Horror Business: Joe Dante on the Hustle of Horror Filmmaking

Joe Dante is a man who needs no introduction. Perhaps best known by our kind for Gremlins and The Howling, Joe Dante’s filmography spans from the 70’s with his directorial debut, Piranhaunder Roger Corman, (fun fact: Piranha 2 was directed by James Cameron and also his first movie) to The Explorers, InnerspaceThe Burbs, Matinee, Small Soldiers, and many more including my favorite segment from The Twilight Zone Movie. 

Today, Joe is producing Camp Cold Brook, a found-footage thriller about a group of ghost hunters with a reality show who visit an abandoned summer camp that was the scene of a gruesome crime. Joe also recently partnered with Trailers from Hell regular, Josh Olson, to launch a new podcast called The Movies that Made Me, where the two sit down with actors, directors, and producers to discuss what movies shaped them into horror cinephiles.

We met with Joe to discuss the current state of horror cinema and what aspiring directors need to know to thrive within it. We also did a fair amount of geeking out about Gremlins. As always, before we get to the interview, here are Joe Dante’s 3 keys for horror directors.

  • Do things the Corman way. The Roger Corman ethic of low budgets, preparedness, and hustle combined with the unprecedented amounts of responsibility and autonomy he gave to his directors, was a magic combination that educated and empowered many of Hollywood’s biggest success stories. Joe stresses how indie horror directors cannot get precious about things like camera angles and lighting nuances and need to always be two shots ahead of themselves to get their movies made efficiently. Talent and drive are not enough — producers look for directors who deliver their films on time and on budget. A great book on the topic, and an essential read for any filmmaker, is Roger Corman’s biography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. It’s gold. Get it.
  • Deliver the goods, but not just the goods. Horror audiences have expectations, whether it’s blood & gore, inventive kills or jump-scares, and horror directors have a certain obligation to deliver those goods. But, the goods alone won’t cut it. The story-lines, character development, tone and style of your projects can’t be secondary but need to be well thought out and unique. Properly doing this will boost the effectiveness of the horror element and imbue the movie with cinematic integrity. Gremlins was a well structured story with compelling characters who you cared about immediately. When they were threatened, we were scared for them (though some of us were rooting for the gremlins). Give the audience what they want but don’t gloss over the details because it’s the details that make the horror elements work even better.
  • Mentorship is everything. Always pay it forward. One of the great things about Joe Dante is that he’s one of those forces in Hollywood who is very grateful to be a part of this system and thus, he does what he can to give back. He frequently mentors other directors and takes them under his wing, the same way previous directors had done for him. Mentorship in this business is everything. If you need one, find one, and if you can be one, be one.
  • BONUS TIP: Live and die by your vision. One fascinating thing Joe mentioned was how he had to turn Pat Hingle down for the role of Billy’s father in Gremlins because his performance was too dramatically compelling. Despite the quality of the performance, Joe knew that it would not mesh with the lighthearted spirit of the movie because it would have emotionally captivated the audience and made Gremlins more of a drama, which was not the intent. Having a strong, predetermined sense of the tone and focus of your movie is key — it enables you, as the director, to intuitively make casting decisions that keep the flow of the film cohesive and consistent with your original vision.

Dread Central: Joe, thank you for taking the time. Let’s talk about Camp Cold Brook, which you’re producing, how did this project come about?

Joe Dante: Well, I spend a lot of my time in this business looking at movies, obviously. And I was very lucky in that I got my start with Roger Corman in a different era, in a different business. But I always felt that people who get somewhere in Hollywood owe it to try and help other people take a step up the ladder. In this case, my office is staffed with people who are movie buffs and Mark Alan, who started as my assistant, found this project called Camp Cold Brook. 

It just seemed like an interesting project for us to get together and try to produce because when you have a company, you don’t just produce things that you direct, you produce things that other people direct. I went to summer camp and I know how creepy it can be … They had this haunted summer camp idea which dovetails into a reality TV show plot with these ghost hunters investigating strange events … It just seemed up my alley and I was not a very hands-on exec producer in the sense that I just consulted and helped them raise money, went over the script, looked at the rough cut, and looked at the dailies. Basically the way I would want it if it was me directing. Just to have somebody who knows movies advising, as I had with Corman and Spielberg.

DC: So you’re a real mentor to your directors.

