In addition to introducing a cringe-worthy new definition for the word “snowball,” the raunchy independent comedy Clerks projected the anxieties of America’s downwardly mobile Generation X onto the screens of arthouse cinemas around the world. As they endured the tedium of life behind a cash register, Dante Hicks and Randal Graves pondered the lack of romantic and vocational direction in their lives. Well, Dante did. Randal just watched Return of the Jedi and mocked customers. The black-and-white indie film, released in 1994, launched the career of writer-director Kevin Smith, who was 23 years old when it was produced, and introduced his iconic characters, Jay and Silent Bob. Here are 18 things you might not know about Clerks.
1. KEVIN SMITH MET SOME OF HIS KEY COLLABORATORS DURING A VERY BRIEF FILM SCHOOL TENURE.
After seeing an ad in The Village Voice, Smith applied to an eight-month program at the Vancouver Film School. He always aimed to make an independent film, in the vein of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), but he dropped out halfway through the program. “We didn’t do anything practical,” Smith told Film School Rejects. “Mostly it was teachers showing us films.”
He did meet his longtime producer Scott Mosier and cinematographer Dave Klein at the school. Afterwards, both came to New Jersey to help him make Clerks. And Smith took something else away from his time in Vancouver: According to the making-of feature of Clerks X, the 10th anniversary DVD package of the film, Smith and Mosier debated the ethics of blowing up the two Death Stars in the cafeteria of the film school, inspiring one of Clerks’ most memorable bits of dialogue.
2. SMITH WAS A CLERK AT THAT VERY QUICK STOP.
Upon graduating from high school, Smith worked a series of low-wage jobs near his hometown of Highlands, New Jersey. One of his longest stints was as a cashier at the Quick Stop in Leonardo. “I know that world because that’s all I’ve ever done,” Smith said in the Clerks X featurette. Upon returning from Vancouver, he was rehired by the Quick Stop and began working on the script for Clerks. He based Dante on himself and Randal on his friend, Bryan Johnson, who worked at RST Video next door.
3. SMITH MAXED OUT HIS CREDIT CARDS TO MAKE THE FILM.
Smith sold his comic book collection, received donations from family, and contributed a $3000 FEMA check from the loss of property in a nor’easter to make Clerks. But most of its $27,575 budget came from the 10 credit cards he maxed out. He learned about budgeting from Filmmaker Magazine; one article was particularly helpful because it included line item budgets of three independent movies.
4. THE FILM WAS ORIGINALLY A VEHICLE FOR SMITH’S HIGH SCHOOL COMEDY TROUPE.
Smith formed a comedy troupe in high school and wrote the part of Randal for himself and Dante for former troupe mate Ernest O’Donnell (even though Dante was the clerk Smith based on himself). But O’Donnell didn’t seem to take the project seriously, according to Clerks X.
Smith realized he’d exhaust himself working both as the director and one of the main characters, so he recruited actors from the local community theater scene. This is how he met Brian O’Halloran (Dante) and Marilyn Ghigliotti (Veronica). Jeff Anderson was a friend who helped Smith during auditions by reading parts opposite the actors auditioning. When Smith decided to vacate the part of Randal, he offered it to Anderson and took on the less demanding role of Silent Bob. O’Donnell was cast as a fitness-obsessed customer.
5. FRIENDS, FAMILY MEMBERS, AND CREW FILLED OUT THE SMALL PARTS.
Smith’s sister, Virginia, is the customer who discusses her job of manually inseminating chickens. His mom is the woman sorting through the jugs of milk for one with a later expiration date. His longtime friend Walt Flanagan played four different customers; Scott Mosier played two.
6. IT WAS SHOT AT NIGHT.
The owner of the Quick Stop and RST Video gave Smith permission to film at night. Clerks was shot over 21 consecutive days in 1993, after the stores closed. (Smith wrote a plot point to explain the lack of window lighting. When Dante opens the store, he discovers a vandal has jammed gum into the locks on the shutters.) Each night Smith and his crew had to essentially disassemble the store, moving shelving and unplugging refrigerators to make room for equipment, then reassemble everything the next morning, according to Clerks X.
The cast all worked day jobs, too: O’Halloran in manufacturing, Anderson in the mailroom of AT&T, Ghigliotti as a hair stylist, Mewes as a roofer, and Smith in the very store where they filmed. All suffered from sleep deprivation. The cast and crew did get to eat from the shelves of the Quick Stop; the store is credited with “catering” in the film’s credits.
7. SMITH PLANNED AHEAD TO GET A SHOT OF A CAT DEFECATING.
In one scene, the cat that hangs around the store leaps onto the counter and defecates into a litter box in front of a customer. According to the DVD commentary track, Smith borrowed a friend’s cat for the scene. The owner hid his litter box for a day, hoping he’d rush to it as soon as it was presented on the store counter. This worked. When presenting the film at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, Smith joked that this is why Clerks didn’t have the Humane Society’s “no animals were harmed …” seal of approval.
8. ANDERSON WAS UNCOMFORTABLE WITH ONE BIT OF DIALOGUE.
In the only scene in which Randal does any work, the clerk phones the distributor for the video store and reads off a list of colorful pornography titles in front of a small child. Knowing that his mother would see the film, Anderson asked Smith to eliminate a few of the raunchier titles; Smith made handed the list back to Anderson—with a few titles added.
