Dante Speaks (Part Two): A Conversation with Gremlins Guru Joe Dante
A new batch of remembrances from the dauntless Dante, including how he got away with making Gremlins 2, how a fast-food giant burned Small Soldiers, and how his long-held dream of making a Bugs Bunny movie became a nightmare
In the early months of 1989, both Warner Bros. and director Joe Dante were ready to let the gremlins back out of their box. For its part, the studio had endured a spotty 1988, and was looking to lock down a guaranteed box-office draw — especially considering that they weren’t at all confident that their gamble on a little film called Batman was going to pay off. (It reads almost like fiction now, but mere days before the release of Tim Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader, Warner Bros. head Terry Semel was defending his studio's inability to manufacture a blockbuster hit to the Los Angeles Times.) In order to secure Dante’s participation for the Gremlins sequel, Warners gave the director carte blanche, the only condition being that he had to have the film ready for the targeted release date — a deal that seems almost inconceivable in this age of jealously guarded IP and studio-micromanaged Cinematic Universes.
If Gremlins was made under the sign of Frank Capra, the guiding spirit of Gremlins 2 was Frank Tashlin, the former Looney Tunes animator turned Jerry Lewis mentor whose outrageous live-action comedies relentlessly skewered 1950s culture and conformity. Relocating the action from the small town to the big city, Dante and company unleash the Gremlins in a supermodern NYC office tower that wouldn’t have been out of place in Tashlin’s biting corporate-world satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? — a connection that the director punches up by recruiting Rock Hunter star Tony Randall to supply the voice of the erudite “Brain Gremlin” — and quickly dispense with traditional plotting in favour of 80 minutes of glorious Gremlinsanity.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch — “Fun, but in no sense civilized”
Beyond Randall’s Brain Gremlin, the sequel provided Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas the opportunity to unleash an army of new gremlin variations, the creation of which was lovingly imagined in a 2015 Key & Peele segment. "It's as if they were in the room," says Dante of the sketch — though it doesn’t even come close to what was actually discussed in the Gremlins 2 writers’ room. (According to SFX wizard Rick Baker, further unseen gremlin variants included a werewolf gremlin, a spaghetti gremlin, and “an elephant gremlin who is frightened of a mouse gremlin and beats it to death with another gremlin.”)
“Gremlins 2 Brainstorm,” Key & Peele (2015)
Evidently not noticing that their $50 million franchise tentpole was actually a puppet-filled update of 1941’s Hellzapoppin’, Warner Bros. promoted Gremlins 2 in most markets with a piece of key art (above) that was almost shocking in its restraint (“Unlike the movie,” notes Dante). Given that they were no longer attempting to coyly conceal the title critters, the more obvious tactic would have been to put the gremlins front and centre, as was done in the Australian campaign for the film.
But Warner’s attention seems to have been focused on protecting another of their cherished franchises. “The movie was supposed to open like on Memorial Day or something. The TV spots started running and everything, and then they suddenly decided that they wanted to open it against Dick Tracy, because they were afraid Dick Tracy was gonna outgross Batman, which was their highest-grossing movie at the time,” says Dante.
Though it has been all but forgotten now, in 1990 Warren Beatty’s big-budget take on the comic-strip cop was being positioned as a genuine threat to the Caped Crusader. “So they took [Gremlins 2] out of its original release day and they moved it back so that it could open against Dick Tracy. The problem is that a lot of people had already seen the TV spots, and by the time the spots started running again, they're like ‘Didn't this picture already come out?’ And so Dick Tracy trounced it basically.”
Despite its decimation at the box office, Gremlins 2 has found a fervent cult following over the years. Christopher Lee, whom Dante cast in a small but memorable part in the film — which gave the actor the opportunity to apologize for appearing in the shoddy Howling sequel Your Sister Is a Werewolf (a.k.a. Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch) — takes time in his 1999 autobiography Tall, Dark, and Gruesome to praise Gremlins 2 as “a rare instance of a sequel improving on the original.” British reserve aside, Lee is right: Gremlins 2: The New Batch is brilliant, and hands down the most unusual studio blockbuster ever produced.
After Gremlins 2, Haas and Dante began developing Termite Terrace, named for the legendary animation studio where artists like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones created immortal characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Unfortunately, a film about Warner Bros. animators and Warner Bros. cartoons set on the Warner Bros. backlot could really only be made at one studio — so when Warners passed on the project, the director and screenwriter refocused their energies on an ode to another cinematic hero of their youth.
Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Matinee is a love letter to 1950s monster movies in general and schlockmeister William Castle in particular, the Barnumesque producer-director who supplemented the filmgoing experience for his audiences with outrageous in-cinema gimmicks. John Goodman stars as the Castle figure Lawrence Woolsey, who is premiering his new film Mant! (“Presented in Atomo-Vision!”) in a small Florida town that is hastily preparing for what could be the start of World War III.
Matinee trailer (1993), Universal Pictures
Dante’s assessment of Matinee’s release could serve as the epitaph for many of his movies: “Over the years it's picked up a following, but theatrically it was pretty negligible.” Unlike Explorers or Innerspace, however, Matinee wasn’t a studio film that failed to take flight, but an independent production that became a studio film through happenstance. “It was gonna be made independently,” recalls Dante. “We started production in Florida, and the money ran out and Universal stepped up to the plate. We asked them if they would just go ahead and make the movie themselves, and they said yes.
“But it's not a typical Universal picture, in the sense that it's not made to open in a zillion theatres. It was more of a Miramax kind of movie, where you open and try to get some good word of mouth and hope it spreads and all that kind of stuff. Well, they didn't do that: they opened it in February, which is a terrible time to open a movie, and on a zillion screens. Of course, crickets chirped, and not many people showed up.
“But it was nice to see that the people who did show up brought their kids. It was sort of a rite of passage thing of showing the kids what it was like when mom and dad went to the movies, and there was only one screen.”
In spite of Matinee's lacklustre US showing, Universal's backing helped Dante’s would-be indie film acquire release in countries like Argentina, Japan, Sweden, and France — the latter of which was one of the few nations to re-title the film. “Which is weird, because I thought that matinée was a French word,” quips Dante about the nouveau nom. “Panic in Florida Beach is not exactly what this movie’s about.”
As is the case with many Dante titles, the years have been kind to Matinee, and earlier this year it finally received a long-overdue, supplement-packed Blu-ray release, complete with some great new artwork (see above) — not that the film needed it, as the original posteris a perfect summation of the film and a superb celebration of filmgoing in its own right.
Since the early 1980s, Dante had been punctuating his film work with side gigs on television shows like Police Squad!, Amazing Stories, and Eerie, Indiana. Following Matinee, the director made two features for the increasingly respectable, rapidly expanding slate of cable networks. For Showtime, he made a quick-and-dirty remake of the old AIP film Runaway Daughters, starring a pre-fame Paul Rudd, Julie Bowen, and Jenny Lewis; and for HBO he made what is certainly his least-seen feature, The Second Civil War, which transcended its televisual origins to receive a theatrical release in Europe (complete with a Venice Film Festival premiere).
“HBO used to shoot all their stuff on film, mainly because they wanted to distribute them theatrically overseas,” explains Dante. “In all the deals with the actors it's all written that a picture will not play theatrically in America, but it will play theatrically overseas; it's a pay-scale issue or something. Which makes it very difficult to program [this film] in a retrospective in America, because they discourage running HBO movies on big screens in America. So whenever I try to sneak it into a retrospective, it's had to be for free and [we’ve had] to let the audience in for free.”
A satire about a refugee immigration crisis that escalates into a full-on civil war between the US government and the state of Iowa, The Second Civil War looks eerily contemporary even 20 years later. “Every time I've seen it over the years there's been some new aspect of the picture that is now current, and is now happening,” says Dante. “There's just so many aspects to this picture that turned out to be not only prescient, but actually predictive of the world we’re in now, and it just keeps rolling on. I mean, if you've seen the movie it looks like it was made last week — except [for] the size of the TV screens.
“It's become one of the more interesting movies I ever made. And it's certainly got the best cast” — one which includes James Earl Jones, James Coburn, Phil Hartman, Elizabeth Peña, Beau Bridges, Dan Hedaya, Ron Perlman and, of course, such Dante stalwarts as Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Kevin McCarthy, and William Schallert.
Pitched to children as a 90-minute toy commercial and to adults as a Gremlins redux about a town plagued by murderous li’l bastards — with vivified plastic army men standing in for Dante’s previous party monsters— Small Soldiers was a film that seemed split against itself from the beginning. “I think basically the problem was they didn't know how to sell the movie,” says Dante.
“When I started I was told to make an edgy movie that teenagers would like, and then by the time we were in the middle of shooting it was now a kiddie movie, and it was gonna have a lot of sponsors, and they were going to have to get a certain rating.” Dante is referring here to the fact that the film’s PG-13 rating proved to be a whopper of a PR headache for Burger King, which had planned to include Small Soldiers toys in their kids’ meal. As the film’s release date neared, the fast-food monarch pressured DreamWorks to soften the film’s violence to be more child-friendly. “That was not the movie that we had written. So, there was a lot of second-guessing going on during the picture.”
Small Soldiers Burger King commercial (1998)
Burger King wasn’t the only one struggling with the film’s tone. DreamWorks’ ad campaign made the strange choice to foreground the film’s bad guys, the Commando Elite — literal cartoons of American macho militarism and jingoism — as if they were the heroes. Furthermore, as was the case with Innerspace, the director found the title lacking. “I'll tell you, what’s a strange choice is the title. Nobody pays money to see something small, and I kept saying this. I can't understand why you're going to call it Small Soldiers — there's got to be a better title. And ‘Small Soldiers, Big Movie’ is just about the lamest attempt to make it look not small that you can imagine.”
The movie had a release date long before it had a finished script, because Hasbro had inked a deal with DreamWorks to produce a line of Small Soldiers toys which were scheduled to be on shelves in the summer of 1998. The commercials for these toys doubled-down on the mixed messaging of the posters.
Small Soldiers toy commercial (1998)
Small Soldiers was a modest hit, but it certainly wasn’t the toy-hawking juggernaut that DreamWorks and Hasbro had envisioned, perhaps because parents weren’t certain the movie was appropriate for their kids. Even the trailer couldn’t lock down the film’s tone.
Small Soldiers trailer (1998), DreamWorks Pictures
“The reason the trailer is odd is because we did an original trailer,” Dante explains. “Godzilla had come out and they had a trailer with a guy in a museum, and Godzilla puts his foot down into the trailer, and that was the Godzilla trailer. So we hired the same actor and built the set and did a parody of the Godzilla trailer in which the Small Soldiers come and knock down Godzilla at the end. [Godzilla’s studio] Sony did not find that humorous at all. They enjoined us from being able to use the trailer.”
Despite the behind-the-scenes strife, some eagle-eyed critics rummaged through the morass of toys and tones to find Dante's trademark bite — perhaps most famously Jonathan Rosenbaum, who, in a widely-read Chicago Reader review, contrasted Small Soldiers' “trenchant satire” with that summer's other army-man flick, Steven Spielberg's “allegedly grown-up” Saving Private Ryan.
Given that Dante’s films had so often been compared to live-action cartoons, the pairing of the director with the original Looney Tunes should have been a perfect match. Unfortunately, Looney Tunes: Back in Action — a semi-sequel to the 1996 hit Space Jam, which paired Bugs Bunny with Michael Jordan — was a disappointment for many, not least Dante. “There's some nice things in it, but it's kind of a loud, annoying movie. If I had it to do over I wouldn't do it.”
All the advertising for Back in Action highlights one of the film’s biggest flaws: namely, the uneasy balance between the animated characters and the human cast.
“The big knock on the movie was ‘Why did they bother to put people into it at all?’,” says Dante. “Of course, that was the whole point. They wanted another Space Jam, and of course they didn't have Michael Jordan.”
“And I didn't like Space Jam anyway. Chuck Jones was still alive, and was a friend of mine, and he didn't like Space Jam. So when I was asked to do this picture I did it basically for Chuck, because I wanted to try to preserve the characters, and not have them treated as second-rate citizens.”
Sadly, Dante’s labours proved to be in vain. “It was a very difficult movie to make. I was working for people who were not sympathetic to the fact that it was being made at all, and it was a battle. It was a year and a half of fighting with people to get it to be a semblance of what I thought it should be. So it was not a lot of fun.”
“To find yourself making a Bugs Bunny movie, [and] to get up every morning and you’re angry — that's not the way a Bugs Bunny movie should be made.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, in 2009 the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals announced the premiere of a new Joe Dante feature. In the lead-up to both festivals, the excitement was palpable: after years wandering in the wilderness of television and internet ventures, Dante was finally back on the big screen — and with a 3D genre movie, no less.
Yet almost as suddenly as it appeared, The Hole vanished — a fate that the director blames at least partially on the film’s 3D technology. “The 3D didn't help it. When we started there were a certain number of theatres that could play 3D, and once we finished shooting it, all those theatres were booked with big expensive movies that were not shot in 3D, but were converted after the fact on the computer. There was no way we were gonna get our picture into any of those theatres, because it was a small movie. So in that sense the 3D didn't help it. But worse, the distributor, the oddly named Bold Films, didn't sell the movie to television, they didn't do anything with it.”
