Like a lot of kids growing up in the '50s, Joe Dante loved monster movies and cartoons. In fact, since graduating from the Roger Corman school of low-budget filmmaking (where he edited trailers and first features by Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard and met such future luminaries as John Sayles), Dante has stayed predominantly true to his favorite subjects, and his body of work consistently reflects his unique stamp of creativity, humor, and intelligence. From early exercises (Piranha and The Howling, both scripted by Sayles) through subsequent blockbusters (Gremlins, Innerspace), impressive TV works (Eerie, Indiana; The Second Civil War), and wonderfully personal and risky films (Matinee, Gremlins 2: The New Batch), Dante has remained a viably subversive cog in the Hollywood machine. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to the director about his status in Hollywood, test screenings, movie ratings, and more.
The Onion: Why do you think genre films don't get as much respect in America as they do in other countries?
Joe Dante: Well, you know, the European critics are a little more into genre and… Well, I should talk, because in the '90s I only made two features. Everything else was for TV, so I can't really comment on what things are like now. [Laughs.]
O: Would you consider yourself a subversive filmmaker?
JD: I have been told that. By studios! I can only assume "yes" based on some of the people I've worked with who are constantly trying to "save me from myself."
O: But is it a conscious effort to be subversive?
JD: Sure. It's a constant effort to stay true to me. I mean, you can't make movies some other way. You can only make them the way that you do it. Each director, given any given project, is going to make a different movie out of it. I've tried to limit myself to projects I thought I'd make a difference in. Movies that I thought, "Well, nobody else would do this the way I would do it." Or as well as I would do it. There are things I've been offered that were perfectly good projects, but I just knew any number of other guys would have made a better picture out of it because they had more expertise, or were better at some aspect of the picture. But for me, I just look for things that haven't been done before. It's difficult, because there's a mindset to not try things that are different, but to repeat past successes.
O: You were attached to The Mummy for a while, right?
JD: I was connected to The Mummy for quite a while, yeah.
O: It was a John Sayles script, too.
JD: Yes, well. [Groans.] It's a very unpleasant memory. I was at Universal and John Sayles had done, I thought, a terrific script for The Mummy. It was a contemporary version, but it was very hip. It was a little like The Howling, but more sophisticated. The problem was that the studio just did not want to spend more than $15 million on the picture, and our budget was $25 million, which was a bargain, believe me. It was Universal, and my partner and I said, "Well, the only way we'll really get this made is if we get it to Steven Spielberg and he likes it. Maybe he'll go to his pal Sid Sheinberg, who runs the place, and put in a good word for us." So we sent it to Steven and he really liked it. He said, "This is great, you guys should do this, this is the perfect movie for you, I'll talk to Sid." So I guess he gave it to Sid Sheinberg, and we went and had a walk-through on the set of Casper—a movie I had turned down—and Steven said to Sid, "So, what did you think?" And Sid said, "Well, I didn't like it." And if there's anyone in this business he's not going to argue with, it's Sheinberg, who gave him his start. So he said, "What don't you like about it?" And [Sheinberg] said, "I think it should be a period picture like the first one," forgetting that the first one was not a period picture: It was made in 1933 and set in 1933. But to Sid it was a period picture because it doesn't take place now. So eventually the whole thing sort of fell apart, and then they decided to pony up 50 extra million dollars to do the version they did. And it was a big hit.
O: Besides the setting, what were the differences between your Mummy and the other Mummy?
JD: Well, I didn't see Steve Sommers' version, but I understand it's more of a Raiders kind of take on it. This was more of a contemporary, satirical, romantic take on it. Our mummy was really handsome for half of it. It was more like the Karloff picture, where he's the mummy at the beginning and then he has this alter ego. The scarab stuff came from our picture. The stuff with the scarabs running around was definitely ours, 'cause I've seen the trailer. But I don't think they used much of our script, because John didn't get a credit.
O: Writer arbitration is pretty tricky, though, isn't it?
JD: On Small Soldiers, which is the last picture I did, there were 12 writers over a period of five years. Luckily, I don't have to decide which writer gets credit, but the director always wants the writer who did the last draft and worked with him on the actual shooting to get the credit. And the Writer's Guild has a bias toward the guy who wrote the first script, so it's much more likely that the guy who initiated the project but doesn't have a single word of dialogue or description with the movie that was made will get a credit, whereas the guy who may have written 90% of the dialogue will maybe not get a credit. So it's not a perfect situation.
