The Den of Geek interview: Joe Dante

He made Gremlins. He turned down Airplane. He's the legend behind The Howling, Piranha and so many more. We're proud as punch to talk to Mr Joe Dante...

Joe Dante, on the set of Gremlins

It’s impossible to write any kind of introduction to an interview with Joe Dante that does the great man justice. A unique and treasured American director with a delicious sense of humour pervading much of his work, let’s just say we were delighted that the great man put aside some time to answer our questions. Without further ado…

What do you remember about The Movie Orgy? And when was the last time you got to see it? Was there ever any threat of legal action surrounding it?Well, I haven’t looked at The Movie Orgy since it was run at the Locarno Film Festival in 2000. We’re talking now about the four hour version; it began as a seven hour program intercutting portions of numerous features, serials, TV shows and commercials. There was never more than the single 16mm print, with various film stocks spliced together. We billed it as a “2001 Splice Odyssey“.

It began at the Philadelphia College of Art when, inspired by a screening of the entire 1943 Batman serial in one sitting, fellow film collector Jon Davison and I interspersed the Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps with reels of odds and ends we had lying around. Susan Sontag had just written her Essay on Camp, so we called it Camp Movie Night.

It was a big hit and eventually developed into a more coherent program that Schlitz Beer paid us money to run for tipsy students at college campuses around the country. We never had any rights to anything in the show, which was eventually whittled down to about four hours as we changed out material the kids no longer responded to. But nobody ever noticed us officially, except for a mention in The New Yorker that we persuaded the writer to drop all specifics from.Piranha is a real favourite at our site; did it really come close to being canned when Universal heard about it?

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The story I heard, years after the fact, was that Universal was annoyed at this puny competition to their big-budget Jaws sequel and wanted to enjoin Piranha‘s release, but that Spielberg saw the picture, pegged it as a spoof, and persuaded them to desist, luckily for me and Roger Corman.

And it comes across as a fun film to be involved with; how did working on Piranha differ to your later, studio-backed films?

All the people who worked for Corman in this period will tell you that in retrospect their work was some of the freest and most fun of their careers – but that they didn’t notice at the time. There was no time and no money, but if you gave Roger the exploitation elements he needed he left you pretty much to your own devices. There are certain exceptions – Death Race 2000 being one – but for the most part we all look back on those days with affection. And some relief that we’re past them!

How do you feel about them remaking it?

Whatever. It’s already been remade once, for Showtime. Why they’d want to do it again, other than to re-use the title, is beyond me.

The Howling is regularly cited as one of the two best werewolf movies of all time, and it broke fresh ground when it came to effects work. How do you feel about it now?

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I like The Howling. The studio was very concerned with the dailies at first; “Is this a horror picture or a comedy?!”; but they left me alone and I got to do it as best I could considering the time and budget.

John Sayles was a tremendous asset. He was also writing Alligator at the time. I’m still convinced one of our dream sequences ended up in their film and vice versa.

How was working on Police Squad? Did people get what the show was trying to do? And how did you come to be involved?

I knew the Zuckers from second unit on Rock N Roll High School and Kentucky Fried Movie and had turned down Airplane – don’t ask! When they got Police Squad! – don’t forget the ! – going, they asked me to do the second one. It only lasted six episodes, two of which I directed.

ABC had no idea what to do with the show, which had no laugh track and resembled a rerun of a ’60s program. The network kept changing the time slot so no one could find it, and people casually switching it on thought it really was an old TV show! Like they did in their features, the boys used real TV episodes as their template, mostly a ’50s Lee Marvin series called M-Squad. It was lots of fun to do and was the first thing I ever directed on a studio lot. I prefer the TV show to the later Naked Gun movies.

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So how did you come to be involved with Gremlins?

Chris Columbus’s script arrived in the mail at my seedy little Hollywood office after a project called Meltdown had, well, melted down at Avco Embassy. I thought it had come to the wrong address, but it turned out Steven Spielberg had seen both Piranha and The Howling, and in fact cast Dee Wallace in the latter on the strength of her performance in The Howling.

While developing Gremlins as the first production for the new Amblin Productions arm, I was asked to join Steven and John Landis on the Twilight Zone movie, along with George Miller. Gremlins at that time was intended to be a low-budget horror film like The Howling, but as the effects budget mounted it became clear it would have to become a studio picture.

It was an extremely challenging picture to do with the extant technology and Warner Bros. didn’t really believe in it, or “get it” until they saw the preview. At that time Spielberg had a policy of completely finishing the director’s cut, so we didn’t run the usual work print but a completed film with Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Nobody was prepared for the audience reaction, which was through the roof, or the phenomenon it turned into. Suddenly my picture was in Time Magazine!

