The Metrograph Interview
Joe Dante in conversation with Gabe Klinger
Photos taken by Felipe Lima at Joe Dante’s home in Los Angeles, 2013.
The Metrograph Interview
Our full interview with the "post-cult" filmmaker Joe Dante—an expansive chat that takes in ’80s horror, monster movies, the resurgence of practical FX, tricks learned from Roger Corman, and battles with Hollywood.
Believe it or not, the 254-page volume I co-edited on Joe Dante, jointly published by the Austrian Film Museum and Slovenian Cinematheque in 2013, remains the only comprehensive critical appraisal of the veteran filmmaker available in English. When it arrived stateside, Joe’s modesty prevented him from sending the book to family and friends. “It’s the only problem I have with the book,” he told me, “I pretty much have to keep it to myself.”
Around the same period, Joe graciously let me visit the Los Angeles set of Burying the Ex (2014), his last feature film to date. I positioned myself by the director’s monitor for three consecutive days, something that irked producers but not the easy-going Dante. Observing him, there was no ostentation, no extra comfort outside of a director’s chair that he rarely sat in, no effort to make it known he was the boss. Once, actress Alexandra Daddario contorted her face and stuck out her tongue at the end of a set of placid close-ups. Joe’s reaction to this was akin to that of an enthusiastic camp counselor: “Oooh, scary!”
Burying the Ex didn’t end up one of Joe’s finest—I attribute that to an inadequate budget and a middling script—but there were a handful of graceful touches familiar to any Dante fan: the peculiar tone of mournful comedy and nostalgia; references to cartoons and B-movies (Ed Wood’s 1957 Plan 9 from Outer Space makes an appearance); and a walk-on by actor Dick Miller (R.I.P.), who had appeared in all of Dante’s features dating back to his very first. There was just enough from the Danteverse to remind one of better times. Sadly—though somewhat expectedly given the uncharitable response to the film—many concurrent and subsequent auteur projects Joe has tried to push through the gates have mostly been gathering layers of dust (we touch on a couple of these in our conversation below).
Dante’s half-century-long relationship with Hollywood and its contours is a rich and frustrating one. Having sharpened his monster movie teeth with Roger Corman on Piranha (1978), Dante graduated to making The Howling (1981) under the quasi-exploitation AVCO Embassy banner, and then almost immediately landed the Spielberg-produced Gremlins (1984) for Warner Bros. The latter’s unexpected box-office success led to nearly two decades of unceasing mainstream activity, from Explorers (1985) to Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). That last film, Joe’s so-far final effort for a major studio, was a necessary corrective to Joe Pytka’s abysmal Space Jam (1995), and symbolized, among other things, the eager matinee attendee from suburban Newark’s disillusionment with the industry that had once left him starry-eyed.
In the introduction to our book, we touched on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s idea of Dante as a “post-cult” director whose career self-effacement can be partly attributed to an engagement with cinematic traditions that have been derisively viewed as lowbrow. The shifting power ranks of the studios never sought to empower him in the same way as contemporaries Ron Howard, Tim Burton, Robert Zemeckis, or indeed Spielberg, who frequently alternate between blockbuster and prestige cinema. As an outsider masquerading as an insider, Joe’s confidence was chiseled away by a series of demoralizing incidents, such as losing final cut to production partners Burger King—yes, Burger King—on 1998’s Small Soldiers. Where do you go from there? Looking at The Howling, which directly precedes the filmmaker’s embattled Hollywood period, it appears as the work of an upstart whose ambitions hadn’t yet met a ceiling (or studio writer’s room, as it were), working through genre film problems with the savvy of a true film connoisseur, and elevating a would-be grindhouse item by virtue of curating worthy collaborators—among these, John Sayles, who rewrote the film’s mediocre script; Pino Donaggio, who composed its roaring, evocative themes; and cinematographer John Hora, who designed its gloriously saturated images. The circulation of StudioCanal’s new 4K DCP restoration—color timed by Dante himself—presents the best opportunity to discover The Howling since its original release.
