[EDITOR'S NOTE: A much-shortened version of this article originally appeared in CinemaEditor magazine, Volume 60, Issue 1, First Quarter 2010, under the title, “The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante: A Symposium.”]
My conversation with Joe Dante, Tina Hirsch, and Marshall Harvey continues with a discussion of the director’s most famous film—Gremlins—and several later productions with more challenging post-production circumstances.–Peter Tonguette.
Tina Hirsch: Joe was so worried about the gremlins. He just thought the puppets were completely phony and nobody was going to believe them.
Joe Dante: This was a giant Muppet movie. When you make a picture like this, the question always is, “Are people going to buy this?”
TH: It comes to the end of shooting and he was supposed to stay away and give me a week to finish cutting all of the material. But he came in the next Monday or Tuesday, soon after wrap, and I said, “Joe, you look awful.” [Laughs.] We hadn’t shot all of the puppet stuff yet. They were going to take a break for a month and figure out what they needed to shoot. He said, “They’re so phony and awful.” I said, “Joe, they’re not. I believe them. I’m the audience! I’ll tell you what: I’m not completely finished, but I have 95% of the picture finished. How about we have a screening?” We go in, we look at the film, and he comes out and says, “Well, it’s not a disaster.”
JD: Our job was to try to take this puppet footage, of which there was an immense amount, and hone it down to the parts that were the most believable. A lot of times, that came down to which reaction shot of the character we used. I’m a firm believer that even a great special effect is going to look lousy if the reaction shot doesn’t convince you. The real trick was to make the audience believe that the characters on screen believe that the puppets are real.
TH: To cap it off, he got hate mail from people about how cruel he was to these gremlins! [Laughs.] It was exactly how I felt. I said, “I buy that they’re real. You know they’re not, but to me they’re real. Look at the dog! The dog believes they’re real!” That was the smartest thing they could have done, to have a dog at the beginning of the movie react to Gizmo.
JD: It was the best dog that I ever worked with. His name was Mushroom. I actually met him years later and he remembered me. This dog was incredibly
expressive and fascinated by the puppets. He was seemed to think they were real. We found that the more we cut to the dog, the more people bought it!
Peter Tonguette: I understand that Explorers was a difficult film from a post-production standpoint.
JD: The script wasn’t finished when we started filming and they had a release date in mind. The other problem was that the studio changed hands during the
post-production and the new people said, “This picture is coming out two months too late. We’ve got to have it two months earlier.” So we were basically told to stop work on it at a certain point, just finish it.
Movies get found in the editing room. The movie that you make is not always necessarily the movie that comes out of the editing room. The trick is to perfect
the movie that you have and make it the best version of what you’ve shot, regardless of what the intent may have been. In this case, we were still finding
the movie. The script we shot didn’t have an ending, so we made up a lot of stuff. Here we were, sifting through all this material, trying to focus it, and suddenly it’s, “Okay, all done.” And there it went, out to the public in the rough cut.
TH: Had they only given us another two weeks. A scene was written for the end of the picture which would have been with Dick Miller’s character. It would really have summed up the picture. There was no button at the end of the picture. It just kind of dropped off a cliff. It could have been done really cheaply, with one set, so it’s really sad. But the new studio just didn’t care.
JD: The basic conceptual problem with the movie is that it’s the opposite of E.T. (1982). The first half of the movie is Spielbergian and the second half of the movie is the opposite of that. The kids believe that they are going to find the meaning of life and God in space and they find only a reflection of themselves as distorted through pop culture. That didn’t turn out to be that popular! [Laughs.]
PT: Dave Kehr has written appreciatively about that very aspect of Explorers, noting that the film “perfectly mimics the nocturnal, nostalgic tone of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind until the moment [it] explodes into the unrestrained delirium of a Bob Clampett cartoon.”
JD: I’m a firm believer that a movie can come out a year later or a year earlier and be successful or not depending on what the Zeitgeist is at the moment. But right then, that was not what people wanted to hear! [Laughs.]
PT: Starting with the segments you directed for Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), and then The ‘burbs shortly thereafter, you’ve worked extensively with Marshall Harvey.
JD: I had known Marshall since the Roger days and I’d seen a lot of the exploitation pictures he had cut. We just had a rapport. We liked the same movies and we had the same background.
Marshall Harvey: Joe and I have always gotten along together probably because we share a very similar sense of humor.
JD: The 'burbs was a particularly difficult movie because we shot it in sequence and we ad-libbed most of it.
MH: It was shot during the writers’ strike which meant there was no writer on the set. There were problems with the script, particularly in the third act. It was a great premise, which I think gives the movie its longevity. A lot of the funniest lines were ad-libs that the actors came up with. Joe would just let the camera run and let people improvise at the end of takes.
JD: We were trying to hone in on the good the parts and get rid of the bad parts. The rough cut was two-and-a-half hours and completely different than the
released movie. I’d say he really pulled that out and so the further I went on, Marshall was my go-to guy.
MH: He’s always been the best director in the editing room, partially because he started as an editor. He understands editing and he understands film history. If something isn’t working editorially, he understands why.
PT: Does he like to be in the cutting room?
MH: He likes to be there, which is helpful for the editor. Sometimes you want to try something and then you discover you don’t have the right footage to make that kind of cut. I’ve worked with directors who give their notes and go play golf and you realize, “Oh, geez, this idea is not going to work.” Then they come back and go, “What?” Whereas Joe is right there all the time and he can see immediately that it won’t work. “Why don’t we try this instead?”