O: Small Soldiers is one of many films, since it was done with DreamWorks, that Steven Spielberg helped get made. And that film and Gremlins are two of your more subversive works: There's a strong anti-consumerist slant to them, as well as some anti-war themes. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the military and, say, the Hollywood studio system.
JD: Oh, they're very close. It's like boot camp.
O: Spielberg is not known for his subversive qualities.
JD: He leaves that to me! [Laughs.]
O: A lot of the satire in Gremlins seems to be directed at E.T.
JD: Well, but you have to give Steven credit, because he was using his good fortune from E.T. to produce his own movies, and he specifically wanted to make Gremlins into a much more horrific picture than it turned out to be. He originally hired me because I had done The Howling, and he basically wanted to have a really nasty horror picture about little monsters that bite your ankles and do terrible things. They cut mom's head off and bounce it down the stairs, they eat the dog, it was pretty gruesome. And when we were making the movie, it just seemed that they were actually so funny—the puppets were so funny when they were doing human things, putting on clothes—that it took a whole different direction. It became much more of a horror-comedy than it was a straight horror picture.
O: It's a tough one, because it is a genre film, but which genre?
JD: I've had that problem before, but I like that ambiguity. To me, I don't think one movie has to be a certain type of movie only. In order to be interesting, movies have to cross genres.
O: Gremlins was one of the first films to get that initial PG-13 debate going.
JD: It was Gremlins and Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom, where someone got his heart ripped out. Just those two. There was a groundswell of controversy about them being rated PG. The ultimate result of it was the PG-13, which is a very strange rating to begin with. All the ratings in general are pretty strange, as the guys in Washington are coming to tell us. The whole idea of a rating besides a PG—PG means Parental Guidance, a PG-13 means Parental Guidance but kids under 13 shouldn't see it—is pretty meaningless, because parents take their kids to R-rated movies all the time. I can't tell you how many times I've turned around after some horrific scene in some movie and watched some little googling three-year-old sitting in a seat. That's just the way it is. People use the movies as a babysitter, and the guys in Washington are going to have to realize that until parents get some responsibility, the only way they're going to keep kids out of these movies is to literally legislate that you can't bring your own child to see a certain movie. And I don't think a lot of people are going to stand for that, because that's really an infringement on their rights. However, people abuse the right. They indiscriminately bring kids to see anything. I don't favor the idea that kids imitate what they see. I don't believe it, because I think kids are smarter than that. But I can't believe that a steady stream of antisocial images isn't going to eventually have some effect on them, even if it's just to make them cynical.
O: The violence in Gremlins is very cartoonish.
JD: It's more Road Runner-y than anything. But the great thing with that picture was that it was so apparent to me that kids understood the level of fantasy involved. And parents often didn't. There was actually an incident at the screening of the picture at the studio where, after the microwave scene, some woman stormed out with her child. She just came running right past me. The kid didn't want to go, and a couple of minutes went by, and the kid runs back in the theater having apparently escaped her mother, and goes and hides somewhere in the theater. And the mother comes and stands next to me fuming by the door, because there's no way she's going to be able to find her kid. She's going to have to stick around and finish the picture. So we sort of put a version of that scene in Gremlins 2. I think kids are more resilient than people think, and that's a good thing.
O: It's pretty amazing you were able to get Gremlins 2 made.
JD: It's a pretty unusual studio movie, but it comes from a desperate desire to make a sequel to a movie that made hundreds of millions of dollars. And they tried, for a number of years, to come up with different reasons for a sequel, and there never was one. Their idea, of course, was to make a slavish copy of the other one and set it in a different place. And when they finally came to me, they had more or less given up, or they wouldn't have come to me. [Laughs.] And they said, "If you agree to do this"—because I had already said, "No, thank you very much" for years—"we'll let you do whatever you want." That's a very unusual offer, and I couldn't turn it down. It was three times the budget of the original picture, and I tried to do a movie that was sort of a comment on the original picture, and a comment on sequels, and a comment on what the world was like at the time. It was just sort of a free-form satirical outburst. I had a lot of fun making it, and it was only in the editing stages that people got upset. Because when they finally saw the movie they went, "Oh, no, what are we going to do?" Particularly when the film broke [a sequence in which Dante fakes a projector breakdown —ed.] They were beside themselves. They said, "You can't make them think the film broke; they'll leave the theater." And I said, "First of all, they won't have time to leave the theater. Second of all, I guarantee that if you just let me run this once with an audience, I guarantee it'll be great." I wanted to go further: I wanted to have little cardboard gremlins on springs in the projection-booth window, so when they turned around to see what was going on, there would be these little gremlins.
