The orgiast: an interview with Joe Dante (part two) | Bleader

The orgiast: an interview with Joe Dante (part two)

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A still from Dantes The Movie Orgy, which screens Saturday at the Nightingale
  • A still from Dante's The Movie Orgy, which screens Saturday at the Nightingale
Director Joe Dante began his career as a filmmaker with The Movie Orgy, a marathon happening compiled from old film and television clips. The work, which Dante will introduce at the Nightingale on Saturday at 8 PM, anticipates Dante's later Hollywood fantasies in its stockpile of film references and its sweet-and-sour relationship to American kitsch. Last week local programmer Gabe Klinger (who organized this weekend's Dante screenings) and I spoke with Dante about The Movie Orgy, its connection to his other work, and how he got away with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which he'll introduce tomorrow at midnight at the Music Box. I posted the first part of our interview yesterday; the remainder follows the jump.

Gabe Klinger: It will be interesting to see The Hole, which you shot in 3-D and with lots of special effects, alongside The Movie Orgy, which is such a low-fi experience.

Joe Dante: Very low-fi. I try not to run it if I can't be there, because I feel I need to explain to the audience before the picture starts how crude it is.

Klinger: When I saw the movie at the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland, the audience seemed really energized by it—and I came in at 3:30 in the morning.

Dante: I found that to be the case when I first started taking it out. The sheer length of it—and the fact that the audience is having this communal experience, having to digest all this crazy material—actually does make people giddy. And while there were plenty of controlled substances at various screenings over the years, in fact you don't need any. Because the movie kind of makes you high as it goes on.

It was basically designed to be walked out on. You know, if you wanted to go out to get a pizza or a have a smoke or go for a walk around the block and then come back, it was OK, because you wouldn't miss anything. Considering the general collage nature of the whole thing, it really didn't matter.

It's akin to The Clock, that recent movie that's 24 hours long. Some people have actually tried to sit through the entire thing without sleeping, which is pretty incredible. But it's sort of a tonic for people—they go in and they get mesmerized. They want to stay longer. The Movie Orgy is very funny, so there's a lot of good will released by the fact that people are in a group having fun. And that's the whole purpose of theatrical exhibition.

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Ben Sachs: Do you have a favorite screening of the film?

Dante: There have been a lot of memorable nights. In the late 60s, we were running it at Columbia University or the Fillmore East—I can't remember which—and some guy from the New Yorker came up to [producer Jon Davison and me] and said that he wanted to write about The Movie Orgy. We were horrified! We begged him not to write anything about it [the movie used lots of copyrighted footage without permission —ed.]... But he did write an article, and he was very cognizant—he didn't mention the titles of anything that we used.

So we got into the New Yorker, and the Schlitz Brewing Company saw that. Then they sent somebody out [to see it], and they decided that they'd pay us 100 bucks a shot if we took our one battered 16-millimeter print around the country to different universities. They would sell beer and run the movie for free. That money tided me over when I was working for Roger Corman, who didn't pay me enough money to live on. In fact, I probably couldn't have gotten through my Roger Corman days if I didn't have The Movie Orgy.

Sachs: How many years did you spend touring the film?

Dante: We started in '68 and we stopped a few years later... It sort of petered out because the Schlitz Company decided they wanted more contemporary material put in. The problem was that the contemporary stuff was like The Flintstones or The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which was all self-aware. And the humor of The Movie Orgy is based on the sincerity of the material. It's kind of like an Ed Wood movie. The fact that [the clips are] being taken seriously by the people who made [them] is one of the things that makes it funny. That's the essence of camp, really.

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So it went away and it was in my garage for years and years. Eight or ten years ago, I dug it out and realized that if I didn't transfer it to digital it probably wasn't going to exist for much longer. I made a transfer and then I ran it for one night at Quentin Tarantino's theater, the New Beverly, in Los Angeles. It was a free screening, and anyone could just show up... We got a packed house, full of celebrities, and everyone stayed till the end! I started to think, "Well, gosh, maybe this thing still has some relevance!" The movie's very much of its period: it's antiwar, antiestablishment, and has non-P.C. jokes. But it still plays.

Sachs: Do you see any connection between The Movie Orgy and what you'd make later?

Dante: People who have studied my work—I can't say there are many of them, but there are a few—have noted that I have been stealing from The Movie Orgy for years. Sometimes I've stolen phrases or jokes, and sometimes I've taken footage from The Movie Orgy and put it into my movies.

Sachs: Like where?

There's footage in Matinee and in my first [fiction] film, Hollywood Boulevard... There's just so much stuff in The Movie Orgy that it's easy to use as interstitials or background items.

Sachs: And I think some bits of it show up on TV sets in The 'Burbs.

Dante: Isn't that movie just like The Watch but without aliens?

