Author: Jeremy Smith
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What I saw that night was a perfect mixture of gore-soaked horror, anarchic comedy and Amblin-esque warmth. I walked out of that movie a) quoting hilarious bits of dialogue, b) craving a mogwai of my own, and c) scared as shit at the prospect of going to bed. This was full-service Hollywood entertainment the likes of which I'd never seen. More than GHOSTBUSTERS, this was the 1984 summer movie that captured my imagination and got it in my head that I'd love to write for or about this nonsense for the rest of my life.
So how to make this plain to Joe Dante (finally got the pronunciation sorted out thanks to sunday school) prior to a fifteen-verging-on-ten-minute interview at Comic Con during the busiest day in the history of the convention? The fact of the matter is, I couldn't. All I could do was stammer incoherently for a few seconds until Dante chuckled, "Is this a career interview?"
"Not today," I replied. The purpose of our conversation was THE HOLE, Dante's first proper horror feature in decades. It's a shot-in-3-D yarn about a couple of kids (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble) who discover a mysterious gap in their basement that, after a few curious experiments, appears to be kind of bottomless. What's in the hole? Where does it lead? What crawls out of it? These are all questions that haven't been fully answered by Dante just yet, but it appears that the hole is a well of deep-seated fears. So if you happen to find yourself in the basement with a creepy jester doll... well, you've seen enough TWILIGHT ZONE episodes (or POLTERGEIST) to know how that's going to play out.
Like some of Dante's best work, THE HOLE looks like a deeply unsettling combination of childlike wonder and dread. We'll find out more when the film opens sometime in 2010. While we're waiting, we've got the return of Dante's Inferno at The New Beverly to remind us why Dante continues to be one of the most inventive voices in cinema today. Starting tomorrow, the filmmaker will be taking over our favorite Los Angeles revival house and programming an appropriately random mixture of personal faves and underloved triumphs from other directors. The week-long shindig kicks off tomorrow with a rare screening of THE 'BURBS followed up by Michael Ritchie's excellent beauty pageant satire SMILE. Joining Dante for the double-feature will be none other than the great Bruce Dern. I've had the great pleasure to interview Dern twice in my checkered career, and can assure you that you do not want to pass up the opportunity to hear this legend dish about his four decades in this business. He is candid and fucking fearless.
The rest of Dante's fest is just as magical: Roger Corman will be on hand Friday evening to talk about THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE and NOT OF THIS EARTH '57; there's the six-hour MOVIE ORGY on Saturday (which we discuss in the below interview) followed by the GREMLINS work print at midnight; MATINEE and MIRACLE MILE on August 9th and 10th; Norman Lear's COLD TURKEY and Theodore J. Flicker's incredible THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST on August 11th and 12th; and, finally, THE LAST VALLEY and ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND on the 13th.
For the whole lineup, visit The New Beverly's official site. And for more on THE HOLE, THE MOVIE ORGY and whatever else I could squeeze into our far-too-brief fifteen minutes, here's Mr. Joe Dante...
Mr. Beaks: Though you recently directed two episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR, this is basically your first horror feature in some time. Did you find yourself attacking the genre any differently.
Joe Dante: Believe it or not, I do tell my agent, "You know, if the next picture wasn't a horror picture, that would be okay." But somehow when you gain proficiency at something, that's what they want you to do. So I do read a lot of horror scripts, but I frankly don't find many that are [interesting]. This one [by Mark L. Smith] was different because, from the first time I opened it up and started reading it, I liked the characters. I thought, "This is well-written! This is a well-made script!" Believe it or not, and I know this is very hard to believe, but a lot of horror scripts are not well-written. So I went in for a meeting, and talked to these people, and gave them my ideas. Obviously, they were talking to other people, but they finally decided to go with me. And I suggested that the picture might be enhanced if we shot it in 3-D. I expected to be laughed out of the room, but they thought about it and said, "That's actually not a bad idea." Now we're doing it in post, and... it's added some money, but not an incredible amount. I think it's really upped the picture three notches at least.
