In the wonderful world of modern movies, sequels are not only a given, they’re practically a requirement in an industry that doesn’t exactly pride itself on originality. You could be forgiven if, when the word “sequel” is conjured, your mind immediately drifted toward a movie like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, or X-Men Origins: Wolverine, neither of which were testaments to creative inspiration, yet both of which were given the full-scale glossy magazine cover treatment as they were ushered out of the studio gates and toward the multiplex, where the shearing of summer sheep is a longstanding tradition. But cynicism about sequels can be knee-jerk too. Even if you don’t believe they were better than the originals, the follow-ups to The Godfather and Alien are two prime examples of that rare Hollywood bird, the overachieving sequel. And tomorrow a sequel arrives in Los Angeles that is, for some of us, the summer’s most eagerly anticipated—the follow-up to Dante’s Inferno!
Stuffy literary professors around the country should not be alarmed, however, for the Dante’s Inferno of which I speak was director Joe Dante’s original festival of personal favorites which ran at the New Beverly Cinema last summer for a glorious week and a half. And now Dante is back at the New Beverly beginning tomorrow night, Wednesday, August 5, for a week-long series of movies you may not know, but all of which are rarely screened theatrically these days, and all which should be seen in the rarified environment of the movie lover’s paradise known as the New Bev-- a paradise not lost, thanks to folks like Dante and New Beverly owner/operator Michael Torgan, who tirelessly keeps on with the tradition of bringing film classics to new and receptive audiences that was started by his father Sherman 31 years ago. Joe is bringing actor Bruce Dern and director Roger Corman out to help him celebrate and introduce the films on August 5 and August 7, respectively. And for those who missed it last year, and especially for those who saw it and thought they’d never get a chance to see it again, the best news is the return of Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy Saturday, August 8, this year in an expanded, nearly five-hour version!
Recently I talked to Joe about the new series, as well as Trailers from Hell, his upcoming movie The Hole and a ton of other things that inevitably get talked about when two movie lovers get together. He invited me to his Hollywood home for the conversation, and I must say, for someone who counts Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling, The ‘burbs, Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Explorers among his favorite films, this interview, the second one I’ve done with Dante, was a real dream come true. Even after some of the trials and struggles he has endured in getting his films made (and often messed with after the fact), he remains as enthusiastic about the actual creative process as ever, and it’s clear he believes he’s on to something special with his upcoming movie, the 3D horror movie The Hole, which Dante will be taking to the Venice Film Festival next month.
He exhibits slightly less patience, however, with the insistence of certain rumors perpetuated at events like the recent San Diego Comic Con and, of course, on the Internet. When asked about the possibility of a new Gremlins movie at the convention, Dante’s reply, a simple speculation that Warner Brothers probably would find a way to get another version of the popular movie into production at some point, was spun off by excitable fans and reporters until it metastasized into a “confirmation” from the director that a new Gremlins movie was definitely slated for production. Despite the flurry of such reports, Dante told me that he actually has no knowledge of any such plans and is amazed how the Internet has run with this rumor.
Wacky speculation aside, there is absolutely no doubt that Joe Dante is one of the great ones. His standing in critical circles has only risen in the past few years, and one just hopes that The Hole is a rousing success and assures him the opportunities to create new and even more challenging and exciting movies so he can keep confirming those other rumors that we already know are true—the ones about him being some sort of moviemaking genius. On a personal level, Dante really is as friendly and encyclopedic a person as you’ll ever be lucky enough to meet in Hollywood, and I’m sure he’d love it if you stopped by the New Beverly this week and said hello.
Dennis Cozzalio: It’s been a while since we last had a chance to sit down.
Joe Dante: It’s been since the last New Beverly series.
DC: Last April. Right.
JD: Was it really? Well, I haven’t really had any news, so there’s no reason why you should write about me!
DC: You don’t strike me as the idle type. What has been going on?
JD: Well, I’ve been making this 3-D movie, The Hole. It’s not a particularly expensive movie, so there’s a lot of hands-on stuff to do—it’s been taking up a lot of my time. Plus, I’ve been trying to keep the Trailers from Hell web site going. So if I’m going to go away from awhile—like, I’m taking The Hole to the Venice Film Festival, so I have to front-load everything so that it all still happens while I’m gone.
DC: You run Trailers from Hell personally?
JD: Me, Elizabeth (producer Elizabeth Stanley), producer Jonas Hudson, our webmaster Tom Edgar, Charlie Largent, who does our art work, and Dave Moore who shoots our interviews and cuts them with me. That’s pretty much it.
DC: I didn’t realize you were that directly involved.
JD: It’s sort of a hobby that I was sort of hoping might eventually make some money. We’re almost to the point where it might make some, but the real reason to do it is mostly to get the movies out. I’m so dispirited by the lack of knowledge of film history these days. You and I didn’t even have to learn it. When we were growing up it was just there, part of our lives, background trivia. Now kids, people in their 20s, are just not exposed to the kind of movies we used to see. Trailers from Hell is sort of an attempt to bring those movies back into public discourse. And it’s been working quite well. A lot of people “tune in,” and a lot of people have been buying films based on what they’ve seen on the site—that’s the main reason to do it.
