Interview: Joe Dante (Part One)
Joe Dante is the most casual and colloquial of American genre-movie masters. Whether in a werewolf movie like The Howling (81) or a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age film like Matinee (93), set in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he keeps the images fresh and unpredictable, the dialogue snappy, and the characters humorous, individual, and accessible. Dante grew up movie-mad (especially horror-movie mad) in Morristown, New Jersey, reviewed films for Castle of Frankenstein and for the trade journal Film Bulletin, put together the mammoth compilation film The Movie Orgy (68) and cut trailers and did film editing for Roger Corman before co-directing Hollywood Boulevard with Allan Arkush (76). He went solo with Piranha (78), hailed by me as a “fast, campy swim-off of Jaws—fun if you go without great expectations.” His biggest career lift came from shooting the most acclaimed of the four episodes in the anthology film, The Twilight Zone: The Movie (83), alongside directors John Landis, Steven Spielberg, and George Miller. My doggerel review: “Landis is blandest / Steven’s uneven / Miller’s a thriller / Dante’s enchante.”
Few directors have such a vast knowledge of movie history and such an instinctive sense of how to use it to pursue their own obsessions. Gremlins (84), Dante’s benchmark hit, elicits nostalgia for the idealized small town created on Hollywood back-lots. It rouses nihilistic glee with the demonic antics of the title critters, who rip its greeting-card façade apart. Dante’s ability to embrace opposite qualities with equal fervor gives his movies their peculiar zest and enduring fascination. In Gremlins 2 (90), Innerspace (87), and Small Soldiers (98), Dante plants anarchistic comic fuses into ticking-clock plots.
Within minutes of watching any of his films, you can tell Joe Dante is at work. He’s a virtuoso doodler, filling each frame with expressive filigree. His prescient HBO movie The Second Civil War (97), about states’ rights, immigration, and the politics and journalism of image, uses screens within screens at a cable-news studio to contain drama within comedy, and vice versa. He has also deployed satire as a weapon of mass instruction, especially in his powerhouse anti-Iraq war zombie film, Homecoming (05), a black-comic entry in Showtime’s Masters of Horror series.
Dante moonlights as a director of episodic television (Hawaii Five-O) and the inspired curator of the website Trailers From Hell, a forum for directors, writers, and other movie craftsmen to praise cult and classic films while their trailers unwind. The “My Funny Valentine” lineup included director Dan Ireland (The Whole Wide World) on Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, frequent Dante film editor Marshall Harvey on Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours, and director Arkush (Rock ’n’ Roll High School) on George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib.
Dante’s imaginative foray into 3-D, The Hole (09), a fantasy about a bottomless pit in a suburban basement that summons repressed fears to the surface, never won an American theatrical release (it’s available on streaming video and Blu-ray/DVD). Over a year ago, Dante completed Burying the Ex, a zombie romantic comedy starring Anton Yelchin. In early February, Image Entertainment announced that it was picking up the film for release this year.
As part of the Film Comment Selects series, the preview print of Gremlins screens Sunday, February 22. A month before the screening, I interviewed Dante in his office on The Lot, former location of the Pickford-Fairbanks, United Artists, Samuel Goldwyn, and Warner Hollywood Studios.
What will Gremlins fans learn from seeing the preview cut at Lincoln Center?
One of the great things when you work for Steven Spielberg, aside from him keeping the studio off your back, is that you get to finish your movie completely before you show it to the public. Instead of taking out a beat-up work print with a temp score and lots of splices, you present a finished movie at the preview. We went to San Diego with the version of the movie that’s going to run at Lincoln Center. It was a tremendous success, to say the least. I mean, this was a movie no one expected anything from—certainly not the studio [Warner Bros.]. I think it was derided a bit as “Spielberg’s Folly,” because this was the first project for Steven’s company, Amblin. The studio executives just didn’t get it; they didn’t understand what the tone was or anything. So when they went to the preview and the audience was jumping on the ceiling, they were astonished and excited. We did a little more fine-tuning after the preview—that’s what a preview is for. We shortened the movie by six or seven minutes. We also beefed up the role of Gizmo, the little fuzzy critter, so that in the final version, at the end of the picture, he saves the day, not the nominal hero [Zach Galligan], who was very miffed when he saw the finished movie because he no longer pulled the shade up and killed the gremlins.
