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Sacha Feiner’s Interview with Joe Dante – A Gremlins Online Exclusive

Last April, Gremlins superfan and FX artist Sacha Feiner (creator of the incredible Gremlins Fan Film Warmup video which can be seen here) interviewed Gremlins Director Joe Dante in Brussels, Belgium.

Sacha has been gracious enough to share the interview with Gremlins Online along with some stellar photos that were taken of the interview by Aurore Belot.

So please, sit back and enjoy one of the most in-depth interviews with a few new bits of information from the legendary director himself!


This interview was made for the Press Conference with Joe Dante at the 33rd Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, on April 9, 2015. Joe was Guest of Honor, and presenting “Burying the Ex”.

Sacha Feiner
Hi Joe, and thanks for being here at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival! I suppose you know why I’m here – they asked me, as your “biggest fan around”, to try to have an interesting conversation with you – not sure I’ll succeed, but I’ll try! To make sure the audience knows: I made a “Gremlins fan film” in 2008, and despite that, since then, Joe has always talked to me as if I were a normal person…!
Joe Dante
Well, Sacha spent a lot of time in his garage doing that with his puppets, and I tried to convince Warner Brothers to put his film on the latest Gremlins Bluray, however, it’s complicated; I don’t know what their problem is, but it’s really quite brilliant; you can see it on Youtube, if you look at “Gremlins Fan Film”.
So, did you attend the screening of “Burying the Ex” yesterday?
I was there for the beginning, but you know, I’ve seen it a lot, so we went out for a while. I came back for the last 20 minutes, and they seemed to like it a lot; it’s a movie that’s kind of made for this audience. It’s pretty wild here, everybody is very enthusiastic, and there’s a slightly anarchic spirit that reminds me of the scene in Gremlins where they watch Snow White. I’m the last of my friends to come to BIFFF, and now that I’m here I see what they were talking about. Genre festivals tend to be more rewarding than regular festivals – people are there because they love movies; that’s much more fun to go to.
I felt the movie was full of energy. My first question is about that energy – in 2006 we had a special “Master of Horror” night here, where I had the impression (and that’s my very subjective point of view) that your episode was one of the very few that was trying to say something about society, more than just showing “horror”… but even without that comparison; despite a career where it wasn’t always easy to get the results you wanted because of conflicts with the studios; it is obvious you still have energy and “faith”, so… what helps you keep that faith?
Well, I like my job! I mean, I like making movies, and the “Masters Of Horror” situation was particularly exciting, because we were allowed to do anything we wanted. Once they had decided to ask a group of horror directors to make the films, the only restriction was 12576157_10154314381348912_489553931_nthe time and budget – “you can make the movie about whatever you want” – and I took advantage of it to make a political film that I would never have been able to get funded anywhere else. It’s not exactly a subtle movie, it’s an over-the-head polemic about what I was angry about at the time, and still am to a degree… it actually played in a lot of film festivals in Europe and was considered as a sort of a stand-alone example that the entire film industry hadn’t been taken over by the Bush administration, that there were still some people that were able to say “this is wrong”. It didn’t do any harm, but it didn’t do any good, because the kind of people who want to see this kind of film never actually wanted to watch it; I sent a buch of discs to a lot of commentators in America and never heard anything back; I’m sure they just threw them away as soon as they saw my name!

Wow – I’m always shocked that guys like you, or Rick Baker who told me the same, are
never treated with the respect they should get; especially by the studios. I know how that business works, but seen from Europe, it’s shocking.

