short story that truly captures the feeling of your hometown.

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