Mammoth Lakes 2016 Interview: Joe Dante's Divine Comedy/Horror
The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival is kicking off its second year amidst the unspeakable beauty of Mammoth Lakes, CA. Not far from Yosemite National Park, the festival offers a serene atmosphere for the 50 excellent selections they'll be screening beginning tomorrow (Wednesday, May 25) through Sunday.
Perhaps the most exciting event in their stellar lineup is the Centrepiece Sierra Spirit Award Presentation, honouring cult hero Joe Dante. He's not a filmmaker the masses will necessarily know by name, but whether you're a ScreenAnarchy-reading genre zealot or a more casual moviegoer, there's a good chance you've been affected by his work.
Take Dante's 1984 masterwork Gremlins, a film that made my generation of toddlers laugh, love, and fear all within the same breath. What's so fascinating about the project is that when the script was first brought to Dante by Steven Spielberg, after their collaboration with The Twilight Zone Movie (1983), Gremlins came in the form of a straight horror film. Dante, coming off of the duel surprise successes of his cult smashes, Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981), was the perfect man for this job on account of his uniquely proficient exhibition of the creature feature. But though Spielberg expected Dante to deliver a horror film about gremlin monsters in the ilk of his previous screams, Dante upped the ante on the humorous aspects of his style, choosing instead to frighten the inner child.
One of the great joys of Dante's Matinee (1993) comes from imagining young Joe in the '50s, terrified in his seat at the sight of freaks of science, care of B-movies that exploited the nuclear anxieties of the day. If Dante's varied works have anything in common, it is that their capacity for edgy, amazing stories that pay tribute to the transporting fun felt by children being frightened and exhilarated by larger than life theatrical adventures, before growing up reveals the mundane practicalities of filmmaking and taints your relationship with cinema. By bringing his deep seated love for monster movies to films like Twilight Zone, Gremlins or The Howling, with visionary productions, Dante provided for new generations the feeling he once felt from cult sci-fi and more primitive exploitation films, the kind he'd himself started off making for Roger Corman in the '70s.
This introduction could be a love letter to any one of his many heavily favourited films, and truth be told, Gremlins isn't even my personal favourite, nor is it the centrepiece of Mammoth Lakes. But it strikes me as relevant in an era where there is virtually nothing to look forward to in the blockbuster arena and certainly nothing of any originality. Today we live in the age of Hollywood recyclism wherein studios will sooner throw all their money at a rehashment than take a chance on a new franchise built on brave new creations. Gremlins and The Howling are celebrated examples of the magic of manmade practical effects and yet I imagine today, Dante is being leaned on to make or approve of a Gremlins remake. One can only assume this is intended to include charm-murdering CGI.
If the current slate of working blockbuster producers were living in a present carved by Joe Dante, more films would look like Krampus, which is really the highest compliment I can pay that film. Krampus is sadly unique because it is that rare breed of film today that is actually taking chances on darkly comic family entertainment that still sends the younger audience members running under the bed. The blockbuster was built on the wild imaginations of filmmakers who channeled what they loved about the films of their childhood into original works of bedazzling vision.
What’s so great about Dante is that every one of his films offers its own distinctly original world, each worthy of celebration. Like most fans, I'm just as happy to discuss the world of Gremlins (above) as I am the hysterically madcap universe of Dante’s Roger Corman roots (below). The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival has chosen Innerspace (1987), a hilarious trip inside the bloodstream of Martin Short a la Amazing Stories. Dante at one point referred to the film as his best. My personal favourite shifts based on which of his films I'm watching at the moment. Whichever of his films you choose to throw on, you can count on one thing: Dick Miller.
ScreenAnarchy: Have you ever been to Mammoth Lake before?
Joe Dante: I was there about 20 years ago. I've been told it hasn't changed.
Do you have any idea why they chose INNERSPACE, or was that your choice?
Nope, that was their choice. I have no idea why they chose me. I mean, this is their second festival, so they're very young. I'm just very flattered that they asked me to do it. I don't exactly know what motivated them.
When was the last time you'd say you saw INNERSPACE?
I might have seen it in Dresden, where there was some retrospectives kind of thing. In Europe, they do retrospectives, and you can produce a movie. Usually you'd go out and eat, but, whatever, it was a nice day to watch them.