Zach Galligan told us about the level of toil that each of the Gremlins movie must have been for you: are they the hardest films you’ve done?

The first one was really gruelling because we were inventing the technology as we went along as well as deviating from the script as we discovered new aspects of the Gremlin characters. A small army of puppeteers was living beneath each set, controlling rods and levers and staring into video monitors with the picture flipped as in a mirror. The last three months of shooting was only Gremlins! It really did get maddening after awhile. And as I said, the studio wasn’t especially supportive.

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By contrast, the technology had advanced so far by the time we did the sequel that it was much easier and a lot more fun, even though we added lots of new Gremlin capabilities.Were you reluctant to do the second Gremlins film? And was there a distinctive decision to edge it more towards comedy than horror?

I was pretty burned out on Gremlins by the time they asked for a sequel, so I said no thanks. They dickered around with various approaches and writers for five years, then finally came back to me again with an offer I couldn’t refuse: total creative freedom as long as they had a sequel in the can by a certain date. I had in mind to do a kind of Hellzapoppin’ Gremlins movie as a social satire where anything can happen. I enlisted my friend Charlie Haas, who supplied a smart, witty script that was much hipper than the original, but also deconstructed the whole idea. It was very satisfying.You’ve said in the past that the aim with Gremlins 2 was to stop there being a Gremlins 3. Is that right, and if so, how did that shape your approach to the film?

Obviously there was no real need for another Gremlins movie, so I approached the sequel as irreverently as possible – which got me in a bit of trouble: “You can’t make fun of the merchandising!”- spoofing the arbitrary “rules” and everything else. I guess I did it right, there’s been no Gremlins 3 as yet…but sooner or later there will be, even if it’s direct-to-video. The title is too well known not to exploit again.

It’s been said in the past that you’d be interested in a Gremlins 3, but that they wouldn’t let you do it with puppets again. Is there any truth in that?No, what I said was that any new Gremlins movie would naturally be CGI, which would make it a far different animal than the originals. Those movies were defined by the limitations of what was possible to do with the puppets. CGI Gremlins would have no limitations, which is why I think they’ve never been able to get a handle on a story for another one.

InnerSpace, again, is a terrific film. Do you get a feeling during production when things are going well?

I probably had more fun making that than anything I’d done because the combination of script and cast was so perfect. I thought it was going well – until one day I was asked to go to the head office to be told “it just isn’t funny”. Not very helpful. It was funny to me – but you can’t help second-guessing yourself in a situation like that. “Maybe it’s just me… maybe it’s not funny…” As it happened, it was funny and we had such a smashing preview that the studio decided they hardly needed to sell it at all — and it tanked at the box office.

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And are you generally satisfied with the way that your work turns out?

You always see things you could have done better when you revisit an old film, but for the most part I can say that whatever’s right or wrong about them, the fault is mine. That’s true up to about ten years ago, when the interference factor ramped up all over Hollywood.

You’ve made several terrific films that people seem to have failed to sell very well when it came to the big screen release – Gremlins 2 and InnerSpace, for instance. Is that hard to take, or are you confident now that good work will find a DVD audience?Very few people outside the business remember or care whether a picture initially did well or not. Films we revere today like Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life and Touch of Evil were all box office disappointments in their day, but their reputations have only grown over the years. So many films are now available to see that could only be found on occasional late night TV airings that people are kind of spoiled. DVDs have opened up a treasure trove my generation could only dream about. Like most film makers, I’m happy to have most everything I’ve done readily available to see on big-screen TVs.

I loved the film Matinee. It feels like a love story to 50s cinema. How hard was it to get a film like that off the ground?

Matinee had a gestation period of many years and ended up being made for Universal, although it’s not at heart a big studio movie. But that did give me access to the great music tracks from the ’50s sci-fi classics I grew up on for Mant!, the fake movie that incorporates a lot of verbatim dialog from the sillier of those pictures.

It wasn’t an especially commercial movie, but it opened wide anyhow and faded fast. I did get a kick out of how many dads brought their kids to show them what going to the old-time Saturday Matinee was like.

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Is cinema crying out for more Lawrence Woolsey characters?

I doubt it…he was originally supposed to be an actor much like the Al Lewis-type Grandpa Fred character in Gremlins 2, a washed-up horror star making a personal appearance. But when Charlie Haas came in with the Cuban Missile Crisis plot, he morphed into a William Castle-like moviemaker.

Were you under pressure with Small Soldiers to deliver a straight kids movie? Because there’s some quite edgy material in there, that it seemed much of its audience failed to grasp?

