Whether you grew up watching Gremlins, The ’Burbs, Matinee, Small Soldiers, or The Hole, Joe Dante's films have spanned generations and given countless viewers something to lean on in their formative years and beyond into adulthood. While he's perhaps best known as a director, Dante is now paying it forward to the next generation of filmmakers (much like his friend Roger Corman) as an executive producer, with his latest project being Andy Palmer's Camp Cold Brook, a film that follows a team of paranormal investigators to a haunted summer camp where they encounter more than they bargained for when it comes to communicating with the other side.
With Camp Cold Brook now in theaters and on Digital and VOD from Shout! Studios, Daily Dead recently had the honor of speaking with Dante about working with Palmer and Shout! Factory on the new horror film. During our chat, Dante also discussed his consulting involvement on the upcoming animated series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, and he reflected on The ’Burbs, Small Soldiers (which this writer was lucky enough to see in theaters, although I almost saw Air Bud 2: Golden Receiver instead), and Eerie, Indiana.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, and congratulations on Camp Cold Brook. It's a really cool spin on both the summer camp horror movie and the found footage, ghost, paranormal shows. I think it has a lot of fun with both of those subgenres.
Joe Dante: It's difficult in today's market coming up with something different that juggles the cliches that the audience expects when they go in. The reason this genre has such longevity and so many fans is because there's just something about this material that audiences like and like to keep repeating. But they get disappointed if you go and all you give them is exactly what they've seen before. So the trick is to try to juggle these things in a way that makes it appear that it's going in a different direction or surprise you in any way. It's a tall order now because there's so much competition.
How did you initially get involved with this project? Because I know you have produced in the past, but was this a script that kind of spoke to you?
Joe Dante: Well, yeah it did, but it's an effort to sort of give back. I got where I was because I was mentored by people who were already in the business and were successful. Roger Corman and Steven Spielberg, and people like that, if I didn't have those people in my corner, I wouldn't have been able to do the work that I did. And so it's in the spirit of giving back that my little company looks for material. Not blockbuster expensive material, but makable material from young filmmakers who could use a little help in trying to put together their projects.
Because, listen, even on my level it's difficult to put projects together. Everything is funded in different blocks by different groups. And half the time, when you're just about ready to shoot, some of the money falls out and then you have to change your plans. You lose an actor. There's a lot of movies that don't get made. And a lot of movies that almost get made and then don't get made. The real achievement of any movie is the fact that it actually got made! And then once it gets made, then you have to find a way for people to see it, which is a whole other long, huge change that's gone on in this business about how movies are exhibited and where people will watch them. And this one, obviously, is a movie that plays in some theaters to give it a certain legitimacy, but for the most part is going to be seen on streaming devices and in people's homes and computers and stuff.
And you don't make the movie differently because of that. Because after all, it's a screen and the screens are bigger now. No matter where you are, you can always sit closer to your computer screen and make it bigger. But it's a change from when movies were made to be seen in theaters. And what we miss, I think, is we miss the communal experiences, particularly with horror films and comedies, of enjoying a movie with people around you, which makes it a different movie than it would be if you just watched it by yourself.
You mentioned Roger Corman, and you worked with him when you were getting your start in Hollywood. And like you said, he gave so many people their first chance in this business, whether it's Jack Nicholson or people that are just coming up now. Did you learn anything about the producing side of the business from Roger that you applied to this project?
Joe Dante: Actually, the things that I learned from Roger were things that I was able to use throughout my entire career, because the only thing that's important when you're making a movie is what happens between when you say, "Action," and when you say, "Cut," that's the movie. Everything else, whether it's a rush job to try to get it all done, or whether it's a really long schedule where you have lots of time to think about it, the proof is really what happens when the camera is on. And the thing you learn at Roger's is you learn how to maximize your time and how to get the most screen time out of the day. And I'm sure that some of those lessons have rubbed off on the people that have made movies with us.
He was resourceful and he was frugal. But he would spend his time on the things that he thought were important to the movie and then, if he had to slough something off, it would be a minor scene or he would cover something in one take, because he knew the time to be able to make something out of some big moments in the movie. All directors do that. You have to marshal your time and figure out what's really worth spending time on and what you can get away with.
