Gremlins director Joe Dante on making Gremlins and the advice that shaped his career

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Jan 2, 2018

Joe Dante has helped shape the course of movie history at several different points over the last half-century.

As an amateur editor, Dante helped cut together an experimental counter-culture that helped usher in the psychedelic social commentary mashup; as a professional editor, he played a substantial part in indie film legend Roger Corman's renegade New World Pictures experiment; and then as a full-fledged filmmaker, he helped both define the '80s adventure movie and redefine how puppets could be used with movies like Gremlins, Explorers, and Innerspace, among many others.

And we shouldn't just talk about him in the past tense; Dante continues to write and direct both films and TV episodes with impressive regularity, especially for a 70-year-old filmmaker with more than enough laurels to rest on.

Dante took the SYFY WIRE Survey in late December as Gremlins played in theaters nationwide once again.

What was the first script you ever wrote?

The first script I ever wrote was in seventh grade. It was "The Mad Doctor From Transylvania Square." It was written to be performed by other kids in front of a class. I'm sad to say that I do not have a copy of it anymore, but I'm sure that's probably a good thing.

It was a pastiche of monster movie stuff. It was a shock theater period. I'd been watching all these horror movies on TV, so I decided to write my own. There were all these actors played by 13-year-olds.

I sort of directed it and was in it. I don't know how many classmates there were left to watch it, considering how many were in it. But I do remember that was the first thing that I wrote.

What was the first professional script you wrote?

Some friends of mine had come to work for Roger Corman. I was in Philadelphia, but they had come out here and there was a possibility of maybe a friend of mine from back East and I collaborating on a script that would be one of the "Women in Cages" movies that Corman was making, because apparently he had a deal to do one in India.

So I think we wrote a script called "The Dirty Dolls of Stall 69," which was supposed to take place in India. It was a complete script with characters and stuff happening and everything, but we were admonished not to put any elephants in it that couldn't be changed into trucks, because the elephants were very expensive. Needless to say, that movie never happened.

I was still in Philadelphia. I hadn't come out to California. I do remember one notable moment was when I was writing on my fire escape, and wind came and blew all my pages away into the neighborhood and I had to rewrite them all.

What was the first short you ever made?

I was in the Philadelphia College of Art. I'd gone in because I wanted to be a cartoonist, but then they told me cartooning was not an art, so I had to take other courses. One of the courses was a film course. This was like in the mid-'60s, where there would be two Bolexes and a 15mm, and 30 students, and we would all have to make a film that year. We would all try to get each other to try to make a movie. There were silents and there were black and white. Mine was called Thank God It's Only a Motion Picture, which was a catch line from a poster I had for Crack in the World, so I used that for the title.

I don't I have a copy around anymore, but it was kind of arty. It was a collection of strange images around town and voiceovers and pieces of radio sound. It was a collage. It was something and I got graded on it, obviously. But it didn't, I don't think as I recall, show much evidence of any burgeoning talent. We all had to show our films to each other, and it was a humiliating experience.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I wanted to be a cartoonist. I was basically drawing comic books. I had my own group of characters. I would, you know, write stories and I had always thought that was what I would end up doing. I didn't imagine that I would end up making movies.

Who was your artistic hero?

Oh, it was probably Walt Disney. I was the Disney generation, you know. The TV show was on, and of course the theme park was built. But it was in California and I was in New Jersey, which didn't help. Certainly, amongst the makers that kids would know who they were, he was the preeminent name. And they first had the comic book with all the characters and all that kind of stuff. And probably the first movie I ever saw ... most kids of my generation, the first movie they saw would be a Disney animated feature.

I think he stood out in other filmmakers my age, like Spielberg. There are certain things that you inculcate from your surroundings. I think that the Disney touch, whatever that is, has probably crept into the work of my work and a lot of other people.

I read a lot of comic books and I read a lot of science fiction. I liked Edgar Allan Poe, I liked Ray Bradbury, I liked Robert Sheckley. In the '50s there were a lot of collections of science fiction short stories and novels. They're all paperback, usually put out by Ballantine Books. I had quite a collection. I was influenced by everything I ever read and everything I ever saw. By the way, I never thought it would lead to actually making films, but just in your daily life and the way you go around, you're influenced by everything that you like. That period was, in the '50s, was actually a very fertile period for creativity. MAD Magazine, of course, was another huge influence.

When did you decide you'd make movies?

I took a job after college working for a motion picture trade magazine [Film Bulletin]. It was based in Philadelphia. I was reviewing a lot of movies, and I became quite a film buff and quite knowledgeable about films and old films. I saw every picture on TV that I could find, like Saturday matinees. I really built up a lot of film knowledge.

