Another thing that grew for Smith in the meantime was his credibility, as he drew kudos for Chasing Amy and watched his capital soar after bringing the Good Will Hunting script to Miramax. That film, written by Affleck and Damon, went on to become one of the year's best reviewed and an Oscar-winner; at the time, both Affleck and Damon were just two joes from Massachusetts who had an "in" because they knew Smith.
The Dogma script (originally called God) changed little as time went on, despite being revised every year or so and trimmed from its nearly 200-page length. By April 1998, it was time to shoot. "We were at like the sixth draft. And not much really changed. It just got shorter and shorter, year by year, as it was like, 'I'm gonna throw this out 'cause it's a lowbrow joke that I'm a little bit above at this point.' "
Dogma debuted at Cannes to extremely mixed reviews. The film took on a profile broader than most indie films when the head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a New York-based group that compares itself to the Anti-Defamation League, saw the movie and began a campaign against it. William Donohue, the Catholic League's president, began to put pressure on Disney to cut all ties with the film and its studio, the Disney-owned Miramax. Threats flew back and forth. Instead of bailing on the movie, Miramax producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein bought the picture for their own private company, then auctioned if off to Lions Gate, a Canadian indie with no corporate parent that might serve as a target for boycotts or pressure. The Catholic League was only partly satisfied.
"The position of the Catholic League is that the content and characters of the film are extremely offensive, despite the denials of its writer-director, who has claimed that the movie is pro-faith," says Patrick Scully, the group's director of communications. The league wonders, he says, which part of the film is pro-faith: "Is it the descendant of Christ who works in an abortion clinic? Is it the character who says the abortion clinic is a good place to meet chicks?...It's another example of a pattern of films that are anti-Catholic. We're saying enough is enough."
Smith's longtime producer, Scott Mosier, who met the director in Vancouver during Smith's sole semester at film school, says the controversy really took Smith by surprise. "When you're making a movie you've got a million different things to think about, and you're working 18 hours a day. And you're worried about the cast, and the CGI guy is flying in....You're always looking right in front of you. We didn't sit around and say, 'Wow, this is really gonna drive people crazy.' "
When Smith discusses the Catholic League and the ensuing controversy, he grows engaged and angry but argues philosophical points instead of dwelling on his own feelings. John Pierson, the indie angel who helped Clerks get sold and helped out unofficially on Dogma, says Smith has been personally hammered by the conflict. "Everyone who thinks that controversy is part of the successful marketing of this film is crazy," says Pierson. According to Pierson, who hosts the Independent Film Channel's show "Split Screen," Smith was hurt when Miramax backed away from Dogma. "He won't admit it," Pierson says. "I tried to get him to admit it on my show, but he wouldn't." Pierson attributes Smith's reluctance to talk to his loyalty to Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who have produced each of Smith's films.
The Dogma controversy caught fire only briefly, never quite becoming the Elia Kazan-sized brouhaha it threatened to. Despite rumors to the contrary, the Catholic League has no plans to picket the film when it opens next week, though the group has told its members it finds the film unacceptable. "All we're looking for is the same respect afforded other religions," says Scully.
The Catholic League's opposition still stings Smith, who doesn't politely back away from the issue the way other artists might. He calls the league "a splinter group," adding: "It's one guy who's frustrated, who says, 'I've had it up to here, as a Catholic, with getting bashed.' As if any Catholic has known persecution! I don't think any Catholics have known persecution since the last apostle was martyred. The Catholic church has pretty much ruled the known world for the last 2,000 years. So when Bill Donohue gets up on a podium at a press conference and talks about how Catholics are a minority and should be treated like any other minority, and if Jews can be upset by anti-Semitism and blacks can be upset [by racism], why can't we be upset by Catholic humor? I'm just like, 'What're ya, high?' It's not the same thing!"