Interview – Joe Dante Talks Salem Horror Fest Tribute and Practical Effects Vs. CGI
Growing up in the eighties, I became a fan of Writer/director Joe Dante’s work at an early age. Gremlins (1984) is one of my favorite movies of all time. Dante is considered a legend in the horror community for his many horror films like Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), and The Burbs (1989), and even two standout episodes of Masters of Horror, Homecoming (2005) and The Screwfly Solution (2006). Dante is known for his love of practical effects, including the use of puppetry in his films and his use of these effects is part of the reason he is one of the most iconic horror filmmakers of my lifetime.
This year Salem Horror Fest is hosting a Tribute to Joe Dante that includes a 30th Anniversary of Gremlins 2: The New Batch reunion, a 40th Anniversary of The Howling reunion, podcasts, and Zoom meet and greets with Dante. For more information on the festival and to purchase passes, please visit Salem Horror Fest.
Dread Central was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Joe Dante about the Salem Horror Fest Tribute, his thoughts on practical effects versus CGI, his favorite horror film that he’s made, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!
Dread Central: Salem Horror Fest is presenting a tribute to you and your work this year, and that’s going to include a 30th anniversary of Gremlins 2 reunion and a 40th anniversary of The Howling reunion. How does it feel to have your work honored by the festival?
Joe Dante: Well it makes me feel old [laughs]. Those movies were made quite some time ago. They do seem to have engendered a fan base, so it’s always rewarding to see that people still enjoy them.
DC: You directed some of my favorite horror movies like Gremlins, The ‘Burbs, and even two episodes of Masters of Horror. What is your favorite movie you’ve directed and why?
JD: That’s like asking which one of your kids you like the best [laughs]. Some of the kids are disappointments and some of the kids become Rhodes Scholars. I’m not so sure there’s a big correlation between the success of a movie and it’s quality. Gremlins is obviously the most successful movie I ever made, I’m not sure it’s the best movie I ever made, but it connected with people in a way that none of us, from me down to the lowest grip on the set, could have imagined. For me, I tend to remember the pictures I enjoyed making and I had a certain amount of freedom on Gremlins because no one was paying attention, but then when it became a big hit they said, “Well, we want to have another one right away,” and it was pretty daunting because it had been a lot of trouble making this picture with the technology we had, so I said, “No,” and I didn’t hear, went off and made other things.
Then they came back to me five years later and said, “We really, really want a sequel to this movie so if you’ll do it, we’ll let you do whatever you want.” So I decided to make a sort of crazy kind of sequel that was designed to kill off the idea of anymore sequels, so they left me completely alone and I made a satirical movie about sequels in general and the original movie and the rules and the things that were more absurd about it and it was very personal to me, my sort of Mad Magazine origins coming to life. So, I really enjoyed making that movie, maybe more than any other movie I ever made. Was it the best movie I ever made? I don’t know, that’s for other people to decide.
DC: You are a master of practical effects and puppetry because of films like Gremlins, The Howling, and The Hole. We have so many filmmakers in recent years who seem to totally rely on CGI, and it’s really refreshing to see newer filmmakers embracing practical effects instead of CGI.
JD: Yeah, there are a lot of newer filmmakers who have sort of discovered the value of having something on the set, that you can actually work with, that the actors can see. Certainly there’s a place for CGI I mean, if we had made Gremlins twenty-five years later we could have still used puppets but been able to have so much freedom in the way we shot them, because we could have used the new technology to erase puppeteers from the frame. In the original movie, we had to design the sets, so they were up on stilts and the puppeteers underneath. They had to hide behind chairs and walls, you had to hide wires, all that kind of stuff, and it dictated the way the picture was shot, whereas now the sky is the limit. What you can have them do, even with puppeteers, and still get that same puppety kind of quality, that is so hard to replicate with CGI.
DC: What are your thoughts on the progression of the genre, from what I think is the most iconic era of horror, the eighties, until today?