Joe spoke to me via Zoom from his dining room in Los Angeles, where his partner and producer Elizabeth Stanley lurked around behind him. He tells me he’s a grandfather—well, sort of. It’s Elizabeth’s son’s child, he says, so he can’t fully claim the title. Again, the modesty thing.
GABE KLINGER: You were traveling recently.
JOE DANTE: I was at the Annecy Film Festival for the premiere of Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai (2022), an HBO Max animated series that functions as a prequel to Gremlins, following the adventures of Mr. Wing, the elderly Chinese guardian of Gizmo, when he was child in 1920s Shanghai and first encountered the Mogwai and their dark progeny, the Gremlins. I asked to be involved and they made me creative consultant, although the credit now reads consulting producer.
I was in on the pilot, made suggestions on story and casting, and reviewed the rough cuts; producer stuff. But it’s Tze Chun and Brendan Hay’s show. IMDb claims I directed it, which is untrue.
And then I went to Paris where they’re reissuing The Howling. StudioCanal finally put out a new 4K DCP. There were no DCPs around, and the only print seemed to be mine. Anytime anyone wanted to run it they asked to run my [35mm] print, and it was starting to get pretty beat up… They contacted me and they wanted me to do the [color] timing. I was thrilled to. It looks better now than it did when it was new. It pains me to admit it, but a good, well-timed DCP can look even better than a new 35mm print. And this one does. StudioCanal is the latest in a long string of rights-holders, few of which had any access to original materials. Thankfully they worked from the closest negative elements in existence.
"the CG lacks a certain goopiness that we’re familiar with. You know, in The Howling, we only had one werewolf suit. But we made it look like a lot of werewolves. So it’s just pieces of hands, pieces of the head…"
GK: I was watching it last night. It’s so beautiful.
JD: You know, that was the first picture I did with John Hora. All the night scenes were really great. And we needed really good night scenes in this picture.
GK: I think it’s the most beautiful of the films that you worked on together. I was very sad to learn that he passed away recently. John shot almost all of your films up to Matinee (1993).
JD: With Innerspace (1987), the studio decided they wanted to hire Andrew Laszlo, so I put John in the movie. He’s got a rather large part in it playing himself. He’s very good. After [Matinee], he sort of retired. I did a lot of television, which was shot up in Canada, so I couldn’t bring him. And then I did a 3D movie [The Hole, 2009], and by then he was off teaching…
GK: When we did the book, we talked a lot about practical effects and how it felt like we had lost something with digital. Cut to almost a decade later and practical effects are coming back.
JD: Filmmakers and audiences seem to be very fond of practical effects. And practical effects can now be done in a way that’s a lot easier because of CGI. You can erase puppeteers, strings… The tactile presence of something on the set with the actors is very beneficial. In the Star Wars prequels you have all those talented actors looking lost because they don’t know where the set ends.
GK: My partner watched The Howling for the first time last night and she was genuinely creeped and grossed out by the werewolf effects. It’s the opposite of CG things you see now that look stupid because there isn’t enough money to pay people to work on them.
JD: Yeah, the CG lacks a certain goopiness that we’re familiar with. You know, in The Howling, we only had one werewolf suit. But we made it look like a lot of werewolves. So it’s just pieces of hands, pieces of the head… and we shot all the different angles with the same suit.
GK: There’s a great shot that’s just a close-up of a hand but the camera’s ascending, so it looks like the werewolf is growing in stature.
JD: Yeah, that’s an old trick.
GK: The editor Mark Goldblatt cut trailers with you at New World Pictures [Roger Corman’s studio], and went on to edit films by James Cameron and Michael Bay. It’s interesting to think that maybe the frenetic editing style of those ’90s/early 2000s action movies like Bad Boys II (2003) originates, at least partly, with your New World trailers.
JD: Mark also directed two pictures, the original The Punisher (1989), that nobody remembers, and Dead Heat (1988), which I thought didn’t deserve to flop.
GK: Re-watching The Howling, I was amazed at how in the first few minutes you’re already able to comprehend the nuances of the characters’ relationships. In Sayles’s draft of the script, everything’s very precise, but it’s ordered differently.
