[EDITOR'S NOTE: A much-shortened version of this article originally appeared in CinemaEditor magazine, Volume 60, Issue 1, First Quarter 2010, under the title, “The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante: A Symposium.]
Like so many children of the eighties, I grew up with Joe Dante’s films, and knew even the less heralded ones—like Explorers (1985) or Innerspace (1987)—by heart. When I decided to write about his work, I spent a long time searching for an angle or hook before I asked myself a very simple question: How many directors began their professional careers by editing trailers for Roger Corman?
Joe Dante did. If I wanted to tell the story of his films, I had to tell it through the editors he worked with, starting with himself. With Mark Goldblatt, Dante co-edited his first two features—Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981). He would later work with a succession of devoted editors. Tina Hirsch edited Dante’s biggest successes, like Gremlins (1984) and his acclaimed segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), while Marshall Harvey has been with him on most of his projects since the late-eighties, including The ‘burbs (1989) and Matinee (1993).
In the summer of 2009, I interviewed Dante, Hirsch, and Harvey, and I started where I felt I had to: with the director in the cutting room.
Joe Dante: I began as a film editor on The Movie Orgy (1968), which was a 16 mm compilation film that was patched together by me and Jon Davison when we were in college. It’s seven hours of stuff. We kept changing it around and a beer company gave us money to take it to college campuses. We didn’t have the rights to anything, but it was an exercise in editing, basically. And it’s pretty much where I learned how to edit, on a 16 mm print with optical track and one splicer.
Peter Tonguette: Did you want to become an editor or did you see this as a way to eventually become a director?
JD: I think I wanted to be a director, but I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to have something to do with the movies. I was a film critic and I had some expertise. When Jon Davison came out here to work for Roger Corman and asked me to come to edit a trailer, I thought, “Well, why not? I’ll see if this is something that I’m good at.” I was having some family issues at the time. My mother was passing away. It was a time of real turmoil, and they often say that’s the time when you change the direction of your life.
So I came out here and did a trailer for Roger for The Student Teachers (1973). George Van Noy cut it and I sort of supervised it and wrote the copy. It was way, way too long. [Laughs.] It was three times as long as a trailer should be. I came back home and the picture came out and made money. Somehow my name was associated with the trailer and when it came time to replace the piecemeal editors that Corman had been hiring with a “department”—consisting of two people—I was asked to come back. I did a couple more trailers and then was joined by Allan Arkush. We became the trailer “department.”
PT: How did this lead to you and Arkush co-directing your first feature, Hollywood Boulevard (1976)?
JD: We were very familiar with the contents of the various New World pictures because we had done the trailers. Of course, we both wanted to direct. The idea came to us that what if we tried to put together a really, really cheap movie. And we’re talking really cheap because this is New World Pictures.
Roger didn’t really want to let us go away from the trailers because he needed continuity. So his deal was, “I’ll let you guys do this movie. But it’s the cheapest movie we’ve ever made, you’ve only got ten days, and you’ve got to do trailers at night.” So we figured out a way to do a very cheap movie with all the action scenes being inserted from other pictures. We never could have afforded to stage any of those. The only concept that we could come up with that made any sense to use all of this disparate footage was a movie company making a bunch of different kinds of movies. So Hollywood Boulevard was born.
It was a very educational experience. I learned that I liked directing. Editing is kind of a solitary job. But then I found on my first day on the set that I really enjoyed the electricity and the camaraderie and the ability to discuss and get ideas.
PT: You and Arkush edited Hollywood Boulevard yourselves, along with Amy Jones.
JD: We had cut our own movie and cut our own footage, which I recommend to directors. If you sit down and are forced to confront the mistakes that you made, and try to figure out a way around them, then those are lessons that you are going to carry with you. A lot of people at New World would do the picture and then go away and let the editor cut it and then come back and declare themselves a genius! But, in fact, many, many tricks had been employed to make the footage usable. And so they would make the same mistakes on their next picture. Well, we didn’t do that. We were very scrupulous about making sure that we knew why things didn’t work. It was film school where your movie was actually going to play in drive-ins.
