Interview: An Evening at the Nightmare Cinema with the Legendary Joe Dante
The director takes us through his very Twilight Zone-like segment, Mirari, talks filmmaking, and even comments on Gremlins.
By Chris Morse
Mick Garris' horror anthology, Nightmare Cinema, will finally hit theaters and VOD this Friday, June 21st, and we are excited to present to you our next interview for the film. A couple days ago, we shared our discussion with David Slade of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night prominence, who directed a segment titled This Way to Egress, but today we are taking a deep dive into Mirari with the director who brought the story to life.
Legendary filmmaker Joe Dante joins Garris, Slade, Ryûhei Kitamura, and Alejandro Brugués in this project, featuring five horror stories all with their own unique styles from directors who have carved a place for themselves in the genre. You will no doubt know Dante from his work on Gremlins, Piranha, and The Howling, among other efforts ranging from Masters of Horror to a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, but the filmmaker has no doubt brought something unique to the table with Mirari.
This segment has a very strong Twilight Zone vibe, echoing the classic episode, "Eye of the Beholder," from Rod Serling's original series. It's a psychological tale all about fear of plastic surgery and follows a particularly insane cast of characters that will keep you thinking until the end. There's a lot to unwrap, so who better to take us through it than the director himself?
Read on for our exclusive interview with Dante, touching upon topics such as his background on the project, his segment's twisted story, how filmmaking has evolved since he entered the industry, and even Gremlins, namely why you should not expect him to be asked back for any future film in that franchise. There is plenty to discuss, so let's jump right into it.
Ray Morse: First, we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us about Nightmare Cinema! Can you tell our readers a little about how you became involved in the project?
Joe Dante: Well, Nightmare Cinema was an offshoot of a Mick Garris project called Masters of Horror. There were two seasons of that and of course the allure of that show was that they were able to attract the big names by saying that although there wasn’t a lot of money involved or a lot of time to shoot, there was no censorship. And since you could basically get a story that you wanted to do, without focus groups or notes from the studio and all that other nonsense, that was very appealing to people and I think this show was quite popular and some people did very good work.
When it went under and Showtime decided that they didn’t want to renew it, Mick kept thinking that he wanted to do another series with international directors and he sort of nursed that idea for a number of years. It finally morphed, after a decade, into this movie, Nightmare Cinema, which is essentially a series of stories directed by overseas directors, except him and me, because I guess to some of the financiers, they wanted to have two American directors. So, this is sort of an experiment.
I mean, we’re hoping that if it takes off, that they would come back and say, “Maybe you should do some more of these. Maybe you should get some more directors from various countries and do a whole series of Nightmare Cinemas.”
Ray: Your segment, Mirari, had a very distinct feeling that reminded us a bit of the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Eye of the Beholder." What was it like working with prolific writer Richard Christian Matheson and did you two collaborate much on the story side of this?
Joe: Well, I’ve worked with Richard before. I worked with his father as well on The Twilight Zone movie and I’m just a big fan of him. Richard Jr. wrote a series for me called Splatter that was produced for Netflix, their first of many interactives, a number of years ago and the gimmick was that the audience gets to choose who dies each episode. There were three episodes altogether, but in order to make that happen with all those characters, you had to shoot ten episodes with different versions of what would happen if you chose person A or person B. It was fun, but it was difficult. It was like math, you know?
When it came time do this, I thought this might be up his alley and we came up with basically the idea of the story that we did, which is based on fear of plastic surgery. You could walk out in the streets to a department store and see a lot of examples of really scary plastic surgery. And the other need, of course, was because there wasn’t a great deal of money, it had to be a story that had a merge of characters and took place in one location.
Ray: It seems clear that the central theme of Mirari is vanity, whether that's David's warped view of beauty or his twisted plot to show his fiancé, Anna, that looks aren't everything. What would you say the takeaway is?
Joe: Well, to me it’s a story in which it’s taken seriously and it’s told from her point of view. In order for the story to progress, you have to realize at a certain point that everyone in the story is insane. There’s just madness everywhere and the only person that is sane is the heroine, and even toward the end it looks like she’s lost her marbles too.
For me, it was a psychological thing. I just thought it was a great way to get inside the character by surrounding her with people that seemed normal, but were, in fact, absolutely nuts. When we were writing the story, it became apparent that it didn’t make a lot of sense unless everybody else was crazy. [It’s] not a story in which anyone acts rationally.
Ray: We noticed that each of the characters in Mirari possesses a certain duality, such as Anna's discomfort in her own skin compared to who she is on the inside, David's Jekyll and Hyde tendencies, and even Dr. Leneer's calming exterior and underlying evil. Was this "two sides to the same coin" theme by design?
Joe: One of the things about plastic surgery is about how you look and how you’re perceived by other people. At the beginning of the story, everybody seems rational. They all seem like they’re nice people and seem to have her best interests at heart, and it’s only later, through her experience, that she realizes there’s something not right and it turns out that she’s a victim of something. Her boyfriend, who seems like such a nice guy, is absolutely nuts and his mother is horrific. He’s obviously a mama’s boy and he constantly calls her and seems like he’s talking about [his girlfriend]. It should be a dead giveaway, I would think, for the young lady, but this girl doesn’t sense it because she’s so needy that she’s lucky to have this guy [due to having] this disfigurement that she thinks no one else will like her. She’s so grateful that he likes her, so it’s kind of a sad story, actually.
