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Novelist Richard Russo's New Take on Father and Son Dynamics

Russo gained critic's recognition for his portrayal of life in a declining upstate New York mill town with his novels Mohawk and The Risk Pool. His latest novel His book "Nobody's Fool" was adapted into a film starring Paul Newman. His latest novel is "Straight Man." It is published by Random House.

19:04

Other segments from the episode on June 25, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 25, 1997: Interview with Kevin Smith; Interview with Richard Russo.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 25, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062501NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Kevin Smith
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The comedy "Chasing Amy" is having a long run at the box office. Film critic Roger Ebert called it "the best-written film he'd seen in a while." Our film critic John Powers called it "the year's best love story." It offers a twist on the classic boy-meets-girl story. This girl that the boy falls in love with is a lesbian.

Chasing Amy is set in the world of comic books. Ben Afleck (ph) and Jason Lee star as Holden and Bankey (ph), best friends who collaborate on a comic. Joey Lauren Adams (ph) is Alissa (ph), the woman and comic book artist Holden falls in love with.

In this scene, Holden and Alissa are driving, and he can no longer pretend he's content with just being friends.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, FILM "CHASING AMY")

JOEY LAUREN ADAMS/ACTRESS AS ALISSA: Why are we stopping?

BEN AFLECK/ACTOR AS HOLDEN: Because I can't take this.

ALISSA: Can't take what?

HOLDEN: I love you.

SOUND OF THUNDER/LIGHTNING

ALISSA: You love me.

HOLDEN: I love you -- and not, not in a friendly way, although I think we're great friends; and not in a misplaced affection puppy-dog way, although I'm sure that's what you'll call it. I love you -- very, very simple; very truly. You are the epitome of everything I have ever looked for in another human being.

And I know that you think of me as just a friend, and crossing that line is the furthest thing from an option you'll ever consider. I had to say it. I just -- I can't take this anymore. I can't stand next to you without wanting to hold you. I can't look into your eyes without feeling that longing, you know, we read about in trashy romance novels.

I can't talk to you without wanting to express my love for everything you are. And I know this will probably queer our friendship, no pun intended. But I had to say it 'cause I've never felt this way before.

GROSS: My guest is the writer and director of Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith. His first feature, "Clerks," was a no-budget movie about young guys who work at a convenience store and video store. It was a very successful independent film -- so successful that his next film "Mall Rats," was made with a studio, but that was a critical and commercial flop.

Smith returned to the independent world for Chasing Amy and he also returned to one of the themes of Clerks, a guy who can't accept that his girlfriend had an adventurous sexual life before they met. In Chasing Amy, Holden can accept that Alissa has slept with other women, but not that she's slept with other men.

I asked Kevin Smith how a girlfriend's sexual past became a recurring theme.

KEVIN SMITH, WRITER AND DIRECTOR: Because my girlfriend had sex with other people...

LAUGHTER

... and I don't -- you know, I don't know, it's just always been kind of present. I think it was being raised Catholic has something to do with it. And it's also that unfair double standard, you know, that you're raised with as a male.

It's not the kind of thing that's learned or imparted, actually. I think it's more learned. Like, my father never sat me down and said: son, you know, you want to go to bed with a whore and wake up with a virgin.

But it's the kind of thing that, as a guy, you're just grown up thinking and taught and it's all around you -- the idea of, like, you know, you want to be with somebody who hasn't been with anybody or something like that. And I think it has a lot to do with the compare/contrast thing. You know, you just don't want to be graded against somebody else and, you know, really small-minded thinking like that.

And I think I -- you know, I was raised in the suburbs. I was raised in a real small tri-town area. Everybody knew everybody, so the idea of dating somebody that somebody else you know or somebody in your class has dated was always really unappetizing because, you know, those people could walk up to you in the hall in school and be, like, how is she? You know, I'll tell you how she was for me, and stuff like that -- real, real nasty, negative, guy-type, young guy-type stuff.

And I think when you continue to live in that environment, you know, you don't break away from it. You know, it's -- if you -- I think if you go out into the real world and, you know, hear varying different viewpoints and opinions and attitudes and stuff like that, you can get away from that kind of thinking.

But if you live in that same area you've dwelled in your whole life, it's tough to break free from that. But I think -- it just -- it popped up in the work a lot. I think this is the last time you'll actually see it, though, in a flick I do. I mean that's -- you know, I've said all I can say about dealing with somebody else's past.

GROSS: You know, it struck me that you grew up at a time when it was pretty typical to have sex while you were still in high school, and there maybe weren't limits in the way there were for, like, earlier generations.

SMITH: Oh, probably not. I mean, it was a real free time. You know, I remember girls coming in to class in the morning after being out at the beach all night, you know, on a Wednesday night or something like that.

And at the time, it was kind of shocking. It was just like, what, you know, my God I can't believe Debbie would do that kind of thing -- or something like that.

But it was a real free time, then, I think, you know -- and I imagine it's much more free now. I'm sure people are having sex much younger than even when I was in high school, and that's not that long ago.

GROSS: Now the leading female character in Chasing Amy is a lesbian, but she discovers that Holden is her soul-mate...

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... so she's -- she's willing to love him in spite of the fact that she still considers herself gay. And there's actually been some controversy about whether you're seeing lesbians from a male/heterosexist angle. In fact there's even, I don't know if you saw this yet or not, but there's two letters in the New York Times Arts and Leisure Section on Sunday about it.

SMITH: Really.

GROSS: Yeah. You want me to quote one to you?

