Not long ago, moviegoers were stunned by a filmmaker's strong religious convictions unapologetically manifested on the big screen. The media buzzed with controversy. Religious audiences voiced both praise and protest. Others considered it healthy to challenge audiences that don't consider Christianity a worthwhile subject.

The movie was Dogma. The year was 1999. And the filmmaker was Kevin Smith.

Smith's first three films—Mallrats, Clerks, and Chasing Amy—gave no indication he was headed for a movie full of frank talk about sex, relationships, and Christianity. Sex and relationships, sure—they were the focus of the previous films. But a crass and belligerent comedy about how American Catholicism has lost touch with the public? Featuring demons who argue over interpretations of Scripture? The temperamental forgotten black disciple? An abortion doctor called to serve God? Huh?

Smith may not be most profound theologian of his time, and his profanity-laced treatise offended many evangelicals. Nevertheless, Dogma landed some stinging blows against the soft "buddy Christ" at the heart of mainstream America's easy-listening gospel. Smith's foul-mouthed and amateurish film reflected the growing interest in spiritual matters among young people and their willingness to join the ring of religious dialogue.

So when smith visited Seattle recently to promote his new film, Jersey Girl, I couldn't resist asking him about another recent religious movie—The Passion of The Christ. I joined two other journalists to chat with him about The Passion, his Catholic upbringing, and, of course, Jersey Girl—which, despite crass behavior and language typical of Smith's films, includes a surprisingly moral and meaningful lesson. Smith freely admits he's made an elemental, sentimental movie in order to make his case for the virtues of fatherhood. Through all the film's sarcasm and trash talk, you can sense that this 33-year-old cultural commentator loves being a husband and a father.

Smith seemed eager to discuss these things—and, like his characters, responded to our questions in a blunt, no-nonsense manner that required a few strategic edits along the way:

Media: The Passion … your thoughts?

Smith: Still haven't seen it. I've been doing this press tour for the last month. Film Comment asked me if I wanted to review it, and that's about the only reason I'd go see it. Up until that point I just didn't really have an interest. I'm a big fan of The Last Temptation of Christ. That's a movie more about Jesus living than him getting beat the [edit] out of. Being raised post-Vatican II, where they de-emphasized the torture and beating and death of Christ, [for me] it was more about what he said when he was alive. So it doesn't hold much interest for me. But I'll go see it now and write about it.

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One thing The Passion does is change the ritual of communion forever for anyone who sees it. The symbol of the blood is so central to Christianity.

Smith: (referring to his Catholic upbringing) The communion thing, later in life, just became harder and harder to swallow. No pun intended. When you're a kid, they say, "Here's the body of Christ." And you're like, "Yeah, of course it is." And they're like, "No, it's the body of Christ!" When that dude stands up there and transubstantiates, it's the body of Christ! It's no longer a wafer! You're like, "All right!"

And then later you say, "No, it's just a wafer. This is really more symbolic than anything else." And they still tow the line: "It's the body of Christ, [edit]!"

That's one thing people struggle with in The Passion. It seemed like so narrow a focus—the gory details of the torment. It was hard for some to get past that to think about what it all meant. But then again, the cross is the symbol of Christianity.

Smith: The cross is a much easier symbol than the crucifix. The crucifix is the one where they actually show the dude hanging there. This re-emphasizes that there was a guy on that cross, and he [edit] died for you. And I'm like, "Yeah, I get it! It's a very important part of the story, man. He's gotta die and come back from the dead." But I like the part of the story where he's walking around and living and spreading the good word.

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Let's talk about Jersey Girl. In a New York Times interview, you talked about your favorite movie A Man for All Seasons, and you commented on "the world's loss of tolerance for the lone, principled man, especially when it involves an issue of faith." That thread seems to run through Dogma, where you were concerned about having a serious faith rather than a wishy-washy faith. With Ollie, the reluctant father in Jersey Girl, you're not addressing an overtly religious issue. But it is a matter of principles and ethics. He's growing up into moral responsibility and the larger forms of love. In this "post-Passion" world, will you continue exploring the theme of the principled man? And, since audiences seem open to it, are you interested in developing more works that deal explicitly with faith?