In this version, there’s more of Judge Reinhold, whose character gets lost in the release version. The only thing I dislike about this version is that the gremlins-in-the-bar scene, which was in a temporary state when we ran the preview, is shorter than in the release version. Some of the best gags were added later, particularly one with the gun-toting gremlin who is playing cards with his transvestite gremlin friend. They’re seen in this version, but there’s no payoff to it; he doesn’t shoot her.
The studio would have been happy if we released it right there, the way it was. I do think it got a little better. But cineastes can see this print and relive the first time anybody ever saw this picture.
When I was movie critic for Rolling Stone, my terrific New York-based fact-checker visited L.A. with her boyfriend and another couple, one of whom turned out to be Chris Columbus. He said he told Spielberg that after writing Gremlins, he really wanted to direct it—and Spielberg told him: “You have to think of your directing career as a runway, and a lot of other planes are waiting to take off in front of you.”
When Steven saw the script, he was noodling around with the idea of starting his own company. He wanted to get off the ground with a low-budget horror movie, which is obviously why he chose me. Steven had seen Piranha and he had seen The Howling.
Chris wrote the script as a spec. It was sent around town as a writing sample. The lead kid was younger in the original script. He was about 13. Later, his age was bumped up, though he retained almost all his childlike aspects—and his best friend was still 11! Chris stayed on for the whole picture. When we did reshoots on a little stage on La Brea, he was working on Goonies at the time. Steven and he would sit in the corner, and he would write. I wouldn’t call Amblin at any time a “factory,” because they didn’t make enough movies for that. But they did have a lot of things going on, and often going on simultaneously.
When we were storyboarding it, we hadn’t decided what process we were going to use to make the gremlins happen. At one point we thought we could use monkeys. We put a monkey in a mask, which was a bad idea because he ran all over the room and shat on everything. The efforts we put in to try to make the gremlins do what they had to do were prodigious.
[Dante points to a framed cartoon of a winged-dragon-like gremlin looming over a couple of beleaguered filmmakers, under the thought balloon, “Don’t feed actors after midnight.”] That’s actually a drawing by Chris, which he sent me afterward—he really did basically design what the gremlins look like, and we didn’t get far from what he wanted. While we were trying to figure things out, it seemed as if we’d need the backing of the studio. I think Steven thought we could make the film at the Osmonds’ studios in Utah, but it was obviously going to have to be a more expensive picture than he’d been hoping. So Steven took it to Warner Bros. They were happy to get a Steven Spielberg movie. When the Twilight Zone accident happened [a helicopter crashed during the filming of Landis’s episode, killing three people on the ground—Vic Morrow and two children], they would probably have shut down the movie, except for the fact that Steven was doing one of the episodes, and they wanted to have a Steven Spielberg movie. So George Miller and I got to make our stories.
On Gremlins, it did become a problem, though, when Steven had to sign off on everything. We had to get him to make up his mind. For example, we had a lot of different designs for Gizmo, and Steven always found fault with whatever they were. We were getting to the point where we really had to lock this down, or we weren’t going to make our dates. So we came up with the idea of giving Gizmo the color of Steven’s cocker spaniel, so that he would be happier with the design.
We had some pretty ropy designs—I mean, one looked just like Peter Ustinov. But we finally worked out the design for Gizmo. And we thought we had figured out how to get Gizmo through the first 25 minutes of the movie. At that point in the script, Gizmo turned into Stripe, the bad gremlin. But Steven liked Gizmo so much that about three or four weeks before shooting, he decided that Gizmo should not turn into the bad gremlin. Instead, Gizmo should be the hero’s friend, and he should stick around for the entire movie. We were flabbergasted. We had no idea how to make this little bucket of bolts appealing and realistic enough to be able to hold the screen for the entire picture.
