In perfect neighborhood, the grass is forever green under the morning sky. Kids play until dusk and go home for supper and TV. They ride bikes in the summer and in the winter they build snowmen, with black eyes and carrot noses. Built from suburban dreams are the works of Joe Dante. Monster Kid. Jersey Guy. His films spring from youth’s remembrance, sprinkled in the dust of plastic Halloween masks and green men from outer space. He came to tell us stories of gremlins, werewolves and suspicious neighbors that urge us that in fact, “It came from the frame.” Dante, generous with his wisdom as a filmmaker spoke to Diabolique about filming then and now, his origins and the new audience for genre films. He will always find affection in the creaky door and the cobweb; that is were he started, though more specifically in a place called Morristown, NJ, USA.
DIABOLIQUE: How has being from New Jersey shaped you into becoming the filmmaker that you are today?
JOE DANTE: I grew up in New Jersey. It was the ’50s and ’60s, so it was a different New Jersey than there is now. It wasn’t all malls and shopping centers and pharmaceutical companies and stuff. It was mostly woods. There was a lot of woods there: it was called ‘The Garden State’, and I had a great childhood. I lived in small towns, there was always a movie theater, there were always Saturday matinees. We’d ride our bikes everywhere. We left our doors open…
DIABOLIQUE: Did the environment or the culture affect your filmmaking?
JOE DANTE: I think it probably did. I mean, I’ve done a lot of movies set in suburbia, where I grew up. Spielberg has those same issues. I mean, when he goes back to his childhood, he’s self-conscious of the neighborhoods and the places he used to live. I think the neighborhood in E.T. was largely modeled on where he grew up at a certain point. You don’t lose it – and particularly filmmakers: they’re all pretty much in touch with their childhoods or they wouldn’t be able to do this, because it’s kind of like when you’re kid and you play cowboys, and you start to – If you were the one who went, ‘Okay you’re gonna be the Indian, and you’re gonna be the old prospector, and you’re be – It’s sort of like making a movie.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you have any advice for filmmakers today?
JOE DANTE: Well they always ask me that: they ask, ‘How did you start?’ Before I tell them, I always preface it with, that ‘It’s irrelevant to you, because that no longer exists, and those opportunities haven’t been available for twenty-five, thirty years.’ Today what I basically try to do is impress upon them how lucky they are to be living in age where they can actually make their own movies on digital with a computer and finish them to a degree that looks pretty slick – and without having to go with a lab, and without having to do all of the complicated things that we had to do when we were shooting film. The only problem is that once you make your movie, you’ve got to get somebody to see it – and that’s the hard part. That’s the hard part even for professional filmmakers – but it’s really difficult when you’re starting out. …if you can get your film into a festival, whether it’s a short, or a feature, and you get somebody to see it, talk about it or write about it, then you can get it into another festival – and, before you know it, people are talking about the person who made this movie, and that’s a route I think that is a viable route for people to take. I don’t know that just getting together and putting on a show with your friends and filming it is gonna get you anything unless you can figure out a way to distribute it, to get people to see it – and that doesn’t mean putting it up on Youtube for free, where it’s hidden among two hundred million other things. You really need to try to get it to break out – if it’s good. And if it isn’t good, it’s still worth doing, because you learn something.
DIABOLIQUE: What do think this access has brought to fan and movie culture? I remember getting my list from the Phantom of the Movies Guide, and going to the VHS stores and fetishizing, trying to find these films and also living with the fact that I might live my whole life without seeing certain films. This has changed, with access.
JOE DANTE: Oh, I remember all that stuff, and it was very difficult to find any kind of real discussion, particularly about genre movies. That’s my – the Psychotronic thing was kind of a breakthrough, because there were so many of these movies that people hadn’t had access to. And now, of course, with the internet, and blogs and stuff, there’s so much writing – There’s a lot of good writing on the internet, a lot of good blogs where people seriously talk about movies in ways that film magazines used to. There’s only one left really, Film Comment, but when I was younger I would buy American Film, and Take One, and Sight and Sound – which I think still exists – and Films and Filming. – But the print media obviously has its own problems. – But the amount of stuff that you can read on the internet, is really amazing, and there’s lots of discussions and interesting commentary about old movies and new movies. There’s just so much more information available, that it’s kind of exhausting.
