It’s difficult to keep up a veneer of professionalism when you’re about to meet someone who you greatly admire. Like Santa Claus with a film crew, director Joe Dante was responsible for some of the most entertaining and fondly remembered movies of my childhood.
Spielberg may have captured a million impressionable hearts with E.T., but for this writer, it was the anarchy of Gremlins and the absurd, yucky physical comedy of Innerspace that captured my imagination.
I still remember being taken to see Innerspace in 1987, with a tub of popcorn in hand, and being utterly awestruck by its depiction of a human body as a vast alien environment of arteries. I’d already seen the thematically identical Fantastic Voyage, and found it quaint. Innerspace, to my youthful eyes, looked real.
It was with some nervousness, therefore, that I shuffled into an opulent London hotel to meet the creator of those happy childhood memories, Joe Dante. His new film, The Hole, is typical of his 80s work. Like Gremlins, it’s a family-friendly horror movie, this time about the power of repressed fear, and in typical Dante fashion, is filled with sly humour and loving references to classic genre movies of times past.
I therefore resisted the temptation to run up to Joe Dante with a ridiculous grin (probably scaring him half to death in the process) and instead settled down to ask him sensible questions about Innerspace, The Hole, and his views on the future of cinema…
First of all, I really enjoyed The Hole. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a family horror movie, if I can put it that way.
I think it’s been a long time since there’s been one!
What made you decide to return to that kind of film?
Well, I didn’t really decide, it was kind of thrust upon me. It was a script I was offered that I thought would be a good picture to do, but it wasn’t, like, “I’ve got to bring back this genre”. It just came with the territory.
[The Hole] has a certain retro quality – I guess the question is, is it too retro for kids today, when they’re watching Final Destination three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.
That’s an influence, but when you have to illustrate an element like that in a story, and you don’t have a lot of money, it’s a challenge, you know? Because the more money you have, the more sets you can build. And we didn’t have much, so it was really a matter of conception. It was tricky, but I think it worked.I noticed also that the film makes a playful reference to Gremlins…
There was no getting around it. I was quite aware of it on the set. I think my phrase was “not again!”
And what was it like working with Bruce Dern again, who’s appeared in so many of your films?
I love Bruce. I’ve worked with him for the first time on The ‘Burbs, and he was a voice in Small Soldiers, and I used him in a CSI Halloween episode I did, and I asked him to do this. I didn’t think he would do it, but he was happy to do it, and he was great. Perfect casting.
The whole exploration of childhood trauma in The Hole is actually a quite dark subject matter to work into a family film. Was that an aspect of the script that interested you?
It was certainly a challenge, because the subtext of the movie is very dark, and there was some question as to how we want to present this – how specific we should be about what’s going on in certain scenes. And I think we found a fine line where the adults understand completely what’s going on and younger kids, I think, get the concept without necessarily picking up what the actual details were.With that in mind, would you consider making another more full-blooded horror film like The Howling?Oh, sure. But you have to be asked. You can only make what they let you make. When I got to do the Masters Of Horror series, that was a great thing for all of us, because it was a chance to be able to do everything without censorship, and nobody told us what to do. They said “you can’t spend any more than this, and here’s how much time you have,” but otherwise they left us completely alone.
And I think a lot of filmmakers were very emboldened by that, because they were so used to being told how to make the movies and what to put in them by people who don’t know anything about them.
Do you find that in general, with television, that you’re given a greater rein to do what you’d like?
Not on a series. On series TV, you come in, you’re a hired hand, you do your work, you go away, they re-cut it, and you don’t even see it until the show airs. With those anthology shows, they’re different. In order to get you to do it, they want you to get involved, they want you to finish it, they want you to make it your own little movie.
And so that’s much more attractive to me than doing series TV, which is basically for the money.
But now that technology is ancient. It was cutting edge then, but it’s completely ancient now. And I don’t think anyone would seriously propose making another Gremlins as a puppet film – I think it would all be CGI.
On the subject of technology, how did you find the 3D aspect of The Hole?Well, this particular digital 3D is far superior to the film version, which I was very fond of, but it had a lot of limitations, particularly with projection. Here, everything is all in one piece, it isn’t two films, it’s all together, it’s rock steady, it’s brighter than it was. You can use lenses that are probably more appropriate for this, and because it’s digital, it’s clearer.
So it’s technically hands-down better than it’s ever been. The only downside is that there are all these competing movies that are in fake 3D that weren’t shot that way, that are dark and blurry, and I think are giving a lot of people the wrong idea of what a 3D experience is like.
I mean, thank God for Avatar, because that’s as good as 3D has ever gotten, and a lot of people saw it and a lot of people liked it. But the ones that went to see Clash Of The Titans or The Last Airbender, they got rooked, frankly [laughs]. They had their money stolen out of their pockets.
Do you think that this saturation could be bad for 3D in the long term?
I think it’s bad in the sense that people who don’t care about the medium are just adding five bucks to the ticket and basically ripping people off. That’s got to come around in the end. People only need to have one bad experience with 3D and they don’t want to see any more.
So what’s next for you?
Well, I have my website, Trailers From Hell, and I have some projects of mine, which I’m trying to get funded, which is the way it works now – they used to call me up and ask me if I wanted to direct a movie and I’d say yes, and I’d go make the movie. Now if I say yes, they say “oh good, we’ll go and get the money!”
So I have all these projects floating around with my name attached to them, which I’m trying to get the money for. And I’m not alone – most directors are in the same position.On a rather different topic, do people often ask you about Innerspace? That has to be one of my favourite films of the 80s.
People don’t really talk to me much about Innerspace, no!It really surprised me that it didn’t take off at the box office as it should have done…
Well, it was a hit on video. It was one of the first big videos, and it was discovered on video, basically. Although audiences liked it in theatres – when I went, they were in stitches – the ad campaign was so terrible for that movie. It was just a giant thumb with a little tiny pod on it. You couldn’t tell that it was a comedy – you couldn’t tell anything – and it had a terrible title, because we could never figure out a better one.
And the studio botched the selling of it. I mean, they liked the movie, and they tried to reissue it, even, with a different campaign, and it still bombed. So it was just one of those movies that… I firmly believe that movies can make a lot of money if they come out at the right moment, the right month, the right day. If Gremlins had come out two months earlier or two months later, maybe it would have been a flop. But it happened to come out at the right time and it became this big phenomenon.
So you never know with movies. You only get an hour, you know? You only get a couple of hours on a Friday, and they know by noon on Friday whether or not anyone will go and see your picture, and they pull all the ads, and then it’s gone. So you really don’t get much of a chance – I think that’s why theatrical movies are so risky for people to do.
They’re all trying to think, why are we making these movies? Who are they going to be for? How are they going to be seen? How are we going to make any money? There’s a lot of panic.
There’s talk with this new Apple application that people are going to be able to get hold of stuff streamed right to them – they’re not going to have cable companies, they’re not going to have to buy those big packages of stations nobody watches. And that’s the way these guys all make their money, and if that goes away then… you know, they already haven’t got money. At Universal, they’re not even developing for the rest of the year, because they don’t have any money for it. Remember when Shutter Island didn’t come out until the year after? It’s because Paramount didn’t have enough money to release it.
I mean, these guys aren’t doing that well, so it’s an interesting time. Sort of like when TV came in in the early 50s.Joe Dante, thank you very much!
Under the circumstances, I was pleased with the coherence of my questions, and relieved that, to some degree, my veneer of professionalism had remained somewhat stuck down. And then, as I politely shook Mr. Dante’s hand and stood up to leave, I banged my head noisily against a boom mike…