O: In true William Castle fashion.
JD: Yeah. Of course, that was beyond the scope of Warners at the time. And we had a preview, and it was the most popular thing in the movie, because of course they all groaned when they thought it was broken, but when the gremlins came on they realized it was a joke. They laughed so hard, because it was a joke we included them in. It wasn't a joke on them; it was a joke with them. It was like, "Oh, we fooled you, you know." So they left it in. And in fact, they not only left it in, but when it went on to video I said, "This joke doesn't work on video," and I managed to get them to pay for another day of shooting, and we shot a video version where the VCR was broken. Which makes people even more upset! [Laughs.]
O: What holdovers from the Corman days do you bring to a big-budget film?
JD: Well, you can never forget it. It doesn't matter whether your check is blank or how much money you have. There's only a certain amount of time to make any movie, and it's the time between when you call "action" and "cut." It's the only time that means anything. All the rest of it is not on the screen. The difference between a Corman movie and a regular movie is the amount of time in between calling "action" and "cut." What you try to do is learn short cuts with Roger that allow you to use the time better, to get more work out of a large crew. Everything is slow on a big movie because there are too many people. Things have to be communicated and jobs have to be done, lights have to be fiddled with. On a Corman movie, you just hope there's light. So you learn things like a way to stage a scene and block it so you won't have to do a reverse and re-light it, which is a big, time-consuming thing. How to shoot two different scenes off the same camera track. If you lay the track down, it's rather complicated to do over again, so we'd always find a way to use it again. I mean, it's stuff like that. I think that people who started working for Roger probably bring a higher level of technical competence to the set with them, as opposed to people who not only have to deal with directing actors, but have to deal with the crew, and the lights, and all that scary stuff. It can get pretty overwhelming if you don't know what you're doing.
O: You learn a lot of problem-solving techniques, I'd imagine.
JD: There's nothing but problems. Corman filmmaking is just overcoming one problem after another. There's no generator, so you've got to line up the car headlights and shoot, which I did on The Howling. When the generator went down, we just brought in the car headlights and shot stuff with the car headlights.
O: That movie only cost you about $1 million, right?
JD: Yeah, it was a million.
O: That sounds pretty cheap even for back then.
JD: Uh, yeah, it was pretty cheap for back then: The average was at least three or four million.
O: How much went to the Rob Bottin effects?
JD: Not much. I would say $50,000.
O: That's the budget of your first movie.
JD: Exactly. [Dante's first movie was Hollywood Boulevard, the product of a bet producer Jon Davison made with Corman that Dante could direct a film in a week. —ed.] When I made Gremlins 2, I thought, "Gee, how many Hollywood Boulevards could I make with this money?" And then I thought, "How many Hollywood Boulevards would I want to make? One is plenty!"
O: Or how many Movie Orgys. [The Movie Orgy was an epic collection of B-movies, 16mm films, commercials, and trailers that Dante seamlessly edited together into one seven-hour monster while he was in college. —ed.]
JD: When I was in Locorno this year for the film festival, we ran The Movie Orgy for the first time since God knows when, and I was surprised it could get through the projector. I was surprised how well it played with a European audience. They don't have the nostalgic associations that everybody else does with the material. They just thought it was hilarious. It was all, you know, Defenders Of America cards that you get from Quaker Oats that had, like, rockets and offensive missiles on them and stuff. I guess they just got into the political absurdity of it. But that was a pastiche of a lot of absurd things, which is probably how a lot of my films could be described. [Laughs.]
O: Have you ever thought of making it even longer?
JD: The problem was that it started out when I was in college in the '60s, and we abandoned it when I started working with Roger, because I couldn't devote enough time. But by then the culture got more self-conscious. You could use an old serial from the '40s where everybody is being sincere, and it would be very funny because of the sincerity. But then when you got into using clips from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.—which were shows that already knew they were funny; they were spoofing themselves—it wasn't funny anymore. People didn't have the nostalgia for it, they didn't have the attention. That kind of thing really doesn't work once you get past the mid-'60s.
O: Is it true that Schlitz Beer toured it around the country?
JD: Schlitz Beer paid us to take it around the country. One 16mm print. We had to cut it to four hours because people were complaining it was too long. But the great thing about it was that at seven hours, you could leave, you could come back, you could get a pizza. It didn't matter, because you didn't miss anything. And there were several features that were intertwined, so there was a story that went through the whole thing. And there were pieces of TV shows and cartoons, commercials, outtakes, and all kinds of fun stuff. It was very entertaining.
