Mr. Smith makes a "Porno"

Kevin Smith explains how he got the imaginary poo and fake sex in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" past those dirty minds at the MPAA.

Published September 9, 2008 4:30PM (EDT)

By giving his movie a title like "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," Kevin Smith knew he was asking for trouble from the MPAA ratings board, and he got it. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks play Zack and Miri, down-and-out roommates who hope to turn a quick buck by making a porno film. The "actors" they enlist for this extremely amateur enterprise include the tall, dumb and randy Lester (Jason Mewes); Stacey, a sweetie pie with a girlish voice (played by real-life porn star Katie Morgan); and Bubbles (Traci Lords), who has a particular trick that you can probably guess. "Zack and Miri" features some nudity, heaps of crude language and lots of exaggerated bumping and grinding -- the film-within-a-film is shot, guerrilla style, after hours in a Starbucks-style coffee shop, so the joint is no stranger to grinding at least.

But in typical Smith style, "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" -- which shows here in Toronto on Tuesday and opens in U.S. theaters on Oct. 31 -- also incorporates a love story: While there's nothing wrong with mindless rutting, this is a picture with a belief in romance at its core -- a fact that not even Joan Graves, the head of the MPAA, could ignore. Even so, as Smith explained in an interview here in Toronto, the MPAA expressed its extreme displeasure with several scenes in the movie, including what Smith blithely refers to as "the shit shot." (To explain it here would give too much away, so all you need to know is that the gag involves an unusual camera angle and -- I'll leave the rest to your imagination.)

When Smith first submitted the picture, he received an NC-17 rating; he resubmitted a trimmed version (which involved tinkering with the sound behind the shit shot -- who ever knew a shit shot could have too many notes?) and got the same verdict. Smith and his producer, Scott Mosier, filed an appeal, which they won, as Smith explains in the interview, partly by citing precedents such as the Fart Helmet in the movie version of "Jackass." Still, the MPAA has forbidden the Weinstein Co., the studio behind "Zack and Miri," to use the original poster for the movie, and also clamped down on Smith's use of certain online trailers. It also took umbrage at the sight of some imaginary poo -- but I'll leave that to Smith, who spoke with me in Toronto, to explain. (Listen to the interview here.)

When "Chasing Amy" came out, I remember feeling that it might be the dawn of a new day for romantic comedy, in terms of the way it talked so frankly about sex, especially compared with the other romantic comedies that were coming out at the time. In the past 10 years, do you think much has changed in how movies deal with sex?

I think when you're talking about your PG or PG-13 romantic comedies, they pretty much remain the same. They're all meet-cute stories, and there's nothing in there that could offend anybody, unless you're offended by happy endings. But the R-rated stuff seems to have gotten a little more -- I felt like we nudged the door open a little bit for other people.

Why that movie worked, at least to me, is because it was about something nobody had really talked about in a film before, which was male sexual insecurity. That's really the root of the movie. It's about Holden feeling he can't possibly live up to his new girlfriend's past. At the time I wrote it, I was mired in that mind-set, and writing that movie got me out of it. And now I couldn't care less. Now you want to meet women -- well, now I'm married, but after that movie I wanted to meet women with massive sexual histories, because A) they bring experience to [a relationship], B) because everything they've done in their life leads them up to the moment where you're together, and C) you learn something from somebody who has more experience than you, not just sexually but in general. That movie came from my relationship with Joey [Lauren] Adams, who was a far more worldly person than I was, not just sexually speaking. But she had lived a pretty big life up to that point. And I had just come from the suburbs of Jersey, where I'd lived forever and really hadn't done much.

Let's talk a little bit about "Zack and Miri" and the MPAA ratings board. I know they originally gave you an NC-17, and you made some cuts, and they were still displeased.

This is how it went: I submitted an hour-and-45-minute cut of the movie, because that's what we had just test-screened in Kansas City, and it played through the roof. And so I was like, I'm going to submit this one because I saw 10 minutes in that screening that I wanted to pull out. It was the first time I had seen the movie with an audience. So I thought, while I'm working on this cut, let's submit [the original] cut to the MPAA in case they do give us an NC-17, because then we can turn around and resubmit two days later and say, Look we did a bunch of work.

So we did that, and we did wind up getting NC-17. A few days later I resubmitted, and they said, "Wow, you did a lot of work, but there's still a little ways to go. You should really concentrate on the Lester and Stacey porno scene and the shit shot." In fact, they flat-out said, "The shit shot will never play in an R-rated movie."

I said, lemme work with it, maybe I can make it work. So I lowered the sound on the shit shot, because that's what they'd suggested: Maybe the sound is what makes it such a heinous moment. And I said, "Really? It's not the visual? I think the visual is heinous enough."

So I took the sound way down on that clip, and then went into the sex scene and took out six seconds of thrusting. And when I resubmitted, they said, "You're so close. There's just a little bit further to go."

At that point I said, You know what? I'm not comfortable going any further because then I'm cutting into stuff that I think is essential. So let's just go to the appeals process.

And at that point I was able to reincorporate [some of the things I'd previously cut] that I felt were missing. And really, it was just the sound on the shit shot, a couple frames of the sex scene, that I reincorporated.

How does the appeals process work, exactly?

The audience is made up of members of the MPAA who aren't on the ratings board and members of the National Association of Theater Owners. You get to show the movie, [then you] get up and talk for 15 minutes about why it should get the rating you want, in this case an R. Then Joan Graves, the head of the MPAA, gets up and does 15 minutes on why they believe it should get an NC-17. You get 10 minutes to rebut, she get 10 minutes to rebut. Then you leave the room and they make their decision.

I like Joan. I have no adversarial relationship with her -- she's a really nice lady. Even when she got up, she just said, "No one's saying this movie isn't funny and sweet. We're just saying no kids should be allowed to see this movie. You should have to be 18 to be able to see it."

So then I got up and did my bit. Now they allow you to cite precedent, to cite other movies, which you couldn't do historically. And I said, "Look, we don't go in to make a movie called 'Zack and Miri Make a Porno' without knowing there's going to be close scrutiny paid to the flick when it comes down to rating it. So we went out of our way to make sure we fell comfortably within the confines of an R -- granted a hard R. But I don't feel it's an NC-17 because here are other movies that have done the same or similar things in the past."

And I cited for the sex scene, the thrusting, which they had such a problem with, "Taking Lives" with Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke. There's a moment in that movie where those two fuck against a dresser. It's very erotic, very steamy, it goes on a bit long. Same thing, two people having sex, her breasts are bared, but that's an R, and we're not?

And clearly that scene is meant to titillate. It's very erotic in nature. And ours is a caricature of sex. It's not even a caricature of sex -- it's a caricature of a caricature of sex, because it's porno sex. So I felt like, if that's an R, clearly we must be safely in the R confines.

I was on a roll, so I kept going with it. I said, "Look, if I were a 13-year-old boy, and I saw ['Zack and Miri'] on cable back in 1983? Yes, it would send me to the bathroom to jerk off. Now, as a 13-year-old boy, if I saw this movie? It would not titillate me. I would simply go to the Internet and watch real people having real sex.

"How can you possibly say this is too erotically charged when it's so obviously a comedy with people having over-the-top fake sex, when we can see examples of real sex at a keystroke?"

And then for the shit shot, I cited "Trainspotting," when they whip the sheet, and the shit goes all over the family. And I also cited "Jackass," which was a weird pull, but it was congruous to some degree, because I said, "Look, when 'Jackass' was an MTV show, there were tons of articles about how kids were imitating it, and winding up hurting themselves. Then it became a movie, an R-rated movie, in which there's a sequence called the Fart Helmet, where Steve-o is wearing this bubble helmet on his head, with a hose attached to it with a funnel. And his buddy's farting into the funnel, which goes into the headpiece, and Steve-o starts throwing up. Then his friend shits into the funnel, and you see it at one point." And I'm like, "'Jackass' is more of a documentary than anything else. What they're doing is real. That got an R. Clearly, what we did is unreal. It's fake poo all the way. And how does fake poo warrant an NC-17, versus real poo getting an R?"

Somehow that worked. They flipped it. We left the room, and about five minutes later they came out and said that we won.

You've said in interviews that you don't feel you're being silenced as an artist by the MPAA ratings board. Obviously, if you're a filmmaker, you want your movie to be seen, and for that it has to get an R. But the thing that worries me is that the ratings board does affect what comes out in the culture and how sex, in particular, is treated in the movies. Because a scene can be as violent and sadistic as you can imagine, and yet sex is the thing that really freaks them out.

