What comes to mind when you hear the name Joe Dante? Does the ‘Jaws’ inspired ‘Piranha’ come to mind? How about ‘The Howling’ or ‘Gremlins’? Still not enough? Maybe you are more fanatical about ‘Innerspace’ or ‘The ‘Burbs’. That’s right, Joe Dante is responsible for directing some of the most memorable movies of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. While Dante is truly something special in the realm of cinema and has retained steady work since those glory days, he somehow managed to disappear off the industry’s radar for the past couple years. Well here’s the news you Joe Dante maniacs have been waiting for! The master of horror is back with a vengeance! The legendary director has been thrust onto the scene with a new DVD reissue of ‘Piranha’ and its big budget remake due to hit theaters on August 20th. While his past works and influence on modern cinema speak for themselves, the director also has a new trick up his sleeve. Dante is on the verge of unleashing a brand new tale of terror upon the masses this fall in 3D. Steve Johnson of Icon vs. Icon recently caught up with the director to discuss his influences, his memorable films, Shout! Factory’s upcoming DVD reissue of ‘Piranha’, Hollywood’s trend of remaking classic films, and his upcoming movie ‘The Hole 3D’.
First off, I want to give our readers a little background. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
Well I don’t think it really ever dawned on me until after I made my first movie. When I was a kid I wanted to be a cartoonist. I spent most of my time at Saturday matinees. I ended up getting a job at a film magazine reviewing movies. Then I came out here to make trailers and I got a chance to direct a movie. It all sort of happened to me. When I look back on it, it’s the only career I ever could have had.
Who were your influences, be it other directors or otherwise?
Almost every movie I ever saw influenced me. I discovered later when I looked back at some of the movies that I had made, how many things I had stolen from other pictures that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. I had all of these images floating around in my head and they just would come out while I was working.
You are a director, writer, editor, and producer. Is there one aspect of film making that you prefer over the others?
I started as an editor. I still think that’s where the power is. You can ruin a movie or you can make a movie in the editing room. Obviously, you have to have the footage for it. If I hadn’t been an editor first, I don’t think I ever would have been able to direct my first couple of pictures as successfully as I did because I was aware of what I needed and what I didn’t need.
You’ve done work on motion pictures and television series. Which format do you prefer?
Well I think that for watching movies, the theatrical experience is unique. There’s nothing like it. As far as the content goes, with the advent of big screens at home and new sound systems, the difference between making movies for theaters and making movies for television has really diminished quite a bit. In the old days they used to say, “If you do a TV movie it has got to have a lot of closeups because the screens are small.” Now, of course, that isn’t true. I don’t think most people change their style one way or the other depending on which medium they are working in.
You are responsible for some of the most memorable films of the ‘80s (‘The Howling’, ‘Gremlins’, ‘Explorers’, ‘The ‘Burbs’, etc. …). Is there one of those films that sticks out as your favorite or that you have really fond memories of?
As far as fond memories of … I really enjoyed making ‘Innerspace’ because the cast was so much fun. It was fun to go to work every day. Some of the other movies were a little more difficult for various reasons. As far as on the set, I had the most fun on ‘Innerspace’, ‘Gremlins 2’, and ‘The ‘Burbs’.
Did you ever imagine that those films would become so popular and affect people the way they have?
No, you never think that. I’m here at the Shout! Factory booth doing a promo for the new DVD reissue of ‘Piranha’, which is my second movie. If you had told me in 1978 that anybody would be buying a Blu-Ray of what I was doing then I wouldn’t have believed it. When you are making the movies you don’t think about posterity, you just think about getting it done.
Speaking of Shout! Factory’s reissue of ‘Piranha’. They are due to release the film on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 3rd. Looking back on it, do you have any fond memories of working on the film and would you have done anything different with it if you were given a chance?
I probably would have done everything differently if I had a chance! [laughs] The whole idea with that one was that it was an assignment picture. It was a movie that was available to do and Roger offered it to me. I thought it was a terrible idea for a movie, five years after ‘Jaws’ doing a low budget rip off. By the time we were done with it, I think we had obviously managed to change it into something that was a little more substantial. For some reason it’s managed to stay in the public consciousness.
What was it like working alongside Roger Corman on ‘Piranha’?
Roger initiated the project and worked with me on the script and on the cutting. We made the movie in Texas, so he wasn’t around. It was basically, as with all Corman films, beat the clock. You basically have to try to get as much footage in the can as possibly between sunlight and sunset. It means taking a lot of shortcuts and cutting a lot of corners. Usually the projects were very ambitious for the time and money that was being invested in them. You eventually wanted to make the best possible ‘Piranha’, ‘Women in Cages’, or ‘Teachers’ movies that you could make out of the material. [laughs]
Did Shout! Factory consult you when it came time to put the DVD together? If so, what input did you have?
They did. There had been a previous DVD and they wanted to know if I had anymore material. I actually managed to come up with some footage that I had cut out that was reinserted for network TV broadcast. When it was broadcast on NBC they cut out all of the piranhas. [laughs] They had to have something to fill up the space. Of course they did a Blu-Ray, which is a new transfer. It’s in the proper ratio and it looks as good as that movie could ever look.
Remaking films is the current rage in Hollywood right now. As a the director of a film that has been remade (‘Piranha’), what are your feelings on the trend?
