Joe Dante has directed films for four decades and counting. His verve for live-action movies paced like animated shorts and filled with gags to match can be found in Gremlins, Small Soldiers, Innerspace, and others. Dante, whose most recent film is the upcoming 3-D experiment The Hole, recently saw his second feature, Piranha, re-released on Blu-ray and DVD, just in time for the pseudo-sequel Piranha 3-D to be released near the end of the month. Directed for producer Roger Corman and featuring a script by John Sayles, Piranha is one of the best of the animals-attack films released in the wake of The Birds, and later, Jaws, and its high-pitched intensity signaled the obsessions Dante would revisit in the years to come. The A.V. Club sat down with Dante at Comic Con to discuss what it was like working with Corman, the problem with studios converting films to 3-D, and the genesis of Piranha.
The A.V. Club: If you could distill the experience of working for Roger Corman into one memory or story, what would that be?
Joe Dante: One story… that’s not an easy question; I worked there for a while! You know, I don’t think I could. It was such a well-rendered experience, as I look back on it. It’s one of those things—you think these are your salad days, and somehow, you’re going to go beyond this and have a career. And what you don’t realize at the time is that you have more freedom making low-budget films for Roger Corman than you ever will later in your career. [Laughs.] And so basically, it was a struggle to make the movie, because these pictures are done very cheaply and quickly, and you’re surrounded by people who, like you, don’t have a lot of experience and are learning on the job. It may sound frustrating, but it was actually exhilarating, because it was literally like being a kid and playing cowboys.
You’re basically going out, making a movie. The only difference is that you are guaranteed that this movie is actually going to be seen by people in twentysomething drive-ins in a month and a half. But the part that takes the pressure off is that you always felt these pictures were apart from the rest of the community, that they weren’t really part of the general movie base. They were the drive-in movies, and no one expected them to be good. And it was a chance to prove yourself, because if a movie that you made for Roger Corman was good, you got noticed. You know, if it wasn’t very good, people took it for granted, because drive-in movies generally weren’t.
And so it was this tremendous opportunity, but you never got time to think about the opportunity, because you were working so nonstop to get this thing done in the amount of time you had, with the very limited equipment, limited funds, that it was like a relay race. I thought it was great. If I had to pick a day of my career to live over, it probably would be a day of making one of Roger’s pictures, rather than one of the studio pictures I did.
AVC: What are some freedoms that were available to you when working with Corman?
JD: Roger had a very strong sense of what he needed the picture to have so he could sell it. And as long as those elements were present, it was your movie to make the way you wanted. You were totally free to set up the shots. You were totally free to rewrite the script. You were totally free to work with the actors, to improvise, to do whatever you thought would make the movie better, provided you didn’t say “Well, you know, I decided there shouldn’t be any murders in this picture.” That would not be a good thing.
But as long as you gave him those elements, it was a tremendous amount of freedom. And then, as now, when you got the notes from Roger, they were always intelligent notes about ways to make the movie better. I worked for Roger in the ’70s, and I worked for Roger again a couple of years ago doing a webisode series, and I have to tell you, the notes I got from Roger during my webisode series were the best notes I’ve gotten in 30 years in the movie business. Because they were actually useful. There was nobody’s ego involved. There was nobody trying to impress his boss. Nobody’s wife said “The guy should have a dog.” You know, none of that stuff. It was just a filmmaker telling you how he thinks the film could be better.
I would probably make an exception for Steven Spielberg, whose notes were also smart, but I was lucky, I worked for two filmmakers in a row. I worked for Roger, and I went from Roger to Spielberg, both of whom knew a lot about movies, and were smart about movies, and who had experience. After that experience, I worked for a lot of people who didn’t have much smarts about movies and who didn’t know anything about making movies, only knew how to sell them. It would be very frustrating, because I got kind of spoiled. I mean, first I worked for Roger, then I worked for Steven. Then when I stopped working for Steven, I worked on a movie for a studio that changed hands in the middle of the production and didn’t really care what was in the can, as long as the cans were done, and I realized that it’s harder to make pictures when you’re not being mentored.
AVC: Piranha has another sequel coming out this summer—
JD: No, it’s not even a sequel, it’s a reimagining.
AVC: When you were making Piranha, where did that idea spring from?
JD: Well, that was something Roger already had, a script that a Japanese producer had given him, that was already written. I guess they wanted him to put up some money, and he didn’t think the script was very good. So when I got involved, I agreed with him, and we decided to find somebody to rewrite it. Frances Doel, who was Roger’s story editor, knew about John Sayles, who had just published a book called Pride Of The Bimbos, and suggested that maybe John Sayles would be a good writer for this movie.
Now, John has a personal/political agenda, as does Roger, as do I, so this not-very-interesting script got turned into a semi-political, semi-spoof, science-fiction movie, whereas before, it was a straight, nature-goes-wild movie, like Grizzly, or—these are all movies that generate from The Birds. And of course the fact that it was a Jaws rip-off—I was a little concerned, because Jaws had come out a number of years earlier, and I thought it was a little late, maybe, to do a Jaws rip-off.