9. SMITH COULDN’T AFFORD TO SHOOT ONE SCENE HE WROTE.
Dante and Randal close the stores to attend the funeral of a classmate. In the next scene, mourners pelt them with stones as they drive off. Back at the store, Dante chides Randal for knocking over the casket. This scene where this happened was scripted: When Randal gets bored at the funeral, Dante throws him the keys to his car, which land in the cleavage of the deceased. Randal tries to retrieve them and gets assaulted by the grieving father. Smith couldn’t afford to rent a funeral home, but for Clerks X, he recreated the scene in the style of the short-lived animated Clerks TV show.
10. JASON MEWES WAS SURPRISINGLY CAMERA SHY.
Smith wrote the part of Jay, the much more vocal half of the loitering pair of drug dealers, for his friend Jason Mewes, who was known for his loud, outrageous behavior. “When we did Clerks I was 18/19,” Mewes told The Skinny. “That’s how I used to act, exactly. I didn’t have any filter.” Yet Mewes was surprisingly uncomfortable in front of the camera.
“Kevin used to make fun of me because he said when he met me that someone should put me in a movie,” Mewes told The Sheaf. “But when I got on camera, man, I just froze and needed everyone out of there. I warmed up to it eventually but that wasn’t really until Mallrats.” In order to help ease his nervousness, the crew continually bought him six-packs from the corner bar. Smith also cleared the set to film the scene when Jay dances to a boom box. In the script, Jay says the line that convinces Dante to try to salvage his relationship with Veronica. (“You know, there’s a million fine-looking women in the world, dude. But they don’t all bring you lasagna at work. Most of them just cheat on you.”) Mewes didn’t think he could deliver it, so Smith stepped in. This begat a theme in Smith’s films where Silent Bob speaks up at important moments.
11. IT LED TO A MARRIAGE.
Sparks flew between Anderson and Lisa Spoonauer, who played Dante’s ill-fated ex Caitlin. Shortly after the three-week shoot, the two became engaged. Neither the marriage nor Spoonauer’s acting ambitions outlasted the 1990s though: She has only one other film credit to her name, an obscure 1997 movie called Bartender. Anderson, to whom she stayed married until 1999, says she quit acting after losing out on a part in a Nicolas Cage film. She hasn’t been interviewed since and didn’t participate in the DVD bonuses for Clerks X.
12. NO ONE SHOWED UP TO THE PREMIERE.
Smith secured a place for Clerks at the 1993 Independent Feature Film Market, an event held at New York City’s Angelika Film Center. On the Clerks X featurette, Smith said he was “crestfallen” that the Sunday night screening attracted few viewers beyond cast and crew. Fortunately, one of the moviegoers was Bob Hawk, an independent film consultant who served on the advisory selection committee of the Sundance Film Festival. Hawk touted the film to friends in the indie cinema world and helped land it a place at Sundance.
13. IN THE ORIGINAL VERSION, DANTE DIES.
In the version shown at the IFFM, a robber comes in after closing and shoots and kills Dante. “I hated that ending,” Brian O’Halloran told Rolling Stone. “I just thought it was too quick of a twist.” Smith admitted he didn’t know how to end the film. Due to the criticism of several early viewers, Smith recut the film to end at the closing of the store.
14. HARVEY WEINSTEIN DIDN’T LIKE THE MOVIE ... AT LEAST NOT AT FIRST.
A video copy of Clerks made its way to Miramax. According to Clerks X, company co-founder Harvey Weinstein watched 10 minutes and decided to pass on it. Some of his staff speculated that Weinstein, then a heavy smoker, was turned off by the gum company representative’s anti-tobacco tirade. Younger Miramax staffers, however, enjoyed it and convinced Weinstein to attend its screening at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival.
After an enthusiastic audience response, Weinstein asked Smith and Mosier to meet him at a restaurant across the street. “We sit down and he’s just like, ‘Boy, that’s a f*cking good movie. We’re going to take that movie, we’re going to put it in a f*cking multiplex, put a f*cking soundtrack on it, and f*cking kids are gonna come see it,’” Smith recounted to WIRED. “And me and Scott were just like, ‘F*ckin’ A, man.’”
15. THE SOUNDTRACK COST MORE THAN THE FILM.
Once it was picked up by Miramax, Clerks got an alt-rock soundtrack featuring Bad Religion, Stabbing Westward, and Soul Asylum. Licensing the songs cost more than producing the film.
16. ONE OF O.J. SIMPSON’S ATTORNEYS DEFENDED IT TO THE MPAA.
The Motion Picture Association of America slapped Clerks with an NC-17 rating, solely because of its crass dialogue. This would have doomed the film, as few theaters show films rated NC-17. So Miramax hired famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz to plead their case to the MPAA, which relented and gave it an R rating.
17. THE QUICK STOP IS STILL OPERATING.
You can still buy eggs, milk, and cigarettes at The Quick Stop at 58 Leonard Avenue in Leonardo, New Jersey. There is some Smith memorabilia on the walls and fans have been known to take photographs posing as Jay and Silent Bob outside. However, RST Video—like many video stores in the age of Netflix—is no more.
18. THE FILM IS CITED IN A PSYCHOLOGIST’S BOOK ON GENERATIONS.
Dr. Jean M. Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, cites Clerks a few times in her pop culture-savvy 2006 book Generation Me, about the more individualistic mores of Americans born since the 1970s. She says Smith’s characters represent Generation X’s crassness and disregard for societal expectations. Twenge considers Clerks “a pretty accurate illustration of how young people talk, with about two swear words in every line.”