interviewed on the DVD release of
By Glenn Erickson
The occasion of this interview came about on short notice. I've been waiting a very long time for a quality DVD release of Joe Dante's 1993 comedy Matinee. I skipped a quickie Image release put out soon after the introduction of DVD discs, and have instead re-run my old Universal laserdisc at least once a year. Once the new DVD (released May 4, see my concurrent Matinee review) was out, I'd planned to take my old laser machine off-line, as I rarely use it to play anything else.
Then we discovered that the new Universal disc would have no extras, not even a trailer. The laser included the uncut Mant!, a terrific movie-within-a-movie monster show that figures strongly in Matinee. Most Joe Dante films on disc have interesting commentaries and extras, but the new Matinee has nothing. Universal has released the disc with almost zero publicity; enthusiast websites like DVD Savant are apparently doing the studio's work for them.
Savant correspondent and advisor Gary Teetzel suggested a good way to channel my irritation at this sorry state of affairs -- interview director Joe Dante about the film, filling in details about Matinee that DVD extras might have covered. And along the way I could find out what Joe thinks about the careless release of a film favorite.
Glenn Erickson: How did a comedy as original as Matinee come about? Was what you started out with in 1992 similar to the finished item or did it evolve from something different?
Joe Dante: Well, it actually got started a lot earlier than '92. Matinee began life as a screenplay by a writer called Jerico Stone and was quite different than the film that eventually emerged. His take was more of a fantasy. It was set in an old movie theater at a matinee, and the movie Mant! is the movie that's showing. The characters are all the kids in the neighborhood and it's all about how they imagine that the theater is a sort of phantasmagoria of scary matrons, vampire projectionists, things like that. At the end of the movie the kids, now grown up, have a reunion at the theater only to find it's become a video store.
Glenn: You've improved it. The first story sounds almost like Popcorn.
Dante: Yeah, it is a little like Popcorn. Anyway we couldn't get that picture made, nobody wanted to make that picture. We were at Warner Bros. for the development and we had a couple of different writers work on it. Ed Naha worked on it for a while and added a character who was a little bit like the Robert Prosky character in Gremlins II: The New Batch. He was an actor who came to town, not a filmmaker. Then when Charlie Haas became involved and we decided to set it during the Cuban Missile Crisis the whole paradigm changed completely and it became more of the movie that we see today. The Lawrence Woolsey character was added, a thinly-veiled amalgam of William Castle and Jack Arnold and Roger Corman and Ray Dennis Steckler. It just seemed to go together, those two threads, and I think the picture is better for it.
Glenn: Did you say Ray Dennis Steckler because he self-distributed, driving his film prints from city to city?
Dante: Yeah! And we managed to find some independent money and Universal was going to distribute it. But as we geared up to shoot the money would not arrive every Tuesday. The financier would say, "Just have Universal front the money this week and I'll have the money for you next week." After a while this became a pattern, and it was soon apparent that there was no money. And Universal was already into this thing for quite a hefty sum. So Mike Finnell and I went to Tom Pollock, who was running the company. We basically said, "You've invested so much money in this picture so far, why don't you just take it over and make it a Universal picture?"
Dante: And Tom came back after talking to some people and in effect said that passion has won out over logic. Which in this case was pretty true because the resultant movie was more of an indie than a Universal studio picture. But of course it was treated like a standard Universal comedy in theaters and it just wasn't that kind of picture.
Glenn: I noticed that writer Charles S. Haas wrote the great teen rebellion movie Over the Edge. Is that what interested you in having him write on Matinee?
Dante: Well, Charlie had written Gremlins 2. Over the Edge director Jonathan Kaplan is a friend of mine and I'd known Charlie for years before we actually worked together.
Glenn: Did Charles Haas come up with the clever idea of the "Shook Up Shopping Cart" movie? Or is that autobiographical -- did you dislike those Disney family films as much as the kids in the movie?