Sachs: I haven't seen The Watch yet. Have you?

Dante: No, but I saw the trailer and it looked like The 'Burbs but with aliens.

Klinger: It seems like, in your movies, there are always low-rent horror movies or old cartoons on TV.

Dante: Well, TV actually used to be like that. And I'm kind of stuck in the early 60s as far as TV is concerned. Now there's infomercials and reality TV and stuff that's completely uninteresting. But in the old days, there'd be Movies Till Dawn. Movies would start at 11 and stop at six in the morning. It was a great way to discover old movies.

Now the problem is that, even though there are more movies available to see, if you don't know what they are, you don't know what to look for. That's one of the reasons we started our website Trailers From Hell, to get people familiar with movies that they might not have run into.

Sachs: With Gremlins 2, you seem to have hit a high-density point of references to old movies. Did you approach that film as a sort-of Hollywood remake of The Movie Orgy?

From Gremlins 2: The New Batch
  • From Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Dante: Those two films do have affinities. But the genesis of [Gremlins 2] was that, after Gremlins was an unexpected hit, [Warner Brothers] wanted another one right away. But I was fed up with Gremlins. It was a difficult movie to make, and we didn't have a lot of support when we were making it—the studio thought of it as "Spielberg's Folly." When they came back and asked me to do another one, I just said, "No thank you."

After several years of trying to figure out how to make a sequel to this movie that really didn't need a sequel, my producer, Mike Finnell, and I were convinced to come back. [The studio] said that if we agreed to do it, they would let us do whatever we wanted. And that's a rare offer in Hollywood. So we decided to do a movie that not only made fun of the first movie and all those horror movie tropes, but got away with some social satire as well. Because we thought that coming age of the 90s was looking pretty absurd.

Sachs: Are there any gags in particular you're proud to have gotten away with?

Dante: The gag where the film seems to break was particularly odious to the studio. They told us, "If people think the film's broken, they'll leave." And I had to point out to them that it would only take a couple of seconds, then [the audience] would figure out they'd been fooled, and they'd think it was funny.

The studio was still adamantly opposed, but Spielberg said, "Let's take it out for a preview and see what happens." And it got the biggest laugh of the movie, so the studio had to keep it in there. I had wanted to go even further. I thought it would be great if we shipped to the theaters some cardboard Gremlin cut-outs with little springs on them. They could be attached to the projection booth windows, so that when people turned around to see what was wrong, they'd see these Gremlins moving in the projection room. That didn't fly.

Sachs: A comedy writer friend of mine wanted to know how you came up with all the gags for Gremlins 2. How many writers did it take to pack the movie with that many jokes?

Dante: There's only one credited writer on the movie, Charlie Haas. But then there was me, Mike Finnell, the puppeteers—Rick Baker and his group—and we were all allowed to add anything we thought was funny to any scene. That didn't happen in the first movie, because the Gremlins were breaking down so often [that we couldn't execute many of our ideas]. So, just to keep the crew interested, we'd put up little signs saying, "Terrible things to do to Gizmo" or "Funny things for the Gremlins to do." And people would chime in with ideas, and if they were possible to do with the puppets, we put them in the next movie.

Klinger: That sounds like a lot of fun.

Dante: There were no adults overseeing us. But we had a budget that was three times the budget of the first picture, and we had all the resources of a major movie studio. And the great thing about working at a major studio is that you get the best technicians, the best quality materials, and you have the opportunity to make your movie look terrific. That's a big difference from my earlier days, when [my crews and I] were always scrambling to make ends meet without having enough money.

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Sachs: Would you say Gremlins 2 was the happiest you've been making a movie?

Dante: I'm very happy with the outcome, because it's exactly what I expected it to be. But I had a great time making Innerspace, because the cast was just so much fun. And I had a lot of fun making The 'Burbs because we shot it in sequence. There was a writers' strike at the time, so we got to shape the whole thing as we went along. There was a lot of ad-libbing... It's a behavioral movie; it's all about the actors.

Sachs: You worked with Bruce Dern on The 'Burbs, and he's also in The Hole. What's your working relationship like with him?

Dante: I love Bruce. I grew up watching him get killed! He's also a movie buff like me—he knows what Jesse Lasky ate for breakfast. He's a fount of movie and sports trivia, and he's just a terrific guy to be around. A very underrated actor.

The great thing about making movies is working with actors. And, you know, when you look back at my work, you see there are certain actors that I've used over and over. Bruce is one of the people I enjoy working with—and I enjoy working with a lot of people. My problem is I'd love to work with the same people on every movie. But movies are all different; they have different characters, and you can't miscast people. Ninety percent of making movies is casting them correctly, so a lot of times you can't work with your friends. But any time I get the opportunity, I gleefully take it up.

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