I remember going to see Lord of the Flies in 1963 when it came out. I read the book and really liked it. I had to take a bus to New York to go see it, because it was only playing in New York. I must have seen that picture five or six times. One day I just decided to count the shots. By the time I got to about a hundred I thought, oh, this is ridiculous. I could never do this, it's too complicated, because math is not my best subject. So I more or less put away the whole idea of ever making movies. I mean, I really came into that kind of by accident.

I was making trailers. So I had put together this movie called The Movie Orgy with some friends of mine, and it was like a seven-hour compilation film we ran on college campuses. We'd rent a whole bunch of movies and two projectors and just run the interesting parts and when it got boring we'd go to the next projector, where we had a lot of clips and stuff that we'd put together. This managed to be pretty entertaining for people, and so The Movie Orgy was something that we only had one print of, but it was flying all over the country and running it at colleges.

I had learned something by editing all this stuff together. It was all spliced together, I mean, it's not mixing or anything like that. And so by the time one of us got a chance to come out to work for Roger Corman, I was brought out by my friend John Davidson, who was my co-conspirator on The Movie Orgy, and he said, "Since you know how to do this, why don't you edit trailers? Because we need a trailer editor here." So I flew out to California and I learned to use a Moviola and 35mm film and all that stuff. I started with my first couple of trailers, and the pictures were successful, and so I became the full-on, in-house trailer guy for New World Pictures.

We needed more help, so Allan Arkush was a friend of John's from New York. He came out and then we became the New World Pictures trailer department. We did the trailers for almost all the movies that they released between 1973 and '77, I think.

That's a lot of trailers.

You'd run the movie and look at the movie and rope off a couple of sections that you wanted to dupe. Then you'd cut the black and white dupe, put some sound on it, and come up with some catchphrases, which were fairly nonsensical and even somewhat satirical. But with these kinds of movies, it really didn't matter.

Then I would make a trailer, and then the most important thing was the 30-second TV spots, because when the movies were played in local exchanges, in local theaters, they would buy a lot of TV time for a weekend. Many, many more people would see the TV spots than would see the trailers, because they were on constantly. It was kind of fun. You'd turn on the TV and there was your TV spot.

What was the hardest scene you ever had to shoot?

Gremlins, that was a particularly difficult movie because it was much too ambitious for the kind of technology that existed. We were constantly looking at the script and realizing that the things that were written in the script couldn't be done, with the puppets that we had, so we had to come up with new things. We had to perfect what they could do well and then concentrate on that, because there was really no point spending all these hours trying to get it to do something that just wasn't going to look good on film.

A lot of that picture had to be improvised, in terms of the puppets. We did the second film, it was five years later, and the technology had improved incredibly. We could make them walk, we could make them run, we could make them talk. We could do all these things that we couldn't possibly do in the first film. I would say Gremlins is probably the hardest movie that I ever made.

What couldn't you get the puppets to do?

We couldn't make them walk. We tried marionettes, we tried all sorts of techniques. We had a little stop-motion in the movie. We were fairly judicious in what we could do, because it was certainly a more expensive movie than the Corman movies that I'd been doing, but by any stretch of the imagination, it was still a fairly low-budget movie. We didn't have the ability to just constantly shoot and shoot and shoot. But that's what we did. We basically shut down the movie after the actors finished and retooled the puppets and then spent three months just shooting puppets.

That was really maddening, because you had to try different camera speeds. You had to try all these tricks. We didn't really have a lot of R&D before we started the movie. We just started it. It was only once we started it that we realized how difficult it was going to be and how many things needed finessing that we weren't going to be able to do while our whole crew was standing around.

What has been your most rewarding day on a film set?

That's a pretty tough one. There's been many moments that were rewarding, more so than you thought they would be. I don't think I could do it by days, because the days all sort of blend together. But the movies I most enjoyed making were probably The 'Burbs and Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

On Gremlins 2, I had carte blanche, which is great. Then on The 'Burbs it was just such a wonderful group of talented people that were working during a writers' strike, so we shot the picture in sequence so we could improvise and any improvisations could be worked into the story. It was just such a wonderful group of people. I'm slighting Innerspace a little bit too, which was also a very satisfying experience.

What was your worst day on a film set?

Well, there were two worst days. One was I was making a picture called The Second Civil War for HBO, and the driver who picked me up ... I'd been up all night and the driver picked me up in the morning and I fell asleep in the car. When I woke up, he had gotten lost and I was in Malibu and I was supposed to be in Santa Clarita, which is exactly the opposite place in town to be. So I was half a day late. I got to the set half a day late, and I was half a day behind every day, and I could never catch up.

