‘I wasn’t emo about it, but I was OK with dying’: Kevin Smith on seeing the funny side of his ‘widow-maker’ heart attack

The director who made his name in 1994 with the slacker classic ‘Clerks’ talks to Kevin E G Perry about suffering a massive heart attack in 2018, tasting death and going back to the operating table for ‘Clerks III’

Monday 14 November 2022 06:30 GMT
‘I know I’m lucky’
‘I know I’m lucky’ (Getty Images for IMDb)

A Sunday evening in 2018: Kevin Smith was sweating profusely. The director had been feeling nauseous, too, but he’d put that down to the fact he was in the middle of filming two stand-up sets for a special. And then, in his dressing room at the Alex Theater in Glendale, California, he collapsed on the floor and vomited all over the tiles. At Glendale Memorial Hospital, Smith learnt he’d suffered a massive heart attack known as the “widow-maker”. Smith’s doctor put his chances of survival at 17 per cent. (The special, by the way, was titled Silent But Deadly.) “I know I’m lucky,” says the 52-year-old director, down the line from Chicago. “For the last five years I’ve been meeting people who’ll say: ‘Oh, my brother had your widow-maker.’ ‘How’s he doing?’ ‘He’s dead.’ It really just comes down to chance.”

In fact, as heart attacks go, Smith’s didn’t turn out so bad. “They got me in and out of the hospital in 32 hours, and I was never in pain,” he recalls. There can be common symptoms, such as a shooting pain in the left arm, but he never experienced them. “I had it easy as hell, man, believe me.” Nevertheless, the experience forced him to contemplate his mortality in the most immediate terms. He became vegan, started exercising more and lost a lot of weight. He also found a renewed desire to make Clerks III, a second sequel to his 1994 breakthrough Clerks, the black-and-white slacker masterpiece. (He’d already made bigger-budget follow-up, Clerks II, in 2006). “Post-heart attack, I was like, ‘I’m living on borrowed time now,’” says Smith. “I’d better act accordingly, so if there’s some dream of mine that I’m trying to accomplish I better get moving. Clerks III was a dream.”

Smith had been trying to get a version of Clerks III made for several years, but decided to completely rewrite the script to focus on his heart attack. “It was a movie that was obsessed with death, written by somebody who hadn’t tasted it yet,” he says. “Now that you’ve tasted the immortal you have something to say, motherf***er.” Originally, the story had taken place entirely in the parking lot of a movie theatre while the characters waited to see Ranger Danger And The Danger Rangers. “It was complete artifice,” says Smith. “It was Waiting for Godot, not Clerks III.”

In the new version, Smith gives his “widow-maker” to motor-mouthed clerk Randal Graves, played by Jeff Anderson. The brush with death inspires Randal to make an indie movie that looks suspiciously similar to the one Smith really did make almost three decades ago, giving the director plenty of room to play around with meta-commentary. “Like the first Clerks, it comes from my real life – we just changed the names,” he says. “If I’d made the other version of Clerks III, I think people would have been like, ‘Did he even see Clerks? I don’t think he understood his own picture,’ but this movie is a sequel to Clerks in as much as we f***ing remake Clerks in the middle of it.”

Smith is speaking from the 41st stop of his 52-date Clerks III: The Convenience Tour, which has taken him across the United States to bring the film to audiences. It’s been an emotional journey, given that each night Smith relives both his own near-death experience and the death of his father Donald in 2003. “I lost my father to a massive heart attack,” he says. “Those are the two heart attacks we do in the movie every night. Randal has mine. The pithy heart attack. ‘Hey, everybody, I had a heart attack. I’m gonna make a movie about it.’ Then Dante [Brian O’Halloran], later on, has my dad’s heart attack. The heart attack that is a lot tougher to walk away from. The heart attack that isn’t quite as pithy.”

Compared to the 24-year-old who maxed out a string of credit cards to shoot a film at the Quick Stop convenience store where he worked, Smith says he’s now more at ease with the transience of life. “I walked away from the heart attack with a better understanding of death,” he says. “I used to be terrified of it, now I get it. It reminded me of high school. I loved high school. I never wanted to leave, but eventually they f***ing toss you out. You’ve got to enter the next stage.”

As he lay on the operating table, Smith realised he had nothing to be afraid of. “It’s the most natural f***ing thing in the world,” he says. “You show up, and you go. All those years I spent going, ‘No, I don’t want to die!’ That’s natural and healthy. No human being wants to die, but being terrified of it went away while I was laying on the table. I became OK with my own death. I wasn’t emo about it, or a f***ing goth, but I was OK with dying. I was like, ‘You know what, I get it, and I look forward to what’s next.’ And then the f***ing doctor saved my life, son of a bitch, so now I’m here making Clerks III.”

‘Clerks III’ is on digital from 14 November and Blu-ray and DVD from 26 December 2022

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