The so-called “Roger Corman Film School” has produced a number of distinguished graduates over the years, with an alumni list rivaling any of your more officially recognized filmmaker training grounds. It’s where James Cameron got his start. Ditto for Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese. And before Joe Dante went on to deliver his own string of beloved classics, the director first cut his teeth cutting trailers for Corman’s New World Pictures.
Dante would later get a chance to go behind the camera directing Hollywood Boulevard (famously shot for under $60,000 in 10 days) for the B-movie magnate, followed by the Jaws rip-off Piranha. From there, the director went from spoofing Spielberg to working with him, developing a singular style that mixed his B-movie influences with family blockbusters, crossing creature features with comedies, along with a healthy dose of satire and his trademark subversive sense of humor. If there’s one distinguishing feature of Dante’s movies—from Gremlins to Small Soldiers—it’s that they have personality, a trait all too rare in Hollywood these days, when it seems like there are more movies coming out that are based on apps than on original ideas.
In recent years, Dante has seen his career come full circle by launching Trailers From Hell, a web series in which the filmmaker and his famous friends talk up their favorite underappreciated classics. And this week, Dante will be honored for his own cinematic contributions at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival, receiving the fest’s inaugural Sierra Spirit Award, followed by a special screening of his 1987 sci-fi/comedy classic Innerspace.
With the festival running May 25-29, Paste had a chance to speak with Dante about his career, how much Hollywood has changed since the ’70s and ’80s, and the state of his long-awaited Roger Corman biopic, an ode to the man who helped him and so many others get their start.
Paste Magazine: Is it surreal for you to be talking about Innerspace some 30 years later? Did you ever expect that when it first came out?
Joe Dante: It is odd. Because you know, in 1987, they weren’t talking about Innerspace. [Laughs] Because it came out and didn’t make any money. The trajectory of the fame of that movie, and a lot of movies made by directors in the ’80s, were that even when they weren’t successful theatrically, they were big hits on home video. And cassettes being passed from one household to another eventually led to some of these movies that were pretty much considered flops becoming very beloved. And in the minds of many people today, they assume that they were big hits theatrically because they’re so well known today.
Paste: Why do you think that is? Because genre movies and comedies historically don’t tend to get the same respect as the so-called prestige pictures, but they’re the ones that end up having that second life and really sticking with us.
Dante: The problem is, try to ask somebody what won the Academy Award last year. Who was the Best Supporting Actor? What movie won for Best Screenplay? Nobody remembers. I mean, when you look back at the list, the whole Academy list of things that did win—and there are, of course, many worthy movies on there—but they may or may not be the most popular movies. The most popular movies are the movies that people watch over and over or turn their kids onto, or turn their friends onto, and those are the movies that have a shelf life—much more so than some of the movies that were of the moment when they came out, but that moment has passed. And I’m a firm believer that you really don’t know the worth of a movie until at least a couple of years have gone by.
There’s a movie called Idiocracy that Mike Judge made a couple of years ago, which came out to no particular notice, because the studio hated it and they buried it, but it has come true. It’s a predictive comedy about how awful the future’s going to be, and so many aspects of this movie have actually taken place, and are actually happening as we speak, that it’s almost not funny. [Laughs] But I guarantee you that movie is gonna be better remembered than a lot of other movies that were very famous that year . And I did a picture called The Second Civil War for HBO, which was a political satire made in 1997, and every time I see it [again], it’s more and more comical and more and more prescient. And more things from the movie that were presented as “Oh, this is absurd, this could never happen” have now happened.
Paste: Do you think that it’s harder to get a movie like that made nowadays than when you were making something like The Second Civil War, or Innerspace?
Dante: Well, Innerspace, it’s an Amblin picture, which means it’s a Spielberg movie, which puts it in a higher rung of movies. It’s not a B picture, it’s an A picture. But those kind of movies were sort of a trend in the ’80s, they were making family-oriented comedy/special-effects movies. That’s kind of gone by the wayside because, with the rise of CGI and the ability to show people flying around and doing things that were very difficult to present years ago, the movies have become a spectacle business. It’s all about how many cities can you destroy, how many planets can you blow up?
Paste: It seems like there’s become this split, where you’ve either got a $100-million-dollar movie or a microbudget movie, and that middle-range that people like you were working in has all but disappeared.
Dante: That’s pretty much true. The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made … [Laughs] But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.
Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie [All the Way], which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.
You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s just no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get up on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.
Paste: You also lose that communal experience of watching a movie in a theater with other people, with the move toward streaming and VOD…
Dante: Which is incredibly important when it comes to comedies. I mean, my last picture [Burying the Ex] was a comedy and it only played 10 theaters for one week and then it went right to VOD, where it sits, not making any money. But the thing about comedies is they need an audience. And it’s true to a degree of horror films, as well. You want to be in a theater and see a picture with an audience and get that collective audience reaction. Comedies are just not as funny when you’re staring into your computer by yourself. I’m sorry, even if they’re brilliant, they’re just not that funny.
