I will never forget the moment I first saw Clerks. I was on a chartered limo bus on the way back from a Duran Duran concert in Chicago with some listeners from our radio station. I was one of the official “station chaperones,” there to ensure that they had a good time.
It was a good time. It was also a wet time. The concert was at a new outdoor venue called the World Music Showcase in the summer of 1995. Duran Duran were headlining an all-day music festival. Technically, the stage was covered from the elements, but blowing rain played havoc with the sound all day.
We received the unique pleasure of meeting the band before the show, and they were in great moods…chomping at the bit to get started.
Twenty-six minutes later, the entire concert was over. The gear was so waterlogged that after Melle Mel came out to sing White Lines, the show was abruptly halted. Normally, fans would be pissed at this stage, but they were more relieved than anything. No one within earshot of the venue was dry. This was going to be a stenchy ride home to St. Louis.
And it would have been a boring ride home had it not been for a VHS copy ofClerks that we were giving away at the station during that summer. As we drove through the darkened cornfields of Illinois at 2am, an entire busload of drenched listeners roared at some of the things they were hearing come out of this glorious piece of storytelling. For ninety minutes, we all forgot how uncomfortable our underwear felt, which had now crept into places I didn’t quite know I had, nor ever wanted to know I had.
By the time I got off the bus at 5am, I was on fire. I knew I had just watched something that transformed my life. I just didn’t quite know how.
Fast forward to 1998. It was St. Patrick’s Day. I had been with the Steve and DC Radio Show for four years, and I was starting to burn out badly for so many reasons. My aunt was in town from England, and my parents invited me to come to lunch with them to celebrate. I hadn’t had a decent meal in a while, so I jumped at the chance.
During the appetizer, my mother said, “You’re not happy, are you?”
“Of course I’m happy,” I snapped.
“Dan, we can hear it in your voice on the air. You’ve lost your spark.”
Sadly, she was right. It was a time in my life when I felt I was drowning; I started to lose hope that I would never do anything but work on a show that I found little joy in anymore. And it wasn’t the job, itself. The job was fun. I just knew there had to be more, but I didn’t know what that “more” entailed.
“So what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” asked my dad.
“I want to make films,” I blurted. “Where the hell did that come from?”
I finally realized what I’d discovered on that bus ride home from Chicago: I wanted to do what Mr. Smith did. As I would learn from the man, himself, it’s the same feeling he had when he saw the movie, Slacker. “Shit, I can do that!” he said when he saw it on his twenty-first birthday.
I thought the same thing while bathing in my own broth in a limo-bus at twenty-two.
My dream was to attend NYU’s Tisch Film School. I figured that I would have to apply as transfer student, so I enrolled at Meramec, our local junior college. In the summer of ‘98, I took two courses. In the fall, I took four. That next spring, five. I got 4.0, all while working full time for Steve and DC. It was the hardest I’d ever worked in my life, and it reinvigorated my soul while exhausting my body.
And then one day in March, the letter came from NYU. Status: Denied. I was devastated for about twenty minutes.
After getting off the pity pot, I scoured the internet for different film schools. Nothing stood out, until I read an interview with Scott Mosier, who was Kevin Smith’s film producer.
The first line read, “So Scott, you met Kevin at the Vancouver Film School, correct?”
Vancouver Film School?
The only thing I knew about Vancouver was that they had a hockey team called the Cannucks. I didn’t even know what part of Canada Vancouver was geographically located.
After a bit of searching, I learned that Vancouver was a world-renowned center of film and television. Many of the shows that I grew up loving were actually filmed there. And many of the behind-the-scenes people who worked on those shows were now instructors at VFS.
So I applied, was accepted, and spent eighteen glorious months in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The workload was unlike anything I’d ever seen. There was one particular week where I had to pull three all-nighters to make sure that we got everything in on time.
I learned about directing and writing and lighting and sound. The man who taught me to record sound, Bryan, was the head of the sound department on the Johnny Depp version of 21 Jump Street. My lead cinematography instructor, Don, was the Director of Photography for MacGyver. My directing instructor, Jonathan, had been nominated for an academy award.
As part of a class of twenty-six, we discovered each of our boundaries and blasted through them. Together, we came up with art that was pretty freaking amazing. We told stories that I could still regurgitate to you today, and I haven’t seen many of them since the early 2000’s…
…which is just about the time that I talked with Kevin Smith for the first time. I was back in St. Louis on the radio when I got the opportunity to interview him for the show. We chatted for about ten minutes, comparing film school war stories and talking about his film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which was about to be released in theaters.
For my last question, I asked, “So what would you say to a young burgeoning filmmaker getting ready to make the jump to Hollywood in a few months?”
