TIFF 09: The Many Dimensions of Joe Dante

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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TIFF 09:  The Many Dimensions of Joe Dante
It has been a good year for Joe Dante.  Releasing his first feature in over 6 years, on the festival circuit for now, as well as being on the Jury for Venice and also receiving the inaugural prize for 3D, besting the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks' studio pictures with his tiny independent film, The Hole.  The film played to great success at this years edition of the Toronto International Film Fest.  On a personal reaction, it was the first 3D feature in the last several years that did not induce a headache after viewing.  And in the tradition of Gremlins, The 'Burbs and Small Soldiers, it is an edgy family movie that goes above and beyond what most of these types of wide-audience pictures are able to accomplish these days.  Glory there be a family could actually have a conversation afterwards about some of the demons that haunt the children, springing up from a bottomless pit in the basement of their new suburban home.

I managed to get a few minutes with the director mere hours after stepping off the plane from Venice.  Jetlagged, maybe, but that did not stop him from being candid on a number of things, from his career to how to use 3D.  

A transcript of the interview follows.

Kurt Halfyard:  I'll get the obvious question out of the way first.  You chose to create The Hole using modern 3D technology.  Wherein is the balance between gimmickry of the technology and the ability of it to be used as narrative?

Joe Dante:  Using 3D was a way to put the audience in their with these characters, in this story.  It is an immersive thing.  What works about it is that it draws you into the story, as opposed to making you feel like you are sitting outside this film and having stuff thrown at you.  My love for 3D goes back to the 1950s.  I'm old enough to have seen a lot of these movies when they were new and then there was the revival of these movies in the 1980s when they thought it was a better process, but it wasn't.  It got the reputation for being exploited and just for gimmicks and junk movies.  It can be because it is exploitative.  But when done right, it is a good enhancement to a movie.  And I think you will see in the future you will see established directors contemplating doing movies in 3D that are not just horror films.  Science fiction films, anything.  The cameras are now much easier to manage and as lightweight as video and the process itself light years ahead of what it was in the 1950s and certainly the 1980s.  It is double the work, for sure to do the left and the right eye, but the process was smooth and I'd certainly work in 3D again.

KH:  In the original first wave of those mid twentieth century features, what are the films that caught your eye?

JD:  The first film I ever saw in 3D was It Came From Outer Space, that one made an impression on me because the first shot is a meteor landing in the audience.  Then, The Creature from the Black Lagoon of course because it has 3D which is done underwater.  And it being underwater there are no horizon lines which makes the 3D look great (it was in black and white).  But my actually favourite movie is Dial M For Murder, which Hitchcock did at the end of the original 3D craze and it was not released in 3D but it was shot in 3D and has recently been rediscovered.  It is basically a filmed stage play, but the way in which the characters are manipulated in the frame is very dramatic.  And I had seen the movie in 2D a number of times, but when I saw it in 3D it really struck me as a different film. There are maybe only 2 or 3 instances of anything breaking the frame, but it is very powerful because of it.

KH:  Restrained use...

JD:  Right.  That is what lead me to the approach on The Hole.  Yes there are going to be parts of the film where things come out at you, but I wanted to use it to draw the audience into the story.

KH:  The locations in the movie are very distinct.  The house is a modern suburban house, yet the basement is almost like an old attic, and the climax of the film is like a German Expressionism set-piece.  How did the concept of the different locations and the sense of geography in between locations (there are no real transitions) come about?