It’s a business, and it always has been; it’s also an art… but certainly Rick was treated very poorly on “The Wolfman”, they could have hired a kid off the street, to treat him like they treated Rick.
They apparently didn’t want any wolfman in the picture!
Yes, it’s a sort of a mistake in the conception… (laughs) The fact is that creative people in Hollywood are considered dispensable. Because “you’re only as good as your last picture”, that’s pretty much true, they want you for what you can get them; and there’s nothing wrong with that… and it leads to employment, which is good. But there’s a tendency to want to tell people how to do the work, after they have been hired.
They end up hiring people for their talent, then tell them they can’t use that talent, and that they have to do it a different way. It’s just a bad business model. And I think when you look at the system, and see how it is falling apart, you have to say that some of this must come from mismanagement from the top, from people who don’t know how to make movies, and don’t have faith in the people they hire, to let them actually make the movies they want to make!
That’s sad!
If that’s too depressing, we can go on! (laughs)
Well, something else about Homecoming: at the time, you said you couldn’t do that for the big screen; let’s talk of that lack of creative freedom.
I’d have loved it to make it to the big screen, but, if movies changed the world, then after Dr Strangelove came out, we would all have disarmed.
We all know we’re sort of pissing in the dark when we make these movies; we try to turn people’s heads, we try to change their minds, to engage a conversation, but the trick is to get the opportunity to do it. And I was grateful these guys let me do whatever I wanted. They were all republicans among the producers, but they never said anything to me, and you look for those kinds of opportunities.
Even in a genre film, there is always an underline message, something that you want to convey, beyond what’s on the screen.
I’ve been called subversive, because sometimes my movies seem innocent on the surface, but when you look underneath, you see social comment and things like that, which is fine. The difference between a social protest movie and a genre movie that has the same thing to say, is that the social movie has the story on the top and that’s what the story is about, when the genre movie seems to be about a different thing, but underneath, you have all the political content… a lot of movies in my time were not overtly political when they were made, but now, they seem very political.
It seems there are exceptions to that lack of creative freedom; I think of the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone; Team America, or South Park, are subversive masterpieces, and they say it themselves; they seem to be allowed to do anything because people just say “oh, it’s South Park!”…
That also comes with success! It’s a very popular show, very profitable, so they say, “let’s just don’t mess with them, let’s let them do what they want”.
For the Simpsons, it’s very similar; it has a lot of subversive content, but because it’s a very popular show, and it’s been on forever… their style, is what they get away with.
But for a stand-alone project, for somebody who takes that you make a vampire movie, if you start to talk of the idea you may try something a little more witty… they don’t like that.
Do you think it would be possible with live action? I think it’s because it’s animation, that they’re allowed to go further. I was wondering; having grown up with cartoons, did you ever think of making a fully animated feature?12575791_10154314381363912_624914458_n.jpg
Yes, I thought about it! But I mean, it’s a very difficult thing to do, and it’s not a one man process. You need a lot of people to make an animated film. Yes of course, you can still have a guiding hand; Brad Bird’s early pictures are author works, but there is a lot of people involved. I did a half live-action, half animated film; it was a very arduous process, and not especially rewarding… Although as a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist; that’s really what I wanted, because cartoons were so important to me; but instead, I started making live-action movies that were more like cartoons!
Like Gremlins 2! Gremlins 2 was the most unthinkable studio picture ever, from my point of view; it’s definitely a huge finger you gave to the studio, because you made the opposite of their expectations… so how did you dare to do that? During the shooting, weren’t you afraid of their reaction?
No, they wanted me to do it! They wanted to do a sequel right after I finished the first movie, but another Gremlins was the last thing I wanted to do. They tried to do other scripts, they tried to get other people involved, but they couldn’t quite figure out what
made the first movie work. I’m not sure I even know why the first movie worked! (laughs)
It has to do with the time it came out, the world around it at the time.
But it is remarkable that this movie is over 30 years old and it is still extremely popular.
We ran it at Sitges last year, and everybody had a time as good as at the preview – the best preview I ever had. You are lucky to have one movie like that in your career; not only a big hit, but also remembered after the years. And the kids who saw it now show it to their kids; it remains permanent in the culture.
So in the end, they begged me to do the sequel, because they couldn’t find anybody else, and they gave me Carte Blanche. They said, “do whatever you want”! They honestly didn’t care of what was in those cans, as long as they opened on a certain date. They literally left me alone!
After they saw it, they weren’t thrilled about certain aspects of the movie; I made fun of the merchandising… they didn’t like the scene where the film seems to break, and where the gremlins end up in the projection booth… Hollywood is afraid of breaking the fourth wall, what cartoons do so well, talking to the audience and remind them they are watching a cartoon or a movie. When I made Looney Tunes, the executives were just horrified that I might remind the audience they were watching a movie… this is a movie that has live-action, cartoon characters in the same frame, and they were worried that people would think they were watching a movie!
I don’t really understand it… today, you could never have had the kind of anarchy that was in the warner brothers pictures of the 40’s, like the Bob Hope films where they were constantly remaining that they worked for Paramount as actors.
With Gremlins 2, I got to make a sort of parody of sequels, certainly a parody of the first picture… I spent three times the money they spent on the first movie, with much better technology.
Rick Baker’s effects! Talking about special effects; you worked with the biggest names, biggest geniuses, creature designers and engineers, like Rob Bottin, Chris Walas, Rick Baker, Stan Winston… Which was your favorite collaboration, and who did you bond the most with?
Bond the most with, that’s interesting… Well, I bonded a lot with Chris Walas, because it was such a long shoot, all the Gremlins stuff was so complicated that we were sort of inventing it as we went along. All the sets were built up on stilts, and all the puppeteers were under the set, looking at monitors, and manipulating the puppets with little wires 12511647_10154314381373912_1173140782_nand so on; we had to hide them behind chairs, under the sets, and it was quite an effort. Today, if you decide to make a puppet movie, you could actually put the puppeteers right next to the puppet, have them do great puppeteering, then do another pass and just take them out in post! But I think the techniques we used are still good.

