This weekend director Joe Dante will be in town to introduce three of his films, each of which comes from a very different phase of his career. On Saturday Dante will host a screening of his first film, The Movie Orgy (1968), at the Nightingale. An epic found-film collage originally designed as a happening for college campuses, it represents Dante’s love of old movies and American kitsch in general in its purest state. On Friday he’ll be at the Music Box to introduce a midnight screening of Gremlins 2: The New Batch, made during the height of his success as a studio filmmaker, and a 9:30 PM screening of The Hole, a 2009 horror comedy that was produced independently. Last week I spoke with Dante—along with local programmer Gabe Klinger, who organized the screenings—about these three films. I knew it was going to be a good interview when Dante told me he’d been a fan of the Reader since the 1970s, and, sure enough, he proved an engaging and gracious subject. Following the jump is the first part of our conversation, which concerns The Hole, shooting in 3-D, and the challenges of working for Hollywood studios. I’ll post our discussion of The Movie Orgy (and Dante’s gratitude to Schlitz Beer) tomorrow.
Ben Sachs: How did this event come to be? What made you decide to show these three particular films?
Joe Dante: The event started out with just The Movie Orgy and Gremlins 2 because [Gremlins 2] is one of my favorite movies that I’ve done. Then I found out that The Hole, which has been on the shelf for a couple of years, is about to open theatrically in Atlanta and on Video on Demand in September. So I got the idea to call the company and ask if it was OK to run The Hole here in Chicago as the midwest premiere.
Why has The Hole been held up?
Dante: It’s really my fault. When I was engaged to shoot the movie, I convinced the producers to [let me] shoot it in digital 3-D. And they did their due diligence; they checked around to see what the competition was [for 3-D movies] and how many theaters could show it. But this was four years ago. A lot of theaters hadn’t converted [to digital projection] yet… We also didn’t realize when we were making the picture that this new fad of fake 3-D [movies shot in 2-D but retrofitted in post-production] would be coming down the pike. So now there were all these previously unannounced major movies that were suddenly in 3D. And they took up all the theaters, all the air in the room. And our little picture with no movie stars found itself standing at the gate with no screens available.
This sort of built up for a while. [The producers] tried to find a distributor and that fell through; and before you know it, people were, like, “That’s an old movie. We don’t want to show it.” So it just missed its chance—largely, because it was in 3-D. Now, ironically, the version that will be playing in Chicago is not in 3-D.
What do you think of the film in 2-D?
Dante: The only time I’ve seen it in that format was when I was editing it. I’ve never actually sat through an entire screening in 2-D. I think it will be fine, but it was really intended to be a 3-D movie—and you don’t make a 3D movie quite the same way you make a 2-D movie. Cutting is particularly different in 3-D, because you have to watch for a lot of optical issues.
Gabe Klinger: I heard that when you shot The Hole, you used 3-D screens to visualize [the finished product] as you were working.
Dante: Yes, we could see it in 3-D while we were shooting, so it was easier to make adjustments. You could do a certain amount of the stereopticon work right there on the set, placing objects either further away or closer to the camera.
Was that your first time working in 3-D?
Dante: No, I had made a film called The Haunted Lighthouse for Busch Gardens Entertainment, which is a theme park, and that was in 4-D. Now, 4-D is the same as 3-D, except that they also drop water on you, in the great William Castle tradition. It was shot in a 70-millimeter process—we shot it on two 70-millimeter cameras strapped together. That gives you a wonderful image, but, on the set, [the rig] is like a Buick. You need, like, eight grips to move it. And it’s also really loud, so you have to loop the whole picture. It’s a technology that I think is no longer in use today.
I take it that the Red allowed you to shoot more freely.