Smith: Well, that's all pre-supposing that I give it that much thought ahead of time. I'm flattered that you would feel that I do. But I'd be lying if I said, "When I sat down to write years ago, I wanted to write a tale of redemption." It doesn't work like that. Sometimes you're sitting around and somebody says, "It's kind of a tale of redemption, isn't it?" and you're like, "Hadn't thought about it!" And then you spend the next few interviews going, "It's really a tale of redemption!"

But I didn't really think about it in terms like that. That's why I like it when people write about film. You suddenly see film from a different point of view. As the guy who makes the film, I love reading somebody else's take on it and thinking, "Whoah! I didn't even notice that myself." Sometimes it's right, sometimes it's not.

My next movie's Green Hornet [due August '05]. It has that "lone principled man" thing going for it. But I'm certainly not sitting down to that movie going, "I must write about the lone principled man." It's just a vigilante story, a superhero story, a one-man-against-a-city story.

With Jersey Girl, did you think, I'm trying to make a film about a father's responsibility and fidelity, for an audience that wants to hear me say 'Do whatever you want'? This is not a "follow your heart" flick. "Follow your heart" leads to so many broken marriages. Jersey Girl says the reverse: "Stick with your commitments."

Smith: Yes. Responsibility.

Did you ask yourself, "How do I make these virtues attractive or meaningful to an audience that's thinking, 'I'm going my own way'"?

Smith: No, but I realized going into it there were going to be some people that are certainly not going to dig it. I'm touching on issues of sentimentality, and some people don't like sentiment.

I've had a career full of cynicism. That's how some people look at my movies thus far—they're funny, they're edgy, they're cynical. But if you scrape away the cynicism, there's a romantic underneath every one of those movies. For me, [Jersey Girl] was like, "I'm going to try to make a flick where I don't hide behind the cynicism or the jokes." There are jokes in this movie, but they're not there to mask the sentiment. They're there to earn the sentiment. It's first and foremost a sentimental film.

Unfortunately, that strays into the area of "sap" for some people. What I feel is sentiment, they feel is sap. For me, it was difficult to make that decision stick with it. When I sat down to write this movie, I thought, I'm going to commit to wearing my heart on my sleeve and that's it … I'm not going back on it. I'm not throwing a safety net under me in terms of the familiar, re-invoking Jay and Silent Bob and invoking references to past movies. I'm not going to be cynical for the sake of undercutting the sentiment. I'm married to it. I'm going to go with it. If it works for people, fantastic. If it doesn't, I can't help that. And at least that made the movie the exact movie that I wanted to make, the one I committed to doing.

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Smith Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck on the Jersey Girl set

Smith Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck on the Jersey Girl set

How did you come to cast Ben Affleck as the lead?

Smith: Affleck said, "I want to make a movie like Chasing Amy again. Can we do something like that?" And I said, "I've got 50 pages of something. Do you want to check it out?" I gave it to him and he responded. "This is what I'm talking about. It's something where it's about the performance and the relationships of the characters."

He was coming off of Pearl Harbor where he spent the better part of the year promoting it while he was making it, and then it had this massive premiere in Hawaii, and everything was a very big deal. He said he just felt like a cog in a machine and he wanted to feel like more than that, and feel like his performance meant something to a movie, as opposed to that movie where the special effects were the stars really.

So I gave him these pages, and he was like, "Let's do this."

So, is the future of Kevin Smith "touchy-feely"?

Smith:Jersey Girl for me is a one-off. I've said everything I could say about fatherhood. I don't really have another touchy-feely movie in me at this point. I've gotten this movie out of my system.

The next movie is a comic book movie which I've never done before, and that to me is the real 180. That's the departure from everything we've done, except that Jersey Girl, while it lacks the profanity of the first five, it's still a relationship movie like the other five. Green Hornet, while it still has relationships in it, that's not the focus. It's a big eye-candy spectacle.

[Smith pauses, thinking about it, and then shrugs.]

Of course, knowing me it'll be just two shots of those two dudes sitting there talking about sex.

A longer transcript of this interview, along with my own review of Jersey Girl, will be posted at Looking Closer this weekend.