“To do a horror film on a low budget you have to prepare and you have to be able to make decisions quickly We learned with (Roger) Corman to hurry up and don’t congratulate yourself after the next shot, you’ve gotta be two shots ahead."
Joe Dante is a man who needs no introduction. Perhaps best known by our kind for Gremlins and The Howling, Joe Dante’s filmography spans from the 70’s with his directorial debut, Piranha, under Roger Corman, (fun fact: Piranha 2 was directed by James Cameron and also his first movie) to The Explorers, Innerspace, The Burbs, Matinee, Small Soldiers, and many more including my favorite segment from The Twilight Zone Movie.
We met with Joe to discuss the current state of horror cinema and what aspiring directors need to know to thrive within it. We also did a fair amount of geeking out about Gremlins. As always, before we get to the interview, here are Joe Dante’s 3 keys for horror directors.
- Do things the Corman way. The Roger Corman ethic of low budgets, preparedness, and hustle combined with the unprecedented amounts of responsibility and autonomy he gave to his directors, was a magic combination that educated and empowered many of Hollywood’s biggest success stories. Joe stresses how indie horror directors cannot get precious about things like camera angles and lighting nuances and need to always be two shots ahead of themselves to get their movies made efficiently. Talent and drive are not enough — producers look for directors who deliver their films on time and on budget. A great book on the topic, and an essential read for any filmmaker, is Roger Corman’s biography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. It’s gold. Get it.
- Deliver the goods, but not just the goods. Horror audiences have expectations, whether it’s blood & gore, inventive kills or jump-scares, and horror directors have a certain obligation to deliver those goods. But, the goods alone won’t cut it. The story-lines, character development, tone and style of your projects can’t be secondary but need to be well thought out and unique. Properly doing this will boost the effectiveness of the horror element and imbue the movie with cinematic integrity. Gremlins was a well structured story with compelling characters who you cared about immediately. When they were threatened, we were scared for them (though some of us were rooting for the gremlins). Give the audience what they want but don’t gloss over the details because it’s the details that make the horror elements work even better.
- Mentorship is everything. Always pay it forward. One of the great things about Joe Dante is that he’s one of those forces in Hollywood who is very grateful to be a part of this system and thus, he does what he can to give back. He frequently mentors other directors and takes them under his wing, the same way previous directors had done for him. Mentorship in this business is everything. If you need one, find one, and if you can be one, be one.
- BONUS TIP: Live and die by your vision. One fascinating thing Joe mentioned was how he had to turn Pat Hingle down for the role of Billy’s father in Gremlins because his performance was too dramatically compelling. Despite the quality of the performance, Joe knew that it would not mesh with the lighthearted spirit of the movie because it would have emotionally captivated the audience and made Gremlins more of a drama, which was not the intent. Having a strong, predetermined sense of the tone and focus of your movie is key — it enables you, as the director, to intuitively make casting decisions that keep the flow of the film cohesive and consistent with your original vision.
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