JD: It’s a mentorship thing, yeah. This is not the first movie I’ve done in that way but I think it’s certainly the most commercial. The response has been good and I like the movie, which is important because if you’re gonna go out and sell it you have to be able to say that you approve of it. My dictum is that when I look at jobs I wanna take, I have to decide if it’s a movie I would go see. And in this case, I would go see this movie, even though I didn’t direct it.

DC: Speaking of Roger Corman, he seemed to be able to empower and educate people with the Corman way of doing things, which was a formula that enabled a lot of them to go out and make make huge films on their own. It seems like nowadays Jason Blum is doing something similar. What was it about Roger Corman that enabled him to launch the careers of such a prolific amount of people?

JD: Yeah, I think that Blum is definitely on the Corman route and has been very successful in a somewhat more compressed time than Roger was, ’cause Roger did this over a longer period. But Roger had an ability to attract people who really were dedicated to finding a way to get into the movie business and when you look back on the names from Coppola to Scorsese to John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, the litany of people, who all went through the Corman school and went on to big, mainstream careers, you see that his eye for attracting talent was really pretty remarkable.

There were a number of people who went through the Corman school and didn’t have the drive or the talent or whatever to go further beyond that but for the most part it’s a pretty amazing group of people. At a certain point I think the backbone of the Hollywood industry in the late ’60s, early ’70s ended up being people who were trained by Corman … It’s true, he was very money conscious and wanted to be able to sell the movies a certain way and make sure there were certain exploitable elements in them … That continued through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and then the home video business came out and Roger went into that. He is, at 92, still working and still making movies and still finding new talent.

DC: That’s pretty extraordinary. You had said in John Landis’ great book, Monsters in the Movies that, “monsters are metaphors.” There’s a real renaissance with horror right now and the horror industry seems to go up during times of social unrest. In a metaphorical sense, other than Get Out which is a fantastic example, have there been any other recent examples of horror movies that you think are properly doing justice to the whole monsters as metaphors idea?

JD: I wouldn’t put it quite as bluntly as that, that all horror movies are metaphors with monsters in them but I think given the times that we’re in right now and the uncertainty of the form of government that we have been living with for so many years … it’s certainly not surprising to me that there would be a lot of horror films. In the ’30s, the ’40s, the war years, the Vietnam years, there were always horror movies and they were not just exploiting peoples anxieties but making social commentary. Yes, Get Out is an obvious social commentary movie but so is Sorry to Bother You. It’s a fairly remarkable movie and it’s a movie that could only speak to these times that we’re in right now.

Are things gonna get better? They often do, but I don’t think there’s gonna be any abatement in the onslaught of horror films. They have traditionally been the most reliable box office performers, partly because their audience is young and some of them are young enough not to even know that they’ve been seeing the same story over and over for generations. But it’s a loyal audience, it’s a very highly commercialized audience … It’s the whole idea of the supernatural and trying to find life lessons in events that are not strictly normal and right now, the period that we’re in is not strictly normal.

DC: I think that’s very safe to say. So having worked with some of the great special effects artists of all time, Rob Bottin, Steve Johnson, Chris Walas, and Stan Winston, how important are practical effects to you today?

JD: Very much so. CGI is a great tool, there’s no doubt about it … but as far as using practical effects, I find that while they have their limitations, there’s a reality to practical effects that’s very difficult to duplicate with CGI. Certainly as far as an actor’s ability to relate to what’s in the frame with them is completely different with CGI than it is if you use a puppet or something on the set.

If I did a picture like Gremlins today, I would still want to use the practical effects that I did but they would be much improved by the fact that you can now do a pass with the puppeteers in the frame manipulating that puppet right next to it and then do another pass and remove them completely. This was not possible in the ’80s or even the early ’90s when we did the Gremlins movies, that just wasn’t a thing that you could do. So, to me I think the fact that people have started shying away from doing practical effects and practical makeups is a diminution of something that people should be taking advantage of, because as society has changed and the tools have improved, they’ve improved on both sides, they’ve improved in CGI and they’ve also improved in practical.

There are things in makeup that you can do now that you couldn’t do before. But to just toss it all off and say let’s just push a button and have some guy on a computer do it, is not a smart thing to do. Also, the CGI material doesn’t have the weight in actuality of a photographed reality. It may someday get there, but we’re pretty far along with CGI and it’s still pretty difficult to watch those Hobbit movies and see these CGI vehicles moving and feel that they actually are hitting the ground, that they actually have any weight to them.

