CLERKS
Low Budgets: The feature with the lowest budget in competition at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival is Clerks, which was made for- $27,575 by its 23-yeal-old director- Kevin Smith. It is the comic tale of a day in the life of Dante Hicks, a clerk at a Quick Stop convenience store. Along with friends and associates, who are also full-fledged members of the X generation, Hicks encounters the extraordinary in the midst of his ordinary McJob. Inspired by such films as Slacker and Stranger Than Paradise, Clerks gives us a deadpan, twenty-something view of sex, drugs, and retail.
For Kevin Smith, Clerks is not only a "first feature, it is a first anything." After four months of frustration at Vancouver Film School, he decided to quit and spend the rest of the money he had saved for his tuition making a feature.
Background: Before film school, Smith had been interested in writing studio films. "I was a whore for Hollywood." The turning point came when he saw Slacker on his 21st birthday. "It was an epiphany." He decided he wanted to become an independent filmmaker. Smith was also inspired by the films of Spike Lee and Hal Hartley.
Script: Smith had worked for two or three years at a New Jersey convenience store and realized "there had never been a convenience store movie." During November and December 1992, he wrote a script that could be shot at the store where he was working when it was closed (as Tony Chan did with his family's Chinese restaurant in Combination Platter).
The first draft was 164 pages. "'I hacked and hacked at it to get the shooting script down to 136 pages," he explained. This is what he shot even though he was worried that the film would be too long. He was relieved that the film came in at 105 minutes because it is so dialogue heavy.
Crew: The crew was four primary people: Kevin Smith (writer, director. co-producer); Scott Mosier (co-producer, co-editor); David Klein (director of photography), and Ed Hapstack (camera assistant and "troubleshooter"). There were also two helpers - Vinnie Pereira and Walter Flanagan (who did the title animation and played five parts). Smith refers to Mosier as his "partner in crime"' and notes that "'the most important thing he did was introduce me to his sister," with whom Smith is now living. Smith noted that ""next time I'd get more help. A four man crew benefits nobody."
Cast: The five principals included two actors who had had experience doing theater, a person who had never acted before and never wants to act again (Jeff Anderson who plays Randall) and an acting student (Lisa Spoonauer who plays Caitlin). Smith found Lisa by sitting in on an acting class at a local college. "After class I followed her to her car and told her I was putting together a small movie and asked if she wanted to be in it. I felt like a porn auteur but somehow she agreed to do it." (Lisa later got engaged to Jeff.)
Financing: Smith used the $2,000 he had left over from film school and as much credit as he could secure. "I built up a supply of eight or ten credit cards with $2,000 limits. Scott's parents put in some cash for the final print. I was stone poor by the end, a condition I still sit in."
Smith's budget was heavily influenced by Slacker. "I knew they made it for $27,000 and was sure we could make Clerks for the same amount. For a budget breakdown, I used the Laws of Gravity budget from Filmmaker."
Stock and Camera: "We were originally lined up to get the Kodak discount for independent filmmakers, but I learned that the student discount was bigger. So I went to the New School, enrolled in a course ('Roast Suckling Pig'), got a student ID, and went to Kodak." Smith then dropped the course before learning how to prepare a roast suckling pig.
He rented an Arri SR camera which was "very noisy" so "we barnied it with a couple thousand leather jackets." The film was shot in 16mm black and white. "We had wanted to use Super 16, but we didn't have the money to do a 35mm blow-up."
Production: Beginning on April 1, 1993, the film was shot over 21 days without a break, with two additional days for pick-ups. Because they could only work when the convenience store was closed, they had to shoot from 10:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. every day. This was tough on the actors who worked all night, and then went to day jobs. It was even harder on Smith, who was working full-time at the convenience store during production. On a typical day he slept an hour or less after shooting, ended. Then he had to open the convenience store at 6 a.m. where his first shift lasted until 11 a.m. or noon. He usually spent the next few hours doing things related to the film, before working a second shift from 4 to 10:30 p.m. when production began. While he occasionally got some sleep in the afternoon between shifts, he usually had to function on no more than one hour of sleep a day. Eventually sleep deprivation caught up with him; he was too tired to stay awake when the climactic scene was filmed. "I slept through the fight sequence and didn't see it until the workprint."
Lab and Post: They used The Motion Picture, TV, and Theatre Directory as their bible to find the best deals on equipment and processing. Given the budget constraints, they couldn't afford to have dailies. "'We went with the cheapest price we could find which was 25c a foot for workprint at Jan Lab. It was on the third floor and looked like a drop-off for heroin," but Smith was satisfied with their work.
The film was cut in two months on a Steenbeck from May to July; the sound mix was done on video at Aquarius: they didn't have a final print until just before the IFFM in September.
IFFM and After: The first time Smith screened the film publicly or privately was at the IFFM. "It was very disheartening. There were no more than 18 people at the screening. Everyone who walked out was a woman. I thought, my God, it's not a chick film. I said ‘cum' too much. Why did I spend $27,000 on a filthy movie? After the screening, the only person that came up to me was a psychotic who told me all the Nazis had been reincarnated and are living in New Jersey. After criticizing the film, she gave me her acting resume. I was despondent after the screening."
However, Bob Hawk, a consultant to independent filmmakers who is an advisor to Sundance, was at the screening and liked the film. Village Voice critic Amy Taubin soon heard about the film and called Smith to ask for a cassette. "I nearly passed out. I had the piece Taubin had written on Slacker at the 1991 IFFM framed on my wall." Taubin wrote about Clerks in the Voice, and Smith began to hear from the distributors and festival programmers who had completely overlooked his film at the IFFM.
Perspectives: "Everyone who wants to go into filmmaking doesn't have to go to film school. As my friend Scott says, 'Film school is just a cheap rental house."' However, Smith does recommend getting a student ID (even if you have to enroll in a course) to be eligible for a "world of discounts." He also recommends reading Rick Schmidt's Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices, John Russo's Making Movies, and Spike Lee's books. Noting that Clerks will definitely make its budget back, he is ready to make another ultra-low budget film. "There is so little risk involved. You don't have to please anybody but yourself."

CLERKS BUDGET:

STOCK

 

37 400ft rolls Kodak

Double X Negative

$1600.00
Nagra tapes $200.00
Camera expendables $125.00
 

EQUIPMENT RENTALS

 

Insurance $730.00
Camera $3400.00
Sound and three lights $1165.00
 

PROCESSING

 

Negative and work print $3295.00
Nagra rolls to mag stock transfers $980.00
 

EDITING

 

Steenbeck/guillotine rental (3 months) $940.00
Editing expendables $220.00
Negative cut $1830.00
 

MIXING

 

Slop print for mix $900.00
Sound mix and all sound related services $7280.00
 

PRINT

 

Titles and animation $800.00
Optical $990.00
Screening print $3120.00
Grand Total: $27,575