“Dude, why?” he asked.
“What do you mean ‘why’?” I asked back to him.
“You don’t need to move to Hollywood, man. Make a movie where you live.”
(Mic drop.) (Mind…blown.)
And then my relationship with Kevin faded to a memory. He went on to bigger and better, and I went on to bigger and better as I found the love of my life in Stephanie, got diagnosed with and beat testicular cancer, grew my video production career, and became the passive partner in the birth of our two boys, Sam and Ben.
I also came to the conclusion that my cancer had to have meaning, because I’m a bastard about everything having to have meaning, so I co-founded The Half Fund with my friend and producer, Joe, so that we could help tell stories about cancer and make the world a better place.
Once we had the idea, we wanted to tell the world about it, and maybe show it to some people to whom we looked skyward.
Enter: Kevin Smith.
Mr. Smith pulled off one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen at the Sundance Film Festival, and used it as a springboard to start a traveling road show for his movie, Red State. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to meet him…or rather…try to meet him.
We’re givers, sometimes bribers. What does he love that we could get him that would be unique to us? I did a quick Google search and realized that in every single picture, he’s wearing a hockey jersey. That was our in.
We went to Johnny Mac’s Sporting Goods in St. Louis and had them make us a custom Blues jersey. We had a captain’s “C” put on it, the name “Hicks,” and the number “37.” When asked the size, I blindly guessed, “4X.”
You have to have those things roomy, but 5X seemed a tick, “Here’s your jersey, fatass!”
(Later I found out that at that time, Kevin’s favorite size was 4X. I’ll take lucky over good every day of the week.)
We also put our message about what we were trying to do on his production company’s website, View Askew. The public message board is the stuff of legend and the fans are ultra engaged…and protective. Don’t ask for anything, don’t offer anything; just say something interesting.
Apparently, the idea of the Half Fund interested these amazing people to their core. “#(%!ing great idea!” “#$%!ing awesome!” My heart smiled with every “#$%!,” “%(#,” and “#(!$~!#%#@“ that the Askewnivites shared with us about our idea. Then about ten people in, one lady said, “You need to get a hold of his producer, Jon Gordon. Here’s his Twitter handle.”
Did that really just happen?
So I fired a Tweet across to Mr. Gordon. “To Jon Gordon, I hear you’re the guy to talk to.” And then I put a link to the message board thread which had now grown quite large.
The next day while pulling into Chicago, Jon Gordon responded. “To The Half Fund…wow, let’s talk.”
Did that really, REALLY, just happen?
So we showed up to the Harris Theater in Chicago on that Fat Tuesday night (seriously, it was the day before Ash Wednesday), and as we walked through the door with our bribe, a wave of nausea set in. How the hell were we even going to get to this guy?
My Half Fund partner Joe said, “We gotta find someone in the band.”
We scanned the room and spied some young kids (early 20’s) selling Kevin’s merchandise. I walked up to one and said, “Is Jon Gordon here?”
“Yeah! Let me get him!” And the kid ran off.
Are you %(@!ing KIDDING ME?!
Two minutes later, Joe and I stood face to face with Jon Gordon, having an amazing conversation with him about the Half Fund, this new idea Kevin had about starting an internet radio empire, and eventually, about our children…like all fathers do. It was surreal and beautiful. He even said that he asked Kevin about the thread, and Mr. Smith said the idea was “%*$#ing cool.”
At the end of our talk, I handed Jon the jersey for Kevin and thanked him up and down. We watched Red State, listened to the Q&A, and drove home the next day. We never met Kevin that night. We didn’t care. It was a Cinderella evening.
Two months later, Kevin did start that internet radio empire, and one of the shows he did was a morning show with his wife, Jennifer Schwalbach. As a way to grow the show, they agreed to do live commercial reads for $200. Now working in radio as I did for so many years, I knew they were basically giving these things away at $200, so we jumped at it.
A minute into our commercial copy points for the Half Fund, Jennifer stopped reading and said, “This is %($!ing amazing!“
It was an instant electric shock moment. I don’t even remember the rest of the commercial. We had to listen to it over and over again to fully grasp every word. Kevin called it, “Noble.” It was one of the highlights of my professional life.
And then, my relationship with Mr. Smith…as it did so often…faded. This was as close as I’d ever gotten, and it was probably as close as I would ever get…
…until about two months ago.
We have a new comedy club in St. Louis called Helium. They were bringing in some pretty heavy hitters to the club, and one of the first to perform was Kevin. I immediately snapped up two reserved tickets, and I started to formulate my plan.
