Gremlins director Joe Dante started his career cutting trailers for King of the B’s Roger Corman. Hollywood Boulevard was his feature film directorial debut, co-directed with Allan Arkush — the result of a bet between producer Jon Davison and Corman that Davison could make a movie cheaper than any other that had been released at Corman’s company New World Pictures. It’s that kind of humor that Dante’s work is identified with — satirical gags and clever in-jokes for the film geek crowd.
But a certain dark undercurrent and social commentary elevates Dante’s movies beyond mere parody. His subversive eye, and appreciation and knowledge of classic and horror cinema imbues his work with a deeper philosophy.
Throughout his career, Dante has worked with everyone from Steven Spielberg (Twilight Zone: The Movie) to famed “that guy” character actor Dick Miller (Gremlins). He helped audiences find a new appreciation for classic cinema with the creation of Trailers From Hell, and he’s directed several television episodes for shows like Salem, while also exploring new mediums for his work like the Netflix-released web series Splatter.
Following the Blu-ray release of the Steven Spielberg-produced Innerspace earlier this month, we spoke to Dante about his comedic ode to Fantastic Voyage, the rituals of editing, working with The Ramones and Roger Corman, and books.
Flavorwire: In the Blu-ray commentary for Innerspace, you said you struggled coming up with a better title for the film…
Joe Dante: I never managed to do it.
How long do you usually spend thinking of titles for a movie?
In this particular case no one was especially satisfied with the title of the picture. It didn’t tell you anything about the movie. In addition, it was the title of a Monsanto ride at Disneyland. It just seemed to be off the point. I really have a feeling that the reason the picture didn’t do as well as we hoped was because of the title. It just didn’t convey the fact that it was a comedy. In fact, the advertising — there was a trailer and everything… but the print ad was a giant flop.
You called [Gremlins actor] Dick Miller, who has been in almost every movie you’ve ever done, your good luck charm. Did you first meet him doing Hollywood Boulevard [co-directed with Allan Arkush] or on a Roger Corman set? And are you the person who came up with the idea for the “Walter Paisley” gag?
I had grown up watching [Miller’s] movies, obviously. And when I got my chance to do what I thought may well be my only movie, I thought, “Well, gosh. I gotta have Dick in it.” And I thought it would be funny to call him Walter Paisley [named after Miller’s character in Corman’s Bucket of Blood]. And that became a cottage industry. Everybody called him Walter Paisley. We hit it off, and he ended up being in virtually every picture I ever did.
Tell me about your own cameo in Innerspace, working for Vectorscope Lab. It’s in the spirit of all the little in-jokes you pepper throughout your movies for movie geeks to notice. Was it a last-minute addition?
I don’t remember if I did it because somebody didn’t show up, or I just decided I wanted to be in the movie. The easy thing was, all I had to do was put on a lab coat, and that was the costume. But I had to do a couple of takes. I wouldn’t call it my high watermark in motion pictures.
Do you have a favorite film cameo you’ve done?
I wouldn’t say so. I’m not that crazy about seeing myself on screen.
I’m a terrible actor.
Also on the commentary for Innerspace you said Dennis Quaid was the Dean Martin character you were looking for, and Martin Short was his Jerry Lewis. Comedy is an essential part of your work, and I’ve always felt your affection for that classic style. Who were the comedians you loved growing up?
Well Martin and Lewis, you have to remember, were a phenomenon when I was a kid. They were the regular comedians that everybody liked, like Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. But there was something electric about Martin and Lewis. It was more apparent on their television show and in their nightclub performances than it was in their movies, where they were sort of tamped down. The Colgate Comedy Hour, which I watched when I was a kid, was a show where you never knew what they were going to do. The show would go over by an hour… it was really fun. And when they broke up, it was a tragedy for a lot of 10-year-olds.
Are you a Dean Martin, a Jerry Lewis, or both?
I’m more of an Abbott & Costello type.
You were interested in becoming a cartoonist when you were younger. Did that also help develop your sense of comedy?
I was a Disney fanatic when I was a kid. I drew like crazy. I drew my own comic books. I had my own characters and made up stories. I didn’t realize it was a nascent entry into filmmaking. That wasn’t really how I viewed it. I was very serious about making comic strips. When I went to art school, I was told cartooning was not an art, and I would have to do something else. They had an intro to film class with 40 students and a two cameras, so I took that. I never really seriously thought I would make films. It just happened when I came out to work for Roger Corman to edit trailers, and I got an opportunity to co-direct a movie. I thought it would be interesting to see whether or not I could do it. Editors tend to be rather solitary. They work alone. Filmmaking and directing is a very social activity. I found that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the communality of it. The fact that there were so many people with ideas. It was like building something. So, I started gravitating toward that. I spent my entire life in the movies, but I never thought I was going to make them.
