Director Joe Dante began his career working for Roger Corman, learning the craft of making films as cheaply and as quickly as possible and making his directorial debut on Corman’s 1978 cult classic Piranha.
Thirty-seven years later – and five years after his last movie, The Hole — Dante has returned to those low-budget roots with Burying the Ex, a “zom-com” in which Max (Anton Yelchin), a horror film fan agonizing over whether to break up with his way more conventional and controlling girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene), has that decision taken out of his hands when Evelyn is killed in an accident. Max is now free to pursue sexy kindred spirit Olivia (Alexandra Daddario) – until the night that Evelyn comes out of the grave (cue Dante-style horror film reference) and wants to resume her relationship with him.
Burying the Ex is clearly put together on a nickel-and-dime budget, but the cast and Dante all seem to have fun with the material. And “fun,” in fact, has been the watchword for most of Dante’s output, starting with Piranha and encompassing classics such as The Howling and Gremlins and fan favorites like Innerspace and The ‘Burbs. All of Dante’s films mix genre tropes with an often scathing dose of satire, a style still apparent in his latest effort.
Den Of Geek had a chance to speak with Dante by phone recently, where he discussed shooting his mix of zombie film and screwball comedy, the changes in the movie business and the endless rumors of a Gremlins remake.
Den Of Geek: Give me a little idea of what made you choose this to do. I know it’s been a few years since The Hole came out…
Joe Dante: Well, I think, accurately, it’s been a few years since The Hole didn’t come out. (laughs)
In order to stay abreast of this business you’ve got to have a lot of projects and you have to juggle things. This was one of a number of projects I was sort of carrying around with me for a number of years looking for financing. It just happened there was a point at which about four years after I got involved with that there was an opportunity to make the movie, provided that we made it very quickly for a finite amount of money. So we just sort of took that opportunity and cobbled the picture together in 20 days for not a lot of money.
It obviously looks like it wasn’t made for a lot of money, because there’s only a couple of locations. There’s not very many cast members. But it just appealed to me because I liked the script. I thought the characters are funny, and I enjoyed the relationship, and I thought that the situation where a guy is in a relationship that he really wants to get out of, but he can’t because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings, I thought a lot of people could relate to that. And so, this was one of several projects that I’ve been trying to get made that actually got made.
What’s interesting about is that aside from the fact that one of them is dead, it’s basically a screwball comedy. And if you took the zombie aspect out of the equation, you could play it straight, practically.
That’s pretty much true. That was kind of what appealed to me. The zombie part of it was just sort of icing on the cake.
You made the film sort of guerilla style. What was that like for you? Did that sort of flex those old muscles from the Roger Corman days of keeping things lean and mean?
Pretty much. I’d been also doing a lot of television, and television is very fast. Not as fast as that movie, but pretty fast. So I’m used to making decisions. Making movies is all problem solving. When you make a movie on a short schedule there’s just more problems to solve in a smaller amount of time. It’s actually kind of fun, because everybody has sort of a gorilla mentality where they are all together…there’s not a lot of waiting time. There’s not a lot of downtime. You don’t have actors who disappear for eight days and then come back, because it’s just not that kind of movie. So everybody is sort of in the trenches together. It’s very familial. Everybody is encouraged to contribute and come up with stuff. It’s just the time you have to consider what it is you are going to do is very compressed.
Do you think the actors respond to that differently than when they’re on the set of a huge blockbuster?
I don’t know that they respond differently. Alexandra made San Andreas after our picture. She was in a Texas Chainsaw movie. She’s paid her dues, I think. As far as Ashley and Anton, I mean they’ve made different kinds of movies at different kinds of budgets. They’re professional actors, so they sort of adapt to the occasion. It was particularly difficult for Ashley because she had to undergo a lot of makeup. It took a lot of time in the morning and then it took time to take it off at night, and all of that involves the turnaround and when we can use her the next day. All that stuff you have to take into consideration. But I think they just got into the spirit of it. It was fun directing them. And it was fun watching them.
