Director Joe Dante has made movie magic out of gleefully reveling in the absurdity of B-movie cinema. Like many other Hollywood luminaries—James Cameron, Ron Howard, Jack Nicholson—he leveraged an early gig working for low-budget shlock king Roger Corman into a Hollywood career. Unlike many of them, however, he never abandoned the madcap, anything-goes sense of wildness that infused his first independent films like Piranha and The Howling. He smuggled his genuinely anarchic and rebellious spirit into mainstream releases like Gremlins, The ’Burbs, and Small Soldiers, even turning seemingly corporate cash-ins like Looney Tunes: Back In Action into unexpected fun.
Dante’s latest film, Burying The Ex, involves a retro horror-film nerd (Anton Yelchin) who is spared from having to break up with his girlfriend (Ashley Greene) when she’s hit by a bus. Unfortunately, his budding romance with an ice-cream-shop owner (Alexandra Daddario) is threatened when it’s revealed his girlfriend isn’t about to let something as minor as death come between them. The A.V. Club spoke to the director about working on shoestring budgets, what kinds of films don’t get made any more, and all the times he’s stolen ideas from other things for use in his own movies.
The A.V. Club: In some ways, Burying The Ex feels like the biggest celebration of B-movie culture you’ve made since Matinee. Was that something you were thinking about while you were making it?
Joe Dante: Well, I had to think about it, because there was some question in the minds of the producers as to whether it was a good idea to have this guy be a retro film nerd. They had a feeling that people of this age wouldn’t relate to it at all. But then oddly enough, when we cast Anton Yelchin—who is the age of the character, obviously—he is this voracious film buff in real life. When he wasn’t shooting on the movie, he was watching movies. He was watching old movies. He eats them up. And I gave some DVDs of things I thought he should see, but he was way ahead of me about a lot of things. He sort of reminded me of me when I was his age.
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AVC: There seemed to be more than a little overlap between director and main character going on in this movie. Did you see echoes of yourself when you were shooting it?
JD: You know, when you get into a story and have a character who you can relate to on that level, and you’re the director of the movie, it comes over you how much of a fantasy this movie must be. Because when I was his age, I could only have hoped to have two gorgeous girls who were interested in me. And who knew about Val Lewton. [Laughs.] I mean, for the most part, most of us aren’t lucky enough to have that happen, but I think it’s still a nice escapist fantasy for film buffs.
AVC: And the film makes common cause with these different sorts of underdogs. Because you’ve got Anton Yelchin’s character, who’s into old-school horror and paraphernalia, and then you’ve got Alexandria Daddario’s outside-the-box ice-cream proprietor. Was that part of what appealed to you about this story, the threads linking these different sorts of off-the-beaten-path cultures?
JD: Yeah. The characters were really what sold me on the script. I thought it was clever, I really liked the dialogue, it seemed very real to me. And then once we got the cast we got, those four people were just so delightful to work with and such hard workers. I mean, poor Ashley would have to come in really early and get the makeup on and all that stuff. And we had to shoot out of sequence, of course, as movies always do, so there were different stages of her disintegration that had to be paid attention to. And there was not a lot of time and there was not a lot of money, but everybody pitched in. It was like, you know, “Let’s put on a show.”
AVC: Yeah, even though the narrative of Burying The Ex is more straightforward than some of your other films, it feels very much in spirit like one of your early Roger Corman-era films, like a scrappy little upstart of a movie.
JD: The spirit of Roger Corman hangs heavily over the movie. In fact, when I showed it to him, he said, “This looks just like a New World picture.” Which, coming from Roger, is high praise indeed. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you get involved in the script?
JD: Well the writer, Alan Trezza, is also a film buff, and he actually shot a short version of this script in 2008, which I have not seen. And he liked it enough to expand it into a full feature, and that’s when he showed me the script. One of the things I liked about it was that unlike a lot of films in this genre, it had two really strong female characters, and… I just related to the characters. I thought it was a fun story, and it was very L.A.-centric, and is one of the few pictures, recently, that shows that side of L.A. culture. The sort of Hollywood forever-attending-films geek, New Beverly-going level of the populace, which I don’t think gets a lot of attention. It was something I liked.
And as you know, we juggle projects now in this business; you can’t just have one movie and put all your eggs in that basket and hope it’s going to get made. So it was one of several projects that I was pursuing. A couple of times it looked like it was going to happen, and then there was a money issue, of course, and then it didn’t happen. Then, finally around the time that World War Z became a big hit, the zombie genre seemed like it might be pretty commercial, since that was the most expensive zombie movie ever made. And we managed to attract some investors, and it all came together very suddenly and very quickly, and it was just like, “Hurry up and put on a show.” So we shot the picture in 20 days in downtown L.A., and you’re always racing to get the day, but it was fun. Everybody pitched in and we really had a good time, even though it was a fast and difficult shoot.