Originally I was told to make an edgy picture for teenagers, but when the sponsor tie-ins came in the new mandate was to soften it up as a kiddie movie. Too late, as it turned out, and there are elements of both approaches in there. Just before release it was purged of a lot of action and explosions.

What’s the story of you and The Phantom?

I developed the script with the late Jeff Boam, who wrote InnerSpace, as a kind of a spoof. We were a few weeks away from shooting in Australia when the plug was pulled over the budget and the presence of a winged demon at the climax. A year or so later it was put back into production – sans demon – only nobody seemed to notice it was written to be funny, so it was – disastrously – played straight. Many unintentionally funny moments were cut after a raucous test screening and I foolishly refused money to take my name off the picture, so I’m credited as one of a zillion producers.

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Was it a love of Chuck Jones’ work that led to you taking on Looney Tunes: Back In Action? How much freedom can you get on a project like that, where something as revered as Looney Tunes is involved?

Yes, I did it for Chuck. There was no freedom, but animation director Eric Goldberg and I did what we could to preserve the characters in their classic state, which is the one area where I think the film succeeds. The longest year and a half of my life.

Just how tricky is it in the modern day to mix in live action and animation? Has the groundwork there been done, and does that free you up to focus more on the film than the technicals?After doing Looney Tunes I take my hat off to Bob Zemeckis, whose pioneering work on Roger Rabbit made our work so much easier, especially since the technology I had was far advanced. It’s still very technical and you have to shoot each scene with the cartoon characters three times, plus they’re only three feet tall and Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman are both giants! By the way, the finished movie has a different beginning, middle and end from the one I started out to make.

Do you think there are too many digital tricks in the box that modern day moviemakers rely on now? Is it hurting innovation?

No, there’s more innovation now than ever as the old ways of doing things are rapidly replaced by new ones, then they’re superseded, etcetera. It’s actually hard to keep up with all the innovations if you don’t work steadily. It does give me even greater admiration for the masters of the past, who got such great results from such now-primitive techniques.

Is television more where the risk taking is taking place now? You seemed to have embraced the small screen with as much enthusiasm as you have the movies?

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I’m not sure “the risk” is taking place much of anywhere right now. There’s a lot of money riding on everything, including TV. Over the past decade, yes, the kind of substantive subject matter has been more directed to TV, where the demographic is more mature, but the age of reality TV has pretty much put the kibosh on that. But all of us are just as at home now working for TV as for movies, as the delivery systems are becoming quite similar, with bigger screens at home and quality video presentations. There’s still nothing quite like seeing a film with an audience, however.

How did you get involved with the Masters of Horror series? Was it nice to be brought on board? Were there different challenges involved in making a one-hour standalone TV episode than in making a movie?

Masters Of Horror creator Mick Garris was inspired to initiate the series by a series of dinners we horror film alumni had in Hollywood over the past few years. Since most of us had never worked together on the same projects the idea was to gather us together for a series, the allure of which was creative freedom within the limits of ten-day schedules and low budgets.

Creative freedom is prized by all of us, so Mick was able to assemble a pretty stellar assortment of directors and writers, who got to do their own thing in a way most media outlets would never have gone for. Making these was not unlike doing a cheap feature, except that the era of 60 minute second features disappeared in the early 60s.

Both your episodes – Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution – highlights of their respective seasons! – were politically motivated. Do you think horror movies can be used to make strong political arguments?

I believe all movies are political, whether intended or not. But horror and special effects pictures have been notorious over the years for their coded political messages reflecting the eras in which they were made. It’s one of the reasons why these genres have outlasted others.

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I love the Trailers From Hell website; how hard was it to track down all the material on there?

The site began with the fact that I’d been collecting trailers for years and had nowhere to share them. Originally the concept was that we’d concentrate on exploitation pictures, but as we rounded up our commentators they asked for more wide-ranging titles and so now we cast our net pretty wide.

The fun comes in that nothing is scripted and we never know what anybody’s going to say or even whether they like the movies or not. Larry Cohen surprised us with a devastating critique of Hitchcock’s Marnie, and Michael Lehmann really didn’t like Easy Rider. On the other hand John Landis loves The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and I’m quite partial to Robot Monster, so go figure!

Are there any jobs you’ve turned down you wish you could go back and do?

Nope. But there are some jobs I didn’t get that I would have liked to. No, I’m not gonna tell you which ones they were!

What advice would you give someone coming into the industry now?

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Make your own movies on HD or DVcam. Don’t wait for this dinosaur industry to embrace you.

What next for Joe Dante?

I can’t imagine…

Joe Dante, thank you very much!

Related interviews at Den of Geek:Zach Galligan; Dee Wallace

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Interviews at Den Of Geek