Veteran character actor Dick Miller is one of the most beloved cult icons to grace the screen. From Piranha to The Hole, the Joe Dante regular has appeared in very nearly all of the Gremlins director’s films, and has worked for filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Roger Corman, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino.
He’s now the subject of a long over-due documentary: That Guy Dick Miller. The Kickstarter-funded project, directed by Elijah Drenner and produced by Dick’s wife Lainie, is currently underway, and Dick and Lainie Miller took the time to talk exclusively to SciFiNow about the film and his rich and varied career.
So tell us about this documentary…
We’ve got a little documentary going, a German producer seemed to see a five minute short on me and he said “This guy’s been in the business too long and so much has happened to him, it would make a nice film” and so they got together and they’re making a picture on me. It’s called That Guy, Dick Miller
When did you first become aware that you had become a cult icon?
I don’t really know. I didn’t really know it was happening until it happened, and I don’t know when it happened.
How does the experience of working with cult movie figureheads like Joe Dante and Roger Corman compare to working for other filmmakers?
Oh, they’re easy to work with. I’ve worked with guys like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Kaplan. I’ve worked with top directors and they all seem to make it easy for you, for the actor. I guess they don’t put too much pressure on ’em. You hardly know they’re there. [laughs]
You first worked with Joe on Hollywood Boulevard. What were your first impressions of him?
Joe Dante was cutting trailers for Roger Corman at the time and I didn’t know who he was. So we were introduced, I got the part, and it just seemed like he was never in my hair, he was never bothering me.
Most of the directors, including Joe, have treated me pretty fair about that. I don’t really have much conversation with the directors, it seems like I’m doing right. I’m playing the part right and they leave me alone. Once in a while I’d get a little word, “Play this stronger” or “play that stronger” but I’m pretty much left alone.
Do you have a favourite character?
Well, I’ve always enjoyed the part in The Howling. It seemed to flow, the part was well-written. Most of the material for the character was all pretty set. I didn’t have too much ad-libbing in that. I do ad-lib a lot of parts. Piranha, I think, was practically all ad-libbing. As we went along they kept changing the character. He was supposed to be a Texan, and I was losing the accent so I decided to play him a little more cosmopolitan than that. So if he was from New England, he would speak that way, if he was from Texas, he would speak that way. Wherever he was, he would speak that way and it just sort of flowed like that.
Speaking of Piranha, Roger Corman productions are notorious for being very fast, was there a lot of pressure?
I think the thing to take away with Roger Corman is that we never did a second take unless the camera fell over.
Was that a way of shooting you enjoyed, the constant movement?
Oh yeah. Yeah, I like working fast. We used to do pictures in six days, that’s because it was a six day week then. Wonderful.
Was shooting Gremlins, with that bigger budget, a different experience?
Well, for me, it seemed like it was the same. I started in the business with Roger, I work fast and I maintain that no matter what the schedule was. We shot the stuff as fast as we could. I don’t know about the rest of the picture, they seemed to have more time, but we just went through and it’s easier to work that way.
Is the character of Murray Futterman the one that people come up to you in the street and ask you about?
The character? No. I think more people were surprised by the fact that Futterman was still alive! It was so innocuous that he survived the attack in Gremlins, they didn’t even know if he was alive or not.
Was there a different atmosphere on Gremlins 2 compared to the first one?
Well I felt a little securer! (laughs) It was different…I guess the only thing you can say as far as acting is I work at my own speed, I wasn’t pressured by the directors, I certainly wasn’t pressured by Joe Dante, and it got done.
Obviously Dante likes working with the same people. Is there more of a sense of community on his films?
Yeah, I think Joe is a good director and I think working with people that he’s worked with before saves him a lot of time. Again, everything seems to be breaking down to time, but if you know what to expect from your actors, you kind of can rely on them more.
Was that fast pace something you enjoyed about in your TV work?
Yeah, from working with Roger, the same speed was there and it seemed like it was going at the same pace all the time so working on television was just as easy as working on films, and vice versa. I work fast. I don’t know if that was a selling point or not to directors, I had a reputation at one time for being One-Take Miller, and I enjoyed it!
I don’t see how they could remake it. So many times these pictures are made that I feel are one of a kind. I think it’s silly. They ought to come up with new stuff! I saw the new Piranha, I’m not too happy with it. It’s kinda just a lot of naked chicks running around.
Do you have a favourite acting experience outside of Joe Dante films, another favourite director?
Not necessarily the directors, I liked certain parts. I liked the TV show I did, Fame. The character seemed to change every week. We would just sit around and talk about what I did in my life and then the idea would show up in the script the next week. So I enjoyed Fame.
And have you been going back and looking at your work in preparation for the documentary?
I have done very little on it. We’re filming it now, most of it’s about 85% shot. I think I will be as surprised as the next guy who sees it!
So when are you planning to release the film?
Lainie Miller: I think we’ll be finished principal photography by March 1st, and I expect by April to have a rough cut and hopefully a completed project by the end of June.
Dick: There, you’ve got it, if you’ll pardon the expression, from the horse’s mouth! [laughs] Ouch!
That Guy Dick Miller was funded via Kickstarter, have you enjoyed using social media to interact with your fans?
Dick: Yeah, I didn’t even there was such a thing as Kickstarter. To me it’s an amazing operation they’ve got going. But I hope we finish it and everything is just perfect.
Lainie: It will be perfect!
That Guy Dick Miller is currently in production, you can visit the Kickstarter page for more details.