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"Fun, Yes, But By No Means Civilized": Interview with Joe Dante (Part 2)

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

Joe Dante has earned the right to be called a survivor, with a substantial career in which he has ping-ponged from big-budget sci-fi spectaculars (with attendant studio interference) to TV and low-budget personal projects, touching on everything in between. A graduate of both the Roger Corman school of exploitation (Piranha) and the Spielberg school of effects-heavy thrill-rides (Gremlins, Small Soldiers), he stands out from his contemporaries thanks to his anarchic, Tashlin-esque sensibility—his films seem intent on breaking out of the screen and running riot through the auditorium. So it's apt both that he's genuflected before the pioneering hucksterism of William Castle in Matinee, a cunning marriage of 60s B-movie homage and Cuban missile crisis nostalgic paranoia, and that his new movie, The Hole, in cinemas soon, embraces modern 3D technology to allow Dante to break the fourth wall as never before.


Above: Dante's Homecoming (2005).


  • NOTEBOOK: You seem to move back and forth between big projects and small projects more than most people.
  • JOE DANTE: I think that's a function of just trying to stay alive in the business. There are fewer movies being made than when I first got in the business, so you just never know. You can look at any director, you look at his resume, you see BIG GAPS, and you don't know, "Was he sick? Was he in rehab, what's the story?"
  • And it's usually because you work on so many projects that don't get made. And sometimes you can work on them up until two or three weeks before they're supposed to shoot and they get cancelled. And I've had a couple of those. So at a certain point you go, "Well, I haven't worked in how many years? I need to eat."
  • On the other hand, if you're not engaged by the project, then you're just doing it to make money, and I know very few people who get into this business because they want to make money, most of them really want to make, y'know, want to work. Do something and express themselves. And the hardest thing is trying to make a movie that reflects your personality.
  • Now, the situation in Hollywood is such that any kind of real personal expression is frowned upon. You get the job to make the movie and they'll work on trying to squeeze your personality out of it and make it as bland as possible, so God forbid that anybody should be offended by it. You have to appeal to the largest audience. And so as a result a lot of movies are not very interesting because they don't have any edges.
  • NOTEBOOK: You seem able to, equally in small films and large ones, impose some kind of personality on them.
  • DANTE: It doesn't come without a lot of...fighting. It gets very contentious sometimes.
  • NOTEBOOK: How do you fight those battles without making enemies?
  • DANTE: Well you do make enemies. There's places where you work once and then you don't work again. Unless the movie makes a lot of money! If the movie makes a lot of money then somehow they don't remember that they had any problems, you know.
  • NOTEBOOK: Back in Action, is an example.
  • DANTE: It's a particularly odious example.
  • NOTEBOOK: Right. I don't know the behind-the-scenes struggles, but it still seems to carry a lot of the satire...
  • DANTE: I was always there, doing the job. The movie that was released has a different beginning, a different middle and a different end than the movie I signed on to do.
  • It really came from the process of working on a movie over a period of a year and a half, and if it's a comedy, the producers get bored with the jokes. All of a sudden the jokes aren't funny anymore after about the fifth or sixth running. And then it's like, "Well, let's change the jokes," and if it's an animated cartoon movie they figure, "Well, we can put anything in their mouths," whereas, in fact, animated cartoons are animated to the dialogue. The movements and expressions of the characters, visually, are all hinged on what they say. So you can't just go back and keep switching lines all the time.
  • But that was what happened and it just took forever, everybody had an opinion and it took a year and half to make. It was just...not fun.
  • NOTEBOOK: One of the surprising things is that it does still manage to put in a fairly savage attack on capitalism and the kind of movie that it is.
  • DANTE: They hate it when I do that. But I managed to squeeze it in. [Laughs.]
  • NOTEBOOK: The danger is, are you subverting that movie or is that movie subverting your message? Because it's a big blockbuster to sell toys.
  • DANTE: so much of the movie exists only to be sold to a bunch of kids.
  • NOTEBOOK: And that leads to one of your obsessions, which they also hate, which is breaking the fourth wall.
  • DANTE: I don't know when they started hating that, because it was pretty typical to do it in the forties, it was widespread. Even in the fifties.