Our first project in the Half Fund was supposed to be a film. While we’re great storytellers, we’re shitty fund raisers. But in a strange twist of fate, I ended up writing a book called The Half Book: He’s Taking His Ball and Going Home. In the book, it talks about my dance with cancer, meeting Stephanie, having kids, co-founding the fund, and where we are today. One of the stories in the book is about the night we met Jon Gordon at the Harris Theater. I would take two copies of the book, sign one to Kevin and one to his wife, Jennifer, and we’d all live happily ever after.
Of course perception and reality are two vastly different things. I got to the venue (with another bribe, by the way – a bottle of Stags Leap Cabernet), and was immediately met by David, the really amazing and lovely head of security. “What’s in the backpack?” he asked.
“Well,” not wanting to lie, “it’s a bribe for Mr. Smith.”
“No it isn’t,” said David.
The wine = no go. Liquor license issues. I had to take it back to the car. When I came back in, I was pretty dejected. I walked up to David and asked, “Would you be able to just get these books to Kevin backstage?”
“Tell you what,” said David. “You should hold on to them. This is going to be a Q&A. Try to get them to him that way. I’d hate to try to make something happen that I don’t know I can make happen.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Thanks, David.”
So we went in to the club, and for the next two hours, Kevin told so many cool stories and amazing stories and behind the scenes stories of his life thus far. I won’t go into details, but one story that really touched me was about his friendship with Alan Rickman, God rest his sweet soul. Rickman once told Kevin that he had just bought an apartment in New York.
“Oh really? Where is it?” asked Smith.
“It’s in the same building as Ralph Fiennes,” said Rickman.
“That’s cool!” said Kevin.
“No it isn’t! Snape and Voldemort living under the same roof?!”
The Harry Potter lovers (the vast majority of the crowd) erupted. The woman next to me asked, “Who’s Snape?”
And then…at the conclusion of the last story…it was over. He thanked the crowd, and he disappeared backstage.
Richard, my friend who came with me to the show, said, “Well, there’s always next year.”
As I looked around the room before leaving, I noticed David, the head of security, walking through the backstage door. I wonder…
“Richard, I gotta do something.”
I walked to the backstage door where a few people were holding Kevin Smith merchandise. They were pleading with the manager to bring them back for autographs. The manager said, “I can’t promise, but I’ll do what I can.”
As he turned to walk back, I blurted out, “Oh sir, if you’re going back, could you give these to Mr. Smith?”
Just then, a server walked up and took the books. “Who do you want these made out to?” she asked.
“Oh no,” I said. “I don’t want them signed. This is a gift for Mr. Smith and his wife.”
“Really?” she asked.
She disappeared backstage while I took a seat on a stool. I started humming the Jeopardy! theme, which is something I’m akin to do in situations like this. About a minute later, she came back through the door, and put her finger up, giving me the international sign for Follow me.
I walked backstage and waited outside the door for him to finish signing some merchandise. And after about thirty seconds…
…I stood face to face with the mentor of my life.
And I got five minutes with him. We talked about the Vancouver Film School, our alma mater. We talked about a couple of the same teachers we had, one being Bryan Wert…this lovely curmudgeon of a man who everyone loved and slightly feared. We talked about that night at the Harris Theater, and how we brought him the Blues Jersey.
“Holy shit! That was you?! Fuck, dude, that was my traveling jersey! I love that thing! I never knew who gave it to me. Shit, first you clothe me, and then you make a piece of art. Bring it in.”
And we hugged.
And then I told him about how Jennifer said all those nice things about us on the radio show.
“Man, that’s sayin’ a lot. I’ve been with her a long time, and she’s not that nice.”
Did he just say that out loud?
And we talked about the book and about the Half Fund. He probably thought I was manic because I had so much to say to him in such a short time.
The same server who brought Kevin the books then took a picture of us with my phone. We shook hands, hugged again, and I walked out of his life…just hopefully not for good this time.
It is quite a rare thing to meet someone you’ve always wanted to meet and they actually exceed your expectations. I’d always heard that Kevin Smith was one of the good guys, but I never fully realized it until I had the chance to talk with him. His confidence, mixed with his genuine humility and gratefulness, are a perfect blend of humanity.
I don’t even remember walking out that night. It feels just as surreal at this moment as it felt then.
So to Security Head David, to the beyond-kind server, to Jon, to Kevin, to Jennifer, especially to Stephanie and Sam and Ben, and to so many countless others…thank you so much for twenty-one years of Cinderella moments. This twenty-two year-old sopping wet overtired kid on a limo bus in upstate Illinois thanks you from the bottom of his heart.
To read more about that night at the Harris Theater, and about why I shouldn’t be here in the first place, visit Amazon and order your copy of The Half Book.Both print and “e” versions are available now!
And to see Kevin speak in a city near you click here. Trust me, it’s an amazing night!