And this movie was directed by Andy Palmer, who did The Funhouse Massacre a few years ago with Robert Englund, which was a lot of fun. It feels like he has a lot of fun making horror movies and making movies that he wants people to enjoy just as much as he does making the film. What do you see in him as a director?
Joe Dante: He's one of a group of people, of which I am one, of movie fans who get to make movies, the kind they would want to go see. John Carpenter is certainly in that group. And so many people who make these kinds of pictures originally were fans of the genre. And then when they got a chance to make a movie, horror movies are almost always the safest bet commercially because the fan base is so loyal. But that doesn't mean you can afford to spend a fortune on them because, after the first weekend, you don't know who else is going to come see the picture.
But we're all motivated by the fact that we really like these kinds of movies and I think you can tell. I think movies made by people who are just in it for the buck are not as interesting as the movies made by people who really care about the subject. I think that's why horror fans tend to make some of these infectiously fun movies, because that passion really shows through. And there's so much you can do with horror, in particular. You can have fun with it, you can take it seriously. You can just really mold it to whatever kind of contraption you want to.
When this film was being made, how involved were you during the production process? Did you let Andy do his thing?
Joe Dante: It was shot in Kentucky. I was involved in the editing stage. I let Andy do his thing. I didn't go down there to stand over him and make him worry, which is often what executive producers do.
As a director, you've been involved with huge studio movies and lower budget movies. From your experiences on those, did that help you coming into the producing side of it, where you're like, "Okay, I just want to give him the space and let him have his creative freedom"?
Joe Dante: When you know when you're making a movie, that if you're not on the same page as the people who are paying you, then the movie isn't going to work out very well. And so the important thing is for everybody to agree, at the beginning, of what the movie is going to be. What kind of a movie it is. And I've been on very expensive movies where in the middle of shooting, they suddenly changed their mind on what kind of movie they wanted or what reading they wanted or what audience they were looking for. And it almost always impacts the movie adversely. So in learning from the situations that I've been in, I take a lot of pains to try to make sure that anybody who's working with me doesn't have to go through that.
That's good. I think it's another way to pay it forward by not causing people to stress out as much. I think it's a good way to reciprocate.
Joe Dante: It's hard enough to make movies when everybody is getting along.
Yeah, that's a good point. Like you said, it's a miracle just to cross that finish line. And not only did you do that in this movie, but you also got really good distribution with Shout! Factory, who's emerged as one of the leading distributors, not only of physical media but for original films as well. How did that all come about? Was that an ideal situation for you?
Joe Dante: We have a really good relationship with Shout! Factory and I think it may have started when they started running Trailers from Hell episodes, from some of the various pictures that they were releasing. And they came to us and said, "Can we license some of these commentaries?" And then, of course, every so often they would put out something of mine. Like when they did Piranha, they did a 4K scan, and they invited me to go down there and make sure that it was okay.
And that's the kind of attention that you really usually don't get from anybody but like a Spielberg or a Jim Cameron—people who want you to be involved. But for the most part, when you work for most companies, you hand them the movie and then they do what they want with it. And it's not uncommon. A lot of times, color timers are sitting in a room watching the picture with no sound and making it look the way they think it's supposed to look. And particularly, in the day for night scenes, if you don't realize that it's supposed to be a night scene, you don't time it correctly. And so it looks like a day scene.
I've sat in timing sessions at MGM, on movies where people were having gun fights and it was supposed to be a night scene and they were timing it for day. And I remember saying to one of the guys, "I've seen this movie, and the reason these guys aren't able to shoot each other is because it's dark and they can't see each other, but the sun is out now. You should listen to the soundtracks of these pictures when you're timing them." It's always nice to work with people who care about the people who made the movie and want it to be good, and give you the leeway to try to improve it.
Yeah, and with Scream Factory as well, you'll know you'll get a really killer Blu-ray release down the line.
Joe Dante: It's not easy for them. It's not easy for them because a lot of these movies, even movies that are moderately recent, it's very difficult to find materials that are pristine. A lot of these movies, the original negatives are long since gone. And some of them have been licensed to so many different distributors over the years that really nobody knows where to look for the materials. And so Shout! has really been doing a remarkable job with some of these pictures that would ordinarily just be sort sloughed off with indifferent transfers. But they've been going the limit in trying to find the best materials. I really appreciate that.
