On June 25th, 2013, Scott Mosier and I sat down to record episode 259 of SModcast, our weekly podcast. As per usual, we had no plan for what to talk about – we’d simply buzz from topic to topic ‘til we had about an hour of content, then call it a day. We never make a job of SModcast: the idea is to try to make it as fun and easy to do as possible. That’s how we’re at nearly 300 episodes over six years: it’s fun and easy for us to record.
As extemporaneous as the conversations on SModcast are, I like to keep articles that I’ve read throughout the week tagged on my desktop so that when I sit down to SMod, there’s always material to pull from. That week was no different, except the article I’d pulled to discuss was one of the more peculiar we would ever tackle on the show. Within hours, the story itself would be devoured by the internet as a viral ditty that capture the audience’s imagination, as it had mine. But when I sat down to record SModcast, it was still fresh and baffling. I’d read it once prior Scott’s arrival, my eyes wide, my jaw slack. I knew Mosier would love the article and I figured it’d easily fill an hour of SModcast.
Little did I know it’d fill much more’n that.
SModcast 259: The Walrus & the Carpenter went live the night of June 25th, 2013. 6 minutes and 45 seconds into the show, I start telling Scott a story that I found via a few British Tweeters who felt it was excellent SModcast material. The story concerns a listing from GumTree.uk, a website that specializes in living situations and apartments to rent. In one memorable listing, a homeowner offers a living situation free of charge – the only caveat being the lodger would have to dress like a walrus from time to time.
Yes – a motherfucking walrus.
The listing was written eloquently and briefly mentioned that the writer had once been lost at sea, with a walrus he nicknamed Gregory as his only companion. The author writes of being heartbroken by the separation from the walrus, and identifies the whiskered beast as better company than any humans he’d ever known. To this end, the author is interested in recreating the best time of his life, with a would-be lodger in a realistic walrus costume standing in for the beloved Gregory.
The listing got my creative juices flowing and I began reconstructing the whole thing as an old British Hammer horror film, in which a mad scientist intends to sew some hapless lodger into counterfeit blubber, creating a chimera in an effort to answer the ultimate riddle, “Is man, indeed, a walrus at heart?!”
Mosier and I took the tale in more and more ridiculous directions, cracking ourselves up. And then, in the midst of all the fun, you can hear something strange happen: as stoned as I always am, this walrus picture was starting to sound like a worthy endeavor – or at the very least, a movie I’d like to see.
By the 26 minute and 21 second mark, I start chasing whimsy: as if struck down by the hand of the Divine on the road to Damascus, something larger than myself spoke through me – spiritually, not physically (I’m pretty fat). I immediately titled the trip into bedlam The Walrus and the Carpenter.
By 36 minutes and 12 seconds, I invoke the name of the great Greg Nicotero as the blood and gore effects wizard who could bring the human-walrus to life.
At the 37 minute and 16 seconds, I suggest to myself that I call Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, the $3 million dollar movie maven behind Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge and Scott Derrickson’s Sinister. Derrickson had been a guest on my SMovieMakers podcast back in October of 2012, and he’d talked about the experience of making Sinister with Blum for a low budget. Everything about it appealed to me because it sounded like old Miramax (which makes sense: Blum used to work at old Miramax back in the day).
By 57 minutes into the podcast, we’ve wrapped up our walrus discussion and moved on to the subject of Bart’s Bakery and his cookie claims. But before we sign off, I tell the audience to let me know if I’m on to something or if I’m just blazed, or both. There are two hash-tags I suggest listeners can use to vote on the fictional film: #WalrusYes and #WalrusNo
By June 26th, the very next day, there were a slew of #WalrusYes Tweets. The creepy flip on the story made people giggle, and the idea that this discussion could go further than just the podcast fueled the Tweets to the positive. Very few souls ventured into #WalrusNo territory. What would be the point? It’s not like this walrus picture could ever happen anyway…
In the very near future, I’ll be making Clerks III. It’s an epic l’il swan-song – my g’bye to film, meant to showcase everything I’ve learned in 20 years of making movies. Since The Weinstein Company was behind Clerks II, they got first shot at any potential sequel. My producer Shannon McIntosh and I spent months preparing the submission package for Bob Weinstein: the 120 page script, 3 separate budgets for shooting in 3 different states, a cast list, a cash-flow schedule, and sundry other items with which Bob Weinstein would decide whether or not he wanted to be involved in Clerks III. The deal gives him a month to decide.
In the last few years, I’ve been trying to leave film behind because it’s such a s-l-o-w and expensive medium. Art is in the realm of the quick: creativity is fleeting and fast. And chasing down a good idea is like trying to catch the Golden Snitch. So while it makes sense that people who’re thinking of investing millions of dollars in a movie take their time making an informed decision, art itself is chomping at the bit to get going. You’ve cuffed art’s balls and it’s ready to buck and jump ‘til it throws you off and gores you through the heart. As with most things in life, I take my cues from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns – so I knew I had to get my art into the mud to slow it down enough so I could operate like a surgeon. And after a week of sitting around waiting for a phone call, my art was beating the shit out of me, impatient as fuck to get going.
