A Life in Terror: An Interview with Joe Dante

By Matthew Sorrento, a film studies lecturer at Rutgers University–Camden


Anton Yelchin (left) and director Joe Dante on the set of Burying the Ex. (Image Entertainment)

Joe Dante entered filmmaking in the 1970s with the cult horror favorite Piranha (1977, and recently remade), a spoof on the 1975 blockbuster Jaws. A lifelong horror movie fan, he had worked briefly as a film reviewer before editing trailers for Roger Corman, who would executive produce Piranha. Dante used the horror genre as a springboard, though he achieved major success with the dark fantasy Gremlins (1984), which has a youthful spirit that dovetailed with the tone of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s films of the time (the latter produced the film).

Dante’s latest film, Burying the Ex (2014, now on disc and streaming), includes a sense of innocence in spite of the grisly theme of an undead ex-girlfriend who won’t stay buried. Though admitting that the zombie genre has run amok recently, Dante seems fine with using the platform to help deliver his unique blend of horror-comedy.

In a recent phone interview, Dante discussed his recent horror film, his genre masterwork The Howling (1981), current film criticism, and the influence of social media.

What interested you in the script of Burying the Ex?

Well, there was actually a short film made (of the story) which I have not seen yet. I read the script and liked it, and told them not to show me the short because I didn’t want to be influenced by it. I liked the characters and the humor, and the setting was unique. The world of Los Angeles shown there really impressed me very much and it looked like it was something that could be made relatively cheaply with a small cast. I thought ‘this will be fun’ and, of course, you know, seven years later we tried to make it.

With the business, you put things together and they fall apart and you put them together again and this time we managed to find the money in a little brief window that if we could make the picture at this particular time with this amount of money, we could get it done. So we just jumped in.

Did you enjoy the whole horror fandom of the script?

That was a no brainer for me. There’s more horror fandom in the movie then there was in the script.

Anton (Yelchin, JJ Abram’s Star Trek) is an interesting choice for the lead. He doesn’t go for a traditional comic portrayal. I can imagine another actor trying to ham it up in that role and make it really funny, or be showy.

I’ve been watching Anton since he was a kid. Anton has a certain vulnerability that I think really works for this character. His character is a guy who just can’t make up his mind, can’t decide what to do and is kind of a pushover, and Anton fit the bill. Also, he turned out to be a tremendous horror movie fan and a movie fan in general. We discussed movies and how he should go about handling this one.

The bright look of the movie is interesting. Did you have that concept in mind from that start, or was it more of a happy accident?

Anything in a movie made this fast is a happy accident, really. (Laughs) We just did the best we could on a very, very short schedule and if you think it looks good, I’m glad!

It has an innocent look to it, as if something horrifying is invading an innocent vision of California.

It’s a portrait of L.A. that people aren’t used to seeing because people don’t make movies in L.A. anymore.

John Boorman says that it was a place full of menace. He went there to make Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin and here you have a placid vision of L.A.

Well, there’s a whole subculture of movies made by foreign directors who see L.A. in different ways. And it’s very interesting to look at pictures like the Bottle Shock and Point Blank and other movies made by people who are actually outsiders – this is what they see when they come here.

Going back to The Howling, did you set out to make a doom-laden werewolf movie? With the tone and the downbeat ending, you helped bring a sense of despair to werewolf films.

It just so happened that during that period there were other people making werewolf movies as well, so that in 1981, there were a whole rash of them. None were really connected to each other, but it just happened to be in the zeitgeist at the time and we were one of the first ones out of the gate. I thought, I probably won’t be able to make another werewolf movie,’ so I wanted to make my statement about werewolves. I always try to put things in context, look to the past, and bring those elements in. We had characters going to the library looking up werewolves. They’re all familiar with them just like the audience is. Then, of course, you also try to point to the future and say this is where the genre is going. So for me, it was a lot of fun to make and it turned out very well.

It must have been really interesting to see other werewolf films come with yours like Wolfen and American Werewolf in London (both 1981). Did you see all those coming?