As a guy who made his splash by making a ripoff of ‘Jaws’, I’m really not in the position to criticize anybody for remaking anything. Many of the movies that we think of as classics were remakes. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ was a remake. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was a remake. There’s nothing wrong with remakes. If they improve on the original and are intelligent, I think they can be great. ‘Heaven Can Wait’ is a great remake of ‘Here Comes Mr. Jordan’. They are both good movies. I think it’s fine. I think the problem currently in Hollywood is that they’re remaking them only because the titles already exist and they have proven themselves. In this particular economic climate everybody is afraid to do new things, which is why I’m pleased to see that ‘Inception’ has been doing so well. It disproves the bromide that the studios can’t make money by doing new projects.
Do you intend on seeing the remake of ‘Piranha’ when it hits theaters?
Oh sure! Yeah! I was supposed to be in it, but I unfortunately couldn’t do it.
You are responsible for one of the scariest werewolf movies (‘The Howling’) to ever hit the silver screen and are often looked upon as a master of horror. Have you always been a fan of horror films and what are your thoughts on being referred to as a master of horror?
I suppose it’s flattering, particularly the company that I am in. When I did that cable series a couple of years ago, we had some pretty good people there. It’s a little limiting in the sense that sometimes people don’t think of you for anything else. “Why would we want to give him a love story? He does horror pictures!” That’s a little limiting. It’s a genre that used to be considered junk and now it’s become the backbone of the industry, so I guess it’s OK.
Although you have directed films outside of the horror genre, you have become closely associated with the realm of horror. Do you see yourself continuing to work in the horror genre or do you want to pursue interests outside of the genre?
I think over the years I have not pursued as many things outside of the genre as I would have liked to because I’m much more bankable doing horror films. The trick with horror pictures is trying to find something new and interesting to do that hasn’t been done a hundred times. I get a lot of horror scripts and generally most of them aren’t so hot. They’re kind of all retreads of things or they’re just violence for violence sake. I think those kind of movies are going to age fast. I did do a picture last year called ‘The Hole in 3D’, which is a horror film. It’s more of a retro horror film, like the kind of things we were making in the ‘80s.
What can you tell us about ‘The Hole’ and were there any challenges to shooting the film in 3D?
I love 3D. I’m old enough to have seen it when it was new in the ‘50s. I think that when properly used, it’s a great storytelling tool. It’s a family style horror picture about a dysfunctional family. A mom and two kids move from the big city to kind of a boring podunk town. We don’t know exactly why they moved, but there seems to be some sinister reason. The kids discover a door in the floor that has locks on it. When they take off the locks, which you’re not supposed to do in these pictures, something comes out and it’s obviously not good. As a movie, it was a lot of fun to make because I really enjoy doing 3D. We won an award at The Venice Film Festival for best 3D film last year. It’s been playing in a couple places in Europe and I guess it is coming out here this fall.
Is there any specific release date?
No. I finished it a while ago and I haven’t been talking to those guys. I just know vaguely that it’s supposed to come out at the end of the year.
The film has obviously made the rounds on the festival circuit. How has it been received?
Quite well! Surprisingly well! It did well in Toronto. They loved it in Venice. It opened quite well in Italy and it’s playing in Russia.
Do you have any other film projects that we should be on the look out for?
Not that’s going to be imminently out. I’ve got things that I am working on. Things I’m trying to get funded, which is a whole other story that you don’t want to hear about. Basically I try to keep busy with my website.
What do you consider the defining moment of your career so far?
The defining moment of my career came while I was making ‘The Twilight Zone’ movie. It was at Warner Brothers. I had never worked at a big studio. I was on an elevated set and we were looking down at the rest of the stage. A grip pointed to the corner and said, “You see that corner! Errol Flynn pissed in that corner!” I remember thinking, “You know! I have arrived!” [laughs]
That’s a good story! [laughs] What is the biggest misconception about yourself?
About me? Hmmm … That’s a stumper! I don’t know! [laughs]
What is the best piece of advice someone has given you along the way in your career?
Roger Corman once told me to sit down a lot. That was really good advice, except on his pictures there were no chairs. [laughs]
That being said, do you have any advice for someone who would like to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
They have my sympathy because it’s much harder now than it was when I started. I would say this … If they’re directing, they should edit their own material so they know what mistakes they made and that they won’t make again.
Is there anything else you want to add or let your fans know before we let you go?
Can I plug my website?
Absolutely! Plug away!
Do you know about it?
No. I’m not familiar. What can you tell us about it?
Well, this is an important day in your life. It’s www.trailersfromhell.com. It’s a site where we have almost 500 trailers, all narrated by contemporary filmmakers. They talk about what the movie meant to them, where they saw it, how they stole from it, whether they liked it or not. It’s everything from ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ to ‘Spartacus.’ The commentators include everybody from John Landis and Guillermo del Toro, to Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, me, and a lot of other people. It was basically created because I was concerned that the movies that I grew up with from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and even the ‘70s were getting kind of unknown. Kids today, in this world where we have so many things available, don’t know about these things and don’t know about these filmmakers. I was just basically trying to get it back into the public eye. It’s been working quite well.
Awesome! I’m going to check that out as soon as I get off the phone with you!
Cool! You’ll find Roger Corman talking about ‘Tales of Terror’!
Real quick, what’s the status of ‘Gremlins 3’?
There were so many rumors I actually asked Warner Brothers last month if there was anything going on and they said no.
I’m sure you get that question 3,000 times a day.
Thanks for your time Joe. We wish you all the best. We’ll be on the lookout for ‘The Hole 3D’.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.