“You Can’t Turn Around Without Bumping into a Zombie Movie”: Joe Dante on Burying the Ex
With Burying the Ex (opening theatrically and on VOD June 19), one of the greatest directors of the past forty years returns to the style that made him famous while also striking out in immensely entertaining new directions. Joe Dante’s first film, the Roger Corman-financed Hollywood Boulevard (co-directed with Allan Arkush), established him as a singular satirical voice; like many of the films that would follow (The Howling, Gremlins and Gremlins 2, Matinee, etc.), it was both a celebration of and a sly commentary on American pop culture, with a delirious wit and energy masking an underlying seriousness. Over the years, Dante has honed his style to echo the economy of expression one finds in the best directors of the classical studio system; his work is simple and clear, yet yields endless contradictions and complexities upon repeat viewings. No director since Douglas Sirk and Samuel Fuller has been so successful at smuggling subversive ideas into mainstream studio products, from Small Soldiers’ analysis of American militarism and its relationship to corporate media (superficially disguised as a kids’ adventure movie) to the implicit critique of middle-American xenophobia in The ‘Burbs and Gremlins. (On cable television, the implicit becomes explicit in Dante’s brilliant political satires The Second Civil War and Masters of Horror: Homecoming.)
Burying the Ex finds Dante at his most playful, but with his precision and intelligence fully intact. Movie buff Max (Anton Yelchin) can’t seem to shake his controlling girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene) – until she’s hit by a car, freeing him to be with the girl he really likes, fellow horror movie junkie Olivia (Alexandra Daddario). The only problem comes when Evelyn returns as a zombie and once again refuses to let her man go, leading to a series of hilarious and frightening complications that take full advantage of Dante’s talent for blending horror and comedy while navigating varying levels of emotional realism. Like almost all of his pictures, Burying the Ex is an explosion of film references and in-jokes – is it any coincidence that Dante’s first production was an epic compilation program called The Movie Orgy? – that coexist with surprisingly poignant character sketches. I spoke with Dante about Burying the Ex, his Trailers From Hell website, and the state of American movies in general on the eve of an American Cinematheque retrospective of his work.
Filmmaker: Let’s start at the beginning. When and how did the script for Burying the Ex come to you?
Dante: The writer, Alan Trezza, had made a short film that he expanded into a feature-length screenplay, and he sought me out thinking I would be a good fit for it. When I read it I did think I was a good fit for it – I liked the humor and I liked the fact that there were two strong women’s roles, which is not often something you find in this kind of picture. I also liked that it was economical – it wasn’t something you needed a hundred million dollars to make. This was almost seven years ago, and during that time we kept trying to put it together. As you know, you have to get financing from various places to do these independent movies, and if you get them all together and then one drops out you have to start over.
Filmmaker: What was the thing that finally got it made?
Dante: World War Z was an unexpected hit — it had a bad preview or whatever, but then it made a lot of money and surprised everybody, and that, combined with the success of The Walking Dead, loosened the purse strings for that particular genre. Now you can’t turn around without bumping into a zombie movie – the zombie has replaced the werewolf and the vampire as the go-to monster, partly, I think, because it’s so American. That wasn’t always the case – the original zombies were Caribbean West Indie zombies, but when George Romero made Night of the Living Dead he created a whole new genre. It’s also something people feel connected to because it seems more like something that could happen to them. Nobody really thinks they’re going to run into a werewolf or a vampire, but the idea of a loved one or someone you once knew coming back from the dead is as old as The Monkey’s Paw. It’s a wish fulfillment thing that people want but don’t want.
Filmmaker: That gets at what I liked most about Burying the Ex, which is that for all its outrageous zombie comedy trappings it’s very relatable. You present the central relationships fairly realistically and have this recognizable situation of a guy who can’t quite bring himself to get out of a relationship that he knows is wrong. It’s a tricky tonal balance.
Dante: I’ve had so many executives look at my movies and say, “Is this a horror picture or a comedy?” My movies all seem to have this tone that’s serious but not serious, and this particular situation lends itself to that because there’s a poignancy to it, and yet it’s also absurd and ridiculous.
Filmmaker: I would think that would be a tough thing to communicate to the actors, and if they don’t play it right you’re in trouble, because it either won’t be moving enough or it won’t be funny.
Dante: You hit the nail on the head – the movie is the actors, to a larger extent than some of the other movies I’ve done, because it’s a small ensemble and it’s not full of gigantic effects. We lucked out in a lot of ways; Ashley Greene is gorgeous and well known from Twilight, and Alexandra Daddario is big now in San Andreas at the same time that we’re releasing our movie. I enjoyed San Andreas, but I think her part in this movie uses more of her humor — she’s very funny and lovable. In the case of Anton Yelchin, he is the character — he’s a huge film buff who gorges constantly on DVDs. And then there’s Oliver Cooper, whose character was not what was written on the page. In the screenplay he was a fairly handsome dude who gets lots of girls because he’s handsome, but then the twist with Oliver was that he’s not that handsome but nevertheless manages to score with girls. From the point of view of Anton’s character that makes it doubly troubling because this guy who isn’t even as attractive as he is is getting all the girls.
