Interview with Joe Dante

I gave Joe Dante a ring at his office in L.A. where we talked about his long and illustrious career. However if you’re looking for questions and answers about Gremlins I didn’t asked him a thing about Gremlins. We did however talk about Eerie, Indiana, Matinee, upcoming projects and the current state of the industry.

The first thing I wanted to ask about was how did Eerie, Indiana come about, because that was a massive impact on me when I was a kid.

Well, you’re a dwindling demographic, I believe. Where did you see it?

I saw it on TV when I was a kid.

In Britain?

No, I’m from the states originally. But it’s become a cult hit, people know it.

Well, it was a project that was brought to me by Jose Rivera and Carl Schaefer [in the background, Dante’s mobile rings –his ringtone is the sound of a theramin…] They came to me with this thing and it was a plot for NBC. They wanted me to do the pilot, and I said I’d like to do the pilot if I could still be involved with the show if it sold. And they said that’s fine, So I got quite involved in the casting process, and I think I saved them a lot of trouble by not letting them hire the kid they wanted to hire for the lead in the show, because the kid that we go was just much better, much ore appealing, and I knew that was going to wear well over a number of episodes. And they loved the pilot—they loved it so much they put it up against 60 Minutes, which was quite a popular show on television at the time. And of course the ratings were abysmal, and it did manage to survive through 18 episodes. One of which wasn’t shown, because it has backward masking in it, and that was considered too controversial to the religious groups. They eventually included it on the DVD release but it was never broadcast.

The problem was people just didn’t know it was there. What oddly enough happened was after it was cancelled, couple years later they ran it on the Fox channel as a Sunday morning show and it suddenly became very popular.

That’s when I saw it.

And they said, “can we make more of those?” And we said, “No, the kids are too old, you’re stuck with these.” And they said “We’ve gotta have more~!” So what they did was they went to Canada, and they would rebuilt the sets so it would look like they were still in Hollywood, and hire new kids to play the parts. But use clips from the old show to make it look like the kids from the old show go through a time warp or something and become these new kids. And that allowed them to make I think another 10 or 11 episodes for half the very low cost of what we were doing for the original series, and none of the original talent. And it was just unwatchably bad. And I have no idea what happened to those shows.

They’re on Hulu I believe.

Really?

With the original as well—they’ve got “Season One” and “Season Two” I believe.

Well, Season Two—you can just forget about Season Two. What was really interesting was that the last episode of the show, which I was supposed to direct but couldn’t because I was going to do Matinee, but I was in it playing myself. And the concept was the kid in the show learns that it’s a TV show and he’s working on a television show and all the people around him are actors and not his family, And it was such a clever way to get out of the show that I’m not sure anybody has really appreciated it, because it’s not really readily available.

Did the fact that Twin Peaks had come out previously kind of help it get made?

I don’t know. I don’t know that it was the same audience.

Because it’s kind of a kid’s Twin Peaks in a way—it’s a very bizarre show.

I think the audience was always considered kids. That’s why it was on at 7:00. I mean, 7:00, that’s pretty early! And so it just didn’t… it is a little like Twin Peaks, and I’m sure that might have had something to do with the original concept of the show, but it just was one of those things where it didn’t get discovered until it was too late.

How hard is it to get the right balancing act when putting a lot of overt political subtext in what is basically a kids’ film?

When you get asked to do something and you’re not sure if this is something you want to spend a year of your life on, you basically have to say, “is this something I would go see if this was made by somebody else?” And if the answer is yes, then you try to insert as much of your personality as is allowed into the material. So regardless of whether it’s supposed to be a movie for kids or not—I mean, Small Soldiers is an example of a movie that the studio could never decide who the audience was. When we started it was supposed to be an edgy movie for teenagers, and by the time we were finished with it was supposed to be a pre-teen movie that had toe-ins with toy companies and hamburger companies. And there was never any decision on the part of anybody as to what kind of movie it was, so it was up to me to make it into a movie that I thought was an entity of its own and had a reason for being and a point, and would still play well to both adults and kids. And that’s just the way you have to approach it.

Obviously this interview is going to be tied in with the re-release of Matinee. One thing I like about Matinee is how spot-on the details are: all the posters are completely right, I’ve checked it, it’s all ’62. So what was the hardest thing to make sure was correct?