JD: We wanted to play to Dee Wallace’s strengths. Dee was supposed to be the tough newswoman, and that was not her strength, so we trimmed down a lot of stuff at the beginning of the movie. There was a lot more presentation of her status in the business and the mission she was on to find this [serial murderer]. The more we compressed these elements, the better they seemed to play.
Very often, when you look at your first rough cut, there’s too much exposition. You usually bathe in flop sweat at the beginning of your rough cut, because you spent so much time working on things that your audience knows from shorthand or can figure out on their own. The movies that I’ve worked on, the most cutting has been done at the beginning. Certainly after editing Piranha (1978) on my own, I learned a lot.
Under Corman, the editing was pretty quick. When I was editing Grand Theft Auto (1977) for Ron Howard, there was a scene where the parents were chasing the kids, and they have to take a plane to get to a place where the kids are. We had a test screening and Roger told me to take that scene out. I said, “Roger, how are they gonna know these people got from here to there?” He looked at me and said, “It’s not that kind of picture.”
GK: The Howling still arguably belongs to “New Hollywood” but already feels lightyears away from, say, American Graffiti (1973), which gets referenced indirectly through the mention of disc jockey Wolfman Jack.
JD: John [Sayles] was always topical in his scripts. Anything that he came to—and when he came to Piranha and The Howling, he was taking over what Jack Conrad and Terence H. Winkless had already started—he made it extremely contemporary. He used everything that was in the zeitgeist.
GK: Watching the beginning of The Howling you feel like you’re in a Brian De Palma movie: the Pino Donaggio score, the scuzzy urban setting…
JD: You know, if I didn’t get chummy with Jerry Goldsmith [music composer on many Dante films, starting with 1984’s Gremlins], I would have continued with Pino. The downsides were that he didn’t speak English, so I always needed a translator, and the movies I worked on were so low-budget that I couldn’t be flown over to Italy for the scoring. So we’d tell him what we wanted, he’d do it, send it back, and that was it. But I was really happy with the scores he did for me. I couldn’t believe a composer this classy was working on my first couple of pictures…
GK: With Gremlins you got put in a family movie corner. It’s nice to discover The Howling in that context, especially if, like me, your first Joe Dante movies were Gremlins, Explorers (1985), and Innerspace.
JD: Gremlins was a horror film bludgeoned into a family film—because of budget. As I understand it, I was chosen by the studio when the plan was to make the property into a low-budget monster movie, which had been my specialty. As it developed it became apparent the budget would have to be increased to accommodate the special effects, which in turn led to a reduction in the horror elements to appeal to a broader audience. They said, “Look, we can’t spend this kind of money on a film that’s so niche.” If I hadn’t made Gremlins I’d most likely have been relegated to the minors for the foreseeable future. Nobody knew it was going to become such a phenomenon. But The Howling was great for me because it put me on the map. Piranha was a successful movie, but The Howling was the first time I was taken seriously—“Ooh, wow, Pauline Kael knows who I am!”
The Howling was modern. We wanted to position it as a slasher film, not a werewolf film. The Scream movies owe a lot to The Howling. It’s the first movie that I can think of where the characters know as much about the monsters as the audience. You don’t have to be consulting the old professor, taking time out for exposition, that kind of thing.
GK: On the other hand, seeing John Carradine on-screen puts you back into the traditional monster movie mode.
JD: That was the intention. I love those movies, and I wanted to do one of those movies, but I knew that in order to get audiences’ attention and to be a contemporary movie you had to make it seem like it wasn’t going to be a supernatural picture.
GK: Carradine is incredible in it.
JD: He was phenomenal. He would take any job that came along, because of alimony. One night when the generators went down and we shot with automobile lights—which is a trick Corman taught me—I turned to Carradine and said, “This isn’t going to be the best picture you’ve made.” And he said, “Well, son, it isn’t going to be the worst one, either.” Very encouraging.
GK:Are those headlight shots in the movie?