It called to mind the waiting time on another flick I’d shot back in 2006 entitled Zack and Miri Make a Porno. As opposed to sitting by the phone and trying to will a faster green-light call, I decided to busy myself writing something to kill the time – a tiny horror flick I’d been threatening to pen for a few years entitled Red State. A week after I preoccupied myself creating Pastor Abin Cooper for the great Michael Parks to play, I had an actual script – one I thought was wonderfully fucked up and weird. Zack had been a standard exercise in three act structure, but Red State was more of an anarchic exploitation flick from the 70’s that dared you to keep watching minute by minute, as any semblance of structure and any hint of character survival were thrown under the bus.
So on 6/28, rather than stare at the phone waiting for a call that would confirm a possible multi-million dollar date with destiny and Dante and Randal, I decided to use my time wisely: I started writing The Walrus & the Carpenter as a feature film.
By then, I’d stopped calling it The Walrus & the Carpenter. Before I wrote a single word, I knew what a movie about a walrus had to be called. I put the Fleetwood Mac classic Tusk on repeat and went to work.
In two days, I had 40 pages.
I’ve always been a big Canadaphile (both in size and spirit), so instead of setting the story in the U.K. as discussed on the podcast, I moved it to the backwoods of Canada: Bifrost, Manitoba. All the research I’d done for my hockey movie-turned-mini-series Hit Somebody had unearthed twisted tales of the True North that I couldn’t shoe-horn into Hit, so I used them to fill out the world of Tusk.
My wife Jennifer’s not a big fan of the hypothetical humor and flights of fancy we trade in on SModcast, so I wasn’t sure she’d be into a script with such a goofy podcast pedigree. But she dug Red State more than any flick I’d ever made before, so I wanted to share the earliest Tusk pages with her as well. She said she was creeped the fuck out by what I’d written but she loved it. She had some structural suggestions but her overall note was “Finish this. It’s so different.” I took that marching order to my office and went back to work. I took a week off from writing the script to tour Florida with Jay & Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie, but immediately returned to my wacky walrus world when I got home.
The key to writing Tusk was having no agenda. The whole script had been conceived and written with little thought of eventual production. It was an exercise in “If I Was Trapped On a Movie Set, What Would I Wanna See?” – and what I realized I wanted to see was Michael Parks making long speeches and acting his 73 year old ass off.
I fell in love with Michael Parks the moment he opened his mouth in From Dusk Till Dawn. His mannered performance hooked me through the gills and his eyes pulled me onto the boat and hammered me dead. As we left the Sunset 5 pre-release screening back in 1996, I remember saying to Scott Mosier “I wanna work with that cop from the opening scene. Can you imagine what you’d learn sitting at the feet of an acting Yoda like him?”
It took around 15 years to reach my directing Dagobah, but I eventually studied with Yoda. The reason Red State exists is so I could watch Michael Parks drop a performance clinic in person.
But Michael never got the props he deserved for his dazzling Red State performance – and that was my fault. The spectacle at Sundance which marked the difficult birth of Red State put me and my big fat mouth front and center instead of the actual film. In my head, anyone who saw the movie should’ve been talking about how amazing Parks was as the sinister Abin Cooper. But if they wrote about the flick at all (if they even saw it: there were only ever 18 public exhibitions of the film in America), what most folks wrote about was the drama surrounding self-distribution. Sure, Michael won a big award for his performance at the Sitges Film Festival, but he should’ve gotten more plaudits – and he didn’t because I was barking through a bullhorn at the center of the three ring circus. All. My. Fault.
So as I wrote Tusk, it became a sort of redemptive exercise: I wanted to right what I felt was the only wrong of Red State by scripting something with no religious or sexual politics that could grow up to be a weird little movie and not an indie film call-to-arms or a frustrated self-distribution manifesto. I just wanted to showcase Michael Parks in a fucked up story, where he could recite some Lewis Carroll and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to some poor motherfucker sewn into a realistic walrus costume.
And when I think of Michael Parks, I think of the man who put him on my radar in the first place. Quentin Tarantino has long loved Michael Parks – so much so that he still owns a VHS tape full of snippets he compiled over the years from late night TV airings of various Parks pictures. So to honor him (pa-rum-pum-pum-pum), I wrote a part for Quentin, too: Guy Lapointe, the French Canadian gumshoe on the trail of the human-walrus (not the part of the guy who gets put into the walrus suit, as some sites are misreporting).
On 7/16, twenty days after starting Tusk, I finished the first draft. At 80 pages long, it’s the shortest script I ever wrote – and yet, it’s somehow the most dense and the richest in terms of dialogue. It’s also a thousand times creepier than the ritual killing scene in Red State, while somehow still being… kind of adorable.
My lawfully wedded wife Jen loved the script. One of my best and most fucked-up friends in the world, the Beard-Guy Guru of Weird Bryan Johnson? He loved the script. When my bro, Scotty Mo read it? He loved it. But Shannon McIntosh, my tireless producer on Clerks III? She said the important words…
“You could make this really cheap.”