DC: I’m really glad to hear that, because many times when I talk to young people about movies, it seems that the prevailing wisdom is that an “old” movie is one that was made in 1990.
Joe Dante talks about one of the first trailers he cut for Roger Corman, Candy Strip Nurses, available at Trailers from Hell
JD: I know. And unfortunately, the people who make the movies also are illiterate in that way. It becomes more difficult to communicate with younger executives about points that you want to make by illustrating some great, classic moment in some movie that, unfortunately, they’ve never heard of. And sometimes they get a little annoyed, as if you’re trying to one-up them. That’s not the intent, but you find that you have to find a slightly different level of discourse with these guys.
DC: What is the status of the idea of making Trailers from Hell available on DVD in the future?
JD: Oh, I’m sure we’re gonna do that. And since I don’t believe that DVD has more than a couple of years left in it, we’re going to try to roll something out by Christmas. The trick to it is featuring material that’s been on the site, plus material that hasn’t been on the site, but I’m sure we’ll come up with something.
DC: Speaking of the very near future, let’s talk about the return of Dante’s Inferno to the New Beverly.
JD: Oh, I had so much fun at the last one, and now it’s become kind of a staple.
DC: I was thinking that you were the one who broke the ground on these filmmaker festivals there, but—
JD: No, actually it was Edgar (Wright). Edgar did the first one. I did the second one. There’s such a clubby atmosphere there (at the New Beverly) and the theater is so funky and cool, and of course Quentin (Tarantino) waves his benediction over it, so that doesn’t hurt. But I knew there was gonna be no way I was going to be able to run all the movies I wanted to run in one go, so I told them I’d love to come back and do it again when I have the time. And right now actually I don’t have the time, but I’m doing it anyway. Concurrent with running the New Beverly series, I’m mixing my movie and I’m doing music scoring at night. So there’s really no time for anything else. But I love doing it. I love the whole idea of it. But in fact, it’s kind of governed by the reality of, what movies can I get? I’ve still been unable to find prints of a couple of pictures that I really want to be able to run, so really, that just guarantees that I’ll have to do it again next year! (Laughs)
DC: From my point of view, not such a bad thing. And I can practically hear the collective groans of people reading this who also probably don’t mind the idea of that third chapter. How is it working with the staff at the New Beverly when it comes time to putting something like Dante’s Inferno together? You talk about the “clubby atmosphere” there, and I’ve mentioned it several times too in writing about things going on there— it’s such an inviting environment.
JD: It’s like going to church for people like us.
DC: Yes! You see the same people week after week—
JD: And you know why they’re there, because they love the movies. They may like the particular movie being screened, they may not like the movie, but they’re damn well gonna have a good time watching it. The thing that really astonished me, though, I must say, during the last program, was the reaction to The Movie Orgy. ‘Cause you remember, I was very ambivalent about how I thought it was going to play. I wasn’t sure it was going to play at all because it was so dated in my eyes, and to my great surprise it seemed as whacked out as it did in 1968, and it really went over well.
DC: After the screening I had this giddy buzz going, thinking, “Gee, I wish that could go on for another couple of hours.” Knowing full well, of course, that there was a longer version of it in the past. And I remember seeing you come out of the theater and you looked really happy.
JD: I was nonplussed. I was truly amazed at the reaction. Obviously, since it was so popular, I figured, since we only ran it one night we probably should run it again. And this time it’s in a somewhat expanded edition. In the interim I found some stuff that got lost, and I put it back in, which makes it almost an hour longer.
DC: (Laughing) Gee, that’s terrible news.
JD: Well, I don’t know. Depends on your tolerance for Mamie Van Doren!
DC: Duly noted. (Continues Laughing)
JD: But I imagine there are people who didn‘t get to see it last time who would like to see it. Again, we’re doing it the same way—we have to run it for free, which doesn’t exactly hurt attendance.
DC: I don’t remember there being many open seats last year.
JD: No, it was pretty packed. And what surprised me was, I thought people would leave in droves after a while, and they stuck it out to the bitter end.
DC: You had talked in our previous interview, and also to the audience before the show began, about how the Orgy was designed to be walked out on—go get a pizza, whatever. But I had to get up at one point for some reason—
JD: Probably to crowd into that little tiny men’s room! (Laughing)
DC: Always a guaranteed queue there! And I felt like, hey, I’ve been gone a minute and a half—I gotta get back. The walk-out-anytime strategy didn’t work for me.
JD: God knows what great piece of movie trivia has slipped by while I’m—
DC Exactly. I didn’t want anyone walking up to me and saying, “Oh, wasn’t that part great when—" and having to say, “Dammit, I missed it while I was taking a pee!” So I’m looking forward to the even longer endurance-test-that’s-not-really-an-endurance-test. I heard from so many people after I’d written my account of it who wrote to me and said, “God, I knew that was going to be good, and I missed it!”
