ANY film director worth their salt will usually get around to making one film so personal it's tempting to read it as autobiography. Gremlins director Joe Dante, however, has made two. The most obvious one is 1993's Matinee, a lovely, low-key ode to the wonders of monster movies in the age of atomic fear.
Set against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis and starring John Goodman as a William Castle-esque B-movie producer who has devised an array of outlandish stunts to promote his latest opus, Mant ("Half Man! Half Ant!"),it's easy to spot Dante's alter ego in Simon Fenton, a 15-year-old kid who spends his spare time staring wide-eyed at the silver screen or sitting in his bedroom poring over Monster Magazine.
"I think it's fair to say that if I hadn't had that kind of childhood, I probably wouldn't be making films," confirms Dante over the phone from Los Angeles. "I grew up in New Jersey and my father was a golf pro, so I was groomed for sports, but I wasn't very good, so my interests lay elsewhere." Laid out with polio for a year, he did a lot of drawing and writing instead, but his big thing was going to the cinema for the Saturday matinees. "That was the highlight of the week. And Monster Magazine – that was a chance for kids who felt kind of isolated to realise that there were other people out there like them."
As for the other key film in Dante's CV? That's easy. Gremlins 2: The New Batch. "That's my id, you might say", offers Dante of his anarchic follow-up to his 1984 smash hit. Like the gremlins who run amuck in its soulless, hi-tech, office block-setting, it's fun to view the film in terms of Dante running riot in the increasingly corporate environs of Hollywood, taking its money and throwing out the blockbuster rule book. "I think that's an accurate interpretation," chuckles Dante. "It's the one time someone came to me and said: 'We want this movie and we don't care what it is. Do whatever you want, just give it to us by this date."
Does that still surprise him?
"Well, that's an offer you don't get twice and, certainly, it's never happened again."
Appearing later this week at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to talk about his career, Dante is one of the more fascinating filmmakers to have arrived in Hollywood on that first post-Jaws / pre-multiplex blockbuster wave. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s loving movies the way Dante did in the late 1950s and early 1960s probably has fond memories of gorging on the likes of Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins, Explorers and Innerspace. His are films that embody the spirit of 1950s B-movies, but with a subversive take on them, one filtered through 1960s radicalism ("It's very hard to have lived through the Sixties and not be political"), and fuelled by the full-tilt energy found in the cartoons of Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Frank Tashlin.
Indeed, it's no surprise to learn that Dante initially set out to become a cartoonist, even though he was talked out of it when he got to art school. "I was told that cartooning isn't an art form and if I was smart I would take something else. So I took film. That was back in the days when everything was black and white, 16mm, silent – we were essentially making underground art films, so I can't say my filmmaking acumen derived from my teachings at the Philadelphia College of Art. Almost all of it came from the school of Roger Corman."
Corman gave Dante his first break – in the trailer-cutting department of New World Pictures. Already a fan (at film school he'd made Corman badges to counteract all the Jean Luc Godard buttons his more pretentious classmates wore), he knew it was a good time to be working for his hero. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich had already matriculated from Corman's de facto film school. "That was definitely in the back of our heads," says Dante, whose co-alumni from that time include James Cameron, Jonathan Demme and John Sayles. "I'd have a hard time putting into a single sentence what I learned from Roger, but you did quickly come to realise that you could function under the worst possible conditions, because when you worked for Roger, everything always went wrong."
It's an experience that has certainly served him well. Eventually directing Piranha for Corman, a Jaws rip-off which John Sayles wrote, it won him a fan in Steven Spielberg who, unbeknownst to him, used his clout to prevent Universal from blocking the film's release. "I only found out about that much later. Universal were worried because it was competing with Jaws 2, and he convinced them Piranha was a parody and wasn't in competition with it. If he hadn't gone on my side, that picture might never have come out."
Spielberg was impressed too with Dante's follow-up film, The Howling, tapping its star, Dee Wallace, to play the mum in ET and, eventually, its director to make Gremlins, and, before it, the most outrageous segment of the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie. "The Gremlins offer came out of the blue," recalls Dante. "And it was the most difficult thing I've ever had to make because we were inventing the technology. The picture had also started out as a rougher, more violent movie, and we were turning it into a different kind of picture when we were shooting. Spielberg was away doing another film and the studio was really not all that thrilled about the movie we were making. Obviously the beneficial aspect was that the movie finally went to a preview and it was phenomenal. It was one of those movies that came out of nowhere, nobody expected anything of it and all of a sudden it was just the right movie at the right time."
Its astronomical success quickly saw Dante dubbed "Spielberg Jr", which he never felt like he was. Of course he has nothing but praise for the way Spielberg mentored him, but he does admit that with his next film, Explorers, he set out to make the anti-ET. "As it turned out, that wasn't a good thing to be," quips Dante referring to the film's undeserved flop status. Still, the very fact that he got to make a mainstream film like that, not to mention the unheard-of level of freedom he was given on Gremlins 2, suggest the 1980s was actually something of a Golden Age for the family blockbuster. Does he see it that way?
"If you had asked me that at the time I would have said no, but now I would say it was a golden age compared to how it is to work for the studios today. There was not the same degree of freedom as there had been in the Seventies, but there was not the kind of studio interference that we see today with the corporate mentality. That was just coming in, but it hadn't fully taken hold. Now it's like working for a bank."
Dante started noticing the change in the late 1990s, but his worst experience came with 2003's Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a film he only agreed to make to try and preserve the legacy of his friend Chuck Jones, who had passed away a few months earlier. "That movie has a different beginning, a different middle and a different ending to the one I started making," says Dante, bitterly. "It was a battle that went on for a year and a half, and that's a long time to go to work angry. Particularly when you're making a movie about Bugs Bunny."
Though he effectively swore off movies after that, he's recently completed a small 3D film called The Hole that he says is more of a return to 1980s style family horror. He doesn't, however, think that 3D is going to be the saviour of the studios. In fact, he sounds as if he doesn't think the studios have much future at all, laughing when I ask if, like John Goodman's character in Matinee, he reckons they're "all dinosaurs – no vision."
"It's not just me who thinks that way. Look around you. The only thing that's interesting about the situation at the moment is the air of desperation that has entered the equation. The studios have spent a fortune getting audiences hyped-up on movies that are huge spectacles that top themselves in every reel with climaxes that go on and on. Only now they've discovered they don't have the money to pay for them anymore, so they don't want to make those kinds of movies. But what are they going to do? The audience now expects this."
• Joe Dante will give a talk at Cineworld, Edinburgh, on 25 June as part of this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival. Visit www.edfilmfest.org.uk