It will not happen every day that you get to talk to one of your true childhood heroes. For film fans having grown up in the 80’s, Joe Dante is definitely one of them. Having started out working for Roger Corman and becoming a brand of his own with genre classics like „The Howling“, ,„Piranha“ and „Gremlins“, Dante, a lifelong movie buff, rarely ever follows a strict formula in his films and generally represents a style that is hardly to be found in today’s industry. His latest film „The Hole“ was shot in 3D before the new wave of depth-enhanced blockbusters took over but is still waiting for its theatrical release in the US. On occasion of the German Home Entertainment premiere, the always good humored director talked with us about the film itself, past and future projects, the status of Hollywood today, working with Jerry Goldsmith, „The Movie Orgy“ and how his own trailer collection turned into an online film school.
screen/read: Let’s start out with „The Hole“ which just had its Home Entertainment premiere here in Germany, unfortunately on DVD only in 2D though.
Joe Dante: I know. Very sad. But I’m not sure how good 3D is on DVD anyway. It’s a shame because we did plan it as a 3D movie and it was sort of conceived and designed that way. But we hope it works as a 2D movie as well.
screen/read: When you were first approached to do the film, was making it in 3D the initial idea behind it?
Joe Dante: No it actually wasn’t. I had read it and didn’t have the job back then but I said, you guys should think about doing this in 3D because it’s such a small story, it’s got so few characters, it’s very few locations and most of it takes place in the basement. But if you do that with some kind of depth and dimension you could add a lot to the experience of watching it. There is not a lot of things sticking out of the screen so much now. It’s rather about trying to immerse you in the enviroment of the movie. I think when 3D works it’s because it draws you into a story that you get interested in. I mean, the spectacle aspect of it is fine but anybody can do that and we’ve seen it for years. But as a storytelling tool 3D can be dramatically effective. I always point at „Dial M for Murder“, one of my favorite 3D movies. It really has a very intelligent dramatic use of space and relationship between characters and objects. Unfortunately, it came so late in the cycle that very few people actually saw it in 3D.
screen/read: With so many rather poorly post-converted 3D movies having come out within the last two years, it’s even more puzzling that „The Hole“ as an example that was actually filmed with three-dimensional technique doesn’t seem to find its way to the big screen everywhere.
Joe Dante: Well, I think that the inflation of fake-3D didn’t help much. It’s one of the reasons why our picture never got to play in many 3D theaters. Because these movies were not in the pipeline when we decided to do ours and then suddenly all these big action pictures in phony 3D were kind of forced upon the audience, playing in all the big theatres. And so there was no room left for a small film with no stars.
screen/read: Disappointing. Especially as it is the type of family friendly horror film in the vein of „Gremlins“ and „The Goonies“ which has rarely been done since the 80’s.
Joe Dante: Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea [laughs].
screen/read: [laughs] But was that something that attracted you about the script?
Joe Dante: I guess so. I mean, it wasn’t so much that I was dying to do a retro 80’s movie as rather the fact that it was one of the better scripts that I read. You know, I see a lot of these things, I get offered a lot of horror films. But for the most part the characters just don’t engage you, and in this one I could see them, I could hear their voices, they sounded like real people to me. And because the plot is such that the resolution is not quite what you think it’s going to be. You know, there’s no monsters coming out of the hole or that kind of thing. It’s all sort of a psychological piece.
screen/read: It’s funny because the German distributor is pretty much trying to sell the idea of something evil climbing up the hole being the central plot idea. Obviously, people seem to be scared to sell the film as what it is and instead rather pretend it’s something else.
Joe Dante: That’s true, but I think it was a problem that most people didn’t know how to sell this film in general. You always fall between two stools if you make a movie that fits for families and that’s also scary. You run the risk of parents thinking it’s too scary for their kids and on the other hand teenagers thinking it’s too childish for them.
screen/read: In the case of this film you can look at the various story elements from different angles and that way it gets interesting for kids and adults likewise.