Filmmaker: How much time did you have to work with the actors?
Dante: We cast the movie five days before we shot it, and shot in twenty days, so…
Filmmaker: Not a lot. You’ve done everything from movies on ten-day schedules for Roger Corman to studio films where you were working for years…what are the pros and cons of each?
Dante: The best thing about doing independent movies is that you can do ten of them in the time it took me to do Looney Tunes. On a film like that, you work really hard for a year-and-a-half and then you’ve got one shot for it to work, whereas on these smaller films, as hard as they are to put together, at least they don’t take a lot of time to shoot and you can get more done in that time. There’s also the topical factor – the world changes very fast, and you can get yourself into a situation where some of the assumptions that you had at the beginning of your big budget movie are no longer applicable because a year and a half has gone by. I like working fast because that’s how I started. Roger Corman taught me that the only thing that’s important on a movie is what happens between when you say action and when you say cut. All the other time…it can be hours between shots or ten minutes between shots, but ultimately it all falls away because it’s not what’s important. What’s important is what’s actually going into the camera.
Filmmaker: I thought a lot about the ’70s Roger Corman movies while I was watching Burying the Ex – not just yours but Jonathan Demme’s films and others. Something this movie has in common with those New World Pictures productions is that it’s a great snapshot of Los Angeles at a particular moment in time.
Dante: In their zeal to get the picture made the producers flirted with the idea of shooting it in New Orleans, where there’s a tax incentive. I wanted to get the picture made, but I didn’t want to make it wrong, and even at the script stage this seemed so much a film about a certain LA subculture that’s not often put on film. The thing about LA – aside from the fact that it’s nice to sleep in your own bed while you’re making a movie – is that you’ve got these people who love movies and live in L.A because they love movies. There are certain touchstones and events that don’t happen in other places – they don’t happen in Detroit, they happen here. People go to the New Beverly, or to Hollywood Forever cemetery. What I like about the picture is that it’s an LA movie at a time when they don’t make many LA movies anymore. When Roger was doing movies in the ’70s everything was in LA; I remember shooting Piranha in Texas and Roger’s assistant said, “Oh, it’s so good to not see those California hills!”
Filmmaker: I’m assuming that on a film like this you’re not shutting down large sections of the street —
Dante: No, we were stealing shots everywhere we could.
Filmmaker: Right. So were there any challenges getting what you needed?
Dante: Not so much on the streets, but our main set was a recycled apartment set from some other movie or show – I have no idea what it was — and almost half the movie takes place there. We redid it a little, but we didn’t have much money, and it had ceiling pieces that didn’t fit and was up on stilts for some reason, so we couldn’t take the walls out – it was almost like shooting in a real apartment. It was so tight in there that getting the shots we needed to tell the story was a real challenge.
Filmmaker: How do you go about deciding on your shots? Do you storyboard?
Dante: I used to do that. When you’re starting out it’s encouraged, but I found early on that, having started as an editor, it was easy for me to change the storyboards – and ultimately I decided I didn’t need them. At this point I’m beyond needing storyboards or shot lists, I just do it in my head. I have an idea of what a scene should look like, but it all changes when you get there and you see the actors on the set. I learned from John Huston to just rehearse the scene with the actors and let them go where they want to go. On a bigger movie you might have rehearsal days in the contract, and if it can be on the actual sets that’s even better, but in this case the set wasn’t even ready until we were shooting. So you just have to punt.
Filmmaker: Do things go faster now that you’re shooting digital?
Dante: I wouldn’t say it goes faster. There are things you don’t have to do – you don’t have to reload the camera, you don’t have to put the film in the bag – but there’s still a trick to shooting digital, and I can’t say that I completely understand it. It has to do with graphs and how light bounces off of objects and all that stuff…I did a digital 3D movie [The Hole], and a glint of light that would appear in one eye wouldn’t be there in the other eye. I love 3D, but that was tough.
Filmmaker: One of the things I love about your ’80s and ’90s movies is how they feel like reactions against the prevailing conventions even when you’re working within very mainstream, corporate systems. Although Spielberg was a great benefactor of yours, the Gremlins movies are kind of subversive flip sides of E.T., and Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out that Small Soldiers satirizes everything that Saving Private Ryan glorifies. Is responding to and reacting against the status quo a conscious effort on your part? I’m curious how you see Burying the Ex in context with other zombie fare like World War Z and The Walking Dead, or even Life After Beth and Warm Bodies.
