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Interview: Joe Dante - SciFiNow - The World's Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Magazine

Interview: Joe Dante

Joe Dante has long been one of the leading directors in the sci-fi/horror genre, having expertly leapt between low budget terror (1978’s Roger Corman-produced Piranha), classic creature features (including 1981’s The Howling and 1984’s Gremlins) and more innocent fantasy romps (such as 1985’s Explorers and 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action).

gremlins2-3Joe Dante has long been one of the leading directors in the sci-fi/horror genre, having expertly leapt between low budget terror (1978’s Roger Corman-produced Piranha), classic creature features (including 1981’s The Howling and 1984’s Gremlins) and more innocent fantasy romps (such as 1985’s Explorers and 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action). Recently the filmmaker has channelled his talents towards the small screen, helming two episodes of the hit Masters Of Horror television series – including this year’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’, which is due to hit UK DVD soon. So, when SciFiNow caught up with Dante it was to look to the future as much as it was to chat about the past…

Tell us about your latest project, ‘The Screwfly Solution’, which is part of the second series of Masters Of Horror…
It is a short story that has been in a lot of anthologies and it is about a plague that drives men to rape and kill women.

That doesn’t really sound like a Joe Dante movie…
No it is not (laughs). It has very little humour – almost none in fact. It is even shot in a completely different style, I did it in hi-def, and it is all handheld. It is sort of a departure I guess.

Your last Masters Of Horror entry, ‘Homecoming’, was a very angry piece of work – a zombie film that aimed its barbs towards the current American government…
Yeah, it filled a need. I did not see anything like it being made anywhere else. I think that with the gravity of what is going on in the world somebody should be doing something like this. Somebody should be making a drama or a comedy about it. So it just filled a void.

So presumably you’re not so keen on the current US administration?
I don’t hate them. I just think that they are ruining the country (laughs).

Right now some critics are saying that films such as Hostel and Saw are also reflective of the time – and that they are using torture to reflect the situation in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. Do you agree?
Yeah – I think that a lot of the direction horror movies take has to do with the politics of the era in which they are made and it is no accident that torture is on everybody’s mind seeing as how in our country we seem to have legalised it and we seem to be promoting it. It is not surprising that people would suddenly find this a good subject for horror movies. It always has been – but usually we would have been the good guys and now we are the bad guys.

Your early work under Roger Corman, such as Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha, were done very quickly and on tight budgets. Can you draw any parallels between that and doing Masters Of Horror?
It was actually nice that these pictures were done very quickly. When you were working for Roger Corman there was a feeling that your film didn’t have a lot of shelf life so you could be fairly topical because it would be out in a couple of months. So, yeah, this is really the same thing – you shoot for ten days on Masters Of Horror, your postproduction is about six weeks and then you mix it and two weeks later it hits television. So you can still be current, which is good because usually a movie takes a year and a half to get made and if you make any topical jokes you worry that it might not be topical any more when the film comes out.

You had your first really big hit with The Howling. Yet, over the years, you have been very critical of the book that the movie is based on…
No, I learned my lesson, I was a little more arrogant in those days and I was giving interviews and I didn’t really think the book was very good and I forgot that there is a person who wrote the book and who might read these things. And so I’m doing interviews talking about all that stuff – how the book isn’t much good and how we’ve improved it – and one day I’m at the Hollywood Scriptwriting Institute and it’s some kind of lecture series. I’m talking and I start bad-mouthing the book. And this guy raises his hand from the audience and he says, “So you don’t like the book huh?” and I said, “Well no, not really” and he says, “Because I wrote that book” and there he was – Gary Brandner the guy who wrote the book. Plus I think it was televised, I think they were shooting it for some reason. So I was caught, I was had – there’s no doubt about it, he got me. And he never had a particular love for me after that. On the first page of The Howling 2 script a woman is walking her dog and the dog’s name is Dante, so that gives you an idea of the type of guy that Gary holds me up as…

Did you keep up with the sequels to The Howling?
Oh no – who could do that? Honestly? Now, who could really watch those movies? No I have not kept up – I don’t even know how many they are up to. I was at some market a couple of years ago and there was a poster for either Howling 8 or 9 or 10 or whatever that I guess somebody was trying to get off the ground but, you know, jeez – talk about a misused franchise. I mean, half the time the pictures aren’t even about werewolves… it just has no direction whatsoever. Anybody who can buy the rights can make a picture and stick that title on it…

Were you offered The Howling 2?
No, the title was owned by one of the producers and the writer of the book. So no one ever offered me The Howling 2. I don’t know, someone must be making money off these pictures but it certainly isn’t me. I am not even making money from the first one! I got offered other monster movies though. I got offered Humanoids From The Deep and Orca 2 as well – which they never made, I talked them out of it. I got offered giant turtles and giant alligators (laughs). I had an earache at the time from going into the swimming pool so the last thing I wanted to make was another underwater movie but, yeah, that is what happens. If they had been making a lot of werewolf movies after The Howling then I am sure they would have offered me more of them. But I think that the wham bam of American Werewolf and The Howling was enough for them to say “okay, okay – that is enough.”