AVC: In reading a script, is there a moment where you realize it’s a project for you? Because—more so than a lot of directors—your films not only share a specific visual style, but they also tend to share similar thematic concerns.
JD: I’ve always felt that I shouldn’t make a movie if someone else could do it better. And I never have, except for some of the TV episodes I’ve done, where you don’t get to choose what the story is. But as far as the movies I’ve done, I’ve never made a movie I wouldn’t go see. And I’ve never had to break that rule. I think it’s a bad thing to break because then you’re just working to work. And it’s hard to make movies. It’s draining. If you’re not invested in it, and you’re not excited to see the result of it, I just don’t see how you could do it every day. I know there have been people who’ve worked in this town for years and just have gone from picture to picture to picture, and I guess they enjoy the process of making movies enough to make that worthwhile in itself. But for me, I really have to feel that I could make a difference in the movie, or I shouldn’t be doing it.
AVC: So by that standard, are there different things that you find fun or different goals that you go for when you’re working in TV, where you don’t have as much of a say over what you’re going to be shooting? Is there something else that you enjoy about that process that makes it qualitatively different?
JD: Well, it’s all problem-solving. Directing is problem-solving. And when you’re doing a TV series, you’re really solving someone else’s problems. You’re not solving your own, because you didn’t initiate it. And there’s a style that goes with every show, and you have to bone up on that and make sure that you don’t deviate too much from it, so it looks like it belongs in the run of general episodes. Also, the actors usually have arcs they’ve either started or finished, or are aiming at a certain thing. Sometimes, you do the shows and you don’t even really know where the whole show is going to go. You know what led up to it, but you don’t know what’s going to happen after. And that’s because you’re not part of the creative team. You’re the director-for-hire of the episode. And it can be enjoyable because, again, you’re solving problems and you’re doing your best and trying to stay on schedule, and you do get to meet a lot of interesting people that you wouldn’t meet otherwise, behind the camera and in front of the camera. So many times, I’ve met people on TV shows where I thought, “I’d really love to make a movie with this person.” I’ve got a whole list of people that I can go to—that I have gone to—whom I met while doing television.
There have been instances where I did a picture—I did a Netflix series for Roger Corman called Splatter, and I found a lady named Erin Way who I liked. And then when I got a Hawaii Five-O and there’s a part of a mental patient who has a scene in the mental ward, I thought she’d be perfect for it, and I got them to hire her. If I hadn’t made Splatter, I wouldn’t have known who she was and she wouldn’t have gotten the part. So there’s a lot of that. And there are also DPs who I’ve worked with and who I would love to work with again. The problem is the people I tend to enjoy working with are people who usually become very popular.
AVC: Often, with your films, you’ve used a lot of the most advanced effects available at any given time. And despite this film’s old-school practical effects and old-school vibe, there are also some pretty seamlessly blended CGI moments in it. Do you still enjoy the technical aspects as much as you used to?
JD: Well, the few commercials that I’ve done, I’ve done entirely because I wanted to investigate the technology. And the technology advances so fast that if you don’t keep up, you can easily get left behind. The advances that are made are almost weekly now, just in terms of lenses and cameras and what you can do on the computer, so you could get kind of rusty if you didn’t keep up with what’s going on. So that is one of the fun parts of making movies, is that I couldn’t do this before and now I can.
It’s like the difference between Gremlins 2 and Gremlins. You know, on Gremlins 2, five years had gone by. And all of the things that we couldn’t do with the puppets because of the limitations were now possible to improve. We could make them walk; we could make them fly; we could make them talk. To the point where, now, if somebody used those techniques in a movie, they would still be puppets, but they would be much better manipulated. Because you could have the puppeteer right next to the puppet in the shot, and then get rid of them by just doing another pass, to a point where no one would ever be able to see it. It’s just it’s the way things roll. It’s really fun to watch it happen.
AVC: I would assume, compared to something like Looney Tunes: Back In Action, that the computer effects on this must have been a cakewalk.
JD: The computer effects on this one were largely done on a computer. Literally. I mean one of the producers would take the thing home and come back, and he’d done a trick so that Ashley’s eyeballs could go up in her head—which was something that we never even thought of on the set, but it was a cool thing you could do on the computer. The computer stuff in Burying The Ex is mostly… I wouldn’t say window dressing, but it’s little touches here and there. There’s nothing major in it. It’s all pretty much practical effects.
AVC: Hollywood comedies now that you see coming out, like Neighbors, seem like they share a similar anarchic sense of comedy that you brought to a lot of bigger Hollywood films. Do you feel a sense of kinship with some of these newer films?