The Marx Brothers used to take their material on the road, and see where the laughs were, and then when they shot them, they would leave spaces for where they knew there were huge laughs. Now, if you watch those movies today on a computer, there’s just a big empty space, because that’s where the laughs go that aren’t there. And it’s frustrating, particularly for people who make comedies, because you just can’t get that kind of audience reaction unless you’re in a theater.
Paste: Do you consider yourself a comedy director? Because that’s one of the things that I love about your movies, the way they cross genres, or introduce comedy into horror or sci-fi stories. Why is that more interesting to you than just making a straight-up genre movie?
Dante: I’m a James Whale student. His Universal Horror pictures were on TV when I was a kid. And a movie like The Invisible Man, the Invisible Man is throwing ink at people and being crazy and silly at one point, and then beating them to death with a stool in another moment. And it’s a dichotomy—because horror movies are essentially absurd anyway. The audience is always looking for something to laugh at, and if you give it to them, then they relax and then you can really scare them. But I always liked genres that cross. I like complicated movies. I like not being able to pigeonhole a movie. I remember the first day of dailies on The Howling, the head of the studio said, “Is this supposed to be a horror movie or a comedy?” Which made me feel good, because that was pretty much what I was going for. [Laughs]
Paste: It’s also something that I think, when you’re watching a movie like Gremlins or The Howling or Innerspace, allows you to instantly tell that it’s a “Joe Dante movie.” Were you actively trying to develop your own signature style in that way?
Dante: It’s really not because I was going for a style. It’s just that I never made a movie that I wouldn’t go see. I feel that if I can’t invest myself in the material, then I shouldn’t be doing it. So it’s not so much a style as a personality. A lot of my favorite filmmakers, I can turn on the TV and I can watch two minutes and I know exactly who made the movie. I can tell if it’s a Howard Hawks movie, I can tell if it’s a Hitchcock movie. There’s something about the way that the story is presented and the way the characters are, and that’s what you strive for. You strive for people to be able to say, “That’s a movie that’s got a personality.” And the difficulty when you work for studios is that they do try to homogenize that personality, because they don’t like sharp edges. They want everybody to like everything. And of course, that’s not possible. You can’t make something that everybody will like. You just have to go for what you think is right and what you believe in, and that’s what I’ve been lucky enough to do, for the most part, for most of the movies I’ve done.
Paste: Do you think it’s harder to get away with having that edge when you’re making a studio movie these days?
Dante: I think these days it’s harder to get away with much of anything. The movies cost so much money to make and they cost so much money to market that to do quirky stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m sure there must’ve been a lot of people scratching their heads and saying, “Well, I don’t know … Is this too silly or what?” I mean, you hire the filmmaker and you should let him make his movie, or else you shouldn’t have hired him, you know? I remember when George Miller and I were starting out at Warner Bros., and he was making his first studio picture, The Witches of Eastwick, and they were just constantly second-guessing him, all the time! And I couldn’t figure it out. It’s like, this guy’s a great filmmaker, and you hired him to make the movie, why don’t you just let him make the movie? And he had such an unpleasant experience that he left the American film business and went back to Australia, where he has done very well, and is one of our best filmmakers. But I don’t blame him. It’s hard enough to make a movie when you’re all on the same page. But when you suddenly discover in the middle of the movie that now they’ve decided that it shouldn’t be what they thought it was about, it should be about this … that’s a recipe for disaster.
Paste: I wanted to ask you about Trailers From Hell, I know you’ve been doing it for a while now…
Dante: It’s our 10th anniversary this year.
Paste: Oh wow. I didn’t realize that.
Dante: Yeah, me neither. [Laughs]
Paste: Are you doing anything special for the anniversary?
Dante: We’re doing a site redesign, and we’re trying to figure out what else we can do to make it special. It’s obviously been a labor of love, since we don’t make any money. But all of our friends in the industry who contribute to it have found it very rewarding, because it’s an opportunity for them to say things about movies that they think other people should know about. And we’ve been successful in guiding people toward movies that they probably wouldn’t know existed if it wasn’t for us. So that was really the purpose of it. Because there’s just so many movies available to see now, more than there ever were in my lifetime, and I have enough background to know who these filmmakers are and who these actors are, but for people who are younger, who don’t have a big film background, it’s just a bunch of titles. And they need somebody to say, “Look, this is a director really worth looking at, this is an actor you really ought to know.” Because some of these people have been dead for 30 years, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still important in the world of film.
Paste: Speaking of someone younger generations should know about, I know you’ve been attached to the Roger Corman biopic, The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes, for a while now. Has there been any more movement on that?
Dante: We’ve actually turned in a new rewrite to a new company that is interested in the movie and had some ideas about the script, some thoughts that they wanted to see put into the script. And we have done that, and we’ve sent it off to them. And now we’re waiting to hear … as we have often been over the past 10 years. [Laughs] We don’t give up.
Paste: Well, I know I’m not alone in saying I’m looking forward to seeing it eventually.
Dante: Oh, me too. [Laughs]