September 2, 2022 Interview – Joe Dante Talks His Films + More
When the average person thinks of Horror movies they most likely think of gore, thrills, and chills. All accurate assessments for any Horror flick worth its weight in salt, the secret ingredient is almost a splash of humor. Just ask accomplished filmmaker Joe Dante, director of such iconic films as 1981’s The Howling and 1984’s Gremlins to name a few.
Dante, a seasoned film director, editor, and producer, has been in the game for over five decades, creating lasting memories generations have consistently enjoyed. In fact, he continues to create, most recently working closely with the team for the forthcoming HBO Max animated prequel series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai. Now just in time for the Labor Day weekend of 2022, Dante curates a list of seven oldies but goodies for a special called Joe Dante’s Film Inferno to be streamed via Scream Factory TV. An interesting collection, Dante recently sat down for a thoughtful conversation about his career, the longevity of Gremlins, his movie marathon special on Scream Factory TV, the art of filmmaking, plus more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been in films for many years as a director/producer/editor. With a list of extremely memorable films under your belt, from The Howling (1981) to Gremlins (1984) to The ‘Burbs (1989) among others, how would you describe your career to this point?
Joe Dante – I was very fortunate. (Laughs) I’m lucky to still be around and still be in the business. Luck really does have a lot to do with it; obviously you don’t do it all yourself, you have a lot of collaborators. I was lucky in that most of the things I was able to get made were movies that meant something to me personally. I think that probably made a difference; rather than just hiring myself out to make whatever was popular next.
Cryptic Rock – When you believe in something it is always better. A lot of what you have worked on has been within the Horror and Comedy genre, or a combination of both. Do you have a strong affinity for those two genres?
Joe Dante – I think they are very closely aligned. If you go to a Horror movie with an audience, which is the way all movies should be seen, if there is a big scare, they will have a reaction and then they will laugh. They will laugh at themselves for being scared because they are having a good time. The two things are very closely aligned because Horror movies tend to be very absurd and the absurdity can often be played for laughs; you can do Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948) and get laughs that way, or you can do a Final Destination movie where the laughs are how many different ways people are going to off themselves. There is always an undercurrent of humor to a good Horror movie.
Cryptic Rock – Completely agreed. As mentioned, some of your most commercially successful films include Gremlins and The Howling. The interesting thing about Gremlins is that the MPAA originally rated the film PG. Was it ever changed to PG-13 as many believe it was?
Joe Dante – No, even after all the brouhaha it caused, it’s still rated PG; as is the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom movie which also caused a lot of problems for them. Everything that came after that was PG-13, but they never went back and re-rated it.
Cryptic Rock – Very interesting. Wasn’t Gremlins one of the many reasons PG-13 rating was launched?
Joe Dante – Yes, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom someone pulled a beating heart out of someone’s chest. They said that was horrible; kids took it in stride as they did the Gremlins movie. I do think there was a need for a rating in between a PG and R because it was always a little bit dodgy. So many people ended up having to cut their R-rated movies to get a PG because that was a more commercial rating. The creation of the PG-13 allowed them a lot more leeway.
Cryptic Rock – That is a fascinating piece of history; Gremlins essentially changed the history film ratings in the USA. You have always made yourself accessible for documentaries and embraced the genre community as well. That said, you are now hosting a very cool film marathon called Joe Dante’s Film Inferno. It is available to stream on ScreamFactoryTV.com on September 3rd at 12 pm PT/ 3 pm ET. So how did this come about?
Joe Dante – The Shout! Factory people are friends of mine. They have put out some of my movies in new, expanded, upgraded editions. So they came to me with the idea of – what if we do this weekend thing where you pick some movies, talk about them, and you take over the network. Of course the only movies I could use were from their list, because I had to choose something they owned. They actually own a lot of stuff though! I went through the list, obviously picked movies that meant something to me growing up, but I also tried to find films that maybe the titles are familiar, but people might have never actually sat down to watch them; a movie like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), or, House on Haunted Hill (1959), where I’m sure more people are familiar with the remake than the original. I thought it was a chance to reacquaint people with those movies and give them a little context with an introduction. We’ll see how it works, I hope it’s popular.
Cryptic Rock – It is a great concept. Your selections are interesting. Of the seven films you picked, two are Vincent Price films – House on Haunted Hill and The Last Man on Earth (1964).
Joe Dante – Well, you can’t get away from Vincent. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – Yes, his unmistakable voice and presence is impossible to ignore. So, you curate each film being shown in this marathon?
Joe Dante – Yes, I already recorded the introductions. I introduce the concept of each film and I think they are running the movies in a sequence. The introductions are no longer than a trailer, just to put the movie in context.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like a lot of fun. This is one good thing about technology where we have niche services like this where people can enjoy films they may not know or see otherwise.
Joe Dante – Yes. They are much better enjoyed with an audience then by yourself, but this is the current system we have. Streaming is now so big and film attendance is now so low. I think for the foreseeable future this is how we are going to encounter our movies.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, that is an interesting point. There is an anticipation about going to the theater to watch a movie and sharing it with others. The same goes with music, there was an anticipation with opening the LP or CD to listen to it. Do you feel like the excitement and anticipation for entertainment has been taken away a bit?
