"I want to give you a piece of my mind": Interview with Joe Dante (Part 1)

An interview with the director behind "Gremlins", "Matinee", "Small Soldiers", and more.
David Cairns

Above: Dante's The Howling (1981).

Joe Dante was kind enough to grant interview time during his visit to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. In a public event, he spoke of his early days cutting trailers for Roger Corman exploitation movies, and how he made his first feature, Hollywood Boulevard (co-directing with Allan Arkush) by spinning a a story around recycled stunt sequences from a disparate bunch of same. Developing the wild, bad-taste humor of this energetic, fitful debut, Dante went on to make Piranha, turning a Jaws rip-off into a Jaws parody, and then worked on a proposed official spoof-sequel, Jaws 3, People 0, which alas never saw the green light.

The Howling, a post-modern werewolf-serial-killer-horror-satire, written by John Sayles, brought Dante into the studio system, and Spielberg nurtured him by backing Gremlins, which likewise evolved from monster movie to Tashlin-esque slapstick inferno under Dante's anarchic direction. The sequel, Gremlins II: The New Batch, took movie deconstruction to Hellzapoppin' levels of gleeful mayhem, maintaining the undercurent of socio-political critique which Dante has hung onto since the Corman days.

Dante continues to wrestle with studios in order to make films that have his personal stamp and distinct sense of humor, mixing the influence of Loony Toons and Hellzapoppin' into kids' comedies, horror movies, and whatever comes along. A genuine cinephile with an undiminished enthusiasm for both high art and low trash, Dante also operates his own website, the self-explanatory Trailers From Hell.