JD:  Well the interesting geography came about from the shoot.  Half was made in Vancouver, and half was made in Hollywood.  None of the locations have anything to do with one another, and it is a simply a conceit that the person walks out of the frame in one place, and into the frame of another.  The expressionistic aspect of the movie basically came from the fact that we are supposed to go inside this characters head and his childhood and revisit the place that he used to live in the Bronx.  It needs to have an otherworldly quality to it, but we didn't have a lot of money.  There are a lot of different ways to do a scene like that, CGI and all that kind of stuff, but we didn't have those abilities, so we chose to build weird sets and tried to film them in a way that seemed less stage-bound.  The climax of the movie is a little more stagy than I'd like it to be but it is a function of what we had to work with.  I think it does work as a visual metaphor for what this kid is thinking.  A past we allude to in the movie but you never know what it is until the climax.  He has made things so much bigger as a child.  If you ever go back to your old high school and walk through the corridors, you will see that everything is much smaller than you thought it was and that is kind of a creepy feeling.  And that plays into how he has to overcome his fear.  I mean everyone in the movie has a fear they have to overcome, but his is the most crippling. And so, when he does overcome it, he is on his journey towards being a man.

KH:   Your career has sort of oscillated between horror movies and family films.  Do you make that effort consciously, or...

JD:  [laughs]  No, you don't make any conscious effort.  What you do is you try to get a job.  And usually, the thing they will hire you for is something you did well once before.  So I have a whole career full of movies with children and small three foot objects that jump around and bite you because that is where I had my hit.  Once I did Gremlins, I was the Gremlins director.  I will always be the Gremlins director no matter what else I do.  Which is fine.  Because it kept me in the business and a lot of people in the business my age are not working anymore.  So I am very grateful for Gremlins, but it doesn't mean that every movie I do should be like Gremlins. 

KH:  But there are a lot of elements in The Hole that seem to go back to your previous work.  I got a lot of The 'Burbs, for instance in the movie.  When you take a screenplay from a write and make it your own.  How does your previous films inform how you end up directing a current one?

JD:  Well, you don't consciously steal from yourself.  But you do find, well, I find, that as I look back on my older films that, Oh, this is kind of a theme that is running through it.  It is really not conscious.  If you can impose your personality on a movie, which is pretty difficult these days, then it will become your film.  And you will interpret the writer's words through your own sensibility.  And if you do it well enough, people will be able to look at this movie, even without seeing the credits, and go oh, I know this looks like this guys movie. 

KH:  Or when they see Dick Miller.

JD:  [laughs]  Or when they see Dick Miller.   Yes that is true.  But you will not be seeing much more of Dick Miller because he is actually retired.  He did this as a favour to me.

KH:  Also you have a habit, I do not know of any other director who does this, of casting your screenwriters in bit parts in your movies.  Why?  And is Mark Smith in The Hole somewhere?

JD:  Mark didn't get to be in this movie because we shot it in Canada and he lives somewhere in West Virginia (I think), and so he was not there, but if he was, I would have probably used him as the pizza delivery guy. [Laughs]

KH:  The score in The Hole was done by the composer Javier Navarrete, who also, amongst other films, did Pan's Labyrinth and The Devils Backbone.  Is there a story there?

JD:  Guillermo del Toro is a friend of mine, and I think that Pan's Labyrinth is one of the most brilliant films of the decade.  And when we got the chance to work with Javier, and I have been looking for a replacement for Jerry Goldsmith [ed. who died in 2004] who did virtually every feature I ever did, and is a hard guy to replace, and I think we were very luck to get Javier. 

KH:  Was there anything trimmed from the film?

JD:  Sure, this picture runs 86 minutes without credits and the first rough cut was 110.  But that is how things go they always lose stuff.  It wasn't like we cut out an action scene or plot that did not work, just the normal attritions of losing stuff to make it entertaining. 

KH:  What's next for you?

JD:  A long rest.  [laughs]  I have projects I am trying to get financed, but it is not like the old days when the studio would call you up and say here is your next pictures.  In order to get things made you have to talk people into making it.  And the way to do that is to have money and an actor.  And the two things are often exclusive.  You can't get the money without the actor and you can't get the actor without the money. I have been hawking around a couple projects for the past couple of years that I am hoping maybe will now come to light.  One of these movies is about Roger Corman who is now getting an Oscar, so I am hoping that might have something to do with getting our picture made.  Otherwise, I'm available.  You got anything?
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