Well, they’re not just correct for ’62—they’re actually movies that played in that theatre in Key West, which we got ahold of a lot of newspapers and went back and looked at the bills in that theatre, and those were movies that all played there. Probably not all at once, or all in one month, but they all played there. We did a tremendous amount of research on that movie. All the military equipment on the beach, the way it’s formatted, is all exactly the way it was. The clothes the kids wear, the props, the stuff in the kid’s room, the monster magazines—those were all mine—the drawings on the wall are drawings that I made, posters from my collection that I had when I was the age of the kid in the movie—who’s British, by the way, nobody ever notices that Simon Fenton, who plays the lead in the film is actually a British actor.

What are you most excited about with the Arrow re-release coming out in September?

Well, it’s not a rerelease, it’s just coming out on video…

No, it’s Blu-Ray, it’s the first time it’s been out on Blu-Ray.

Well, I guess I’m excited that somebody’s going to see it for a change. It didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and it was a niche kind of a movie and through a series of complicated coincidences it ended up being released by Universal Pictures as a studio movie, with the attendant wide opening in a zillion theatres for a week of whatever. And it wasn’t that kind of movie—it was the kind of movie that was supposed to open in two or three theatres and get some reviews and get some word of mouth and then build, and eventually go on to become better known. But instead everything happened within a week or two. And, you know, some people came, I was happy to see people would bring their kids and say “this is what going to movies was like when mommy and daddy were your age, you know, there was only one screen—can you imagine that?”

Well, my local cinema’s one screen.

Really?

Yeah, my local art house is one screen.

That’s very rare!

It’s over a hundred and something years old at this point.

In Los Angeles now there are maybe three or four theatres left that have single screens, and it used to be more up until last year, when they started to twin them and triple them. But there’s something magical about going to a single-screen theatre. Now you go to the movies and it’s like you’re at the airport. there’s just so many doors.

I wanted to know a little bit about The Twilight Zone, because your episode and George Miller’s are by far the best of the lot. From what I gather, you shot it after the whole tragedy happened. So how was it making it after all of the stuff that went down?

Well, after the tragedy, which took place… well, because John Landis had another engagement he asked if he could shoot his episode earlier than the rest, so that was a separate kind of a unit with different crew, to get that in the can a couple of months before we were going to start shooting the rest of the movie. And once the news hit the papers, I figured there would be no movie. I couldn’t imagine that they would go on with it. But the studio, this was a Spielberg production and the studio really wanted to have it, so they went ahead with it anyway. However, there was a lack of oversight that followed the rest of the production, in that nobody wanted to be too closely identified with the picture, because it was in litigation. So when George and I came on to the movie, we were left almost completely alone, and we both got a somewhat jaundiced view, or erroneous view, of what it’s like to work at a big studio. Here we were with all this crew and these big stages and all this equipment and backlot, and absolutely no body telling us what we do. And we thought this is pretty cool—I mean, you’ve got all this great stuff and you got all this freedom. But then we both made our next picture for Warner Brothers and found that this was an anomaly, this was not the way it usually works—there is a lot of oversight and a lot of people checking what you’re doing. But in the case of The Twilight Zone movie, they were just happy to have the movie.

And so there were a lot of changes made: originally the stories were all supposed to interconnect, and characters were supposed to appear in one story and then appear again in the other story—and it all got jettisoned. Steven Spielberg’s story was supposed to be kids trick-or-treating at night, but they decided they didn’t want to do that, they wanted to change it to a different story that they could shoot all on stage. And you know, the movie became what it was. I was not like… I wouldn’t say it was a guiding force over the movie, but it was three different stories that were plunked together in the same picture. But George and I benefited, because the other two episodes weren’t all that compelling and we got a lot of press, and it put us both on the map. Of course, George was already on the map, he’d made Road Warrior. I certainly wasn’t.

Can you tell me a little about Rock N Roll High School? because from what I gather that was a bit of a chaos to shoot?

Well it was… it was normal New World picture, which means yes it was chaos to shoot, because there was no money and no time, but that’s the way all those pictures were made. And I was shooting second unit on that picture. And then Alan Arkush became ill for the last couple of days and he couldn’t come to the set, so I filled in and shot the end of the picture, the remaining pieces of the picture, and then went in and sort of helped cut it together, and then Alan came back and finished it. But it’s a movie that I’m only tangentially involved in. And of course, it a movie that without the Ramones I don’t think would enjoy the cachet that it has, because there’s something so specific and unusual about the Ramones. No other band would ever have given out those vibes, and I think that we’re lucky to have that movie, because there isn’t really that much film material on the Ramones.

Especially at that point, when they were still, you know, the band. I watch “Trailers From Hell” all the time, and I’ve bought a few films off it. I bought Wrong is Right the other day, after your recommendation of it. Have there been any trailers which you would love to feature but that have been impossible to track down?

Absolutely! There are so many. I mean, It’s a Gift, W.C. Fields movie, brilliant movie—can’t find the trailer. There is a Frankenstein trailer that exists, and it’s only 60 seconds long. It’s a cutdown of the original trailer, which has disappeared. What’s funny is that there even fairly recent movies that you can’t find the trailers from—movies from the ‘60s that have just sort of vanished. It started because I had a big trailer collection. I used to make trailers, and it initially the Website was mostly stuff that I already had. And as more people got involved and wanted to do more different kinds of movies, we had to branch out and now we do contemporary movies, which we didn’t use to do. But it’s amazing how elusive some of these trailers have been, because there never was an archive for trailers, nobody ever really thought anything about them. And is a movie was re-released with a new trailer, they would take the old trailer and burn them. So I’s particularly hard to find original trailers for pictures like The Wizard of Oz and pictures that were reissued incessantly and always with different trailers. It’s become a challenge. But I’m still looking. I’m hoping I’m going to find some guy in Topeka who has a basement full of 35mm trailers that no one else has. We found a collector in the Midwest who had a whole collection of trailers for Roger Corman movies, Like She Gods of Shark Reef, which only exists in black and white but this trailer was in Technicolor. So we put that on. Every so often we find something, we make a coup. Like, I did The Atomic Kid last week, and it’s because I found a guy who had a trailer, and it was warped and it was hard to transfer, but it was the only 35mm trailer that I think probably exists on the movie. It’s hard, but it’s worth it and it’s rewarding—especially when somebody tells you that “I saw your piece on this movie and made me want to go out and get it.”

Oh, that’s happened to me more than a couple of times over the years.

That’s a good thing!

How important is the screenwriter for you? I gather that you’ve never written a script for any of your films. I assume you’ve worked on them, but you’ve never been credited for the script.

That’s because I don’t do it very well. I can rewrite, I can juggle, and do all those kinds of things, but as far as sitting down with a blank piece of paper, I’d like to get a real writer to do that. And the writer is a very important part of the movie. I try to get them onto the set as much as I can. I used to have to find parts for them. On Piranha I had to find a part for John Sayles and have him shipped down to Texas so that he could at least be on the set for the time it took to shoot his part, and then we could do rewrites. So yeah, I’ve done whole lots of movies where the writer is in the movie, and it’s usually just because I like to have them around.

What would have been your take on Batman?

Well, the Batman that I was going to do would have been completely different from what they ended up making. This was right after Gremlins, and Tom Mankiewicz, who had written a lot of James Bond movies, had done this take on Batman which was certainly not Chris Nolan-dark, was certainly darker than the TV version. It started with his parents being killed, and t was a revenge story. But it was very outlandish, had a lot of giant props in it. The Joker was a major character in it. I wanted to hire John Lithgow for that part because I had met him on The Twilight Zone movie. And for whatever reason, I started to gravitate more towards The Joker than towards Batman. And I actually woke up one night and I said to myself, “I can’t do this movie—I’m more interested in The Joker than I am in Batman, and that’s not the way it should be.” So I went and told them that I couldn’t do it, and they looked at me like I’d completely lost my mind. But in the end, I think I was not the right guy to do the movie. It’s like when they came to me to do The Flintstones movie, I said “look, you know, I didn’t really like ‘The Flintstones.’ I liked ‘The Honeymooners,’ which, you know, but not ‘The Flintstones.’ And what you really need to do is find a guy who loves ‘The Flintstones’ to make this picture.” And they went out and found a director who apparently had Flintstones soap in his bathtub. And that’s the way it should be, you should find the right people to do the job. And I don’t regret doing Batman, in the sense that I’m not sure what it would have ended up being like. But I certainly can’t say it was a major career-booster, my decision not to make it.

What recent films have you seen that you liked, and why?

I’m trying to think what I last saw that I liked… I like most things that I see. But actually, I see less than I used to see because I’m burned out on superhero movies…

 I think we all are…

…and, you know, giant special effects movies, and movies that have big climaxes and no characters. I like Duncan Jones’ work a lot. I liked Moon, that’s not a new movie, and I liked his other movie too. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to see his new movie, because it’s not the kind of movie that I … I just can’t get into it.