Joe Dante: Yeah, I think if you’re an adult the movie is a little darker as it may appear to be when you’re a kid. Because you don’t really know to what an extent the child abuse mentioned in the story has been taken. But I’m not quite sure where the niche is for that particular movie because it’s really hard to classify. Generally, when I think back to a lot of pictures that I’ve done, some of them were hard to classify: Is it a comedy, is it a horror film, what am I supposed to feel here? That’s what I like about them but it also makes them so difficult to position sometimes.
screen/read: Now in the six years since your last feature „Looney Toons: Back in Action” you’ve done quite a few things on TV, most prominently contributing two episodes to the „Masters of Horror” series. Would you say TV is the place for a certain type of filmmaking in the future?
Joe Dante: Well, I think so. Certainly the „Masters of Horror” series could have never been done theatrically. Certainly not the episodes I did. I did a political one [„The Homecoming”] and I did one that was very depressing [laughs]. Which I had long wanted to do though. From the 70’s on I had wanted to do „The Screwfly Solution” as a feature film, and when I finally finished it for this show and I looked at it, I thought I must have been crazy. This is such a depressing story, nobody would pay to see it.
screen/read: You also did a web series project for Roger Corman called „Splatter“. How did that come about?
Joe Dante: Right, that was kind of a goof, just because I had some time before I finished „The Hole“. And Corman had this idea and Netflix was going into the streaming, and they wanted something to prove to their subscribers that they could stream material over the internet. So they had an idea about doing a series that would be interactive in a sense that the audience would chose the people who die in the next episode. And what Corman interested was the idea of doing it for real. Doing one episode and then running it, getting the feedback from the audience and immediately shooting the second episode. And then running that the week after and doing the next episode. But I said, Roger, that really isn’t enough time in one week to write, shoot and edit this movie. No way it’s going to happen. I think what you have to do is take all the possibilites of all the different characters and shoot all the episodes. Depending on what happened if so-and-so is chosen or somebody else. It was quite challenging to do because it got very complicated mentally to hang on to all these possibilities and different iterations. And it was done very, very quickly and luckily we managed to find a location that worked for all the episodes so we didn’t have to move. We would have never gotten it done in like six, seven days otherwiese because moving takes a good part of the day. So we ended up on actually doing ten episodes for a three-episode show. Now that it exists I’m trying to get them to put it out as a DVD so that you can have party games with it. You could see what happens if you chose this particular guy getting killed and another one would live and what if you killed off that other one and so on.
screen/read: Is working for the web something that you would like to explore further in the future?
Joe Dante: I think web stuff is a little more like games and I’m not really a game person. I flirted with the game business when it first started like ten, fifteen, twenty years ago but I didn’t find that it was a way I wanted to tell stories.
screen/read: Now you started out working for Roger Corman …
Joe Dante: … and I ended up working for Roger [laughs].
screen/read: [laughs] Hopefully not!
Joe Dante: You have to look at it in a poetic way.
screen/read: Would you say that working for him on the web is comparable to what he did when you started out with him?
Joe Dante: It was very similar. It was like being in 1978 again. You know how sometimes when you go home and visit your parents, you’re eleven years old again? Well, this was sort of the same thing. I mean, nothing really changed the way the movies get made, it was still the same as it was in the 70’s.
screen/read: Apart from directing you also run one of the most interesting sites for film fans on the web with „Trailers from Hell“ which features people from the film industry commenting on classic trailers. Where did the idea come from?
Joe Dante: I have a big collection of 35mm trailers because I used to make trailers and I always loved them. At some point I was sitting there thinking about how I have all those trailers collected but nobody gets to see them. So I had this idea of putting them on the internet for everyone. But just by themselves? I mean, everybody puts trailers on the internet, what could I do that’s different? And so I decided to do some commentaries for about six of them and put them up on the web. Nothing much happened for a while but then some of my friends started to see them and said, oh, I’d like to do that too! Can you get this trailer for me, can you get that trailer for me? And so it just sort of snowballed into something that is now some kind of a mini film school. We’re nearing our 600th trailer. We’ve got about 40 people talking about them, all professionals behind the camera in one way or another. And we’ve been able to spotlight some movies that people might not have seen at all or haven’t seen in a long time. You know, there’s a whole generation coming up that never heard of a lot of these movies and a lot of these actors and directors. There’s so many things available now but you need someone to sort of point you toward things because otherwise it’s just overwhelming. If you go to Netflix and get a list of all the things that they have, it doesn’t mean anything unless there’s somebody to suggest you should check out this director or that actor. So it’s fun to do that. Unfortunately it’s not been very rewarding yet [laughs].
screen/read: Well yeah, it’s hard to imagine how to make any money with it, so it looks more like a complete passion project.