O: People don't have much trouble watching eight hours of TV.
JD: This was more like watching eight hours of moments from your youth. I think that was the appeal. People were together in a big room, and all of a sudden they all could sing the theme from Tales Of A Texas Ranger, which they saw as a little kid and hadn't seen in 25 years. Plus, most of them were stoned. So it was quite an epiphany for them. I still have people come up to me and say, "The Movie Orgy was the greatest movie I ever saw in my whole life." Of course, these people look like they're kind of spacey.
O: The Movie Orgy helped get you a job editing trailers for Roger Corman?
JD: It didn't really get me a job, but Jon Davison, who was a friend of mine who sort of provided the films for me to splice, went out to work for Roger as head of production and brought me in as a trailer editor. I had never even been in the same room as a 35mm print, but you learn by doing. Sink or swim, as Corman said, and I just learned how to do it.
O: Was editing trailers as savvy a process back then as it is now?
JD: It's not the rocket science that it apparently is now, although trailers are worse than ever. The idea that on Monday you're doing a trailer for Covergirl Models and Tuesday you're doing a trailer for Amarcord... You had to juggle your aesthetics with it. I didn't find there was a science to it; I just learned by doing. I like old trailers. I've always liked that kind of hyperbole. But that kind of stuff had started to go out by the time I started, so I was sort of retro. The TV spots were even more of a challenge, because you had to get everything into 30 seconds. But trailers today just give away the entire plot. The trailer for What Lies Beneath, the guy should be arrested. I mean, there's so little going on in that movie to begin with, and then to give it all away in the trailer… The audience is just sitting there, so far ahead of the characters that they're just looking at their watches going, "When is this Rear Window thing going to stop, and when are they going to get into the next story, which is the one I thought I came to see?" I mean, you can really do a disservice to a movie with the trailer, and they do all this testing now. They test the trailers like they test the movies. We never tested the trailers! We just delivered them. But now everything's got to be tested. Market testing has practically ruined the movies single-handedly. You could never make a picture like The Grapes Of Wrath today. Or even Midnight Cowboy. "Oh, they don't want him to die at the end. You've got to fix it. He's got to have a dog." I mean, there's this tyranny of letting the audience decide what it thinks it wants to see. The audience doesn't know what it wants to see. The audience wants to be surprised. It wants to be entertained. They don't want to dictate that all stories must have a happy ending. There's just nobody in charge willing to vote their convictions. On Gremlins 2, we had a great preview. I mean, people were on the ceiling. It was as good a preview as we had after the first picture. Admittedly, there were a lot of people there who knew it was a sequel to the film, but I said to the president of the company, "Pretty good preview, huh?" And he said, "Let's see what the numbers say." As if, let's forget what we saw and what we felt emotionally. Let's just look at the dry numbers. People have to write down the answers to multiple-choice questions. Let's see what they say. Well, you know what? I don't give a flying [raspberry sound] what those people say. That's not what it's about. You can sit in an audience and tell exactly where you've lost them. Exactly when things are too long, exactly when they're restless. That's why test screenings are a good thing. But now with the Internet, you can't have a test screening without Harry Knowles putting it on his web site. And what if you have a terrible test screening? Everybody in the world is going to know about it, and it doesn't really matter about the rest of the word of mouth; it's only the industry. The industry knows that your movie is a dog. And it takes a lot of climbing out to come out of the abyss when your movie has been singled out as a stinker.
O: How much do people in Hollywood actually pay attention to that stuff?
JD: Everybody reads it. It's incredibly influential. More so than the people who put out the web sites even know, I think. When you get some kid who says, "Well, I just saw the picture in Austin and here's what I think," I don't think he has any idea how damaging a bad review can be at that point.
O: I don't necessarily think what he does is wrong, but if anything someone writes on one of those sites causes a film to get changed in the least bit…
JD: It often happens, but there's nothing you can do about it. It's a fact of life. It's just the way things are. People just have to adjust to it. They go to great lengths now to protect the secrecy of the screenings, but the Internet is a very broad thing. You have to go someplace where there are people to have screenings, and if there are people, there's bound to be one or two who are Internet-savvy who may decide they want to write a review for somebody's web site. There's no way to stop 'em, you know? They used to have people in the old days to walk by in line and find the journalists and the people they knew, and tell them, "Hey, you can't go in there." But now you can't do that, because everybody's a journalist. Which is democracy in action.
O: You would think that if market testing were such a science, every movie would be a hit.