The film is peppered with clips from a lot of older horror movies, which is sort of a trademark of yours. Is that a way for you to acknowledge the history of this genre, especially for people who may be watching something like Burying the Ex but who don’t know the lineage?
Yeah. I’ve been doing it since I started. In The Howling there’s a very important scene where they watched The Wolf Man on TV, and we realize that our characters actually know as much about werewolves as the audience does, which was a rather new concept in 1980. People always used to have to go to the library and have some character actor explain to them what the audience already knew. That scene was an attempt to say, “Well, see, we already know this stuff.” Then you get the Scream movies where they are all based on people knowing all this stuff and knowing the things that the characters know. So in that sense it was sort of post-modern and I think The Howling was probably the first time that was done.
What was the most challenging shot you had to get off during the production?
It’s always challenging to have somebody come out of a grave. I’ve done it numerous times. There are different techniques to do it. It always bothers me that people are buried in coffins and yet they somehow manage to come out of the grave by sticking their hand up through the grass. Its like, “Wait a minute. Did they bring a chainsaw with them? How did they get out of that coffin?” But I guess that’s just sort of a horror movie trope. You have to put them underground. You have to make sure they can breathe. There’s usually a lot of cork around them, so you don’t want it to fall in on them and they can’t move. And it’s done at night. And when it’s done for no money, it skirts the edge of being dangerous. So that’s always something difficult to do.
Otherwise, it was really just a matter of doing photo tests to figure out what the makeup looked like, because it doesn’t necessarily look to the eye the way it does to the camera. Because there were gradations and layers of decomposition, we had to be very careful as to which version of her decomposition we were going to be shooting and then how it appeared with the lighting. And on a low budget movie that takes time that you really don’t have.
What is your view on the way the makeup effects world has changed? We lost Dick Smith a little while back, and Rick Baker is retiring.
Well, I think we have lost Rick Baker, too, in a way. I was not shocked when Rick decided to throw in the towel, because I was familiar with what he had gone through on the remake of The Wolf Man, which was, I think, one of his last big jobs, and how disrespected he was by the studio. I think there’s very little real understanding in the executive suites of makeup and prosthetics. That kind of thing, they think all you have to do is punch a button on a computer and then you can do it. And that’s obviously not the case. And Rick is too good for that. He’s too good to be treated like that. He’s a genius and he’s got the Academy Awards to prove it. So I really wasn’t surprised when he finally said, “You know, I just don’t think I want to do this anymore. It’s not fun.”
What does that say to you about the craft of doing makeup? You made a movie (The Howling) that was one of the groundbreaking films in terms of makeup effects. 30, 35 years later, where do you think the art stands?
It’s all different now. I mean a number of techniques wouldn’t be used today. And they were state-of-the-art at the time, much like the way we made Gremlins was state-of-the-art. But if they make another Gremlins movie, they’re certainly not going to use those techniques because they are old. I think they are not exactly outdated. I think they can be improved and still used. But it’s a different time. Different people are running the studios. Different audiences are going to the movies. They are not seen even on film anymore. You just have to roll with the punches. It’s not the same world it was 30 years ago.
Burying the Ex has obviously gone out on VOD and different distribution methods before coming out on DVD and Blu-ray. What are the advantages and the disadvantages of the way distribution is changing?
For me, the disadvantage is that I made a comedy, and the comedies work better when you see them in an audience. So the idea of people seeing the movie on their computer or on TV with two people around, they may enjoy the movie, but it’s not the same movie. It wasn’t made for that. The Hole was shot in 3D and nobody ever sees it in 3D because it didn’t play theatrically.
