That something was hockey.
The award-winning writer, director, producer and actor of such cult hits like "Clerks," "Chasing Amy," "Dogma" and "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" has decided his next project will be a hockey movie.
The film will be based on the Warren Zevon song "Hit Somebody," which tells the story of Buddy, an enforcer with no offensive skills, but who still holds fast to the dream of someday scoring just one goal in a game.
"I don't mean it like this is going to be an Academy Award-winner, (but) I want to make the Forrest Gump of sports movies that just happens to take place in the world of hockey," Smith told NHL.com. "That's the feeling I'm going for. If you listen to the song, how it's laid out, it's a guy's life. I love story songs. That is a fantastic story song. It's heartbreaking. It's as heartbreaking a song as hockey is a sport to love."
Award-winning Detroit Free Press columnist and author Mitch Albom wrote the lyrics and Late Show host David Letterman has a spoken-word cameo in the song, which was released in 2002 on Zevon's final album before his 2003 death. The song got little radio airplay and seemingly had lived its life before Smith came across it in late 2008.
Listening to the song helped Smith move past his personal issues, and he connected with Albom and started the process of creating a film. Smith said he plans on writing the script in December, and will shoot it in the Detroit area.
Smith's love for hockey goes far beyond whatever film he might produce. A New Jersey native, Smith is a life-long Devils fan who has blogged for NHL.com. He's also incorporated hockey in one form or fashion in almost all his movies, from a roller hockey game on the roof of a convenience store in Clerks to a lover's quarrel interspersed with a hockey fight in Chasing Amy.
"In that haze, I came back to that which always made me happy, which was hockey," Smith said. "I'd always been a hockey fan, it was in the movies and stuff, but things take priority in life. Life is about shifting priorities. I got my foot in the door in the movie business, and I was like I can't play hockey anymore. We used to play hockey on the weekends (but) I got to stay in now, I'm in and this is what I work for. It back burners.
"At this point in my life, it didn't go to the front burner, it went to the front of the house, on top of the house, covered the house. I live in it now. ... I live and breathe in hockey now. Now at this point in my life that's all I want to talk about. All throughout my youth, my 20s, I wanted to make movies where people sit around and tell jokes and that's what was on my mind. Telling those stories, Chasing Amy, Dogma, that's what I wanted to talk about. I don't want to talk about that anymore. I love them to death, but I'm done talking about them. I can't keep re-talking about them. I want to talk about something else, and the discourse, the language I want to use, to talk, is hockey."
What sold him on the film is the passion of hockey players in general, but even more for those who play a particular role -- call it tough guy, enforcer, whatever. He said the movie will take place in a WHA-type league in the 1970s, a more flamboyant time for hockey.
"You're talking about a time when the WHA kicked open its doors and the talent pool that the NHL had to draw from suddenly got very slim," said Smith. "Because suddenly there was another place for (players) to go. The NHL had a monopoly and the WHA came into being and suddenly there was another place to go. And that's when you had people getting in that maybe aren't that good at the game. And their best way in is to hit somebody, goon hockey.
"You have somebody who loves hockey, but they can't play. I love hockey, I can't play it. I couldn't get a puck from here to there on the ice, but these dudes found a way in that era when it became about bloody tactics, we're going to send you out there and ... hit somebody. There's a bunch of people with their names on the Stanley Cup that I'm probably more talented at hockey then they are. But that was of its era and there's something to me that's really beautiful about that, that somebody that loves it so much ... I can't do it, but I love it so much that I'll take the lowest role in this game, I'll be the clown, I'll be the dancing chimp, I'll beat people up, just let me play, please let me play. That's sad, that's heartbreaking (but there's romance to it), absolutely. Can you think of anything you love that much? On a regular basis (to get punched in the face)? Become intimate friends with a dentist because you spend so much time in the office? There's something really beautiful about that."
Smith said his goal is not so much to make a hockey movie, but to make a movie with a strong character who happens to play hockey.
"It's set in the world of hockey so it's entrenched in hockey," said Smith. "At the same time, Rocky is a boxing movie, but its not a boxing movie -- it's about a guy who happens to box and boxing is his way out. And this is what this is."
"We all how know the song ends," said Smith. "The movie is going to end the same way -- Buddy dies on the ice. I see it that way. I told that to Mitch and Mitch said, 'He does?' I said, 'Mitch, he sees that heavenly light,' and Mitch said I was talking about the goal (light), but if that's what you see, that's it. It could be anything."
What he really hopes for is that through his movie, more people discover a game and a League he loves so much.
"This is a sport that could use a little mass-media help," said Smith. "It won't cure anybody's ills, but why not celebrate hockey? If the film is beautiful enough, if it does what I want it to do, which is kind of mirror the effect that the Hockey Hall of Fame has on someone when you walk into it and walk out of it, how emotional it can be, if I can do that, I think more people would jump in. If you can express, if you can display, if you can put the poetry of hockey onto the screen, tied to a story, a very relatable human story, how do people not get interested in hockey?"
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com