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By James Whittington, Thursday 18th June 2015
Joe Dante has been behind some of the most memorable and entertaining movies and television shows of the last 40 years. From Piranha to TV revival of Hawaii Five-0, Joe has produced a body of work that is as inventive and eclectic as it is entertaining. His latest movie, Burying The Ex is packed with references to past horror movies, old fashioned romance and a devilish sense of humour and is available to download and view-on-demand from June 19th.
Here, Joe chats about working with the legendary Roger Corman, how Burying The Ex came about and his thoughts on remakes and reboots.
HC: How did you get your big break into the movie industry?
JD: My first big break was that friends of mine went to California to work for Roger Corman, and Roger had used up all the students in Southern California schools and started importing them from the East Coast and through a complicated chain involving Martin Scorsese and Johnathan Kaplan and Jon Davison I ended up being one of the people who was asked to come out and cut trailers and after only a year and a half I ended up directing a movie which is the kind of the way it used to work there.
HC: And those days are gone now.
JD: Those days are long gone I’m afraid.
HC: What was it like working with Roger Corman?
JD: It was fabulous, we really didn’t know it at the time of course because we were under paid and over worked but it was a Film School and you learned by doing.
HC: What sort of things did you learn from Roger that you still use today?
JD: How to make decisions quickly and how to shoot in the most economical manner possible and to get as much work done during the day as you can that is quality work.
HC: You made a huge impact with superb movies like Piranha and The Howling, what impact did the success of these movies have on your career?
JD: Oh it was quite different, all of a sudden I was making B-movies with A budgets instead of making B-movies with B budgets and I just happened to be lucky that the industry was going in a direction where people of my age were growing up and starting to run companies and the kind of movies that we all liked when we were kids suddenly became mainstream movies. A picture like Raiders Of The Lost Ark which is based on serials that Spielberg and Lucas liked when they were kids and you got Jaws which was essentially Creature From The Black Lagoon, and Star Wars which of course was Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers and all these things became such hits that the lowly genre movie suddenly became the mainstream.
HC: It must have been an amazing time bringing that sort of creativity, that sort of entertainment to the masses?
JD: Yeah, although when you’re in the midst of these things you don’t really notice things happening, you just go with the flow and then when you look back and see the trajectory and realise the kind of movies that were basically spat on by the general industry in my day suddenly became the backbone of the industry. Who’d have ever imagined that Westerns would disappear and be replaced by Horror. That was unthinkable when I was younger.
HC: How did the project for Burying The Ex come about?
JD: The writer Alan Trezza had written it a number of years ago and made a short film version of it which he liked and then expanded into a regular structure and I think this was in like 2008, long before all the other zombie movies were hitting the screens and we tried over the years to get it made. Sometimes we came close, sometimes we didn’t and basically I think the success of The Walking Dead and World War Z managed to convince some investors to come in with not a lot of money and we managed to make the picture very quickly and very cheaply, very much like a Roger Corman movie.
HC: It doesn’t look cheap!
JD: Well that’s good to hear because it really is a cheap movie! (laughs)
HC: You’ve got a superb ensemble for it.
JD: Yeah, we really do, we really lucked out. The charm for me in the movie is the cast I think they are just so much fun to watch and so attractive and it was a pleasure making the movie even though it was hard work.
HC: There’s an obvious chemistry between the whole cast, what was the atmosphere like on set?
JD: Well, you know when you make a movie like this it’s kind of like a guerrilla war. You have only have so many hours to make in the day and make sure everybody is on the same page and you need to do things often enough to get them right. You sometimes have to take a little more time in one place and rob a little time from another. There was such a feeling of camaraderie and everybody entered into the spirit of it that it looks like they’re having fun when you watch the movie and they really were.
HC: Dick Miller appears in Burying The Ex as he does in many of your movies, is he a sort of good luck charm?
JD: Well he is for me as he was in my first movie because I had seen him in so many Roger Corman movies, I liked him and we got along great and so he became a talisman for me. I would get a script and the first thing I would do is read to see if I wanted to do it and second was to see if there was a part for Dick in it! (laughs)
HC: How difficult is it when directing a horror comedy to get the balance right?
