Monday, September 20, 2010

Joe Dante Interview

Legendary director JOE DANTE is releasing his much-anticipated, The Hole 3D this week. A filmmaker who has never been afraid to scare youngsters with such films as Gremlins, The ‘Burbs, Small Soldiers and The Howling is using 3D to great effect with his latest fun foray into horror. He talks to Totally Dublin about the film, his days on Eerie, Indiana and what he learned from working with Roger Corman...

The Hole along with many of your previous films including Gremlins and Small Soldiers are dark family films that contain actual menace. Is this something lacking in today's family films?
There’s a tendency to make family films a little “treacly” and that’s somewhat old-fashioned and I think that comes from underestimating children. I remember when Gremlins came out there was this great, big drama about the scene where the Mom puts the gremlin in the microwave and there were all these parents complaining that their children are gonna put their little brother or sister in the microwave; or put the poodle in the microwave; or put the cat in the microwave and I just thought it was so ridiculous because children are smarter than that. People are always underestimating them.

I think the best children’s films are the ones that are not specifically aimed at children, but are aimed above that because children can pick up on things much better than people realise. I think they can tell the difference between fiction and reality much better than people imagine. And I base that on being a kid! 

So, do you think kids like to be scared?
I think kids LOVE to be scared! I was an “atomic fear” child. I grew up in the 50’s where everybody thought the bomb was gonna go off at any moment. Every plane that flew over was a possible bomb-dropper. But I was drawn to go see these “giant ant” movies, movies where radiation was gonna change strange things into huge monsters. And these movies scared me to death. I would come home and have terrible nightmares. My parents would ask “if they make you scared, why do you go?” and I would say “because I have to”. I was drawn to these scary movies, even when they scared me the most.

Look at Grimm’s Fairy Tales, look at Disney movies. They all have huge scary moments. Everybodys first scary moment, usually, is seeing the witch in Snow White, which some people haven’t seen in a long time, it’s pretty intense. The flight through the forest and the transformation of the Queen into a witch and the way that they try to kill her in the forest, it’s pretty grim stuff!

Over the years, this odd genre, horror, which has never gotten any respect, it has always been treated as a third rate genre, we find the only consistent money-maker has been the horror movie, the lowly horror movie! It has been the one thing that studios can always count on to make money. That’s because younger audiences like to go and watch depictions of death that they can laugh at and feel superior to.

Speaking of young people, your young cast in The Hole 3D are fantastic. Do you find it difficult when directing such young actors to get the right balance of fear and lightheartedness?
Well, I’ve done a lot of pictures with young kids for some reason. I don’t have any of my own but when I look back over my filmography, there’s all these movies with kids, many of which, you might notice, are from broken families, and my family wasn’t broken.

Part of the fun of working with kids is they don’t bring a lot of baggage with them. The main thing when you make a movie initially is to cast it and after that you’ve done half the job at least. One of the things that the studios like when you’ve got a kid in your movie, what famous kid can you get? They want Miley Cyrus, or they want Hilary Duff, or Zac Efron. The problem is if you cast it that way the baggage that the kid brings with them outweighs the character. Now it’s Miley Cyrus playing the character, it’s no longer the character. I think for a movie like The Hole you need fresh faces for audiences to feel “he could be like me”. I don’t think people identify very much with celebrity kids but they do identify with kids that seem like real people and it’s not hard to make a kid actor, if he’s good, seem genuine.

When you’re acting as a child it comes from a less cluttered place than when you’re acting as an adult so the trick is to find people who have the chemistry. Certainly Chris (Massoglia) and Haley (Bennet) had chemistry. We had them read together, we had all the contenders read together actually. And these two really had a spark which made everyone in the room instantly think these are the ones to cast. And Nathan (Gamble) who I didn’t meet, I had just seen him in The Dark Knight and he was a pretty great actor and I said I didn’t have to meet him and if he wanted to do it I was glad to have him. And in a way that worked out. Him, Chris and Teri Polo really, really looked like a family.

The Hole called to mind a TV project you were heavily involved with, Eerie Indiana. Did your work on this influence The Hole?
I think so. Eerie Indiana was a dream project for me because I was in on the ground floor and I was there from the pilot and when they asked me to stay on as a creative consultant, I did several more episodes and it’s a dream for a director to have a TV show to go to when he’s not directing a movie. I just say “well I’m not doing anything, I can go direct a few episodes of Eerie Indiana”, which is a show where I know who the characters are because I helped to create them. And again, that was another case, if I hadn’t been on that show the kid they would’ve chosen to play the lead would have completely wrong. Everyone wanted this geeky kid in the lead but I said “no you have to use this other kid” who was slightly more attractive but I think he’s much more of a real kid and they went with my idea and it worked out.

The show itself didn’t really work out unfortunately because it had a pretty bad timeslot. But oddly enough, years later they started to run it on the Fox Network as a kids show in the morning and it became so popular that they said “well now we only have 18 episodes, we need more episodes” so they went to Canada and they shot several episodes with a different cast in a replica house and they made it seem, with editing, that the kids from the previous episodes had transformed into these other kids. You haven’t seen it cos it’s really lousy. But the first eighteen episodes were quite good. There is a DVD of the whole series but you’ll have to go on Amazon to find it.