You went to school in Philadelphia, right?
Yes, I went to art school there.
David Lynch always talks about how rough the city was back in those days. What do you remember it being like during that time?
I was there in the ‘60s. There were things like be-ins. You know, it was that era. But there was also a lot of trouble — a lot of racial tension. Frank Rizzo was the mayor. South Philadelphia was someplace where you just didn’t venture. It was an interesting time to be there. What I liked about it was it had all these old movie theaters, most of which are gone now. On Market Street and Chestnut Street there were these great old movie theaters. And there were these grindhouses, which were open 24-hours a day and ran nothing but old movies. Pre Turner Classic Movies, the only way to see a movie like that was to see it on TV — and then you knew it wasn’t going to be on again for a year. But these were prints of movies from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, and they were in constant rotation. And it was 25 cents to get in. So, I spent the majority of my time that I should have been spending in art class at the movies.
You’ve said that you like having writers on set during a film shoot — as in the case of Innerspace. Is there an instance where having a writer on set really changed the course of a film for you?
I’m not sure it would be changing the course, but I did bring [writer] John Sayles down to Texas for Piranha. I do it usually by trying to put them in the movie to justify the travel and all that. He came up with a whole lot of funny stuff with Dick Miller at an attraction at this seedy amusement park we were shooting in. And we’d just grind out pages and add stuff. It was really fun. I did that again for The Howling — he’s in that. I brought him in to play a morgue attendant. I don’t mind telling an actor my opinion of what they think is a good line change, but it’s always so much better to actually have the guy who wrote it there. “If this doesn’t work for you, then let’s find one that does. Or, explain why it needs to be exactly this way.” It just makes my life much easier to have the writer there. The only time it isn’t easy, is if you and the writer aren’t on the same page, and you’re trying to do something very different.
Do you enjoy a certain sense of ritual when you set out to write or shoot a movie?
The process is pretty much the same. It varies depending on the movie and where it’s going to be shot and all that. I’m an editor, so I enjoy editing. That’s really where you find the movie. The secret is to perfect the movie that you made, not necessarily the movie you set out to make. Sometimes, an actor will take over. Or, one character will suddenly become much more interesting than was planned. You want to be able to highlight that. The whole structure of your movie may change during the editing. You might get an idea that the middle should go in the beginning and vice versa. That’s where you really have time to pay attention. On the set, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to get things done, so you do a lot of fast thinking. But you don’t get to contemplate the way you do in the editing room.
You wrote Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you what was it like working with The Ramones.
The Ramones were The Ramones. If it wasn’t for The Ramones, that movie would not nearly be as well thought of today. They were the people who your parents warned you against. They were a cartoon parody of a rock band, while also being a great rock band. They were complete non-actors, which made it even funnier. That movie is designed by The Ramones. What’s really interesting is there was talk about making the movie with The Clash. And, that movie with The Clash? We wouldn’t be talking about it today.
Tell me about dragging poor Dee Wallace into a scummy porn shop for The Howling? Was she jumping out of her skin?
She was a very sensitive person and still is. She had never been in a porn shop — and probably never has been since. And she was so upset by simply being there, that I just told her to use it. “If this is the way you feel, then this is the way the character should feel.” And she was truly grossed out and freaked out — you can see it in her performance. She was really vulnerable in it.
Was that shot in LA?
Yeah. On Western Avenue in an area that is, needless to say, no longer there.
I’ve always pegged you for a big reader — or maybe I’m fantasizing, because I told you one time how much I loved the occult bookstore you shot for The Howling. Tell me what your bookshelf looks like.
I can only tell you that sometimes people come into my house and they look at me and say, “Books!” I have books on bookshelves, I have books in the garage, I have books in boxes.
I knew it! I always knew you were one of those people.
I am! I don’t like to throw books away. Somebody gave me a book by Ann Coulter, and I thought, “What am I going to do with this? It’s not like I’m going to read it.” I don’t want to burn it. I’m not a book-burner. So, should I just leave it out in the sun for the possums or what? I just don’t like to do bad things to books. Books are really important.
I just interviewed Roger Corman, who worked with you during the start of your career. Like Roger, you’re also known for injecting some social and political commentary into your work — although your approach feels more subversive. You’ve always been more interested in that dark underbelly it seems. Was this something Roger influenced, or did you have a desire to use films as a platform for this kind of commentary?
