Joe Dante interview: Nightmare Cinema, VOD, Gremlins

The mighty Joe Dante on the current state of the film industry, Nightmare Cinema, and

Joe Dante was in Montreal earlier this month to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fantasia Film Festival and to promote Nightmare Cinema, his latest anthology film he co-directed with Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura and David Slade.

Whether it’s The Howling, Innerspace, Gremlins or Twilight Zone, his fans all have their favorite Dante movie. Those were some of the defining movies of the ’80s, and while some might think Dante disappeared, he’s kept busy since then, including a recent guest director stint for the DC Arrowverse on Legends Of Tomorrow.

I’ve been a big fan of your work ever since The Howling, and The Burbs remains my favourite comedy!

You know, it’s almost more popular than Gremlins, now! It has its own websites. It has trivia books. People watch the movie and they talk back to it, and they say the lines.

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It has also aged very well. You can still watch it today, and it does not feel dated.

I think it’s probably because we shot it on the back lot, and it kinda looks timeless.

What were your first thoughts when you heard you were going to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award?

Well, it’s a little daunting to get a Lifetime Achievement Award when you think, “Does that mean, it’s over?” you know? I’d like to think there will be other achievements ahead. But it’s very nice. I meet a lot of people who say they grew up on my movies, and it’s very gratifying – and just between you and me, this is one of the better-looking awards I’ve received [laughter].

Of course, there will be other achievements, because you have a new movie out. Tell me a bit more about Nightmare Cinema.

Well, I don’t think I’ll be winning any awards for that one [laughter]. I’ve known Mick Garris since 1980. He was the publicist of the production company I made The Howling for. I followed his career and his amazing stories. He worked for Spielberg. He was a story editor. He also publicised a lot of movies at Universal. Then he became a writer, then a director, and a producer. Plus, he’s a novelist. We get along great. We have a lot of things in common. When we did Masters Of Horror, which I think was his Magnum Opus at the time, it was quite an achievement to get all of those names together for these hour-long films – for admittedly not much money, but with total creative freedom, and that attracted a lot of names. I personally got a lot of mileage out of it, because I did a political film that I could never have made under any other circumstances.

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And so, right after that, he started to feel that he wanted to branch out and have more foreign directors. He had two Japanese episodes in Masters Of Horror, one of which was a little too gamey for Showtime, and they wouldn’t run it. Anyway, he thought, “What if we did a series where we had international directors and we did them all over the world?”

He couldn’t get anyone quite interested enough to spring for shooting all over the world. But, over a ten-year period, he did manage to get some funding for what I think was intended as a precursor to a series of features, or another television series. And he did get people from overseas to do it, and I’m the token American.

The shooting dates kept changing. When you’re shooting an independent film, there is not a lot of certainty. You don’t really know when you’re going to be doing it. Sometimes, you don’t know if you’re doing it. In this case, it pretty much worked out so that everybody was able to do it in some sort of regular order. Then there was a big gap, and I think he shot the framing story about a year later.

I’ve always liked anthologies, because there’s something different every five minutes in, and with today’s short attention span, they’ll be even more popular. But I grew up on Dead Of Night, which I think had the best framing story. And then the Amicus pictures in the ’60s and ’70s, like Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood.

And you did Twilight Zone

And I did Twilight Zone, which was another anthology. It did not have a framing story, but it had a narration. So, Mick felt he could probably interest more investors if I came in, so I said, “Sure. I’ll do it!” I wasn’t sure if that really was going to happen, but it finally did. And everything went pretty smoothly. That was well over a year ago, and it’s been in various stages of post-production ever since.

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I think it was pretty well received last night by the audience it was made for. I think of all the festivals, this is probably one of the very best. It’s one of the premier film festivals on the continent, and it’s also a long, busy festival. It’s three weeks long. Most of those festivals last only half a week. The idea, of course, is that you find someone to pick it up for distribution.

We used to think that these movies would all play in theatres. The revelation is that most movies don’t get played in theatres. They get released, but they go to VOD. And that robs movies – specially horror movies – of a particularity important element; the idea of seeing the film with a group. There is no communal experience watching on your TV.

And that is a big part of horror movies…

It’s a big part of horror movies, and it’s a big part of comedies. They are not the same movies if you see them on the little screen. This movie will work just fine on VOD, but as you saw last night, it’s more fun to watch a movie like this with an audience. Every audience is different, but the kind of reactions you get to hear is non-existent when you see it at home. It’s just not the same experience.

