Interview: Joe Dante (Part Two)
Read part one of this interview.
In your movies, you see through corporate honchos as slick, exploitative gladhanders, but in the last reel you don’t always feel compelled to punish them.
Well, John Glover in Gremlins 2 is probably the best example of that. In the original idea he was the bad guy. He was Ted Turner and Donald Trump rolled into one. And casting this particular actor changed the entire part, because he was so likable. We ended up playing him as this big, enthusiastic kid, instead of the evil corporate guy. You don’t want to demonize people, and you don’t want to play a cliché.
Watching Gremlins and Gremlins 2, I wished you could have made Gremlins movies the way Hope and Crosby and their team made Road movies—maybe not once or twice a year, but at least once a decade. In Gremlins 2, the characters played by Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates have gone from their small town to work in a Manhattan skyscraper that combines an urban shopping mall with Glover’s multimedia corporate headquarters. It provides an environment in which gremlins seem to belong: everything is automated, from phones to relationships, and then it breaks down. These ideas are both “of their moment” and ahead of their time. What took you so long to make this one? Were you just sick of dealing with gremlins after the first one?
It was a very hard movie to make, and we had no support from the studio because they basically felt it was something they were doing just to make Steven happy. I was happy it was going to be successful, but the last thing I wanted to do was another one of those.
The studio came to me a couple of years later and asked: “Do you want to make another Gremlins movie?” I said, I don’t think so. They went off and tried to make their own Gremlins movie. They spent a quite a bit of money on a lot of different approaches, but they could never figure out what was working about the first picture. Eventually they came back to me and Mike Finnell, the producer, and said: “We want to put out another Gremlins movie next summer, and if you do it, we’ll let you do whatever you want.” That promise lured me back into the fold. To do anything you want on a studio movie, with approximately three times the money of the first movie, was pretty appealing. I got [screenwriter] Charlie Haas involved, and we came up with a plot, a story and a setting. We ran it by Steven and we got to make the movie. They let me make the movie I wanted to make, though they really didn’t get it. For example, they just didn’t understand why I wanted to have the gremlins “break” the film. They said: “Everyone will leave.” I said: “No, they’re not going to leave. It’s a joke!” I have found over the years that the process of breaking the fourth wall is more and more difficult. It’s become very difficult to be Brechtian in any obvious way. Studio people don’t like the idea of reminding people that they’re watching a movie. They think somehow people are unaware of the fact they’re in a theater watching this movie with other people around them. You couldn’t do a Road picture today. Nonetheless, they let me get away with the movie, and for me it was a more personal movie, because the first movie was an assignment and a script that came to me. And this was my take on all of that stuff.
The sequel feels cathartic. You even make fun of the rules—keep the Mogwai out of the light, keep him away from water, don’t feed him after midnight. You even have a gremlin recoil at the sight of a microwave, as if he had some genetic memory of an ancestor going splat inside of one.
We made fun of a lot of things! I think that Steven and Chris were not amused by it, particularly, but it’s a movie I had a great time making. I’ve seen it with an audience recently, and it’s pretty funny. It has the benefit of being the sequel to a movie that the audience has definitely seen.
In Gremlins 2, Phoebe Cates starts to tell another story, this time about Lincoln’s birthday…
Well, I figured it was such a controversial part of the film. It was something we could not not make fun of. We had to acknowledge it somehow.
What’s the organizing principle in a movie like Gremlins 2?
Well, if you look at a Hope and Crosby Road movie—the kings of breaking the fourth wall—there’s always a plot, something going on, where Bob is being used by Bing to do something, to get the girl or a piece of microfilm, or whatever. There’s got to be a plot on which to hang these gags. You can’t even know what gags you’re going to do until you have the plot. In Gremlins 2, for example, the idea of the Christopher Lee character being a geneticist came in because [special makeup effects artist] Rick Baker didn’t want to do the movie unless he could design new gremlins. So how are we going to get new gremlins? Well, we’ll have a character who can create them—this mad-scientist geneticist—and we can have a big scene where we introduce all these different kinds of gremlins. It was fun for Rick and it made the movie better. We love the new gremlins! We love the Brain! And Tony Randall, the voice of the Brain, who I just worked with for one day, was so great. All these people I’d meet I’d think, oh, I’d love to make another movie with them.
Part of the fun of both Gremlins movies is that they’re totally puppets.
Yes, that technique is part of the appeal of Gremlins, which is why I tried to talk them into not doing Gremlins 3 as a CGI movie, if there ever is one. Because you gain a lot with CGI, but you lose the actors’ relationship with the puppet, and so much of the believability of these things rests on the actors’ reactions onscreen. You don’t want to lose that. Not a lot of actors are able to look at a fixed point in space and make you believe that they’re really looking at the edge of a desk and not the wall behind. Especially if you’re dealing with kids, and people who haven’t done this kind of movie a lot, it’s very helpful to have prosthetics and animatronics on the set. Even though the technology we used was ancient even by the time we did the sequel, it’s still very useful. I think there’s a lot of really good work done by those people that can’t be picked up by machine.