JD: Well you have to remember; we were coming out of the Vietnam war and horror movies tend to flourish in periods of tumultuous upset. In the thirties we had the classics and during World War 2, we were afraid of the Russians, flying saucers, all of that kind of stuff. Then we got to the fifties and atomic power; I made a whole movie about that. I think the success of these pictures rises and falls with the anxiety of the time. One of the reasons people go to these movies is because they want to escape their own fears and substitute them with the fears of the characters on screen, and therefore everyone leaves feeling refreshed and invigorated.
The reason young people like these pictures so much is they are very much like thrill rides at the amusement park. You buy your ticket, you get scared, you have a seemingly life and death situation in which you still feel safe and when you get off, you’re exhilarated. I think horror movies, in a cinematic way, at least they used to when people were allowed to congregate in theaters together, they tap into that same feeling.
DC: The term “elevated horror” has been used increasingly over the past few years by filmmakers as well as fans, in order to avoid calling a movie a horror movie. I was wondering, what are your thoughts on the term “elevated horror?”
JD: Well, you know for so long, horror movies were ghettoized, even the more successful ones were generally looked down upon as inferior, because it was a pulp fiction kind of filmmaking; it wasn’t really as elegant or elevated as the prestige movies, but along the way a lot of great filmmakers made horror films: Hitchcock, Kubrick, everybody took a crack at scaring people. Walt Disney certainly made a whole career out of it. I think the idea of elevating it is simply that once the flashers appeared and the ratings systems came in, so now you could show a lot of nudity, I think there was a feeling of revulsion in some of the people who were writing about these kind of things, so in an effort to class it up they came up with this term elevated horror.
It’s not like these kind of films weren’t being made; The Haunting was being made; The Innocents; there were a lot of classic pictures that were made in the genre, but there was a need to differentiate between what was considered drive-in movies and cinema. I’ve never made that distinction myself, but I think the general public likes to bandy it about to show they are superior to those junky B pictures, which I think are the backbone of the business.
DC: There’s been a lot of talk and rumors about a Gremlins remake. What are your thoughts on that?
JD: There’s a video that someone just sent me, a guy singing about why isn’t there a Gremlins 3. There is sort of a Gremlins 3; there is an animated prequel that I’m consulting on that Warner Brothers is doing called The Secrets of the Mogwai, which will be on HBO Max, and that’s an interesting way of sort of dealing with the problem of why aren’t we making more of these Gremlins movies. You know, it’s not that easy to do these pictures and there needs to be a point, and that’s the whole idea with Gremlins 2; there was no point having a sequel because the movie didn’t really need a sequel, so we made a movie about why they didn’t need to do a sequel.
And so having done that, it made it even harder to go back because we invented new characters, we invented all sorts of things you now had to adhere to, and frankly a lot of people involved with the studio didn’t much like Gremlins 2. They were true to their word and let me make it, but they didn’t understand it when they saw it, they just couldn’t figure it out. Even among Chris Columbus and Steven Spielberg, they much prefer the original, but it’s too valuable a property not to do something with and many people have come down the pipeline with many ideas of what to do and how to do them, but none of them seem to have adhered to the executives, so they never made it. Also, there is the CGI question; are all the Gremlins going to be CGI, is it going to be that kind of movie?
DC: I think that would be disappointing, to me, at least.
JD: I just saw a trailer for some picture with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan and it looked like every shot was a green screen shot. It’s a period movie and obviously there’s lots of spectacle and stuff, but it was just so unreal looking, and I think that’s gradually being accepted by the audience, that level of unreality is being considered. Like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s the way movies look.”
DC: I’m just a big fan of practical effects.
JD: There are a lot of people who make special effects who are very devoted to the techniques and stuff, so you’re always going to see filmmakers try and upgrade the old ways as opposed to just dump it in the computer.
DC: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me today!
JD: Thank you. Very happy to talk to you.