Ray: Can you tell us about your experience working on Nightmare Cinema? Did you have any goals in mind going into it and do you feel you accomplished them during the shoot?
Joe: My goal was to help Mick get it made. I mean, this was a project that had just been lying around for a long time, trying to get it made into a TV series for years and then when there was an opportunity to get some money, he sort of reneged a bit on his original plan, which was to have mostly overseas directors. But, to help with the financing, he asked me if I would do one and I said, “Sure.”
So, my goal mainly was to help get the picture made and also to stay within the restrictions of the budget, but it just doesn’t look cheap. It actually looks pretty good for being made so quickly. I mean, shooting went quickly. The editing, not necessarily, because money tends to fall apart. You have to get some more and then you have to wait, and then something’s not available or somebody’s not available or whatever. We shot this, actually, quite a while ago. Probably going on two years ago.
Ray: You were born and raised in New Jersey. You then went on to work with legendary producer Roger Corman. What was that like and is there anything you would want to pass on to filmmakers of the future in the same way Corman did for you?
Joe: Well, I’d love to do that, but unfortunately the business that Roger was in when I first joined is unrecognizable to the one that we have today. We didn’t belong to a union; we learned on the job. It was on-the-job training. I’ve been extremely lucky to know a number of people who benefited from the fact that they went to Corman’s school, but today I don’t think there’s any comparable experience that a filmmaker could have.
I think that everything’s changed so much in the way films are made. They’re not shot on film anymore; they’re not distributed on film. The way they teach people is so different that I think the independent mode has raised its head to the point where if they can finance their own movie, they can go out and make it themselves. That was something that was certainly not possible when I was getting started with all of the equipment, the expenses, and the travel. It was a complicated situation, but now I think there’s a tremendous ability to actually just go out, make a film with your friends, and you can score it, color-correct it, and do special effects. You can do all of that stuff.
But the problem is not making the film – the problem is getting someone to see it. Where are you gonna watch it? And that’s where film festivals come in handy. That’s where people actually get discovered, maybe by a film that doesn’t even get bought for release. Somebody sees it and says that they have another picture, and then suddenly he’s got another job, even though the first movie was only seen by the people who hired him.
Ray: Gremlins is no doubt a timeless and special film that many of us can't wait to show our kids. Given all the renewed interest in the franchise by way of collectibles, screenings, and a new script by Chris Columbus, would you ever be interested in directing a sequel or reboot? If so, what would you do differently today?
Joe: Well, that’s kind of a moot question because I’m not going to be asked to be involved in a sequel or reboot. Chris was not a fan of Gremlins 2, to put it mildly, and so I think he resents what I did with the characters in that movie. In all of the various discussions that I’ve heard going on these many years, nothing ever happens, of course, but in all of these discussions he never suggested that I would be a part of them.
Ray: After all these years, I honestly feel as though Gremlins 2 has finally found its cult audience.
Joe: Oh, definitely! They said to me they really wanted a sequel and they didn’t understand the first movie or why it was successful, so they finally came to me five years late and said, “We’ll let you do whatever you want if you make another one of these movies for us!” So, I just made it the way that I wanted to sort of make fun of the whole idea of the thing and I was very happy with the results! But the keepers of the kingdom… were not pleased.
Gremlins: Reassessing the Rules
A matured look at Joe Dante’s holiday horror-comedy classic.
Ray: Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
Joe: Trailers From Hell is my website. We have a podcast now, which is one of the better podcasts about movies because we bring in filmmakers, directors, and actors, and instead of asking about their careers, we ask them what made them want to do the job that they do. We’ve had some really fascinating episodes, all of which can be found on the Trailers From Hell website, along with trailers and commentaries by filmmakers.
It’s the movie film school that’s been going on for a number of years now. It’s our way of giving back! It’s our way of getting people to find out about movies that, in today’s complicated world, they might not ever find out about.
Ray: Alright, that does it for our questions. Thanks for chatting with us about Nightmare Cinema and your segment, Mirari. We appreciate your time and can't wait to see what comes next from you!
Nightmare Cinema follows a series of down-on-their-luck individuals who enter the decrepit and spine-chilling Rialto theater, only to have their deepest and darkest fears brought to life on the silver screen by The Projectionist – a mysterious, ghostly figure who holds the nightmarish futures of all who attend his screenings. By the time our patrons realize the truth, escape is no longer an option. For once the ticket is torn, their fate is sealed at Nightmare Cinema.
The horror anthology's five unique stories and their respective directors are as follows.
- The Thing in the Woods - Directed by Alejandro Brugués
- Mirari - Directed by Joe Dante
- Mashit - Directed by Ryûhei Kitamura
- This Way to Egress - Directed by David Slade
- Dead - Directed by Mick Garris
Nightmare Cinema will hit theaters and VOD on June 21st, 2019 via Cinelou Releasing with a Shudder-exclusive streaming premiere coming later this year. Stay tuned to Dead Entertainment for more coverage on this film as the week continues.