Chris Walas, who was doing the monsters, did some frantic R&D. We managed to figure out enough ways to cheat so that we could make Gizmo look real. We knew there was no way he was going to walk. So we figured the hero could carry him around in a backpack, and he could stick his head out. We could pop him into the action that way. But at other times Gizmo really had to emote, and there was no way to fill this little head, which was almost immobile, with enough gears and bolts to make it move. We had already prepared different faces for him. You wanted him to be happy, you put the happy face on; you wanted him to be sad, you put the sad face on. But the only way to show a change of expression was to build a giant Gizmo head that must have been six feet across with the ears. With that, there was a lot of room in there for different levers and gears. We shot close-ups of him changing his expression, and Gizmo ended up getting a lot of screen time he wouldn’t have had otherwise. It was the single smartest idea Steven had on the movie. I contend that without Gizmo that movie would have been as popular as Critters 2. Having Gizmo connect with audiences and kids made the difference between a monster movie and a movie that had heart. We were kicking ourselves in the head, and it was driving us nuts, but of course it was a great idea!
Watching Gremlins today, it does bring back 1984, but it also brings back this whole lost world of American movie culture. The film is full of movie references, and it asks for an old-fashioned suspension of disbelief. It’s Christmas time, and there’s snow everywhere, but you don’t see any frosty breath. I assume that’s deliberate?
It’s deliberate in the sense that it would have been impossible, so it was just, “Don’t bother.” We shot it in the middle of summer, so there was no way we were going to be able to fake that. Today, if you wanted to spend the money on CGI, you could actually make it look real, but that’s still pretty expensive. In Gremlins, the unreality is what counts. I was adamant that it not look realistic—that it look like what we remembered from old movies. It’s what the Zuckers did on Airplane! They tried to make the movie look old-fashioned by the clothing and the props; the photographers in Airplane! have old flashbulb cameras.
I intended Gremlins to be kind of timeless. Going out on city streets was originally the plan, but it struck me that shooting the movie in a realistic fashion would never work, especially when I saw the gremlin designs. You couldn’t just take this rubber thing out in the city streets and hit it with light—this movie had to be stylized. It had to look like an old movie. And I thought it should be shot on the back lot. It’s a Wonderful Life was obviously the model for the town. Luckily the back lots of Warner Bros. and Universal were very quaint and went back to the Forties and even earlier. So we were able to make an idealized small-town environment for our admittedly slightly corny movie. Everybody was an archetype. We even had the evil old lady who is going to take over the town with a chemical company [Polly Holliday, doing Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz]. And into this seemingly idyllic little town comes this disruptive force. It’s The Birds meets It’s a Wonderful Life. That was pretty much the model for doing it.
We tried to have eccentric, likable characters, like the father, an inventor. When we were casting the father, we had a lot of different actors come in. One of them was Pat Hingle. He gave a reading that was so heart-rending, wrenching, and moving, that I had to say, to this great actor: “I can’t give you this part! This is too real.” He would have been brilliant in this movie but it would have been a James Agee movie. Hoyt Axton was perfect because he had all this folksy charm, and he was good with an ad lib. Casting is so important. Just to find the right people for the parts—it’s everything. That’s the movie, that’s what people are going to look at. They’re not looking at you; they’re looking at the cast.
It seems you have just as much fun building up a fantasy American small town as you do tearing it down.
Well, you can’t do great satire if you don’t love what you satirize. Somebody said I make my own movies and the Mad magazine parodies at the same time. I don’t know why this is. It’s just my sensibility. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to do a lot of work that reflects my personality, whereas in general, usually, it’s considered that movies with an edge or movies that are a little quirky and odd have to be made a little less odd, a little less quirky, so that more people will like them.