DIABOLIQUE: What does it mean to be a director?
JOE DANTE: You get to tell a story the way you think it should be told ; if you’re a writer/director, you could even come up with the story. But it’s sort of your responsibility to shape the way the story is told, and to present it in a way that is at its best. That also means dealing with all of the other creative people that you have to work with in order to make a movie. Nobody makes a movie all by themselves. I mean, unless it’s a one-man movie with a camera that doesn’t move. There’s just a lot of stuff to deal with, and if you like the medium, and you like the people – and I’m not sure that I did, because I started as an editor, which is a very solitary job – but when I got out on the set, just to see whether I could do it or not, I found that I really liked the fact that there were a lot of people with ideas, and there were a lot of people who were contributing, and maybe coming up with a better idea than the one that I had. – Whatever makes the movie better is what you do. – And so it can be very rewarding. The difficulty comes when you aren’t quite allowed to achieve your vision, because the people who hired you have decided to change their minds about what kind of movie they really wanted to make, and they don’t like the way this character has turned out, or this scene, or whatever, and then you can have lots of I would say diplomatic discussions and/or fighting, which can sometimes lead to a messed-up movie. But that’s part of the deal.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you remember first story?
JOE DANTE: I wrote a play, I was in fourth grade I think, called The Mad Doctor of Transylvania Square – which I have mercifully forgotten the details of. [Laughter.] You can pretty much imagine from the title what it is. I staged it in front of the class, with a bunch of students, which I guess was probably the first one. Fortunately no evidence continues to exist.
DIABOLIQUE: How did you come to find yourself as a storyteller?
JOE DANTE: I don’t know. I was a big fan of cartoons, I was a big fan of movies, and I was a big fan of comic books. And I wanted to do that somehow, I wanted to express myself in those terms. I was lucky enough to actually end up in a business that allowed me to do that – and to make a living, even, which is more remarkable.
DIABOLIQUE: Why do you have an interest in genre pictures?
JOE DANTE: Well you do like to do everything. I’ve often tried to get out of the genre bag – but I don’t mind doing it because I enjoy it and that’s how I started – but once you’ve been successful in a genre, then you tend to get typed. It’s ‘Well he’s not good for a love story, but he’s good for a horror picture.’ And so by adding comedy, and trying to vary the kinds of ways in which I tell the story, I’ve always tried to not just give them what they think they want, I always try to give them something different. And it’s worked out. I’ve had opportunities to do a lot of different kinds of movies and TV. I did a western. It’s been fun. I don’t resent having to do horror movies, it’s just so difficult to do a good one now because everybody’s so jaded, and so many things have been done to death, that you just wonder, ‘Why am I doing this, when it was already done so much better twenty years ago?’
DIABOLIQUE: Why do you think audiences are so jaded, and what can we do about our narratives to move past that?
JOE DANTE: Well every so often something like PAN’S LABYRINTH comes up, or something like CABIN IN THE WOODS where people take the tropes that the audience expects and turn them on their head and say ‘We’re gonna give you what you want, but we’re gonna give it to you in a different way and that will allow you to actually allow you to look at this genre in a different way and you can sort of see what it is you’ve been watching for all these years.’ That’s when it’s exciting. I mean, when it’s disappointing is when you basically give them what they think they want, except they go, ‘Well that’s just what we saw last time. You’re not going anywhere with this, it’s just the same thing.’ And so it becomes a challenge. It’s a very challenging genre now, because of the expectations involved, and the fact that it has turned out, oddly enough, to be one of the few genres that studios can actually expect to make money with if they don’t spend too much, because the audience is very loyal. I think there’s no more loyal audience than a genre audience. They want to see these movies and they’ve been wanting to see them for sixty years, and they’re gonna continue to want to see them.