Look at the movies Roger was making. They were ostensibly action pictures with sex in them. But they always had a female protagonist, and they always had an underlining pseudo left-wing message or politic to it. And I admired that. He could have gone for the lowest common denominator, but he stuck to his guns in the commercial framework that he worked in. That stuck with me. I always felt that if there’s room to put your personal feelings into a movie, you should. And if there isn’t room, then you probably shouldn’t be doing that movie. I try not to do anything that I wouldn’t go see. So, if I don’t have a vested interest in it, then I don’t see why anybody would sit there watching what I’m doing.
Speaking of Corman, I asked him for an update about the biopic you’re directing about him and the making of The Trip, The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes. He said you’ve found financing and a new writer to work on the script. Can you give us any other updates?
We’re always looking for financing. We almost made the picture twice. We came within a hair of making it. Due to financing and actors and various other reasons, it fell out. So, it’s not a matter of needing to writing it, it’s a matter of finding the backing for it. We’re still looking for support. In this position, you have to juggle a lot of projects. You just can’t work on one. You have to have a bunch in your pocket. So, you’re constantly working on things and more than one thing at a time. And, we’re always juggling Kaleidoscopic Eyes. But almost no movie is financed entirely by one person. So, it’s a matter of putting it together. If one thing falls out, then the whole thing falls apart. It’s much harder to make movies now than it was when I started.
That’s what Roger said, too.
You edited trailers for Roger Corman in the beginning of your career, and Trailers from Hell finds you focused on trailers once more, discussing each film’s historical place and artistry. I say art, because in my mind, I believe you look at the trailer as an art form. Today’s trailers tend to reveal the plot twists before audiences get to the theater.
I think it’s a lost art form.
I appreciate your fondness for those classic trailers that deeply affected viewers. I’m thinking of the old horror trailers, like The Exorcist — with pulsing lights and flashes of the demonic face. Or, the trailer for The Shining with the elevators flooding the hotel with blood. What have trailers taught you about editing, and what are some of your favorite trailers?
I learned that you don’t make a trailer for your own movie, because you’re so protective of what you’ve shot. I don’t do that anymore. My favorite trailers are the ones like the Alfred Hitchcock trailers and the Kubrick trailers — the ones where the filmmakers are actively involved in making the trailer (to the opposite of what I just said, I’m just not one of those filmmakers). The Hitchcock trailers, particularly the later ones, are selling his personality. Any behind-the-scenes stuff in a trailer or anytime an actor speaks to the screen, and it’s shot particularly for the trailer, those are the kind of trailers I like. When I worked for Roger, I always tried to put in some scene that had been cut out of the movie into the trailer. It’s a weird affectation I have. “Well, this scene’s never going to get seen on the screen, so I’ll put it in the trailer. They went to the trouble to shoot it.”
Nostalgia is a word that gets tossed around a lot when people discuss your work.
It makes me feel old.
The word nostalgia can have schmaltzy connotations. Regardless, your work certainly has an association with nostalgia. I’m thinking back to nostalgic associations people made with The Movie Orgy. Gremlins is a movie that tapped into the dark side of the childhood psyche and hasn’t left most fans. Are you comfortable with that association, one of “nostalgia?”
I don’t know if I’m not comfortable with it. It’s certainly the word that’s most liberally applied to anything that has to do with my movies. “Oh, it’s nostalgia.” One of the reasons we started Trailers from Hell is that we try to rekindle interest in the movies that people had more or less put aside. Today’s audiences experience a lot more than one screen. They have options. When we were kids, we had records, movies, and TV — and that was about it. Oh, and radio. The idea of trying to get people interested in the past, which I think has a lot to tell us about the present, is one of the reasons we try to get contemporary filmmakers to interest contemporary audiences about the things they thought were important — the things that changed their lives, or affected their filmmaking. In that sense, it’s been successful.
Your early films Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha have that great scrappy, bad-taste vibe that feels like young filmmakers having fun and testing the waters.
And non-PC filmmakers.
I asked Roger this question. Who are the filmmakers or artists of today that are doing something similar?
I don’t know if anybody’s doing something similar. You’d have to go to early Gregg Araki, I think, to find an equivalent to breaking taboos and all that kind of stuff. It’s such an amazingly different world, I almost don’t know how to answer that. Movies aren’t even shot on film anymore. They’re not projected on film. They’re not distributed the way that they used to be. With my last picture, it was ten theaters in seven days, and then it went to VOD. And it’s a comedy, which should have an audience with people laughing. Instead, people look at it on a computer screen and get a mild chuckle out of it. It’s a whirlwind of change.
You mentioned breaking taboos. What do you think about people like Tom Six? He made Human Centipede, which broke a few taboos for some audiences.
Well, yeah. But it was also a couple of years ago when there was more of an actual film market than what we have today. The whole idea of making anything but a blockbuster means no money. Anything in between has gone to cable.
But, there’s a lot of people I like — people like Duncan Jones. There’s a lot of talented guys out there.