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Joe Dante Interview: ‘The Hole’ and Making Family-Friendly Horror

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Joe Dante‘s long-delayed ‘The Hole‘ received a limited theatrical release this weekend. The film follows two brothers who move with their mom to a new house and discover a bottomless hole in the basement that is filled with their deepest fears. In order to defeat the hole, they must overcome their fears with the help of their next door neighbor. We had a chance to speak with Mr. Dante recently about the film, directing kids, and making family-friendly horror.

I am so thrilled to be able to talk to you today!

Well try to calm yourself!

I’m a big fan! I grew up with so many of your movies.

It’s great to hear that.

I watched ‘The Hole’ this week and I really enjoyed how it was a kid-friendly horror film. You’ve had experience with this before, so what’s the balance you’re going for when you’re making a horror film for kids?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have an answer for it. Each project is individual and you approach it not thinking about other things you’ve done. You always approach thinking about what’s best for this particular project. It has been pointed out to me that there seems to be a pattern in that I do a lot of pictures with kids in jeopardy and scary situations. I don’t know why that is. I like actors in general, but kid actors I particularly like because they’re so interesting to work with because they can surprise you in ways that adult actors often don’t. Over the year I’ve worked with a lot of young actors, sometimes in their first major role, and it’s always been rewarding for me. I don’t know how rewarding it is for them. Looking at evil or looking at danger or looking at the supernatural through innocent eyes is, I find, a compelling way to get into that subject.

What I really liked about it is that these kids feel more realistic. They cuss a little and they react in ways that are more believable. The film doesn’t condescend kids at all. 

When you cast kids it’s tricky because there’s been a whole breed of child actor that’s been brought up basically to give Disney channel-type performances. They’ve been inundated with acting tics and cutesy mannerisms and ways to entice the audience into thinking they’re adorable. That’s very, very hard to take. And if you happen to make the mistake of casting the wrong kid in the movie they can completely laugh it up. So I always look for kids who act like real kids and haven’t had that homogenization thing happen to them yet. Either they’re just starting out and are kind of raw, or someone like Nathan Campbell who has been doing this for a little while and has a completely confident personality about himself and is able to handle anything that you throw at him in a completely natural and believable way.

Can you talk a little about the casting process and finding these more organic child actors?

The trick is if you’ve gotta cast people who are in the same family that makes it difficult because you can find two kids who are the absolute best kids but they don’t look like they can be brothers. Or they can’t have the mother that you have. You always have to take that into account.

The scary stuff in the film goes beyond the surface — You have the stuff with the clown, which is such a common fear, but then you have the girl next door and the story of her friend who died, and finally the father of the two boys and the way he still haunts their lives. Was that something that drew you to the script as well?

Well it was what drew me because I get a lot of horror scripts and most of them are not that interesting, but this one was… the set-up was familiar because I’ve seen similar set-ups in other pictures, but as it went along it didn’t go where I thought it was going to go and it went through a much more personal place than I expected it to. And I liked the way the kids were written — they were written like real kids. They weren’t cutesy, they had realistic dialogue, the relationship between the two brothers was not that great, which I remember me and my brother had a relationship that was pretty much like that. And so it seemed more realistic to me and therefore, when you’re bringing people along on a journey you want them to be able to identify with real people, you don’t want them to identify with cardboard stereotypes. To me this just looked like something special.

It’s a neat moment when Bruce Dern shows up because he’s worked with you before. 

Bruce and I go back to ‘The ‘Burbs.’ I’ve used him a couple of times in other things since then and we’ve always been friendly. He has a project that he asked me to direct that we’re still trying to get financing for. He’s one of my go-to guys. If I read a script that has a part that I think is good for Bruce, then that’s more of an enticement for me to do it. Same with Dick Miller, and when he was alive Henry Gibson, and Bob Picardo, people like that who keep recurring in my movies.

There’s some stuff in the movie that feels very classically you. Like the kids on the staircase waiting for the ghosts with helmets on and little weapons from around the house. It’s classic Dante!

I’m glad to hear that there is such a concept as “classic Dante!” [Laughs] You know, they were just sitting on the steps talking and you gotta find a way to liven it up a little. And it seemed to me they don’t have a lot of things they can fight off ghosts with or whatever, so they would take whatever was available in the basement. The good thing about having movies with attics and basements in them is that you can justify silly props.

‘The Hole’ was originally intended to be released in 3D, right?

It was shot in 3D and it was run in 3D in the two screenings that we’ve had in various film festivals around the world. It got an award in Venice for best 3D. I don’t know for sure whether this theatrical engagement that they’re doing in Atlanta at the end of the month is 3D or not.

I noticed especially with the opening credits and the entire climax sequence that the film was clearly crafted with 3D in mind. 

Take my word for it — it really is great 3D. We worked really hard on it and it’s immersive. It takes you into the movie rather than throwing things at you. Of course we throw a couple of things at you because if you don’t the audience is disappointed. The whole use of it is based on a Hitchcock movie called ‘Dial M for Murder,’ which was a stage play that he shot in 3D that was never released in 3D because of the delays. But the scene in 3D has quite a remarkable use of it — it’s very immersive and it draws you in, and that’s really been my motto with 3D.

Can you talk a little bit about what you’re working on next?

At the moment I’m working on several things at once because you have to in this business. The days when people would send you scripts and they’d all be funded and you’d go ahead and make it are long gone. You have to work on several things so if one of them falls apart you’ve got another one. And that takes up a lot of time. The one that looks like it’s closest to going is a French movie called ‘Paris, I’ll Kill You,’ which is an episodic horror film with eight directors, of which I am one, which is supposed to be shot in London in January.

And who are some of the other directors on that project?

Well that’s the embarrassing question because aside from Xavier Gens, which is the one guy I know, they’re all unfamiliar to me. They’re all European guys. But don’t print that, that I don’t know who they are.

Before we go, I want to tell you that I secretly prefer ‘Gremlins 2′ to ‘Gremlins.’

I do too!

It’s so much more fun!

I think so too! But that’s the thing with work for hire, and a movie where you get to do anything you want.

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