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Making Movies With Your Friends: An Interview With Director Joe Dante

Joe Dante wears his love of the movie industry on his sleeve, and he's quick to share his decades worth of insights with PopMatters.

Wednesday, 25 May marks the launch of the second annual Mammoth Lakes Film Festival (MLFF), which celebrates the spirit of independent film with the goal of inspiring current and future generations of the filmmaking community. The five-day festival will take place in Mammoth Lakes California, offering festivalgoers and industry guests a wonderful opportunity to experience screenings and other events in a majestic mountain setting.

On Saturday evening, MLFF will host its Centerpiece Gala and screening in honour of acclaimed director, Joe Dante (Gremlins, Explorers). Dante will be the recipient of the festival’s inaugural Sierra Spirit Award. Each year MLFF will grant the award to an “iconic and visionary filmmaker who inspires audiences, breaks boundaries, and has created visionary entertainment that has touched generations.”

In catching up with Dante prior to MLFF, it was obvious that Dante wears his love of the movie industry on his sleeve, and he was quick to share his decades worth of insights with PopMatters. During the conversation we discussed his thoughts on MLFF, the pros and cons of creating indie-films, and the moment when he knew that he had arrived in show business.

Festival Honoree

Dante had no idea that he was in consideration for the Sierra Spirit Award, and the announcement made for a pleasant surprise. “It’s always an honor when somebody singles you out for that sort of notification, and praise,” he said. Dante believes that MLFF offers attendees a lot to look forward too. In addition to the location’s beautiful scenery, Dante mentions that MLFF is “a very well-run fest”, and that “the programming is quite imaginative and clever, and that the people are really nice. That’s pretty much all you can ask for about a festival.”

Dante isn’t the type of director that hoards critical praise; he is quick to stress the significant contributions of a production’s writers, actors, and effects crews, “Try making movies without them,” he chuckled. It seems fitting that Dante’s friend and frequent collaborator, Robert Picardo (The Howling, Explorers) will be at Saturday night’s Award Gala. When asked what it means to have Picardo on hand for the event Dante said, “Well, Bob has been a friend since, I guess I made The Howling, and I put him in countless movies and TV shows. He’s a terrific actor, he’s fun to watch on screen, and he’s fun to watch in person. And he’s very funny. So it will be a complete plus having him up there.”

The Saturday night Gala will screen one of Dante’s most beloved movies, Innerspace, to go along with the award presentation. When asked how Innerspace was chosen, Dante said, “I think it probably has something to do with the fact that Robert is in it. I think they actually talked to him before they talked to me about his availability.” As a collaborative tandem, Dante and Picardo have quite a prolific output. “We’ve done a number of things together, they could have chosen any other one of them, but his part in Innerspace is particularly funny.” In Innerspace, Picardo plays a Middle Eastern arms dealer. “It’s not, I don’t think in today’s world a particularly politically correct character,” says Dante, “but it’s pretty funny and he’s very macho.”

Making It In Hollywood

It’s remarkable to look back at how far Dante has come since his humble beginnings as an aspiring cartoonist applying to the Philadelphia College of Art. At the time, Dante was told that “cartooning” wasn’t considered a career, setting him on the path to becoming a filmmaker. Dante’s break came while working as an editor for the legendary Roger Corman. After Dante proved himself an asset cutting trailers, Corman approved a low budget ($60,000) production titled Hollywood Boulevard with a few stipulations; the film must be shot after office hours and had to wrap in only ten days. Dante and co-director Allan Arkush pulled it off. The duo made mountains out of molehills, utilizing the studio’s existing assets to compensate for their lack of means. Dante’s display of skill and resourcefulness proved to Corman that he could handle taking the reins of future projects.

Dante says that there wasn’t ever a decisive instance when he realized he was good at his job, but he did have a definitive moment when he knew that he had made it in show business. “I do remember realizing that I had arrived in the movie business when making The Twilight Zone movie. It was the first picture that I had ever shot on a soundstage. Standing up on top of our sort of the weird set that we had built and I was looking off in the corner of the sound stage and a grip came up to me and he said, ‘Kid, ya see that corner over there?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Errol Flynn pissed in that corner.’ I remember thinking I’ve arrived, I’m in Hollywood. This is it, this is the real thing.”

Dante insists that it’s integral for up and coming filmmakers to know what came before. He’s also well aware that today’s generation of writers and directors must battle recency bias and information overload. Dante spends a lot of time thinking about what inspires kids to want to make films and he doesn’t think it’s today’s blockbuster movies. “In my day it was Kurosawa and Ford, French new wave, Hitchcock and Wells. And for later generations it was Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars that made them want to make movies.”

