By the time that Dogma was released in 1999 independent filmmaker Kevin Smith had already become the voice of Generation-X through his twenty-something tales of slackers and urban misfits that had begun some five years earlier with the no-budget comedy Clerks and had evolved through two further pictures that would ultimately become part of his ever-expanding View Askew universe. Taking the date movie format and lacing it with pop culture references and toilet humour, Mallrats and Chasing Amy would speak to their young audience in a way that feature films had never succeeded in before, by catering to their geek-like obsessions with comic books, fantasy flicks and retro television shows that saw characters sharing the same kind of passions as their viewers. In an era that pre-dated internet blogs and messageboards, Smith would fill express his love of Star Wars, Marvel and John Hughes to crowds of young cinemagoers who were raised on the same diet of entertainment.
Having quit film school after just four months and raised a budget of approximately $27,500 through the selling of his comic book collection and maxing out an assortment of credit cards, Smith created Clerks after witnessing a screening of Richard Linklater’s landmark independent film Slacker. From there he proceeded to write a screenplay set in a local convenience store, echoing his own life and shot on location in the same establishment where he worked. Introducing audiences to an ensemble of directionless youths, personified by the iconic duo of Jay and Silent Bob, Smith’s debut would find major distribution following a screening at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994 and despite being shot on black-and-white 16mm and featuring a cast of amateurs, Clerks soon became a cult favourite. And with the template having been established he would spend the remainder of the decade returning to his characters through two mainstream follow-up. Having grown as a storyteller with his most personal picture to date, the relationship drama Chasing Amy, he finally decided that the time had come to turn his attention to a project that had been gathering dust in his drawer for several years.
Dogma would follow the attempts of two fallen angels, Bartleby and Loki, as they attempt to exploit a Catholic loophole in order to cheat their way back into Heaven. God, meanwhile, has taken the form of an elderly man to indulge in a secret love of skee-ball but after being viciously beaten by three youths remains in a coma, a plan masterminded by the demonic Azrael in order to trap the omnipotent being in human form long enough for the two angels to receive plenary indulgence, thus their sins being forgiven and allowing them to return to paradise. In an effort to keep them from entering the church and thus proving God fallible, an event that could potentially unmake all of existence, the voice of God, Metatron, reaches out to the last scion, the one remaining descendent of Jesus Christ. With a failed love life and minimum wage job in an abortion clinic, Bethany hardly seems like the ideal person to be tasked with saving the world but with the assistance of Rufus, an apostle who claims he was left out of the Last Supper because he was black, a muse called Serendipity and the troublesome Jay and Silent Bob, she sets out on a journey to New Jersey in the hope of stopping Bartleby and Loki before their selfish actions kill everyone.
I wanted to do something that celebrated my faith publicly
‘I wanted to do something that celebrated my faith. Going to church wasn’t enough,’ revealed Smith during the promotion of the movie. ‘There didn’t seem to be much of a celebration going on. I mean, they call it the celebration of the mass but it’s not a party in there most times; people are just there not out of faith but they’re terrified of going to Hell. So I wanted to do something that celebrated my faith publicly and also entertainingly as well. Kind of like a psalm, if you will.’ The genesis for what would become Dogma first began while Smith was studying in Vancouver and by the time that he commenced work on the screenplay for Clerks he already had an outline that he had tentatively entitled God. While his first feature made its debut at the festival in January 1994 Smith had begun to develop his concept and by the time he was enjoying his first taste of success that summer he had completed the initial draft. Aware that such an ambitious project would require a filmmaking skill that he had yet to master he put the script aside and signed a deal with Universal to direct his sophomore picture Mallrats.
Creating a comedy based around the Catholic church was always going to court a considerable amount of controversy and Smith, who had mocked the ridiculous aspects of his religion while still celebrating his faith, was only all-too-eager to accept the backlash. By this point he had already become a presence online and was never one to miss out on the opportunity for free publicity and the negative reaction against the movie that would be revealed by the media was enough to convince him that it had struck the intended chords. ‘A press agent couldn’t dream up Dogma’s launch in New York,’ declared the Los Angeles Times when the film first began to attract hostile attention following its release. ‘Hundreds of Catholic protesters picketed the screening of Kevin Smith’s Dogma at the New York Film Festival Monday night, but Smith wants them to understand that he’s really on their side,’ insisted Entertainment Weekly the following day. By this point its notoriety had already reached the other side of the Atlantic as the Guardian had published an article that stated the ‘film has been particularly criticised by Catholics, who believe the film mocks their religion.’
