Joe Dante is one of those wonderful directors who makes movies far too infrequently. The filmmaker behind “Gremlins,” “Innerspace,” and “The ‘Burbs” hasn’t released a feature film since 2009’s woefully overlooked 3D extravaganza “The Hole.” But that’s about to change with “Burying the Ex,” a pitch black comedy that is premiering out-of-competition at the Venice Film Festival. The new movie, about a young man (Anton Yelchin) whose ex-girlfriend (Ashley Greene) dies and comes back as a zombie, fits perfectly within the Dante wheelhouse, which combines ghoulishness with outrageous humor. Our interview covers everything from “Burying the Ex” (you can read our review from Venice here), to the cultish reception to some of his films, to what he thinks of the current slate of superhero movies. And, yes, we touch on “Gremlins 3” as well.
Dante is a director with an encyclopedic knowledge of film and a whole host of movies that he’s either almost made or intends to make, so our conversation does tend to zigzag all over the place (just like one of his gonzo movies). From the Universal Monsters to digital vs. film, we cover it all. This is a filmmaker whose point-of-view and sensibilities have seemingly put him on the outside looking in, when, for at least a decade, he was one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood.
What initially attracted you to this project?
Things are a little different in the movie business than when I started. The type of movies I made in the eighties just don’t seem to be being made anymore. Generally movies are either made for not much money at all or quite a bit of money and all of the mid-range movies have migrated to cable and cable television series. My last big studio movie was “Looney Tunes,” which was a while ago and not the most rewarding experience. So I’ve found that if you get involved with projects that don’t cost a great deal of money, you have a lot more creative freedom. This is a script that I’ve been flogging around town for five years, I’d say. The writer, Alan Trezza, had done it as a short film, which he directed and to this day I have not seen, and he expanded it into a script. Over the past several years we’ve been trying to put together financing to make the movie. I think that a lot of filmmakers spend their time doing that than actually making movies.
Some of the funds came from crowd funding, right? What was your experience with that?
Well, a little bit of it. I’ve had a little experience with it and it’s really something that you have to plan, you can’t just do it last minute. The fact that it was cobbled together so quickly meant that it didn’t really pan out. There is, at the end of the credits, a list of people who contributed. But it was too little and too late; the bulk of the movie didn’t come from that.
Could you talk about casting the movie and what you saw in these actors that made them perfect for “Burying the Ex?”
As it turns out, and casting is sort of a coin toss in certain ways, but casting is 90% of the movie. And in a movie like this it’s probably 95% of the movie because the people we have in the four leads happen to be great, their chemistry is terrific. And when you have a movie like this, which doesn’t have a great deal of money behind it, it’s all about the characters, and it’s all about their faces, and it’s all about how they relate to each other. Each one of them were terrific and fun to work with and creative and dedicated to the point of being under tons of make-up every day. Ashley is a beautiful woman and she really made her look as unattractive as possible, although in her case it’s not all that unattractive.
The movie is premiering at Venice. What does that mean to you?
It’s a big deal. I’ve done it before. “The Hole” premiered at Venice and won an award as a matter of fact—for Best 3D. It was the first award they’d ever given for 3D, not that it helped the movie get an American distributor, but it did quite well foreign. It’s a great honor to get into that particular festival. It’s one of the oldest festivals there is. It’s kind of the festival of festivals. It’s not strictly about buying and selling; Cannes is much more of a commercial festival. This is a pretty artistic festival.
Are you more optimistic about “Burying the Ex” getting out there?
Well, I wasn’t not optimistic about “The Hole.” It just turns out that we made the picture in 3D at the wrong time. Because all of a sudden there were all these phony 3D movies that had been converted that were big blockbuster pictures like “Clash of the Titans” and they were on all the screens. And we couldn’t get arrested. Because we didn’t have any stars in it and ours was a small movie. It did well overseas but it never really played in American theaters. But as far as this one is concerned I think it’s got a shot. It’s a very funny movie and I think people can relate to the situation. You’ve got a guy who stays with a girl who he probably should break up with because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. Then when something terrible happens to her, he feels terrible but he meets another girl who is way more on his wavelength and his girlfriend turns up as a zombie and she’s more annoying than ever. Except for the zombie part, I think we’ve all been there.
I wanted to ask you about the current crop of genre filmmakers and if there’s anybody out there whose movies you really love.
Well, because I know so many of them and they work for me on “Trailers from Hell,” I hate to show favoritism. But the people who I have hooked up with are people whose films I respect. I think Ti West is a talented guy and there are some people who we would still like to get for “Trailers from Hell.” People like Duncan Jones, who I think are doing a great job. I thought Gareth Edwards did a terrific job on “Godzilla.” It’s great to see people who are in love with the genre and who are being allowed to make films. Because I think we all have suffered through movies about favorite characters of ours that seem to be made my people who don’t have any interest in making movies about those characters. So the idea of fans and film buffs and people who love movies being allowed to make pictures in this genre is very encouraging.
Do you have any thoughts about the plans for the Universal Monsters?
I can’t say that I think they’ve been very successful up until now.
You were going to do “Creature from the Black Lagoon” right?
Well. That was a long time ago. “Creature from the Black Lagoon” has so much money against it that I can’t imagine they’re ever going to make it. I was going to do “The Mummy.” I had a John Sayles script that was really pretty terrific in the early nineties, and I was going to make it but the head of the studio said that that “The Mummy” should be a period picture like the first movie… which, of course, wasn’t a period picture but it looks like it now. And then they went on to make their pseudo-“Indiana Jones” movie, which I’m sure made them very happy because it was very successful but ours was a real remake of the movie. So when you consider “Van Helsing” and “The Wolf Man,” I don’t think they’ve been particularly adept at understanding the appeal of their own characters. I think the jury is out on what will happen with that.