Fortunately, today’s crop of aspiring directors are experiencing a democratization of the filmmaking process. “Luckily they’re blessed with the technology to be able to make the movies they want for not a terrible amount of money. Unlike my generation where we had to either go to film school where the equipment was, or we had to buy it ourselves, and it involved cameras and it involved film, it involved splicing, and laboratories and all that stuff. Which can now all be done digitally.”

Lessons For Future Filmmakers

One of the biggest hurdles facing today’s filmmakers is getting people to watch their movies. “I think the means are much more available than they ever were before,” says Dante, “The problem is even once you’ve made your pretty slick looking student short, or feature even if you’re that ambitious, you have to figure out a way to get people to see it.”

Dante stresses how important it is for filmmakers to establish their presence at festivals such as MLFF. “If you can get your project seen in a festival, programmed in a festival and somebody sees it or writes about it or sees who you are, then you’ve got an identity, then you’re the guy who made that. That puts you in the running with other people who are known to have done it as opposed to other people who haven’t been able to get anybody to see what it is that they’ve done because they have no way to get it out there in the world.”

Young filmmakers need to understand that finding an online platform to showcase their work isn’t going to be enough. “Even if they decide to put it up on YouTube for free,” Dante said, “there’s only 200 million other things up there on YouTube and there’s no way to get people to know where to go to see it. That’s the harder part. It’s easier to make the films, get the films made, harder to get them seen.”

Trailers From Hell is one of Dante’s contributions to film history curation. Established in 2007, the site is a compilation of film trailers featuring commentaries by notable filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro and Roger Corman. “We’ve got filmmakers talking about the trailers from movies that inspired them, movies they think people should see and they go back to the silent days even. That’s an attempt to curate stuff and have people that you can recognize and who are your contemporaries point you towards things that you might not even know existed. It’s sort of a mini film school in a sense that its short sound bites and only three-to-four minutes long, but they’re full of intonations.”

Dante has a clear-cut objective for Trailers From Hell: “Hopefully they inspire people to seek out the subjects at hand and become familiar with them. Otherwise, there is just so much going on in the world and old movies are irrelevant to younger people, it’s not the same world that they live in. And it can become very difficult to get them involved in what I think should be essential viewing for people who are actually going to work in the industry.”

Indie Movies: A Double-Edged Sword

When Dante discusses working in the industry, aspiring filmmakers are wise to take heed. Dante has over 30 film credits to his name and his filmography includes micro-budget films, blockbusters, and everything in between. Dante weighed in on the pros and cons of working on smaller budget films.

“The more money you spend, the more oversight there is,” he notes, “and rightly so, because it’s a big investment. You make a smaller movie, there are less people telling you what to do. You of course have to roll with the punches and realize that you’re not going to get a crane every day, and you’re not going to get a lot of the perks you would like to have to make for the bells and whistles of your movie. But on the other hand, it does force you to be creative with a smaller box and you get a chance to make a movie that might be a little more pure than a movie that’s had many mid-wives, and lots of previews, and lots of recuts, and lots of reshoots perhaps you weren’t even involved with.”

Dante believes that the restrictive big studio system is one of the reasons that more movie directors are choosing to work in television. As directors move into the indie market, they often have to play the role of producer, scrape together funding, and assemble talent. TV affords directors a chance to focus on their craft. “I think the one thing about television is that it’s a sure thing in a sense that they hire you, you go, you do the work, they pay you, and people see it.”

He also acknowledges that for all the freedom that indie movies offer filmmakers, the indie market provides its own set of perils. “You can’t be sure making an independent film today whether anybody is even going to get to see it, even if you finish it. If it doesn’t get a distributor, if it doesn’t play in theaters, if it goes directly to video on demand and then it gets pirated the chances of any kind of remuneration become a lot smaller. On the other hand, you got to make your movie, which maybe you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. So it’s a double edged-sword.”

Learn From Your Mistakes

At the end of the day, Dante believes the best advice he can offer aspiring filmmakers is to get out there and just start making their films. “Work. Do stuff. Make shorts. Make movies with your friends. Make movies that you can make mistakes on and then learn from your mistakes. And then make another movie and don’t make that mistake cause there’s lots of other mistakes waiting to happen.”

Dante says that filmmaking is a process of discovery. “As you discover if you ever have a career and you’ve made like, you know, 30 movies, you know the mistakes that you’ve made that you’re not going to make again, but there are always new ones to make. When you look at people’s careers, when you follow the trajectory of Kubrick or Hitchcock or anybody like that, and you watch them develop as filmmakers and as people, it’s fascinating. They all learn from their mistakes.”

For the past 40 years, movie lovers have had front row seats to Joe Dante’s process of discovery, and on Saturday night, Mammoth Lake Film Festival attendees get to show their appreciation.