Hello ladies and gentlemen, Muldoon here with a chat with a man I never thought I'd have to opportunity to talk with. Joe Dante to me is a name that's synonymous with fun. Be it GREMLINS, THE 'BURBS, INNERSPACE, SMALL SOLDIERS and more, the man's been at the helm of some rather classic films, movies we've all seen and all enjoyed, some more than others. The man's imbedded in my mind as a true legendary filmmaker, so when I heard he was being honored with an award at this next weekend's Mammoth Lakes Film Festival, I jumped at the chance to pick his brain for a bit. Of course, there's only a limited amount of questions you can ask within the span of fifteen minutes, and I selfishly jumped into territories that I personally was curious about. We touch up his brief opportunity to direct JURASSIC PARK, which films he considers define him, what he's learned over the years that only experience can teach, and much more. He's an individual I would happily go into more detail with if given the chance in the future and for every question I asked, there were roughly five more I wanted to, but couldn't. As always, I truly appreciate the man's time and appreciate him setting aside what he could to talk with a fan here at AICN. He will be at The Mammoth Lake Film Festival this weekend with a special presentation of INNERSPACE where he will be doing a Q&A, so if you're anywhere near that fest and have a question of your own that you're burining to ask - please go and circle back here with your thoughts! In the mean time, check out the chat between the man and myself below.
Hi Joe, how are you doing today, sir?
Well first off, congratulations on being honored with The Sierra Spirit Award. I assume you’re going to be pretty booked that weekend, but was curious if you plan on actually seeing a few films while at the festival.
Oh, I’d love to. The one thing about going to festivals, particularly if they are going to give you something is that you end up doing so many interviews that you don’t get to see any movies. (Laughs) I don’t know quite what the schedule is there yet, but I understand that they have a pretty good selection, or at least they did last year. I’m certainly hoping that I get to see some movies.
Absolutely. There’s a playfulness with your films, a sincerity that resonates well with younger people. Whenever you see “Joe Dante” attached to a project, there’s an element of fun, like you’re synonymous with "summer time" in my book. What would you consider two films of yours that are polar opposites, tonally. What would you consider to be the two films at opposite ends in your repertoire of movies?
Well the grimmest thing I’ve ever done is an episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, called THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION, which was about a virus that causes men to rape and kill women. There’s not a shot of humor in it and it’s completely serious and it fits the subject. It’s really creepy frankly. It’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever done and what’s interesting is I always wanted to do it as a feature, we just could never figure out the rights, and so I finally managed to do it as this TV feature. Once I was done with it, I realized how crazy I must have been to think it would be a feature, because it’s just so depressing. (Laughs) Absolutely nobody would go see it. So on the serious side, that’s the heaviest thing and then the silliest one… boy, there are so many silly ones, it’s probably HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, my first movie, which is really pretty silly.
What pushed to you to make THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION, to create something so grim?
The thing about MASTERS OF HORROR was that it was an opportunity for all of these horror movie directors to be able to do things without a lot of interference. There were no real guidelines, because it was for cable, so you could get away with almost anything. The first one I did was this anti-Bush zombie picture about dead soldiers who come back and go after a president who sent them to an unjust war. It was a real polemic, I mean it was a ‘hit you over the head” kind of angry movie and because I was pissed off at the time and nobody was saying anything about our adventure in Iraq, which seemed to me to be such a disaster, and everybody was just cheerleading from the sides saying how wonderful the whole thing was and I thought somebody should say that it wasn’t. I never could have made that anywhere else, except MASTERS OF HORROR, because it was not commercial. Nobody would sponsor it, and you couldn’t release it as a feature. The MASTERS OF HORROR thing was, for me, was two really good opportunities to do things that not only expanded my bailiwick, but also allowed me to work in areas that I would never be able to get to if it were more commercial.
To be selfish here, I write as “Muldoon” on the site and am a big fan of JURASSIC PARK. I know you were one of a few directors in the running to originally bring the film to life.
There were four of us, I believe. Me, Donner, Cameron, and Steven I believe. Michael Crichton was trying to decide who would get to direct the movie and each one of us was allied with a different studio.
Going back to your approach, how was it different than what we eventually got with Spielberg’s film? How was your version of JURASSIC PARK different than his?
Well I don’t know that I would have made anything as good as Steven did, because he’s really a great filmmaker, but my version wouldn’t have been the cuddly Richard Attenborough lovable character. In the books he’s not a lovable character, so Steven softened him up in a way that just didn’t appeal to me. I had read the book and I thought it was really clever and so my take on it would have been a little different. I can’t argue with success. (Laughs)
Right, but at the same time you’ve got your own style, your own decisions, and interpretations. I’d be curious to see what your version would have been. You’ve created or been a part of so many incredible classic films that I can’t even wrap my head around your body of work. Be it prep, production, or post… what is it that you enjoy most about directing films and TV shows? What’s the reason you can’t walk away from this profession?
Well for one thing I can’t do anything else, so if I want to feed the cat I better keep doing it. As far as what do I enjoy the most? I think… I started as an editor and so I really love the editing process, because that’s the part where you find the movie and some times you find it may not be the movie you thought you were making, but now that you’ve got it all edited in front of you and you see that this aspect of the movie is better than this other aspect or more attractive or just more successful, that’s always revelatory. Then the prepping, it’s a little tedious, because you go on all the location scouts and all that stuff with the storyboards, but the actual making of the movie with the actors is probably the most fun, because that’s the one part that you can’t check against, so you don’t really know what you’re going to get from a given actor on a given day with a scene. If somebody goes wildly off book and comes up with something that’s much more clever than what you had in the script, then you’re going to go with that. That’s where the real fun aspect of movies is, with the actors.