On set work is better than doing CGI, and I have nothing against CGI, I think it’s great, but there are certain things that you can’t get with it. But answering your question, I think all these guys were great; Rick is a genius, Rob is a perfectionist genius, which can be more complicated, and Stan Winston had his own empire. These guys were brilliant collaborators, and brought so much to the movies I did with them.
Did you have the time, on the sets, to enjoy the sight of the creatures coming to life in front of you, or was the stress of making them credible too high?
We had plenty of time on set to enjoy them, because the puppets were always breaking, and they had to be fixed. One day the production manager came to the set, and the entire crew was asleep, because Chris was in his trailer, trying to fix Gizmo, which was complicated because he was so small – he would always break down! We were all asleep. He said it was the first time he had seen that from a major studio (laughs) – a soundstage with an entire crew asleep!
You began with obvious genre films, with creatures and special effects, and continued in the genre until today. I’ve been thinking about critics talking of Cronenberg, who also began with monsters, and ended up using less and less effects, which was interpreted as “growing up”, but still talking of the same stuff, like someone transforming into something; History of Violence easily relates to The Fly. So do you continue to make obvious genre films because you feel the world is too difficult to satirize without using any genre, or is it just because you refuse to grow up?
Well, as good a question as that is, the real answer is: that’s what I get offered. When you banked in a certain genre, that’s the kind of stuff they trust you with. And if you haven’t made a love story recently, they will say, why do you want to hire this guy, he makes monster movies! In Burying the Ex, I wanted to make a love story. There are aspects of this movie that are different from the kind of movies I usually make, something deeper and more interesting, and it’s a kind of way to say to the others, “there is more”; not just special effects. I’m interested in making “movie movies” and not necessarily genre movies.
You are never credited as a writer, but in all your films, there’s that “Dante” touch in situations, dialogues, background jokes… do you add that in the script or is it just ad-libbed on the set?
A lot of stuff is added while we shoot the movie. But it’s really more about my interest in pursuing things that I am more connected to. A lot of projects that I choose have elements in common. I think that for many directors, their personal style is based on how much of their personality they can infuse to the movie, even if they didn’t write it, and a lot of my favorite directors are directors whose personalities are very apparent.
Your career was full of difficulties; getting the funding, conflicts with the studios, or situations like your final cut being given to Burger King, for Small Soldiers… (laughs) So, did you ever want to work in a place where you don’t only get to make reboots, I mean, Europe?
Well, yes, I have a lot of projects that I’d like to do in Europe, actually in a few days we are leaving to Budapest, to look for a location for a project we’d like to shoot in Europe, however it is just as complicated to get funding here as it is in America… everywhere on Earth, actually!12583642_10154314381368912_1831276788_n
Last question; when do we get a special edition of all your films, with CGI spaceships and guns replaced by talkie-walkies?
(Laughs) I don’t do that! That’s not my thing!

Special Thanks to Sacha Feiner, Joe Dante, and  Aurore Belot for conducting this interview and awesome photos! 

One response to “Sacha Feiner’s Interview with Joe Dante – A Gremlins Online Exclusive

  1. johnpannozzi April 25, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    You got to check out this playthrough of the Atari 2600 Gremlins game by AVGN’s Mike Matei and Bootsy:

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