SMITH: I'd love to hear it.

GROSS: OK. Ready?

SMITH: OK.

GROSS: This is in response to an article by Terry Teachout (ph) recently in the Times in which he said that he saw Chasing Amy as a parable about grace, a religious state of grace.

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he loved the film.

SMITH: Yeah, oh that was real -- I loved that piece. It was probably the best piece ever written on anything I've ever done.

GROSS: OK, so here's a letter protesting. And the letter says: Terry Teachout contends that Alissa, a promiscuous lesbian turned heterosexual monogamist, has been moved by a power greater than that of earthly love: grace. A better answer is that Alissa has been moved by the power of male fantasy.

SMITH: Right.

GROSS: Despite a few random references to Christ in the movie, Alissa's "conversion" should be attributed to the fact that she is the protagonist of a patriarchal fairy tale in which the undesirous and self-sufficient female, caught in the power of male seduction, sees the light and wants to give herself to him forever.

SMITH: Right.

GROSS: Do you hear a lot about this? Does that...

SMITH: Oh, you know, of course.

GROSS: Yeah.

SMITH: I don't think with a movie like this, you wouldn't hear. You know, there's no chance you can escape that. And I think we were kind of prepared for that from the beginning.

It's always -- as much as one could prepare themselves, though, it is always shocking, because that's never the intention. Like that -- that's -- I didn't make that movie. I didn't make the movie you just described in that letter. That's not the movie I made.

The thing that really bothers me about it is, like, they contend it's a male fantasy. The other one I'm fond of hearing is it's a 16-year-old boy's fantasy, words to that effect.

And it just -- it kills me because I mean if it is -- if it is a 16-year-old boy's fantasy, where's all the rampant nudity? Where's all the wonderful, you know, closeups of women getting it on with women or something like that?

You know, the movie was never conceived that way. It didn't come from that place. You know, I'm not -- personally, I'm not one of these guys that's a big, a real big, like yeah, I want to see two chicks together kind of guy.

LAUGHTER

You know, that's not my fantasy. It's not the thing I think about when I'm alone in a room at night. You know, it's just -- it's -- that -- it really doesn't appeal to me. I think it's great, I think, you know, it's just what people do, but it's not -- it doesn't -- it's not something that fuels my engines; doesn't turn me on.

The thing I always feel about the character of Alissa and, you know, people -- people take me on for, like, saying, you know, I'm saying this about lesbians. I'm not. You know, I made a movie about one character, one person, one lesbian. I'm not speaking for the whole nation. God, I would never even try.

I mean, first off, I'm not even a woman. Second off, I'm not gay. And third off, I'm not a gay woman. So, you know, why would I take on -- you know, why would I speak for the entire community? I'm speaking for one character, Alissa, and you know, if you don't see yourself reflected in that character, that's fine.

GROSS: That's so -- did you have any lesbian friends that you showed the screenplay to and said, you know: what do you think? Does this ring true to you?

SMITH: Absolutely. I had a very -- I have a very, very dear friend who happens to be a lesbian, and her name is Guenevere Turner (ph) and she wrote "Go Fish" a couple years ago and she was in it and stuff, and she actually appears in the movie.

And a lot of people -- one of the misconceptions that the movie was based on her and I or something; that I had fallen in love with Gwen at one point -- and it's totally not -- it's totally not true. This actually appeared in a Village Voice review by Jim Hoberman (ph). He talked about, you know, that that was the basis for the movie, and so, so not true.

Anyway, she's a very good friend of mine, and when I was done, of course, I was like: Gwen, I really need you to proof-read this, more or less. I mean, a lot of the stuff is extrapolation.

A lot of the stuff is me kind of putting myself in that position and saying: this is how I imagine I would feel if I was gay; if I was a woman -- that kind of thing. Even in the case of, like, Hooper, if I was black. You know, it's a lot of extrapolation in there.

So I said: could you please just check it out; make sure there's nothing too far off the mark and nothing that sounds like, yes, that there's a guy writing this woman's dialogue.

And with the exception of one thing, you know, it was completely on for her. She was like, no, this is true, and I said: do you think it's really going to make people mad? And she said: within the community? She said: yeah, there's no doubt, she said, but you know it's really going to make them mad because it's true; it happens.

The story happens. A lot of us, like, wind up going back with guys. You know, I can't tell you how many people I know that would, like, wind up going back with a guy or something like that.

And nobody wants -- nobody in the community wants to see that portrayed on film, let alone by a man; let alone by a straight man. She's going, so of course, you're leaving yourself open, you know, to get kind of smacked down. But she's going -- it doesn't make it invalid, you know, and it's a good movie.

And then I hadn't spoken to her for a while since we shot the movie, and I just hung out with her the other day for a while, and she'd seen the flick. And you know, I was kind of worried that maybe she didn't dig on it, after she saw it put together or, you know, after hearing a lot of criticism.

But she -- no, she really enjoyed the movie; loved it; and, you know, there's -- and I said: well, what's the feeling within the community? And she said: well, you know, I think your average lesbian doesn't care; thinks it's funny and probably to some degree identifies with it. She said the more academic lesbian thinks you're the anti-Christ.

GROSS: Kevin -- my guest is Kevin Smith. He wrote and directed Chasing Amy, Clerks, and Mall Rats. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Kevin Smith. He wrote and directed Chasing Amy, Clerks, and Mall Rats.

Another issue that I think you deal with in a very humorous way is the idea of male-bonding: is it really latent homosexuality?

SMITH: Right.