PT: Hollywood Boulevard was made before you edited Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto (1977), so did you initially go back to editing?
JD: We went back to trailers. Hollywood Boulevard was not exactly the biggest success in the world! In fact, it only played for two days on 42nd Street and was pulled.
The idea of directing still burned, more than ever now, but we needed a job and Roger had kind of a little family there. This was when the foreign trailers began to come in, the Fellinis and Truffauts. That was a lot of fun because we got to meet them.
Then two projects came down the pike: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) and Piranha (1978). Allan really, really, really wanted to do Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. I didn’t particularly think Piranha was a great idea because it was a Jaws rip-off too many years later. But Allan got Rock ‘n’ Roll and I got stuck with the fish!
In the meantime, Ron Howard had asked us both to work on Grand Theft Auto because we had meet him while doing the trailers for Eat My Dust (1976), which he was in. His deal with Roger was that if he starred in Eat My Dust, Roger would let him direct the next picture that he starred in. So I cut it and Allan did second-unit.
It was my first and pretty much only stab at editing somebody else’s picture.
PT: How did you find working with Ron Howard?
JD: Working with Ron was great. He was a really nice guy and he knew his craft. He’d been studying during all of the movies that he’d been in. He’d been confabbing with the directors about how they did things. He worked with a lot of really good people. He took those lessons to heart and he knew exactly what he was doing. The footage cut together beautifully.
The only problem I had was that in those days Roger printed all of the film in black-and-white, even if the film was in color, because it was cheaper. We wouldn’t see the picture in color until it was finished. Well, I don’t drive, so I couldn’t tell the back end of a Chevy from the front end of a Buick. There were all these demolition derby scenes where I couldn’t tell which cars were which! So I had to make educated guesses. Later, Allan Arkush said it was the only car movie he ever saw where there were no shots of anybody shifting. [Laughs.]
PT: On Piranha, you’re credited as co-editor with Mark Goldblatt.
JD: One of the reasons that I joined the Editors Guild eventually was that I wanted to edit my own films. But unfortunately that’s kind of frowned upon or at least it was at that time. It’s a lot of power to give the director to edit his own stuff. It’s also a time thing: you don’t want to have to wait for the guy to finish shooting before he starts editing.
When I was shooting Piranha, Mark was cutting. Then I would come back and do what a director would do. I’d look at the edit, except in this case I’d take it over and go into a room and do it myself. Then the later scenes we’d just split up. He would do half of them and I would do the other half. Ultimately, once we had gotten the picture to a certain point, I started to go through it and make immense changes. I was so sure the picture was a disaster that I didn’t go to the wrap party. I thought that every second that I spent editing the movie was important. I lived in the editing room. I have memories of people coming in and I would look up from my stupor and I didn’t know who they were. [Laughs.] “Is it better if the piranhas are eight frames long? Is it better if they’re three frames long? Is it better if they’re sped up? Is it better if they’re slowed down?”
It was the first picture Roger had printed in color. In those days, the film stock was such that if you made a tape splice and pulled the tape off, it would pull off the emulsion, so there would be a big green blotch on the print. You could always tell what I had second-guessed because when you would run the work print there would be these green blotches!
It turned out that the picture worked very well. It made a lot of money and all of a sudden I was not working for Roger anymore. People were asking me to do other films.
PT: Your next film was The Howling (1981), which you again co-edited with Mark Goldblatt. You mentioned earlier that you tried as a director to not make the same mistakes twice. Were you quite as obsessive on The Howling as you were on Piranha?
JD: I don’t think I was quite as obsessive because I didn’t have the bad feeling about it that I did about Piranha. I had always wanted to do a werewolf film. I was not the original director on the film. My friend Mike Finnell, who had worked on the previous two pictures, was one of the producers and when the original director was let go, he called me while I was on another movie called Jaws 3, People 0, which never got made, and said, “I’ve got this werewolf movie and they’re looking for somebody.”
I came in and I re-worked it quite a bit by bringing in first Terry Winkless and then John Sayles. It turned out quite well.