Joe Dante: It’s really hard to make money on the internet in general. Everybody has discovered that. But we have syndicated, we sold some of the trailers to DVD companies and there are some European stations that run them as interstitial source and so we’re hoping to sort of at least maybe break even.
screen/read: How is it about the rights for the trailers? Do you need to get them?
Joe Dante: Well, the rights, it’s interesting. Trailers are advertising material and in most cases published before the actual film. In America all trailers before 1978 are public domain. And when you get past that date it varies. But in every case what you’re really doing is you’re selling a movie. And so we always include links to where you could buy the poster and where you could buy the DVD. Because it’s not just about people watching our stuff, it’s about us trying to get these movies back into circulation as well.
screen/read: There’s quite a lot of interesting people doing the comments. How does the programming come together? Do you provide suggestions to them or chose a topic?
Joe Dante: I usually let them chose whatever they want if we have a trailer for it.
screen/read: And there are examples for the same trailer being commented upon by various persons. Was that intentional or is it something that just happened?
Joe Dante: In one case we had two people wanting to do the same trailer and so we put them together on camera and they both did the commentaries. I did one with Allan Arkush on „Grand Theft Auto“ and we did another one, I think for „Charley Varrick”. And then what also happens is that people come in and say, well, I want to do that trailer but so-and-so already did it, but whatever they said about the trailer is not the same thing I want to say. And so on rare occasions we would put up the same trailer again with a different commentary.
screen/read: Now you recently also added a blog to the site, which is even more work.
Joe Dante: Just about three weeks ago, yes. We decided that we would start a blog and see what happened. There’s been a whole lot of things that we’d like to talk about and that we’d like to point people toward without being necessarily related to the specific trailers of the website itself. So there’s more, we have a facebook page that’s been there for a while and then this blog which is turning out to be kind of interesting. It’s a little time consuming though.
screen/read: One of the first entries of the blog included an excerpt from another interesting thing you did quite a while ago called „The Movie Orgy“. I think the last time it was shown on a grander scale was in 2009 at the Venice Film Festival. What’s it about?
Joe Dante: It’s a film that Jon Davison, the producer of „Robocop“ and „Airplane!“, and I made in the 60’s out of found footage before we were in the business. We were film collectors and we knew other collectors, and there were libraries that went out of business so we would get a hold of their scraps and stuff. We would sort of splice them together and it ended up being a seven hour program of several different movies interspersed with commercials and tv shows, industrial films and whatever we happened to have on hand. It always had some sort of anti-war, anti-establishment attitude because that was the 60’s and that’s where we were. It became quite popular, and because of all these pieces of 16mm films spliced together we only had this one print to take around. We ran it at Columbia University, at NYU and Notre Dame University and other places to supplement our income a little. At one point it got even written up in „The New Yorker“. This guy came to a screening and he told us that he wanted to write about it. And we got panics because we didn’t own the rights to anything. We didn’t even know what some of the stuff was! So we were really worried we would get in trouble but we managed to talk him into leaving all the specifics out.
screen/read: The version you showed in Venice ran for about five hours I think while the original back in the 60’s was much longer. What happened in between?
Joe Dante: We usually rented the feature that we would show and put that on one projector, run a little bit of it and if it got dull we would cut to our reel of stuff that we had put together. And then we’d roll down on the other projector to the next part of the feature and turn that back on. Later we realized it was better to just buy prints and cut them up than it was renting them. And so over the years we had different versions of different length and finally we just put it aside and went on with our lives and our careers. Then about five years ago I sort of dusted it off and made a video of it. The closest version I could find was five hours. Two hours had somehow disappeared along the way. So we ran it here in Hollywood at the New Beverly Theatre and I was kind of curious to see what the reaction would be. It was so dated that I figured nobody would understand it. But actually it was this phenomenal hit, I mean, people did not only not leave but they stayed for the entire thing! Actually it’s sort of designed to walk out, having a pizza and then come back and don’t really have missed a thing. And so this reconstruction was very popular and it ran a couple of more times. We took it to Venice where they actually did Italian subtitles for the entire five hours, which must have been quite a feast, and we ran it as part of the Cine-Excess festival in London and some other places. And it always seems to be [laughs] quite a hit. We will probably going to run it again this summer at a different theatre here in Hollywood. But the trick is always that you can’t charge admission. Because since we don’t own anything that’s in it the only way to show it publically is by not charging.
screen/read: Judging from your description and the excerpt I saw, it’s actually pretty much what people are doing on the web these days, mashing up stuff, putting things together that don’t have a real relation etc.
