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Off Hollywood - Joe Dante

The creator of "Gremlins" and subversive anarchic film "Gremlins 2" has a "healthy distrust of establishment conventions."

Piranha (1978), Gremlins (1984),  Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Innerspace (1987), The Hole (2009)
Curator of

In 1990, Director Joe Dante didn’t just take the money and make the audience eat up a bad rehash of his smash-hit Gremlins. A film lover and historian himself, the sequel he made used the vermin and their bubbling flesh to make an anti-corporate satire that undermined existing value systems and institutions. In particular, he highlighted the rise of corporate control and media domination by placing the Gremlins in an ultra-modern corporate building run by a megalomaniac named Daniel Clamp whose logo shows the world being squished in a vice grip.


Gremlins 2: The New Batch serves as chilling foreshadowing into Joe Dante’s real life now, as right by his office a real estate development group begins to tear down parts of Pickfair Studios, a movie studio once owned by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. It is one of the only remaining silent film studios in Hollywood. In the same year when everyone is raving about The Artist, it’s hard to believe this is happening.

We stopped to watch the demolition crane take out the side of one of the buildings.

VICE: How can this possibly be happening?
Joe Dante: Because these are little offices and the building they’re planning will be six stories high. It will be all glass and steel and look very new. Right now the tenants are small companies and individuals and the new building can house a lot of big companies who can afford to pay more rent.

I know there is a petition and there have been protests, but don’t they understand this is Hollywood heritage?
They know there is opposition but in their view, they own the property and they can do whatever they want with the buildings. The rest of us have to deal with it.

Why did you set Gremlins 2 in a big corporate building?
“Smart Buildings” were being built at the time and it was all the talk in the Silicon Valley. We figured we would take it to an extreme. We wanted to make fun of big corporations and technology and we based Daniel Clamp on Ted Turner and Donald Trump.


With Gremlins 2 you were able to secure complete creative control, and you made an over-the-top anarchic film. How on earth were you able to do that?
Based on the financial success of Gremlins, the studio wanted to make a sequel. Originally when they asked me, I was so sick of Gremlins, I said no. It was a very hard movie to make because while we were making it there was no support from the studio, and technically it was a very difficult movie to make. They were just doing it as a favor to Steven Spielberg. The studio worked for five years trying to come up with an idea for a sequel but they didn’t understand what made the first one work. Eventually they came back and asked me again, but this time I was given complete creative control. I thought the most fun thing to do was to make the movie be about why it doesn’t need a sequel. We made fun of the whole concept of Gremlins, including the “rules.”

[Reader reminder: Don’t get them wet, don’t feed them after midnight, and don’t expose them to bright light.]

A perfect example of making fun of the water rule is when John Astin, aka Gomez Addams, cameos as a janitor at a television station, which is a horrible way for a hugely influential television star to wind up. He springs a leak in the drinking faucet that impossibly reaches Gizmo halfway across the room.  
There is lots of stuff like that. For instance we nod to Al Lewis, the guy who originally played Grandpa Munster. The idea for that character came from when I went on a tour of the CNN studios in Georgia and in the basement was this decrepit old set that Al used to use to introduce horror movies. I saw it and thought, “What if some guy that did these crappy shows with no production value whatsoever really wanted to be a serious news anchor?” There is also the cameo by Leonard Maltin, who gave the first movie a bad review, so we had him killed while giving a bad review in the sequel. It was all very meta.


The most talked about scene in the movie is when the film breaks and Hulk Hogan breaks the fourth wall.
I really wanted to do that gag. The film breaks and everyone in the theater thinks it’s really happening and then the audience sees the Gremlin shadows coming from the projection booth. The studio really didn’t want to do it. They hate it when you remind the audience that they are watching a movie, even though for years Bob Hope and Bing Crosby did nothing but remind people they were watching a movie. They wanted me to cut it out, but Spielberg suggested we have a preview and see what the audience thought. So when it brought the house down, they had to keep it in. When it came out on VHS we did a different gag where it looks like the tape gets eaten.

Speilberg really stuck up for you.
He was the most successful film director of that time and parlayed that success into a way to control what he was doing, and he was protective of other filmmakers. Most people don’t get Jaws and ET in one career. The truth of the matter is, if we weren’t all filmmakers we would all be at science-fiction conventions.

I consider Gremlins 2 a subversive Hollywood film. Were you conscious of that while making the film?
I'm not sure I actually verbalized "subversive" in my head while making it, but I was heavily influenced growing up by MAD magazine and anarchic Hollywood comedies like the films of The Marx Bros., W.C. Fields, Hope and Crosby, Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, etc. I like to play with genres and have a healthy distrust of establishment conventions.


What were you fighting against more, the Hollywood sequel or the growing power of the media? 
Well, there really was no crying need for a sequel to Gremlins, so it was more fun to just riff on that idea. The media, of course, was and is the "future," so there's more attention to it here than in the first movie. For instance, the "end of the world" tape that Clamp plays for Billy is a facsimile of the actual tape that Ted Turner had prepared to run on TBS in case of nuclear annihilation.

Wait, is that true?
True. We found out about it when we toured the TBS facilities for a different movie, checked around and found some inside sources who confirmed its existence. It's apparently quite similar to the one we made for the movie. It's probably still there, ready for action.

What were some of your fears at the onset of the 90s?
The great thing about worrying about the future is that whatever it is you're concerned about, it's probably ultimately going to turn out to be even more dire in ways you've completely overlooked. Even so, there are some futurist and entropy gags in the picture that are still funny even if they haven't come to pass in the same way.

Previously -  Brent Spiner