Joe Dante on Gremlins and modern horror movies
The sharp and witty director of Gremlins, Innerspace and The Howling visited Edinburgh International Film Festival to provide an insightful overview of his rich career
Joe Dante is a lovable mischief-maker; call him the Loki of Hollywood. For four decades he’s been making some of the wiliest films in modern cinema. He ripped off Spielberg’s Jaws in 1978 with riotous exploitation cheapie Piranha and then spoofed him again six years later when Spielberg hired him to make Gremlins, which is basically ET with teeth. He’s navigated studio interference and indifferent box-office to make idiosyncratic sci-fi fantasy Innerspace, social satire The ‘Burbs and Explorers, another witty Spielberg pastiche. He’s also made a string of films about the follies of American foreign policy (Matinee, Small Soldiers, Homecoming) that look more prophetic by the day.
Speaking to critic Jonathan Romney at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the 71 year old director muses across the entirety of his career, from his early days working under the tutelage of Roger Corman (“This was film school, but it was film school where your movie was going to open in 20 southern drive-ins in a month”) to his current project The Man with Kaleidoscopic Eyes, which he’s been trying to make for the last ten years. This new film brings him full circle to his mentor: starring Bill Hader as Corman, it details the production of that director’s psychedelic 1967 cult classic, The Trip. In between, he discusses his topsy-turvy career, the successes, and the failures, with plenty of good humour.
Dante’s debut came in 1976 with Hollywood Boulevard, which essentially satirised the type of B-movies Corman and his team of hungry young filmmakers (James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were among those who got their start with Corman) were making. Co-directed with Allan Arkush, it tells the story of a starlet who comes to Hollywood and gets involved in a low budget movie company called Miracle Pictures (tagline: “if it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle”).
At the time, Dante and Arkush were slaving away in Corman’s trailer department. “We suggested maybe we could do a movie,” recalls Dante, “but of course Roger wanted to keep us doing trailers, so he said, ‘Well, you can do a movie for me if it’s the cheapest movie we’ve ever made and you’ve got ten days to do it. Oh, and you’ve still got to do the trailers at night.’”
The directing duo realised that they could stretch their meager budget by lifting the juiciest setpieces from the films for which they were cutting promos. “We were so conversant with clips of the action scenes in all the trailers that we’ve done, that if we wrote a movie around those scenes, we could actually have a whole picture with all sorts of reactions to put in the trailer. All we had to do was dress up our actors the way the actors in the movies were dressed.”
In the late 70s, Dante stumbled into horror filmmaking with two wonderful pictures written by John Sayles: Piranha and sinuous werewolf flick The Howling. Looking back, it might be the hayday for genre filmmaking, with Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg all emerging around the same period. It was a heady time for any young gorehound. “When the rating system came in, suddenly you could show things that you had previously not been able to see on screen, and a lot of people took advantage,” Dante says of the period.
Dante, Hooper, Carpenter et al were interested in more than gore and nudity, though. “There were a number of us who had other designs on the genre and wanted to do something in a more classical vein, and on occasion, those pictures would be recognised.” Throughout his talk, Dante is nothing if not self-deprecating. Having caught himself complementing his work, he’s quick to remind the audience he was still very much a genre bum. “You still always had someone like Stanley Kubrick coming along and sort of elevating the genre by making The Shining,” he says. “There was always some filmmaker who would try to make a classy horror.”
In succeeding years, the types of films Dante made have become positively mainstream. “[Horror] was always the, ‘keep grandma in the closet’ kind of genre. Yeah, we made a lot of money with them, but no one wanted to talk about them. But now you find a movie like Get Out making inroads at the Academy Awards, which is pretty much unheard of for that type of film.”
If Dante is bitter about young directors getting recognition for similar work he was doing three decades before, he doesn’t show it. In fact, he seems pretty excited about this new generation of filmmakers, citing Cabin in the Woods as one of the recent horror films that really pushed the envelope. “There are certain tropes and cliches that people expect to see at one of these movies and if you don’t give it to them, they’re kind of disappointed, but if you do give it to them and that’s all you give them, they’re really disappointed,” says Dante. “[Cabin in the Woods] gave people exactly what they thought they were going to get and turned it on its head and gave them something more. That’s also part of the appeal of Get Out: it’s essentially a Twilight Zone movie but it has a social core to it that's unique for that particular genre.”
The biggest hit of Dante’s career would come with Gremlins, in which he blended the nastiness and satire of his early films with the family-friendly commerciality of Spielberg, who was producing the picture. “The studio sort of looked at it as Spielberg’s folly,” Dante recalls. “It was the first Amblin picture for his company, they wanted him to be happy, so they said ‘let him do this picture, it doesn’t cost much money, and hopefully it won’t be terrible’.”
Not for the last time in Dante’s career, the studios were horrified when he showed them the finished product. “They said, ‘why have you all these disgusting Gremlins? They blow their nose on the curtains, it’s horrible.’” To Spielberg’s credit, he jumped straight to his director’s defence. “Spielberg said, ‘well, you know, we could cut all the Gremlins out and call it People, but I don’t think anybody’s going to come.’” Despite its yuletide setting, Gremlins was released the summer of 1984, and it was a wild success. “Frankly, I’ve been trading on it ever since,” Dante deadpans.
Dante’s Q&A is full of sharp insights and fun anecdotes, but his discussion has a sprinkling of poignancy for the films of his that didn’t manage to set the world on fire. Some of them he doesn’t want to talk about, like Explorers, which was ripped away from him by the studio. “It’s the rare chance to see the rough cut,” he jokes. “There are some nice things in the movie, but it’s not what I had in mind.” While others like Innerspace and Matinee are clearly cherished projects that he wishes had found an audience. Of the lesser-spotted Dante pictures, he has most to say about The Second Civil War, a TV movie he made for HBO, which we suspect every member of this audience will be seeking out due to Dante’s passionate championing of it:
“Every hot-button issue of the day is in this movie,” he says, “and what’s remarkable about it, when you see the movie today, it looks like it was made last week. The only thing different about it is the size of the TV screens, they’re square and not widescreen. Every element of the story is taking place right now, and it’s a comedy, which makes it a very black comedy. And there’s a feckless President in there too, who doesn’t know what he’s doing, manipulated by others.
Things also get heated when Romney brings up Dante’s brilliant anti-war film Homecoming, which concerns re-animated soldiers killed in the Iraq War, who want to vote in the upcoming election. “I thought it was tragic that the first dramatic treatment of the Iraq war was a fucking zombie movie,” this f-bomb is the only swear word to leave the mild-mannered filmmaker’s lips during his 90-minute chat. “It was embarrassing almost,” he continues. “I was really angry when I did it and it’s a fairly angry picture. I sent a copy of it to every right-wing commentator I could think of and, of course, none of them ever responded.”
Dante’s taken some knocks, but there’s a sense that his reputation is ever-growing, despite the paucity of his output (he’s only made three features this century). There has been a highfalutin book written about his work (“Yeah, in Austria,” he scoffs), while at Paris’ great church of cinema, La Cinémathèque française, he received a loving retrospective of his work last year, showing everything from his 1968 movie mashup The Movie Orgy to his wonderful kids’ show Eerie, Indiana, which was clearly a huge influence on Stranger Things (“I’m sure my cheque is in the mail somewhere,” Dante says knowingly when Romney mentions the Duffer Brothers’ wildly popular Netflix show).
Despite the critical reappraisal and cult-like adoration of his movies, Dante rejects the auteur label. “If you directed it, and you wrote it, and maybe even shot it, then it’s definitely ‘a film by…’, but I was always uncomfortable by the idea of ‘a film by Joe Dante’ because what about the writer?” For the record, we think he’s wrong: Dante is one of America’s great auteurs, still sorely underrated.
Joe Dante's The Howling screens at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 26 Jun, Filmhouse, 11.15pm as part of EIFF's American Nightmare retrospective, with Dante introducing the film – tickets here
Read our review of The Howling
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