Most young filmmakers have probably at some point been inspired by writer/director/actor Kevin Smith, who made it big with his lo-fi indie hit Clerksin 1994 by doing exactly the thing that most filmmakers advise: landing on a story that resonates with you, picking up a camera, and making the dang movie.
Since then, Smith's career has had its ups and downs, but no matter what, he keeps creating and telling stories, adapting to new mediums and garnering new generations of fans.
No Film School spoke with Ingram via Zoom prior to SXSW. We discuss what he's learned as a documentary filmmaker, how he dealt with a unique challenge during the production of Clerk, and what it's like to watch Smith work. Enjoy!
Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Thank you for taking the time today. I loved your film.
Malcolm Ingram: Oh, thank you.
NFS: It's such an inspiring look at filmmaking, and being creative—and it's honestly a little bit frustrating, watching it now. Because productions are not done that way anymore, and you can't—
Ingram: No, they are not.
NFS: You can't tell those types of stories anymore, or in the same way. It's a really inspiring documentary and I really enjoyed it.
Ingram: I mean, I was very influenced by—there's a documentary that was made about the actual making of Clerks that was made for the 10-year anniversary. It was done by Phil Benson and it's called Snowball Effect. And that movie didn't get seen by a lot, it was a DVD extra. That documentary is incredible. I absolutely recommend people go check it out. It's on the Clerks 10-year disk.
But Phil Benson's work on that documentary was a huge inspiration for me making this. The great thing about Snowball Effect, it was a documentary that is so good, that it made you want to make a movie. I mean, it made me want to make a movie. It made me want to make this movie. So credit to Phil Benson.
NFS: I think you can say the same about yours, for sure. It made me want to get writing and pick up a camera. You have said that it was a daunting task and that you felt challenged to maintain your creative perspective working with a slightly larger-than-life figure. Can you talk more about those challenges on this?
Ingram: Yeah, I mean it was hard, man. It was really hard. Because I'm a social issue documentarian. I made a lot of documentaries with queer issues. So I'm a bit of a snob, I guess. I knew that right away going in, making a documentary of my friend, I knew that that was going to be complicated. And we're also very two strong individuals and we have very certain opinions. And we fought—oh God, we fought. We didn't talk for a year.
But it wasn't about the dumb things. It was just about the integrity of the piece. Both me and Kevin—ironically, one of the things we fought the hardest about was the Harvey Weinstein bit, where I was just, because I've been around Kevin all the time and I didn't want to talk about Harvey Weinstein in this movie. I just felt like there's going to be a really good documentary about Harvey Weinstein and that whole thing. And it's just, it's too big of a story to try and encapsulate in this small story.
But Kevin conversely said, "Well, although I'm not directly part of it, it is part of my story and I feel I should address it." And that was our biggest fight. And ultimately he was right. He just said his piece.
And that was a big fight because I was just, I just didn't want to get into the Harvey Weinstein thing. And the only way I felt comfortable of not getting into this because I was around Kevin all the time and I know that he wasn't linked to any of that.
'Clerk'Credit: TCB ProductionsNFS: I thought that it was handled well and appropriately placed. Not an afterthought. Enough of the focus was on the work and him that it didn't feel like a distraction, and you just addressed it. So hopefully you feel like you came to a good middle ground.
Ingram: No, I mean the thing about it was is that I didn't want to do a disservice to a story that involves victims. That story involves victims. It's a very complicated story. But Kevin is a part, Kevin is connected to it. So he deserves to say his piece about it. And what he said was very honest and ultimately it worked. But it took a year before I would even roll.
Him talking about Harvey, we didn't film until near the end of shooting. And I was not into it, but I said, "Okay, we'll just do it." And what he said was so genuine and real, I was like, "Okay, that works."
NFS: I was just going to ask about the process of the doc. How long did it take? Did you have any trouble getting sources or anything like that?
Ingram: Took three years. We started filming probably around this time in 2018. And we cast in a net of the people we wanted to speak to. And it all came together the way it was supposed to. There's some people that I chased that after a while I realized, oh, their voices aren't really important. And then there's other people who just pop into the story, like Penn Jillette who when I began this journey, I was like, "Why would Penn Jillette fit in to this story?" And then I mean, he saved Kevin's life. Penn & Teller is a huge influence on Kevin and Silent Bob.
Penn & Teller Get Killed was a huge influence on Kevin's comedic sensibilities. So it was really refreshing to not just have the people, to not just drag in the usual suspects, actually have really interesting people who have made a mark in their own world to actually comment on Kevin's world. And that was a privilege getting people to, getting someone like Penn Jillette, getting someone like Jason Reitman, getting these people to come out and to say from an outside perspective, but as an artist themselves, what Kevin means in that whole world.
'Clerk'Credit: TCB ProductionsNFS: I did look at your previous work. You've been a journalist, you've made these great documentary films, but you also made a couple of features. So what do you like about making documentaries that you've stayed with it so long?
Ingram: People like my documentaries more than my features. I started out really naive. I had the privilege of making feature films very young in my life. And I was ambitious, but I ended up figuring out that I'm a naturally curious person. So documentary, I love asking questions. I love finding out about other people. I find all people interesting. I'm truly somebody that I could go to a party and there's not anybody that I wouldn't be interested in talking to. So that's just my character. So documentary really spilled through.