Dante: All that stuff that Jonathan writes about looms large in my legend, but it’s much more unconscious than that. In the case of Burying the Ex, I didn’t even know that Life After Beth and Warm Bodies were being made, let alone released before we got to make ours. I didn’t think of Burying the Ex as a zombie movie, I just thought of it as a comedy that was incidentally about zombies. To me a zombie is a worker from the cane fields who’s being exploited, and it’s taken me a while to get used to the idea that ghouls are now called zombies. That takes away the voodoo aspect of it, which is one of the things that’s cool about zombies. In this movie we have a half-hearted voodoo gimmick – a MacGuffin, really – to get her out of the grave, but it isn’t very important or believable.
Filmmaker: As in many of your films, you use a lot of clips from classic horror films here. The film critic Scott Marks once pointed out that you use cartoons and movie clips the way that American Graffiti uses pop music, and that continues here. At what point do you start thinking about which movies you’re going to quote from, and how do you choose them?
Dante: The only specific thing in the script was the double bill of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie that they go to at the New Beverly, because then they talk about Val Lewton. I’m not sure that the original script had a TV in the store where Max works, but I used to go to Hollywood Book and Poster all the time and they always had a TV on with Mexican wrestling movies playing. So I thought a TV would be an excuse to pepper the movie with little asides and exclamation points. The choices of the movies were dictated by things that wouldn’t cost any money – aside from the fair use argument, which can be made, we went for pictures that were in the public domain. The thing is, once you actually get a picture together and have lawyers on it, they say “Who are we going to pay? We have to pay somebody.” You say “No, it’s in the public domain,” and they say, “No, you have to pay somebody.” So we ended up paying for public domain movies! If I had known we were going to pay I would have chosen different movies.
Filmmaker: It’s another of your films that really rewards the audience’s visual literacy. It works if you don’t get the references, but the more you know about cinema the more you’re going to get out of it. I wonder if you think that all the new streaming platforms, like Warner Instant and things like that, have increased people’s knowledge of old movies—
Dante: No. There are more movies available to see than have ever been available in my lifetime – movies that haven’t been seen in seventy years have been taken out of the vaults and dusted off – but nobody outside of a very small group of film buffs knows what the hell these movies are, or who the actors are. That’s why I started Trailers From Hell, to get contemporary people who kids might be interested in to talk about things they saw that they liked and made them want to make films. It’s very rewarding when people come up to me and say they’ve discovered a picture they never heard of on the site, and now they’re looking for other movies by that director — it makes me feel like I’m giving back somewhat. But film literacy in general is becoming a smaller and smaller field. Even when you meet with an executive, you have to be very guarded about what references you make, because if you refer to something that they haven’t heard of you’re not making your point and they’re getting confused. It’s just what happens. We’re evolving into a different society – movies are a twentieth century art form and the twentieth century is over. Now what we have are tent pole blockbusters and small independent films that may or may not – probably not – get a theatrical release before streaming directly into your home or computer. The problem is that my generation got into this because we love the act of going to the movies and seeing movies with an audience. It’s funny, before Small Soldiers I never shot a movie in ’scope because I knew everybody would see them on TV and it would be panned and scanned. Now that I can make them in ’scope because the TVs are the right shape, they’re not running in theatres!
Filmmaker: The stark division you’re talking about, where everything’s either really cheap or enormously expensive, is a shame, because most of the movies that endure are mid-range genre pictures.
Dante: Look at Gremlins. They’re running it tonight at the Egyptian, and it’s 31 years old. But it’s more popular now than a lot of films that won Academy Awards that year, because there’s a certain kind of movie that seems to stand the test of time, partly because the audience for it is constantly repeating itself. People see it as kids, then they grow up and show it to their kids and so on. It’s funny how sometimes the lowliest genre sticks around.
Filmmaker: I want to finish up with another kind of “state of the industry” question. The last major studio release you did was Looney Tunes: Back in Action back in 2003. Did that particular experience sour you on making studio movies, or has the business in general changed in a way that you don’t like, or both?
Dante: Both. The business has completely changed since the time when I first got into it. The decision making process at the studios is untenable. When a movie like Tomorrowland comes out and flops, everyone says “Well, that proves that you can’t make an original movie anymore!” regardless of the fact that it’s just that that particular movie didn’t work. It doesn’t mean you can’t try it again! But when you take a financial hit of that size, the studios start asking “Can’t we have another Avengers sequel?” And then with these remakes and sequels they go back to things that worked in the past, but some of those things worked because they were in the past – they don’t necessarily work now. If you’re not going to add something to it or at least riff on the original movie, like they did with the new Planet of the Apes, then I just don’t see the point. Why waste your time? It’s so deadening to go to the movies and see nothing but trailers for pictures with numbers at the end.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. He also hosts a podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles.