The Review/ Feature/Interview/
Dante Speaks (Part One): A Conversation with Gremlins Guru Joe Dante
The director and die-hard cinephile on the bait-and-switch ad campaign for Gremlins, convincing Roger Corman not to use the title Hollywood Hookers, and "the worst poster in history"
It’s telling that, when it came time for Joe Dante to make a sequel to his megahit Gremlins, he chose as his villain a billionaire mogul who wants to colourize black-and-white movies. A cinephile through and through, Dante has likened seeing a movie in a cinema to “going to church,” and his own films are packed with loving allusions to the films and filmmakers he adores. In regards to his own, four-decade career as a director — which has comprised everything from $80 million studio tentpoles to crowdfunded indies to made-for-TV movies — he is refreshingly unpretentious: he has a penchant for calling films “pictures” that harkens back to an earlier era of studio craftsmen who were perfectly forthright about the commercial nature of moviemaking.
In the course of this two-part career interview, Dante generously revisited the posters, trailers, and other promotional ephemera generated by his movies, and was candid about both his hits and his flops. Many of his films were commercial failures that have taken years to find an audience; others have yet to. But Dante’s enough of a cineaste to know that the true test of a movie is how it holds up over time, not its initial box-office receipts — though for many of his films, he clearly would’ve appreciated a little more help from the people tasked with promoting them. This never comes across as sour grapes, nor does Dante seem particularly concerned about lost revenue (other than how it might’ve helped get his next film financed). What does matter to him is that a movie — anyone’s movie — be given a fair shake at finding an audience.
Dante’s love of film began early. As a child he was a regular attendee of Saturday matinees, which he considered the highlight of his week. Later, the fanzine Famous Monsters of Filmland helped him realize there were other kids — and, perhaps more importantly, grown-ups — out there who also cared deeply for movies. As a teenager, he wrote a letter to Famous Monsters' editor Forrest J. Ackerman about the films he considered to be the worst of all time; Ackerman subsequently repurposed it in the magazine as a ten-page article entitled “Dante’s Inferno.” Over the next decade, Dante penned numerous articles about horror and fantasy films for magazines such as Film Bulletin and Castle of Frankenstein, where he was credited as Assistant Editor until 1974.
During this time, Dante was attending the Philadelphia College of Art, where he'd planned to become a cartoonist. Ultimately, however, he found himself in film school, where he countered his classmates’ Godard buttons by making his own pinbacks honouring revered schlockmeister (and his future employer) Roger Corman. While in Philadelphia, Dante and fellow film collector Jon Davison created The Movie Orgy, a mash-up of old serials, commercials, and B movies that had a runtime anywhere from four to seven hours. Thanks to a sponsorship from Schiltz beer, Davison and Dante were able to present their copyright-flouting performance for free around the US for a number of years.
In 1972, Davison hooked up with Corman’s New World Pictures, a highly profitable independent production company devoted to low-cost/high-return exploitation fare. New World would later receive the unofficial nickname of “the Corman Film School” thanks to the many future Hollywood A-listers who started off at the company, including Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Gale Anne Hurd, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Ron Howard, and James Cameron.
Dante joined Davison at New World soon after. Beginning as a freelance trailer editor, he and another young editor named Allan Arkush soon effectively became the company’s trailer department. “The trailers were important of course, but the TV spots were much more important,” Dante says of his years in the editing room. “Because many more people saw the TV spots than ever saw the trailers, the emphasis at New World was trying to get the zingiest TV spots imaginable.”
A good trailer can absolutely convince you to see a bad film, and New World had its share of both. “Since they didn't have a lot of prints they would open [the films] regionally, and they would saturate the airwaves on whatever weekend it was going to open and a weekend before with a non-stop barrage of 30-second spots. [The aim] was basically to get people in and out of the theatre before they found out whether the movie was any good or not. We had some real bupke movies that did quite well because of the saturation advertisement.”
In addition to their exploitation fare, New World also put out a surprising number of arthouse films by the likes of Bergman, Truffaut, Kurosawa, and Fellini. “The reason that Roger got those pictures was because the main distributors of foreign films — United Artists, for instance — weren't getting much bang for their buck with the Truffaut pictures and the Fellini pictures, so there wasn't a lot of call for them,” says Dante. “[So] Roger went to [Bergman] and said, if you let us distribute Cries and Whispers we will get it to audiences that have never seen an Ingmar Bergman movie. And of course the movies had to be dubbed — they weren’t gonna play most of their markets with subtitles — and Roger got them into the drive-ins. Cries and Whispers was extremely successful, and soon we were distributing Truffaut.”
“A lot of movies that would not have gotten much distribution in America managed to find an audience through New World Pictures, and Roger was now in a position where [it was] ‘Roger Corman Presents Fellini’s Amarcord.’ Which was pretty prestigious, considering that the picture in the can next to it on the rack was Women in Cages.”
After their stint cutting trailers, Dante and Arkush graduated to directing, under the humblest of circumstances. “The only reason we were allowed to make [a film] was because of a bet Jon Davison made with Roger Corman that he could make the cheapest picture that had been made at New World up to that time,” says Dante. Produced for just $60,000 (which was bargain-basement even by New World standards), Hollywood Boulevard was a standard-issue piece of New World softcore trash. “It was an offshoot of the nurses and teachers pictures that Roger was doing, essentially the same formula: three girls get into trouble, take their clothes off, and have vaguely left-wing adventures.”
Where Corman had made his name in the ’50s and ’60s with cheesy monster movies and the slightly more respectable Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price, New World made its bones with biker pictures and softcore sex movies such as the successful “Nurses cycle” launched by Stephanie Rothman’s surprisingly feminist The Student Nurses in 1970. For Rothman and the many young, counterculture-era directors getting their start at New World — including George Armitage (Miami Blues) and Jonathan Kaplan (Over the Edge) — the nurse films and their ilk offered a welcome opportunity to lace in left-wing, anti-establishment political views, as long as they made sure to include enough nudity and violence to satisfy the drive-in market.
It was this proven formula that Dante and Arkush strategically pitched to Corman, along with a kicker that was sure to warm their boss’ notoriously thrifty heart. “The hook was that we were going to write the script around footage from the trailers that we had been making, from the movies that we had been promoting. So we needed to be able to find places for jungle-warfare movies, for science-fiction movies, for Bonnie and Clyde rip-off movies — and the only way we could take all these disparate backgrounds and put them in the same movie was by making a movie about a movie company that was making these kinds of movies. Whenever there was an action scene it would be pre-shot from another picture, and we would dress our actors up the way the actors were in the original films, and we would pass it off as a piece of our film. [So we would] have girls with machine guns shooting in Griffith Park, and then we cut to Filipinos falling out of trees three years earlier.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dante and Arkush had as little say in the promotional campaign for their mutual debut as any of Corman’s other directors. “Our input was pretty much expended on trying to get him to not call it Hollywood Hookers,” Dante recalls. “As you can see from [the poster above], we were selling sex and violence. It was a drive-in movie — it wasn’t a particularly successful drive-in movie — but it did have a good poster!”
“One thing I had never seen was this German poster [above], which takes the more fleeting images in the film — like the Godzilla suit, [or] Robby the Robot, who we rented for one day — and sticks them on the poster. It’s terrific!” (This poster is also notable for being the only such item that this author has encountered that accords a place of rightful prominence to character actor/national treasure Dick Miller. “He certainly is the centre of the poster!” laughs Dante. “I think you're right. I can't think of another movie that he was in that had this much, this kind of artwork. There's a snake around him!”)
Following Hollywood Boulevard Dante and Arkush returned to their regular editing gigs, but within a few years each would direct one of New World’s best movies: Arkush transformed a script originally called Disco High into the immortal Rock 'n' Roll High School, while Dante winkingly harked back to his boss’ ’50s creature features.
Following the release of Jaws in 1975, several studios raced to capitalize on the Steven Spielberg film’s blockbuster success, producing such patently obvious imitations as Orca, Grizzly, Mako: The Jaws of Death, and Tentacles. While New World missed the boat on the first batch of killer-animal flicks that swam up behind Spielberg’s behemoth, three summers after Jaws — and just as Universal Studios was on the verge of releasing Jaws 2 — Corman and Dante set loose Piranha in drive-ins across America.
Unlike his opportunistic colleagues who were trying to hitch a ride on Spielberg’s Great White, Corman had reason to feel righteously aggrieved. With films like Jaws, he felt that the big studios were swimming in his exploitation-film waters, so he figured it was only fair that he take a nibble out of their profits. “The movie itself begins with a Jaws video game just to remind everybody, ‘Yes, we know what we're doing, we know that this is a Jaws rip-off, so just relax’,” says Dante.
But thanks to Dante and the tongue-in-cheek screenplay by a struggling young novelist named John Sayles, Piranha became something much more. Neither a straight-up Jaws clone nor a full-blown parody, Piranha is an earnest yet cheekily self-aware horror movie that Dante evidently still feels proud of 40 years later: “It did remarkably well, and it has a lot of fans, even today,” he comments. Amongst those fans is director Edgar Wright, who perfectly summed up Piranha’s virtues for Entertainment Weekly: “It’s a Looney Tunes horror film. It has non sequiturs and gags that shouldn’t belong in your normal gory B-movie.”
Piranha was co-financed by New World and United Artists, with New World keeping the domestic rights while UA handled the international release. Each distributor created their own campaign for the film. In a strong contrast with their blood-and-thunder radio and TV spots, New World’s print advertising used the more irreverent, Jaws-spoofing illustration by John Solie (above), while UA sold it as a straightforward shocker with the international release poster by Bob Larkin (below).
“United Artists' campaign was much more muscular than Roger's campaign,” Dante declares after viewing the two posters side by side. “The European Piranha poster is a classic poster even though it's a complete fake: the piranhas are not that big.”
“I think [the Larkin poster] takes a cue from a picture that Roger made years earlier called The Wasp Woman. In that movie the woman had a wasp head, but on the poster [above] it's a giant wasp body with a female head. Which is again completely not what the movie was, but it makes for a great poster. In fact, it's sitting on my wall: I'm staring at it right now.”
As the ’80s dawned, Dante was lured to greener pastures by former New World colleague Mike Finnell. Finnell was now working at AVCO Embassy Pictures, which had released a string of successful horror films like The Fog and Phantasm and was currently prepping an adaptation of Gary Brandner’s 1977 werewolf novel The Howling.
When the original director left the project, Finnell (who had been an assistant on Hollywood Boulevard) suggested Dante take over. Bringing along Sayles to spruce up the script, Dante once again crafted a self-conscious yet unpretentious horror film that managed to work in several winks to film history. In addition to a photo of Lon Chaney, Jr. (star of The Wolf Man) that graces the wall of an office, no less than ten characters are named after directors of previous werewolf films — and, unlike most films up to this time, these characters live in a universe where they’ve seen those movies.
Unlike New World’s Piranha promos, Dante’s self-aware shadings are nowhere to be found in the US advertising for The Howling (see above), which also doesn’t mention that there are any werewolves in this werewolf picture. According to Dante, this ambiguity around the identity of the film’s monster was entirely by design. "We were trying to stay away from the werewolf angle. At the time slasher movies were quite big, and werewolf movies were considered kind of old hat, so there was a conscious decision to not sell it as a werewolf picture. And in fact, when you see the movie, it looks like a slasher movie for the first half hour. The supernatural elements are brought in somewhat later.”
“What was interesting in this case was that the original idea for the poster from Embassy Pictures was a naked woman who is half wolf and half woman, and the executive producer, Dan Blatt, threw a fit and said ‘This is not the kind of movie that we made, and this is not the kind of movie we want to sell.’ They went back to the drawing board and came up with this much more effective poster.” (Blatt’s opinion was evidently not shared by the film’s German distributor Constantin Films, as can be seen below.)
“In the European ads they thought it was much more important to have a monster face on the poster, and so they used the same design but they replaced the screaming woman with a wolf's mouth.”
“The French poster is obviously a monster movie; the Italian poster is a fairly shitty poster that's been cobbled together from images from other posters for other movies; and the Japanese poster gives the game away pretty well: there's a werewolf!”
Unbeknownst to Dante, Steven Spielberg had been keeping an eye on his work. The Jaws director had liked Piranha and dissuaded Universal from pursuing an injunction against its release; later, he cast actress Dee Wallace in his E.T. after seeing her in The Howling, and then invited Dante to direct one of the segments for his anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie. But the true turning point came when Spielberg offered Dante the director’s chair for the first feature to be made under the banner of his newly founded production company Amblin Entertainment — a film that would turn out to be a truly monster hit.
The triumph of the Spielberg-Dante partnership, Gremlins was a witty collision of Capra and Corman that remains Dante’s most successful film. What executive producer Spielberg had originally envisioned as a low-budget horror movie became a marketing phenomenon when Warner Bros. executives cottoned to the exploitability of the film’s non-human star, the furry “mogwai” Gizmo.
“[When] they saw the dailies and saw Gizmo come out of the box, that's when they suddenly said ‘ka-ching!’ in their heads,” says Dante. “They ramped up their efforts in an amazing fashion to get all these toys out, which were not really planned before we started shooting.” Throughout 1984, Gremlins was everywhere: audiences were primed for the film with Gremlins toys, Gremlins cereals, even Gremlins-branded toilet paper.
Since so much of the Gremlins merchandise relied on foregrounding the cuteness of the film’s furry star, it’s remarkable that the poster by artist John Alvin (see above) is so reticent in that respect. Nevertheless, it was still very much in line with the studio’s strategy to sell tickets and toys by downplaying the film’s more violent aspects. “If you compare it to the poster for E.T. — which has the same colours, and the same basic kind of design — it was obvious that they were trying to sell this movie as an E.T.-like movie from Steven Spielberg,” says Dante. “That's one of the reasons you've got a fuzzy critter and not a monster claw. It worked. Even though there are a lot of parents who were annoyed that the picture turned into a monster movie.” (The backlash about the carnage perpetrated by the title critters helped inspire the MPAA’s creation of the new “PG-13” rating, which was rolled out a month after Gremlins’ debut.)
Warner Bros.’ defanging of Dante’s movie extended to the original teaser for the film: an entirely Gremlin-free promo that does not use a single frame of the finished film, and which sets a tone more magical than murderous. “It was shot entirely separately,” recalls Dante. “[It] doesn’t really tell you what a gremlin is. It just tries to make it look mysterious.”
“It completely didn't work with the audience we ran it for. I was there when they did a preview with that teaser, and it was spectacularly unsuccessful. It was pulled immediately. I don't think it was ever distributed.” (Dante was amazed that the teaser has reappeared on YouTube: “I never thought I would ever see this thing again.”)
The studio’s replacement trailer was far less otherworldly, but still concealed the movie’s malevolence.
Of course, none of this coyness mattered once the film was actually released. “Once it became a success, everybody knew what it was about. Everybody knew that there were green monsters, so there was no point hiding them any more.”
From June to December 1984, Warner Bros. rolled out a succession of themed print ads by artist Greg Winters (who had also worked on many Gremlins merchandising efforts) to promote the film’s prolonged theatrical run. “The picture made more money the second week than it did the first week, and they suddenly realized that they had something that they could keep playing all summer. So every time there was a holiday or something, they came up with another approach to the newspaper ads."
Winters continued the cheeky approach of the print ads in the poster he created for the film’s victory-lap re-release the following summer, which features the film’s main gremlin (“Stripe”) defacing Alvin’s original poster for the film — anticipating the full-scale irreverence of Dante’s belated sequel to his blockbuster five years later.
With rare exceptions, Alvin's artwork (or Winters’ variation on it) was used for Gremlins’ subsequent international releases. As is often the case, one of those rare exceptions came from Poland — though Dante, who is well-versed in the gonzo tradition of Polish poster art, opines that artist Jan Młodożeniec’s take on Gremlins is “not one of the best ones. Innerspace is better, actually.”
Gremlins raked in $100 million at the box office faster than any movie in Warner Bros. history (including Superman and The Exorcist), and the studio wanted a sequel right away. While Spielberg and the studio explored concepts such as Gremlins Go to Las Vegas and a treatment by Monty Python's Terry Jones titled Gremlins: The Forgotten Rule, Dante moved on. Gremlins had been a difficult production for the director, and as far as he was concerned he was done with the little green monsters for good.
