'Dogma' director faces down Catholic criticism
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By Jamie Allen
TORONTO (CNN) -- Filmmaking partners Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier are sitting at a table in the Park Hyatt's top-floor restaurant when the waiter brings their breakfast.
"Corned beef hash?" the waiter says to Smith as he sets the plate down.
"Actually, I wanted the scrambled Egg Beaters," says Smith in his trademark monotone. For now, Smith will get what he wants. But that's not always the case.
In his career as a writer-director, for example, Smith would love to have made his latest film, "Dogma," without all the brouhaha that has followed it.
Instead, Smith's comedy -- about two fallen angels who attempt to use a Catholic loophole to return to heaven (by way of New Jersey) -- in the last half-year has sparked much-publicized protests from the Catholic League. Those protests have prompted the film's former studio, Disney-owned Miramax, to threaten a lawsuit against the league.
Since then, Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein bought the film through a separate corporation and went through the precarious search for a distributor.
And that's not to mention the anonymous death threats, mostly sent to the Weinstein brothers, who passed them along to Smith.
"The ones that really grabbed you by the throat were the ones that were like, 'You Jews better take that money you've been stealing from us and invest in flak jackets because we're coming in there with shotguns,'" Smith says. "You read that and you're like, 'Wow.'
"I've seen it called anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-faith, anti-God. To say the least, it's none of these things."
"It has been a trying six months to say the least," Smith, 29, says as his breakfast finally arrives.
Likewise, "Dogma" will be served to movie audiences soon. It's scheduled to open in the United States on November 12, thanks to a last-minute deal between the Weinstein brothers and Lions Gate Films.
Standard operating procedure?
"Dogma" recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in front of a packed and appreciative audience. Smith says it made him happy, because people are finally getting a chance to see the film and come to their own conclusions about it, rather than getting what Smith sees as the false judgments of others.
"There have been a lot of things written or said about the flick by people who haven't seen it," he says, "which I guess is standard operating procedure for these people. I've seen it called anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-faith, anti-God. To say the least, it's none of these things."
Smith, who was raised Catholic, instead describes it as a "fun little film" that's getting more attention than it probably deserves.
Starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as the rogue angels, the film uses lowbrow humor to expose what Smith considers hypocrisies of church doctrine, without suggesting that God is dead. In fact, in Smith's work, she's singer Alanis Morissette -- or, at least, she's played by her.
Also in the star-studded cast: Alan Rickman lends his presence as the voice of God; Linda Fiorentino plays Bethany, a distant relative of J.C. (Jesus Christ) and destiny's child; Jason Lee is a demon; Salma Hayek is the muse Serendipity in stripper's clothing (or lack thereof); and Chris Rock is the 13th Apostle, named Rufus.
"Dogma" also includes the characters of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (played by Smith, himself). Mewes and the director have appeared in all Smith's films, including the 1997 "Chasing Amy."
There's plenty of caustic sex jokes, and a dose of tongue-in-cheek wit, starting with the opening disclaimer that apologizes to supporters of a certain "stupid" animal.
'The simple hypocrisy of the Catholic League'
Members of the Catholic League have been protesting since they heard about "Dogma." Some read the script, and at one point have said the film "drags Catholicism down to the gutter level."
"You kind of scratch your head and wonder why," Smith says, "especially when you watch something like 'Stigmata' come out and do $20 million on its first weekend ... and for all intents and purposes from what I've read -- and I haven't seen it -- it seems to be quite an attack on the Catholic Church. But the Catholic Church hasn't said Thing One about the movie. No press conferences, no demonizing of the filmmakers, and I think that points to the simple hypocrisy of the Catholic League.
"Our film was never really under attack," he says. "Disney was under attack. That's what the Catholic League loves to do -- go after Michael Eisner and Disney. And if 'Stigmata' had been a Disney film, you would have seen press conferences and full-page New York Times ads. But since it's an MGM film, you don't get much press out of attacking MGM. They've got one foot in the grave already. But, boy, you get a lot of press out of attacking a company that's got two theme parks and a network and billions and billions of dollars in merchandising each year."
Techno-jargon, and stuff prior
Smith and Mosier, Smith's producer, aren't used to this kind of attention, although they've built a respected career and attracted a loyal following. It started with the classic low-budget independent "Clerks" (1994), followed by the sophomore slump "Mallrats" (1995).
"Chasing Amy," the story of a guy (Affleck) who falls for a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams), came next. It was the offbeat darling of critics.
"After 'Mallrats' tanked, making 'Chasing Amy' was the smartest thing in the world," says Mosier. "It let people know we were going to stick around."
Meanwhile, "Dogma" had been brewing in Smith's mind before "Clerks," but he held onto the script until he felt capable of directing a subject that deals with heaven, hell and the possible end of human existence.
"God, if we had tried to make this movie before or even right after 'Clerks,' it would have looked way worse than it does," says Smith of the $10 million production. "As it stands, it's kind of flat in places because, Lord knows, I'm not a visual director. But at least I had a fighting chance."
Smith says his script went through a half-dozen revisions from its original state. He took great care to make sure the biblical references were accessible to an audience that may have skipped Mass for the past 10 or 20 years.
"If you're going to whiz a lot of techno-jargon on people, you've got to explain it," Smith says, "because you can't presuppose that everybody knows what the hell you're talking about. So there's a lot of explanatory passages in the flick, just to keep everyone up to speed."
'What I was worried about ...'
Following the film's screening in Toronto, Smith was flooded with interview requests. Obviously, the film is a hot topic -- does it live up to expectations?
In fact, Smith says, expectations are the enemy of this film -- more than Catholic protesters upset with its content.
"I wasn't too worried about people who were making judgments about the film as Catholic-bashing and they weren't happy about that, because those people weren't going to go to the movie anyway," says Smith.
"What I was worried about was the section of the audience that hears the movie is Catholic-bashing and can't wait to see it because they're looking for that movie with teeth and they get in there and watch and they find out it's just a fun film."
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