Joe Dante: Master Of Mischief

Back in 2018, we spoke to the great Joe Dante, who looked back on his incredible career and told us about the thrills and chills he still has in store for us…

Joe Dante

While his traditional feature film output has dwindled this century, Joe Dante still remains one of the most interesting American figures working in predominantly genre-based cinema. His films are rife with expressions of all-devouring cinephilia, which also comes through in his collaborative web series Trailers From Hell.

During his UK visit for the Edinburgh International Film Festival back in 2018, we spoke to Dante about projects old and new, and the state of modern mainstream genre films…

Do you see any of your own spirit as an influence on any other filmmakers?

I’ve been told [so] by people who are actually friends of mine, who saw my pictures – obviously they’re quite a bit younger than I am – when they were younger. I think even though we make these movies and we think we’re basically making them in the dark and we’re never sure whether anybody really ever sees them, time really is what determines how successful a movie is. We really can’t judge by the first year that it comes out or even the box office receipts. It’s the cumulative effect that the movie has on the culture and you don’t realise that until quite a bit later.

With hindsight, do you perhaps wish there was an alternate cut of Gremlins 2 that was a little harsher towards the Trump-influenced character, Daniel Clamp?

At the time, Trump was an icon of New York. And the movie takes place in New York, so he was a good fit to base this character on, although he didn’t own a cable network – for that we needed to put some of Ted Turner in. Ted Turner, in fact, had an end-of-the-world tape that was ready to go for the apocalypse. When we found out about that, we did our own [in the film], and I heard later through the grapevine that he was astonished and wondered how we found out that he had this because no one had ever seen it. It’s now on YouTube, I think. It’s not as good as ours.

But as far as Trump goes, nobody imagined that he was gonna be anything more than a local celebrity. And I think the fact he became more of a television star is one of the reasons he was able to hoodwink enough people into voting for him. And now he is probably the most mentally unbalanced world leader that I can think of since maybe Hitler.

Donald Trump was one of the inspirations behind the character of Daniel Clamp in Gremlins 2.

Is there anything contemporary film production could serve to learn from the Roger Corman school?

Well, there’s a fella named Jason Blum who’s been rather successful, becoming something of a latter day Corman in the sense that he’s got a market that he understands quite well; he’s got a limitation on how much money he spends; he pretty much chooses product that he thinks that he can sell; and I’ve heard that, on occasion, he’ll make a film where if it doesn’t meet his standards, he puts it on the shelf. Roger would never put anything on the shelf. Roger would change the title, change the campaign, do a different trailer and put it out there.

You’ve mentioned before that as long as you hit Roger’s quota for gore, nudity or what have you, you were given close to free reign to do what you want. It sounds like Blum is kind of doing that with, say, Jordan Peele with Get Out.

I think Get Out was a specific attempt to do something more mainstream; to do something that was a little classier than some of the stuff that he’d been doing. But the trajectory is quite similar.

What are your thoughts on the current state of subversive genre cinema that has a chance of reaching a mainstream audience?

I’m always asked to compare what the situation was when I was making movies and what the situation is now. And the industry and the audience and the way that the films are delivered has changed so much and there’s so much competition – there’s so many other things that are occupying people’s eyeballs – that film is not the major cultural force it used to be. When I was making Gremlins in the Eighties, movies were a mainstay of what people did with their time. This is pre-internet, almost pre-VHS.

As technology has given us more and more ways to spend our time, I think the impact of movies has diminished quite a bit, and I think theatrical movies at least are now basically events. Movies that are getting made are films that are supposed to drag you out of the house if you go the movies maybe three or four times a year. Kids, people under 25, go to the movies more frequently because it’s a communal thing, which I miss. But I don’t think, culturally, making a subversive movie is that effective anymore because less people see it because there are so many other things to see. And, let’s face it; if movies could change the world, then we would have all disarmed after Dr Strangelove.

Do you think there’s any chance of films becoming that major cultural force again?

No, the motion picture as we knew it in the 20th century is over. It’s now the 21st century. That style of storytelling is, dare I say it, gone with the wind.

Going back to subversive cinema, how do you feel about something like Unsane with Steven Soderbergh circumventing the usual channels of production to get his vision through unfiltered?

