If you grew up in the '80s and are a self-proclaimed geek, then it's likely that at least one of the films by director Joe Dante has had a seminal impact on your cinematic sensibilities. Be it Gremlins, Explorers, The 'Burbs or Innerspace, Dante's career behind the camera fills an IMDb page of these and even more classics that are still influencing Hollywood's talent today.
This week, at the 2nd Annual Mammoth Lakes Film Festival (May 25-29, 2016), Dante is being honored with the festival's first Sierra Spirit Award to celebrate his long career, which started in film criticism and continues today as in-demand television director. In prep for the celebration, we spoke to Dante about how he's managed longevity in such a fickle industry, some of his highlight films and what he thinks about the current climate of re-make-itis that's mining the films of his era for new versions to ply a new generation. Join us for the illuminating conversation ...
You are one of the rare filmmakers who transitioned from the world of film criticism into successfully making films. How did that background impact your filmmaking?
Joe Dante: When you talk about filmmakers who used to be critics or write about film like (François) Truffaut and (Peter) Bogdanovich, I think they'll say they had all these images in their head from all the movies they've seen. It's not a matter of consciously accessing them. They just come out. For instance, you might find yourself in a position to do a car chase, and you remember the one in Gun Crazy or Bullitt. You don't necessarily steal ideas from them, but they stimulate you to a point where you know how you can use that for your own end. I think it's a plus having a rich, quiver full of film history in your head to get what you think you want on film.
You came out of the Roger Corman filmmaking system, first cutting trailers for him at New World Pictures. Today, you helped found and maintain the website Trailers from Hell, where you celebrate the medium by dissecting them with other filmmakers. What do trailers represent to you?
They were very influential, because the first editing that I did was of trailers. What you have to do in a trailer is take a scene and cut it down to its essentials. In doing so, you have to analyze it and you see what angle you need to tell the story and what angle you can get with not having footage. You take all that on the set with you. When you are under the gun and don't have a lot of time, you know exactly what you need to shoot for the scene to cut together. If you have a little more time, and you want to embellish and make it better, that's all for the good. But when you're just starting out, and time and money are limited, it's very helpful to have a clear idea in your head of how all these pieces fit together. I think it's one of the reasons I get so much TV work. I can go on a set and shoot fairly efficiently because I don't shoot what I don't need.
Throughout your career, you've been able to masterfully blend comedy and horror. For you, does comedy come from the horror, or vice versa?
Horror movies are essentially absurd. They are stories that involve a great deal of suspension of disbelief in order to tell them. When I was I kid, I grew up on the original Universal horror films like The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale, who used to make a habit of adding comedy in strange places to his horror films. When the Invisible Man is throwing ink at the policeman's eye and is running around in his shirt laughing and being crazy, we think it's funny. Then he picks up a stool and beats the guy to death and all of a sudden it's not that funny. I think there is always an element of that in horror films. Audiences in particular go to horror movies to be scared, but safely. They will attempt to laugh in places and when they laugh, their guard is down. Once you've made them laugh, you can really scare them, because they don't have any defenses. In some of my movies, notably The Howling, we would put in something that would make people laugh and then surprise them with something scary. Or you put in a shock moment that you knew they would laugh at afterward, and they will catch themselves for being scared. It's an audience manipulation that you can become quite adept at if you make this kind of film.
Gremlins is a perfect example of how you accomplished that balance so perfectly. Why do you think it's remained so potent 32 years later?
I think the longevity is what's amazing about it. When I was making the movie, I didn't think of it as anything other than my current movie. I didn't think I was making something that was going to last for years. Last year, I went to France and ran the picture in a giant theater for 2,000 French kids. The picture plays as if it's a current movie. They laughed and screamed and did all the things that kids have done with it over the years. It struck a nerve. No one was more surprised than me.
Back in 1984, when did you know audiences were all aboard?
We went to the preview and the audience was on the ceiling. They had such a great reaction and I never expected that. We were always worried that the rules were so arbitrary that the audience would just say, "What you do mean don't get them wet after midnight? Where does that come from?" But I learned a lesson that audiences want to be entertained. They want the movie to be good and they will give you a certain amount of leeway as long as you play fair with them and you don't cheat.
Watching Marvel's Ant-Man last year, it brought me right back to your Innerspace which came out in 1987. The last act of that film owes a lot to your film.