Joe Dante: That is what it is, except it’s so much more difficult when you don’t have a viewer and you’ve only got your projector and a splicer [laughs]. We physically spliced the picture by hand. And there’s always a sound overlap because the sound is not exactly in the same place as the picture, which sometimes can be very funny and useful, but it’s also very crude. It’s just spliced in stitches. Nonetheless people seem to get past that right away.
screen/read: Any chance it will find its way into DVD or something one day?
Joe Dante: No, it never will find its way into DVD. It’s not the same experience. On the tv screen it would just be a bunch of stuff that you could look at and then occasionally stop and turn it back on again. But if you watch it in a concerted five hour period with a bunch of other people it leads to some kind of a mass hysteria [laughs]. It takes over and makes it quite a unique experience. And so I think the only hope for you seeing it is that we’re invited to some film festival in Germany or something and they want to run it.
screen/read: Very unconventional, without a doubt. Now you have a couple of more conventional projects in the making, one is an anthology movie called „Paris, I’ll kill you“ which was announced a while ago. Is that one still coming together?
Joe Dante: As far as I know I’m involved in it. I mean, I sent in the script, and I thought we were going to shoot it by the end of last year. They may have had some logistical or financing problems or whatever. And so I believe I’m still part of it but I actually haven’t heard anything recently. I think they must have taken it to Cannes to see if they can maybe get a few more financing. I can only assume, but it’s very typical, and that’s nothing against the project. It’s not easy to first get the money and then keep it and not lose it. We’re also still working on the funding for „Monster Love“, another project, and one called „The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes“ which is about Roger Corman making „The Trip“. But talk to any filmmaker and they will tell you that they’re working on funding. „Are you shooting?“ – „No, we’re working on funding“ [laughs]. I know a lot of people who come through with projects that they thought were funded and then proceeded as if they were and suddenly one or more of the financiers dropped out. So then were are you? Most of all you hope you’re not on an island somewhere in the Pacific looking for a flight back home.
screen/read: Not really satisfying. It hasn’t always been like this or has it?
Joe Dante: Oh, it’s gotten worse. There are less films made, they tend to be either extremely cheap or very expensive. And the mid-range movie that most of us spent most of our lives doing is kind of among the missing.
screen/read: As difficult as it is to get your own movies out there, you rarely write your own scripts. Why is that?
Joe Dante: Pretty much everybody can write better than me [laughs]. I mean, I can work with a script. In cases of some pictures like „Gremlins 2“ we literally came up with the movie from nothing. And so you’re involved in that sense. But on a picture like „The Hole“ where the writing is very good, the only question becomes, what can we do with the script to make it in the time we have? And once they decided they wanted to shoot it in Vancouver, how are we going to find these locations? There is a scene on a rollercoaster now that usually was written for a water tower. But there were no water towers to be found anywhere in Vancouver. And so that had to be re-thought. And then we found a rollercoaster location which had been used in some other pictures and that seemed like an interesting, more visual way of doing what the scene essentially was. You do contribute no matter if it’s written by you or not but it’s always best to get the best writers you can because the script is the movie.
screen/read: With a movie like „The Hole“ I guess you had a lot of budgetary restrictions which not always makes things easier. Would you say that the experience of having worked for Roger Corman has been of decisive benefit for dealing with less money?
Joe Dante: You learn all sorts of tricks and ways of doing things when you worked for Roger and did cheap pictures, but you use the same things that you learned on bigger pictures too. Not just to stretch a dollar but to make the most out of what time you’ve got. The only thing that counts in a movie is what happens between when you call „Action“ and when you call „Cut“. And all the rest of it is bullshit because the only thing that’s important is what’s on the screen. With a big budget movie you have a lot of more time to prepare what’s going to go up on the screen but usually you have just the same amount of time between „Action“ and „Cut“ to shoot it. So making films is not a leasurely activity in general.
screen/read: You also directed an episode of „CSI: New York“ in between, a format that you entered from the outside, so to speak. How much is working in a frame like that a different thing to do?