Just looking at “Joe Dante, the director” in 2016, what’s the difference between him and the young man who did THE MOVIE ORGY or PIRANHA? What’s changed over the years for you?
I got old. (Laughs) I can’t get up as early in the morning anymore. It was a different business, a different world. I was different… Obviously we are all different when we were younger than we are when we’re older. I’ve learned a lot of stuff that I didn’t know. When I put tighter THE MOVIE ORGY, I was just into editing and I didn’t actually think I’d be directing or telling people “You stand over there and you come in over here…” I just didn’t think that was what I was going to end up doing, but I think by the time I made PIRANHA, which was a very ambitious project and the fact that I was terrified while I was editing it that it was going to be the worst movie ever made and then for it to turn out well was sort of my indication that “Yes, this is what you should be doing.”
Speaking of your past works, when people approach you on the street or at a given event, what’s the one film that seems to be mentioned the most?
It’s odd, it changes over the years. For a long time, to my surprise and shock, people would come up to me and tell me how much they like EXPLORERS, which was the biggest flop I’ve ever made. That was always very gratifying even though I wasn’t allowed to finish the movie. I think of it as a jumbled mess, but obviously other people don’t see it that way.
I’d fall in the camp that would disagree with you there, but it's your film!
There was always GREMLINS, but oddly enough more recently it’s been THE ‘BURBS. This movie that had really no particular cache when it came out, something with Tom Hanks in it, therefore it made some money… It got terrible reviews, really awful… It’s become this underground cult movie. There are websites devoted to it. There’s a trivia booklet… It’s taken on a life of its own, which is really, really strange.
GREMLINS, PIRANHA, INNERSPACE, THE ‘BURBS, MATINEE, EERIE, INDIANA… I could go on and on… You’ve been a part of so many fun films. I was relatively young when SMALL SOLDIERS came out and am just curious what your fondest memory of that project is. I think the transitions from puppets to CG was and still is rather seamless, something a lot of newer films don’t seem to do as well.
SMALL SOLDIERS is a bit of a mixed bag for me, because it was the first movie that I ever made that I had a lot of interference with from the studio, which I won’t go into, but it’s generally involving the last half of the movie. What was great about SMALL SOLDIERS was it was the last time I worked with Stan Winston and he had come up with these puppet designs and ways to make them walk and all of that… What was interesting was that when we started to make the movie, the CGI was just becoming… it was growing by leaps and bounds and it turned out that many of the things we had planned to do with the puppets were really better served by using CGI and not having puppets and puppeteers.
The difficulty of puppeteering the character and having the puppeteer not be in the frame, hiding all of that stuff, I mean that was… If the puppet had to do anything, if it had to go from place to place, it was going to be CGI. If it were just going to stand there and emote, then we could use the puppets. It was sort of a journey of discovery and it’s kind of like what happened with Steven on JURASSIC PARK where I think they had planned that they were going to use a lot more real animatronics than they ultimately ended up doing. It was sort of a moment I think in time where the writing started to be on the wall for the in-house on camera effects and that they started to get pretty much replaced by computer graphics.
As a fan of the film, I have no qualms whatsoever with how those characters were brought to life. You did an incredible job blending multiple techniques to make them feel as real as your living, breathing cast. With already having accomplished so much in your life, is there any project, event, book, play… or anything at all that Joe Dante wants to accomplish that you’ve not yet had a chance to do?
I have a lot of pictures that fell apart that I would have liked to have done, but most of them are kind of irretrievable, because of the long distance of time. They really wouldn’t be viable now, but I’m still working on my movie with Roger Corman called THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES. I’m still hoping to get that off the ground. It almost got off the ground twice in the last ten years, and I haven’t given up. I’m still working on that, and of course in today’s world you have to have more than one project. They used to call you up and say, “Here’s a project. Here’s the start date. Do you want to do it?” and that was a given, but now if somebody calls you up and asks you if you want to do a script, then they say “Okay, now we will go out and raise the money.” That can take forever or maybe wont happen at all. That doesn’t mean you aren’t still working on it or devoting a lot of time to it. Then even if you get it made, there’s no guarantee it’s going to get release theatrically, because the theatrical business is all giant blockbusters that run three hours. My last picture went to ten theaters for a week and then it went to VID, which is a fairly standard practice for indies now. The problem with that is when you go to type in the title of the movie on the computer, the first sites that come up are pirate sites, which means that people see your movie, but you don’t get any money. The model for independent films going to VOD is pretty limiting.
Well I think that’s about all the time we have today, sir. Thank you again for your time and congratulations on getting the Sierra Award at Mammoth Lakes. I’m a huge fan and am very much looking forward to seeing what you do next. Have a great time at the festival. Hopefully you have a chance to catch a few movies.
I hope so. Thanks, Mike.
Special thanks to Matt Johnstone for providing me the the opportunity to speak with a personal favorite. I'm absolutely a fan and wish I could be out there this weekend at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival to catch INNERSPACE and hear more from Dante (as well as catch a bunch of movies I've yet to see!).
- Mike McCutchen