I was surprised at how far you were able to go with the comic sadism—like having the gremlins tie up the dog in the Christmas lights.
They used to kill that dog. In the original version, they ate him. This was a distinct improvement.
Was the rewriting pretty constant?
When we finally got to the point where we were going to make the movie, the script was pretty much there. The tone may have changed somewhat while we were making it, because I think the movie turned out to be funnier than anticipated, which I felt was the only way to make the material palatable. And there were things that we had planned to do, and we thought we knew how to do, before we discovered that they just didn’t work. So we had to improvise. We had a working list of “Funny things for gremlins to do.” It was on a piece of paper that we posted for the crew. Everybody would write down stuff, and some of them were do-able. Hanging Gizmo on the dart board for the gremlins’ dart game was one of these improvs, because we figured we could hang him up on the dart board and throw darts at him without killing ourselves.
When I saw the movie with my family at the Fantasy Theater in Rockville Centre, Long Island, and Phoebe Cates began that famous or infamous monologue about why she hates Christmas—everyone was silent or agog. After she finished, my mother just burst out laughing, then the rest of the theater joined in. Was that your desired response?
The tone of the movie is summed up in that speech. She’s telling a story that’s completely ridiculous. However, if it actually happened to you, it would be horrible! It’s like the guy falling on a banana peel. It’s funny if you’re across the street, but not funny if you break your back. I like the complexity of it. Originally, it wasn’t her character who told that story, it was a guy who owned a McDonald’s. At the McDonald’s the gremlins would come in and eat the people but not the food. When that character and that bit disappeared, I said to Chris, I hate to lose that character and that speech. Let’s give it to Phoebe’s character, Kate, because she doesn’t have much stuff going on except being the heroine, and this gives her a secret. The audience has to find out what it is. She doesn’t like Christmas—well, why not? And now we find out why. And that’s a better character arc for her. And she did it beautifully. I remember we came back from the screening of rushes that day, and the editor turned to me and said: “That’s never going to be in the picture.”
How did the people in the preview audience react?
They had no particular reaction to it one way or the other, because they were busy looking for more gremlins. You could hear a pin drop; they took it seriously. That didn’t stop the studio from wanting to cut it out after the preview. That was one thing they really wanted to do.
You were making this movie during the Reagan Recession, so the 1980s stuff about foreclosures and land grabs merges pretty seamlessly with the quasi-1930s atmosphere.
Well, it was the Reagan era. Just say no, and all that. I think that’s actually part of what made the movie seem a little bit more acceptable for audiences.
How important was it for you to get a piece of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the scene when the gremlins invade the neighborhood movie theater? It’s a great juxtaposition—no one who’s seen it will ever forget the gremlins bouncing in their seats as the dwarves sing “Heigh Ho!”
If we had waited another six months to make that movie, we never would have gotten that clip. The Disney organization at the time was in flux. When Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg came in, they put the clamp down on all Disney material. We managed to make a pretty good deal to use this footage and it was one of the highlights of the movie. If you had a different movie it wouldn’t work. It has to be Snow White, because it’s the first movie a lot of kids ever see, and it had such love, such devotion, particularly in the Eighties. It wouldn’t have worked with a Max Fleischer cartoon.
Is it harder to make references like that in a movie today?
The people who hold the rights to the clips make it expensive and difficult, because they really don’t want to be bothered. So that’s one thing. And Snow White and Disney may be a special case, but in general, movie literacy has plummeted. When you and I were growing up, our casual acquaintance with old movies and movie stars and the world of the Thirties and Forties could be renewed all the time—everything was there to be sampled. Every time you turned on the TV there was an old movie. In the middle of the night, there was Movies Till Dawn. Even people who weren’t really that into it were forced to soak up what the culture had been doing. Today there is one place, Turner Classic Movies, owned by Warner Bros. (which owns the majority of old movies), where you can see these things. Conversely, when I was a kid, you’d stay up until really late at night and try to get Channel 6 from Philadelphia, because they were running a movie you hadn’t seen it, and you’d have to try to hear it, and look through the snow on the screen. But it was Devil Girl from Mars, I’d never seen it, it’s the only place that’s playing it!
