Thursday, April 11, 2013

J is for Joe Dante, Who Discovered a New Personality

Today, at many a celebration of genre films and their makers, Joe Dante can be counted on as a poised and convivial master of ceremonies. There’s no question he has a gift of the gab. But it was not always so. Back in the era when he and I labored in the editing room to make sense out of the tangled plot of TNT Jackson, Joe was quiet and somewhat reserved, like many film editors before him. That all changed when he got the opportunity to co-direct Roger Corman’s Hollywood Boulevard. Moving from a job performed in isolation to one in which he’d be the commander of a large enterprise, he realized that he’d need to improve his people skills. As Joe told me years later, “I found a personality I didn’t know I have. And I was able to use that same one throughout my whole career.  But if it hadn’t been for Roger, I never would even have discovered it.” 

As a kid, Joe was swept away by Roger Corman’s creature features, starting with a double bill of The Day the World Ended and Not of this Earth: “I must have been ten years old. It was great, are you kidding?  It was seminal! It was cool! It had radiation; it had monsters. The other one had a guy from outer space who fried people with his eyes. What more could you want?”  That’s why, as a young adult, he heeded Jon Davison’s call to come work at New World Pictures.

Fresh from New Jersey, Joe was faced with cutting the “coming attractions” trailer for Jonathan Demme’s debut film, Caged Heat (1974). He recalls cranking out “seven minutes of random, terrible junk,” and then nearly missing the screening of his own trailer because his bus was late. As he remembers, “Roger’s first words to me—because I had never met him—were, ‘If I were you, I’d try to be on time for these things.’ ” Once the trailer was screened, Joe assumed he’d be fired on the spot, but Corman merely listed the changes he wanted made: “Apparently, nothing was too terrible for Roger to not figure he could fix it somehow.”

After shooting Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha for Roger, Joe surprised himself by becoming a major studio director, with Gremlins his biggest hit. When he  made his first post-Corman film, the highly successful The Howling (1980), he invited his old mentor to do a walk-on in a barroom scene. It was Corman’s idea, enthusiastically adopted by Dante, that he spoof his cheapskate image on camera by checking a pay telephone’s coin-return slot for loose change. Years later, Joe gave Roger a cameo as a film director annoyed by Daffy Duck’s antics in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). One of his many current projects is the Trailers from Hell website, featuring lively commentary on classic action, horror, and exploitation films.

Though he may sometimes grouse about the insanity of his Corman days, Joe has insisted to me that “if I had it to do over differently, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would never have wanted any other introduction to the movie business than the one I got.” He hardly believes it was Roger’s goal to make Hollywood a better place. Still, “this business, for good or ill, wouldn’t be anywhere near full of as many interesting people if it wasn’t for him. ‘Cause they all started with him.”    


  1. One of my favorite graduates of Corman University - I've enjoyed all of his films. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has the "Dante Repertory Company" of familiar faces appearing in so many of his movies; names like Dick Miller, Kenneth Tobey, the late Kevin McCarthy. I rate Piranha, Hollywood Blvd, and The Howling among my very favorite movies. I'd like to meet him one day.

  2. Maybe you WILL meet him someday, Mr. Craig. He's not a guy who puts on airs. At heart he's a movie fan, first and foremost, and I suspect you two would get along just fine. I trust you know Trailers from Hell!

  3. I do indeed know Trailers from Hell - and wish there was another hour or two in the day for me to spend there!