”The Hellzapoppin’ Jam,” from Hellzapoppin’ (1941)
JD: Well, now they’ve had ample warning. They can fly in from Jakarta or wherever, bunk out at the Holiday Inn. The movie’s free, so—
DC: What about the rest of the festival this year?
JD: Oh, well, I still didn’t get a couple of pictures in that I wanted to get.
DC: You never found Confessions of an Opium Eater?
JD: No. And I did not find Hellzapoppin’.
DC: Oh, that’s too bad.
JD: I could have run them in 16, but I didn’t really want to do that, and I couldn’t find anything on video that was good except in PAL, and they can’t run PAL at the New Beverly. Otherwise, I could have ran both Opium Eater and Hellzapoppin’. But I’m still working on it, maybe for next time. I know there are prints out there somewhere. As for what we do have, we’re starting out on Wednesday, August 5, with a Bruce Dern tribute, a double feature of The ‘burbs and Michael Ritchie’s Smile. Bruce will be there. (He’s in The Hole too, by the way.)
DC: Okay, you talked me into it. I'll be there too! (Laughs)
The Matinee trailer
JD: That’s the first two days. The next program is a single night. Roger Corman will be there to introduce The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and a very nice print of Not of This Earth, which I don’t believe has been seen theatrically in, I don’t know, 30 years. The Movie Orgy is the next night, Saturday, August 8. Following that, Sunday and Monday, August 9 & 10, is an apocalypse double bill of Matinee and Miracle Mile.
DC So far I’ll be there four nights in a row!
JD: Then there is two nights of Cold Turkey and The President’s Analyst, August 11 and 12. I tried to get It’s a Gift to run with Cold Turkey, because it’s a very cynical, small-town film, like the Norman Lear movie, but it’s running at UCLA two nights before and they don’t want to book it that close. I also tried to get two John Farrow movies, The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal, and they too were being run somewhere else. So I obviously have to come back!
The last night, August 13, is a single night, and it’s a double feature tribute to John Barry featuring two of his best, least-known scores-- The Last Valley and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, both of which are undeservedly obscure. The Last Valley was directed by James Clavell and is severely underrepresented on video—there’s only one DVD, and it’s not anamorphic. It’s a great looking movie, in Technicolor, with beautiful locations. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is also only out of crappy DVD because it’s public domain. My print is a ‘scope print, but it’s a tiny bit faded. It was released by American National, the company that released those wilderness pictures.
DC: Living in Oregon I saw plenty of four-walled American National releases in the ‘70s. I’m surprised a company like that would have anything to do with a movie like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
JD: Nobody else wanted it! But it has a great score by John Barry and Don Black. And like I said, the print is a little faded, but it’s impossible to see it in ‘scope anywhere, and all the DVDs are shitty. I try to run movies that they can’t see anywhere else. There are a lot of movies that I’d love to run, but are run constantly. I’d certainly want to run The Black Cat, but everybody’s seen The Black Cat. I was thinking of running it with The Man from Planet X, because I have my own print of Man from Planet X, but the Not of This Earth print is so rare that I felt we ought to go with that instead.
DC: One of the really great things about the last program was that so many of the films you showed were films of a certain sly reputation. There was almost an urban legend quality about them, and here was your chance to see them for yourself. I remember hearing for a long time about The Sadist, which was really well received by the New Beverly faithful. Did the director, James Landis, ever do any other movies worth seeing?
JD: Well, a lot of the quality of that movie has to be attributed to Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot it. James Landis did a lot of other pictures, very few of which are any good. This is just one of those cases where the monkeys at the typewriter really churned out a movie that was not beyond their ken, was not too ambitious—they have their junkyard, a couple of people and a good situation—and they came up with a terrific movie which no one saw for years and years and years.
DC: Well, I certainly had never seen it, and I was sick the night you showed it, and I ended up catching up with it on YouTube, of all places.
JD: Really? Actually, you can see The ‘burbs on YouTube, and I don’t even know if Universal knows about it. The whole picture in parts. It’s illegal that they should have it, but somebody posted it. And how are you gonna know whether somebody uploaded a movie on YouTube or not unless somebody tells you? If you’re a studio and you’ve got a guy who is in charge of checking YouTube videos, finding the ones you own that shouldn’t be up there, it could take you a year. Do you know how many videos there are? All you could do is go through your catalog titles, starting with “A,” type them into YouTube and see if they’re there. That’s the only way you could do it.
DC: The New Beverly is also showing Gremlins at midnight during the run of the festival.
JD: Yes. It’s showing right after The Movie Orgy, which means they’re starting their evening a bit earlier than they usually do. (The Movie Orgy is
scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m.—DC.) And they’re going to have to kick everybody out!
DC: Even after six hours nobody’s going to want to leave. (Laughing).
JD: Especially since they got in at 5:30 for free! They’re going to run the print I ran over at the Aero, which is the preview print and is about six minutes longer than the theatrical cut.
DC: A night for the expanded works of Joe Dante.
DC: Yes. It’s different in a number of spots. I quizzed the audience at the Aero—“So, what did you think was different?” They picked up on most of it.