I think we’re shortchanging the audience. I think they’re not getting as much out of the movies as they could. But the new distribution system is basically, the movies on the budget range of Burying the Ex are not going to play in theaters. And if they do, they are going to play for a week at very small, selective theaters, which is mainly a promo for the upcoming VOD release. And then they are going to be seen primarily on VOD, or Blu-ray, or whatever.
Interestingly, the idea of making money from VOD is complicated by the fact that when I typed in the title of the movie, the first three sites that came up were pirate sites where you could watch the movie for free; you didn’t have to pay for it. So with that kind of paradigm I don’t see how anybody could make any money on VOD.
Of all your films, which would you say was the best, happiest experience for you making it?
I’ve been pretty lucky. For the most part, I can pretty much stand behind most of what I’ve done in terms of the way it came out. Maybe not Explorers because they didn’t let me finish it. But as far as the act of making them, I really enjoyed myself on Gremlins 2 because they left me alone with it and let me do whatever I wanted, and I had a lot of money. And Innerspace was a lot of fun because it was just a fun movie to make with a fun cast. And I enjoyed making Matinee, even though it was very humid (laughs).
I like my job. I like directing movies. It’s all problem solving. It’s how many problems do you have to solve today and how much time is there in the day to solve them? And that’s why I guess I’m still doing it.
You don’t sound discouraged. I’ve talked to a couple of filmmakers who have sounded a bit defeated.
There’s certainly enough justification to feel defeated if you want to. I mean it’s a completely different business from the business I got into. We don’t even project or shoot on film anymore. Who would have imagined that? It was so quick, the transition from film to video in terms of projection. It was like overnight the studios said, “We don’t want projectors. We don’t want prints.” And, poof. All of a sudden there weren’t any. The future is everybody is going to be watching things on their screens at home, except for IMAX movies, and Mission Impossible movies, and superhero movies, and all the kind of movies they make to get the kids out of the house. But the actual movies, the kind of stuff we made in the ‘80s and the ‘70s, are going to gravitate completely to being watched at home. I think it’s great that we have these great systems where everything is clear, and good sound, and the right screen ratio and all that. It’s all a big plus. But I think we’ve lost the communal value of experiencing the art.
I’ve been seeing online a re-appreciation of Innerspace in the wake of Ant-Man coming out. Have you caught onto that?
I heard about it. I haven’t actually encountered it. But I guess with the Blu-ray coming out (note: it was released August 4, same day as Burying the Ex) I guess there will be more of that.
What do you hear about the Gremlins reboot that keeps surfacing?
I know just about as much about it as you do.
Bob Zemeckis recently said that they would only remake Back to the Future literally over his dead body. Is there a film of yours that you feel that way about? Outside of box office and popularity and all of that, is there a film that you just feel personally that strongly about?
As a guy who started out ripping off Jaws, I don’t really feel I can get up on my high horse and say that people shouldn’t remake my movies. Things are going to get remade, and then if the remake doesn’t work it’s going to get forgotten. Nobody remembers the first two Maltese Falcons. They only remember the third one with Bogart, because that’s the one that clicked. When they say, “Let’s rent Robocop,” they are not going to go to the new one. They are going to go to the original.
I think people can remake whatever they want to remake. And if they do a good remake, then they’ll bring something new to the party. They’ll go off on a different tangent, or they’ll improve it, or they’ll find some weakness in the original that they can make better. They can turn Here Comes Mr. Jordan into Heaven Can Wait and everybody will say they’re both good movies. So it’s fine. So I can’t say, “Don’t remake stuff, certainly not my stuff.” But I think some of the things that get remade are just not suited for this particular period. They worked great at the time they were made and they don’t really particularly work when you drag them into the present.
Gremlins was a fairly perfect movie as it is. I’m not quite sure what they would do with that, but who knows?
I think they’re not sure either. (laughs)
What’s next on your plate?
Of course I’ve got my Roger Corman movie I’m trying to get made about him shooting The Trip. I’ve got a European passport, so I’ve been actually investigating a number of European possibilities.
Burying the Ex is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.