GROSS: And this is the kind of question that, you know, film critics and academics and other people ask all the time of male-bonding films. And -- so you have a very -- a very funny scene that relates to that. And I'm wondering if -- if that in a way is a kind of comic answer to the question of latent homosexuality in male-bonding films?

SMITH: It is, to some degree, yeah. I mean, I've always found it really interesting. I mean, the thing is: every relationship has a sexual aspect to it. I don't care if you're gay or straight. And when you're talking about, like, characters like Holden and Bankey which to me are, of course, my ideal fantasy characters.

I mean, I'm not somebody whose grown up with somebody as a friend their whole life. Like, I've switched friends every few years, and the friends I grew up with as a child I don't really have any more. I've had the same set of friends for like close to 10 years, but I never grew up with them.

So, you know, a writer kind of writes their ideal world, and in my ideal world, I grew up with one guy, you know, my whole life. And we've been friends since the sandbox. So of course, I get to play that on a film.

But the thing is, in a relationship like that, if these guys have been together for 25 years or however long they've known each other, that relationship functions very much like a marriage. You know, it's a marriage without the sex. You know, they kind of bicker. They love each other very much. You know, they're very familiar. They live with each other.

The only thing that's missing is that sexual aspect. And, you know, and it's missing because perhaps neither of them are gay, but I mean -- or have instincts like that or feel, you know, any inclination like that. But it doesn't mean that there's not a kind of sexual component to that relationship.

GROSS: The main characters in Chasing Amy are comic book artists.

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How serious about comics were you as a kid?

SMITH: As a kid? Not very -- just, you know, I mean, that they were something to read and, you know, casual and kind of fun and escapist. Not very hard-core. I mean, I did keep them in the bags you're supposed to keep them in.

But then I fell out of it for a long time, and didn't get back into them again until I was about 17, almost 18. And by that time, comics had changed. We had people like Alan Moore (ph) who came in and wrote "The Watchman" and Frank Miller who had redefined Batman with "The Dark Night Returns" and brought a very psychological edge to comics that had never been there before, and they had taken a jump -- they'd become very adult, you know, for lack of a better word.

So I really got into them knee-deep, and since that time I've been into them pretty hard-core.

GROSS: I think you even just bought a comic book store in New Jersey, in Red (Unintelligible)?

SMITH: I did. I mean, that was the -- you know -- I always figured like when I was done with the filmmaking career I'd kick back and go back to retail, and I couldn't do the convenience store any more. I'd just done too much of that during my life, so I figured I would own a comic book store.

And then an opportunity presented itself even quicker. Our former comics retailer was leaving town, and the store was going to be vacant, and we would have had to travel about five, 10 minutes to go get out comics every week. So I said: forget it. I'll just buy the store in town. You know, we'll re-dub it, and now it's "Jane, Sal (ph), and Bob's Secret Stash."

GROSS: In your movie Chasing Amy, there's a funny scene in which two of the characters are arguing about the real meaning of the "Archie" comics, and the gay character is arguing that this was a real, like, male-bonding-as-gay kind of story. And Bankey, who's the -- one of the comic book artists who's very heterosexual, says: no, no, no. This is all about chasing girls.

SMITH: Right.

GROSS: Let me play an excerpt of their conversation together.

SMITH: OK.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "CHASING AMY")

ACTOR ONE/PORTRAYING BANKEY: Archie and the Riverdale gang were a pure and fun-loving bunch. You can't find dysfunction in those comics. They were just flat-out wholesome.

ACTOR TWO/PORTRAYING GAY CHARACTER: Archie and Jughead were lovers.

ACTOR ONE: Shut the (expletive deleted) up.

ACTOR TWO: It's true. Archie was the (deleted) and Jughead was the butch. That's why Jughead wears that crown-looking hat all the time. He the king of queen Archie's world.

ACTOR ONE: I feel a hate crime coming on.

HOLDEN: Well you know, he does have a point. I mean, Archie never did quite settle on Betty or Veronica.

ACTOR ONE: 'Cause he wanted them both at the same time, you (expletive deleted). He didn't choose one because he was trying to get them both into a three-way.

ACTOR TWO: Yeah.

ACTOR ONE: What?

ACTOR TWO: Face it, girl. Archie's a sister.

GROSS: Have you had conversations like this, Kevin Smith?

SMITH: Have I? Yeah, I usually initiate conversations like this. I'm a big talker. I'm a big conversationalist. I'd almost rather talk than do anything else in life, and usually talk, of course, to my friends.

And these are the kind of discussions that I would definitely kind of initiate with my friends -- and just looking at things from a different angle; looking at them slightly askew.

GROSS: Now, the scenes in Chasing Amy are really very long by today's standards.

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: A conversation will -- I like this about the film. I mean -- I see this as a good thing and...

SMITH: Right.

GROSS: ... even as a brave thing. The conversations last a long time. There's a song that's sung by one of the characters at a bar early-on. The whole song is in the film.

SMITH: Right. Right.

GROSS: And, you know, it strikes me that, like, you're considered one of the most successful of the "Gen-X" filmmakers, and people of your generation are supposed to, according to all the cliches, just make really highly-edited, short scenes...

SMITH: Short attention span movies.

GROSS: ... as if everything was an MTV video. Yeah.

SMITH: Right.

GROSS: So it seems to me you're really going against the grain as far as what expectations are of a young filmmaker today.