DC: Did it at the time surprise you, or even now, when you read critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and others who really think highly of your movies?
JD: Of course it’s nice when people like you. It’s nicer than when they don’t like you. But the one thing I have learned is that when your new movie comes out, don’t really pay too much attention to what people say., because nobody really knows how a movie is going to wear for at least a couple of years. Some of the movies that I made that are now being praised to the skies were received very poorly when they came out.
DC: I remember people telling me not to go see The ‘burbs, and I was so puzzled by why that movie got the kind of reaction it did, from critics and audiences.
JD: It’s context—what people are seeing at the time, what’s cool, what’s in. All that is ephemeral. It passes. And what’s left is the movie. The advertising is gone. Nobody remembers the trailer, the TV spots, the reviews, but the movie still lives and speaks for itself.
DC: It’s interesting that you bring that up. Over the past couple of years I’ve undertaken a kind of personal mission to catch up with movies I might have been interested in at the time but skipped because of the bad reviews or people advising me to avoid them.
JD: That’s why I ran Wrong is Right last year. It was considered, even by me, when I saw it, a jumbled mess. And now, with the benefit of 25 or so years of hindsight, it looks prescient. But that’s something that you cannot tell at the time. You can only discover that later. I believe movies are very mysterious, and they don’t give up their mysteries easily. Certainly not on the first viewing. You and I can return to the same movie 11 times or more. My father was a person who would be watching a movie on TV and he’d go, “Oh, I remember I’ve seen this,” and he’d turn it off. (Laughing).
DC: No, I don’t think I could operate like that.
JD: Well, the nice thing I have going for me is, I’ve seen so many movies and I very often can revisit a movie for the 12th time and, although I have all the information stored away—all the plot points, how it ends, that kind of stuff—that’s not how I watch the movie. I always watch the movie like a first-time viewer. Also, I’ll tune in to Citizen Kane in the middle, watch it for 20 minutes and get just as much out of it as I would if I watched the whole thing.
DC: Because you have all the information of the movie stored away and the movie’s images, even ones from an specific or unrelated section, can unlock the rest of that imagery?
JD : I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s an issue of the pleasure center of the brain or what. I just feel that these things are part of my DNA.
DC: It does seem to be a kind of involuntary reaction. I mean, you can’t study or contrive to have that kind of response. For me, short-term memory loss is a real plus.
DC: I can see a comedy, and two weeks later if I try to tell somebody about it, if I try to write about it—
JD: For me it’s murder mysteries. I can watch a murder mystery, or an old Perry Mason episode I’ve seen a hundred times and not remember who the killer was. But it’s still fun to try to figure it out! (Laughs)
DC: I’ve never quite understood the person who says, “I’ve seen a movie once. It’s given all it’s going to give to me. I know it. I’m done with it.”
JD: Well, that’s a person who, for the most part, probably isn’t that serious about movies. I saw 8½ when it was new—in 1963 I was 12 or 13, 15, I can’t remember. It was kind of impenetrable to me, but I thought it was fascinating. But as I got older and I would see the picture again I would get different things out of it. Then I became a filmmaker, and I saw the film again. After being a filmmaker a number of years I saw the film again. Every single time it was a different film.
DC: That’s a really important point, especially in terms of younger people and how they view movies. That kind of ability to identify and return to something after a few years—
JD: It has to have personal meaning to you, and I think that people in the culture in general are encouraged to not see films as having personal meaning, but instead as something disposable, something to pass the time, to be hip about, but without any real bearing on your life.
DC: It should be different than going to see Transformers three times during the summer just because that’s what you’re supposed to do, because you’re thirsty for some kind of “event.”
JD: And that can be a fun thing to do, but I don’t envy people who have only today’s movies to do that with. Because when I was in college and we’d go see movies in the ‘60s and ‘70s, these were movies that really were worth seeing more than once, worth discussing. Who makes pictures like that anymore? I feel very privileged to have grown up and lived when I did.
DC: Most of the Internet film sites I visit aren’t concerned with breaking news or box office figures. The ones I enjoy are the ones that deliver even just a sliver of appreciation for film history that I, as a reader, can grab onto and give everything else some perspective, the ones that feel as if some of that operating principle of film appreciation that existed in the ‘60s and ‘70s somehow got transported through time to this spot on the Internet.
JD: I have certain blogs that I just hit all the time. Yours is one, Mr. Peel’s is another, Dave Kehr, The House Next Door. These people don’t post all that often, some of them, but you always click to see what’s interesting that they’re going to talk about, or a thought that I never thought of myself about one movie or another. The stuff on Dave Kehr’s blog gets very esoteric, but—(Laughing)
DC: But it’s like visiting a friend who may not see things precisely the way you do, and that’s valuable.
JD: Blogs like these have taken the place of film magazines. We used to get American Film, Take One, and now there’s only one left-- Film Comment. It only comes out so often, and a lot of time its subjects are rather rarified—I remember at one point they were supposedly told not to feature old movies so much anymore.