  • I think it largely comes from ignorance. A lot of people who are in the movie business don't really know much about movies, and they certainly don't know movie history. You have to even find a code when you're talking to these people—you can't use the references that you would use when talking to somebody who knows movie history. When you go in to pitch something, it depends what you invoke. You can't invoke anything really before 1980 with these people because they don't know what you're talking about. It's limiting.
  • NOTEBOOK: Do you think it actually disturbs them to hear about things they don't know about?
  • DANTE: Yes! They get annoyed. They get offended that you are somehow trying to expose the fact that they don't know things, and make them feel inadequate. Which is of course not the point, or why you do it.
  • But I have friends who have made many, many feature films, many, many television shows, but if the people currently running the studios aren't familiar with them, then they're not encouraged to go back and look, and what they ask for is, they say "Well gimme a reel," meaning you have to give them a little reel that sums up your entire career in seven minutes. Set to rock music. Like an MTV video. And if you have movie stars, big famous movie stars that you can fit in there, that's very good. But if your reel includes people that are just character actors, or forgotten, well you might as well have the postman or laundry man in it because they just don't know.
  • There's the famous Fred Zinnemann story. When he was late in his career, and his projects were falling apart, he went to see some young studio guy, and the guys says, "So, Mr Zinnemann...what have you done?" And Zinnemann says, "No, you first." [Laughter.]
  • And there is ageism, when directors get older they say "We don't want him, we want that young guy." One of the reasons they want young guys is, well, if you just made a movie that made a lot of money, well obviously, "Get that guy," stop the other studios from getting him. But also, if they people who have done it before, they can't push them around so easily. And what they prefer to do is find some young guy who obviously looks like he has some sort of talent, from MTV videos or something like that, and hire them who aren’t familiar with the way that the system works.
  • It's very common. And what they'll do is, they'll tell them to do things in ways that other directors would go, "What? You crazy? Never do that, that's a stupid idea," and they can mold them to their will a little easier because they don't quite know...and they're cheap.
  • NOTEBOOK: "New talent works cheap."
  • DANTE: We all did. Some of us still do!
  • NOTEBOOK: Your two Masters of Horror films, Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution, are both, in a way, departures. You really seem to have jumped on the idea of using that to do things that you wouldn't otherwise be able to do.
  • DANTE: Well yeah, how many times can you do the same thing? With Small Soldiers I was like, "Isn't this really Gremlins III?"
  • "That's why we want you to do it!"
  • But with Masters of Horror it was one of those deals, like with Gremlins II, where they say "You can do whatever you want." The difference was, of course, there was no money.
  • I was pissed off about the political situation. I was more pissed off that nobody was doing anything about it or saying anything. Everybody was so sheeplike, and reluctant to criticize these jerks. Sam Hamm and I said, "Let's do something that will stir people up." So we did this thing, and it's really blunt, and not very subtle—which is what we wanted—and it pissed off some people. Not enough. We sent copies to all of the leading wingnut commentators. None of them ever acknowledged it, ever. I mean, I'm sure they looked at it, but the idea is "We don't want to give this thing any publicity."
  • But nonetheless it was great for me because I went to Europe a couple of times—I think it was the Turino Festival ran it first—and it had a ten-minute standing ovation. But it wasn't because, I don't think, it was the world's greatest movie, it was really because they were relieved that all the Americans weren't crazy.
  • NOTEBOOK: I think we knew that, but we were disturbed that nobody was able to make a statement in America.
  • DANTE: I know, it was astonishing to me.
  • And obviously, if it hadn't been made for that show, which was a cable show, there was no other place. You couldn't make it as a feature. You couldn't make it as a television film. And you certainly couldn't make it because of the sponsors, and so it was taking advantage of a situation. But what I had really wanted to do was The Screwfly Solution first, but we couldn't get the rights. And I had wanted to do that as a movie since the seventies when I first read it. In fact had I done it, now that I look back on it, it would have been absolute suicide to make it as a feature film because it's so fucking depressing. The idea of asking people to pay moneythat story told to them, it's like, "Shoot yourself." So this was an ideal venue to do that particular story. It's unusual for me because there's virtually no humor. It's such a bleak, depressing story. [Laughs.]
  • NOTEBOOK: Does that reflect your feelings—do you have darker outlook now than when you were making the early films?