JD: Kinship, not so much, but I can certainly see the influences. Neighbors did remind me of The ’Burbs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody somewhere along the line had seen that picture. But as far as being influential, I mean, the movies that people see influence them. And even when they don’t remember where they got that idea, it just rattles around in their head. I mean, I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen, re-watched, and discovered that I stole something from. Not even intending to do it, but it just was an image that was in my head and I drew on it.
AVC: Especially since you made your bones with stuff like The Movie Orgy. You must have so many of these little clips and things rolling around in your head that it must be hard to not unconsciously borrow from these tropes you’ve instilled in yourself over the years.
JD: When people actually see The Movie Orgy and they’ve seen a lot of my movies, they’re always astonished at how many things I stole—whether it’s dialogue or actual clips or whatever, I’ve just managed to work somehow into my movies over the years. It’s very strange. Because it’s a movie that’s got this underground reputation, and more people have seen it recently than had seen it for like 20 years. But it’s still an underground movie, it’s not a movie that anybody can just run out and see. So it’s surprising how influential it’s become.
AVC: I can’t tell you the number of people I run into now who randomly saw it somehow, when it was touring or something.
JD: That’s what happens when you play the Museum Of Modern Art. Not the venue we ever thought it was going to end up. That was something of an afterthought. [Laughs.]
AVC: You mentioned seeing Neighbors and getting the sense that somebody along the way saw The ’Burbs. Are there any films you’ve seen recently that have a similar subversive spirit? Because you always used your big-budget films as a means for smuggling in some fairly radical stuff, both culturally and politically; do you see any other trends or other films that do that?
JD: Well, it’s a little harder to do on a huge budget, but I was surprised at The Dark Knight, of the right-wing politics that permeated that picture. And it couldn’t have been unintentional. But in general, you know, if you see Tomorrowland and you know it’s got this ecological message that they sort of hit you over the head with, that’s obviously on the surface of the movie. But as far as the sort of hidden stuff, I don’t know that I’ve seen that many movies recently that have subversive stuff. I’ve seen some preachy movies, but I haven’t seen anything that I can think of, that has that kind of underlying anarchy.
AVC: Along those lines, are there any political or cultural trends that you’d want to tackle now? Ideas you’d like taking a crack at in your work or enjoy commenting on?
JD: Sure, I mean the world becomes even more wondrously crazy as the days go on. There’s always grist for the mill of satire, but the opportunities… are the opportunities you get. I mean you only get to make so many movies and so many TV shows, and it’s very hard to sneak it in on someone else’s TV show. It’s really got to be something that you control. But I’ve got projects that are in my style that I’m trying to get off the ground, but which ones will go and what budget range will they be and all that kind of stuff is… you just don’t know. I did a movie for HBO called The Second Civil War and I would love to make more movies like that. That was really a lot of fun to do, and it’s still surprisingly relevant, actually. But those kinds of movies just generally aren’t made anymore. There really aren’t people making those pictures. Even HBO gave up after a while. They were making a whole series of those sorts of satirical comedies and then I guess they didn’t pay off, for viewership, so they just abandoned it. And so the closest you can get now is biopics.
AVC: Speaking to the almost random nature of not knowing what’s going to get funded these days, do you find it’s harder when you have that content, even when you tend to keep it below the surface level in your films? Is it even harder nowadays or is it still just as sporadic as always?
JD: Well, I’m lucky because when I go in for meetings a lot of times, the people who I’m having meetings with are people who saw my movies when they were kids and they… they shower me with praise and then hire a younger guy. [Laughs.]
AVC: “Oh, I loved Gremlins. Maybe I should get a 20-year-old to do that.”
JD: “Oh, yeah, Joe, you’re so good, you’re wonderful!” And then usually you find—you read the paper and you go, oh, they hired a different guy.
AVC: Among your current projects is Ombra Amor, the werewolves and vampires film?
JD: Right. Yes. That’s still in the works. We are still working on the funding for that. I’ve got another one called Labirintis, which takes place in the catacombs beneath Buda Castle in Budapest, which is a really creepy script, and I think that may be the next one. That one is looking a little closer. Because it’s lower budget, obviously, that’s one reason. And then I’ve still got my Roger Corman project that I haven’t given up on.
AVC: When did you first develop that idea? Because if anybody’s life is begging to be made into a movie…
JD: Well that one is at least 10 years old, and it came close to being made twice, and then for varying reasons it just didn’t happen. But I haven’t given up because I really think it’s a wonderful script. And we’re thinking maybe it doesn’t need to be a feature film. Maybe it should be something else. Maybe it should be a play. Maybe it should be a graphic novel. I don’t know. We’re still working on it.