But then we found out that Universal was doing Jaws 2 at the same time, so obviously it was okay to do another one of these pictures. But then Universal wasn’t pleased with the idea that we were going to be trying to rip off their movie, and there was some talk of an injunction to keep Piranha off the screen. Luckily, Steven Spielberg saw the movie and talked them out of it. He told them “It’s a spoof; it’s not like our picture.” But there was another film called Great White that Universal actually, after it opened, sued and took off the screen, and now it’s sitting in their vault.
AVC: Your pictures and Roger’s pictures often feature an almost manic energy, and there isn’t a lot of that in blockbusters today. Do you see a way to smuggle that back in?
JD: I think some of that comes from the fact that filmmakers just starting out want to cram their movies with as much stuff as they can possibly think of, and if they have an idea, they want to put it in their movie. And when you’re working for Roger, the budgets are very low, and the time was very short, so you were constantly in a manic state, trying to get everything done. If you had an idea, you wanted to make sure you got it into the movie. The level of enthusiasm was very high there.
I’m not so sure that once the directors have been beaten down by the studio development process… by the time it gets to the stage with the movie, you kind of think “I’ll just do what we all agreed, and then they’ll be happy.” The tragedy, of course, is half the time, they’ve decided in the interim that that’s not the movie they want to make at all. That’s happened to me a couple of times. You start out, everyone agrees with what kind of movie you’re making, and then in the middle of it, for whatever reason, they decide that’s not the audience they want, they want this other audience.
And the other audience is usually younger, and therefore you have to start homogenizing the movie and taking out the violence, the edge, and then it leads to lots of unpleasantness. It’s a very common occurrence now with the PG/PG-13 kind of thing, where the movie makes much more money if more people can see it, but if it was conceived of as an adult movie, then you have to take all the adult things out in order to get the movie suitable for a family. But it’s not a family movie. And a lot of movies have gone straight down the crapper because of that, because they don’t appeal to your audience.
AVC: You’ve made several movies that ride that line between entertainment for adults and entertainment for younger audiences.
JD: Yeah, you try to do that. If you’re doing a family movie, you don’t want it to be stupid. Farting chihuahuas is not my idea of entertainment for kids or adults. So you try to make a movie that adults can see on one level, and kids can see on another. That precludes doing anything really horrible, visually, because you don’t want to upset the kiddies, and that makes horror movies a little more problematic. But in the case of comedies—Innerspace is certainly a movie where we pitched it toward an adult audience, but we knew kids would like it. I have a lot of kids in my movies, too. I’ve made a lot of movies with kids in them. I don’t know why that is, but it’s something I’ve noticed.
AVC: You’ve worked in 3-D with previous technologies, and now it’s making a comeback. What do you think about the new process?
JD: Well, the new 3-D, the digital 3-D, is far superior in many ways to any of the processes we had before, largely because it’s very solid, and the image doesn’t move at all, and your eyes don’t have to make that adjustment that you used to have to make for the projector weave, and the camera weave, and these two images that if you took your glasses off, you could see were never quite aligned. Now you can align them perfectly, so it’s much easier on the eyes, and more pleasant to watch.
In addition, the equipment is great, and the convergences, and all the post-production stuff that you do is much more exacting than it ever was, so I’m a firm believer that if they don’t screw it up, 3-D could be here for a long time. The problem is when they suddenly decided they wanted to convert every movie they’ve got in their library into 3-D quickly, so they could make a lot of money with it, they ended up with some pretty substandard 3-D, technically. And when people go to a 3-D movie and have a bad experience, they tend to not want to repeat that. And so my fear is that, just like in the ’50s, when basically bad presentation destroyed the medium, it could happen again. Enough people could see The Last Airbender and say “Jesus, this looks terrible. I have a headache, and I don’t want to go back and see another one of these.”
AVC: What’s the best way to use 3-D as something other than a gimmick?
JD: Well, the classic gimmick is to throw things at the audience, which is fine, but that’s not really the way 3-D works. The brain sees 3-D differently than 2-D. It uses a different part than you use when you watch 2-D, so there’s an instantly immersive quality if you use the 3-D correctly, if you don’t constantly rely on people sticking things out of the screen.
Or at least if you do, do it early, so you get it over with, like Hitchcock’s cameos. It’s like “Okay, there, we’re done with that.” And then you can actually use the medium to enhance the telling of the story and to give it depth. I think it’s appropriate for every story. I don’t think every movie needs to be in 3-D, but I certainly think there are a lot of stories that could be told well in that medium, and I hope they have the opportunity.
AVC: You mentioned that Roger Corman gives good notes. Given that you know him pretty well, what do you think he’d say if he could give one note to the vast majority of filmmakers today?
JD: Well, I think it would be something along the lines of “Do you really need this picture to run two and a half hours?” Now, a lot of his movies only run 80 minutes. The reason for that is, you could put the picture on four wheels and ship it in one can. [Laughs.]