JD: Yes. We shot for several hours by the headlights of various crew cars. Roger had told me that he had done this in the ’50s, and I had always dismissed this a simply a colorful anecdote!
GK: Gary Graver did some reshoots on the film.
JD: Gary was a friend of mine. His office was next door. When they finally gave us some money to improve the special effects, John Hora wasn’t available, and one of Gary’s great talents was being able to imitate the look of any other cinematographer—it was one of the reasons Orson Welles liked him so much—and so he came in and did all the reshoots. Lots of firelight stuff… He was a mensch. Really great guy. Taken all too soon.
The Howling was after The Other Side of the Wind (1970-2018) [which Graver shot, had halted production]. We never thought that [The Other Side] would get finished. Everyone was lamenting this lost film. I thought it was a major contribution to film history that they managed to get it together. It’s a fascinating film for so many reasons.
GK: Arts patronage by Netflix.
JD: The best thing they’ve ever done. [Laughs] I don’t even begrudge them the 150 buildings that I now have to wade through to get to Hollywood.
GK: I think if I was born when you were, Joe—
JD: You’d be really old. [Laughs]
GK: —I’d be inclined to want to make genre and horror movies. Now horror means you have to be resourceful with $100,000. We’ve equated horror with cheapness.
JD: They’re cheap to make. A couple people in a room. You turn the lights out and you got a horror movie.
GK: There was still something really attractive about horror in 1980. That’s very, very rarely the case today.
JD: Yeah, and I was working with Bob Rehme at Avco Embassy, which was a slightly more expensive New World, and the films were very exploitation-oriented but were a cut above the competition, as Roger’s movies always were. We were working alongside Cronenberg, Carpenter, David Schmoeller—they were all these Terror Train-type movies, pretty similar, similar budgets, all very much of their time.
It’s difficult to do something clever today with little money, like Cabin in the Woods (2011), where you invert the clichés. Those are rare. Most of the time you just get warmed-over killings.
"The Scream movies owe a lot to The Howling. It’s the first movie that I can think of where the characters know as much about the monsters as the audience."
GK: Speaking of horror, your Sight & Sound ballot from 2002 includes none. I guess you could count Psycho (1960)…
JD: I haven’t been invited back. Maybe they didn’t like my list. [Laughs]
GK: It’s a pretty canonical list: Citizen Kane (1941), Rashomon (1950), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)…
JD: It’s not very imaginative, is it?
GK: What was in your mind?
JD: It was supposed to be movies you think are great. If it was my favorites movie list, there would be all sorts of obscure movies on it.
GK: For instance…
JD: I would have put The Sadist (1963) on there. There are so many film noirs you could put on this list. They’re not Lawrence of Arabia (1962)—Narrow Margin (1952) is just, like, a great movie. I mean, there are so many great movies that don’t run more than 75 minutes. Which… in today’s market, I wish there were more movies like that. Everything’s too long—have you noticed? They don’t release anything that’s under two and a half hours long.
GK: To make sure people…
JD: …get their money’s worth.
GK: Getting your money’s worth would be seeing a double feature with two 75-minute films.
JD: Absolutely! It’s so they can feel better about sitting in the theater for so long with their masks on. [Laughs]
GK: I remember you once said you watched Encore Westerns [Starz “multiplex” subscriber TV channel] every morning.
JD: I don’t have Encore Westerns anymore, but I’ve got other channels I can watch Westerns on. I still watch Westerns.
GK: In the morning, when you wake up?
JD: No, I usually watch Perry Mason when I wake up now. Because it’s got all my favorite character actors in it, from ’57 to ’65—it’s a great period. A lot of TV from that period is great because of the actors. There’s a channel called Grit, but the problem is everything’s pan and scan. The Sony and MGM channels have a lot of Westerns. And then there’s the Family Movie Channel. It’s mostly public domain stuff, but they’ve been making deals recently and they’re running a lot of Columbia stuff. And those prints are much better.