JD: Well over the years I found my feelings that horror and comedy are very similar, one can become the other very quickly and if you’re not careful you have people laughing in the wrong place. Because, let’s face it, horror movies are basically absurd and you have to do a lot of suspending of disbelief in order to be able to take them seriously and so I think you can make fun of the clichés and you can make fun of the tropes but I don’t think, when push comes to shove you have to actually treat it very seriously and I find that it often makes the comedy aspect stick out a little more. There are different ways of doing it like the Shaun Of The Dead approach which is basically a comedy but all of the horror stuff is pretty gory and then there’s the Abbott And Costello Meets Frankenstein approach which is of comedians doing funny things but then you have monsters that are played straight and I think that approach is probably something closer to what I enjoy.
HC: If you had been around at the time would you liked to have done and Abbott and Costello movie?
JD: Oh, absolutely! I grew up with Abbott and Costello , I was a Jersey kid and they were Jersey comedians, East Coast comedians and very popular when I was a kid and of course when they broke up I was devastated and then Martin and Lewis broke up and I was even more devastated! (laughs)
HC: Talking of old films you always manage to get film references in your movies, do you enjoy doing that?
JD: Well it’s just a way of sort of paying back you know, these are the reasons that I am making movies. There’s a lack of film literacy today, most people don’t know too much about older movies so the Max character in this movie is pretty retro, he’s got a memorabilia shop and seems to specialise in older movies which is part of just trying to get people back into the idea of examining older pictures which are in short supply, they are not part of people’s lives anymore. That’s what’s I created my website Trailers From Hell which is filmmakers talking about trailers for movies that made them want to make movies. It’s to try to get people to try and bring these those things back into the dialogue.
HC: I was dragged along to see the recent remake of Poltergeist, are you tired of such things?
JD: I was at the movies yesterday watching trailers and they were all franchise movies that were sequels to other movies or remakes and I think it’s a general lack of imagination, it’s playing it safe. They think they’re playing it safe but in fact more often than not these reboots and remakes don’t work because either these movies are too obscure to the audience or the audience doesn’t want to see another version of it or they’re just not good.
HC: But that’s why your films such as The Howling and Gremlins are so good as they are of their time.
JD: Well they are, they had elements of previous movies that lead up to them but I tried to put them in to a context so you’d sort of say “OK, this is where we’ve been and here’s maybe where we’re going”.
HC: Do you get tired about people asking if movies from your back catalogue are being remade?
JD: Oh yeah I get tired, you know the Gremlins reboot or remake or whatever it is has been rooted about for the past 20 years and every so often there’s an announcement that it’s going to get made, somebody’s going to get hired and then it doesn’t work and they don’t make it.
HC: I don’t understand why they would, Gremlins is such a great movie why don’t they look for something fresh?
JD: Well because I think because it’s a major title, it’s still popular after all these years even more so than many movies that were more acclaimed at the time and so I think there’s a feeling that this is company asset and we need to exploit it.
HC: Are you surprised about how many of your movies and TV work is so well loved, especially such pieces as your Police Squad episodes?
JD: Yeah, Police Squad was really a lot of fun. I thought it was much better as a TV show than it was as a movie. There were so many more aspects to make fun of as a TV show.
HC: I think the episode length is perfect for them.
JD: Oh yeah and also its got all the gimmicks like the freeze frame and the end credits and all that stuff that’s not in the theatrical version.
HC: You’re a director, producer, writer do you have a favourite role?
JD: I started as an editor. As much fun as it is to make a movie and being on the set and sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s hard. I find the discovery of where and what movie you’ve actually made happens in the editing room and that can be very exhilarating. Unfortunately if you’re not working with sympathetic producers it can be very depressing. There are a lot of things that can be done to a movie in the editing room.
HC: So what plans do you have at the moment?
JD: I have more projects that I’m trying to get funded and a lot of the funding is coming from Europe so I end up going to Europe quite a lot and now I have an Italian passport so I can work as a European. My guess is that probably whatever it is I do next will probably be done in Europe.
HC: Joe Dante, thank you very much.
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