SMITH: I think it's just the kind of thing I like to see. I mean, I enjoy like the mind candy movies or the eye candy movies. They're, you know, kind of like cut heavy and whatnot. But I'm more -- I'm more interested in dialogue. You know, I don't -- you know, it's bizarre because it is a visual medium, but I go to a movie looking for dialogue.

So -- and to me, dialogue has to -- you -- it can't be, like, all choppy. It has to -- if you have a scene where characters are talking about something substantial or insubstantial, you have to let that conversation build, particularly if it's a conversation that's reflecting real life. You know, you talk about stuff for hours.

GROSS: Right. Right.

SMITH: And I wish I could do that on film. Like, I remember once I was doing an interview with a British journalist and they were, like -- they were maintaining that your movies are so dialogue-heavy and so visually uninteresting that you should really think about doing radio plays. And I said: believe me, if I can get away with it, I probably would.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Mall Rats is your only studio movie, and I'm wondering if the people who you worked with in the studio had preconceptions of what your audience -- you know, the "Gen-X" audience would want in a movie, and if they encouraged you to head in a certain direction in terms of the writing, the editing...

SMITH: In terms of being encouraged in a particular direction, the only direction I was encouraged toward was away from the more salacious humor or actually the more homo-erotic humor. They didn't -- that stuff made them uncomfortable and they thought that would never play to an audience.

The scene in Chasing Amy where the three principals sit around and talk about scars they've received from, you know, from during oral sex -- that was a scene originally that I had written for Mall Rats. And Universal, the studio, was just like: you know what? This isn't going to play. This scene will, you know, it will offend everybody.

I said: that's fine. I'll take it and put -- you know, I never throw anything out. I put it in a drawer and I'm, like, I'm sure this will pop up handy in some other movie.

And lo and behold, then it became a scene -- in Mall Rats, it was a scene between three guys. In Chasing Amy, it becomes a scene between two guys and a girl and, really, between one guy and one girl. Holden's kind of left out of the conversation.

GROSS: Meanwhile, now you're working with one of the big studios writing a script for the next Superman movie. I'm not sure if the script is completed yet or not.

SMITH: Right. I was contracted to do two drafts, which I did. And now it's gone into the hands of another writer. You know, it's -- there's never one writer on these movies in Hollywood. But yeah, I was -- I worked for Warner Brothers doing that and had a blast; had a great time -- particularly because, you know, I'm such a comic book fan.

GROSS: Right. What -- you know, even in I guess it's Mall Rats, people are sitting around talking about Superman and they're wondering whether Lois Lane's uterus is strong enough for Superman -- to carry Superman's baby.

SMITH: Right. Right.

GROSS: So, you must have had a lot of fun writing a Superman script.

SMITH: I did. Like a lot of people, I'm sure, there were serious, hard-core Superman fans. We have a website. I spend a lot of time on our website. And there's a board where people post messages all the time, and I usually get on there at least once a day and answer everything -- everything that's asked, I -- you know, it doesn't matter.

So there was one guy who was getting on for a short period there, probably about a week, two weeks -- just enraged that I was writing Superman. He's like: this means Superman's going to be sitting around talking about, like, going down on women and stuff like that.

LAUGHTER

You know, and talking about the size of his genitals. And it's -- you know, it's like come one, give me a little credit. You know, I think I can do more than that. And you know, as it was, when I was done with Superman, there was no racy kind of sexual humor in it whatsoever.

GROSS: Your next movie is called "Dogma. (ph)" Tell us something about it.

SMITH: It's actually -- it's a movie that's completely and vastly different than the three films we've done before. The three films we've done thus far focused on relationships -- right? -- and Clerks has a very sardonic take on relationships; Mall Rats has a very idealistic movie-like take on relationships; and Chasing Amy has kind of a realistic take on relationships.

This movie has nothing to do with relationships. It's all about religion and specifically organized religion, being the Catholic Church this time around, because I grew up Catholic so it's the one I could talk about the most.

And it's a fantasy film and it's kind of -- element -- there are elements of sci-fi in it; elephant -- elephants? -- elements of horror; elements, of course, very -- it's very comedic, but very black satire; very dramatic. At the same time, it's very serious.

Most importantly, it's very reverent. I think a lot of people hear, like, oh the Clerks guy is doing a religious movie; he's doing a movie about the Catholic Church and figure I'm going to thumb my nose at the church for an hour or two hours.

And it's not the case. It's a very reverent film. And, you know, it just kind of questions the idea, the good that organized religion has done over the years.

GROSS: Did you -- do you still count yourself a Catholic?

SMITH: No. Actually, I quit about six months ago -- six to seven months ago. I hung in there as long as I could, 'cause I thought it was kind of hubris to change your religion. You know, I just thought that was very arrogant.

I remember reading that once in "The Screwtape Letters," C.S. Lewis book. One of the devils is always trying to tempt this guy into changing his religion, and then, you know, it's a sin of arrogance or something.

So I was very scared, so I never changed my religion. Finally, I figured, you know, it's better to be somewhere that makes you feel better, you know, or feel, you know, celebratory about, you know, the praise of God, than the Catholic Church did.

It was just -- it was a shame. I would walk in the Catholic Church every Sunday and there was -- they call it the celebration of the Mass, but it's no party in that place. You know, it's people sitting around. They're there because they're afraid of going to Hell, and that's it.

You know, they're -- nobody's really there for love of God. They're just terrified. They don't want to burn after they die. So, you know, they sit there and give these lip-service prayers and drone and, you know, it's just not -- it's not very spiritually fulfilling.