For those of us who haven't been fortunate enough to experience your MOVIE ORGY, I'm wondering, if you had to choose out of the seven hours of footage you compiled, what would you say is your favorite clip?
My favorite piece of footage in The Movie Orgy? Boy. That's a tall order. There's a series of Bufferin commercials that involve people who are having terrible stress in their lives, and it's all fixed by taking Bufferin.
I don't know that these commercials were ever actually broadcast, because they're so crazy. I mean, this one guy, he's got to evict an old couple from a building, and at the end of the commercial, he's like across the street in a store, and he's taking his Bufferin, and the wrecking ball is wrecking the building.
There's another guy who's sending kids off to war. It's a strange, ill-considered concept for commercials. For whatever reason, they're in there.
There's pieces of a whole bunch of different movies, there's great moments in racism from old movies. It's a lot of stuff, and I saw it so many times when we were taking it around to college campuses, that there are just certain lines that are ingrained in my head. I mean catchphrases occasionally just show up in my daily life, and what I find from looking at my old movies has been, I have actually over the years stole a tremendous amount of stuff from The Movie Orgy. It was much more influential than I ever imagined. There are different pieces of it everywhere.
Can you think of an example in your work?
Well, there's a movie called Speed Crazy - and it's in The Movie Orgy - and the lead character's always saying, "Don't crowd me," like he's a killer. I did a picture called Runaway Daughters, and Paul Rudd played this juvenile delinquent, and I just stole the character from that movie, and he's saying, "Don't crowd me," all the time. It's just as funny as it was in the first picture.
I understand that in college, rather than flaunting your love for the French new wave like so many others would, you liked to express your love for Roger Corman. What must it have been like finding out that you were invited to go work for the man?
Well, it didn't come out of the blue, because I had actually been corresponding with Roger over the years. I got some 16 millimetre film rental company to carry a bunch of his movies. I sent him a couple of letters, and he sent me back letters congratulating me on my good taste. I sent my Roger Corman button.
I came out here because a friend of mine, Sean Davis, had recruited me from NYU. He was in the publicity department and I was brought out to do trailers, and the first time I met Roger, I was late for a screening. It was this trailer cut that I had known, and he said, "If I were you, young man, I'd get to these things on time", even though it wasn't my fault. That's the first thing he ever said to me.
I'm not sure if he ever connected me with the guy who had been writing him and sending him the buttons. I'm not sure to this day that he remembers that I was the same guy.
Did your first two years in the trailer department with Allan Arkush feel at all like your first film, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD?
Hollywood Boulevard is like a documentary. It really is. It captures a little substrata of the movie business at the time, which was non-union entirely, and staffed completely with people who didn't know what they were doing, who were working for peanuts, which was what they were worth, 'cause they didn't know anything, and they were learning on the job. Everything in that picture, even though it's exaggerated, is actually pretty accurate.
You were fairly new to Hollywood. Would you say that there was a bit of Candy in you (the film's porotagonist)?
Absolutely. I had never been on a soundstage. I had never been, and I certainly wasn't on one in that picture, 'cause you didn't have any sound stages. My relation to a moviola was very limited, because I'd been always working 16 millimetre, with the movie critique. I didn't know how to rig a 35 millimetre moviola, and I had to figure it out in order to make my first film. It was really a very exciting and terrifying period, because I assumed I would get fired every day 'cause I didn't know what I was doing!
What did it look like, you and Allan writing that film? Was it you guys just in the trailer room, watching footage and saying, "Oh, we can incorporate this," kind of thing?
Well, it was written around other footage, because when we found out how little we were gonna have to work with and how fast we had to do it, we realized we were gonna be only getting like fifteen big categories that other people were making. Danny Opatoshu, who was a friend of ours, actually wrote the script under a pseudonym of Patrick Hobby, an F. Scott Fitzgerald reference. It was all written so that we could use all this footage that we had that'd been culled together from all the movies that we'd done trailers for.
There were so many scenes in the movie like where I see Mary Woronov meet some dogs and try to pet them in the diner - the reason we shot that was because we had some vicious dog footage from the Philippines. It was a stupid scene in the movie.