I love Innerspace. It's one of my favorite movie that I've done. It was so much fun to make because the cast was so hilarious. I've been seeing pieces of my work crop up in other people's movies for years. (Laughs) It's very gratifying. I guess somebody was paying attention, so you get movies like Super 8, which is certainly an '80s movie. Most of my movies were made in the '80s, so all the girls have big shoulder [pads] and stuff. It was a good period for me. I did a lot of work and, remarkably, even the ones which weren't big hits theatrically became very big hits on home video.
The 'Burbs (1989) is certainly example of a film that audiences didn't quite get when it was released but has since become a cult classic.
It's true of Innerspace, too. It was a notable flop when it came out with that awful title. People ask, "Isn't that the Monstanto ride at Disney?" (Laughs) Again, home video rode to the rescue of an entire generation of '80s directors who made pictures of a niche value and had fans that didn't really break out. But over the years, because of the ubiquitous nature of home video, they were passed around from household to household, and now in the minds of a lot of people, these pictures must have been blockbusters because they loom so large in their minds today.
In 1990, you directed Gremlins 2: The New Batch which was like a live-action Looney Tunes movie. Why was that sequel so different from the original?
Gremlins 2 came along because I turned it down for a number of years because I had my fill of Gremlins. It was a hard movie to make. Finally, [Warner Bros.] came back after trying to develop it for a number of years and they said, "We'll let you do whatever you want if you give us a Gremlins movie this summer because we don't know how to do it ourselves." There was really no reason for another Gremlins movie, so I decided to make a movie about sequels, the '90s, and to make fun of the first movie, the rules and Phoebe Cate's speech about her father. It was an irreverent take on it. They left me completely alone, as they promised they would, so I made the movie exactly the way I wanted. I think they were horrified when they saw it, but it's as close to being inside my head as any movie I've ever made.
Why hasn't there been a Gremlins 3 when they are still so ubiquitous in pop culture and licensing?
I think because it didn't make as much money as they wanted it to. [Gremlins 2] cost three times as much as the original. The [studio] moved the release date around and put it up against Dick Tracy (1990), so it didn't make money. They were planning a Saturday morning cartoon series with characters and designs that were ready to go with, but when it didn't make as much as they wanted, they dumped all that stuff. The idea of doing another one has only come up in the last 15 years. They talk about it but, just like in the first case, they didn't understand Gremlins, which was why they couldn't make a sequel. Then, they made the sequel and didn't understand it either. Now, they are in the position to have his property that they don't quite understand and they want to do something with it but they don't know what. (Laughs)
You've often cited Bugs Bunny as your favorite character. How, then, was it directing him in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)?
I thought of it as a sacred trust, because Chuck Jones was a friend of mine. He was not happy with Space Jam because he thought it misrepresented the characters. I signed onto this movie very soon after Chuck's passing to be the keeper of the flame and to make sure the characters were presented in the classic tradition, to which I think we succeeded. The actual making of the movie was a very contentious enterprise because "the powers that be" didn't really want to make the movie, but the marketing department did, so there was a lot of tension as to what kind of movie it should be, and what the humor was. It was really not a pleasant situation for a year and a half of your life to be making a Bugs Bunny movie that no one is happy on it. (Laughs) There are some very nice things in it, but it was my last studio movie because it wasn't a pleasant situation. The irony was that, after all the battling back and forth about the content of the movie, it didn't make any money because they took the cartoons off television and the kids didn't know who Bugs Bunny was, so they didn't show up at the box office.
Hollywood is in the midst of a remake obsession now. Does it bother you and is there anything sacrosanct on your resume you hope is left alone?
Not really. I don't own any of these projects and they can do what they want with them. Some of my favorite movies are remakes. The Maltese Falcon was a remake. The Wizard of Oz was a remake. You never know when the remake is going to be better known than the original. I think many people are more familiar with The Fly that David Cronenberg did than the Vincent Price version. The same with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which gets remade every generation, none of which I think are as good as the first one. But it's fine. It's the nature of movies. And today, with everything costing so much money, [studios] are loathe to try new things and branch out. They want to do things that they know how to do because it's already been done and that's an unfortunate by-product of how things are done.
With all of your film history knowledge and your experiences directing over five decades, what about a Joe Dante autobiography?
I think I've forgotten more than I remember. (Laughs)