His next one sounds amazing, though, he’s doing a kind of noir-y sci-fi film.

Oh, I’m sure—I think he’s a very talented guy. But this particular iteration of his talent is just… I haven’t sworn off the genre, but there has to be something better than giant rock monsters with artificially lowered voices to get me into the theatre.

What is the current status of The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes?

We have done a rewrite recently at the request of a possible financier who was interested in the movie and had some suggestions, And we said OK, these sound alright, we’ll go back to the drawing board and see what we’ve got. And we’re going to meet with them in the next week or two and see what they thought. I mean, I don’t know, it’s an example of stick-to-itiveness. we try not to give up on these things, If you stick to something long enough, chances are it might eventually get made. We came close twice on this picture to getting it made, and we may yet again.

What is the biggest challenge you face as an independent filmmaker?

Well, I think just making an independent film these days is a tremendous challenge. The business has completely changed since when I got into it, and now you have to have more than one project, because if you happen to meet someone who has some money but doesn’t like your script, you’d better pull out another one really quick because you’re not going to get to see him again. Getting the movie made is one thing, getting the movie seen is yet another If you are lucky enough to get your movie made, you’re going to have to find a distributor. And you’re going to have to find a distributor who hasn’t decided that he’s going to play the picture in ten theatres for one day to fulfil some contract and then sell it immediately to video on demand. It’s very difficult to make money with video on demand, because there’s too many pirate sites.

Yeah, within two minutes it’s pirated on a torrent.

And how do you collect your money from people who are watching your movie on a pirate site? So the future of movies is certainly in flux at the moment. I think you’re always going to have theatres, you’re always going to have places where kids want to get away from their parents, but as far as a viable indie world where people can be assured that not only will their movie get made but it will get seen in a world where there’s so many other things to do and so many other stimuli and videogames and Pokemon Go, it’s very difficult t get people to sit down and hone on on the idea that they’re going to make movies and watch movies. Movies are a 20th century art form, and the 20th century is over. We’re now into a new century and we’re not … the old models of feature films are going to go by the wayside.

And finally, what are you working on at the moment?

Let’s see, which one of he many things I’m working on shall I tell you about… I’ve got a project that I’m supposed to be shooting now called Labirintus, which takes place in the labyrinths under the Buda castle in Budapest. And at the last minute one piece of financing fell out and the whole thing fell apart. And we’re still hoping to make that. We had a cast, we had a lot of stuff ready to go. But we are hoping to make that this winter, but you know, we’re doing our best is all I can say.

Ah yes, one more thing—what do you think about Amazon Studios and Netflix making all these films now?

Woody Allen making his new movie for Netflix and them paying for the whole thing. I mean, Woody’s been very lucky, because he’s always had patrons. He’s had people who would bankroll his stuff, he hasn’t had to go begging. And unlike many filmmakers, he gets to do exactly what he wants, the way he wants, and as often as he wants. So I think he’s probably the envy of every other filmmaker. But the idea that when they made their Adam Sandler deal, and they’re going to make a lot of Adam Sandler movies, then one of them didn’t work and now they’re not going to make a lot of Adam Sandler movies…

Well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

[Laughs] Well, it is if you’re Adam Sandler! But it’s a brave new world out there, and anything that a financier can put together that will guarantee that a movie gets made and seen, I’m for. I do miss the idea of movies in theatres with audiences. I think it’s death for comedies to premiere on your local computer screen. And that goes for any kind of audience-participation movies, horror movies, anything where you need an audience to appreciate it, I think it takes a hit where you have stuff that’s so narrowly channelled where you have one screen with one person watching. It’s just not the same experience.

That’s the interesting thing with Amazon, the deal is that they do make sure that there’s a theatrical release.

Yeah, but then the meaning of “theatrical release” has changed quite a bit—you know, a “theatrical release” can mean one theatre in New York and one in LA. But in the old days when I made those pictures for Warner Brothers, they opened everywhere, and people saw them. They either showed up or they didn’t show up, but at least they had a communal experience when they did. It’s a different world.

OK, that’s it. Thanks so much, I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.

OK, you know, you did do it for a long time, For 57 minutes!

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26 thoughts on “Interview with Joe Dante

  1. I like to correct one thing about this interview: It’s not the first release of Matinee in Blu-ray. A few years back there was a french edition of the movie that has most of the extras of the Arrow Video release. You can find it under the title Panic sur Florida Beach. There’s also a german edition, I think.

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