DC: The editorial choices over the last few years certainly seem to reflect that. It’s much more focused on world cinema these days. And yet that’s why I always valued it—to somebody living out in the sticks in Eastern Oregon, Film Comment was one of the only ways to access serious discussion about classic Hollywood.
JD: Every once in a while now you’ll get somebody like Paul Schrader stirring things up about old movies, but for the most part they’re about what’s current. So the only place to go to get the kind of fix I used to get from Films and Filming or Sight and Sound is to go to the blogs and read the writers who would, in a different time, be writing for the magazines. For no money!
DC: Are there directors making movies today who you consider must-sees?
JD: I have directors I’m fond of. It’s not like when I was following Mario Bava and Roger Corman and making sure I saw all their new movies—and there was always a lot of them. I like Scorsese because I know where he’s coming from—he’s a film buff. I relate to him and his movies on that level, possibly in a different way than other people do. There used to be a lot of foreign directors I used to follow, but foreign film distribution is so weak now—we never get any of those films anymore unless they’re being remade. If you’d asked me this question in 1968 I could have given you 20 names. Today, nobody pops to mind. John Boorman still does interesting things. Ken Loach, although I don’t necessarily like all his movies.
DC: And these veteran directors are struggling to get their movies made.
JD: We’re all struggling to make movies. I’m making The Hole, a movie set in summer, in Canada during the winter. We’re freezing our asses off trying to make it look like it’s summer. And every so often I’d just stop and say, what are you complaining about? You’re working. You actually have a job. You’re expressing yourself. So many people I know who are my age can’t get work. People you would know who have made movies and TV shows you would recognize can’t get arrested because the studio heads don’t know who they are and their movies didn’t star Tom Cruise. They’re expected to put together MTV-like seven-minute reels that show people scenes from their movies. But if they put together these reels with lots of music and visual pizzazz and there’s still no famous movie star faces in there—“Why should we hire this guy when we can hire this music video guy?” The guys that green-light movies aren’t interested or passionate about movies, they’re interested in the bottom line. They’re interested in tent-pole movies, sequels, remakes, anything people have already heard of. They’re remaking Drop Dead Fred. They’re remaking Adventures in Babysitting. And they’re remaking them because, gee, we don’t even have to read the scripts, all we have to do is watch the movie! There’s nothing literate involved.
DC: Let’s talk a little bit about The Hole.
JD: When you’re successful in a genre you’re worth a little more to people doing that. They don’t offer me many love stories. So I’ve been reading a lot of horror scripts and, you know—The horror movie is in an interesting phase right now. It doesn’t really quite know where to go. It’s pretty much gone as far in the eyeball-popping direction as it can go, and everybody’s kind of wondering, what’s the next thing gonna be? In the meantime, I think there’s a certain nostalgia for the type of horror pictures that were being made 20 years ago. I was sent the script for The Hole, and it’s a very small film—six characters, five locations, obviously a modest movie. And I suggested to the producers, “You might think about making this in 3D.” Because it’s not a big, expansive film, it’s an intimate film about these kids and their family, and there’s something about 3D that draws you further into the movie when it’s done correctly. It’s not about throwing things and making the audience duck— it’s about making you feel like you’re in the scene with the people.
Bruce Dern (left, seated) and Joe Dante set up a shot on the set of The Hole (photo courtesy of Mike Browne)
DC: Animation seems to demonstrate that very well, as opposed to some of the other recent 3D pictures, which literally are throwing things at you.
JD: So I said, it’s gonna add another couple million to the budget, but in the end you’re going to have a movie that’s one of several 3D movies as opposed to one of a hundred other horror pictures. I thought they would just shine me on, but to my surprise they decided to invest the money and make the picture in 3D, which ended up being a large part of the budget. So we went to Paradise, which is an outfit out in Van Nuys—they did My Bloody Valentine. It’s a very Mom and Pop organization, not a big, slick used car dealership. These guys are older guys, they love 3D, they’ve been doing it for years. And if you’ve seen My Bloody Valentine, this is not your father’s 3D, because the classic 3D was shot on film. It would weave in the gate when you shot it, and it would weave in the gate when you projected it, and as a result your eyes had to do a lot of extra work trying to get those two images to synch up. Now everything’s digital, so it’s rock solid—the eye strain is gone. There are still mistakes you can make in 3D, but just in terms of the technology itself has really improved. And this is coming from a die-hard 3D fan. Jeff Joseph’s 3D festival at the Egyptian is something I never miss, and I’ve seen all those pictures more than once. I had previously done a 70mm 3D film for Busch Gardens and Sea World called R. L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse- “4D,” they called it, ‘cause they threw things at you and dropped water on you. And that was very interesting—the 3D was great, because it was two 70mm images, but the camera was the size of a Buick. It takes 85 guys to push it, and it makes such noise you have to loop the whole movie. So it was very primitive, but I found it fascinating. The stuff we had on The Hole were the exact opposite. The cameras are tiny now—they’re video cameras. The rigs are still kind of cumbersome, but the cameras are smaller.
DC: How long ago was the Busch Gardens film?
JD: That must have been 2002, something like that.
DC: Gives you a sense of just how rapidly the technology is evolving is such a short time.