Dante: Digital 3-D is a huge leap forward from film 3-D—and I say this as a big fan of film 3-D. I saw those movies when I was a kid, and I’ve gone to all the 3-D festivals here in LA. But there are inherent problems with the technology. The film isn’t steady in the gate [of the camera]. It weaves when you’re shooting the movie and it weaves when you’re projecting the movie. So it’s difficult for your eyes to stabilize the images. With digital, everything is rock-steady; so the depth-of-field and the sharpness of the image are much more reliable. When used correctly, it’s the best we’ve ever had.
Do you have any favorite 3-D movies?
Dante: My absolute favorite is Dial M for Murder, because it’s essentially a photographed stage play. But its use of space is so much more sophisticated than the early attempts of throwing rocks at the camera. Ironically, by the time that picture was finished, 3-D was dying out—particularly among what was known as the “class trade.” So when that picture opened, the grosses were low until they got rid of the 3-D print and created a 2-D print; then the grosses went up. It sounded the death knell of a fad that people had, A, grown tired of, and, B, suffered from seeing in improper presentation.
As for my other favorites, there’s a movie called Inferno, which is about a guy who’s dropped into the desert to die by his wife and her lover; Robert Ryan’s in that. That makes tremendous use of the desert space. And, of course, The Creature From the Black Lagoon is a great 3-D movie because any 3-D movie with no horizon line means the filmmakers have the opportunity to take the contents of the screen and put them right in the third row.
You’ve been associated with special effects for a long time—pretty much since Gremlins in 1984. Do you find that the effects have shaped your working methods?
Dante: Those [Gremlins] movies were both defined by the limitations of the technology at the time. There are things we would have loved to have [the Gremlins] do that we couldn’t have them do. By the time of the second movie, the technology had improved to the point where we could show Gizmo’s whole body—so we could have him walking and dancing—and we had a Gremlin who could talk. Those developments opened the door for a lot of new jokes.
I think the reason why there hasn’t been a third [Gremlins movie] is that now, with the advent of CGI, there’s really no structure to what you can do. Anything’s possible. But if anything’s possible, then everything’s possible.
Dante: In a way, Small Soldiers is like “Gremlins 3″ and Looney Tunes is like “Gremlins 4.”
Klinger: Looney Tunes seems to have a lot in common with Gremlins 2 . . .
Dante: Yes, it does. Because it’s a cartoon movie, it’s a gagfest. Not having a particularly strong story, it just goes from gag to gag and location to location. It’s not a particularly compelling narrative, but, of course, that’s not where the charm of the movie is supposed to lie.
Klinger: How was making those films different from making Gremlins 2? Effects technology changed a lot in the decade after you made that movie, as did studio filmmaking on the whole.
Dante: Well, the new technology actually makes things much easier. I mean, if Looney Tunes had been done at the same time as [Who Framed] Roger Rabbit, it would have been the same nightmare that Roger Rabbit was. All of those on-set things that had to be done and animated over, we didn’t have to do any of them. With the advent of CGI, you just shoot the background, and then the CGI people come in.
On Small Soldiers, we were planning to use a lot of Stan Winston’s puppets—he had made some very elaborate puppets that could do a lot of things. But in practice, we found it was much simpler and cheaper to let the CGI people do the work after we’d shot the scenes. So, I would say, it’s one-third puppetry and the rest CGI in Small Soldiers, even though the original idea was to do mostly puppetry.
By the time we got to Looney Tunes—because the characters are cel animated—we would shoot each scene three times. First we’d rehearse with a stand-in—a “stuffy,” we called it. Then, we’d shoot the scene without anything in it; then, we’d shoot the scene again with this mirror ball in the shot which shows the computers where the light sources are. Then the animators would go to work and put characters into the frame. The problem with that movie came when the studio [executives] started to get tired of our jokes and wanted us to change them. But, of course, the animation is done to the voices and not the other way around. It was difficult trying to convince them that you don’t just bring in 25 gag writers and try to write a joke that’s short enough to put in somebody’s mouth.
Did you really have 25 gag writers on Looney Tunes: Back in Action?
Dante: Yes, even though there’s only one credited writer.
What’s that like?
Dante: It’s not fun.