Director Smith lands dream gig

BYLINE: Etan Vlessing

Kevin Smith may not have been able to direct any episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation, but it is likely that his ultimate canvas will be bigger, as he is slated to shoot a movie adaptation of the series in Toronto around May.

Smith and Degrassi prodco Epitome Pictures are in talks with Nickelodeon Films, a subsidiary of Viacom, on the movie version, a project now at the script stage and awaiting a green light from Paramount.

The origin of this curious partnership goes back to the early 1990s, when a young Smith was working Sunday mornings in a New Jersey convenience store and by chance tuned in to Degrassi Junior High airing on PBS via a rabbit-eared portable TV next to the cash register.

“I didn’t recognize these kids at all. ‘Wait a moment, they’re talking about abortion,'” Smith says of his initial reaction to the Canadian TV series, which was so unlike the TV evangelists dominating the Sunday morning dial.

Years later, Smith visited the Epitome Pictures office in Toronto in search of Degrassi swag for Chasing Amy, his third feature, only to be turned away by an inexperienced receptionist.

Degrassi co-creator and executive producer Linda Schuyler recalls receiving a call the next day from a friend asking whether she had seen Smith on Citytv’s Speakers Corner program complaining about the Degrassi production office.

Schuyler eventually connected with Smith on the phone, and then lost touch with him until he caught wind of plans for The Next Generation, the newest installment in the franchise.

“I felt nervous about going back to the well,” Smith says of his early fears about the new series. But after catching an episode on Noggin, Smith dialed Toronto again.

“‘Schuyler? Smith here. I’m hooked. You caught the same vibe twice,'” Schuyler recalls Smith telling her.

In terms of plot and dialogue, Smith insists his own approach to portraying young people on the big screen melds with how Degrassi puts young characters on the small screen.

“The show holds a mirror up and kids see themselves on the show,” he says.

But Schuyler had bad news for Smith when he asked whether he could direct an episode. Not possible. He wasn’t Canadian. Ditto with writing an episode.

But Canadian-content rules did allow Smith to act in the series, which he did in three episodes of season four.

In those episodes, Smith and actor Jason Mewes, a frequent collaborator, descend on the Degrassi school to film the fictional movie sequel Jay and Silent Bob Go Canadian, Eh?

Now Smith has plans to shoot the movie version – since Canadian-content rules allow that option – after he completes Clerks sequel The Passion of the Clerks.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity. He has this affinity with the show,” Schuyler says.

Paramount came to the Degrassi feature project as both it and Noggin are owned by Viacom. What’s more, there’s useful crossover between Smith’s fan base and the Degrassi fan base.

The director remains tight-lipped about the script for the movie, penned by longtime series writer Aaron Martin and Tassie Cameron. His main concern is to get the feature film “pitch perfect” with the TV series, and that he not introduce drastic changes to the Degrassi format, causing loyal viewers to think the TV show might have “jumped the shark” after its big-screen treatment.

Because he usually has to build sets for his movies from the ground up, Smith says a Degrassi feature would be efficient in already having its own sets, cast and crew in Toronto.

He also appreciates that Degrassi doesn’t send Canadians into a moral panic, unlike in the U.S., where broadcasters and advertisers shy away from controversy.

The director reveals that he had considered getting Ben Affleck, his buddy and star of all his post-Clerks features, to do a cameo in the Degrassi feature, then decided against it.

“Why upstage the kids? The audience sees these kids as the kids of the series. You don’t want to mess with that,” he explains.

Smith returned to Toronto in August to act in the first two episodes of season five of The Next Generation.

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