When you see a Ray Harryhausen movie, you respond to the sensibility behind it, whether or not the effects are “dated.”
It’s the King Kong effect. You look at King Kong today and it’s creaky—but it’s still a great movie. And you can imagine the impact it must have had in 1933 when people were not used to seeing this kind of thing on screen. You can understand why a young Ray Harryhausen would say: “This is what I want to do with my life.” When I was a kid, the Harryhausen movies were thrilling. That’s the only word I can use: thrilling. The first Sinbad movie, even now, is just great, though nothing happens in the first half hour. So is Jason and the Argonauts, which is the best one, I think, because it has the best screenplay. You look at CGI today, and you can’t identify anybody, because there’s so much work, no one man could ever do it. You look at Harryhausen’s work from the Fifties and Sixties, and that’s one guy’s work, not a whole bunch of people. With CGI you gain, obviously, the ability to do a lot of things, but you lose the personality that King Kong had, or that Harryhausen’s dragon and Cyclops had. They were done by one guy, who was also a master of lighting, which is one reason why they look so great. That was Ray’s genius and he was beloved for it. But I think the day he saw Jurassic Park he realized his day was over.
I think Jurassic Park has dated worse than Harryhausen movies, because it’s in a realistic style that’s been outdone.
True, and the story was softened, to make the Richard Attenborough character kindly and nice, which I thought was a terrible mistake. I was one of the four guys who were up for that picture. We all had to talk to Michael Crichton on the phone, and he was going to make the decision. When I heard Steven was up for it, I thought, that’s a no-brainer, of course Steven is going to do it. But I did say to Michael: “Don’t let him change the bad guy into a good guy.” And he did anyway, of course, probably for the benefit of the box office. But for me the story just didn’t work because of that. There’s no reason why that guy should be a nice guy, except maybe that Richard Attenborough is one of the nicest people I ever met.
Has the photorealistic bias of CGI changed the mass audience’s expectations?
One of the big barriers to people being able to watch old movies is that if it doesn’t look like they’ve been taught to expect it to look, then they’ll think something’s wrong with it. And that includes not being in color, because they think: “The world is in color. What happened to the color?” That’s probably the most tragic thing about people’s inability to relate to old movies. Black-and-white cinematography is an art form. You can’t just throw color in there. When Ted Turner started colorizing movies, people didn’t go for it. It wasn’t just because it was badly done, and Topper’s moustache was moving all over his face. It was the fact that people became movie stars in black-and-white movies because audiences looked at their faces. As soon as you colorize those movies, audiences look at the drapes. The color values are never right. Even when the colorizers are good at it, the movies never look the way they would have looked if they were shot in color. Except for Shirley Temple movies and other films that parents are trying to get their kids to watch because they won’t watch in black and white, I think that phase is over. People aren’t interested in old movies any more, so there’s no real reason to colorize them. Before Warner Archive started, I was constantly talking to people and saying: “You’ve got to put out your old black-and-white movies. You’ve got to do it now while the audience is still alive, because there’s at least the possibility that you can entice someone younger into watching them.”
There was a colorization joke in Gremlins 2 where John Glover is watching It’s a Wonderful Life in black and white, and he’s frowning, and he goes and turns on the color and he’s happy. I had to cut that out because The Big Picture came out three months before and had the same joke. But there’s still a joke in Gremlins 2 with an announcer hyping “Casablanca, now in color and with a happier ending.”
You’ve had great partnerships with John Sayles, Charlie Haas, and Sam Hamm, who wrote your two Masters of Horror segments, Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution. Should we call you a “writer’s director”?
I like writers. I have them on the set if possible. I write parts for them. On Piranha, it was great just to have John Sayles around for the time it took to shoot his cameo, because we came up with this whole scene for Dick Miller, explaining about “the swimming swine.” There was all this local color on location, and I thought, “This is great, we can use this.” John wrote away, and we added scenes.
You’re open to putting things in movies that are maybe not deeply analyze-able, but are one-of-a-kind things—like Phoebe Cates’s monologue, or even that Casablanca joke, which will stay funny whether people remember colorization or not.
Yeah. It’s the personality thing again, it’s trying to put your stamp on a movie, so when people see it they can say: “Oh, that’s a movie by so-and-so.” If you watch a movie for a couple of minutes, you can say: “Oh, that’s a John Ford movie,” or “That’s a Preston Sturges movie.” Sometimes you can tell just by the people on the screen. There are a lot of movies, like pictures directed by Robert Wise—you’re not going to be able to tell right away. Wise liked that about himself; he liked the idea that he was able to do a good job on all different kinds of movies. But I’ve always been more attracted to Sam Fuller, Peckinpah, people like that—you can identify the style right away, because nobody else would have made the movie that way.