The other, I was doing a picture called The Hole a couple years ago and I was in Vancouver. The movie was supposed to take place in the summer, but we were shooting it in the winter. It was the coldest winter in Vancouver in I don't know what, five, 10 years. It was just freezing. There was a whole bunch of scenes where the kids are supposed to be outside and running around and it's supposed to be summer and there's breath coming out of their mouths. I mean really, like breath. It's tough, and  we're shooting it in 3D.

So I shot this scene and I went to the producers and I said, "We're going to have to spend a lot of money to digitally remove these puffs of smoke that are coming out of their faces every time they talk, and it's going to cost you twice as much because it's in 3D. You're going to have to do it twice. I suggest that we stop shooting this and we take these scenes and we shoot them back in California in a month or so from now, where it is warm enough for people to actually talk without having stuff come out of their mouth."

Luckily they agreed and saved themselves a lot of money. But it was very frustrating. One of the things I was supposed to shoot, they were supposed to go in a swimming pool. In a swimming pool they would have cracked their heads, 'cause it was nothing but ice.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten?

Well, Roger Corman gave me a piece of advice that he gave to everybody who works for him. He'd always take you out before you started shooting and he would give you a little tutorial about what to do and how to do it. His first piece of advice, most important, was sit down a lot, because it's a difficult job. So I took that advice, but I realized the movie was so cheap that I was making, there were no chairs.

It was always practical advice. It was never aesthetic advice. His aesthetic advice was something like, figure out how long it takes to make it great, and then figure how long it takes to make it good, and then figure out how long it takes to get an image. And then go for the image.

Yeah, it's nice to be a perfectionist when you have the time and money, but you know, for most people making films they don't have the time or money, and certainly not with television. On the other hand, you can't just say "Okay, we're done here" when it's not right. You've got to have some sort of level, like "Okay, it's got to be at least this good if we're going to move on."

What would do over, if you could?

Well, there's a movie I made called Explorers that I wasn't allowed to finish. We had to stop work on it because the studio changed hands and the new people wanted the movie out earlier, so they said stop working on it. We were in the most crucial phase of the movie, which is where you find the movie in the editing room, where you figure out what's the best things, and what's the worst things, and how can you make the best things better and minimize the worst things. We never got to do any of that. We just had to stop at the point that we were and release basically the rough cut.

I can't go back now because all that footage has been thrown away. There's so much stuff that isn't in the movie. It was a really long rough cut, and in order to get it to a point where we could take it out for one preview, we had to take a whole lot of stuff out. Some of the stuff was things that wasn't working because we didn't have time to make it work, and we could have easily made those things work and put them back in the movie, but we never got a chance. So it's basically whatever was left. We just tried to make it look as presentable as possible and we took it out.

It was a tremendous flop, partly because it was one of the very last in a series of teenage scientist movies that came out that year. Also, it was an offbeat movie. It intentionally didn't give the audience what they thought they were going to get. You can do that if you finesse it, but if you don't finesse it then you just disappoint. At the point where the hero goes to the alien and the alien talks in Bugs Bunny's voice and says, "What's up, Doc?", we just lost the whole audience because they didn't get it. And so the whole last part of the picture was sort of like, I don't understand what's going on. And that's not what you want to have happen in a movie.

You did get to give Ethan Hawke his start with it, at least.

Oh, the kids were wonderful. I really enjoyed making the movie. They were great. Even the performances were wonderful. They're great, genuine, and much more realistic than most movie kids, but they can't carry the movie on their own. They need some help from the editor, you know?

River [Phoenix] was actually a professional actor and I'd seen him on a TV show that he'd done. But Ethan just walked into the audition with another kid. He wasn't an actor. He came to the audition with a kid who was an actor, and that kid wasn't very interesting but Ethan was very interesting so we said let's just see if he can act. Let's just have him read the lines, and stuff. When you're making a studio movie, you have to go through a lot of approvals, and yet this kid managed to get the lead in a Paramount picture with no training whatsoever. He was terrific.

What are you working on now?

Nightmare Cinema is being completed as we speak. I'm only one of five directors, so I only know about my part of it. None of us has seen the completed film, except probably Mick Garris, who's producing it and did the wraparounds. From what I've seen, it looks pretty promising. Mine's a plastic surgery horror story and it's probably only 25 minutes long. Right now the movie is, I'm told, almost two hours, and they're concerned. They don't want it to be two hours, so I think there's a lot of editing going on behind the scenes. But when you've got five different directors, all of them are in different places.

What's your dream project?

Well, I've got a movie about Roger Corman making The Trip which I've been trying to get funded for about 10 years, called The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes, and we're slowly zeroing in on a financier who will put up the money if we can get the budget down. That's the one that I'm sort of hoping will happen. We had a live reading of it last year with actors and stuff in a big theater. It was very popular. He's smart enough not to put his own money on it, of course. He's on board.