Dante: I don't remember where the Shopping Cart came from but it did come from a basic disgust at that particular type of movie that so many kids were plunked down in front of by their parents. I never liked those "Love Bug" kind of movies, that kind of leaden whimsy didn't really do much for me. "The Shook Up Shopping Cart" was the kind of film that older kids certainly hated. And that the younger kids were kind of bored with as well.
Glenn: We're talking about the post- Hayley Mills movies, right?
Dante: Well, Hayley Mills was enchanting and we had Naomi Watts and I thought she was enchanting. Dean Jones was usually in the ones I'm talking about. They wore out their welcome.
Glenn: It's clear that your adult cast is very much in on Matinee's very specific joke -- they seem to be having a great time bringing the stereotypes to life. How did you explain the kind of comic tone you were going for? Did you show them William Castle trailers?
Dante: No, oddly enough when John Goodman came aboard he did not need a tutorial on William Castle. He was quite aware of the Castle movies and he got it right away. I had made up a trailer reel to show him and he said "I don't need to see that, I've seen all those pictures."
Glenn: How about Cathy Moriarty, who seems so right as the bored 50s scream queen?
Dante: Cathy is just a very intuitive actress and she immediately got the character. There was never any remedial work done with history for any of the cast except the kids.
Glenn: You seem to specialize in movies about young people older than cute kids but younger than high school age, and you present them more convincingly than anybody. Do you go for this age group for a specific reason?
Dante: No, I just have a penchant for ending up doing movies that have kids in them. I don't have kids of my own so maybe that's why. I do get along with them, I like kids and I'm always impressed with how similar they are, even now, to how I was. You know, certain ages do tend to be the same.
Glenn: My favorite kid character is Sandra, the socially conscious girl who seems more mature and less conforming than the others. When I look back I kick myself for not realizing how interesting those girls were, compared to the ones we all found attractive.
Dante: It's autobiographical in that we did have girls like that in school when I was a kid, and everybody thought they were really stupid. They didn't know why they had to cower in a hallway that was going to fall in on them if anything happened. Of course we thought, if the bomb was gonna drop why couldn't we run out to the football field and have sex with all the girls. I've never seen a picture that got it as accurate for me as Matinee does.
Glenn: How did you approach your monster effects? I surmise that you needed the Mant! footage to look like it could have been filmed by a cheapskate producer in 1962. Did you ever have to tell your effects people that they were making an effect look too good?
Dante: You have to remember that the appeal of these movies when we were kids was that we believed them. We didn't go to laugh at them in a Mystery Science Theater way, we really wanted to believe that this was a giant grasshopper or a giant ant or whatever, and for the most part the higher-end pictures had pretty good effects for the period. I didn't want to make fun of that. I didn't want to make the kids in the movie seem stupid for liking garbage. I wanted to make the Mant! movie as close to a movie that you would find playing in that period as I could. And so I said to the effects guys, "Don't do deliberately cheesy effects. Do effects that are pretty much the way they would have been done at that time." Then it will all work out because it's the imagery of the creature walking down the street that's funny, not the matte lines.
Glenn: I'm really impressed by the Mant! costume, especially the way its antennae wave around. They're hilarious, they're like little exclamation points over his head that underline what he's saying.
Dante: Some of it is the actor in the costume, Mark McCracken, who is a very funny guy. And his body movements are very exaggerated and I think very funny and once he had the mask on he started to realize that certain movements would, you know, provide certain movements of the antennae. We wanted the head to be expressive, for the guy to be able to act through it.
Glenn: I wanted to ask about the music in Matinee. You'd worked with Jerry Goldsmith before, can you tell us what that was like?