So I went and joined this church called the Calvary Chapel Church, and man, you go in there, and you feel a presence. You know, there is a presence in that room and it can be seven in the morning, these people are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

You know, everyone's just there, man, just enjoying the fact that we're all come together and then to praise God and stuff and praise Jesus. It's just a much better feeling, you know, than the kind of dead weight that the Catholic Church seems to have around its neck lately.

GROSS: Do you have many friends who go to church?

SMITH: No, heavens no. No. It's a pain in the ass to try to get somebody to go with you to church. You can't convince them. Scott, my producer will go with me before big events. I remember we went right before Sundance.

We went right before Cannes. We went right before the release of Chasing Amy. We didn't go before the release of Mall Rats, and look what happened. So -- and he is like a devout agnostic, but he will cave and go to church with me before important events.

GROSS: Kevin Smith's latest film is Chasing Amy. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kevin Smith.

He wrote and directed the current film Chasing Amy. His first film, Clerks, was a comedy about a couple of guys who worked at a convenience store and video store.

Clerks, your first film, was financed on credit cards after you dropped out of film school. Did it take a lot of courage to spend that much of your own money, and believe that it wouldn't ruin your life and condemn you to eternal debt?

SMITH: I never thought about it until the first time we actually screened the movie, which was at the Independent Feature Film Market -- this thing that the IFP, Independent Future Project, sponsors every year in Manhattan at the Angelica (ph) Theater.

You pay $500; you stick your film into this marketplace; and you get a screening slot and you try to pack the screening with as many potential distributors or, you know, investors as possible.

Well, nobody showed up for our screening, except basically the cast and crew. And with the exception of a few stragglers, including this one very important guy named Bob Hawk (ph) who started the ball rolling on the whole experience.

But it was in that screening -- the first 10 minutes of that screening -- that I cringed. You know, and I broke inside; and I was like, I can't believe I made this movie. I can't -- God, why is everyone speaking like that? Everyone's talking so damned dirty. I was -- God, I'm $27,000 in debt.

And then after another half hour of watching the movie, I said: well, you know, it's kind of like one year of film school. So I'll just pay off the debt and, you know, if I still feel like making movies after that, I'll try it again. You know, it's kind of -- it's only money.

GROSS: Clerks was shot in a convenience store, and it's about a couple of guys working in a convenience store who also work in a video store. You were working in a convenience store, I think, while or before you made the movie. Did you shoot it in the store you actually worked in?

SMITH: Yeah, in both of those stores. The owner owned both the convenience store and the video store, Mr. Topper and Mrs. Topper -- great, great people. But they owned both of those stores, and that's where I'd worked for about two or three years by that time.

And I had worked in convenience stores, in general, for a long time, but that was the final one and that was the one where it kind of all came together. And when I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker, I was like: Well, why don't I make a movie about this stuff?

And I've been doing it long enough. After six, seven years, you have to have enough material for at least 90 minutes, you know what I'm saying? So, yeah, I shot it in both the stores I used to work in.

GROSS: Hmm. What was the kind of customer who most irritated you in the years that you worked at convenience stores?

SMITH: I'll tell ya' -- I know that question so well 'cause -- or I know the answer so well because it still bothers me to death, and I consciously avoid that -- the behavior I'm about to describe. It is the person who will slap money down on a counter, and not hand it to you.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

SMITH: It makes all the difference, man, to just hand you a dollar bill, rather than put it on the counter, or even worse, change -- throw down 75 cents and they're waiting for change for something. But they'll lay it on the counter, as opposed to handing it to you. And I was a firm believer in, like, you know, do unto others.

So people would do that to me, and I'd put their change on the counter. They'd hold their hand open, and I'd put their change on the counter, and people would get so pissed off.

I mean people still -- I'm sure I'm reviled in the town of Leonardo (ph) where those two stores were, because I was a pretty bitter convenience store employee. And really, I just got back what I got -- you know, what I was given, which isn't a very Christian way of operating the store, but what the heck, you know?

But that and the people that would go through that penny-thing -- you know, leave a penny, take a penny?

GROSS: Yeah.

SMITH: You know, go through it for like 25 cents. You know, like collect all the pennies and pay for something. You know, come in with no money and actually buy something with those pennies. Or the guy who'll, you know, something is a $1.00, $1.03, and he has a $20 bill and he takes three pennies out.

You know, it's like do you have -- you obviously have the pennies, you know, you don't need three pennies from the jar; you're not hurtin' for cash.

GROSS: Did you ever get robbed in the years that you worked in convenience stores?

SMITH: No, never, never. There's always scares around Halloween. When you work in convenience stores, they always tell you to be careful on Halloween, 'cause everyone's wearing masks anyway and usually that's when bandits, robbers, whatever like to come in.

You know, 'cause they can walk into the store, you know, unnoticed, you know, or not -- they wouldn't -- you can't see them on the street and immediately freak out, like: there's a robber coming. You know, 'cause everyone's wearing masks anyway on Halloween.

But it never happened to us. It happened to one of the sister stores, kind of up north more, but never to us. And never to any store I ever worked in. And there was actually -- the original ending to Clerks was a guy coming in, robbing the store, and shooting Dante -- killing Dante -- and actually taking money out of the register. And we shot that ending and cut it off before we went to Sundance, thank God.

GROSS: Why did you change it?

SMITH: John Pierson (ph) -- really good friend of mine -- John Pierson, guy who wrote "Spike (Unintelligible) and Dykes." He's an independent film representative guru -- "czar" a lot of people have called him -- and he said: look, you have a very funny movie here, a great movie, you know, with a lot of good will in it.