  • NOTEBOOK: You have almost a stock company of players in your films.
  • JOE DANTE: People always say it's a "stock company," but what it is really is people's friends. When you look back at Ingmar Bergman and John Ford and Preston Sturges, all these people had the same people appearing over and over in their films, and it's because they liked them. I mean, they liked them, they knew how to work with them, you form a shorthand because you've done it so many times that they know what you want, you know what they want, and so when you make a movie, if you can find a place for them, you put them in it. And some of them are true character actors, in that they can have big parts in some films and small parts in other films, and that's the real acting to me. It's not the star thing.
  • NOTEBOOK: Is there a quality that would distinguish a "Joe Dante actor"?
  • DANTE: [Pause.] I don't know. [Laughs.]
  • NOTEBOOK: There always seems to be a pleasure in the associations your actors bring, whether it's Chuck Jones doing a cameo or Dick Miller in a substantial role, they bring with them memories from other movies.
  • DANTE: Well, that's why we had great character actors. Because they did bring memories from other movies. They had people who specialized in playing porters, and drunks, and various things in Hollywood, and they were in so many movies, because of the studio system, that people would get to know their faces, even if they didn't know their names, and they would feel comforted, and you could also do interesting things by playing them against audience expectations, if they had a particular persona that the audience expected, and then they turned out to have the opposite persona, that could work for you.
  • But now, unfortunately, they make so few movies in Hollywood, that the idea of an actor being able to make that many appearances and become that well known while playing secondary roles doesn't happen anymore, because almost all movies are made in other places, and most actors don't get a chance to be in enough things that the same people see, to create that kind of audience identification.
  • I think that's a shame. I think that's a loss for movies.
  • NOTEBOOK: You break the fourth wall just by casting those people because they invite you to recognize them from other movies.
  • DANTE: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, I've never thought there was anything wrong with that. I'm in the minority.
  • NOTEBOOK: I downloaded, I'm afraid, [Dante's first film, co-directed with Allan Arkush] Hollywood Boulevard, because I wanted to see it right away…
  • DANTE: There's a definite evolution from your early films. I remember on the commentary track of The Howling, you saying it was your first good movie. What distinguishes The Howling? Because it comes out of a recognizable pattern…
  • DANTE: I don't remember saying it was my first good movie, but if I did, I think I meant that it was the first time that I seemed to fulfill all my ambitions about what I wanted it to be. On Hollywood Boulevard we didn't know what we were doing—which works for the movie—because it's really sort of a home movie—and then on Piranha it was…desperation time for me. I mean, I spent a month in the editing room trying to save what I thought was a complete disaster. I didn't even go to my wrap party. I was chained to the Moviola. Slept in the editing room. And it was just me, trying to, you know, "Is it better when it's eight frames of this, or better when it's three frames?" It got to that point. And I have memories of people—I don't have the memories! People told me, "Oh, I came in to see you when you were editing, and you said 'Hello,' but you didn't know who I was," and literally, I was in a fog. It was a strange experience.
  • NOTEBOOK: I don't recall that the problems show in the film...
  • DANTE: Well, you'd be surprised how much moving around scenes helps. The script takes place in a different order than the movie does. But because nobody ever changes their clothes in the movie—which is a lesson I learned—I had tremendous flexibility in where I put the scenes. The whole stuff involving Keenan Wynn and finding his body and stuff like that, a lot of that actually took place in Bradford Dillman's house. I can't even remember exactly what it was that we did, it was a monumental task.
  • NOTEBOOK: The amount of improvisation or adaptation that you were doing while shooting Gremlins, because of the limitations or the possibilities of the puppets—I guess there's an issue of finding a balance between structure and chaos. The film is chaotic and anarchic in a fun way, but it hangs together.
  • DANTE: It's essentially the same plot. It's only the incidents that changed. Basically the trajectory is still the same. Whether or not they went to the movies and watched Snow White I don't remember, I don't think it was that because I don't know that we had gotten the rights yet. There was just a lot of imagination that had to be used in "How do we present these puppets in a way that looks like they're not just...puppets?" It all came out of that.
  • We did cut a lot of stuff out, involving the people. I mean, there were actors like Edward Andrews, who plays the banker, he had a much bigger part, and Judge Reinhold had a bigger part. I had a cut of that picture that ran almost three hours. And it had lots of stuff in it, it was all over the place, because we not only shot the script, we shot all the extra stuff that we made up.
  • I offered [a director's cut] to NBC when they were showing it, and they'd said, "We wanna make it a little longer." And I said, "I can make it a lot longer, you could run it in two parts," y'know? And they said no, that was too much trouble, they didn't want to do that, so we just gave them the out-takes from the preview.
  • NOTEBOOK: Matinee is a beautiful marriage of ideas that really come together. My question is about your love of William Castle, who is a fascinating figure...
  • DANTE: Yes. I mean, there are certain William Castle movies that everybody loves, the ones that really work, like House on Haunted Hill, is a lot of fun as a movie. The Tingler, which is also a lot of fun, isn't really a very good movie. I mean, it's one of the most preposterous movies ever concocted! It's a lot of fun, but it's just—it's jaw-droppingly crazy, the things that happen in it—and it's shot in such a prosaic way, and yet, what's really going on is so bizarre. And the characters take it so seriously. As if it isn’t crazy.
  • And you have to admire Castle, because he's such a brash showman. He clicked into this scheme of being Hitchcock Jr., merchandizing himself as a director, like Hitchcock had done. It was the making of his career, because he'd made a lot of movies before that. There were some good movies, but he was basically just considered another second-tier director and then all of a sudden he has this gimmick and it's like, "Wait a minute, it's the Gimmick King!" Now he's got a persona, now they can pigeonhole him, and suddenly there's stories in the Saturday Evening Post about William Castle, director...
  • From what I've seen of the material of him on film, particularly interviewing people outside the Homicidal preview, a lot of the Larry Woolsey character was based on the way he acted. There's other people to him, there's a little bit of Jack Arnold, probably Ray Dennis Steckler, there were a lot of people doing spook shows around.
  • NOTEBOOK: One of the interesting unmade projects I heard about was The Mummy, which you were connected to at one point...
  • DANTE: Really unmade. Well, it got made eventually, but it wasn't the same picture. Universal wanted to revive their franchises, which they ultimately did to everyone's horror in Van Helsing, and there was a script by Alan Ormsby, the director of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. And it was a pretty good script but it wasn't quite good enough, so we brought in John Sayles, as we often do. And we got a really good, I think, and kind of funny but still scary, contemporary remake of The Mummy. Christopher Lee was gonna be in it... It was similar to the original movie in that he's a mummy at the beginning and the end and he's a person through most of the movie. But not all crinkly and wrinkly like Karloff, like a regular guy, kinda good-looking...
  • Anyway, Steven Spielberg read it and he said, "Y'know, this is really pretty good, you should make this, it'd be really good for you. Let's go talk to the head of the company and we'll talk him into it." So we go to visit Sid Sheinberg, the guy that's running Universal at that time, and he was Steven's mentor, the guy who got him where he was. And we did this while touring the set of Caspar, which was being shot at the time. Huge set, haunted house set. Steven says, "So, Sid, what do you think of the script?" He says, "Well, you know, to be honest I didn't care for it." "Why's that?" He says, "It should be a period picture like the first one."
  • I wanted to point out that the first one was not a period picture. That it looks like a period picture now, because it's made in 1933. And he obviously thought our picture should take place in 1933. And it didn't. And ultimately, that's the reason it didn't get made. They didn't give up on the idea, they commissioned other scripts, I think one from George Romero, one from Mick Garris, other people worked on it for a while. And they spent a lot of money. As they have done on Creature from the Black Lagoon, which is still unmade, and for the past twenty-five years they've spent a fortune on scripts none of which ever got made. But on this one, they had a happy ending, because when they finally did make it, they found a guy who turned it into a sort of pseudo-Indiana Jones movie, and that was exactly what they were looking for—a tent-pole. What we were doing was not going to give them a tent-pole. It was just a movie.

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