Joe Dante began his career as one of the brash young filmmakers following in the wake of Lucas and Spielberg. He scored a minor hit with the horror movie parody Piranha, which set the tone for the subversive and irreverent films that followed. He often worked within the studio system, but his movies reflected a quirky and offbeat sensibility, making many of them cult classics but only a few breakout his. They include the werewolf movie The Howling, the 80s staples Gremlins and Innerspace, the nostalgic Matinee, Small Soldiers, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and numerous memorable episodes of genre television. His latest film, The Hole, got caught in distribution hell before finally receiving a release date tomorrow. In an exclusive interview with Mania, he talked about bringing it to screen… and his insight into the genre that made his name.
Question: How did the idea for The Hole begin?
Joe Dante: The script had already been written. I took a look at it, and it appealed to me because it didn’t go exactly where I thought it was going to go, and I always like that in a movie. I suggested to the producers that they consider making it in 3D, because it was a small movie and didn’t have a lot of sets and characters. They said, “great,” and we went off and made it in 3-D, which was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, while we were shooting it, this new idea came along of turning 2-D movies into 3-D movies on the computer, and by the time we finished the movie, all the theaters where we thought it was going to play were filled with great big 2-D movies upconverted to 3-D. We had real 3-D, but we didn’t have any stars, so we got crowded out of the market. Then those pictures became very successful and got held over, so we found our play dates vanishing. We had to regroup and figure out what to do. The bottom line is, we didn’t get to market for several years, which was very frustrating. I’m glad to see it finally get a chance to reach an audience.
Q: What are the challenges of shooting in 3-D?
JD: I shot a film for a theme park in 3-D, and that was two 70 mm cameras basically on top of each other. It was very challenging, very bulky. This new one used updated technology; there was no jittering, the movements were all smooth. There are certain rules you have to follow with a 3-D movie. Certain movements, things you have to stay away from, and so on. There’s an art to it when it’s done right, and it really annoys me when you see a 2-D movie that they just slap into the 3-D format because they think they can charge more money at the box office.
Q: You were weaned on monster movies of the 50s, which were a heyday for 3-D. How does this new wave stand up?
JD: I was very excited when this new wave started. I think it has great potential when used correctly, as it was in Hugo, for instance. It really makes for an enhancement of the movie. But I see what happened in the 1950s happening today, which is poor presentation. It gave people headaches back in the 50s, and they just gave up on it. And the same thing is happening here. I’ve seen presentations that were just abysmal on the light levels alone! When you shoot a 3-D movie you have to overlight it, because you lose so much light from the glasses and the 3-D projector. I’ve seen some 3-D that was so dim, you could hardly tell it was in 3-D. And a lot of audiences have opted out, especially if they’re getting charged an extra five bucks. They’ve been overcharged for it, and that’s not a good business model.
Q: Is there a particular appeal to telling stories with children or child protagonists?
JD: Well, there’s a natural contrast between horror and innocence. I grew up with a lot of movies that used that – the Universal Frankenstein and so on, a lot of giant insect movies. They appealed to me as a kid because they were scary, but I could handle it. The remarkable thing about the horror genre, which has long been considered a low-class genre, was that it outlasted the western, which was a high class genre. But over the years people have shown a greater affinity for being scared than they had for the winning of the west, so it looks like horror movies are here to stay, in some form or another. They keep mutating, of course, depending on the society that reflects them.
Q: Is there a trick to casting kids well?
JD: You always look at scripts with an eye on who might work in a given part, and as you go on, you build up a retune of actors who you work well with and who you can use if the right part comes along. Good casting is 80 to 90 percent of making good movies. If you don’t cast the right people, you’ve got a tremendous uphill climb, but if you do, it gets much easier. Casting kids is particularly tricky because they come in waves. In certain periods, there will be a bunch of pretty good kids coming up and in other periods, you get nothing but Disney Channel rejects who just want to look cute. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have found really good kids for most of my movies… some of whom are now grown up and making movies of their own.
Q: You’ve had a lot of success with practical effects – puppets and the like – in your career. What do you see in the future for those kinds of effects, with computers so dominating?
JD: It’s funny you should say that. We originally planned to do Small Soldiers with a lot more puppets, but we found in our prep work that it was a lot easier to do many of the sequences with computers. Now the Gremlins movies were defined entirely by puppets and with stop motion. If we had done them with computers, I have no idea what it would have looked like. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to that… though films like Frankenweenie are still out there. Someone like Tim Burton still has the clout to make it happen.
Q: Do you feel comfortable going forward in that genre, or do you have an interest in branching out?
JD: You always want to branch out, and of course there were pictures I wanted to do that they wouldn’t let me do because that wasn’t my métier. “Oh, he can make money with monster pictures, but we’d better not give him any romantic comedies.” It’s been frustrating to a point. But on the other hand, horror is a very resilient genre, and it’s also a very subversive one: where you can make a lot of points that would be considered preachy if you did it in a drama. I’ve been able to insert a lot of my own personal peccadillos into my horror films that I couldn’t have if I had made other movies.