"A CONVERSATION WITH..."

 

 JOE DANTE

View also the "sidebar"at the end of this article: Working With Joe Dante, featuring actress Dee Wallace and actor, Robert Picardo
 

By Liisa Kyle

 

 

 

 

 


 


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 you faced?

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 the way?

JOE DANTE: Sure, there are always surprises. There are surprises when the pictures don't work and there are surprises when the pictures do work.

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 way.

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 rate.

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 expertise.

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 break in.

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 I started.

ITL: What about independent films?

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.

ITL: Ah.

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 challenges?

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 rough cut.

ITL: Ow.

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 other people.

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 John Sayles?

JOE DANTE: John and I started out around the same time because he wrote my second picture.

ITL: Piranha.

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 eager.

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 perspectives.
 


SIDEBAR:
 

Working With Joe Dante

Featuring: Dee Wallace and Robert Picardo

Dee Wallace

DEE WALLACE
(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.


ROBERT PICARDO
(Actor -- 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 Canada.

2005 All Rights Reserved
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