And you grow to love these characters over 90 minutes, you know, 90 to 100 minutes. You can't kill the main character off in the end, you know? It's just not -- it's not right. It's unfair. The audience will rise up and slay you.

And, you know, he asked me, like: why did you want to do that? And I said: well, I mean, I wanted to make an independent film and that's what happens in independent films -- someone always gets shot.

LAUGHTER

John was, like: well, you have no message here. I mean, I fancied myself Spike Lee -- "Do The Right Thing" is one of my favorite movies, and it's like a very funny movie through most of the time, and then in the last half hour, it turns very serious.

And I really -- I really fancied like Clerks kind of like that. You know, it's set in a one-block radius; all takes place in a day; it's very funny; and at the end, I was trying to turn serious and then kind of have a message to say.

Well, Spike Lee has a zillion messages. I have none. So it didn't really pan out for me, so I just cut that ending off.

GROSS: Now, you've said that you grew up on, like, '80s youth comedies like the John Hughes movies. I think the first independent film that you saw was "Slacker"...

SMITH: Yep. Richard Linklighter's (ph) flick Slacker.

GROSS: ... which -- yeah, which came our, what, five years ago or something like that?

SMITH: Came out, God what was it? '89? '89 or '90.

GROSS: Yeah. So what impact did that have...

SMITH: '91.

GROSS: ... on you -- seeing a movie that wasn't...

SMITH: '91 -- I'm sorry. It came out in '91.

GROSS: What impact did that have on you?

SMITH: A huge impact. I saw it on my 21st birthday, and it suddenly -- everything clicked, the stars aligned. And I was a guy who really didn't know what he was going to do with his life. I figured I'd own a deli one day, maybe.

But seeing Slacker really opened it up for me. I was like, here's this guy from, like, where? Austin, Texas? What's that? And you know, he's made a movie.

And this movie isn't like any movie I've ever seen before. It's -- there's, you know, there's really no plot going on. There's just a lot of characters, and characters come and go, and there's a lot of dialogue and there's a lot of esoteric dialogue.

And you know, I was sitting in an audience surrounded by people, and these people were finding it funny. You know, more funny than even I found it. I found it funny or amusing, but these people were laughing out loud. And I think it comes down to -- you view things like that with a mix of awe and arrogance.

You're like: I can't believe this movie's that great, but at the same time, you're like: I could do this. You know, like, I've discovered something wonderful, but I can do this. I mean, why can't I -- why can't I do that? If he can do it in Austin, Texas why can't I do it in Highlands, New Jersey? Leonardo, New Jersey, or whatever?

So, you know, and as I sat there listening to people laugh, I was like: I'll give them something really funny to laugh at. So it's -- that's how it kind of came together. It was an epiphany of sorts.

GROSS: Well, Kevin Smith, thank you very much for talking with us.

SMITH: No, thank you -- thanks for having me on. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Kevin Smith's current film Chasing Amy is currently in theaters. His films Clerks and Mall Rats are on video.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Kevin Smith
High: Writer and director Kevin Smith. His work has won acclaim in the independent film community, including awards at the Cannes and the Sundance film festivals. His new film "Chasing Amy" is the third installment of his New Jersey Trilogy, a series set in central New Jersey, where Smith grew up and still lives. Chasing Amy, like Smith's other films, deals with the complexities of human relationships during the confusing time before adulthood with an off-beat sense of humor.
Spec: Movie Industry; Chasing Amy; Kevin Smith
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Kevin Smith
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 25, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Richard Russo
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: In the new comic novel "Straight Man," William Henry Devereaux, Jr. (ph) is facing middle age as the chairman of the English Department on a small college campus utterly lacking in prestige.

My guest is the author, Richard Russo. Academic life is a new subject for him. His previous novels, "Mohawk," "Risk Pool," (ph) and "Nobody's Fool," were about life for the working class and unemployed in a fictional small town in upstate New York -- a town based on the one he grew up in.
"Nobody's Fool" was adapted into a movie starring Paul Newman.

Here's a reading from the prologue of the new novel Straight Man, in which Devereaux is thinking back on his childhood, his relationship with his father, and the day his dog died and was buried by Devereaux's father. The father was a very successful academic and literary theorist.

RICHARD RUSSO, AUTHOR, "STRAIGHT MAN": "In the years after he left us, my father became even more famous. He is sometimes credited, if credit is the word, with being the father of American literary theory."

"In addition to his many books of scholarship, he's also written a literary memoir that was short-listed for a major award and that offers insight into the personalities of several major literary figures of the 20th century, now deceased."

"His photograph often graces the pages of the literary reviews. He went through a phase where he wore crew-neck sweaters and gold chains beneath his tweed coat, but now he's mostly photographed in an oxford button-down shirt, tie and jacket in his book-lined office at the university."

"But to me, his son, William Henry Devereaux, Sr. is most real standing in his ruined cordovan loafers, leaning on the handle of a borrowed shovel, examining his dirty, blistered hands and receiving my suggestion of what to name a dead dog."

"I suspect that digging our dog's grave was one of the relatively few experiences of his life, excepting carnal ones, that did not originate on the printed page. And when I suggested we name the dead dog "Red," he looked at me as if I had just stepped from the pages of a book that he had started to read years ago, and then put down when something else caught his interest."

"'What?' He said, letting go of the shovel so that it's handle hit the earth between my feet. "What?" It's not an easy time for any parent -- this moment when the realization dawns on you that you have given birth to something that will never see things the way you do, despite the fact that it is your living legacy; that it bears your name."

