The Hole (3D) - Joe Dante interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ACCLAIMED director Joe Dante talks to us about the challenge of scaring kids old-school style for his new movie The Hole 3D and how things have changed since the days of Gremlins.
He also discusses the advent of 3D, James Cameron’s Avatar, the prospects of a new Gremlins movie and why he would like to make a movie about Roger Corman next…
Q. How far is too far in scaring kids?
Joe Dante: I remember when I did Gremlins there was a lot of hoo-ha about a scene where the mother puts the Gremlin in the microwave. People said well you know what’s going to happen, children are going to see this movie and they’re going to put their poodles in the microwave, they’re going to put their baby sisters in the microwave and how will you like it when that happens? I remember thinking: “Jeez, these people are really underestimating their children.” I was a kid, I wasn’t stupid… kids are not stupid. There are maybe some who are psychotic but that’s their parents’ fault. I remember what Hitchcock said to the woman who said my daughter won’t take a shower after seeing Psycho – he said send her to the dry cleaners.
Q. Was there anything that had to be removed, that you were told was too naughty?
Joe Dante: No, not really. If you’ve seen the movie you know that it hinges on a very dark family story. There was a question how explicit we should be about this. We’re essentially making an adult story that’s suitable for kids, and the trick is to do it on a level where the adults understand the gravity of that subplot, and the kids understand that it’s a bad thing, but they don’t know exactly what happened. It’s not like they’re going to be afraid to go home and see their parents. There was some concern that exactly what has happened between the father and the sons shouldn’t be spelled out, but it is somewhat spelled out in some of the dialogue. And there’s the hint that there might have been something even worse, but that’s something for adults to take home with them and not kids.
Q. What is it about clowns that makes them so scary? Do kids still get that?
Joe Dante: Frankly, I’m not sure kids know what clowns are. There are not a lot of circuses left for various reasons. I remember when I was a kid I saw Dumbo and there were these mean clowns who did bad things to Dumbo. You hated them. I went to the circus when I was a kid and I saw clowns, and I never found them funny. I found them odd and maybe even a little disturbing. The slapstick they do is basically violent, they’re dressed up in these bizarre faces. There’s a part of me that wonders how anybody could have ever found clowns funny. In today’s world where the whole circus concept is so removed from kids I wonder if that doll is even identifiable as a clown. It was in the script and it was a Harlequin because that was the doll we found that was the easiest to manipulate. Basically we just said, it looks creepy, I wouldn’t want this in my bed.
Q: Ronald McDonald?
Joe Dante: Oh, he’s the scariest of them all.
Q: Are kids getting harder for a director to scare?
Joe Dante: Probably. My niece, who is 17, tells me that she and her friends take out videos of horror movies, they go home, put on the TV, get some popcorn, and they laugh all the way through these movies. The more gruesome the deaths the more they laugh. I understand that’s the appeal of Piranha 3D, which I haven’t seen yet, which is that it’s filled with horrible deaths that are very elaborate and everybody has a hilarious time watching it.
Q. It’s not a patch on the original…
Joe Dante: I know it’s not even the same plot, but you know it’s fine with me. Kids don’t scare that easily because death to them is sort of a joke. Almost all horror movies are basically about death or fear of death, fear of the unknown, which is fear of death. Kids always enjoy them because it’s so easy to laugh at death because they’re never going to die, they’re immortal. How many kids, unless they have some terrible illness, ever worry about dying in today’s world?
When I was a kid we did worry about it because it was the early fifties, the atomic age, and the bomb was the big scare. We were taught that whenever an airplane flew over that could be the one that has the bomb in it. We all waited for the whistle that we had seen in the war movies. There was a whole generation that grew up thinking, you know, we’re not here forever, could be tomorrow, could be any minute, the bomb goes off we’re done.
That isn’t the case today, I don’t think kids think that even though the world situation hasn’t exactly improved. But there’s an an insulation. They feel I’m a kid, I’m having my kid years, I’m going to go laugh at death. Older people you find don’t find horror movies that enticing, largely because death is a real thing, it’s closer, something you can feel palpably in the future and maybe you don’t want to spend your ten bucks to go have a movie remind you about it.