Totally. I wavered on the fence about using "The Accused" as an example [in the appeal]. Because to me, if you're going to rate a movie based on sexual content that's disturbing, what's more disturbing than rape? If I were in charge of the MPAA, that's the ceiling right there. Once you start showing rape, you have to be so careful not to glamorize it or turn it into an exhibitionist-type scene. If it's part of the story, it has to be handled so sensitively.

And yet rape scenes fly in R-rated movies all the time. I've never heard a filmmaker say, They made us cut our rape scene down. If I were on a ratings board, that would get me on my feet, to say, This should be looked at.

But maybe that's just my personal feelings about it. That's what it comes down to. It's so subjective. It comes down to those people sitting on that board and how they feel about sex and its depiction in cinema.

But to be fair, if they held the line and we lost our appeal, the things we would have had to take out of the movie wouldn't have affected the movie, really. If we had to cut the shit shot, I would have missed it, because I watched it play with a test-screening audience, and it was a through-the-roof reaction. So of course I wanted to hang onto it. But if we'd had to lose it, it wouldn't have hurt the movie, really.

So in my case, specifically, it wasn't an instance of, This is censorship, and I'm being silenced. It was just, This is a hassle, man. Because I know this is funny, and let's let this play. But I feel bad for filmmakers who are really trying to get something emotional or dramatic or deep across, and come up against that. But it turns out that more often than not, [the ratings board goes] after the comedy more than they go after the dramatic stuff.

It does bother me that they have so much control over what gets out into the culture. For instance, the problems Wayne Kramer had with "The Cooler," which were detailed in Kirby Dick's "This Film Is Not Yet Rated." That sex scene between Maria Bello and William Macy was so lovely and so believable. Yet that's exactly the sort of thing they have problems with.

And I hate to make their argument for them, but ultimately, there's no such thing as, You'll never see this footage. Even if they make you take it out of the theatrical release, you can put everything on the DVD. Because up till now they haven't governed the contents of the DVD.

I think they're starting to expand their purview, because on this movie, we couldn't put trailers online without [the MPAA] rating them. In the past, from "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" forward, I've been making Internet-only trailers that we never bothered to run by the MPAA, because I just ran them on my Web site. They were just for fans. And nobody ever bothered us.

I put up a teaser trailer [for "Zack and Miri"] back in April that had no footage from the actual movie in it. Just Seth and Elizabeth riffing. And the MPAA made us take it down. They said, "Look, we're in charge of all marketing materials as well, and we didn't approve this." So they made us take it down.

And the ratings board has banned the poster for "Zack and Miri" as well. It can't be seen in the U.S., although it's OK in Canada.

Same thing. There's no ratings board up here; they go province by province. This poster is tame up here, so they have no problem with it. But the MPAA kicked it back down below. And they kicked back all of our trailers for months until we finally found a trailer they would approve.

[They kicked back trailers] for tiny things, too. We had to argue [for] this one shot in the trailer: Craig Robinson's sitting on the bed when he's doing the "titty audition" scene -- it sounds embarrassing to say that, but that's what it is. And behind him there's a poster on the wall for a small theatrical production called "Girl Parts for Boys." It's a drawing of two kids in diapers, just holding out their diapers and looking down. You don't see anything. But they flagged that. They said, You can't show that in a green-band [approved-for-all-audiences] trailer.

And we were like, What are you talking about? It's not even dirty. It's not even a subliminal dirty reference. We were like, How stringent does it get?

I've often wondered if their minds aren't way dirtier than ours are.

I think they read into and infer a lot of things that aren't there. There's one shot in the trailer -- I think it made it into the red-band [restricted-audiences-only] trailer, but it didn't get into the green band -- where Seth opens up the toilet lid and says, "There's poo in there." And the note we got back from the breakdown of the trailer was: "Brown material visible in toilet." And there wasn't. The toilet was completely empty. And I'm like, You guys are seeing shit where there is no shit! Trust me, there's shit later on. I agree, in that shit shot, that is shit! But this toilet shot, for the trailer, is totally fine. And since when is "poo" a horrible thing to say in a trailer?

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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