Joe Dante: Well, it’s different in that it’s not your project. If there’s something that you created and you brought it to where it is and you’re going to make it real, you have a lot of influence there. But when you’re working on somebody else’s tv series particularly as complicated as „CSI: New York“ which has continuing character arcs that started before you got there and that are going to continue after you’re gone, you have to be very careful to adopt their style and the way the actors are handled. There are certain givens, the camera always has to move and they have a montage style that’s very specific. You have to watch a bunch of those things to get them under your belt so that you can make your episode. The thing is, you want it to be personal as much as possible, but you also don’t want it to stand out from the others as if it’s not part of the series. So the way you usually get to provide your own take out of this is by casting the guest leads. And so I used people that I’ve worked with before like Bruce Dern and Robert Picardo. I also hired Julie Adams from „The Creature from the Black Lagoon“ as she’s somebody I always wanted to work with. You get to do it that way, but as far as the series’ regulars, there’s really not much directing to do, I mean, they know exactly who they are and where they’re going.
screen/read: Speaking of people you’ve worked with more than once, one of your closest working relationships was probably with Jerry Goldsmith.
Joe Dante: Oh yeah. That was just every feature I did from „The Twilight Zone“ to „Looney Toons“. Jerry is one of the few geniuses that I had ever known. I sort of locked on to him because he had already been hired for the „Twilight Zone“ movie before I was. We just happened to hit it off. And then I went to do „Gremlins“ and from that on it was just a great collaboration. Knowing whatever it was I would be doing, it was going to look better than it really was because it would have his music on. Which was very comforting. But for the most part we became friends and we had a way of, say, I could read his mind, he could read my mind. I’m not that musical, I don’t write music or I can’t read music but I do know music because I heard a lot of his scores and a lot of other people’s. I would temp-track a movie with other people’s music. And it was always being kind of a code. There would be certain pieces I would use and he would know exactly what kind of music I wanted. But I never used his own music. Because one, he didn’t like it, and two, I think telling a composer to imitate what he has already done is not a very good way of working with him [laughs].
screen/read: He created some truely classic material for your films. Everybody knows „The Gremlin Rag“ for instance, and it’s probably one of the most unusual pieces of filmmusic ever.
Joe Dante: Very unusual. When I first heard it I wasn’t even quite sure what it was. I didn’t really get it, because in those days this was all pre-electronics. Jerry would just play the theme on the piano. So when I heard this sort of carnival hurdy-gurdy kind of music I thought, Geez, what’s he on about? Is this really right for this movie? But he was Jerry Goldsmith, so I figured I should trust him. And sure enough he knew exactly what he was doing and it was a big asset for the movie.
screen/read: I imagine it’s sort of like losing your musical voice as a filmmaker when a composer who was such a close collaboration partner sadly passes away. Do you still feel like there’s a lack as far as the music is concerned when you make a movie today?
Joe Dante: Well, I was already not using Jerry for the television work because he was frankly too expensive for most of the things that I did. So I had other people who had been actually recommended by him. Hummie Mann was a guy I used a lot, he was quite good. And then on „The Hole“ I used Javier Navarrete from „Pan’s Labyrinth“ who was recommended to me by Guillermo del Toro. And he was terrific and I got along with him greatly, he did a good score. Obviously, it wasn’t the same as working with Jerry. And you just have to admit to yourself, it’s just not going to be like it was. You have to get along with what you have and make the best of it. It’s the same thing with actors who work with directors for years and then pass away and then the director is still working and their stock company is diminished because the actors that they loved to use are just not there anymore.
screen/read: Returning to trailers once again, it’s quite obvious that the way trailers are done today differs a lot from how it has been years ago.
Joe Dante: The problem with trailers today is that it’s not one man, one trailer. It’s not even one agency, one trailer. It’s many agencies, and then the studio takes the ideas and cuts them all together into their own trailer. So there’s no such thing as authorship in a trailer anymore. Not the way that it used to be. And so now the trailers that you see are usually amalgam smash-ups if you will of different approaches from different trailer houses.
screen/read: Would you say that is a loss of culture as far as filmmaking is concerned?
