Director of films including
Gremlins, The Howling, Inner Space and Looney Tunes:
Back in Action, Joe Dante has differentiated himself as
a filmmaker who truly loves cinema.
ITL: As you look back
over your career, what do you see as being the real
highlights so far?
JOE DANTE: Gosh, I think
just staying in it! I never think of it as a career -- it's
just the movies I made while I was living my life. There was
no particular plan for it. Perhaps if I'd planned it, it
would have gone better.
I guess maybe a highlight was when I was making my
first studio movie on a soundstage at Warner Brothers.
Some grip came up to me and said,'You see that corner over
there?' and I said 'Yeah.' He said 'Errol Flynn
pissed in that corner.' I remember thinking,'Well, gosh,
I've really arrived!'
ITL: Absolutely! And
looking back over your career thus far, what challenges have
JOE DANTE: Well, I mean,
the challenges have changed. When I started, obviously, I
was making very low budget pictures very quickly and the
challenge was just to get them done. And have them not be
terrible. And then when I graduated to the so-called major
leagues, the challenge was trying to maintain a consistent
vision so that, when compared to other people's movies, your
movies have some sort of personality that distinguishes them
for everything else. And the more money there is involved,
then the more pressure there is to stamp out any kind of
personality and to try to make it as bland and
audience-friendly as possible.
ITL: Any surprises along
JOE DANTE: Sure, there
are always surprises. There are surprises when the pictures
don't work and there are surprises when the pictures do
I suppose the biggest surprise was having Gremlins
-- which was a low rent little studio picture that nobody
thought was going to do any business -- turn out to be a
worldwide blockbuster. Most people don't get that even once
in their career.
ITL: In terms of your
time with Roger Corman, any comments about the
experience of working with him?
I'm one of numerous people who have gone through the
'Corman Film School,' as we call it. The challenges
there are immense because there's very little with which to
work. But on the other hand, if you succeed and make a
picture that isn't completely mediocre, you're a hero and
people start to notice you. That's not true anymore but it
was then. When anybody who could come out of the drive-in
exploitation genre and then graduate into major studio
pictures -- which almost everyone who worked for Corman
did -- it proves that he had an unerring eye for hiring
people who really wanted to make movies.
ITL: And perhaps for
creating a situation in which people could gain the
experience and skills that they needed in a very efficient
JOE DANTE: Efficient and
under-the-radar, as well. Because you always knew that your
movie was going to be coming out in theatres in a couple of
months. When you're on a set and things aren't working and
ordinarily you'd think, 'Well this picture will never get
released,' but every picture that Roger made was released.
If it had to be completely re-shot by another director, it
got released. So you really were toiling with a whole bunch
of people who didn't know a great deal more than you did
about making films and everybody was learning at the same
Many people changed their specialties while they
worked with Corman. On my first picture, the sound guy
decided he wanted to be an art director and so he switched
jobs with the guy who was the art director!
ITL: Do you see any kind
of similar proving ground or crucible for filmmakers today?
JOE DANTE: I think it's
changed much more than I ever imagined it would. The films
that I was talking about were all made non-union. It was
difficult to get into the union at that time because you had
to have worked in the union in order to get into the union.
And of course you couldn't work in the union if you weren't
in it. So there was a whole thriving, alternate movie
business of non-union films in which people gained a lot of
Today, those outlets are all gone. The drive-ins are
gone and there's no real market for that kind of picture
and, consequently, it's a great deal harder for people to
I go to film school graduations and I see these
hordes of kids coming out of film schools, thinking that
there's going to be a place for them right away in the movie
business. It's just not true. They're making fewer films.
It's true they do tend to hire directors with less
experience because they can pay them less and they can
also tell them what to do -- and newbie directors don't
realize this isn't the way it's always done. But it's much
harder, I think, to get in the business now than it was when
ITL: What about
JOE DANTE: Independent
films are essentially what's left of the kind of pictures
that I started in, which were, although exploitation
pictures, they were also independent. But again, there were
many, many, many of those pictures made and there are not
that many independents made [today] because it's not that
easy to get financing.
ITL: As technology is
changing and people can shoot digital and have the capacity
to edit on their computers and do things with much less
equipment and money than was needed before, you're not
expecting a renaissance?
JOE DANTE: Well that's a
big boon. There's no doubt about it. People can make films.
I'm talking about getting them seen.
JOE DANTE: It's much
easier to make films now than it was when I started. You had
to have 35 mm equipment. Now you just need a DV camera. And,
as you've seen, you can make a pretty good little picture on
your computer. But then, you have to be able to get it shown
to somebody and that's where festivals come in. Festivals
are far more important now than they were when I was
starting out because there are so many pictures that only
play at festivals and never go anywhere else. But that's the
one chance you have to be able to look at your film and say,
'Here's somebody who's got something.'