Yeah. And then God forbid if there was a fire or something like that, you can literally lose history. So it's nice that they're preserving horror history. It's really amazing what they've done. Even going back to movies from the ’50s and ’60s, I love those releases that have the original poster artwork.
Joe Dante: Yeah. A lot of these movies were not taken very seriously at the time and they're being kind of resurrected. The stuff they did with some of the Roger Corman pictures from the ’50s, the black-and-white sci-fi and horror pictures, they found materials that had been missing for years. And these movies were available only in substandard 16 millimeter transfers. And now they look the way they did when they were new! And it's great. It's really a piece of film history and I think it's important to preserve it.
Absolutely. One thing about Camp Cold Brook I thought was interesting is you have a really great cast in this movie. And Courtney Gains is also in it, so there's a little bit of a 'Burbs reunion going on there. I was watching the Golden Globes and they had Tom Hanks receive the [Cecil B. DeMille] award and they had some good 'Burbs footage in there. It almost feels like now, more than 30 years later, the audience for it just keeps growing. Do you have any thoughts on the legacy of that movie? Because I feel like everything about it, it just works still.
Joe Dante: It's kind of remarkable because, at the time, it was just another movie. And it got awful, awful reviews. It made a lot of money, it was fairly popular, but the reviews were abominably bad. And we sort of all figured, "Well, we'll just go onto the next thing." And then over the years, I'd go to dentists offices and stuff and they'd say, "Oh, you made The 'Burbs?" And I discovered the picture was more popular than I thought it was. And now the movie is probably second only to Gremlins as the most popular movie I ever made. It's got websites devoted to it, it's got a trivia book. There's a lot of people who just talk back to the screen when they're watching that picture. So it's amazing to us, because we didn't think that it was going to make such a splash.
But a lot of times these movies don't really show their real worth until 10 years have gone by. And you really can't tell the worth of a movie at the time it comes out because there's so much other noise around it. But I think a good movie is like wine, it ages and it stands the test of time. And that's why we're still looking back at Casablanca and we're looking back at some of these movies that are so good that they keep being remade even though the originals are fine, because there's just something about the appeal, the enduring appeal of a good movie.
Yeah. And I feel like with The 'Burbs, maybe a lot of kids that watched that growing up, now they're in Tom Hanks' shoes, where they are an adult in the suburbs and they have kids and they're facing this problem with boredom, or God forbid, cannibal neighbors.
Joe Dante: Yeah. People turning their kids on to these movies is one of the reasons why so many of them have remained popular. It's generational.
A huge movie for me growing up with Small Soldiers, another suburb movie that I thought really did well and Phil Hartman in that movie is so great. It was my birthday movie, and I was under some pressure to pick Air Bud 2: Golden Receiver, and I chose Small Soldiers and I'm so glad I did.
Joe Dante: [Laughs] Who talks about Air Bud 2 anymore? You made the right choice!
I feel comfortable in that decision. We rented Air Bud 2 later, so we gave it its due, but Small Soldiers was better on the big screen. And what was that like filming the action figure scenes and the Gwendy Dolls?
Joe Dante: It was originally supposed to be like 80 percent puppetry. Stan Winston made these puppets of all these characters. And CGI was just taking off, and because they were puppets, they didn't have to move particularly fluidly. It wasn't like we're trying to make them look like a live animal or anything. And so we started to realize that anytime they had to move, if they had to go more than a couple of steps, it was just better to shoot a plate and put the CGI puppet in and instead add it later. And so more than half the movie ended up being CGI and that was a real surprise to Stan, because he was hoping to use much more of the puppets than we did.
Yeah. I think the Gwendy Doll scenes retain a little darker edge, which I think really works well when you look at it now. And I think it's a movie that adults and kids can enjoy for that reason, because it is kind of twisted. It has a Gremlins feel to it.
Joe Dante: Yeah. A lot of people called it Gremlins 2 and a Half.
Just don't give those commandos missiles after midnight... Another project I have to mention that got me into horror, was that show that you were involved in called Eerie, Indiana. As a kid watching the "Foreverware" episode, it just left an indelible mark on my mind. And I always feel like that show was Twin Peaks for a younger audience.
Joe Dante: Well, it was. It was, in a way. It was also pre-X-Files. It was X-Files Junior.
