Clerks: An Extraordinary Film about Ordinary Slackers
When it comes to low-budget films, Clerks is a cult classic. The black-and-white film was a breakout hit at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival and is widely considered to be Kevin Smith’s best-known film to date. Smith was 23 when he filmed Clerks and was the perfect person to give audiences a glimpse into Generation X’s view of sex, drugs, and retail.
Clerks follows the events that unfold when Dante Hicks, a clerk at a convenience store called Quick Stop, is asked to report to work on his day off. Friends and acquaintances of Dante and Randal, Dante’s best friend, drop by Quick Stop throughout the day, and shenanigans ensue. By the end of the film, after being dumped by his girlfriend, Dante resolves to try to talk to his ex-girlfriend and get his life together.
The film contains only nine scene breaks, each break signifying the nine rings of hell, as in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
The conception of Clerks
Smith had been interested in writing studio films, even before he entered Vancouver Film School. Film school, however, became a source of frustration for Smith, so he ended up quitting. He used the money he had saved for his tuition to make feature films instead.
When he saw the film Slacker on his 21st birthday, though, Smith abruptly switched tracks. He decided that independent filmmaking was more to his liking. When he realized that there had never been a movie set in a convenience store, he got to work writing a script that could be shot at the New Jersey convenience store where he was working.
The making of Clerks
The production of Clerks was not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. The film was made on a budget of $27,575, which Smith scraped together by dipping into his college tuition fund, selling a large portion of his comic book collection, maxing out up to 10 credit cards to their $2,000 limits, and using insurance money for cars lost in a flood. Smith had been convinced that he’d be able to make a film on his budget, since it was similar to the budget used to make Slacker.
To help save money, Clerks had a barebones crew of four: Smith as writer, director and coproducer, Steve Mosier as coeditor and coproduceer, David Klein as director of photography, and Ed Hapstack as camera assistant. In interviews, Smith has said, “next time I’d get more help. A four man crew benefits nobody.”
The film was shot in 21 straight days, in black and white, due to budget constraints. Smith had gotten permission to film at the Quick Stop convenience store where he worked, but only from the hours of 10:30 PM to 5:30 AM. Smith found a way around this by using the closed shutters as a plot point. By writing the jammed locks into the script, Smith was also able to keep the shutters closed, as he did not have the budget to light the set from outside the main window.
For the scenes in the funeral home, though, Smith never got permission to shoot at the location. He and his crew just winged it – they showed up at the funeral home with a camera and actors, leaving after shooting two takes.
Many actors in Clerks came from First Avenue Playhouse, a local theater production company. To save even more money, Smith had family members and friends play roles in the film. Smith’s childhood friend Walt Flanagan, for instance, plays four roles in the film while Scott Mosier plays several roles. Smith’s mother is shown shopping at one point, and Smith’s sister Virginia also appeared in the film as the Caged Animal Masturbater.
According to laserdisc commentary by Smith, the “only special effect in Clerks” was when Scott Mosier, as the Angry Hockey-Playing Customer, yells at William the Idiot Manchild, also played by Mosier.
Because of the ribald nature of the dialogue, Clerks’ original rating from the MPAA was NC-17. This rating was appealed because it would seriously affect the film’s earnings. The MPAA relented and gave the film an R rating instead.
Clerks has won several awards from international film festivals, including the ‘Award of the Youth’ and the “Mercedes-Benz Award’ at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.