Unfortunately for Dante, his next film Explorers — about a trio of sci-fi obsessed adolescent outcasts (including Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, both making their big-screen debuts) who build a working spaceship and hurtle themselves into the cosmos — became a casualty of studio politics. Beginning production under one regime at Paramount, it was rushed into cinemas in the summer of 1985 by another, despite the fact that Dante regarded it as a work-in-progress. “They didn't let me finish the movie. They basically released a rough cut,” Dante contends. “So it was a disaster financially and critically, and doesn't really represent the movie that I was trying to make. [The studio] just wanted to put it out and get it over with.”
Paramount borrowed heavily from the Gremlins playbook for the film’s release, producing a trailer comprised of entirely new footage and straining to make the film resemble one of Spielberg’s Amblin adventures as possible — beginning with a one-sheet poster (above) that looks as if E.T. might poke his head through the fence at any minute.
“The original poster was just useless,” says Dante. “When you put it up on fences for postings, it looked like tar paper. There was no way to see what this image was, and it isn't a particularly interesting image to begin with. We begged them not to do that, but they did it anyway.” The studio’s indifferent approach to Explorers is crystallized in this full-page ad published on the day of the film’s release, complete with a tagline that could literally be tacked on to any ’80s adventure.
Explorers was released in the US on the same weekend millions were glued to their TV screens watching the Live Aid concert, and those who did venture out to cinemas were flocking to a film offering genuine Spielbergian magic: the just-released Back to the Future. Paramount pulled Explorers from cinemas after two weeks, with an $8 million haul against a $25 million budget. “[That was] the best introduction to a life in the arts that anybody can have,” said star Ethan Hawke during an In Conversation With… event at TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2014. “It was an amazing experience. Joe Dante is a wildly gifted human being and a great mentor and teacher about movies, and I was completely hyped up. Then the movie was a horrible failure, which taught me everything I needed to know about the movie business.”
After the blink-and-miss-it US run, Paramount changed gears for Explorers’ international releases, ditching the Amblin aesthetic altogether. As far as Dante can figure, the thinking behind the still-not-great replacement was "Well, let's at least show them that there's an alien in it."
“We spent a lot of money on this picture, because part of the gimmick is that the aliens speak in old television phrases and stuff that they've heard. For each territory we had to rewrite all that material, and use different quotes and clips — stuff that people would understand in the various territories. So it ended up costing a lot of money just to release the movie. Even though I'd rather have spent the money on actually finishing it.”
Asked whether there is any hope of going back now to finish the film properly, Dante says flatly, “No. We tried about five, ten years ago, and there's no material. It's all gone.”
Dante’s follow-up to the all-round disappointment of Explorers didn’t fare much better, though this time the failure to launch wasn’t from a lack of support. “The studio liked the movie. It had a great preview. Everyone thought it was a wonderful, hilarious movie, and then it dropped dead,” says Dante.
A slapstick update on Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace finds hunky test pilot Dennis Quaid miniaturized and accidentally injected into a spastic Martin Short. From there, the two are caught up in an escalating series of adventures with Quaid’s estranged girlfriend (Meg Ryan), murderous rival scientists, and an arms dealer of indiscriminate origin played by Robert Picardo. Not the simplest plot to sum up in words — and it proved considerably more difficult to do so in a print ad or poster.
The director makes no secret of his dislike for the film’s US one-sheet (above), which was once again created by John Alvin. “Worst poster in history. I have never seen a worse poster. It tells you nothing,” says Dante. “I mean, if you're selling hangnail remedies or something that's fine, but you can't tell it's a comedy, you can't tell who is in it, you can't tell what that is between the fingers, and it does not represent the movie.”
(Alvin’s Innerspace poster is certainly an interesting case study. How did a poster by the same artist, commissioned by the same marketers and using the same tactics, fail where the Gremlins poster had triumphed? While I consider Alvin’s Gremlins to be the superior poster — one that inspires curiosity rather than bewilderment — one could also argue that it benefited from the tidal wave of Gremlins merchandising and supplemental marketing, which spread awareness in a way that the rather oblique poster did and could not.)