ITL: Any comments on the
politicking involved in film festivals?
JOE DANTE: Not really.
The festivals I liked best were Telluride and places
where you could go and people just went because they liked
movies. But they've all become very business oriented and
sort of 'last gasp stops' for filmmakers who know that if
their film doesn't get picked up at a festival -- or at
least get picked up to be shown at a festival -- that
they're really not going to have a venue to show it to
people. I have friends who've made films that have actually
passed them out door-to-door on DVDs.
ITL: What's your
favorite part of the filmmaking process?
JOE DANTE: Well, I
started as an editor and there's a certain comfort in being
in the editing room and knowing that you have finite choices
-- that the material is in front of you, that there are only
X number of ways to cut it together and that you have a
certain amount of control of that. The on set experience, of
course, is much more chaotic and the chances of getting
exactly what you want are diminished by time and money. The
amount of time it takes to light a scene, for instance --
which is something that you learned at Corman's -- that if
you can shoot a scene without having to re-light a reverse,
you could save yourself a whole lot of time. And no matter
how you try to do those things and no matter how you try to
use the lessons you learned in low budget filmmaking,
there's really just never enough time. You're either losing
the light or you're losing the kid actor or you're going to
lose the location. There are a zillion reasons why you have
to finish what you have to finish that day. And it may mean
not doing an extra take or not doing an angle that you would
like or not getting coverage on a character. There are a
million compromises, even on an expensive film. So I find
the editing part [of filmmaking] a lot more rewarding just
because you have more control over it.
ITL: When you are on
set, what's you're approach to managing all the myriad
JOE DANTE: Let's face
it. Directors have pretty good jobs. They get to have the
final say, basically, and yet they are free to accept ideas
from anybody on the set. Usually, the combined aggregate
experience of any set is a lot older than the age of the
director, so I've found I've used a lot of ideas that people
have suggested on the set. I sort of encourage it. Because I
don't have to use them, if I don't like them. But if
somebody has a better idea than I do, that's going to make
the scene better, then I'm all for it.
ITL: Your least favorite
part of filmmaking?
JOE DANTE: There are two
least favorite parts. One is the first time you look at your
JOE DANTE: And the next
worst -- which is actually probably even worse -- is the
first preview. When you go to the preview, there are any
number of political factors at work. Somebody sneezes in the
wrong place and it will be ammunition for some executive to
say, 'I knew that scene was no good!' You find that when
you're going to the first public preview, you feel very
protective of your'child'. There are any number of
alterations that may be made to the movie because of
feedback you get at the preview, so you never feel quite as
vulnerable as you do when you take your project out and
throw it to the audience and hope that they devour it.
ITL: From '69-'74 you
were writing film reviews and yet, with one exception, you
don't write films. Why is that?
JOE DANTE: No. I don't
think I'm as good a writer as I should be and so I really do
lean on trying to get good writers. In fact, when possible,
I cast them in the movies, just to have them flown out to
the location so I can have them on the set.
You have to go with your strengths and my strength is
not in writing. I can criticize a script and I can edit. I
can do all those things. But the power of the blank page is
something that only a real writer can conquer. I have great
respect for writers.
ITL: You have such a
love of movies. As you look at the film industry today --
both mainstream and independent -- what kind of trends or
issues do you see?
JOE DANTE: Well, I see a
surprising reluctance to deal with the political situation
in the country. In the '70s and '60s, there were lots of
movies about what was going on politically. But it seems
today, with the 'red state blue state' thing, that people
are just afraid of it. Every so often somebody like John
Sayles tries to make something like Silver City
-- which is not his best movie -- and it's greeted with
crickets in the theatre.
Obviously, escapism is a trend. And comic book movies
and remakes of comic book movies and remakes of remakes of
comic book movies. TV shows. Anything that has a title and
that people remember from their dim past, no matter what it
is, is fair game to make a movie out of. But as far as
substantive pictures, besides Crash, I can't
think of another movie that's come out in the past six
months that was about anything.
ITL: Interesting. What's
next for you?
JOE DANTE: My next
project is an episode of a TV series called Masters of
Horror. There are thirteen horror movie directors
that are doing one hour anthologies in Canada to run on
Showtime. So I'm doing that in August.
And then I have various things of my own that I'm
trying to get done. And then I have things that people want
me to do that often I'm not that interested in because I try
not to make anything I wouldn't go see.
ITL: What would be a
dream project for you?
JOE DANTE: Gosh, I don't
know. All my dream projects have either been made or made by
ITL: For example?
JOE DANTE: I was going
to do The Mummy for a long time. I had a
script by John Sayles that I thought was really good.
And it was mid-nineties at Universal and they didn't
want to make it because it was too expensive, they said. It
was only $25 million, which is actually fairly cheap for
that kind of movie. But then, years later, that project
morphed into The Mummy movie that they did
make -- which was not at all like the one I was going to do
-- and of course it was a huge hit. So that was something
that I regretted not being able to do.