JD: Oh, well, it’s the digital revolution. It’s astonishing how quickly things change. And I’m sure the technology at those theaters has changed—they’ve probably had to transfer the movies to a digital format. But one of the fun things about a new technology is, if you can keep up with it, do new projects often enough—I’ve done commercials for the sole reason of familiarizing myself with the new technology so I can master it if I need to. And since The Howling, where we were dealing with a certain kind of new technology with the bladders and such, I’ve seen such an amazing array of techniques come and go. Gremlins 2 was a completely different technology than the original Gremlins. We had this great technology to make the gremlins talk, and now that’s completely obsolete. I mean, everything that I’ve learned is basically obsolete! So, if you want to keep going in the business, you have to master the new stuff. My editor is cutting The Hole on Final Cut Pro, which he’d never cut on before. It’s like Avid, because you can’t take Avid’s features, which they’ve got copyrighted, and use them, so you have to find ways around them. Things that are simple to do on an Avid are actually harder to do on Final Cut Pro because you have to do extra steps in order to accomplish the same thing. But even that is going to be over with. I don’t understand how people who make that kind of hardware can possibly make any money because every time they put out a new product it’s instantly out of date. So what do they do with the old ones? “Oh, we’ll give them to the film schools.” I don’t know what they do with them, honestly. Where are all the Steenbecks? Where did they go? In Looney Tunes, which was a very complex movie technically—It took a year and a half to make the movie, and by the time we were finished with it the techniques we started with, the techniques we used were completely obsolete.
DC: Does working with 3D change the way you approach staging and blocking for the camera?
JD: I think it probably varies with directors. If you’ve always been taught to have natural depth in your shots, and you’re naturally thinking about foreground and background—A lot of my favorite directors did a lot of foreground, shot through things. Sidney Furie went through a fascinating period in his career where he couldn’t shoot anything unless it was through a spur or a—(Both Laughing). There’s a whole period in the mid-‘60s where his movies are like, there’s a giant lamp on one side of the screen and a little head on the other side of the frame. But he eventually abandoned that. But as far as 3D, I always come back to Dial M for Murder, which is one of my favorite uses of 3D. Not many people have seen it in 3D, but-- It’s a stage play, essentially, and it’s about spatial relationships. And all the characters are filmed in such a way that their relations to each other are accentuated by the 3D. The movie works fine in 2D, but in 3D it has an extra level of emotion because of the way the characters are arrayed on the screen/stage. It’s the best of both worlds, because it’s got elements of the stage, but it’s also got editing and cinema and camera movements and those kinds of things. I find working in 3D very challenging and I really enjoy it. I would do it again, although I don’t agree with Jeffrey Katzenberg that every movie needs to be in 3D—I don’t think that’s true. On the other hand, I don’t think it would hurt them. If you went back and turned Casablanca into a 3D movie it would be fine, just like Up is fine in 3D and not in 3D. The first half of Up is a perfect short film.
DC: And when I think about your movies, simply from a technological point of view, they are astounding, and they’re still astounding. The effects used for the transformation in The Howling, which were cutting edge at the time, may be outdated, but the almost handmade quality, the tactile, on-set quality that by definition you can’t get with CGI, also makes it kind of timeless, and certainly scarier. Last night my daughters and I watched David Thewlis transform into a werewolf in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban-- very well done, terrific movie. But as good as this sequence is, I still didn’t feel the moment viscerally, in my chest, the way I still do when I see Eddie Quist morph on screen in The Howling.
Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) would like to give Karen White (Dee Wallace) a piece of his mind in Joe Dante's The Howling
Professor Lupin (David Thewis) lives up to his name in Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
JD: Well, I’m not saying all these new techniques are better. Unfortunately, you can’t go home again, and it is difficult to make films using the old technology. I’ve seen a couple of pictures in Europe when I’ve gone to festivals where they have carefully tried to use the old Rob Bottin-Rick Baker school of do-it-in-the-camera, and it’s often very effective, but those movies often don’t get released anywhere because they’re not CGI, they’re not what people expect. I mean, love it or hate it, CGI is here to stay— the trick is to find a way to work it so that it doesn’t look as sterile and mechanical as by definition it is.
DC: And I think when you see movies that have figured that out, they stand out even more. The third Harry Potter movie was distinctive not only because they got it right visually, but because they managed to find a way to make all these effects integrate organically with the story.
JD: That’s the other issue—the story, the fact that there is a story. In the current incarnation of what are known as popular movies that are supposed to be enjoyed by kids, the amount of effects work and the number of “highlights” in the movie are astronomical. These pictures go from climax to climax to climax to climax, any one of which would have been good enough on its own for a movie made 20 years ago. But now they’re strung together one after the other and they all become kind of meaningless. No matter how technically proficient they are, no matter how spectacular they are, there’s a brain-deadening quality to them, and after a while it becomes just a bunch of visual noise. I think what modern filmmakers have to guard against is making these nonstop Hasbro toy commercials that are—the only word I can think of to say is soulless. They are showcases for the greatest technology we’ve ever had since the movies started, and yet the one thing that made the movies great, which is telling stories and having characters that you could relate to and be emotionally moved by, that’s sort of gone on the back burner.
