Filmmaker Kevin Smith is bringing his latest film, the Westboro Baptist Church-inspired Red State, to Kansas City Saturday night. But the directer behind Clerks may be able to avoid the inevitable "God hates [insert noun here]" picket: Smith says the Phelps family has an "open invitation" anytime to see his latest film, including Saturday at the Midland.
"Just get in touch with us," Smith says of the Phelps family. "We'll totally seat you for the
flick. I invited Megan [Phelps-Roper] to the movie at Sundance, and she turned me down.
It's not the first time that a good-looking chick turned me down to go
to the movies. Happens all the time in my life. It's only the first time
that someone as religiously bent as Megan has turned me down, though."
The genesis for Red State came when Smith saw Fred Phelps interviewed in Malcolm Ingram's documentary Small Town Gay Bar (Smith was executive producer of the film). Smith wanted to know what Ingram's interview with the Topeka pastor was like. Ingram told him that he had more interview footage. Smith asked to see it. Ingram sent Smith the footage, which he calls "spellbinding."
"I watched that interview, and that guy believed every word he's saying," Smith says. "Either that, or he's a better actor than Ben Affleck, which could be the case."
Another thought struck Smith.
Smith saw Phelps as inspiration, the same way Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein became the basis for Psycho's Norman Bates and Leatherface in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
While Phelps inspired Red State, Smith is quick to point out that the homicidal preacher played by Michael Parks isn't Phelps (as Smith points out, "They're known to be kind of litigious," even if he is Twitter pals with Megan Phelps-Roper). He says he did the "Law & Order thing," having John Goodman name-check Kansas' most infamous homophobes, only to find out that the Red State family they're talking about is not the Phelpses.
"It's clearly not based on Fred Phelps," Smith says. "The Phelpses never killed anybody."
Last year, Smith experienced his first run-in with Westboro. The Phelps family picketed Smith's show at the Midland, calling him a "fag enabler." At the time, Smith didn't know what he was dealing with. His mother was supposed to see his show. But a spooked Smith told her to sit this one out.
What Smith ended up seeing was four or five picketers who were "insanely well-spoken, very polite." But they were on-message, constantly saying everyone is going to hell.
"They seemed less intimidating at that point," Smith says.
Now, Smith calls them his "marketing partners" for the buzz and free publicity that the Phelps' protests got Red State at Sundance.
"It was weird at Sundance because right before you entered [the theater], outside there was this mass protest going on, people yelling and holding signs," Smith says. "Then you go into the theater, the lights go down, the movie comes up, and there's a mass protest going on, people yelling and holding signs. It was weird. It was like 4-D. It was suddenly like we were a 3-D movie with a pre-show that began in the parking lot, Rocky Horror-style."
Smith says he was "flummoxed" by the negative reaction to him saying he would take his movie on the road by himself instead of asking a studio to spend $20 million to market the film. But he says that after struggling to raise $4 million to make the film, why would he ask a studio to spend four times that figure to market the film?
"That seems arrogant to me," Smith says. "Pour $20 million more on this movie that nobody wanted to make in the first place? To me, it's not arrogant to say, 'Hey, man, I'm going to keep this, and I'm going to take this out to my people, and I'm going to try to do it without spending any cash.' That's a smart business plan. Why would anyone that wasn't our investors be mad about that? That's what blew my mind.
"Fortune favors the bold, and anyone creative understands that," Smith says. "People just don't want to fail and don't want to see other people succeed. ... Failure is success training.
If you go to the Midland at 8 p.m. Saturday, you'll be seeing Smith's second-to-last movie. He says he's done making films after Hit Somebody. Then he'll talk for a living. He'll podcast. And if releasing Red State his way works, he'll help release other people's movies.