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A Conversation With Joe Dante

Joe Dante

For over four decades Joe Dante has been one of America’s most prolific film directors. Emerging from Roger Corman‘s cadre of talented filmmakers in the late 1970s, he quickly established himself as a versatile director who could work within several genres while oftentimes employing a regular group of returning actors from project to project.

His filmography is nothing short of amazing. Consisting of both cult and commercial hits including Piranha, Rock n’ Roll High School, The Howling, Police Squad, Gremlins, Gremlins 2, Innerspace, Looney Tunes: Back In Action and Matinee. Dante also has worked in television, directing episodes of The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, CSI: New York and Hawaii Five-O. He also was a Creative Consultant and director for Eerie Indiana.


Need Coffee’s Rob Levy spoke with Dante by phone about his love of film, his diverse repertoire of projects over the years, The Ramones and the trials and tribulations of making movies.

Rob Levy: In addition to being a director you are also a film collector. How did you become interested in film?

Joe Dante: I started collecting films before I was a director. When I was in college a lot of friends of mine were film collectors. There were a lot of 16mm prints that were being thrown away at TV studios and stuff that like and I put together a pretty good collection. Then when went out to California I started collecting 75mm. I’ve always liked movies from the time I was a kid. I never thought I’d be making them but I know I would be writing about them.

RL: How did your “big break” with Roger Corman happen?

JD: I came out to California from the East Coast because some friends of mine had already come out to work for Roger Corman who was looking for low budget labor. I immediately got a job doing trailers, cutting trailers for exploitation movies at New World Pictures. The way the system was set up is that basically it was all non-union and no one had their area of expertise but had the willingness to learn and to do it. The most creative people ended up working for Roger Corman because the opportunities were there. There wasn’t a lot of money but there was an opportunity to work and build up a resume of things that you’d done and learn on the job basically. After a year of cutting trailers I was able to cut my first picture.

RL: What was it like working with John Sayles?

JD: Well first I worked for Roger and then my second film for Roger was Piranha, which was made on an existing script that really wasn’t very good. Roger’s assistant Francis Dole was in charge of finding new writers and she had read John Sayles’ novel, Pride Of The Bimbos, and he expressed interest in rewriting the script so he rewrote the Piranha script and made it, I think, much more clever and funny and more political–which is what Roger was looking for.

It went very well and he hung out around the set in Texas for awhile sort of soaking up the atmosphere of making movies awhile and then he went on to make his own movie, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, which was the beginning of a long string of movies that John wrote and directed.

RL: What was your involvement in Rock N’ Roll High School?

JD: My friend Allan Arkush directed Rock N’ Roll High School. We had a choice and Alan really wanted to do Rock N’ Roll High School so I got the fish movie. But it was deep into shooting and he fell ill the last few days so I came in and finished directing for those couple of days and I helped him edit. He and I had written the original story and it turned out to be an amazing cult film. Although I think both us of us agree that if it wasn’t for The Ramones it wouldn’t be as remembered today.

RL: Can you talk about working with The Ramones?

JD: I got along with them quite well. Johnny Ramone was a huge horror movie fan so we spent a lot of time talking about movies and stuff.

RL: Music is a big part of your films. Can you talk about how you select music for your films?

JD: The process changes depending on what kind of movie you are making. It depends on if you want to use existing songs–that’s one kind of a thing and that can be very expensive and there’s always your composer. I was lucky on Piranha and The Howling I had Pino Dinaggio–who is a fantastic composer, who had done a picture called Don’t Look Now and was a brilliant composer.

Then when I moved up the ladder and started working for Steven Spielberg I was introduced to Jerry Goldsmith who was already hired to do The Twilight Zone movie before I was and we hit it off very well. Jerry did the scores for ninety percent of the features I ended up making. Sometimes he was too expensive and I couldn’t use him and sometimes he was not available. Anytime he was he was like the cherry on top of the cake because when you are making a movie the one thing you always know is that it is going to get better on they put the music on.

RL: You use a lot of the same actors in your features. Does that have to do with your developing a comfort level with them?

JD: I think it does. I think that if you look at a lot of director’s filmographies you will see a lot of the same names popping up all the time. If you look at directors like [Preston] Sturgess, John Ford or Ingmar Bergman these people all had people they liked to work with and partly it’s because they become your friends but also you develop a short of shorthand working with them where you do not have to do a lot of discussing of the character or how you are going to do it because you’re already on the same wavelength. It makes the whole thing a lot more fun. Movie making can be fraught with tension and there’s a lot of money at stake and anything you can do to lighten the load is definitely worth doing and just having people around you enjoy and whose work you enjoy makes the whole thing a lot easier.

RL: How was it making The Looney Tunes Film?

JD: Well that is a movie I made because my friend Chuck Jones passed away. He was very proprietary about the ways the Looney Tunes characters had been treated in other features. I basically went along because I wanted to maintain the integrity of the characters. I didn’t want to see them burlesqued or turned into something that they weren’t. It was an arduous process because it was a very complicated picture to make. It took half a year to shoot and an entire year to animate. That’s a long time to work on any project and when the studio has to watch it over and over and over they tend to become very familiar with the jokes and not appreciate them. So very often by the fourth screening they would say “That joke’s no good, you got to take that out” and it’s of course it’s already been animated to that joke. They are tired of it because they have seen it so many times. It’s an arduous type of filmmaking and not the type I would like to repeat.