Well, Soderbergh is a maverick. He likes to do things his way. He periodically announces his retirement. The idea of making a movie on your cell phone used to be considered anathema – that just can’t happen. But now it can. I admire him, Soderbergh, he goes his own way. And he’s gone through various stages in his career, doing different kinds of things. He’s often his own DP and his own editor. He’s a one man filmmaking band and more power to him. I hope he doesn’t stop making movies. But the reason movies are called subversive, usually, is because the message is hidden. It’s underneath a pile of other things that originally got people to go to the movie in the first place, but polemical movies are pretty difficult to sell.

Matinee was influenced by your experience of living through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Can great art emerge from contexts of real-life threats of destruction?

You mean apocalyptic art? Yeah, well, we’re only here for a short amount of time and the idea of somebody deciding that they’re going to end it and take us all with them – which I think is more and more possible these days – is inherently dramatic. And there have been a lot of movies made over the years that have post-apocalyptic scenarios and pre-apocalyptic scenarios. I think that in the state that the world’s in right now, we’re probably gonna see more of it, simply because it’s on people’s minds.

Matinee was influenced by Dante’s experience of living through the Cuban Missile Crisis

Is there one overlooked film of yours that is ripe for rediscovery?

Well, every time I get asked that, I tell them the same thing. It’s The Second Civil War because every time you rediscover it, there’s something new in it that’s happening right now. And now with this whole immigration crisis, it’s even more topical. I’ve been talking about this movie since 1997 and I never thought it could get any more topical. We had no idea. We just hit bullet points of things that were going on in the world and there was always something at any screening; there was always some aspect of the movie that was currently in the news. But this particular overriding aspect which is the basis of the plot, and it leads to what I think could possibly be an actual event in history which is yet to come… I have never seen it worse. I’ve never seen a more divided country.

You’ve been working a fair bit in television (with Legends Of Tomorrow and Salem for example). What are the perks of working in that medium these days?

The perks are that they pay you and you get residuals. [With] the movies, you get paid once and then chances are the movie isn’t gonna make enough money for you to ever get any more money. In the film Director’s Guild you still get residuals, but television is very good about residuals and also you don’t have to work on it for a year. You need to work on it for, like, three weeks and then they start sending you money, so that’s nice. The thing about television is that if you do an episode of an anthology show, you can make it your own. If you do an episode of a series show, then you have to do the series show the way everybody else does it. It’s much less rewarding. It’s directing traffic in a way because you can’t tell the leads how to play their parts; you can’t do any of that. You can direct the guest cast, but you can’t deviate from the way that the show has been set up, so you have a lot less leeway.

How did you get involved with Nightmare Cinema?

Mick Garris asked me to be involved because I think it’s a backdoor pilot for what he would like to have be a series. He was behind the Masters Of Horror series and he needed some people to give it some street cred, and I said okay. He wanted to attract more people and he wanted to attract financiers. It was like doing a TV episode in the sense that it was only five days or something like that. It’s a two hour movie but there are five directors and they’ve all got like 20-25 minute stories. It was fun to do. I made it, gosh, well over a year ago, but that’s how long these things take. It takes time to get it financed, it takes the time to shoot, and then you have to find a distributor. And if you’re shooting a movie and your distributor craps out, then your movie could just sit on the shelf for a long time. The last two pictures I did, The Hole and Burying The Ex, were movies that were distributed, barely distributed, at least a year or two years after they were shot.

Could you share a bit about your friendship with Chuck Jones and how that first started?

I first met Chuck at Telluride, I can’t remember what year – I went very early in that festival’s life. I admired his cartoons because I was a big cartoon fan; I considered him sort of the William Wyler of cartoon directors because he was really great with verbal stuff and character stuff. He was pretty old by the time I met him. He reminded me of Mark Twain; he just had this certain air about him of inquisitive adventurousness. It was an honour.

Anyway, we got along quite well and so when it came time to make Gremlins, I thought, well, I’ll just put him in the movie. I came up with this preposterous idea of having him be the hero’s art teacher, which was an excuse to get him in the movie. And then he appeared in a couple of other movies. Now, when it became time to make Gremlins 2, I asked him to do the titles and the title sequence was originally longer. Warner Bros made us cut it down because they said, quote: ‘This guy doesn’t know how to draw Bugs Bunny’, unquote.

Joe Dante was interviewed at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 in July. Gremlins 1 and 2 are available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.