Did you get approached to be a part of that? Because you ended up directing several episodes.
Joe Dante: I talked to the guys about doing the pilot. And I really liked it. I got pretty close to the group and I got involved in the casting and all that, and I really had a good time. And when the pilot sold, they said, "Why don't you come on and be the creative consultant?" And so I got to have input into all the stories and all that kind of stuff. And whenever I was available I got to direct some. I was supposed to direct the one that I'm in, which is the last episode, the "Reality Takes a Holiday," where Marshall learns that he's an actor in a TV show. And I was working on Matinee, or I was going to work on Matinee, and I wasn't available. I said, "But I'll play myself."
So I'm in it. But it was directed by Ken Kwapis. And it was supposed to be the last episode of the show, and it was designed to be. But there was another episode, that they hadn't run, about backward masking, because it was considered too controversial. There's this father, and he doesn't want his kid listening to rock music, but when you play it backwards... that was in the news at the moment as a sort of a controversial religious thing. They wouldn't run that episode at all. But when they put the show together for the DVD, they took that episode and put it last, even though it's from the middle of the season. And so you don't get to really enjoy "Reality Takes a Holiday" as the end of the show, which is what it was supposed to be.
Unfortunately, it [Eerie, Indiana] was on against 60 Minutes and it really never got a chance to find itself. And then, oddly enough, it was off the air for a couple of years and we ran it on Fox in the morning as a kids' show, and it became insanely popular.
A lot of people think Gremlins when they think "Joe Dante," and now they're doing an animated series.
Joe Dante: Yeah, I'm consulting on it.
Oh, fantastic! I was wondering about that. So you are involved creatively?
Joe Dante: It's good. It's going to be good, yeah. I'm very pleased with the way it's going.
Do you think it will be kind of the same spirit of the original movie? As far as being family friendly, but a little darker?
Joe Dante: It's a prequel. It goes back to the character Mr. Wing when he was a boy, and when he first discovered the Mogwai. It's set in China in the ’20s, and it's animated and it's very big in the sense that if you tried to shoot it as a theatrical film, it would be outrageously expensive. But in animation, you kind of get away with almost anything you can think of. And it's probably not going to be done until 2021 or maybe the end of 2020. It's for HBO Max, a new streaming variant of HBO.
There's always been that chatter about a third Gremlins movie or a remake, but I think this will be a good way to do it.
Joe Dante: I think this is a really clever way to get back into that. I think that they found it pretty difficult to make a sequel to Gremlins 2, because of just the way I made it. And they just could never really quite figure out how to do it. So I think this is a great way to sort of get the franchise back on people's minds.
Do you have another Gremlins story that you want to tell? Or was the second one your mic drop, as far as what you wanted to do with those characters?
Joe Dante: I didn't even want to tell the second one. The only reason I did it was because they said they would let me do it however I wanted. Because they were so desperate to have a sequel and they couldn't figure out on their own how to do it because they didn't really like or understand the first movie. They just liked the fact that it was popular. And so when I made my movie, which sort of made fun of the first movie and didn't take it as seriously as they took it, they were kind of flummoxed. "Well, now where are we going to go with this series?" It's already made fun of itself. So it's like when you make Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and you can't make any more Frankenstein movies.
It's kind of the last word there. And then it's hard to top the effects work like Rick Baker's crew did on that movie. It's just phenomenal, all the different variations of Gremlins.
Joe Dante: It's pretty great. It's pretty great what they were able to do with what is now very outdated technology. But at the time, it was cutting edge.
And as far as upcoming stuff going on, I know you are involved with The Movies That Made Me podcast. And that, I believe, is in a new season right now.
Joe Dante: Yes, for a second season. It's been surprisingly popular, and it's fun to do and a lot of people tell me that they watch it, they listen to it in their car, and they don't miss an episode and all that. So, that's fun.
If you had to choose one movie that made you, is there one that comes to mind, or is it just a hodgepodge of films that you grew up watching?
Joe Dante: I have too many films running in my head to be able to ever choose one. There's a whole raft of 100 movies that I could cycle through and say, "Well, I like that one better, I like this one better, I like that one better." I don't compare them. To me, they're just all experiences that I'm happy that I had and I often go back and revisit.