Chuck Jones in Gremlins
Chuck Jones' cameo appearance in Gremlins

RL: Are you surprised by how much people today still love Gremlins?

JD: You never know when you’re making a movie what the fate of it is going to be and that one was a hard movie to make because we were breaking new ground with the technology. The studio didn’t get the tone I was going for. So when we had this spectacularly successful preview, the studio was really firmly back on its haunches saying, “Wait a minute, this looks like it could be a money maker.” That’s when all of a sudden merchandising geared up–which had not really [been] planned before. But as soon as they saw what the results of the screening were, they realized this was a movie they could sell the hell out of.

It may have been the right movie at the right time. It is quite possible that if this movie came out two months earlier or two months later or even a year later it just may not have hit audiences the way it did. But it did become popular and it’s been twenty-five years and people are still talking about them.

Joe Dante on the set of The Howling
Mr. Dante and friend, on the set of The Howling

RL: The Howling has also endured to a cult status.

JD: That’s even more surprising because it was such a cheap film. There hadn’t been a lot of werewolf pictures for awhile. Then suddenly in 1981 there were five of them. We were one of the first one out of the gate because we had actually shot it in 1980. It was a surprise success. It was a different take on the werewolf genre. Ours was an urban, gritty, slasher sort of setting which sort of prepared the audience for the fact there was going to be werewolf stuff in it. But we didn’t sell it as a werewolf movie. We just billed it as a horror movie.

RL: Can you talk about making Matinee?

JD: That was a picture that almost didn’t get made. It was an independent picture. We had the money from overseas that dried up just before we were starting to shoot. Universal had been fronting us the money and they were going to distribute it. We had to go to them and ask them to fund the entire picture, which they did. But it wasn’t really a studio kind of movie; it was more of a Miramax kind of a movie and it wasn’t the kind of movie you could open in a zillion theaters and expect people to show up. It didn’t do all that well theatrically but it has been rediscovered on video.

RL: John Goodman is really great in it.

JD: He’s wonderful in it. There are little shades of his performance in Argo of the character he was playing in Matinee.

RL: You also directed two episodes of Amazing Stories. What was that experience like?

JD: Amazing Stories was initiated by Spielberg to use as a testing out of a lot of directors. He had a lot of young people that he knew and a lot of people that were coming up. Rather than giving them a feature right away he gave them an episode of Amazing Stories and you could see how they would do. It was sort of like doing a mini feature. Even when the show was not very popular he insisted that NBC re-up for the second season. Mainly because I think he wanted to give more people opportunities. Clint Eastwood did one, Martin Scorsese did one and they were alternated with people who hadn’t done features who were just trying out. It was a really creative atmosphere.

RL: Do you know if they are coming out on Blu-Ray?

JD: I am sure they will come back. Unlike a lot of other shows that were then being edited entirely on tape, Steven also insisted that all the shows be edited on film so they all exist as actually film materials. They would make an astounding looking Blu-Ray.

RL: How did you get to direct an episode of Hawaii Five-O?

JD: Hawaii Five-O came out of a CSI: New York episode that I did for a Halloween episode for the same producers. When they switched over to Hawaii Five-O they asked me to do another Halloween episode for that–which I did about a year or so ago. There is another Hawaii Five-O in my future in February. It’s fun show to do. Not only do you get to go to Hawaii, which is not a bad thing, but also you have the happiest crew you could ever imagine working with because they all know what a great job it is. They are very smart by embracing the Hawaii-ness of it. The titles of the episodes are in Hawaiian and there is a lot of use of the culture. They really have taken the culture and making it part of the show.

RL: What would you like to do as a director that you have not gotten to do yet?

JD: I have a lot of projects that I didn’t get to do because for whatever reason they just didn’t get made. There are other pictures that I would have liked to have made that other people got to make but that’s okay. I am just happy to keep working. I like working and I don’t work often enough to scratch that itch. The way the business has changed is that they used to pay you to develop things. If you got offered the script and you said “yes,” then that meant the picture was going to get made.

But now when you say yes to a script it means they are going to go out and try and raise money on your name or try to get actors involved or whatever. So every project you deal with is like a development project. You can’t have only one movie that your working you have to have five because you never know which one of them will actually happen. Then I end up doing five times the work that I used to do when I actually used to work more.

RL: Finally, what do you think of the films being made today?

JD: Obviously everything is remakes and TV redos and superheroes and all that so often but then every so often you get someone who takes a flyer on a movie like Cloud Atlas where they are just taking risk after risk after risk–and it’s an uneven movie, not everything in it works–but I found it exhilarating just to be able to watch talented filmmakers do something different with the medium.

That’s what I really look for. That’s what excites me about movies today. There are just so many talented people working. The trick is to find stories that are not the same mundane cop stories or buddy stories that we saw last week with the exploding helicopter and all that. There is a lot of good work being done it’s just not necessarily in the blockbuster category.

Dante will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award this weekend at the 21st Annual St. Louis International Film Festival.