Interview: Joe Dante

Photo by Suzanne TennerLegendary film director Joe Dante’s latest movie Burying the Ex has just been released on video on demand. The tale of a boy (Anton Yelchin) and his demanding girlfriend (Ashley Greene) – who won’t take being dead as an excuse for not continuing their relationship even though he has moved on – is a fun romp blending horror and romantic comedy tropes. The day after it was released, Dante spoke to Paul Simpson from his home in Los Angeles…

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What attracted you to Burying the Ex?

I was offered the script a number of years ago by the writer, Alan Trezza, who had made a short film of the same title, which I have never seen.

I liked the characters, the fact it had two strong female roles, and mostly I liked the fact that I thought it was a relatable situation. I think many people can relate to the idea of being trapped in a relationship they can’t get out of for various reasons. It’s not good for them and they’re keeping going for what they think are altruistic reasons but in fact they’re just making it worse. I thought when you take that basic premise and add to it the complication of “what happens when your girlfriend dies and comes back and wants to go to bed with you all the time even though she is rotting?”, that’s a different twist on that situation.

Photo by Suzanne TennerI thought it was a movie that could be made for not a lot of money and also it was an LA movie. It was a very Los Angeles-centric story, which made me resist efforts to shoot it elsewhere. At one point the producers were talking about going to New Orleans to save money and I said it wasn’t going to work. This is about a certain level of geek culture in Los Angeles, the cinephiles, who have a certain way, and live in a certain style. It isn’t going to make sense anywhere else. Luckily we got to shoot in LA which was the first time I’ve shot there since 2003.

It’s about a substrata of Los Angeles life: the people in this movie don’t live in the fancy parts of town. They don’t even go through the fancy parts of town. In order to shoot in LA and to be able to save money, we basically shot within an eight block area near Echo Park, and all the stores were built on the same blocks. The ice cream store is right across the block from Max’s store but you can’t tell that – even if you live here you can’t tell that.

It was basically an attempt to keep the picture here and be able to make it for a budget and not spend a huge amount of money travelling. One of the things that kills you on a low-budget movie is if you have to travel in the middle of the day from one location to another: you eat up this incredible amount of time which should be spent shooting.

Instead of just crossing from one sidewalk to the other!

Exactly – carrying the camera.

It was a quick shoot…

Twenty days and no overtime. The money came together quickly after Al and I had been shopping this thing around for several years, but the dictum was that “there is that much money but you have to be finished at a certain time, and you can’t go over on anything”. We really did cobble it together very quickly, and cast it, I think, very well, in a week, then started shooting and kept going until we ran out of money and ran out of days… but luckily we shot everything.

Burying the ex GreeneThe effects don’t dominate the movie; were they added in post-production, or did you do a lot practically?

We did almost everything practical. The make up in particular was an issue because Ashley Greene is a gorgeous girl and, as she was rotting away, we wanted her to be less attractive but we didn’t want her to be entirely unattractive. Plus we weren’t shooting in sequence so we had to have a chart of exactly what level of decomposition she was in. On occasion we would enhance that with CGI eye work and there are little bits of CGI, with the flies and things like that, but for the most part what you see is what we shot.

Unless it’s something you’re specifically hired to do, what attracts you to a project?

Well, when you’re hired, it’s work for hire, like when you do an episode of a television show that you didn’t create. You tell people where to stand, you set up the shots, and then you go home…

"Ka Iwi Kapu (Sacred Bones)"I’ve watched your Hawaii Five-0 episodes – there’s a little bit more to it than that!

Well, a little! But you do the best you can, but it isn’t your construct, and there are certain rules that you have to abide by – for instance the Hawaii Five-0 people don’t like tilted angles for whatever reason. I love tilted angles but I couldn’t do any on Hawaii!

But for a movie like Burying the Ex, the thing that cements it is it’s your movie. You’re making it for not a lot of money, which means you don’t have a lot of interference, so within the small framework that you’ve got you can pretty much make it your own. Particularly when you’re collaborating with like-minded people, you’re doing your own movie with somebody else’s money – and that’s always the case when you make a movie.

I’m always conscious that this isn’t my money, it’s someone else’s money, and when it’s $100million, that’s quite a burden. I remember making my first movie for $60,000 and I was practically stooped over with the weight that they were spending $60k on this movie so I’d better pull through. I’ve finally got to a point where I don’t think about that any more – but it’s in the back of your mind. You want to be responsible, you want to get what you want, and make the day, and do the shots you want to do, but on the other hand you don’t want to be crazy and say you’re not working until the right pewter vase comes into the frame, like Michael Cimino did on Heaven’s Gate! I don’t come from a background that supports that kind of thinking.