GROSS: That's Richard Russo reading from his new novel Straight Man.

You know, it's interesting -- your previous books have been about fathers who are working class or out of work; people who do manual labor. And in this new book, the father is the father of literary theory. He's an academic father -- someone who's experienced everything as filtered through the page.

I'm wondering if you started comparing in your mind the frustrations of having a father who was out of work a lot to the frustrations of having a father who's a star in the academic field -- and is also incredibly self-absorbed.

RUSSO: Right. I mean, what, of course, the fathers in the earlier books and this father have in common is that they are not there for the boy in question. William Henry Devereaux, Sr. is not only going to leave, but he's not really there even at the beginning of this book, when he is there.

I mean, he's there. He's living in the family. He's there at the dinner table, but in some important way, he's absent. He is self-absorbed, but he's also absorbed in language; in the word; in the life of the mind.

And I think he's the kind of man for whom a child isn't really going to be all that interested until the child probably gets older and can approach him on the same plane that he's used to be approached by students and fellow faculty members. And of course, by the time a kid gets that old, probably the things he's going to have to say to such a father will be the kinds of things that no father wants to hear.

GROSS: In your early novels, you drew a lot on your relationship with your father, who you never lived with because your parents separated when you were, I guess when you were very young.

RUSSO: Yeah.

GROSS: And your father, it sounds from your fiction, must have been a bit of an eccentric; a bit of a drunk; a bit of a con-man, but very lovable in his own way. I'm wondering if when he died a few years ago, if your reactions to the loss surprised you?

RUSSO: No, my very profound reaction to my father's loss was not something by that time that had -- that surprised me. My father and I became very -- became very close, and since both Sam Hall and Donald Sullivan (ph) are written large, I'm afraid that people might get the wrong impression about my own father -- that he was perhaps more of a rogue than he actually was in real life.

He was a man who played an enormous part -- sometimes just by his absence -- in my own imagination as a child. By the time that I was in college and returning home in the summers to work road construction with him, he had begun to play an even larger role in my life and in my imagination. And by the time he fell ill, when I was writing The Risk Pool, he and I had become very close.

And it didn't -- it did not take me entirely by surprise, how much that I was going to miss him -- the ways in which I would continue to see him and think about him and think in terms of him for, you know, the decade or so that it's been.

GROSS: In a previous novel, you wrote about the small upstate New York town the characters lived in. Everyone lived pretty near the edge -- of unemployment; of lunacy; of bankruptcy; of potentially hazardous ignorance; of despair. And hence the local custom was that you only worried about people nearest the brink, otherwise you'd worry yourself over the edge.

Did you used to assume that with education and with money and with employment, that despair goes away?

RUSSO: I'm not so sure that I thought that, exactly. I think, for me, Straight Man is, as I think your question is angling at, is about a different kind of despair entirely. As a matter of fact, it's a despair at the very other end of the spectrum.

I think Hank Devereaux in this novel, "Lucky Hank" as he is known to his friends and enemies alike, is a man who has done an awful lot of what he wanted to do in life.

He has built the house that he wanted to build. He has become a tenured full professor at perhaps not the academic institution that he imagined himself at, but he has been promoted to a point where he can't go anywhere else.

He has married the woman that he wants to marry and that he is perhaps even more deeply in love with than he realizes during the book. He has children who have grown up healthy and well.

He has, in a kind of metaphorical sense, he has a kind of tenure in life. And it's the very sense of this kind of tenure in life -- of the fact that things are going well and may continue to go well; and the fact that his story, as it were, if he looks at his own life as a story, he can kind of sense where it's going.

And I think that that's what -- when people begin to sense that they know exactly where their life is going; that they've made most of their decisions in life that are going to be of consequence, and now what you're doing is sitting back and waiting for all of these choices that you've made to kind of play themselves out -- a new and very different and very virulent kind of despair begins to set in, when you sense that your story is nearing its conclusion and that most of the interesting choices that you had are the choices that you've already made and are now looking back on.

GROSS: Why did you choose that as a theme?

RUSSO: I suppose that there are autobiographical reasons to write a book like that. I feel incredibly blessed in my own life. I'm doing, you know, by some almost miraculous happenstance, I seem to be doing exactly what I want to do at this point. I tell stories, which is a very enjoyable thing for me to do. I have a wonderful family.

But there's a sense that you get that everybody, I think, in middle age gets. I think this is really a novel about middle age -- of having a lot of happiness; a lot of -- if you're lucky enough to have had some success -- to be very pleased with what you've done.

But Hank is the kind of man who would dearly love to start over; just to be at the beginning of something again, as opposed to the middle or the middle towards the end.

Because one of the things that you know when you get to be middle aged is that you're not going to start again.

GROSS: You taught for 24 years and retired from full-time teaching a couple of years ago. Why did you leave?

RUSSO: Well, there were a couple of reasons. Like most middle-aged people, we begin to hear the clock ticking. I don't know how many more novels I've got in me, but I wanted to make sure that the amount -- that whatever amount of time I have, that I won't leave any books unwritten that I've got in me.

And, you know, when you start pushing 50, you begin to realize that there just isn't an infinite amount of time. You begin to think about how you might spend your time, as wisely as you possibly can.

And also another reason almost as important was that most teachers begin to feel after they've been teaching for 20 years or so -- even if you believe what you're teaching and what you're saying to students, after you've said it for about the 100th time, you begin to be aware of not only just being awfully tired of repeating yourself, but you also become aware of all the things that you don't know -- you yourself don't know.