Q. Are kids well served by the movies targeted at them today or are the films getting pretty brainless?
Joe Dante: I think it’s fair to say that movies are getting pretty brainless. The feature film audience is now basically between 12 and 18, those are the ones they really target, and they don’t exactly do Shakespeare for those guys. A lot of the content movies, the adult movies that we all used to like, literary adaptations, all that kind of thing, they’ve moved to television, cable. Every so often there’s a costume film that will come out starring Colin Firth or somebody who will get some traction, but for the most part the audiences that spend the most money are the ones who basically want to see spectacle.
Spectacle doesn’t usually include character development, clever plotting, it just includes climaxes… climax after climax after climax, explosion after explosion. I find them brain deadening. After you get to the middle it’s like I don’t care what special effects you have, how good they are, I’m bored. But kids are now taught that this is what to expect when they go to the movies. They are now going to be disappointed to go to a movie that doesn’t have 27 trucks blowing up, or giant robots battling each other. Why would anybody want to see anything that doesn’t have that stuff? This movie is a kind of a riposte to that kind of thinking. It’s a little more old fashioned, a little more linear, more character driven. Is it too old fashioned? Maybe, I don’t know, but I think there’s still room for a story being told that way.
Q. You spoke about influences, living in the shadow of the bomb, but at the same time your generation of filmmakers grew up studying film.
Joe Dante: We didn’t grow up studying film seriously, we grew up studying film because it was around us. Television, old movies constantly. When we went to college and were serious about films there were a lot of interesting scholarly magazines, Sight and Sound, Films and Filming, which I used to slavishly wait for at the news-stand. They took seriously movies that weren’t taken seriously, genre movies, directors like Mario Bava, they were written about very intelligently.
But that kind of stuff didn’t really kick in until the Sixties, but meanwhile we were all gaining film knowledge, everybody knew who all these actors were in all the classic movies, The Maltese Falcon, all those kind of pictures. Now admittedly a lot of these were in black and white, we had black and white TV, so it was normal to watch black and white. Now kids won’t go near black and white. I know a little kid who is six years old. I ran him some cartoons and a Popeye cartoon came on and I said what do you think of Popeye. He said: “I like Popeye but I don’t like black and white.” Black and white is an art form. If these kids can’t appreciate that there’s an entire half of film history, the best half in my estimation, that’s out the window.
Q. You’re not averse to the odd in-joke?
Joe Dante: In jokes are great but there are less and less people who get them. The trick is to make sure it’s part of the movie and it doesn’t stick out.
Q: Has film criticism dumbed down as well?
Joe Dante: What film criticism? They’ve all been fired. First of all people now don’t want to read film criticism because they don’t want spoilers, to know what’s in a movie. It’s all about entertainment now. Even I, frankly, when I read the trade reviews I read the first paragraph, I don’t want to read the rest of it because I don’t really want to know that much about it. I may go back and look after I’ve seen the movie, but there doesn’t seem to be much point in reading an in-depth story about a movie if you haven’t seen it yet. That coupled with the fact that everybody’s being fired because people are reading papers at all and the younger people don’t want to read about the movies they just want to watch them, I don’t know what future there is for film criticism. There’s some very good film criticism on the internet, very good blogs, a lot better writing than people give them credit for, but for newspapers… who are the major critics here in London now? I probably wouldn’t recognise any of their names.
Q. What’s the appeal of shooting a movie in 3D? In the Fifties it was because TV had just started and movies were looking for a way to compete. But now?
Joe Dante: It’s not an unanalogous (sic) period. In the Fifties, they were all afraid TV was going to take over. Now they’re still afraid of a take-over, they just don’t know what by. They know business is down, less people go to the movies and they try to compensate by raising the prices. But everything is changing, the way films are being made, where they are shown, how they are delivered, what the future is, you can’t syndicate them any more, you can’t make any money after the picture has played theatrically by syndicating it to television because nobody runs it.
All those models are dying, so they figure 3D that’s a shot in the arm, (a) we get to make them pay $5 more for a ticket – that’s an absurd inflation that isn’t going to last but it’s good for them. Second, if we didn’t have the good sight to make the picture in 3D we’ll just take something off the shelf, send it to India and it will come back in 3D, then we can add $5 to the ticket price of that. The only problem is, that 3D looks like crap, it doesn’t look like 3D, it’s dark, blurry, badly shot, it’s not shot for 3D or edited for 3D. People come out they have a headache and they don’t like it. So what are they doing to say, no more 3D, 3D sucks. Just to make an extra $5?