Photo by Suzanne TennerTalking of like-minded people, Anton Yelchin is quite an encyclopaedia of movie knowledge…

I was unaware of that. I’d been watching him since he was a kid in the movies but I had no idea what he was like personally. When we started to do this movie in which he plays a guy who works in a memorabilia store, he said it was great, and I realised he was a tremendous film buff. He’s omnivorous in terms of watching movies: he was going through his Douglas Fairbanks period and I tried to steer him into the 1930s Universal horror area so that he would be a little more conversant with that stuff. He knew quite a bit already – all the references to Bela Lugosi in this movie come from Anton, he added them.

There are homages in his acting: he loves silent movies and he loves silent movie acting, so he does body language and gestures that are borrowed from whatever movie he just saw.

Playing Chekov he has an almost silent movie exaggerated attitude at times…

He says he’s channelling Walter Koenig!

Dante PiranhaIn our review of The Hole a few years back, we called you the “pioneer of the dark kids pic” – do you think that’s a fair assessment?

I think that’s probably true only in that my movies, for some reason when I look back on them, have so many kids in them! I’m usually doing something horrific to them. It didn’t occur to me, but right from the beginning, in Piranha I wipe out an entire summer camp full of kids (right), and that’s not even the climax of the movie! Then it goes to the Twilight Zone kid, Gremlins and Explorers etc. I guess maybe it’s a substitute for not having children myself…

Killing them off and putting them in places where they’ll be in trouble?

(laughs) I don’t know! Film makers are the last people who can explain their work.

Photo by Suzanne TennerWhen you’re on a movie like Burying the Ex, do you work with the screenwriter before it goes in front of the camera, or do you see your input as being far more when it’s actually filming?

In this case, it came to me fully formed because the writer had already made a short film of it, and expanded it to a feature. He was one of the producers, so it wasn’t like I was going to be able to say, “Why don’t you go and have coffee? I’ll do this.” He was there every day, but because we were like-minded – he brought it to me and he’d seen my stuff – we pretty much felt the same about almost everything. Our sense of humour is very similar. He was there in case the actors wanted to do ad libs or go off script into something funny: Oliver Cooper’s character is often off-script. He’s comic and says stuff. There are reams of outtakes of him adlibbing stuff and some of it’s in the movie.

Were the slogans for the stores he was advertising ad libs?

I really can’t remember. Alan remembers what was adlibbed.

One of my favourite gags is when Max looks round at his redecorated apartment and the Psycho stings are there…

I’ve used that in so many movies!

Photo by Suzanne TennerWas that a Danteism?

I don’t think it was in the script: I think it was something the editor [Marshall Harvey] came up with. I’ve used the same editor for many movies, and all the Psycho homages are in those movies.

It’s such a great piece of music to begin with, and it has these associations, so it’s become like the 2001 theme. People just trot it out: we all know what it means. But it’s so staccato it’s great to cut to.

What’s next for you?

The next movie after this? I don’t know. I have a movie in Budapest I’m trying to get funded, I’ve got another project in Paris I’m trying to get funded. I have a European passport, so I’m trying to make the best of it.

It’s all about funding: you can’t get funding unless you have actors, and you can’t get actors unless you have funding. You chase your tail a lot. You’ve got to have more than one project: if you meet somebody and they do have some funds but they don’t like your script, you’d better pull another one out of your hat because otherwise that guy’s going to walk out of the room and you’re not going to get any money.

Photo by Suzanne TennerWhat would you say to someone who’s considering getting into the movie business as a director nowadays?

It isn’t really the movie business. Everything has changed. We don’t shoot on film any more. It’s so different to what it was when I got in to it that I find it difficult to give people advice when young people ask how to be a director.

The only thing I tell them is that you have the ability now, which I didn’t have, to direct something: you’ve got a camera, you’ve got a computer, you can make a movie. Get your friends together and you can make a short; you can make a feature if you want. It won’t cost you as much money as it would have cost us back in the old days to buy all the film and have it processed and have it cut and printed and all that stuff. Now you can do virtually everything yourself.

It may not be super high quality but it’s certainly enough to show off your work, so if you have a really good idea for a short, I’d say go out and do it. Get your friends and do it. You’ll find somebody who can play the part, or play it yourself.

Howard Hawks once said, “Nobody got to be a good director by not directing.” I think every opportunity you get you have to take it.

bteBurying the Ex is out now in the UK and the US on Video on Demand

Thanks to Sisi Cronin for her help in organising this interview; photos by Suzanne Tenner.

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