ITL: Your comments on
JOE DANTE: John and I
started out around the same time because he wrote my second
JOE DANTE: Piranha.
And my third picture, The Howling. I've
followed his career all these years. John has got a lot of
integrity. He could have gone a different way with his
career, but he chose to take the path that would allow him
to be the most expressive of himself. All of his movies are
John Sayles movies. There's no question of any
interference by the studio or anything like that. He makes
the movies and he releases them the way he wants and I think
you've got to respect that he's been able to do that.
ITL: Of the diverse and
numerous film projects that he's either directed or written
or both, do you have any favorites?
JOE DANTE: I rather
liked City of Hope. I thought that was a real
breakthrough for him because it was visually very clever.
His accent has usually been more on the literary side. I
thought that picture really was extremely cinematic.
ITL: Other filmmakers
whom you respect or for whom who have a certain admiration?
JOE DANTE: [Martin]
Scorsese, of course, because his love of movies shines
through every frame. I think he's become a model for taking
the love of cinema and translating it into some
self-expression of his own. I admire any director who has a
sense of history about movies.
ITL: Well that's
something that certainly comes through in your work.
JOE DANTE: Well, I mean,
we're all part of an ever-evolving history of movies. It
seems to me that if you turn your back on what's gone before
is a mistake because it's really all intertwined. The
culture of movies has really enriched America, I think, and
the world for close to seventy, eighty, ninety years. And it
doesn't show any signs of abating.
ITL: Do you see that the
role of filmmakers has changed over the years?
JOE DANTE: I don't know.
There are always filmmakers who want to be didactic and
teach the audience a lesson. Movies are basically
entertainment, but there's no reason why people can't come
out of a movie having learned something or feeling better
about themselves or any shiva you want to put onto it but
basically people go to the movies to have a good time and
hear to hear a story told. Whether it's movies or video or
movies projected inside your eyeballs or on your telephone,
there's always going to be a hunger for stories told. What's
fascinating is that there really aren't that many different
stories and yet look how many movies have been made. Look
how many stories have been told. The audience is still
ITL: Why do you think
there is that thirst?
JOE DANTE: It's innate.
It's human nature. It's why people write novels. It's why
there's been art ever since the beginning of time. It's
because people need to express themselves and they want to
see what other people are thinking and see what other
people's lives are like. And learn. I think movies and the
instinct that makes people go to the movies is very noble.
And that's why, to me, going to the movies was similar to
going to church.
ITL: Well that certainly
comes through in your work. Thank you so much for your time
today. I truly appreciate your insights and your
Working With Joe
Featuring: Dee Wallace and Robert Picardo
(Actress -- The Howling)
Oh I love and adore Joe Dante. How can you not? He's
loving and he's kind and he's brilliant and he's funny and
we just had [a ball filming The Howling].
He's nutty and crazy and very available to actors. He
has a wonderful sense of humor that really keeps the set
quite palatable. So many directors get on this ego kick and,
[unlike them], Joe is just so available and down to earth
and creative. He's such an amazing creative force.
All the cartoons and everything in The Howling,
he ended up buying himself because he thought it was so much
a part of the film and the studio didn't want to pay for it.
That's a true creative. If studios would just leave him
alone, he'd do great.
The Howling, Gremlins 2,
Innerspace, Looney Tunes Back in Action)
It is an actor's dream to work with Joe Dante because
he really has a genuine affection for actors and enjoys
watching them create. Unlike a director who sort of has it
in his head what he wants you to do and seems vaguely
disappointed if you don't [intuit what he wants], Joe is
delighted when actors go the creative distance and come up
with something that he hadn't thought of.
Even with the weight of a big budget movie on his
back, Joe never lets the actors or the crew [on his films]
feel any of that pressure. His sets are always very relaxed
and fun and you just get the sense that you're all playing
together for the best possible results --and not like
there's a loaded gun against your head going,' we're
spending $25,000 a minute!' And that's also a credit to him
-- that whatever pressure he may be under, he really shields
that from all the people on the set.
When we were prepping for Gremlins 2, I
had this idea that I wouldn't learn any of the names of the
employees who work for me so they'd all have to wear
barcodes and I would just scan their badges and never ever
learn anyone's name. Well of course, Joe had this amazing
prop manufactured for me with a sort of switchblade barcode
scanner...and then had little barcode badges manufactured
for the hundreds of extras on the movie. Just on my oblique,
odd notion... all this stuff was manufactured for me so I
could do my corporate asshole schtick... I have a story like
that on every movie we did together.
|Liisa Kyle is the Managing Editor of HGEN:
In the Loop and is a prize-winning international
journalist who has written for every major newspaper in her native
© 2005 All Rights Reserved
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