Joe Dante on the set of The Howling, staring down one of Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking werewolf creations

DC: I find you can always feel whether an effect was practical or not, there’s just something on some subconscious level that you believe about practical effects that you often don’t with CGI.

JD: Yeah.

DC: I heard you on Mick Garris’ Post Mortem podcast talking about the inception of Gremlins and how it was an amalgamation of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Birds.  To me, what makes a great horror movie is if you can remove the horror element and still have compelling characters that carry the movie. That being said, I easily could watch a movie about the Peltzer family and the dad’s failed inventions … There was such depth to all the characters and the story was so well-balanced. You had the horror element and comedy and a great family story … I grew up on Gremlins but watching it as an adult it’s such a well-balanced film. Was there any formula you were attempting to strike, was it calculated or did a bunch of things come together?

Joe Dante on the set of Gremlins

JD: I think a bunch of things came together. Chris Columbus wrote the script entirely on his own as a spec script that was not even intended to be produced. It was something where the agent said ‘write something that shows people what you can do and then we’ll get you some real jobs’. When Spielberg saw it he sparked to it and I think one of the reasons he sparked to it was because of the William Saroyan treatment of the father as the failed inventor. He’s got a big heart but it doesn’t quite know what to do. When we were casting that part it was so heart-wrenching that we had actors like Pat Hingle come in and play this part and he was so good that we couldn’t hire him.

DC: You couldn’t hire him because he was too good?

JD: He was so good that we couldn’t hire him because all of a sudden the movie was gonna be about how Billy Peltzer’s father can’t make it. It was moving, I mean he was great and it was the first time I ever had to tell an actor ‘I’m sorry, you’re too good for my movie’.

DC: Wow. So in this case, his dramatic performance would have completely overshadowed the horror element and the movie would have been all about him?

JD: When we hired Hoyt, who was less of an actor than a singer, he had an innate folksy quality that cartoonized the character to a degree that was able to fit into the ensemble. Whereas if we had hired Pat Hingle it would’ve been a drama with gremlins in it.

DC: That makes perfect sense. You’re a mentor figure to a lot of aspiring directors and you’ve been in the industry for a while and you’ve seen it go through a number of different changes … Is there any piece of advice you have for today’s aspiring horror directors?

JD: Horror movies have always been a good bet because you can make them for not a lot of money but to do a horror film on a low budget you have to prepare and you have to be able to make decisions quickly and you can’t noodle about. You can’t decide ‘well, gee, I don’t know, should I put the camera here, or there?’ That won’t cut it. The things that we learned with Corman were to hurry up and don’t congratulate yourself after the next shot, you’ve gotta be two shots ahead, I think now you have to almost be two days ahead to be able to actualize the stuff that you have to do in order to get the movie made efficiently. Yes, you have to have the talent and yes, you have to have the drive but you have to be efficient because nobody’s gonna hire a director who goes over budget on his low-budget horror movie.

Obviously seeing a lot of movies is good, seeing what’s been done before so that you have it in your arsenal is good but you can’t just go off and copy the things that you’ve seen. You have to have an approach to it that’s a little offbeat, a little different and you have to be able to stick to it. When people come and say, ‘well that’s a little far out’ you’ve gotta say ‘well, that’s really what I think is gonna work here’ because there are so many of these movies and they’re all so similar.

You really have to come in with something special, something extra. It doesn’t have to be The Human Centipede extra, I mean, Get Out is not an expensive movie, but it’s a clever movie and it uses a lot of tropes that we’ve seen before in various things but it puts them together in a new way and that’s really all you can ever do. You’re never gonna reinvent the wheel, it’s still what it is. It’s a genre movie. But people go to genre movies to get certain things out of them and they get disappointed if they don’t get those things, but if they only get those things then they’re still disappointed. You’ve gotta be able to find a way to manipulate the stuff so that it looks like it’s different.

DC: So, you have to deliver the goods but also do something different.

JD: Right.

DC: Great. Joe, this was a real pleasure. Thank you.

JD: Thanks.

Horror Business is a series that profiles horror directors, producers, actors, writers and artists. Through conversational interviews, we distill the actionable techniques, tips, resources, and best practices that enable them to make it happen in today’s horror landscape.



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