Beaks: Are you doing many comin'-at-ya gags, or are you mostly trying to immerse the audience in the environment.
Dante: I think the way the new 3-D works is that you do feel immersed, and that you do feel involved with the characters. Of course, you need things to break the frame and come out at the audience because a) it's expected, and b) it's hard to avoid. Even in real life: things do that. The trick is "What is it?" If it's a sharp-pointed object, it doesn't work because your eye doesn't converge it correctly. So there are rules to what works and what doesn't work. And I've already done a 3-D movie for Busch Gardens, a ride called "Haunted Lighthouse". So I've already had some experience. And I've seen all of the 3-D movies more than once. But you learn as you g there are rules you can break, and there are rules you can't break - otherwise the audience will get cross-eyed. So we staged the movie much like a regular movie, although it's a little different because you're consciously aware of the spatial relationship of the characters and how that impacts the scene dramatically.
Beaks: Even with all of the advances in 3-D, I still see DIAL 'M' FOR MURDER as the one that makes the best use of the process.
Dante: It's my favorite. There are two scenes that stick out at you, and the rest of it is all about placing people within the frame. It's a stage play. I had been watching the film in 2-D for years, but when I finally watched it in 3-D again a few years ago, I was really impressed with how Hitchcock used 3-D - which was kind of an avant-garde thing for him to do. Then again, this was the guy who wanted to make a film in one take. He was always experimenting. And I bring a little of that to this. I always cite [DIAL 'M' FOR MURDER] as the one people should look at if they want to figure out how to do 3-D.
Beaks: It feels like you're sitting on the stage as the play happens around you.
Dante: Right! There's a chair here, and somebody back there, and a lamp here, and there's just something about it that makes you feel like you're up on stage with the actors instead of looking through a window. We used a few of those techniques, although it's very hard to do. On a normal movie, you just get a disc and show it to your DP and say, "Here, I like this." But where the hell are they running DIAL 'M' FOR MURDER in 3-D anymore? It's not like you can just call it up.
Beaks: Every now and then the American Cinematheque does a big 3-D festival with all of the movies.
Dante: And I'm a part of that. They did it twice, and I think Jeff Joseph, who is behind it, is hoping to do one more. There are two or three pictures that haven't been rescued yet, and they're hoping to uncover them and hold another festival.
Beaks: Do you pay homage to any of those vintage 3-D films in THE HOLE?
Dante: There are some homages that astute fans will spot. But they're not particularly 3-D homages; they're just things I like, and directors I like, that I pay homage to. I don't do it consciously; it just happens.
Beaks: It's been interesting to see certain critics vociferously defend you over the years. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in particular.
Dante: Yes, Jonathan has been very loyal. When they defend THE 'BURBS, that's when I know they're serious.
Beaks: There are plenty of good reasons to defend THE 'BURBS.
Dante: Well, I'm running THE 'BURBS at The New Beverly!
Beaks: I know! And I'm very excited because I was out of town the last time you did a festival at The New Beverly.
Dante: Oh, well, you've got to see THE MOVIE ORGY.
Beaks: And you're doing a six-hour version of THE MOVIE ORGY this time?
Beaks: Whenever I try to explain THE MOVIE ORGY to people, I fail miserably.
Dante: It's impossible. I tried to explain it to the audience before I ran it and realized I was getting nowhere. But once it was over, they got it. I was worried that it was too dated, that they weren't going to get the references because it was so specific to the time. But general, cumulative stupidity works on them to the point where they can [understand] the whole thing.
Beaks: It's just pieced together from a life of watching movies?
Dante: It started out with a bunch of movies I had - clips from movies from some rental library that went out of business. I spliced them all together on reels with commercials and pieces of TV shows. And then we'd rent a movie, run about twenty minutes of the movie... [Appropriately, this is where the volume in the room overwhelmed my recorder. The precise secrets of THE MOVIE ORGY shall not be revealed.] But then we realized we couldn't keep renting these movies; it was too expensive. So we bought the movies, cut them up, and ended up making this one single cut which has eleven reels or whatever. And we'd take it around to colleges, and Schlitz Beer would give us money. It paid my way through Roger Corman. Otherwise, I couldn't have afforded to work with him.