After its TIFF premiere, The Hole popped up at few more festivals, but it didn’t get a “proper” release until 2012, when it had an ignoble two-city theatrical release before being dumped onto DVD. “Except for maybe the last movie I did [Burying the Ex], [The Hole is] maybe the most obscure movie I've done. I just don't think anybody has had an opportunity to see it.”
Unlike the community who’ve found Matinee over the years, audiences that rediscover The Hole will sadly miss out on one of its best elements: its stereoscopic cinematography, which, while going full-on William Castle in parts (i.e., objects hurtling at the camera), also offers a more subtle use of the technology that exaggerates everyday objects, mimicking the way children’s vision can transform seemingly mundane places like a basement into a place of intrigue, danger and adventure.
Shot in a mere 20 days, Burying the Ex is a low-budget, partially crowdfunded horror comedy starring Anton Yelchin as a gutless horror-movie buff whose girlfriend (Ashley Greene) returns from the grave following a fatal accident. Dante found a compatriot cinephile in the late Yelchin, and the film is wall-to-wall with homages to classic horror films.
In one cringe-inducing scene, Greene redecorates Yelchin’s apartment and folds up his valuable collection of classic posters. “We had to fake a whole bunch of posters, because we shot the scenes and then we couldn’t get the rights. In his bedroom there was a Black Sabbath poster that we had to completely change to some other non-existent movie because it was co-produced by three companies and they couldn't find the third company, so they said ‘No, we can't. We're not going to allow it.’ Another one, in the kitchen, used to be The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and now has been repurposed into some other meaningless non-existent western.”
However, a few real posters did make the cut, including Italian foglios of Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires and the Vincent Price-starring The Pit and the Pendulum, and a colourful double-feature poster for the highly obscure horror movies Beast of the Yellow Night and Creature with the Blue Hand. “Those are real movies. The trick is that any poster we used had to be public domain. It was a really cheap movie. For the most part we did okay, we snuck a bunch of stuff in there.”
Burying the Ex had a brief theatrical run, but was primarily released via VOD services. “I think the phrase is, they ‘took it theatrical’,” clarifies Dante. “What they do is they play ten theatres in the country for a week, basically. It's a test: if they make a certain amount of money then they go broad with it, and if they don't, it just goes right to VOD. It didn't exactly set the world on fire, so it went right to VOD, where I think it has remained more or less undiscovered.”
The large gaps in Dante’s feature filmography since the 1990s are certainly no sign of inactivity on the director’s part. Many of these periods have seen Dante struggling to launch projects such as a new version of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf with Tom Hanks, an adaptation of Lee Falk’s ’30s comic strip The Phantom (which became a much-mocked 1996 fiasco on which Dante is still credited as an executive producer), and a remake of the Universal monster classic The Mummy, which eventually became the billion-dollar Brendan Fraser franchise, sans any credit for Dante.
Happily, one of the longest-gestating of these projects might soon see the light of day. The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes — which recounts Dante’s old boss Roger Corman’s odyssey making the 1967 LSD movie The Trip with Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda — has been getting closer and closer to realization: in 2016, noted cinephile Bill Hader played the lead role in a live read of the script in L.A., and earlier this year Dante told SyFy that the film is zeroing in on a financier.
Despite his unwilled absences from the big screen, Dante continues to share his love of cinema as one of the masterminds behind the website Trailers From Hell, which invites filmmakers, actors, and writers to provide commentary on the trailers for their favourite films, which has yielded such gems as Guillermo del Toro on Hitchcock’s I Confess ("It's my favourite Hitchcock, because I'm a fat, guilt-ridden Catholic”) and Roger Corman on his own She Gods of Shark Reef ("I don't remember any particular She Gods in the picture").
Bring It On screenwriter Jessica Bendinger on The Bad News Bears (courtesy Trailers From Hell)
In a 1994 interview, director George Miller shared a wonderful story about Dante. When the filmmakers met during the making of Twilight Zone: The Movie (for which they directed the two most critically acclaimed segments), Miller recalled being "floored" by Dante's encyclopedic knowledge of film. “I hadn't even seen a Kurosawa movie [at that time]. For my birthday, Joe Dante bought me a video guide, but the great gift he gave to me was to put a little red dot against every film he felt I should see.” From his early film writing and allusion-filled filmmaking right down to these personal recommendations and digital curation via Trailers From Hell, Dante truly seems to relish unpacking movie history — even when that unpacking has him revisiting the ups and downs of his own career. “It's been worth it,” Dante says as we concluded this long look back at his hits and misses. “[Now] I got this German Hollywood Boulevard poster to show to my friends.”