  • DANTE: I think everybody gets a little darker when they're older, Billy Wilder certainly did. Listen, I'm just taking the tours here [Edinburgh], the Ghost Tour, and Mary King's Close [an underground street walled up at the time of the Black Death] and all that, and listening to the stories of how people lived, then, and how many people there were, and how they were all crammed together, and how there was, you know, shit running down the street, all that stuff, and when you think how many people there were, and when you think how many people there are now, who are just as miserable now as they were then... and you just look at the dichotomies in the world, and if you don't have a sense of the absurd, you wouldn't be able to function.
  • And you can't really think about stuff like that and go about your daily business because it's just too depressing. And so yeah, if you really think about stuff, it's a dark world. And I think the only way it can come out, tolerably, in movies, is if it's done with humor. Because otherwise it's just too depressing for people to take.
  • NOTEBOOK: That's one of the things that really works in Homecoming, you've not only got the angry message to express, you've find the medium of expressing it that is original and metaphorical. To the extent that it's indirect, it's indirect in that it's people coming back from the dead and it's genre.
  • DANTE: Yeah. It was fortuitous how that worked out. Plus, it's a job, which is always good.
  • NOTEBOOK: The Hole looks like an interesting project [a "family horror movie" about a hatch in the cellar from which subconscious fears emerge in physical form—a sort of suburban Solaris] and the idea of you working in 3D is exciting.
  • DANTE: Well I love 3D. I've always loved it since I was a kid—I was around when the original 50s 3D boom came, and it was quite magical, as a kid. I mean, one of the first things I ever saw was a 3D movie, so…
  • NOTEBOOK: Which one?
  • DANTE: It Came From Outer Space. It was seminal, for me.
  • Then, a couple of years ago, I made a "ride film" for Busch Entertainment amusement parks. It was called The Haunted Lighthouse. The Haunted Lighthouse—4D, excuse me. The extra "D" is for throwing things at you and dripping water on you, making you think rats are running around you...
  • NOTEBOOK: Emerg-O! [William Castle's gimmick from The House on Haunted Hill.]
  • DANTE: Very William Castle. And it was fun to do, but it was 70mm. And it requires two 70mm cameras, that are stuck together. One on top of the other. And you have to push this—it's like a buick—it takes the whole crew to push this thing, and it makes noise, like WOORRRRRRRRRR! I mean, it was really primitive, and the noise is so loud you have to loop the whole picture. So I found it very cumbersome, but it was very interesting.
  • So when it came time to do this, the technology is so improved. The problem with the old 3D is that everything weaves in the gate. The film weaves when you shoot it, and the film weaves when you project it. So if you've ever looked at one of those old red-and-blue anaglyph movies, and you take your glasses off, you see that the images are going like THIS—[mimes shimmering of double images.] It's just never really solid. And now with digital 3d, everything is totally solid. So you don't have any of that kind of eyestrain problem.
  • You still have the problem of the glasses, which darken things. So, basically, you overlight when you shoot the picture, so everything's brighter. Then you need to time it down for 2D so it doesn't look too bright.
  • It's a little complicated, and the post-production is harder because you have to do everything twice, because you have a left eye and a right eye. And it can be tricky and odd, because if there's a glint on the table in the right eye, it might not be in the left eye. And if there's a glint in the table, that means it would be lighting my face.. but in this other angle, it wouldn't be lighting my face. So when you go to try and time the picture to make the two things look exactly alike, you can't, because one of them is lit differently, because it's this far away from the other camera.
  • Anyway, it's all very interesting, and there's certain rules, things that you're not supposed to do, because it'll hurt people's eyes, like if you pop from some big, pointed-out thing to something that's pointed-out in the other eye...so you have to be aware of that. But still, I think, as a medium it hasn't been exploited yet. The way it should. It's just always throw things at you, and that's not what it's for.
  • So [The Hole] is coming soon...eventually…I don't know when...
  • NOTEBOOK: When they find a slot?
  • DANTE: Yeah, because there aren't that many screens yet that can show 3D movies.
  • NOTEBOOK: Was this one that you developed or that they came to you with?
  • DANTE: This was totally they-came-to-me, and it was already written, and it was a little like an eighties movie, so I think that's probably why they thought of me.
  • NOTEBOOK: Well, I give them some credit then for actually thinking of you…
  • DANTE: Anybody who hires me, I always give them credit.


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