On UHF, they not only ran movies you could never see anywhere else, but they never censored them. They didn’t look at them—they just put them on! And I remember seeing nudity, and violence—The Mad Doctor of Blood Island, a Filipino movie. I remember turning on Channel 47, and there was nudity, this girl was getting chopped up, and her breasts were out and there was blood everywhere! Oww! How did they get away with this! And the reason they got away with this was that hardly anybody was ever watching—and they weren’t paying attention.
You had a sense of adventure tracking down movies even on TV. Does the loss of that sense affect how people view the art form?
I think it explains why it’s not special to people. They didn’t have to hunt for it or become a film collector like I did. It’s there, it’s on your wristwatch at noon, but not only at noon, at any time you want to watch it. So you don’t think you’re going to watch it. It’s just so hard to get people back into the habit, because the habit is gone. And that’s rippled into movie attendance at theaters, which everyone knows is between the ages of 15 and 30. Hardly anybody my age goes to the movies any more. The people at the Academy watch their videos on their computers—so too bad, David Lean!
Now, there are all these movies available to see, more than have ever been available in my lifetime. Movies that haven’t seen the light of day for 75 years have been rescued. The problem is, nobody knows what they are, because there’s no film scholarship. Nobody has a clue about this stuff. You can get your Netflix queue out, and it’s just a bunch of titles. If they’re not from the last 10 years, nobody recognizes them!
So that was one of thing I was trying to do with Trailers From Hell, was to take film history out of mothballs and try to get people interested in seeing things they never heard of, being spoken about by people they have heard of. It’s to give everyone entrée—well, if you like that, you should see this! And this and this and this and this and this! It’s watching people talk about an experience they had, and you can share that experience with them by watching that movie.
You need to know who Billy Wilder was. You need to know the names of people who are no longer alive. Because it’s very important—it’s what our history is made of. You need to see the movies the way they were—with the racism, the violence, and the censorship. All the things that let you see what the movie past had been so you understand where we are! But really nobody’s interested in that right now. Their interests are so bifurcated.
Isn’t Gremlins a reference point everybody knows?
Of all the genres, the ones that were the most kicked to the curb in my childhood were horror and science-fiction films. They were made for children, and very rarely would a famous director try anything with them. When Hitchcock did Psycho, people were horrified that he would lower himself. However, that genre has proven to be the most resilient of all the genres.
Who would have ever thought that the Western would go away? But it is completely irrelevant to today’s audiences. First Westerns became motorcycle pictures, and then they became car-crash pictures. Now, anything with dirt or a horse in it—nobody wants to see it. When somebody tries to make a Western, like Tommy Lee Jones just did, people stay home. They don’t care. The stories of people on the frontier are now so far away from them—it’s to today’s audiences like silent movies were to us when we were growing up. It seems just totally not relevant to them.
So the choices of what you can make have narrowed. Part of that is because stories that used to be made as serials in the 1940s, on a $1.98 budget, are now being made for billions of dollars. They’re blanketing the culture. You can’t get enough superhero movies. Superhero movies had been the lowest—lower than zombie movies. They were considered junk. Technically, they couldn’t do them right. When Superman had to fly in the serials, they had to turn him into a cartoon. The Fleischer cartoons—they were wonderful. We love those. But that was like, “He’s already a cartoon, so that’s fine.” When Kirk Alyn turned into a cartoon to fly in those serials, it was like—“What? Doesn’t work.” And now the junk has won.
Even with horror movies being as big as ever, it’s still really surprising to me that Gremlins is so popular. They make Gremlins dolls in Japan—new ones! Go on eBay, and they’re expensive! And it’s new merchandise for a movie that’s 30 years old! It’s kind of remarkable.