Joe Dante's entry into the film business was so cartoonish it might easily be a scene from a Joe Dante movie. Arriving in California as an aspiring editor, he went to meet B-movie impresario Roger Corman. The latter had already mentored Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich.
Armed with what he recalls was a “poorly edited trailer for Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat”, Dante was detained en route because he had to chase a reel that dropped and rolled down Santa Monica Boulevard and into a manhole.
"I didn't drive, so I had to take a bus to Roger's screening room," he says. "So the reel fell and I was late for the screening and Roger's first words to me were: 'Young man, if I were you I'd try to be on time for these things.' I figure that's it. It's all over. I'm going back to New Jersey. But instead he gave me some good advice about how to do better and Allan Arkush became the new editing staff. We had to keep editing trailers even when we were directing a movie."
Under Corman, Dante edited the first features for Demme and Ron Howard. His tenure overlapped with such game Corman alumni as Demme, James Cameron and John Sayles. The latter would write Dante's first solo feature, Piranha, a shameless Jaws knock-off. "It was very big in South America," he laughs. (Dante had previously, as a bet, co-directed Hollywood Boulevard, the "cheapest ever film" for New World Pictures.)
Unbeknownst to Dante, Piranha found a celebrity fan in Steven Spielberg, who used his sway with Universal to prevent the studio from legally blocking the release of Dante's film. Spielberg would later invite Dante to direct a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, followed by Gremlins.
“When I was working for Roger we had a little cockroach-infested office,” says Dante. “We didn’t think anyone was even going to see these films. Piranha opened during the newspaper strike so there weren’t even any reviews. We had this feeling we were working in a vacuum and that the only people you got to see your films were people who went to the drive-in.
“When I got the script for Gremlins in the mail, I felt sure it went to the wrong address. But Steven Spielberg had seen The Howling and liked it. In fact, he even hired Dee Wallace from The Howling to play the mom in ET. He wanted to make a low-budget horror film and that’s what I was already doing. But once we started working on it we realised it was going to be difficult to keep it low budget and still have these creatures.”
Home video came along and perpetuated a lot of movies that people missed even knowing had come out
Gremlins became Dante’s biggest hit, grossing $212.9 million in the summer of 1984 on a budget of $11 million. It made another $79.5 million in video rental stores and more on DVD and Blu-ray reissues.
"I call it my hit," says Dante. "None of my films were very successful theatrically. However, home video came along and perpetuated a lot of movies that people missed even knowing had come out. And now people who love them think they were big hits. John Carpenter has a lot of films like that. I have a lot of films like that. Richard Donner has some too.
“They were movies that were either dismissed critically or just not paid much attention. But The Wizard of Oz was not a successful picture when it came out. It’s a Wonderful Life, the same thing. You can’t really judge the worth of a movie when it comes out. You have to give it a little time to age. Like wine.”
Dante is currently a consultant on Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, an animated TV prequel that chronicles the adventures of a 10-year-old Mr Wing and Gizmo. "It's very charming," he says. "I think it's going to be a hit."
This return to the franchise happens 30 years after Dante’s much-loved (mostly after theatrical release) Gremlins 2: the New Batch, a wild “sequel to end all sequels” as he puts it. It arrived as part of a cycle of films that distinguished Dante as a kind of Spielbergian id. Spielberg helped produce Dante’s Innerspace, its wicked bump-in-the-night timing married to his banana-skin humour making for delightful distortions of the ET director’s milieu. Small Soldiers is The Goonies invaded by the military-industrial complex. The Hole is Jurassic Park in a basement. Explorers is Dante’s ET.
Or it should have been. “They released [Explorers] unfinished,” says Dante. “If I had known that was going to be the situation I would’ve said no. I don’t think I would’ve talked myself into doing Batman either. I was working on that after Gremlins and I woke up in the middle of the night and said: I can’t do Batman because I don’t believe in Batman; I like the Joker. When I told them I wasn’t going to make the movie, they almost had me committed.
“So instead of doing that I did Explorers, which was the biggest bomb of my entire career. Undeservedly so, because it’s not the movie I was trying to make. The studio changed hands and the new people didn’t care about the movies that had been initiated by the other people. They didn’t care if it was successful or not. They just wanted to get the film off the books. We had two months left to work on the film. But they told us to stop working. They released the rough cut. So of course people weren’t satisfied.
"That was a lesson. But if I hadn't done that picture I wouldn't have met River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke. "
Conversely, the inverted Spielbergian satire The ’Burbs – which celebrated its 30th anniversary release to considerable online fanfare in 2019 – had an unexpected afterlife.
He loved monster movies and cartoons, and idolised such animators as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin
“I was surprised by the extent of what happened with The ’Burbs,” Dante says. “Because that movie got really, really, really bad reviews. It did okay in the end. But it was considered garbage by the critics. And yet it had such a fan base. I started getting more questions about that than I did about Gremlins. Now it’s got its own website, it’s got its own trivia. It was not the movie that I thought would get that kind of attention.”
Dante grew up in New Jersey where his father was a professional golfer. Joe jnr wasn't as handy with a club, but he loved monster movies and cartoons, and idolised such animators as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin. A year with polio symptoms honed his drawing skills, but he was talked out of a career as a cartoonist at film school.
“I was a huge fan of cartoons,” recalls the director. “Every kid was because they were on television all the time. I was very lucky to know Chuck Jones in his later years when I made Looney Tunes: Back in Action. I went to Saturday matinees every Saturday. And also I was a Mad magazine kid, which gave me a disrespect of authority. I’m very interested in the cartoon aspects of making movies. Like strange things going on in the background that you don’t notice until the second or third time you see the picture.I would say my section of the Twilight Zone movie was totally like animation.
“It’s just something I’ve always loved. It’s part of my personality, and the whole deal with movies is that you try to cram as much of your personality into the movie as possible so that it becomes something that you can stand behind it and say yes, this is an expression of who I am. As opposed to just taking a job.”
Dante is hoping to reconnect with his roots with The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes, a movie based on Roger Corman's psychedelic adventures with Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.
"I've been working on it for over 10 years," he says. "One Academy Award season – I think it was '76 – everyone nominated started with Roger. He really did change the face of the business. He was instrumental in creating a new generation of film-makers and they became the backbone of Hollywood.
“Right now, the market is so bizarre. Who are we making movies for? How are they going to be seeing them? What are they going to spend on them? ‘Nobody knows anything’ has always been a bromide in the industry. But now people really don’t know anything and they forgot the things they did know.”
And another sort of homecoming. Many film directors have a collection of favourite movies, but Dante has several hundred 16mm and 35mm prints in his own vault, a collection that helped inspire Trailers from Hell, a web series in which film-makers gab about their favourite flicks.
“I guess it’s strange,” he says, returning to trailers. “It’s complicated. When they’re on 35mm you have to have a big projector and all that stuff. So I thought well, maybe I’ll put them on the internet and maybe I’ll do a couple of commentary tracks. So I did that. And they sat there on the internet for a while of no particular interest for anyone. And then a couple of my friends said: ‘I’ve got a picture I’d like you to do a commentary for.’
“So that was 2008 and it sort of grew exponentially from there. We now get letters from people saying: ‘I never heard of this movie until I saw it on Trailers from Hell and I’ve looked up the director’s other movies and now I’m a fan.’ It makes you feel like you’re giving back, you know?”
Joe Dante will be at IFI Horrorthon 2020 with a recorded Q&A on Saturday, October 24th. See ifihome.ie