You started off making films aimed mainly at adults with The Howling and Piranha then with Gremlins the target audience got younger and wider. Was this a plan?
Gremlins kind of redefined my career because it was my first giant hit and a lot of people are not lucky enough to get that big a hit in their career so I was immediately offered family movies so I did a film called Explorers which was Ethan Hawke’s first picture and River Phoenix’s and that was a fun time except for the fact that the studio changed hands and they made me release the movie unfinished. They just said “stop, stop working, it’s finished”. So I was never very happy with that movie, even though people have come up to me saying they loved the movie when they were kids and all that. To me, I just look at it and see an unfinished movie.

After that I did Innerspace  which was not a kids movie but it was certainly a family movie and then I did The ‘Burbs, which was the same and then Gremlins 2, and Matinee. They were all family-oriented pictures so I was kind of “typed” a little bit. But you don’t really have a plan, you’re just lucky to keep working.

Earlier in your career you worked closely with the legendary Roger Corman. Is there anything you learned from Corman that you still use today?
All of us, and there were quite a lot of people who worked for Roger, we all learned stuff we never forget and stuff that we constantly use on movies big and small. The only thing that ends up on screen is the thing that happens between when you say “action” and when you say “cut” and there may be a lot of time between you saying that or you may go from shot to shot very quickly. You basically try to maximise the amount of time you actually have to run the camera and minimise the time you spend to light and block and do all the things that aren’t on camera.

When you work for Roger you learn the best way to block a scene so that you don’t have to light it and you don’t have to do a reverse and you don’t have to take extra time for the close-up. You can move people around in the frame so that the close-up comes naturally in the shot. And all those things, are things that you take with you when you go on to make movies. You might be making a film like Gremlins 2 where it’s like watching paint dry between shots. It’s like, “oh the puppets are broken, we gotta wait”. But you still have to hurry up when you’re shooting the shot because you have to get on to the next set-up. Then you find in your head all these little tricks that you learned when you worked with Roger and you trot them out again.

I heard a rumour that you were working on a script for a film about Roger Corman making The Trip?
That’s true actually. I have a script and it’s very funny. It’s called The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes. It’s about Roger’s experience taking LSD and making The Trip and it’s a movie I’ve been trying to get made for several years. I’ve had various actors attached and money has fallen out and money has come in and actors have gone away. It’s been quite an odyssey actually. But I think we’re getting to a point now where there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. Right now happens to be a really tough time for getting movies financed, the economy being what it is.

I have to ask...
You’re going to ask me about Gremlins 3! I know you have to ask and I’m afraid I’ll have to tell you the same thing I’ve told everyone else; there are no plans to make Gremlins 3. I think rather than do Gremlins 3D, they’ll just go back to the beginning and start over and reboot the whole thing with different designs and different technology.

The technology we used in the first films has been outdated for many years and movies are defined by what we do with the technology. There were things we could do so we wrote them into the script. There were things we couldn’t do so we took them out. We put up signs on the set saying “Funny Things Gremlins Could Do” and people would come in and write “Throw darts at Gizmo”  and so we would do that. It was very ad-hoc filmmaking but I just don’t think that technology is relevant anymore and I think that they’ll want to get some new ideas because obviously it’s a well-known franchise.

Recently James Cameron's commented that Piranha 3D uses 3D exactly how it shouldn’t be used. How do you think 3D is best used?
That was a “rant” actually. His point should have been, I don’t know whether it was or not, that the idea of 3D is being sullied because so many movies that are not made in 3D are being released in this fake 3D process that’s added later and is actually very inferior to the real thing. It causes  eyestrain and it’s very dark and it’s an impediment to actually watching the movie. Piranha 3D was a movie that was not shot in 3D. So, I think the basis of his rant, although it sounded like he was criticising the movie, was that 3D is a viable medium and we now have the best quality 3D that we’ve ever had and a chance for it to be really used intelligently by filmmakers but that is being damaged because there are so many crappy products out there that people are going and getting headaches and thinking why should they pay extra money to get a headache and see a very dark version of the movie that isn’t even really in good 3D. So I think the whole greed factor has the possibility of killing off what may be the last wave of 3D. I think that’s a shame because I think that 3D is a very useful storytelling tool. I don’t think it should transform cinema so that everything is in 3D, nor do I believe that when 3D TV’s come out people are going to sit in front of their TV’s for the same amount of time as they watch regular TV and watch the news and watch Oprah in 3D because that’s ridiculous.

Do you have The One That Got Away, a movie that you regret didn’t get made or a movie you would’ve liked to get made?
I have a couple. I have a script by Terry Jones of Gulliver’s Travels that’s really wonderful that I never managed to get made and I have a script called Termite Terrace which is about Chuck Jones’ early days at Warner Brothers. But I’ve learned my lesson, never develop a script that involves characters that you don’t own because I couldn’t rewrite it for Woody Woodpecker, it had to be Bugs Bunny. That one never got made, they made Space Jam instead.

- Charlene Lydon (from Totally Dublin: )

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