When it was released in 1994, Clerks was a revolutionary depiction of Generation X, stoner culture, retail, and society as a whole. The massive success of the film launched writer and director Kevin Smith's career, as well as his shared movie universe, dubbed the "View Askewniverse," in numerous movies, comics, and more.
Even decades after it came out, film students and cultural historians continue to study Clerks and how it was made. A lot of work went into making Clerks a reality. In many ways, it's a student film, but it's also a master class in how to make real, enduring art on the cheap.
Kevin Smith's early filmography is a perfect example of how art imitates life. Clerks was created thanks to Smith's extensive work as a clerk in New Jersey. He based the character of Dante on himself, and Randal on his buddy, Bryan Johnson. Smith explained to The Guardian:
I worked in six convenience stores in New Jersey from 1989 to 1993, which is where Clerks came from. It was an appealing, easy job, like being a bartender: It puts you nominally in charge and people have to socialize with you.
Smith's screenplay took inspiration from several of his own life events. That's probably why the movie is so relatable to people who have worked in retail.
Even though the character of Dante was based on Smith, the writer/director never intended to play him. He was all set to play Randal, the guy he wanted to be like - but when it came to memorizing dialogue, Smith discovered he was more of a behind-the-camera kind of guy. As Smith put it:
[Randal] didn’t give a f*ck about what anyone thought. He would fight with people, make fun of them to their face. He was the guy I secretly wished to be. I was going to play Randal, then I realized I couldn’t memorize dialogue. So I took the role that had none - Silent Bob - and Brian O’Halloran played Dante.
In the end, Smith took the guy who only had a single line in the whole film, which worked out perfectly and set the precedent for several movies to follow.
Making movies isn't cheap, but neither is film school. Before he made Clerks, Smith was enrolled at Vancouver Film School, which he attended for four months. There he met Scott Mosier and Dave Klein, who would become his longtime collaborators. Unlike Mosier and Klein, however, Smith left early in the course to save money for his film project.
The course was only eight months long and more of a technical certification program than anything else. Smith said it would have given him a certificate of completion, but the cost was too high and he felt he wasn't learning the practical art of moviemaking.
[W]hat bugged me was in the first four months [of the course], we didn’t do anything practical. I mean, we did little video docs, but mostly it was teachers showing us films.... I was like, "Well, is this all we’re gonna do? Sit around and watch movies? I can do that in Jersey for free. At the f*cking video store. That’s what I’ve been doing." I wanted to get my hands on some equipment.
Smith left the school just two days before the deadline to get half his tuition returned. When he left, he had $4,500 in his pocket. He also sold some of his comic books to raise enough seed money to get started on Clerks. When his buddies left the program four months later, they joined him with the knowledge they'd gained.
To save money, Smith shot the film in black and white, and cast many of his friends and acquaintances instead of professional actors (some even had more than one role). When all was said and done, Clerks cost $27,575 to make.
Refunded tuition and comic books couldn't pay for all of that, so Smith did what most Americans do when they want to spend money they don't have: He turned to credit cards. As Smith explained in a 2019 interview:
The film was mostly funded on credit cards. Before Clerks was a gleam in my eye, Bryan [Johnson] and I had started a contest to see who could get the most cards. I was ahead - 12 to his five - but I never did anything with them because my Irish Catholic family thought they were the devil’s work. They sat in a box in my underwear drawer, but I remembered them when we started Clerks.
Smith used all 12 cards to complete the film.