JD: There was a company called Sunn Classics that went out of business doing exactly that, computer-generated testing. They did In Search Of Noah's Ark and stuff like that, and they prided themselves on having a completely computerized, market-driven idea behind everything they made. Everything they made was already pre-sold, but guess what? They were a little wrong, because nobody wanted to see In Search Of Noah's Ark!
O: How would you categorize your experience with television?
JD: It depends on when you're talking. I would say in my earlier incarnation on Eerie, Indiana, where I did the pilot and was brought on as part of the show, I could do whatever I wanted. On Amazing Stories, there was tremendous freedom. On The Twilight Zone, the Showtime stuff, Runaway Daughters, they left me completely alone. But when I did The Second Civil War, there was a tremendous amount of interference during post-production. It came from only one executive, but it was enough to hurt the movie. I just did a thing called Night Visions for Fox: I handed in my director's cut and haven't seen it since. So I have no idea what they've kept, or what they've lost. Half-hour shows are now only 20 minutes long, because the FCC in its wisdom has allowed so many commercials. And it's hard to tell a story in 20 minutes, a decent story that has characters and suspense and room for all those moments you want to have in a story. So there's a lot of controversy when the rough cut runs 33 minutes and you've only got 20. You've got to cut a third of the story. Which third are you going to cut? I had my idea of which third I wanted to cut out, and I'm not sure if it's the same idea they had, so I have to wait and see how it turns out.
O: I've heard that the only film you've said you wouldn't change at all in retrospect was Innerspace. But you're not a big fan of retooling past work, right?
JD: No, I think it can be all right. It seems like once your movie is out, it's really for the record. If it got screwed up and you have a chance to fix it, that's one thing. But to go back and put new scenes in just so you can make some more money… Like The Exorcist. The new version of The Exorcist is not better than the old one. The ending is a big mistake. On paper, I can see how it might have sounded like it was okay, but in practice it doesn't work. Except for the Ritalin scene and the scene where she comes down the stairs, nothing of any value has been added to the movie. In fact, it plays slower. But it made a fortune when it came out. A lot of this is economy-driven. It's DVD-driven. If you can find a reason for people to re-buy material they've already bought, then great. You got your 8-tracks, you've got your cassettes, you've got your CDs, and now you've got DVD. And then there'll be interactive DVD, and then high-definition DVD. How many tapes of The Exorcist can you have?
O: You put out a nice special edition of Piranha recently.
JD: We put out Piranha, although we didn't go back to the original materials. I would have liked to, but they just used a transfer from years ago and bumped it up to digital. It looked okay, but in general that's what they do with all the Corman stuff. It's not letterboxed, because they don't want to bother. It looks fine, but you think, "Well, I'd like to have my film look as good as the other films of mine," and it's not anamorphically enhanced. But that's a really low-end company. The Gremlins discs, whenever they come out, are going to have a lot of extra stuff on them, but I don't know when that's going to happen. They're already mastered, but they're just sitting there. Warner Home Video, they don't know exactly what their strategy is going to be.
O: Releasing them might be a start.
JD: You would think, but they may be waiting for the 20th anniversary, or they may be waiting to put them together in one package. The whole DVD thing… The Howling, unfortunately, will probably never come out on DVD.
O: How come?
JD: The rights are all screwed up. It's owned by so many different companies that I just don't think the Image people—who put out the laserdisc—have the rights to it.
O: You're working on a film called Everybody Hates The Phone Company.
JD: Everybody Hates The Phone Company is the story of Kevin Lee Poulsen, who was an incarcerated hacker, a convicted hacker, who was just released. It's about his exploits from the time he was a kid and arrested by the FBI up until he got out of prison. It's a fascinating story, and 90% of it is completely true. And it's just astonishing. It's just been hard to beat the computer curse: the curse of movies like The Net, where they go, "Oh, people looking at screens." Well, people hardly look at screens in this thing, but there's an aura about it, so people get iffy about whether or not they want to get involved.
O: You can ride the Matrix wave.
JD: Well, that's a going-inside-your-head Internet thing. This is not so fantastic. We're still hoping to get it made. We're trying to find funding from Germany and all that stuff. You have to put it all together. And you have to get a star who's acceptable to all those different people. That's how Matinee got made. It's a tough way to do it.
O: But you did get Matinee made.
JD: Matinee got made through a fluke. The company that was paying for us went out of business and didn't have any money. Universal, which was the distributor, had put in a little money, and we went to them and begged them to buy into the whole movie, and to their everlasting sorrow they went ahead and did it. [Laughs.]