As Smith looked on religious groups across America began to speak out against the film but it was obvious that its parent studio were aware of what would follow and had already taken steps to distance themselves from the picture. While Dogma had been developed by Miramax, during the nineties the company was owned by Disney but the prospect of distributing a movie that told of an abortion clinic worker fighting renegade angels was too much of a risk and so Miramax was eventually allowed to purchase the film and release it through Lionsgate. Described by Variety as a ‘very vulgar pro-faith comedy rather than a sacrilegious goof,’ while noted critic Roger Ebert claimed that ‘the underlying faith is taken seriously but the visible church is fair game for kidding,’ Dogma became Smith’s most discussed and analysed film and while the reviews would be somewhat mixed, the consensus appeared to be that the twenty-nine-year-old had delivered a movie that explored both those that follow their beliefs and others that have turned their back on faith. Unlike his earlier work, while the sex and pop culture jokes would remain the storyteller was finally saying something personal.
Events would take a somewhat unexpected turn, however, after Smith read an article in the Asbury Park Press that reported on a religious group that intended on protesting a screening of Dogma at the local cinema and, unable to resist the opportunity to join in the fun, contacted his close friend Bryan Johnson, who had previously made an appearance in Mallrats, to join in the demonstration. Creating their own placards that boast such slogans as ‘Dogma is Dogshit,’ the pair arrived at the cinema to find a crowd far smaller than promised by the newspaper, but determined to make the most of the event they joined in with their fellow protesters in prayer. Yet despite wanting to witness the controversy first-hand they had intended on keeping a low profile and merely observing the furore, but this would prove to be problematic when a local news channel arrived to report on the incident. Smith and Johnson would try to remain anonymous among the crowd but it was inevitable that eventually someone would recognise the director of the movie.
‘I’m standing there and I’m just kind of looking at them and thinking, ‘This will be interesting.’ I think about bolting but I was like fuck it, they’ll never know. These people don’t know, they’ll never know,’ he recalled in the 2002 show An Evening with Kevin Smith. ‘And a lady gets out, a journalist kind of well-dressed and she’s got a clipboard under her arm. And all of a sudden she looks in my general direction. She goes back to looking around and then she comes back and she looks at her clipboard. So she comes over and Bryan’s like, ‘Holy shit!’ So the lady comes over and she has the clipboard right in my face and looking at me and she’s like, ‘Are you him?’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s Him,’ because our Lord was there. And she goes, ‘No, are you him, are you the guy?’ And I said, ‘Oh, no, no, but I get that all the time.’ And she was like, ‘Would you mind if I interview you?’ and I said, ‘Oh, please.’ Because I’m a press whore, so even if I’m incognito I’m still happy to give an interview.’
Smith continued, ‘So she calls the camera guy over and he starts shooting and she’s just like, ‘So, what are you doing here tonight?’ And I was like, ‘We’re here to protest this movie.’ And she said, ‘Okay, have you seen it?’ And I said, ‘No, no,’ because I wanted to be in character. I said, ‘No, no, but they tell me it’s really bad.’ And she’s like, ‘Right. And have you seen anything else made by the filmmaker?’ I said, ‘Well, I saw Clerks, that was really funny.’ But I’m not going to watch anything else. I’m certainly not going to watch this.’ And she like, ‘Alright, what’s your name?’ And I was like, ‘…Bryan Johnson!’ And Bryan’s like, ‘Oh shit!’ And she goes, ‘Do you have ID?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And she’s like, ‘Can I see it?’ And I was like, ‘It’s in my wallet and I didn’t bring my wallet.’ And she says, ‘Why not?’ And I was like, ‘Well, look at these people!!!’ So she took off and she’s shooting the rest of the line and she’s still shooting me still whispering to the camera guy and Johnson’s like, ‘We should really go now.’ And finally they took off and then that night on Channel 12 News, sure enough, Bryan Johnson was talking about how bad Dogma was.’