They’re cutting the throat of a process which I think has merit and which has also improved to the point where it’s the easiest to shoot, easiest to project and watch than it’s ever been and yet even though the audiences have proven that they are interested in seeing 3D they insist on giving them substandard product and charging them for it. [It’s] just madness.
Q. Did you hand pick the kids in the movie or were they about?
Joe Dante: You always have to pick them. The thing about kids is they go in cycles. If you’re making a movie in one season there will be one crop of kids, they may be a good crop or a bad crop. A good crop are kids who are good actors and kinda natural. A bad crop are kids who just came off the Disney channel and have been taught to be cute. You cannot watch them for an entire feature film. It’s unpleasant. The trick is trying to find somebody. The studio will say give us kids with names. Well, in order to be a kid with a name you have to have done something before you were 15 that’s pretty damn good. There are no Shirley Temples any more. The chances of finding a Miley Cyrus or Hillary Duff, a Zac Efron are fairly low.
All those people if they’re famous they already have their own empires and bring the baggage of what made them famous. They’re not going to be believable as your kid next door, you’ve got to find new kids. You can get lucky, or you can settle, and very often if you settle you regret it later. In this case I was lucky enough to find three kids who were the right kids, Chris had done one picture that I hadn’t seen but came in and read with Hayley and there was a spark there… Nathan I had never met, I saw him in the Batman [The Dark Knight] movie and thought this kid is great… The movie would be 10 per cent worse if Nathan wasn’t in it because he has so much to do in it and he’s such a good actor.
Q. The 3D film you cite here [notes] is Dial M For Murder. People assume that wasn’t 3D?
Joe Dante: It wasn’t shown in 3D much because it came at the tail end but it’s one of the most interesting 3D movies I’ve ever seen because it’s not conventional 3D. There are a couple of scenes that stick out at you but for the most part it’s a film play and it’s about the spaces between the actors, emotional and physical, and the way the furniture even is set up, the shots are set up, has an emotional impact. It’s not the same movie in 2D. In 2D it’s an amusing play but in 3D it makes you feel as if you are on the stage with the actors. It’s not showy. It’s just something you get used to. For me, making this movie, I thought this is the way I want to approach it. I don’t want to be throwing stuff out into the audience every five minutes, we’ll do some of that because it will make them happy. But if you can make the audience feel that the story is wrapping around them it will be better for the movie.
Q. You said you wanted to shoot this like previous movies but you also said things had changed, in regards to SFX techniques. If you were to make another Gremlins movie would the experience be anything like it was with the first?
Joe Dante: No, because the technology is completely ancient now that I used for those films. They’re lovely but it’s not the way things are done now. In The Hole there’s a scene with the puppet where I found myself sitting on the set freezing in Vancouver saying what am I doing here with puppets again, why do I do this to myself, I hate puppets! We used techniques similar to the ones used on Gremlins but they’re different now. In Gremlins you had to hide the puppeteers behind things. In his movie you can have the puppeteers right in the frame then you digitally remove them. You can change the colour of the sky, the colour of people’s eyes, make them look the other way… it makes you want to go back to your old movies and fix everything that’s wrong.
Q. Would you do another Gremlins?
Joe Dante: I don’t think I’ll ever be asked because they need a younger guy. They’re not going to go back to an old guy to make one of those kind of movies that’s essentially reimagining a movie for a younger audience. They’re going to want a new guy, which is fine. But those movies were so defined by the limitations of the technology that the stories were actually written around the capabilities of the puppets. They can do this but they can’t do that so don’t write them doing that. Now you can do anything with CGI, have them fly around, turn into water, do whatever. It makes it difficult to focus on exactly what the point would be, what’s the idea now, why are you doing it. To make the movie well you’re going to have to say look we’re going to use this title and the concept but everything else we’re going to get rid of, all the characters, all the lore, the midnight thing, all that stuff, they’d have to come up with new things, different things that work better for whatever the story is.
Q: You must have been in meetings with studio execs and realising they were a teenager who saw Gremlins first time around?