Dante: The music was actually criticized in some quarters as being, quote, "TV music." The great thing about making a movie that Jerry was going to work on, was that no matter what it was like when you were done with the rough cut, you always knew it was going to get better. The last creative action in making a movie is putting the music on. I did use temp scores because you have to have temp music in order to run the picture for the studio and have previews and stuff. But it was always something that annoyed Jerry, particularly because I would use (Bernard Herrmann's) The Trouble with Harry a lot. For some reason the kind of movies I make always had a place for The Trouble With Harry in the temp score. Jerry would put his hand to his forehead and go, "Oh, not Bernie again!" What is remarkable is that every time I would use that music, he would come up with a similar but different interpretation of it. So that I could show you the scenes that had The Trouble with Harry temp score, and then if you listen to what Jerry did it's all a brilliant riff on that same kind of ambivalent whimsy. For whatever reason my movies don't fall into succinct categories. A lot of different things are going on. It could be a suspenseful scene but it's got humor in it or vice-versa. And The Trouble with Harry never failed me.
Glenn: The new DVD has no extras, not even the stand-alone Mant! extra that was on the old laserdisc. I know you're not happy about that. You said that you had a goodie box of extras that you wanted to offer if a special edition was in the offing. Can you tell us what we've missed?
Dante: As films of mine have come out I have managed to pretty much empty out the closet with all the things that I've remembered to save. When I did Amazon Women on the Moon they threw out a lot of stuff and I remember being particularly annoyed that the longer version that they used was badly mixed and was not the one that I had saved. And that just told me that I can't leave anything to the studios because they don't know where anything is. At one point there was nothing more left to come out (on DVD) but Matinee, which had never come out on a decent format. I was sort of hoping Criterion might pick it up, but that was not to be. And so I kept calling Universal every couple of months and I would say, "I want you guys to remember that if you put Matinee out please call me because I have all this extra stuff I want to put in.
Dante: And then I read on the Internet last year that Matinee is coming out and has a date. I call them up and they say, "Whup, it's too late. It's in the works now; it's too late to add anything. Maybe when it goes out on Blu-ray." And I said, "Look, if you put it out with nothing on it it's not going to sell enough copies for there to be a Blu-ray." In any case they were not interested in including anything including Mant!, which had been on the laserdisc. And they claimed that their lawyers were much more liberal in those days and that they could not account for the music rights for this. And of course the Mant! music comes entirely from their own movies. They basically used it as an excuse not to do anything. I was very disappointed with this. I think that the idea of going to the trouble to put out a niche movie that has a certain kind of fan base and not give them anything at all extra is bad business.
Glenn: Okay, so just what new extras did you hope to get on the disc?
Dante: Missing scenes, stuff like that, things that we cut out for time. There's a scene in the classroom where they watch a "Duck and Cover" movie, which I thought was a nice scene but there was a need to pick up the pace so it came out. Sure, nothing revelatory but unfortunately it's still sitting in my vault unseen. The nice thing about DVD is that when you're making a movie and you're fighting with the producers over the cut, you still know that there's a possibility that your version may see the light of day. At least that used to be true. So you tend to want to save these things. If you just keep them in the closet and don't let anybody see them it's kind of pointless.
Glenn: Matinee reminded me of the great times I had at Saturday matinees, seeing monster movies and eating popcorn and candy and yelling along with the other kids. Do you have any special personal memories that stand out, that did or didn't make it into the movie?
Dante: Matinee is a paean to the days when it was fun to go to the movies and I miss those days. I'm sorry that kids today don't have the experience that we did of going to see double features. I understand that when Grindhouse came out some people left after the first movie because they had no concept of what a double feature is. Going to the movies is sort of like going to church for me. When the lights went down I would be as likely to stay for a double feature twice as I would be to just go home. I can't imagine anybody doing that today. The movies and the way they are presented are just so different. We didn't just get double features. We got cartoons, we got newsreels, we got trailers... we got a lot of stuff. Now all you get is ads and trailers -- and one movie. And it better be good because you're paying a lot of money for it and we used to get in for a quarter.
Interview conducted May 11, 2010.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson
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