Is a Universal Monster movie still something you’d like to tackle?
Sure. I would have loved to do a “Wolf Man.” [The recent film] was a completely botched-up movie, but it could have been really good.
We’re also experiencing this thing where every movie from the eighties is being remade…
Usually with no money paid to me. [laughs]
Is there truth to the “Gremlins” reboot? Is that something you’re involved in?
I am not involved with it. But I’m sure there’s some truth to it. It’s something that we hear about every six months for the past five to ten years. I know there have been many attempts to do it. It’s tricky because the rights are jointly owned by Warner Bros and Amblin, so you’ve got to jump through two hurdles to get your idea approved. I know a lot of very well known people have come up with ideas for another “Gremlins” movie and none of them have gone. I do know, however, that there’s supposedly a script being written now, and the tricky thing is that I’m not sure that the people making the movie now understand what the original appeal was of the first movie, which was not beloved by the studio until it started making money. When they started making a sequel, they didn’t understand what we had done on the original to make it successful, so they hired me to come back and make the sequel. Because nobody seemed to understand how that picture was made. So it will be very interesting to see what they come up with.
And “Gremlins 2” seems to have been reassessed in the years following its release. It seems to be a familiar narrative with you.
I think a lot of us, and I’m talking about guys in the eighties whose movies didn’t make that crucial first weekend (which is when they decide to keep promoting the movie or not), were saved by the advent of home video. Because people who didn’t give those pictures the time of day when they were new, suddenly discovered them on home video. And movies like “Innerspace” or even “Explorers” were not movies that made any money, but they suddenly became popular because people started watching them on home video. There are a couple of pictures that they ended up making sequels to based entirely on the home video reception as opposed to the theatrical reception. Look how many “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies there have been.
“The ‘Burbs” is another one of those movies.
Yeah, “The ‘Burbs” has really become a cult film. And it was not an unpopular movie when it came out, but it was “critically derided,” I think is the phrase, and not taken very seriously. But then this fan base started to appear and now there are websites and chat rooms and there’s a new DVD that’s coming out from Arrow in England is a brand new transfer, it’s got the rough cut on it, it’s got missing scenes, which is amazing. And it’s not something that we ever thought would see the light of day when we were working on it.
You were talking about being attached to “The Mummy” and you were once heavily in pre-production of “Halloween III…”
Well I left “Halloween III” to do “The Twilight Zone: The Movie.” That was really a case of I had a better offer. But “The Phantom” was one that I worked on for quite a while and went to Australia a few times and we had built sets and then they canceled the movie. Then they decided to make it a year later and used the same script but they didn’t realize that it was a spoof. They played it all straight. It didn’t quite work.
… But is there a script sitting around that you haven’t made that you’re just dying to finally do?
I’m still trying to get my Roger Corman-making-“The Trip” movie funded. We came this close to getting it made a couple of years ago and then it fell through. But it’s still something that I’d like to do, especially while Roger is still here. You can’t survive in this business unless you have four or five scripts ready to go because you have to juggle projects and you have to constantly be trying to find financing and you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket. You can’t say, “Well, if ‘Burying the Ex’ doesn’t get made, I’m never going to make another movie.” You just can’t do that. You work on something and you think it’s never going to happen and five or six years later it might happen.
Does your biography of the Warner Bros animators, “Termite Terrace,” still have a chance of getting made?
No. Unfortunately not. I learned a hard lesson: never base your script on characters that you don’t own. And Warner Bros has no interest in making a historical movie about “Looney Tunes.”
What if “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” had…
… Been more successful? No I don’t think so. That paradigm of that kind of movie is what they want to do. And I understand that. Instead of making “Termite Terrace,” they made “Space Jam.” That’s a pretty bald indication of what they wanted to do, instead of something quite different.
What’s the biggest change in filmmaking, besides the financing, since when you were making movies in the eighties and now?
We’re not even shooting on film anymore, nor are we projecting on film anymore. That’s a pretty big change. It’s a completely different world. There was no Internet in the eighties, really, to speak of, and there weren’t 160 channels. In fact, in “Gremlins 2” we make fun of a lot of things that eventually happened. I mean the idea of an archery channel, we thought was really funny, in 1990. Now there must be 5 archery channels by now.
How do you feel about the switchover to digital? Including the transition from practical effects to digital effects?
I saw the new “Sin City” yesterday and it’s essentially an animated cartoon. There are people’s faces in it but almost everything in the movie is completely generated without actually doing it. Nothing is real in the movie. And I think that’s an extreme case but if you look at all the superhero movies we’re watching with big climaxes… The studios are digging themselves into a hole. They’ve got a whole generation of people who are coming up and they think that this is normal. They think that having eight endings, where each one tops the other and having the lead characters hanging from a helicopter is normal. And if they see a movie that doesn’t have all of that stuff, they’re disappointed. So what does that mean? How many “Transformers” movies can you make before you’ve transformed yourself out of making movies altogether?
If somebody offered you one of these $200 million spectaculars to you, would you be interested in doing one?
I mean I know I could do it because I have the special effects background. But it’s got to be something that’s interesting to me. These movies don’t hold much interest to me, besides the first “Iron Man” and, now, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” because they’re completely different comic book-y takes on that stuff, movies are all the same. I can’t believe that every time I turn around they’re making another Superman. And an origin story, no less!