Joe Dante: That’s a plus, if you can find a studio executive who likes you because they saw your movie when they were a kid you’re doing well. But often you’ll find the studio executive won’t understand any references you make to movies that were made before 1995.
Q: Isn’t your next film about Roger Corman?
Joe Dante: My next film? Well, I don’t know if I’m going to get the financing for it. I have a lovely script about Roger Corman shooting The Trip and taking LSD. It’s a very funny script, I’ve been trying to get financing for a number of years, and I’m still hoping to make it but you never know. It’s all about financing and right now is not exactly the premier year for getting movies financed. There are an awful lot of people who lost money making movies… people who used to invest in movies lost a lot of money in 2008, then the rest of them lost money in the movies they invested in after 2008. There really aren’t a lot of dentists left who don’t know that you’re not going to make any money by making a movie.
Q. Are you a fan of comic book movies?
Joe Dante: Yes and no, I thought Iron Man was very good, I wasn’t as crazy about the sequel, but they were still better than some of the other ones I’ve seen. Some of them just don’t work at all and they tend to be very repetitive. How many times are they going to make The Hulk?
Q. What did you think of Avatar?
Joe Dante: Avatar I thought was a very clever recycling of clichés from 100 years of movies. There are more clichés per minute in that movie than anything I’ve ever seen. But that’s not a criticism because we all juggle clichés, that’s what movies are all about. I was impressed … here’s a movie this guy has been thinking about for all these years, and he didn’t make it because the technology wasn’t there. He waited for the technology, the technology is lovely, and he creates a world that’s so attractive that some people see the movie because they want to live in it … But every character, every twist is from a western, a Polynesian movie, a space movie. You could have a great tribute game by sitting people down and having them call out the pictures that the lines and the plot parts are from.
Q. Film buffs could but studio execs presumably couldn’t?
Joe Dante: No, they probably never seen any of those movies. For them it’s all new.
Q. It’s like George Lucas putting Hells Angels dogfights in Star Wars. But in the Seventies studio execs were semi-literate, weren’t they?
Joe Dante: Has that changed? They didn’t like Star Wars… they thought it was going to be a disaster. They didn’t get it… It’s no different today. They don’t know what they’re watching. You show them a picture that isn’t completely finished and they lose their marbles. ‘What is this, it’s just a big mess!’ Try making a cartoon movie and showing it to the studio and having no cartoons in it, just cut-outs because that’s where the cartoons are going to go? ‘What’s this? It’s not going to be like that is it?’ These people are not smart.
Q. Do you have any regrets about not being more of a company man?
Joe Dante: No, I don’t have any regrets. I was lucky to be able to work in mainstream movies as long as I did because I never considered myself a mainstream director. I always thought I was a lucky B picture director and I just happened to make B movies at the time when A movies were becoming B movies. All of a sudden I’m making B movies with A budgets at big studios and that lasted for quite a while. It’s still going on. The big movies, Transformers, they’re the kind of movies that were made as serials in the forties. Listen, the trick is staying in the business, that’s the hard part.
Q. Your website, Trailers from Hell, why did it come about?
Joe Dante: It’s a site that’s got old movie trailers narrated by contemporary directors, they talk about what the movies meant to them when they saw them, maybe steer you towards a movie that you might not have seen… We’ve got everybody from John Landis to Guillermo del Toro, all these people talking about movies they like, have some interest in or want you to see. The reason it came about is purely because people today don’t know those movies, they’re not on TV, like when I was a kid, there’s nowhere to go to find out about them, soon you won’t be able to even go to the video store and read the box because there won’t be any video stores. How are they going to know what existed because there’s no one walking around telling them to watch The Magnificent Ambersons, it’s not on people’s minds…
It’s an attempt to try to keep the past alive because the studios have this huge backlog of movies they try to sell but they can only sell them to people who have seen them because no-one else knows what they are. I told a home video exec at a studio once that if they were smart they would put out all their b&w movies in the next ten years because the audience for them is going to be gone. Kids today they don’t know who Humphrey Bogart was, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, they just never heard of these people because they’ve never had any reason to. And because the period is so remote to them.
It’s like when I was growing up silent movies were to me. Very far away, another world. These movies take place on another planet for today’s kids. They can’t relate to anything. Occasionally they’ll relate to how much people smoke … We feel like we’re doing a mini film school.
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