Joe Dante – My generation fell in love with movies because they had to go see them. They had to make an effort; they had to get in the car, walk to the theater, buy your ticket, sit down with a bunch of other people, watch the movie, come out and talk about it. It was a sort of life experience, but now we get it served to a platter with streaming. With streaming the events that you just witnessed sort of recede into your mind really quickly and are taken over by other things. This is whereas it used to be an activity of your life where you would go to the movies and people would ask – “Where did you go? What did you see?” And you remembered it as an event in your life.
Now I think we’ve been softened up a little by the fact that everything is so available. Yet, there are so many things available that you really need something like this Shout! Factory idea to curate this stuff. To say, without all this big mass of movies, here are a bunch of movies that we think you might find interesting that you might have not had the opportunity to see before.
Cryptic Rock – Very well put. We can only hope that people will get together with a group of friends or family to watch a marathon like at home together.
Joe Dante – Yes, it would be a lot of fun with these movies.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. As someone so entrenched in film as you, how did you initially get into making movies?
Joe Dante – I wanted to be a cartoonist. That was my dream until I got to art school, they told me cartooning wasn’t an art, and I had to take something else. So I took film and this was back in the ’60s when a film class was made up of twenty students and two cameras. It was all 16mm and you had to cut it yourself. Today’s kids have it so easy; you can make a movie on your iPhone, you can cut it on your computer, and you can get your friends to make the music. Everything was so cumbersome in my day; you had to go to the lab, splice it, and buy the equipment. It was a big deal and an effort. I don’t think you have to make quite that much effort anymore. You still have to do something good that you want to do, but I think it’s a lot easier to make it happen.
Cryptic Rock – That is the truth. Technology has its positives and negatives. The way films are made are even vastly different than even a decade ago. Beyond technology, what do you think has changed most about filmmaking?
Joe Dante – We’re not even shooting or projecting on film anymore. There are very few theaters in the US that actually run 35mm film. There are a few directors who have enough clout to actually get prints made of their movies, but for the most part, everything is digital now. It used to be when you did a TV show you had to have a lot of close-ups because you were told, “the screens are so small and people will get bored, so no wide shots.” Well, now the screens at home are as good or better than the screens at your local triplex. The actual aesthetic of making a movie versus a television show has gone away; there is basically no difference. Anything you make now can basically be shown on any venue and that’s opened up a lot of territory for filmmakers that was not available before. But the way in which movies are made, the basic language of movies, is still pretty much the same.
Cryptic Rock – It is hopefully to hear you say that the art form is still similar. What about the world of practical effects, your films have always had some great practical effects. Do you think the saturation of CGI has taken over?
Joe Dante – Not entirely. I think there is a resurgence going on about the idea of marrying practical effects with CG. For the Gremlins movies we used all puppets, but we had to hide the puppeteers behind walls, furniture, or underground. We wouldn’t have to do that now; you can now do the same scene with the same puppet, but you would have the puppeteer right next to them and doing much better puppeteering. That in mind, you can do another pass, just erase them from the scene, and we could have made the movie in half the time.
Cryptic Rock – That actually makes a lot of sense and hopefully will be applied more with future films. In a sense this would be using it more as a tool, not as the actual effect. Speaking of Gremlins, there is a new Gremlins animated series set for release. What can you tell us about it?
Joe Dante – Yes, it’s an animated series called Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai. The concept is around the Mr. Sam Wing character (played by Izaac Wang) and we go back to when he was a child in Shanghai in the 1920s when he first meets the Mogwai. It’s a very clever way of getting back in the Gremlins business without necessarily having to make another imitation of the first movie. The people who are doing it are big fans of the series and it’s going to supposedly see the light of day on HBO Max in 2023. The first season is in the can and the second season is being worked on. It gets better as it goes along and I’m very happy with it.
Cryptic Rock – That sounds really cool. It will attract younger fans and give original fans something to look forward to. Gremlins was released nearly forty years ago. You made this movie, put it out into the universe, and now after all this time it is still very much a part of pop culture. Is that amazing to you?
Joe Dante – It was amazing in 1984 that it was such a success. The studio didn’t really believe in it, they were doing it as a favor to Steven Spielberg; they basically said, “he wants to make a movie, let him do this cheap one.” It became a phenomenon and they are astonished, as was I.
They tried to get me to do a sequel for a number of years, but it was such an arduous undertaking that I just didn’t want to deal with puppets for a while. Four to five years later they came back and told me they really want a sequel, so if I do it, they would let me do whatever I wanted. It was an offer I couldn’t turn down, so I made what is one of the more unusual sequels in studio history. The fanbase has only grown for the Gremlins movies, the merchandising, etc. It’s a thing and a part of people’s lives.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, and it is a massive part of ’80s culture. Speaking of sequels, you directed the original The Howling; one of the best werewolf films ever made. The Howling has spawned a list of sequels. That said, were you ever asked to be a part of any of those sequels?
Joe Dante – Not a single time, no. In fact, that was another movie that didn’t need sequels, as the ensuing sequels proved. (Laughs) It is a value title as they call it. A value title is something that you can always slap onto something else and there would be a fanbase for it because people remember the original. I think they were able to go to the well seven times with this and none of them really amounted to a bucket of spit. Nonetheless, they still persist and they are cable television every so often. Too bad I don’t get any money for it… I didn’t even get any money to make the first one, let alone the sequels. It’s just something that is sort of floating around in the zeitgeist.
Cryptic Rock – Wow. (Laughs) It does not seem there is no end in sight for Howling sequels, however, it has been at least ten years since one was put out.
Joe Dante – Oh there will be another one. (Laughs)