The director had similar issues with the film’s title, which he says only survived because they couldn’t think of a better one. The film’s stars concurred: “That title! It was such a funny movie about these two guys, like a Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin comedy. You had no idea it was going to be that [from the title],” Meg Ryan told the sci-fi magazine Starlog in 1988. Robert Picardo also lays the blame on the title: “Everyone [thought] Innerspace and Spaceballs were the same movie, because they opened so close together. I asked people[,] ‘Did you see Innerspace?’ ‘Oh, the Mel Brooks movie. Nah, I heard it wasn't so good’.”
To their credit, Warner Bros. stood behind the film, trying their best to help it find an audience. “They said, ‘no, we'll reissue it.’ So, the second poster is their attempt at a reissue — and I wouldn't say that it’s a particularly enticing poster either. I mean, it was very nice that they tried twice, but you know, it just it just didn't fly theatrically. A couple years later home video came down the pike, and all of a sudden the picture became very popular. Now it's considered one of my better movies, but at the time it just sort of laid an egg.”
For the home video release, Warner Bros. repurposed the German poster, which Dante says still doesn’t work, remarking that the artwork makes Meg Ryan “look like Koko the Clown.” He has similar qualms with the Spanish poster, on which “Dennis Quaid looks like Johnny Crawford or something. It doesn't look like Dennis Quaid at all.”
“The one that I encouraged them to use was the last one [the international poster]: the big goggles with Marty Short flying around, and some sort of fireworks or something. That was the best design by far, and when it went out on video I urged them not to use the [US] poster. That's the one I have up on my wall. I have no use for the finger poster.”
As for the Polish poster by Andrzej Pągowski: “It's pretty fun. It doesn't really tell you anything, but it's certainly better than the finger poster.”
Searching for a change of tack (and tone), Dante began work on the drama Little Man Tate. When he left the project, citing “casting differences” — leaving the door open for Jodie Foster, who made her directorial debut with the film two years later — a Hollywood writers’ strike was looming. Knowing that the strike could result in an ugly gap on his CV, especially after the lackluster returns of Explorers and Innerspace, Dante almost immediately signed on to another project already in pre-production — and transformed what could have been just a director-for-hire gig into one of his most beloved films.
The very thin plot of The ’Burbs — involving the shenanigans that ensue when a tightly-wound suburban husband (Tom Hanks) begins to suspect that his new neighbours are satanic murderers — offered Dante the perfect excuse to unleash his live-action Looney Tunes aesthetic, along with allusions to classic (Rear Window) and not-so-classic (The Sentinel) films and plenty of roles for the ever-growing Dante stock company (including Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson). If Gremlins is the film for which Dante will always be remembered, The ’Burbs is definitely the one with the most devoted fans. “It's got its own website, there's a trivia book, there's chatrooms that you can go to and talk about the movie — it's got a life of its own,” says Dante proudly, though still with an air of mild disbelief that such an unassuming movie should have such pop-cultural staying power. “It was roundly vilified when it came out, but it seems to have weathered quite well.”
Hanks was just coming off the smash hit Big, and Universal had no doubt about how best to sell their new Tom Hanks comedy: from the earliest teaser ads to the cover of the film’s home video release, all the promotional art for the movie features the same image of an unhinged Hanks in a mock-gunslinger pose.
“There's really very little artwork other than that,” says Dante. “Even in this Japanese poster, which is a cluttered mess (which often they are), they're still using the same poster, the same artwork.”
While the studio was rigorously consistent in their packaging of The ’Burbs, the film’s acolytes have generated a wealth of fan posters that put their own unique spin on Dante’s unwitting cult classic.
The 'Burbs is so fondly remembered that the many, many negative reviews that greeted its arrival now seem as ludicrous as the film's over-the-top gags: Vincent Canby declared that “The movie is as empty as something can be without creating a vacuum,” while The Washington Post proclaimed it “not remotely, momentarily, intermittently or otherwise funny.”
In light of this critical drubbing, and the box-office failures of Explorers and Innerspace, Dante's next move could be read as a retreat. In 1989, the director finally said yes to a job he'd been declining for years: a sequel to Gremlins. But rather than making the kind of safe, just-play-the-hits sequel everyone expected, he and his collaborators created the most delightfully silly studio blockbuster ever made.
In Part Two of this interview, in which Dante discusses the unexpected showdown between Gremlins 2 and Dick Tracy, the sadly prescient The Second Civil War, and the film of which he says “If I had it to do over, I wouldn't do it.”