And as I continue to write, I become more and more aware of the just gigantic ignorance that I'm laboring under. There are things that I need to know about medicine; about law; about real estate; about art; about all sorts of things that I would be wise to learn something about since I seem to be casting characters who are in some of those professions.

And not being a full-time academic has freed me to become a much wider and much more voracious reader. And instead of, you know, imparting for the umpteenth time what little I do know; kind of supplementing what I know with some other things that I badly need to know.

GROSS: My guest is Richard Russo. His new novel is called Straight Man. We'll talk more in a minute.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Richard Russo. His new comic novel Straight Man is set on a college campus. His previous novels Mohawk, The Risk Pool, and Nobody's Fool were set in a working class town in upstate New York.

So we've established that your fiction has been set in two worlds that you've lived in -- the world of the blue collar small town and the world of the campus.

But you've done some work in a third world, which is the world of Hollywood, the world of the celebrity class and the Hollywood executive for the movie Nobody's Fool. How closely did you work on that and how involved did you get in that world?

RUSSO: Well, actually I've become more involved with it since then. I've just finished writing a screenplay of Straight Man. And Robert Benton (ph), who directed Nobody's Fool, and I have collaborated on another project that just finished filming.

So I have -- in working on Nobody's Fool, I really did script work that began only after the movie had begun its shooting. And so I kind of tiptoed in the back door on that project; did a little bit of screen work; made a very good friend in Robert Benton who wanted to work with me on another project. And so now I'm involved on a third, and it's a new thing. It's been kind of fun.

GROSS: What was it like for you to see Paul Newman playing one of the father characters in Nobody's Fool? I mean, the father character in Nobody's Fool.

RUSSO: Right. Right. It was a little unnerving at first. He was -- I mean, Paul Newman is an icon. He was too good looking.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

RUSSO: He was -- the baggage that it seemed to me that he brought to that role and that I didn't think he was ever going to be able to get rid of, was the baggage of just being Paul Newman. I think that he has a kind of history as an icon that makes it impossible for you to dislike him, even when he's doing horrible things.

You cast him in the most villainous role -- as he had a villainous role in one of the Cohen brothers -- recent Cohen brothers movies. And you like him. You can't -- you just cannot help but like him. He's got that kind of history that trails him.

And my worst fear was that in Nobody's Fool, in the movie, that we were never going to get the sense of Solly (ph) as a dangerous man -- a man who could be dangerous to his family; a man who could be dangerous to anyone who gets too close to him.

And I was very afraid that Paul Newman would not be able to convey that sense of what a dangerous man Solly was. And I think that Paul did remarkably well in that role, given, you know, given the fact that he is an icon.

I think that his rendition of my Donald Sullivan is probably more immediately likable than Solly was in my novel, but I thought his performance was utterly compelling and I found myself, after just a very short period of time, getting into the spirit of his notion of this man.
And I thought it was terrific.

GROSS: I'm wondering if your compass works for you when you're working in movies -- if your sense of what's funny translates; if your sense of what an interesting story is -- translated; of what's entertaining, that translates?

RUSSO: I don't know. I -- we just -- the second film that Robert Benton and I wrote together is being screened right now, and...

GROSS: With focus groups?

RUSSO: ... it's at that point that you would...

GROSS: Test screening? Test screening?

RUSSO: Pardon? Yeah. It's test screenings. And it's always interesting to sit in a theater with, you know, 80 or 90 people who are coming into a movie in a way that nobody actually goes into a movie. For test screenings, nobody knows that the movie's going to be about. They don't know who's in it; they don't know what kind of movie it is.

Whereas in real life, really what happens is, when you go to see a movie, you've seen so many trailers for it; you've seen it advertised on television. When you go into a movie, you are going to see the movie that you've already been prepared to see.

GROSS: Who's in the movie that's being screened now and what's it about?

RUSSO: Oh, it has a wonderful cast. It's an odd movie, in some ways I think. It's a detective story and it's set in Los Angeles, but the mystery elements of the story are not as important as the character elements, and rather than giving the audience eight or 10 characters to choose from as to who the murderer is, you get to choose between three or four, and you don't want to believe, really, that it's any of them.

It's very -- it's a very character-oriented piece, and the actors who are in it are just uniformly wonderful. Paul Newman plays the detective in the movie and the other major players are Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman and James Garner.

GROSS: Interesting cast.

RUSSO: Yeah.

GROSS: You getting to...

RUSSO: They're all terrific.

GROSS: You're getting to work with them directly?

RUSSO: Actually, after the script -- I think that's why FAX machines were invented.

GROSS: So they don't have to work with you.

RUSSO: So that writers...

LAUGHTER

... so -- that's right -- so that movie stars don't have to deal directly with writers and vice versa. So I've been happily working away at central Maine, putting words on a page and, you know, lo and behold, a year later, I'm hearing, you know, Gene Hackman repeat them to me.

GROSS: Well, Richard Russo, I wish you good luck with your books and your movies. Thank you very much for talking with us.

RUSSO: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Richard Russo's new novel is called Straight Man.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Richard Russo
High: Novelist Richard Russo. Russo gained critic's recognition for his portrayal of life in a declining upstate New York mill town with his novels Mohawk and The Risk Pool. His book "Nobody's Fool" was adapted into a film starring Paul Newman. His latest novel is "Straight Man." It is published by Random House.
Spec: Books; Movie Industry; Authors; Richard Russo; Nobody's Fool
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Richard Russo
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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