You mentioned creative freedom while working on Masters Of Horror, which used to be synonymous with independent movies, but as I interview more and more independent filmmakers, I hear that creative freedom is disappearing even from independent movies…

That’s because of the funding. There is no one-person funding anything right now. There is a whole different group of people. Just look at the number of producers on most movies. Indie movies used to have only so many producers, but just count the logos at the front of the movie now. The accountants alone will be working on this for years! How can they possibly apportion anything? Who can possibly figure out who gets what? And all of them have opinions. And some of them have wives, and their wives have opinions. And some of them have dogs, and their dogs have opinions… I mean, anybody who is bankrolling a movie feels they have the right to have an opinion. It may be true, but the fact is that, if you hire someone to do what they do, it’s best to let them do it.

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How much do you think the industry has changed since, for example, when you did Gremlins?

It’s not the same business. It’s not the same industry. We don’t even shoot on film anymore. We don’t project on film. We don’t release films the same way. When I was at Warner Brothers, they’d give me a script and say, “Here’s a script. You want to do it? We got the money.” You knew that if you’d say yes, they would figure out a way to make sure the movie came out. Now, there is no guarantee. If someone sends you something that you like, you have to go out and hawk it. You have to sell it to somebody, or many somebodies, and they have to put together the financing for it. Once they do that, then shoot it, and find a way to release it.

The last movie I did, Burying The Ex, hardly played anywhere, because it was just not a competitor. One big distributor wanted it, but the producer said, “No, no! We can do better!” And they couldn’t do better. Another distributor said, “Let’s open it in ten theatres and see how it does.” That’s the kiss of death.

Then it’s VOD, and the moment it’s VOD, it goes to Malaysia. And they make free copies. Everybody watches it for free. So there is no way to make any money on VOD. That’s ridiculous. If you think your movie is going to make money on VOD, just forget it.

Do you think the current wave of superhero blockbusters are part of the problem? Sometimes, it almost feels like a movie won’t make it at the box office if it’s not a superhero-powered film.

They’re taking up all the air in the room, but that’s not really the problem. The previous movie I made, The Hole, was shot in 3D. And by the time we were ready to come out, theatres were flooded with fake 3D blockbusters with big names, and there was no place to play it. As far as the Marvel movies go, until people get tired of them, that’s what they are going to make. But they are so overstuffed. A three-hour movie that has to have 27 characters, and they all have to have back-stories? I’ve lost interest personally. But I’m not today’s audience, because I’m old enough to remember when all of these characters debuted in comics. I’ve read Superman’s origin story so many times, that I know it better than the life of Christ. So, I don’t know how often you can go to the well, and have people continue to come back. Obviously, it depends on the new generation that is just coming up and that hasn’t seen the previous iterations of those stories, but sooner or later they are just going to get awfully stale.

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If they offered you a superhero movie, which one would you do?

They wouldn’t offer me a superhero movie.

You directed an episode of Legends Of Tomorrow

I did. I liked it. They didn’t ask me back, but I enjoyed doing it. Except that it was in Vancouver; part of the plot is that they go back to the ’50s. And it’s almost impossible in Vancouver to find anything that looks like it’s from the ’50s. We have to park buses in front of everything to be able to get a shot. And you can’t move the camera even an iota one way or the other or you see bad things.

What’s your next project?

I don’t know. I hope it’s the movie about Roger Corman making a trip called The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes, which I’ve been trying to get off the ground for ten years. I almost got it made with Colin Firth about five or six years ago. Then it all fell through. And then, Bill Hader did a reading playing Roger last year. And it went very well. So now, we have a company that’s interested, and we are trying to find a way to make it come true. It will be low budget, because to spend a lot of money on a movie about Roger Corman seems kind of blasphemous…

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Would you revisit any of your old hits? I know they’ve been talking about remaking Gremlins

No! They’re not going to ask me to do that, but you know, a lot of famous movies are remakes: The Wizard Of Oz, The Maltese Falcon. There are a lot of movies that we only remember the remake of. So, I’m not against them, but very often they are pointless. I mean, a remake of Pyscho? What a great idea [laughter].

What about The Howling? Without actually rebooting it, would you revisit that setting?

I supposed you could do what Gus Van Sant did [with Pyscho], and remake it shot for shot with different actors, but I don’t see the point [laughter].

Mr. Dante, thank you for your time.