Jason Mewes’ wife Jordan sent the budget to their Canadian producer friends who’d worked with Jay on Todd and the Book of Pure Evil in Winnipeg. The Canadians produced a top sheet that said Tusk would cost a hair over $3 million.
On the podcast, I had mused about how the human-walrus movie could do The Purge kinda business if Jason Blum and Blumhouse were involved. So before I drove down to ComicCon International late Thursday night, I looked through my old emails with Scott Derrickson from when he came over to talk about Sinister on SMovieMakers. CC’ed was Jason Blum’s office email address, daring me to chase whimsy deeper down the rabbit hole.
I wrote Jason Blum and said I had a cheap horror movie set in the backwoods of Canada. I told him honestly that I’d been dreaming of making a $3 million dollar horror flick with Blumhouse ever since Scott Derrickson made it sound so fun and easy. I asked him if he wanted to read Tusk. Then I hit send.
Jason wrote me back in an hour. He was excited and said if this was the olden days, he’d drive to my house and pick up the script himself, but as we were in the digital age, could I email it to him? I did.
The next morning – July 19th, the Friday of ComicCon – I got an email back from Jason Blum. He called the script insane and said I was a sick, sick man. He described it as “…Ionesco gone gore.”
He also said “I’m in.”
So on the Tuesday that just passed – July 23rd – Shannon and I went to Blumhouse to meet with Jason and his team. And within an hour, it was pretty clear we were all gonna be making a movie called Tusk.
Now, the plan had been to shoot Clerks III in September/October with an eye toward a Sundance 2014 debut – the 20 year anniversary of my first trip to Sundance with Clerks. But the more I thought about it, I wondered what the young butterball Kev Smith would’ve wanted to do, had he been given a glimpse into his future. Would he want to return to Sundance with a sequel to something he’d already made? Or would he wanna show up with something new? Would he want to bring a movie that’s a Sundance legacy film, or would he want to bring a movie that’s a Sundance worthy film – a flick that could make it into the lineup on its own merits?
Clerks III is an ambitious film that’s meant to be my thesis film – a flick that showcases everything I learned (or didn’t learn) while spending 20 years in the movie business. It deserves more time than I can give it in a rush to reach a Sundance 2014 submission deadline – especially with the financing still up in the air.
But Tusk? It’s turn-key. It’s ready to go now – as are all the players. I sent the script to Michael Parks and he’s ready to go. Shannon and I have already been in movie-building mode for the last six months, so we’re ready to go. The whole flick only has about ten speaking parts in it, so the rest of the cast can be assembled pretty quickly. And with a down-and-dirty 20 day shoot, there’s no reason we can’t make the Sundance submission deadline (whether or not we make it into the actual Festival itself would remain to be seen).
The universe was pushing me toward a walrus. I wasn’t resisting all that much so I gave in completely and accepted the fact that whimsy had become reality: Tusk was gonna happen in heartbeat. And the moment I knew it was a reality?
Jason Blum toured us around the new Blumhouse Productions offices and told us they were building a screening room. When he showed us the space where construction was taking place, the man opened a door to a dream: a cavernous room with a giant hole dug into the floor. Immediately, I saw the walrus enclave from my script – the set on which we spend 70% of the movie, where our unsuspecting victim is slowly turned from man to beast. It didn’t look like what I had in mind… it was exactly what I had in mind – just add water! (See photo above.)
So mid September, we start shooting Tusk… IN LOS ANGELES!!! I get to sleep in my own bed every night and leave my kid in her school! There will be no disruptions to our real life: we don’t even have to ask anybody to watch our dogs. I’ll be shooting in Canada soon enough when we get into the Hit Somebody mini-series next year, but for now? The interiors of Manitoba can be found here in California!
We’ll involve the Sundance folks as soon as there’s any footage to show, with an aim toward being programmed at Sundance 2014. So that would mean six months after the first conversation about a walrus flick, Tusk would exist as a movie that can be watched starting in January. There are no guarantees Sundance will like the flick enough to select it of course, but there are lots of other film festivals now; one of them’s bound to be into this macabre journey into the mouth of madness and the whiskers of weird.
Today marks one month since I posted SModcast 259: The Walrus & the Carpenter. In that month, it went from a podcast, to a script, to a pre-production reality. Team Tusk is now less than two months away from principal photography. And we’re waiting on word from Greg Nicotero to see if we can steal him from AMC’s The Walking Dead long enough to design and build the walrus costume.
This doesn’t change the retirement thing at all: I’m still wrapping up my film career. I intend to close it with Clerks III – which we’re now aiming to shoot March of 2014 (more on that when I get the info). But what I love about all this is that a movie came from a podcast. Might be one of the first situations I ever heard of where that happened, too. I’m delighted by the fact that my new world (of podcasts) is now shaping my old world (of film). New media nourishes old media and together, they produce some weird-ass art. It’s very 21st century.
The moral of the story, kids? Chase every dopey dream you ever have, so long as it doesn’t involve hurting or killing anybody. You never know where it will lead you. One month ago, a walrus was nothing more to me than something that gets its bucket stolen. But now?
I am the walrus.
Goo goo goo joob!
- Kevin Smith