The name Joe Dante should definitely be familiar to all of us who grew up in the eighties and beyond. He not only became a sensation when he directed films like The Howling and Gremlins, but Dante became a name synonymous with a comedic bite that helped shape many facets of cinema, including horror and the blockbuster.
Growing up as a kid from New Jersey who fell in love with the big screen, he went on to work with the legendary low budget producing magnate Roger Corman. Along with other filmmakers who became successful, he began to make a name for himself with projects including Hollywood Boulevard and the now forty-year-old homage to Jaws with deadly flesh-eating fish, Pirahna. His list of work is varied and all have a voice of their own, including Explorers, The Twilight Zone: The Movie, Gremlins 2, Innerspace, The ‘Burbs, Matinee, Small Soldiers and his acclaimed Masters of Horror episodes. His latest passion project is as a podcast host, along with screenwriter Josh Olson, on their Trailers From Hell series The Movies That Made Me.
Recently, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fantasia International Film Festival during the premiere of his latest project Nightmare Cinema, an anthology film orchestrated by the man behind the adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand and Sleepwalkers, Mick Garris.
Speaking to Joe Dante has been a dream of mine since I was very young, and it was a joy to finally sit down with him and chat about his career. Among other things, we spoke about his work throughout the decades and his latest horror outing, Nightmare Cinema. Check it out below, and enjoy!
Joe, thank you so much for talking to me today, this is truly an honor for me.
Joe Dante: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for wanting to speak with me.
So when did your passion for film begin? Was it something that started in your youth or something you transitioned into later in life?
Joe Dante: Well, we didn’t have a television growing up. The only time I would see movies was the Saturday Matinee. They had ten cartoons and two features and the first boy and girl in line got in for free. I got into the habit, and I stayed for the cartoons and usually left before the feature because it was all grownups and I wasn’t interested. Then I stayed for It Came From Outer Space in 3D and I realized that movies had a lot to offer on their own. After that, I became the only kid that went to the movies every Saturday and Sunday.
Wow. So would you say that It Came From Outer Space was the film that influenced you the most?
Joe Dante: No. That’s the movie that kept me coming back for features. In those days during the kiddie matinees, the movie was suitable, and if not it was an adult film. It was a western, or a Tarzan movie, the Bowery Boys or Abbott and Costello. It was just a lot of fun and was very raucous because it was just a bunch of screaming kids. It was a whole lot of fun.
And what was it about film that grabbed you? Was it the cinematography, the story, or anything in particular?
Joe Dante: Well, I don’t know if I was past the point where I even knew that actors weren’t making up words when they went along. I didn’t know anything about films, I just thought they were a lot of fun. The more outlandish the movie was the more fun it was for me.
When you began working for Roger Corman, how did that meeting come about, and what was that experience like from the inside?
Joe Dante: I was a big fan of Roger’s, and I saw the black and white sci-fi movies. So when my friend Jon Davison came out to California to get a job he asked me if I wanted to come out and make trailers for Corman. So the first time I met him was in a screening room to run my very poorly edited trailer. I had arrived late and didn’t drive, so I rolled one of my reels down the street. It was horrible.
I remember the first thing Roger said to me was, “Young man if I were you I would get to these things on time. And I thought, “That’s it, my career is over.” But Roger was very forgiving because he had to be and some of the people that worked for him didn’t know anything.
I began making all the trailers with my partner Allan Arkush because Roger got tired of hiring piecemeal people and telling them what kind of trailers to make. He thought if he hired young kids they could learn to do it on their own. We inherited the trailers for a whole bunch of movies in the seventies and it was during that period that I learned editing and moviemaking and asked him to do a movie of our own. He’d said we could if it was the cheapest movie he’d made, we had ten days to do it, and we had to make the trailers. The only way we could make a movie that was decent was to make something out of the movies we had trailers for. So we made Hollywood Boulevard which was practically a documentary about how movies were made at New World.