Did you guys shoot the Commander Cody stuff, or was that found footage? Allan shot that. That's one of the early rock videos. Allan did all that himself, because he had done a music film at NYU for a student film, and this was his rock film that led to him getting to do Rock'n'Roll High School.
Right, now what was your involvement on ROCK 'N ROLL HIGHSCHOOL? IMDB says story, but it also has you listed as co-director (uncredited).
Allan and I came up with a story called "Girls' Gym", and we dictated it to a tape recorder, and Roger decided he was going to make a picture, but he wanted to put disco in it, or something, and so when that story eventually became the screenplay for the movie, Allan and I got story credit, because we had dictated it into a tape recorder, but it was just a totally different kind of a story.
Well I must say, the limp jumping jacks from the gym scene is one of my favorite moments from that film. When you first started collaborating with Spielberg, I'm wondering, did PIRANHA ever come up? Did you ever ask him if he had seen it?
I didn't realize until later that he had seen it. He had because he had seen and liked The Howling. He liked Dee Wallace who was in it, and he put her into E.T. I didn't think he had seen any of my previous work, but later I found out that he apparently had kept Universal from getting an injunction against Piranha.
Oh, you're kidding!
Because it was coming out against Jaws II. They were seriously thinking of taking it off the market, and he apparently told them “No, it's a comedy, it's a spoof, it's not a rip-off of it.” Of course it was a rip-off, but I didn't find this out until later.
In terms of general process, I'm wondering what's the first thing you do when you get a script, or you decide that the script that you've been dealing with is gonna go into production?
You mean after I look for a part for Dick Miller?
Of course! After Dick Miller...
Well, you know, it's really arduous reading scripts, particularly if you're thinking that you want to make it, because you don't read it casually. You really have to study it. The first time, my first thought is, would I go see this picture? If the answer is yes, then I will consider doing it, but if the answer is no, then I always turn it down. Because I don't think people should make movies they wouldn't go see.
I think those who do come dangerously close to hackdom. I can understand why people want to go from movie to movie, because they have to pay for their car, they have to pay for their mother's private lawn or whatever, but there are just an awful lot of movies that were made by people who really weren't really the right people to make them.
Speaking of that philosophy, you've said before that you feel a film should reflect the personality of the director, at least to some degree. Even if you're working in a mainstream production, it's important to squeak some of your personality in there. I'm wondering, of all of your films, which would you say reflects your personality the most?
Oh, well they all do to a degree... but, I would say Gremlins II, probably.
Or maybe Matinee.
I was going to say besides MATINEE, since that one's autobiographical. But, wow! Gremlins II is just batshit crazy!
That's me! And that's what they said when they saw it. (Imitating Warner Bros) “We said he could do what he wanted and now look what he's done!”
Like most filmmakers, I understand that you have a lot of films that didn't make it to production. In retrospect, which one of your cancelled films would you most like to have seen made?
Well, I really thought "Termite Towers" was a good project. It was about Touchstone and Warner Brothers in the early '30s. But I learned a lot of stuff because you don't develop projects that you don't own, because there's no way I could take the script anywhere else. It's about that studio and it's about their characters. That was a movie that I thought would have been a good movie.
I'm still working on some of them. I mean The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes, about Roger Corman making The Trip.
How long has that been something you wanted to do - THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES?
It's been gestating for about 10 years I think.
Ten years, really? I mean, personally, THE TRIP is one of my favorite movies. Considering it was made a few years before you joined the Corman camp, how would you describe your relationship with THE TRIP?
Well you know, I was part of the counterculture, I was doing the same things they did, and the movie at the time was... it was very plugged in, and certainly in a way that studio movies weren't.
When the studio movies tried to do that - that culture scene - the result was almost always ridiculous, like R.P.M. (Revolution Per Minute). All The King's Men I would say was remade as a hippie movie, etc.
But what I find interesting about that era is that Roger was a very straight guy, and in order to make the movie believably, he was talked into taking LSD. That's sort of the crux of what's funny about the script, and we came really close to making it twice, and it fell apart, but this time, we have somebody who's asked us to do a rewrite, and they'll consider maybe giving some money, so we'll see what happens.