Interview: Joe Dante Talks BURYING THE EX, Forgotten Genres, Paranoia And Creating Movie Lovers
Joe Dante is currently on the promotional circuit for his latest comedy, Burying The Ex, which debuted in Venice last September and is getting a limited theatrical release in the US, with concurrent video-on-demand, this Friday.
He had a brief window of time to sit down and chat, making things more of a speed-date than a full interview, but thank goodness he is a fast talker! And, really, any amount of time chatting with the director of The Howling, Gremlins, Matinee and The 'Burbs (among others) is time well spent. His experience from his days as a trailer-cutter turned film director under Roger Corman led to a winning streak of idiosyncratic studio pictures in the 1980s, and makes him well versed in both the ways of how movies are made and the strange alchemy of how they find an audience.(Hint: nobody knows nuthin'!)
Lately, his feature film work is back in independent territory, directing for television and as a pop-cultural guru either in a plethora of appearances in film-related documentaries, or on his website TrailersFromHell.com which champions classic and forgotten cinema by having select filmmakers present the original preview. This is done for the love of cinema, and cinema lovers.
Kurt Halfyard: When I watched BURYING THE EX, I saw it as one of the very rare modern screwball comedies. Is this how you saw the material when you were making the film? And really, what happened to the screwball comedy? Outside of David O. Russell and the occasional Coen brothers film, there does not seem to be any more of these made...
Joe Dante: You are the only person that has correctly noted [*Laughs*] that this is supposed to be a screwball comedy. That is the way I approached it and only incidentally thought of it as a zombie movie. And the phrase 'Screwball Comedy' is something that audiences do not understand anymore. It is a very specific appellation for a kind of film that people are not really aware exists. The screwball comedies of the Bringing Up Baby era, I think, are not considered screwball, they're just considered comedies. I suppose that the Russell pictures could be considered screwball, but in the reviews of those films, nobody uses that word.
I have a weird sense of humour, so if you'll indulge me here... I found myself looking at the film as also a tragedy around Ashley Greene's character, Evelyn. Her cluelessly narcissistic activist is lied to, and mercilessly ground up, by the hip-chic geek culture trio of Max, his half-brother Travis and his would-be perfect new girlfriend Olivia. They punish her because she happened to be in the wrong relationship and cannot see that. This is funny to me.
[*Laughs.*] I wish more people watched movies like this! I think at the end, when Evelyn cannot figure out why this guy does not want to be with her -- just because she is dead -- is hilarious, but also really sad and poignant because, yes, she just doesn't understand.
And while you do get a wonderful performance out of Alexandra Daddario (seriously, she's really great) in the end she has the less interesting character because Olivia is almost too perfect for Max.
How many film geeks have two gorgeous girls pawing at them? In addition to the relationship between Alexandra and Anton in the film, it borders on science fiction. In real life that kind of thing just does not happen. But that is why we have movies!
When I watch a Joe Dante movie, I love that there is a whole spackle of stuff in the background for the audience spot: movies, actors and other things to shade in the foreground. It creates a built in 'repeat customer experience' your work.
That is my Mad Magazine influence.
And I had read somewhere that there was supposed to be a Mary Woronov cameo in the film as Max's boss. What happened to it?
There was. And the problem was, as I had to explain to Mary, embarrassed [*Laughs*], that the placement of her scene was right between when Max goes to the ice cream shop and sees Olivia has been kidnapped, and when he goes to the house to rescue her. We looked at the scene when he runs into his boss at the store and thought, this has got to go. It is just not part of the story. As much fun as it was shooting Mary again, I had to drop the scene. In the featurette that is on the internet, that was the day we we happened to be shooting that one scene. You can see some of it there.
I would be foolish if I did not use this opportunity to ask you a question to something that is near and dear to me. Later on in the year, there is a book coming out called "Satanic Panic" on the pop cultural paranoia in the 1980s, which focuses on those Geraldo Rivera TV specials, and books like "Michelle Remembers" and the general hysteria about satanists lurking about in the neighborhoods of America. I would love to know when you were making THE 'BURBS if any satire of that hysteria was a factor in the comedy of that film. Or was it just unconscious zeitgeist at play?
I think you could make that picture today, really. Certainly paranoia is not only specific to that period, and it is as rampant as ever, obviously even more that it was in the late 1980s! All you have to do is look on any website and read the comments section on anything. The polarization is astounding.
The 'Burbs got really terrible reviews when it came out and was not taken seriously, at all but it did OK, and there has always been a lot of affection for the film. I had no idea it would ever mushroom into this...mania...it is now. Websites and chatrooms and drinking games. It is beyond me, something beyond whatever I imagined would ever happen to that film. I've seen it at [repertory] screenings where the audience talks back to the screen and in hysterics and people tell me they have seen it 100 times!
On your Trailers From Hell website, there is a sidebar called The Great Global Trailer Search, where you are trying to find 35mm prints of lost trailers. I was wondering if that has yielded any big successes?
Do you got one? We have found a couple yes, but not that many, surprisingly. I even bought a couple hundred trailers from the 1960s, and I still do not have most of the ones I wanted, they are very difficult to get, partly because after the movie was issued, the trailers were destroyed. And there are less copies out there.
And sometimes they were cut down for TV, for instance, The Bride of Frankenstein is only sixty seconds, and is obviously part of something longer. For that one, there isn't much point talking about it on Trailers From Hell, because just as you get to the point introducing it, oh, it's over.
But really, the whole idea is to get people interested in movies that are no longer talked about. There are more movies available to see today then there were in my entire lifetime, and yet there are so few people who know what they are, or know about the period, or the actors, because they did not grow up with them on television in their lifetime like I did. That is why we try to get modern filmmakers to talk about them, so that these kids and younger people say, "Even though it is in black and white, it's still pretty interesting!" Otherwise, all this stuff is going to fall away...