DC: So in a way then, maybe you can go home again, if by “going home” you mean—
JD: You can if you can figure out a way to get the audience that has been trained to expect eyeball kicks every five seconds to sit still for the story. The problem is that the studios have now educated the audience to expect more and more and more spectacle, and they’ve discovered at the same time that it’s costing them too much money to make this spectacle. So what are they gonna do? They’ve given the audience a taste for blood, but now they don’t have the money to keep producing it. It’s going to be very interesting to see how they counter that. If you’ve ever sat in an audience at a film school with a John Ford movie or something like that and there’s a shot of a guy walking up a hill, somebody will inevitably say, “Well, why does that shot go on? Why is it even there?” It’s a taste thing, and it’s one of the reason that older movies often don’t play well for new audiences—they’ve grown up in a world of movies and TV where no shot lasts more than three or four seconds, with constant pop-ups and things coming from all angles and shooting all over the place. Nobody’s going to sit still and watch Dreyer movies now—there’s no way you’re going to be able to go back to that. But at least you can teach people to appreciate that stuff, even though hardly anybody does it anymore. Bergman has fallen way off the charts for film students, and even some critics, because his movies are slow, they’re in black and white, they’re somber, they have no humor. “Well, jeez, what do I wanna watch that for?” I mean, when I was in college this was like the holy grail—Bergman was the greatest. So times change, of course, but we have to learn to preserve the past and its values while keeping up with the future.
DC: I keep going back to the vogue for hand-held camerawork in modern filmmaking. A movie like The Hurt Locker is going for a certain you-are-there immediacy, yet as much as I liked the movie, I missed the kind of stick-to-your-ribs imagery that can come from a really well-directed set piece. There were flashes of that kind of imagery in there, which just made me hungry for more.
Goddamn Pepperidge Farms rack: Husbands and Wives
JD: The shaky-cam thing didn’t bother me as much in that movie because you could see it had a purpose. But in a movie like Husbands and Wives, which was Woody Allen’s first attempt to use this camera style—I don’t know what he was thinking, but the movie is annoyingly jarring. It’s on purpose that the camera doesn’t hit where it’s supposed to hit. It’s a good movie, but the camera movement doesn’t do anything but annoy you. Why can’t you just stop and let me see what’s happening?! You’re not on a battlefield defusing bombs, it’s two people in a house having an argument. And he doesn’t do that anymore. But styles are styles. And TV is a major purveyor of the shaky cam because it does give you an immediacy. And if there’s no money and you’ve got a shot of a guy talking, you can either plunk the camera down and have a dull, Dragnet- style shot of a guy talking or, if you move the camera around a little bit it makes it seem like something might be about to happen at any minute. And that’s cheap to do. It becomes a sort of shorthand that people accept. I used to watch Boston Legal, which I liked a lot, and they adopted this very annoying sort of pseudo zoom, where people would be talking and they would zoom in a little, then zoom back. (Laughing). What’s happening?!
DC: What did you think of Drag Me to Hell?
JD: I enjoyed it. It was very loud. (Laughs) It’s something that Sam (Raimi) wrote a while ago, and you can tell. And I thought it was pretty remarkable that the heroine managed to remain sympathetic after all she ends up doing.
DC: Well, she’s us, isn’t she? And we tend to be more forgiving of people whose dire situations we can empathize with, even if we don’t go around killing, um—
JD (Laughing): That’s a tough one! To keep the audience’s sympathy after you cook your cat.
DC: (Laughs ) Well, as much as I’d like to spend all evening sitting here with you, reality insists on intruding. So let me begin the process of finishing up by dropping a few names. Brother Theodore.
JD: A great guy. There’s a documentary about him called To My Great Chagrin. I was aware of him for years, because I grew up in the east and he was always playing some club somewhere and his picture or his caricature was always in the Village Voice, and he was always on Joe Franklin’s show, and Carson sometimes. He was such a fascinating man, and his act was so far from his real personality. He was a very sweet man who was getting toward the end of his life when we did The ‘burbs, and he couldn’t hear very well. But the time I spent with him, which unfortunately wasn’t as much as I would have liked because we were doing the movie, was privileged. A very unique guy with an amazing history, which I’m sure is documented in the film. I treasure the fact that I got to work with him. And to think, Timothy Carey almost played his part…
DC: Allan Arkush.
JD: Oh, Allan Arkush! Allan and I started together at Roger’s cutting trailers and we came up the ladder at the same time. My career went in a slightly different direction than his, but of the two of us he has been the more successful, I would say. He is very, very big in television. If you want to be in TV, you want to be in pilots, because pilots are where you make your money. If the show sells, you still get paid, even if you don’t do any more episodes, and often you can remain a creative force, influencing the hiring of actors and the direction of storylines. Allan has done this now on a number of popular shows. He was involved with Heroes and is going to be shooting two more pilots very soon. I’m very impressed with what he’s done and what he continues to do.