At the time we were making The ‘burbs, Joe was pooh-poohing it. “This isn’t exactly my magnum opus!” Yet I’m with him at these events and people come up and the first thing out of their mouths is, “Oh, we love The ‘burbs!” There are web sites dedicated to the movie. We can’t quite believe it has such a following and a longevity to it.
PT: What were some of the difficulties in making Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)?
JD: From about 1997 on, the atmosphere in town about making movies has changed. It has become more corporate, there are more cooks in the kitchen than there have ever been, and the effort to get your idea of what the movie should be through has become like plodding through quicksand.
There were twenty-five writers on Looney Tunes, and that’s too many writers for a movie. It was being changed up until the minute that it was shown. It took a year-and-a-half and it was an extremely depressing experience. It pretty much soured me on the whole studio set-up.
MH: The only reason he took on that project, I think, was to preserve the Looney Tunes heritage. He knew Chuck Jones. If you go to Joe’s house, he has a big framed, signed thing from Chuck Jones. He disliked Space Jam (1996) and thought it was kind of a travesty to those characters.
JD: Chuck had just passed away. I thought, “I owe this to Chuck.” I owe him to not have the characters do hip-hop. They need to be true to themselves. My
mission in the movie, and [animation director] Eric Goldberg’s mission, was to try to make sure that these characters emerged intact.
MH: He sent me the script and I thought, “This is not very good.” But if we could make it like a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road picture, with Daffy Duck as Bob Hope and Bugs as Bing Crosby, I thought it could be fun. Unfortunately, the studio didn’t quite see it that way and insisted on cutting out all of those kinds of things. The fact that the movie still ends up preserving the Looney Tunes sensibility is kind of a miracle, really.
PT: Coming on the heels of Looney Tunes, it must have been a relief to make your Masters of Horror episodes, Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution.
JD: They were a blessing for all of us. Directors who are used to battling the studio over everything are suddenly given carte blanche to do whatever they
want provided they could do it in ten days and for not much money. There was absolutely no interference on any level on that show. I was very proud and happy about the two episodes I did that I could never have done anywhere else. They were just too weird, dark, and controversial.
MH: Mick Garris, who created the show, is a director himself. The whole idea was that it was a director-oriented television series.
PT: Tell me about your current project, The Hole.
JD: It’s a small picture with a small cast and not a lot of locations. It’s basically a psychological horror film. It’s a little old-fashioned and it’s a movie that’s suitable to take kids to.
It’s a movie that I went in on. I’m sure they were talking to twelve other guys, but for whatever reason, they liked my take. I went back and I said, “I think there’s one thing that would improve this movie. I don’t know if you’ll go for it or not, but I think this would be a good 3-D movie.” After a couple of days thought and some research, they said, “We think you’re right and we’re going to add a couple of bucks to the budget to pay for the 3-D.” That was great for me because I love 3-D.
PT: What are the challenges of editing a 3-D film in this day and age?
MH: It’s a lot easier than you would think. First of all, we don’t cut it in 3-D. It’s really no different for me than doing a regular movie, except you have to keep in mind that, when it is in 3-D, how certain things will be affected. The Hole doesn’t have a lot of gimmicky throwing things at the audience stuff in it. He took more of the Alfred Hitchcock approach to 3-D in how he staged it, giving depth to each shot.
The most difficult thing about it is that, because I wasn’t able to see the dailies in 3-D, a lot of the shots I’ve never seen in 3-D. Some of the visual effects
shots I’ve now seen in 3-D and I’m going, “Wow! That looks a lot different than I thought it would!” [Laughs.] If there’s something in the foreground, you don’t
really pay any attention to it in a normal movie, but when you see it in 3-D, it’s a totally different experience. You’ve locked the picture and now you’re seeing it in 3-D. “That’s really cool! I wish we could have stayed on that shot longer!”
Joe’s great with child actors and all three leads in it are quite good, particularly Nathan Gamble, who played Commissioner Gordon’s son in The Dark Knight
(2008). He plays the younger brother in this and he’s really good. For a guy who doesn’t have kids, Joe really connects to child actors.
PT: How does Joe work with young actors?
TH: Well, I think he’s one of them. [Laughs.] It’s very natural for him to be with young actors because he has not lost the six-year-old boy. That person is still inside him. I remember one time going on the set of Explorers and he was with the three guys [Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Pressen]. He was telling them to do something and then they did the scene and it didn’t happen. And then he didn’t get it a second time. I thought, “Oh, boy.” But he just said, “Okay, we got it, let’s move on.” He realized, “This is all I’m going to get.” He had a day to make and he had kids he was dealing with. They can only do what they can do. He felt, “This is good enough.” To me, that’s a very sane way to work.
PT: You’ve worked with many of the same editors again and again, notably Marshall, Tina, and Kent Beyda. Do you find that to be beneficial?
JD: I find it beneficial in every category: the composer, the DP, the art director. You do form a cadre of people that you trust and who are good at their jobs and who know you and what your quirks and foibles are. It makes making movies very collegial and a lot more fun.
MH: In my experience, Joe is the most loyal person in the film industry. There aren’t that many people that are so loyal to stick with the same group of people.
PT: Do you think you are a better director for having been an editor?
JD: Unquestionably. I think that anybody that wants to direct, particularly writers, should spend some time in an editing room, whether it’s a film of theirs or someone else’s, or shoot their own picture on video and cut it. There’s a way of thinking that comes with being an editor that is incredibly useful on the set.
People who don’t have that sometimes find themselves getting into trouble. It’s not just a vocabulary thing or a right-to-left thing or script supervisor stuff. It’s a way of thinking about the film and the shots and the way they fit together—what you need and what you don’t need, and what you can get away with if you have to.
Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.