Joe Dante started his career with a man-eating fish, moved on to Mogwai that turn nasty, and is now dealing with some terrifyingly zombified ex-girlfriends. The 68-year-old filmmaker has had a colorful filmmaking career in the past several decades, directing creatures and humans in such favorites as Gremlins (and its beloved sequel), Innerspace, The 'Burbs, Explorers, and Piranha.
His latest effort, Burying the Ex, stars Anton Yelchin as Max, a hardcore film buff whose demanding girlfriend, Evelyn, (played by Ashley Greene) perishes in a horrible accident, only to reappear as the undead once Max thinks he’s found the perfect girl in Olivia (Alexandra Daddario). The film shares a lot in common with Dante’s early classics, most notably its blend of broad comedy and supernatural hijinks. (What it has over those other films: projectile vomiting.)
Dante stopped by Yahoo studios recently to look back on some of his most beloved films in our latest episode of 'Director’s Reel,’ which you can watch above. Some of the highlights:
Like James Cameron, Dante came up under the tutelage of B-movie master Roger Corman, and this blatant imitation of Jaws became his sophomore project. “I was convinced while making it that it was going to be the worst movie ever made, and it was going to kill my career,” Dante said. The movie ended up performing admirably well, with Jaws director/budding Hollywood don Steven Spielberg calling it “the best of Jaws of rip-offs.”
Dante would then team up with executive producer Spielberg for this would-be classic about Gizmo and the gang. He said the biggest question surrounding the making of this creature feature in a pre-CGI era was how they’d pull off the Mogwai designs: “We flirted briefly with the idea of putting monkeys in suits, and we got a Rhesus monkey and got a Gremlin head on him. And he ran all over the editing room and shat all over everything, and we realized that that wasn’t going to work.” What followed was some of the craftiest puppeteering we’d seen in movies up to that point.
A year later Dante launched a trio of young actors (including Ethan Hawke and the late River Phoenix, both in their very first film roles) into space in this coming-of-age sci-fi flick. But the director never got to finish the movie, as the studio rushed it into theaters: “Unfortunately, what got released is the rough cut, which we never got to refine,” he said. Despite the fact the film grew in popularity in the years after its release, “It’s the movie of mine that I revisit the least, because it’s just painful to watch an unfinished version of what I wanted to do.”
This high-concept comedy about a naval aviator (Dennis Quaid) experimentally miniaturized and accidentally injected into a hapless clerk (Martin Short) was originally planned to be a drama. It’s a good thing they saw the light, or we would’ve been robbed of Short’s hilarious physicality in the film. “He does like to do a lot of takes,” Dante said. “But with Marty, if you take Take 1, and you run it against Take 10, you wonder, 'Is this the same movie? Because he comes up with stuff, and improvises, and he’s loose. And you gotta let him do it, because that’s where the gold is.”
The 'Burbs (1989)
It’s hard to believe now, after five Oscar nominations and two wins, but at the time of this comedy’s release, Tom Hanks was still known primarily as a funnyman. And according to Dante, he was worried his status in Hollywood: “He had just made Big, and he was concerned about playing a father. He thought maybe that would mean his leading man days were over. His Bachelor Party days would be behind him. He kept saying, 'Does he really have to have a kid?’”
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
After the massive success of the first Gremlins, Dante finally gave in to the studio and went to work on a sequel. And he upped the ante on the Mogwai designs, recruiting Rick Baker, who of course is now considered one of the greatest makeup artists ever to work in the 'biz. “Rick Baker didn’t want to come on if he had to redo [original creator] Chris Walas’ Gremlins, because what’s in it for him? So to induce him, we changed the story so there was a genetics lab run by Christopher Lee, and they changed the Gremlins into different kinds of Gremlins,” he explained. “So all the designs and ideas that Rick had we could come up with.”
Related: 'Gremlins 2’ Director Joe Dante Remembers Christopher Lee
Burying the Ex is now in theaters and on video on demand. Watch the trailer: