A Conversation With Joe Dante

Why the Gremlins director’s new horror movie took three years to make it to theaters—even though it’s great.

Still from 'The Hole.'
Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble in The Hole, directed by Joe Dante

Photo by Ed Araquel/Bold Films.

You might think that the director of hits like Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and The ’Burbs would have an easy time getting his latest film into theaters. The Hole is proof positive that you’d be wrong. Joe Dante’s 3-D fright fest about two brothers who find a seemingly bottomless hole in the basement of their new home finally made its U.S. debut in a limited theatrical release last week and arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on Oct 2—three long years after the film premiered to great enthusiasm at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009.

Scott Neumyer talked to the director about why The Hole took so long to make it to theaters, the film’s family appeal, and how Steven Spielberg influenced the final cut of Gremlins.

Slate: You premiered the film in Toronto in 2009. Can you point to a few things that delayed the release?

Joe Dante: I can point to three things: One, two, three “D.” I talked them into shooting in 3-D, which, at the time, seemed like a good idea, and, while we were shooting, we counted the number of theaters that were converting to 3-D, and it looked like there were enough for us. What we didn’t count on is the phenomenon of the fake 3-D movie where the studios took pictures that were not shot in 3-D and decided to convert them on computers and release them. And so, all the theaters that we thought we were going to play were now taken up with big-budget pictures that were making money and being held over. So we missed our window because we didn’t have 2-D prints; we only had 3-D. By the time we waited, more pictures came to fill the gap. All of a sudden, we were an old movie. We didn’t have any big stars and couldn’t compete with some of the other films. And so we just sort of sat around waiting our turn.

Slate: Do you feel like some of the delay can be attributed to not really knowing how to market the film? It’s a unique film unlike what you often see in the horror genre nowadays.

Dante: I’m not sure about that because that was actually what the studio was aiming at. They didn’t want to make a Saw movie. They didn’t want to make a horror movie that plays for one weekend and, now that all the gorehounds have seen it, it has to go directly to video. I thought—and the successful release of Super 8 proved—that there was an audience out there who were looking for ’80s-type pictures where you can take the whole family and everybody would get something different out of it. And I firmly believe that, had we been able to get it out there, this picture would have done very well.

Slate: How did you feel as the release date came and went?

Dante: It’s frustrating, of course. You don’t paint pictures to put them in your attic. You want people to look at them.

Slate: Like Super 8, The Hole takes its time, breathes, and really lives in its characters. Can you talk about your decision to go in that direction with Mark Smith’s script?

Dante: This is a picture where you’re encouraged to identify with people who all are afraid of something that they have to confront and overcome. I think that’s a winning formula. It’s not brand new; it’s certainly been done before, but the thing that appealed to me about Mark’s script was that the kids weren’t “cute”—in fact, the two brothers have a very adversarial relationship, which struck me as very realistic—and it takes the time to get people to know the characters and experience the movie through the characters. One of the reasons that I chose to do it in 3-D was because I wanted to try to envelop the audience in the movie as opposed to throwing it at them.

Director Joe Dante.
Director Joe Dante at the 66th Venice Film Festival.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

Slate: Is trying to “envelop the audience” also why you went with more practical effects and puppetry rather than an overload of CGI?

Dante: We did it for budgetary reasons. We really didn’t have a lot of money and, as we’ve seen with Avatar, if you have enough money you can do anything in CGI, which is fine. But that wasn’t really where we were. CGI is a wonderful tool but, in this case, I think what we were able to do is get the best of both worlds. For instance, the clown character is puppeted by puppeteers who can actually get very close to the character. Now we have the ability to take them out of the picture.

Slate: Was there any discussion about releasing a 3-D Blu-ray for people to see it at home in its intended format?

Dante: Nobody discussed it with me. I certainly think it would be a good idea. I’m sure it will happen eventually. Maybe when more people get 3-D TVs. I don’t know what the thinking was, but I know there’s not a huge penetration of 3-D TVs in the market.

Slate: The ending of The Hole clearly leaves a little bit open for expansion of that universe. After such an epic struggle to get this film opened here in the U.S., is that something you’d be open to doing if the opportunity came along?

Dante: Sure, but I don’t think that’s very likely because the amount of money that a picture has to make to generate a sequel doesn’t seem to be in the cards for a picture that isn’t playing in theaters. I mean, yeah, sure, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Slate: One of the most harrowing moments of Gremlins is Phoebe Cates telling the infamous chimney story. What was it like filming that scene?

Dante: That story was written in a previous version of the script, and it came out early on. I felt like there wasn’t enough there for Phoebe’s character, and I said, “Why don’t we give her this mystery where she doesn’t like Christmas, but we don’t know why and then we’ll find out and we can have her tell this story.” And everybody thought I was crazy. And then I shot it, and they really thought I was crazy. I mean everybody, including the editors, told me that it would never be in the picture. What’s nice about the scene for me is that it’s not funny to her—it’s a terrible thing to happen to her. It’s funny to us in the way that it’s funny if you see someone fall on a banana peel it looks funny, but if it happened to be you who just broke your back, it’s not funny. And so your laugh catches in your throat.

We had a great preview and even after that the studio said, “Great! Now all you have to do is take that story out.” I told them I didn’t want to take it out. To me, it encapsulates the entire tone of the movie. And so they said, “Well, we’ll get Spielberg to make you take it out.” So I talked to Steven, and he said, “You really want this in the movie, don’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, what do you think?” And he said, “Well, I don’t get it. I don’t know why you want this in the movie, but it’s your movie.” The picture opened huge and there were still memos going around about how we could get the scene cut from the print.

This review was edited and condensed.