 The only one I knew was coming was John Landis’ movie (American Werewolf) because I had hired Rick Baker to make my werewolf movie. Then we found out that John had managed to get the funding for his, and Rick had promised to do John’s film, so he went off and left my movie. I got Rob Bottin for the film, who also did a number of my later movies (and later worked with David Fincher on Se7en [1995] and Fight Club [1999]). So it worked out fine, but it would’ve been great to have them both on.

A lot of commentators describe Gremlins II (1990) as an improvement on Gremlins (1984) in that it’s more comical and innocent for kids. So you agree?

I wouldn’t call it an improvement; I’d just call it a comment, sort of a spoof of Gremlins.

Is Gremlins the true inspiration you wanted, or is Gremlins II your Bride of Frankenstein (1935) treatment of the original? I ask since James Whale was fonder of Bride.

 Joe: There can’t be a Gremlins II without Gremlins I, so someone can always say well, this sequel is better than the original. But we can’t forget that if there’s no original, there’s no sequel.

People are always saying that Bride of Frankenstein is better than Frankenstein (1931) and it certainly is better produced and it’s certainly funnier. But the original Frankenstein has a certain austerity and purity that makes it distinct from Bride, and I think that the Gremlins films are similar.

Going back to werewolves, you think the werewolf movie has a future?

Well, they certainly have a past but they’ve been supplanted, for the moment, by zombies. There were some attempts (at the werewolf film) a little while ago, but that was all brought to a grinding halt with The Wolfman (2010), which was a major disaster. I don’t know that you’re gonna see a werewolf movie on that scale any time soon. There is a werewolf on the series Penny Dreadful (2014- ) along with all the other monsters. I think that’s probably more likely the way it will go for a while. Joe Johnson directed The Wolfman, though the project started with Mark Romanek (2002’s One Hour Photo, 2010’s Never Let Me Go). I would’ve loved to do The Wolfman, but considering the horror story that Rick Baker told me about, I think it was probably better I didn’t.

How do you feel about online movie criticism now? Do you like what you see out there?

Well, it’s the only real movie criticism there is, really. Critics get fired from the newspapers, where there is so much syndication. In your local newspaper your local critic isn’t really your local critic – he’s somewhere else and writes a review from some other city. There’s a lot more thought in some of the online columns than you’d get from your daily reviewers these days.

Would you say there is more specialization now – the fact that it’s online people can focus more on certain topics?

Movie criticism has become a niche thing. People don’t like to read reviews anymore, since they’re so worried about spoilers. So when reviews are published half the time people skip through them. They just read the beginning and the end to find out if they would like it and don’t want to read anymore about it. So it becomes very difficult to get good criticism in newspapers, and I don’t know that that’s a place where you’re gonna find that kind of thoughtful criticism.

How do you feel about social media’s place in the film world? I know you’re on there and very present, so has that been helpful to you?

It’s been interesting with film. Social media can get people talking about older movies, which the press is generally indifferent to. But there’s no doubt about it that everything is switching toward the idea of social media, and going to the movies and theaters is going away, except for spectacles and ultimately, virtual reality which I think is where the theater experience is going. The business as it was when I entered in the seventies is completely gone, the audience has changed, they don’t even shoot on film anymore, and they rarely project films. It’s a completely different era and so you have to adapt to it.

One of my one of my disappointments with Burying the Ex is that the majority of the people will never see it in a theater.

Sorry to hear that, but thank you for doing this, Joe! I’m dying to show my son Gremlins, which I loved at a young age. He’s only three, so my wife refuses –

No, not yet! Well, show him just the first half. (Laughs)

Thanks to Alumnus April Smith (2015) for assistance.

Matthew Sorrento teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University-Camden, where he is currently helping to develop a film studies concentration in the Department of English. He is interview editor of Film International, where he regularly contributes, and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). Sorrento directs the Reel East Film Festival, which had its second installment at Oaklyn’s Ritz Theatre in August, 2015.

Posted in: Arts and Culture

Comments are closed.