Then there’s Turner Classic Movies, of course, which I can record. Today, at 5pm, I’m watching the hearings, but TCM are playing a Ralph Bellamy movie [Below the Sea, 1933] that I’m going to record. So, I mean, it’s a wonderful time to catch up on movies that haven’t been seen in 80 years. On the other hand, people aren’t going to theaters. My generation fell in love with movies because we were in a dark room with a lot of other people communing. At home it’s just a different movie. It’s like a souvenir of the experience.
GK: Backtracking, you said you’re watching the hearings… the January 6th hearings, yes?
JD: Yeah. There’s one on tonight.
GK: Why are you torturing yourself?
JD: I think it’s fascinating! Something in this government actually works. To watch these people being humiliated is very rewarding to me.
GK: Have you ever counted the number of movies you’ve seen? Do you have a number?
JD: I used to keep track when I was a kid… I had a notebook. Bogdanovich used to do this. But at a certain point it’s… it’s too many. I don’t know how many movies I’ve seen. But I do know that when I look through any given movie book, I’ve usually seen two thirds of whatever they’re talking about. And I have weaknesses—there’s a lot of foreign films from certain periods that I’m very weak on. Asian cinema I’m not particularly conversant in.
GK: What’s going on with The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes [unrealized Dante feature project about the production of Corman’s The Trip in 1967]?
JD: Well, [the film critic] Tim Lucas turned [the script] into a novel. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever written. And it may be as close as [the project] gets to the public. So many of the original people involved [in The Trip] are gone… I just don’t see it having much life anymore. Like all projects it ebbs and flows, and right now it’s ebbing. We’re all late-career Orson Welles, spend all of our time getting money and none of our time making movies.
GK: Nowadays you don’t have to be late-career Welles. You can be early to mid-career Welles. I’ve been developing the feature I’m hoping to do this summer for coming up on five years.
JD: Don’t give up. Five years isn’t a long time. It’s always been difficult but it’s really difficult now with COVID.
GK: Is it shocking to you that a big studio movie like Avengers: Endgame apparently costs $400M to make and release today? You made Gremlins for what would be $31M in today’s dollars...
JD: The ballooning costs of production today are beyond my comprehension. You’d think with all that money they could come up with movies that don’t look like carbon copies of each other.
GK: What have you been watching lately?
JD: Blackbird (2022), the new Dennis Lehane series. The Old Man (2022) is really good. Evil (2019–). But there are so many shows... When is the time you have in your life to devote to all of this? The Peter Jackson Beatles special, Get Back (2022)… that’s a big chunk of your life. I don’t regret any of it, because I thought it was really brilliant. But you have to be judicious with your time.
GK: What do you make of the whole backstory and behind-the-scenes series trend, like The Offer (2022)? The Gremlins cartoon series also falls into this.
JD: Well, you have to see how far back you can go without losing your audience. The Godfather (1972) is one thing, but I don’t see the Only Angels Have Wings (1939) series being made anytime soon.
GK: I would pay money to see a movie about the making of Hollywood Boulevard (Dante and Allan Arkush, 1976).
JD: We had a series called “The Wylde Bunch,” about a [fictional] producer named Raymond Wylde, who was a competitor of Corman’s, and it’s set in the ’70s—Arkush, Sayles, and I, we put it together, about what it was like to make low-budget movies then. We hawked it several times, no one’s ever been interested. It would have been a very funny show.
GK: I wonder if times have changed enough.
JD: When you open the drawer and the moths fly out, you always say, “Is it time?”
GK: Stranger Things (2016—) is the biggest thing on streaming. and it’s influenced by your films.
JD: But I think it’s cornered the market.
GK: You’d think these Duffer brothers would reach out to you and want to produce a Joe Dante movie.
JD: I don’t think cinephiles are running the business. Or were ever running the business. Maybe Francis Coppola but look what happened to him. He had a cinephile company and it went under.
GK: We can always go off and make wine and fund our movies that way.
JD: If it’s good wine.
Gabe Klinger is a filmmaker and occasional critic who splits his time between São Paulo and Chicago. His film Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013) is currently featured on the Criterion Channel. The Austrian Film Museum book he co-edited on Joe Dante is available for purchase from the Metrograph Bookstore.