You never got to do the sequel to Piranha either…

Uh… no, that was Jim Cameron who did that. That was actually a whole new group of people – it was an Italian guy called Olivia Assonitis and he apparently kicked Jim out of the editing room at the end. I remember Jim did run me the picture and he was very solicitous as to what I thought of it and I told him I thought the piranha stuff was pretty silly but that the human stuff was actually good and that he had nothing to be ashamed of. I guess he wasn’t happy with the cut.

And then they remade Piranha, of course…
Yes – and the guy who directed the remake for Showtime actually called me up and asked me if I wanted to be in it. I said, “Thank you but no.” Then I said, “So where are you shooting it?” and he said, “Well just around here in LA” and I said, “Well we had to go to Texas – we couldn’t find any water around here – where’s the water coming from?” He says, “Oh that’s all coming from your picture.” I couldn’t really complain because my first movie was catalogued from about five or six other movies – I just wished him good luck. I saw the movie and the only problem was that they remade the movie but they remade it straight so it wasn’t funny. All these lines, which were comedy lines in the first movie, are now played totally serious. It didn’t work for me.

Does the continued merchandising of Gremlins surprise you? Gizmo toys are still everywhere…
Well the merchandising of the first film was an afterthought. They expected it to be a horror film and studios don’t merchandise horror films. Then they saw Gizmo in the dailies and they suddenly decided they could merchandise it and that went into overdrive. They were frantically trying to get all of these products out in time for the movie’s release.

You made fun of the merchandising when you did Gremlins 2…
In Gremlins 2 we just made fun of everything so we didn’t want to skimp on the merchandising, although Warner Bros certainly did not think that it was very funny (laughs).

Who came up with the Gizmo song in Gremlins?
Oh, that was Jerry Goldsmith. I think it was hummed by a little girl from his synagogue.

In Gremlins you have that joke about Santa Claus and then you reveal that he does not exist. Considering the movie was advertised with Steven Spielberg’s name figuring heavily, did you have any upset mothers and fathers?
I think there were some people who were unhappy about the Santa Claus gag but, you know, it seemed to me that it wasn’t a movie for eight-year-olds anyway – I mean it’s really for older kids. But there was much more concern about the microwave scene – you know, “The kids are going to watch the movie and put the poodle in the microwave and watch it go splat.” And I just said: “You know what, you guys are crazy. Kids are not stupid! If a psychotic kid puts his poodle in the microwave it is not going to be because he saw it in this movie, it’s because that’s what he did – I guarantee you no one is goin g to put their sister in the microwave.”

Are we going to see Gremlins 3?
I heard a rumour that they were trying to make Gremlins 3 but I don’t know. I think it’s too late – it’s been too long, and also if you make Gremlins 3 today with CGI, I think you’re sort of stumped, because the other movies were created around the limitations of the special effects. They were all puppets – there’s only so much you could do with them. There was a little bit of stop motion, a bit more stop motion in the second one, but for the most part there was a limit to what you could do and you had to work around those limits and that’s what caused the pictures to be what they are. Now there’s no limits, now they can do anything – they can fly, they can jump up and down, there can be hundreds of them all over you… and I don’t know what the story would be that would go with that.

We have heard they plan on remaking The Howling…
Sure, they will remake The Howling. I get a call every week asking me about the rights – which is very complicated. I am sure that someone will also remake Gremlins – they will remake everything eventually (laughs). They are talking about remaking Explorers just now at Paramount and that was a complete flop! It lost a fortune. Now it does have a small cult of admirers but it is like, “Why would you want to remake a movie that you wouldn’t let us finish in the first place?”

What about a director’s cut of Explorers? Seeing as how you never got to finish the movie…

Well a couple of years ago a friend of mine and I tried to go to Paramount and ask if we could do a director’s cut of Explorers and their attitude was “You are lucky it is even coming out on home video.” So the answer is no.

So what is next for you?
I just worked on a feature called Trapped Ashes, which was a favour to the producer. Sean Cunningham, Monte Hellman and Ken Russell are also involved – and the effects guy from The Matrix, John Gaeta. It’s good to see Monte Hellman back because it’s been 17 years since he made a picture. I also have this movie I want to do about Roger Corman directing The Trip and I think it is a good script. I have been spending a lot of time hawking that around. But these days when people come to me with a film it is usually something that I wouldn’t want to see let alone make.