Beaks: (Laughing) When did this process start?
Dante: There was a BATMAN serial released in 1966, which was the 1943 serial. They released the entire serial, and we saw the whole thing in one sitting with chapter endings and the credits again... all that stuff. It was this monumental sit. People would laugh. They'd boo the producer and cheer the director, and I thought, "This is really interesting, this mass hysteria that happens when people sit in a movie theater for a really long time." That was really the basic idea of doing it. So the first one I did was with the Bela Lugosi serial THE PHANTOM CREEPS. We rented the serial and spliced all of this stuff into it. It was very funny and people liked it, and it evolved over the years into this very popular campus thing where we'd travel all over the country with it. They would sell beer, people would pass out, and it was... phenomenal.
Beaks: If people start getting excited after reading about The New Beverly screenings, do you think you might try to take it out on the road again?
Dante: I can't. I don't own any of it. I don't know what half of the stuff is. Some of them are clips from movies I've never seen. And the amount of time it would take a lawyer to clear all of the clips in this thing... it wouldn't be worth it. The only way we get away with running it is by running it for free. It's never going to get released commercially.
Beaks: I was just thinking that you could announce you're running a series of Joe Dante movies and then spring THE MOVIE ORGY on them.
Dante: I just can't charge admission. I guess The New Beverly makes enough money from the concession stand that they're happy to run it.
Beaks: Of your films, GREMLINS is always the title that comes up as a probable candidate for a remake.
Dante: If they're remaking DROP DEAD FRED, they're going to remake GREMLINS.
Beaks: And they'll probably just CG the Gremlins.
Dante: No one knows what they're going to do. They don't know what they're going to do. Otherwise, it would've happened by now. But that's what happened with the sequel: they tried to make a sequel, but realized they couldn't figure out how the other movie worked. So they said, "Get that guy back, and let him do what he wants." They did, and it was great to do whatever I wanted. It was a parody of sequels. Their only problem was that they waited six years to make a sequel - and they spent $30 million instead of $11 million.
Beaks: And opened against DICK TRACY.
Dante: There are a lot of reasons why it wasn't more successful. But it's popular. People like it.
Beaks: I think GREMLINS 2 is pretty much the ultimate Joe Dante movie in that so much is stuffed in that movie, you're finding new gags on your fourth or fifth viewing.
Dante: It's my MAD MAGAZINE movie. There are doodles in the margin. It's HELLZAPOPPIN', which is one of my favorite movies. I was very lucky to make it.
Beaks: When you see a guy like Rosenbaum teasing out all of the themes in your films, do you--
Dante: All filmmakers feel this way. It's nice to be able to have someone look at your stuff and say, "Hey, there's a pattern here! This guy's actually saying something." Very few filmmakers sit down and intellectualize about putting all of these things in their films. They come from your psyche, your id, and of course they're consistent because if you are able to stamp you personality onto a movie - which is difficult - then those things are all part of your personality and, therefore, part of your movie. It's only when you're going movie to movie and tossing them off that you don't get that kind of resonance. You can't do that with all directors.
Beaks: I just know that all of my favorite filmmakers have that element of design whether they're conscious of it or not.
Dante: Sometimes it's just seeing the same actors or the same locations over and over.
Beaks: So where are we going to find Robert Picardo or Dick Miller in THE HOLE?
Dante: You will find two Dante regulars, and everybody else is kids. It's a very small cast. And it was shot in Vancouver, so it was very hard to bring some of the actors up there. You're shooting up in Canada to save money, and part of that is using Canadian actors. But there is [a scene] that's shot in L.A.
Beaks: What's the status of BAT OUT OF HELL.
Dante: I have no idea what the status is on BAT OUT OF HELL. I don't know if the financing ever really came through. Right now, it is on the back burner.
Hopefully, we'll have a release date on THE HOLE after it screens at the Venice Film Festival. Until then, get your movie-lovin' ass down to The New Beverly for some Joe Dante goodness starting tomorrow, August 5th.
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