Joe Dante: I think that the business has changed in so many ways that you just can’t limit it to trailers. The way in which business is done and the markets that have to be hit has completely changed since the time that I got into this business. It’s unrecognizable.
screen/read: Is it like people working in the industry get a lot more pressure? Has that become worse?
Joe Dante: It’s not that it’s worse it’s just different. I mean, most of the times they don’t even show your film anymore. And as the movies cost more and more money, there’s more oversight, there’s more cooks in the kitchen than there used to be. And when directors go up for a movie now, they’re expected to have written little treatises and gone out and shot test footage and maybe built some sets in miniature. It’s like a school project now to go and get hired on a movie. It’s not based on what you did before, it’s based on „what have you got to show me now?“ So it’s a tough market for a director these days. I’m quite glad I’m not trying to break into this particular version of the business, because it would be pretty hard.
screen/read: Do you see talents in the industry where you would say, those might survive for a longer time and stand up against all that pressure?
Joe Dante: It’s difficult to say because it’s so dependent on how any one movie does. You can have a big hit movie and then you have a big flop movie. Then you’re in movie jail, as we call it. You’re cold, and then they want to get someone else who is A. younger, B. cheaper and C. can be told what to do. The directors who are going to rise above that are those who have their own voice. People like Duncan Jones. People who make movies that are their own. So when you look at them you feel like there is some personality behind this movie as opposed to the latest superhero rip-off, which is more a combination of various different movies sometimes worked on by numerous directors. There’s no shortage of good talented people out there. But there is a shortage of originality. Everybody would love to make movies that aren’t copies of other movies. Or sequels. Or tent-poles. But a movie is a product, even more product than movie. When you go into some number four, number five of a big hit series, it’s extremely difficult to make it seem there is a point to having that many versions of the same story. Unless it’s a serial like „Harry Potter“ where the stories are actually already written for you. But if you’re just making „Action Movie X“ number five, number six, number seven, how can they not be the same as number one and number two? The only reason you’re making them, and everybody knows that, is to get people back in to see the same story again.
screen/read: Doesn’t that make one wish for the old studio system to come back?
Joe Dante: Well, the studio system was completely different. There was a need, there was a market, there were movies that needed to be made, they changed twice a week in the theatres. They were on double bills, there were smaller pictures that needed to fill the bill, and there were a lot of opportunities for people to rise in the genre. First you do „Armored Car Robbery“ for no money at RKO like Richard Fleischer did and then suddenly you get to do „20.000 Leagues under the Sea” and become a major director. That type of trajectory doesn’t happen anymore. Now directors are chosen from commercials and rock videos and things like that. Those are the training grounds now. And then when they get dumped onto a movie set with a lot of people telling them what to do and a tremendous amount of overhead, it can be very daunting.
screen/read: Yet there are the very few exceptional names that keep making independent material on a higher scale level, with Quentin Tarantion for instance being a textbook example. What would you say is the reason for their survival on the market?
Joe Dante: Well, Quentin is like Kubrick in that he has his sponsors. I mean, he has the Weinsteins. And they look out for him and he looks out for them and it’s a symbiotic relationship. But that’s cover. That’s not like having to deal with seventeen executives at a big studio with all of them having different ideas of what kind of movie you should be making. Quentin and Woody Allen and people like that are in the lucky position of getting to make their movies the way they want them.
screen/read: When you look back twenty, thirty years and think of projects you planned or were involved in at some point but never really got to make, are there any that you would still love to do if you got the chance?
Joe Dante: Most of the time they are things that have in the meantime been done by somebody else. I had a version of „The Mummy“ at Universal in the early 80’s that was a really good script by John Sayles. They decided not to make it because the head of the studio said he wanted it to be a period picture like the first „Mummy“ movie which is set in 1933 and was actually not a period picture [laughs]. But then they went off and they spent a lot of money on writers and then eventually hit on the „Indiana Jones“ rip-off formula that made them a big blockbuster with sequels and spin-offs. And so I’m sure the studio was happy they didn’t make my version. Nevertheless, I thought my version was better [laughs].
screen/read: I bet.
[Thanks so much to Joe Dante for taking the time. It was a blast.]