PT: You next directed an episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). Tina Hirsch was the editor and it was the first of three films you made together, followed by Gremlins and Explorers. This was the first time that you weren’t editing one of your own films.
JD: Now I’m working for a studio. New World and Avco Embassy were one thing. Now I’m in the Directors Guild, now I’m working on a major film, and there was no way that I was going to be able to cut it. I had known Tina since we had shared editing rooms at Roger’s. I was doing trailers and she was doing features.
Tina Hirsch: It was the most joyous time [at New World]. We were young and just in love with movies. That’s all we ever talked about. Joe would cut the trailers of the movies that I cut. He said to me one day, “You know what you always do? You always cut when the person leaving the scene is still in frame!” I said, “Oh, I do? I didn’t know that.” Then and now, the truth is I’m aware after the fact, but while I’m working I’m in some kind of strange alpha place. I don’t have a conscious attitude about what I’m doing.
JD: I asked her to do Twilight Zone, she said yes, and we got along great.
TH: He called me when he got the job, but I was in New York on another movie. I was so disappointed because I really wanted to work with him. Then the next week they cancelled the movie. The first thing I did was call him and I said, “They cancelled the movie! I can do it!” Then the next day, the unfortunate Twilight Zone accident happened. We thought the film wasn’t going to happen, but it did.
JD: They left us completely alone because of the fallout of the accident that had happened. The movie, which went ahead anyway, to my surprise, was pretty much done in a vacuum. It was a studio picture and there was studio money and care and craft, but there wasn’t a lot of oversight because nobody really wanted to be responsible for the movie. It had a kind of cloud over it. Here we are going through all of these Warner Bros. cartoon tracks and doing all of this crazy stuff with this fairly straightforward Twilight Zone adaptation that had been done before for television very well. But we were taking it in a completely different direction and nobody said anything. I got the erroneous impression that that’s how studio movies were made!
TH: There was a scene in Twilight Zone that we called “Nowhere.” It’s after Anthony [Jeremy Licht] wishes up all these demons and the teacher [Kathleen Quinlan] whom he’s brought home to his house says, “Wish it away, Anthony. Wish it away.” He thought he was giving her the greatest gift ever of these crazy puppet things. He says, “I wish it away. I wish it all away.” As planned, we were going to dissolve to a totally white stage that was supposed to be nowhere. There was nothing in it at all. The boy who was playing Anthony was seven-years-old. A seven-year-old boy tends to be a little ADD, even in those days. Little boys have a lot of energy and not a lot of focus.
I think Joe printed three takes of a one-er. He choreographed the scene where the teacher and the boy kind of walk around each other. In a way, it’s a little bit like a dance. It was really quite lovely. It was well-imagined and well-designed because they start out apart and in the end they come together. He also shot coverage for safety, but I didn’t even look at the coverage. The scene had to play in one big master.
The third printed master was the best of all of them. However, it started tight on the boy’s face and his eyelids are flapping in the breeze. In various parts of the scenes, he wasn’t looking at her. He’d look at her and then he’d look over at Joe and then he’d look at the camera! After I ran the scene with Joe, I said, “God, it would be so great if we could just put something over it.” He said, “Okay, why don’t you try?” I said, “You mean I’ll just take another take and put it on top?” He said, “Yeah, let’s just look at it.” It takes a lot of courage to do that. I would say most of the people I’ve worked with would say, “That’s a stupid idea. We can’t do that. Let’s just cut it up in pieces.”
Anyway, I took take nine, which was the second best, I stripped the track out of it, and I just put it in the picture head on top of the other one, just arbitrarily. We start running it. You could only hear the one track of the main piece, but you could see that the timing was off just enough to be really interesting. It was completely magical. We came to the end, I put on the break, and I said, “What’d you think?” He said, “That was pretty good!” In walked our optical effects guy. I said, “Shall we have him do a test?” He said, “Yeah.” I literally took it, went back to the head, paper-clipped it together the way we had just looked at it—the one time only—and ordered it. And it lives that way in the film today.
Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.