And I came out really late in my life. I didn't come out of the closet until I was in my 30s. And all of a sudden, I came out and queer voices, the concept of creating—because I had nobody to look up to when I was a kid. And that's very much what making Small Town Gay Bar was all about. It was all about representation and the importance of representation. And certainly, when I made Small Town Gay Bar, that was a voice that was fucking nowhere on the radar. Those people were so marginalized and if ever brought up, they were mocked.
So that was making that story. And then after I did Small Town Gay Bar, I was like, "Oh, I want to document my queer world. I want to talk about misfit culture." Misfit culture is very much what I'm drawn to as a filmmaker. And that's what Kevin's world fits perfectly into that. It's just more misfit culture.
The wonderful thing about being around Kevin, he has had such a profound effect on some individuals. I can't even count how many times I've seen people break down in tears at merely his presence. But he has been a very impactful person. And I've had a very, very, very privileged insight into that world for a long time. And just by the virtue of the fact that I'm a filmmaker, it just made perfect sense to be, "Well, if somebody doesn't tell the story, I might as well be the one."
And then all the pressure goes on because you just don't want to fuck that up. I don't want to fuck that up for him because he's got a great story. Far be it from me to ruin telling that story. And secondly, the audience, I want to give them, I don't want to just give them, I don't want to just spoon-feed them everything they know and just, I want it to be fun. The movie's full of, the movie is very... I think it's fun. One of my favorite pieces in that entire movie and I think that it really is a great expression of Kevin and Scott's friendship is The Breakfast Club scene where they're talking about who would be [who].
And the funny thing is that was filmed, they weren't in the same room. They didn't know what I was looking for, but those are two guys that are having a conversation that have no point of reference to what the other one's talking about. But they had a conversation that perfectly fits in together. And I think that, I felt that that perfectly summed up that relationship. That these people could separately be interviewed, but have a conversation you could integrate perfectly and seem like it was constructed.
'Clerk'Credit: TCB ProductionsNFS: Did you learn anything on this film, or did you apply anything from previous films to this one?
Ingram: I think that probably I felt comfortable treating Kevin as a subject. The transition in our relationship while I was making the movie, there was a transition. There was a point where I'm a filmmaker now, I'm not the friend. And basically, I have a job to do.
And I think that just through having the privilege of the career that I've had and talking to people I have. I've talked to everybody from Billie Jean King to Fred Phelps, the "God hates fags" guy. So I've talked to such an incredibly diverse group of people that when it finally—I just wasn't intimidated to talk to Kevin and I trusted my instincts.
I didn't go with notes. I basically, I just want to, I ask questions basically as an interested party. What interests me about this person? What do I want to know? What do other people want to know? That's what I'm focused on. There was no agenda. I'm not looking to get from point A to point B to point C. I'm following my own interest in the subject to carry me through.
NFS: Just as a personal question, what is your favorite Kevin Smith movie?
Ingram: I'd give it to Chasing Amy because it was the biggest surprise. And I had read the script to Chasing Amy and I was like, "This is a filthy movie. What are you making?" And when you finally saw it—from [the] script to see that movie, the first time I saw Chasing Amy, I looked at him like, "Who the fuck? You're a genius." Clerks and Mallrats are really fun movies, but Chasing Amy is such an intimate movie and it's such a 180, but it is so much a part of him. It was so much, that's the first time I looked at him like he was a martian. I was like, "Who the fuck? How did you make this? How do you know how to do this?"
Because it wasn't like anything I'd ever seen before. I knew very much about his relationship with Joe [Lauren Adams]. I knew where he took it from. And even still then, I was just like, this is a magic trick, this is an incredible movie. So I would say that one. But then I'd also say Red State is one, I love Red State. It's another magic trick. It's just the fact that he made that movie the time that he did, and nobody's expecting it, and it's as good as it is. Because Red State's a good movie. I dig Red State.
'Clerk'Credit: TCB ProductionsNFS: And then you're close to that one too because it was inspired by your work, wasn't it?
Ingram: He saw Small Town Gay Bar. He was an executive producer of it and he wanted to get all my interview tapes of Fred Phelps. And I sent them to him. That's the only inspiration. And he wrote Red State over a week period where basically me and him got really high and talked to each other like this on the Internet. He would write 10 pages and then he would send them to me. And then we'd meet like this on camera and we'd talk about them.
And basically Red State was all about me goading him to push it further. Because that movie starts so simple. It starts as one simple movie, which is just, it starts off as seemingly a teen horror movie. And it just escalates into this fucking bizarre... And seeing that movie created in his head was—that movie is so much fun to watch. Red State is such a blast.
NFS: You've given so much great advice just talking through your experience, but would you have anything else to say to a young documentarian getting into the work?
Ingram: Yeah, man. Never make something because you think people are going to like it. Make something because you like it. Be interested. If you're not interested, other people aren't going to be interested. Interest shows. Passion shows. It comes through. If you're not interested in something, if you're trying to read the tea leaves, you're just going to shit the bed. You have to be genuinely interested in the story you're telling or it's never going to work. That's something I learned the hard way.
For more, read our ongoing coverage of the 2021 SXSW Festival.