DC: Candice Rialson.
JD: When Candice passed away, as your remember because you blogged about it, people didn’t know for a number of months that she was gone. It was really a matter of disappearing under the surface. I never saw her in the later years after she got married. I don’t know what she thought of her career, or if she ever did think of it. But when I knew her she was the definition of bubbly. And when you think about the career she did have, it wasn’t exactly stellar, in terms of the quality of the movies she did. Nonetheless, she was a survivor, and she managed to make the most out of what she had for a very long period. I don’t really know what she thought of the movies, whether she wanted to get out of them, or out of show business completely. But Allan and I both felt we were really lucky to get her for Hollywood Boulevard.
DC: Dee Wallace.
JD: Again, lucky me. When Dee walked in for her audition (for The Howling)—I think she did it with Bob Picardo—she got so freaked out by him.
DC (laughing): Was he giving her a piece of his mind during that reading?
JD: No, no! It was the just the scene in the booth when he was talking to her. He was creepy as hell. But I had seen Dee and really liked her in 10-- I thought she was really great. And when the possibility of getting her came up, I said, “Oh, she’ll never do it.” Yet to my amazement she agreed, and we did find as we went on that her gifts were better suited to the second half of the movie, where she was recovering, rather than the tough news reporter thing at the beginning. So we took out a lot of the scenes featuring that toughness and just started later, because we weren’t afraid of her strengths. Dee was the most complicated actress I had ever worked with—and remember my previous experiences were Piranha and Hollywood Boulevard! Dee was a person who really needed-- wanted direction, and direction wasn’t something I’d had to do a lot of with actors. It was more like, “The sun’s going down! Get over there really quick!” It was a challenge for me, but I kinda had a crush on her, so—She was so gorgeous. There are shots in the movie where she’s just heartbreakingly beautiful. I see her now and again, and we had sort of a Howling reunion on Runaway Daughters, which brought a whole bunch of the gang back together.
DC: I loved that movie.
JD: Unfortunately, it no longer exists because they didn’t cut the negative. All that exists is a fuzzy dupe of a videotape, and that’s what they put out on DVD. Drive-in Classics made nine or 10 of those movies, and they all look like shit. I said, “Aren’t you gonna cut the negative?” They said, “Why should we do that?” I said, “Because you won’t have a movie if you don’t cut the negative!” “We don’t wanna cut the negative. It’s expensive.” “But all you’ve got is this… video” And they said, “Yeah, it’s great! We’ll use it forever!” “It’s a D-1. You know why they call it a D-1? ‘Cause there’s gonna be a D-2, D-3, D-4—" (Laughing)
DC: The “D” in this case stands for “degeneration.”
JD: So when they want to do a DVD they have to use this tape. They could never do it in hi-def. They don’t own anything! These people never listen to me. (Laughs)
DC: Forrest J. Ackerman.
JD: Forrest passed away this year. We had a memorial at the Egyptian, which was very well attended. There’s very few people in my age group that were not affected by Forry, and not just because he and James Warren started the magazine, but because of his cult of personality. He was Forry, but he was also Famous Monsters. His jocular attitude toward the material—this elbow in the ribs kind of view—was very endearing and welcoming for kids. Even kids who might have initially been afraid of those kinds of movies had an entrée from Uncle Forry that said this was okay. Monsters are good for you. (That was the title of one of the articles in the magazine.) And for a guy who was very generous, he really got taken advantage of by a lot of people and his famous collection is now scattered to the winds.
DC: I always worried about that, just seeing how many people came through his house on a regular basis.
JD: And how many people left with something under their coat. He didn’t have anybody stopping them or checking them. He just seemed to feel that if that was the way it was gonna be, then that’s the way it was gonna be. Anybody else would have had visitors checked at the door or used a metal detector or whatever. That was the kind of trusting guy he was. And he was there at the beginning of science fiction! What was once known as the Sci-Fi Channel just recently had to change its name to the The Syfy Channel because they couldn’t copyright the title—the term “sci-fi” was coined by Forry, and it’s now in common usage, so there’s no way to copyright it. But beyond anything else, it’s a monument to his generosity that there are so many people who were touched by him, and I don’t think he could have done it any other way.
DC: That’s a pretty powerful thing to say about someone with his kind of influence.
JD: Certainly the creative end of the movie business would be sorrier without him.
DC: Many of us feel the same way about you. Thanks for opening your home and spending time with me today, and for serving me some ice-cold water in a glass with a piranha on it!
JD: My pleasure!
UPDATE 8/7/09: More reading on Joe Dante! Please check out this very entertaining interview with Joe conducted at the recent ComicCon by Jeremy "Mr. Beaks" Smith, and also Jim Emerson's enthusiastic commentary on my interview with Joe At Scanners. Wish you could be here tonight and every night, Jim! Finally, over at Shooting Down Pictures, via The House Next Door, Kevin Lee and Keith Uhlich begin the search for the best films of the decade by initiating a reputation reparation on Joe Dante's much-maligned and pretty darned wonderful Looney Tunes: Back in Action.