Interview: Joe Dante on Burying the Ex
Dan Woburn sat down with the legendary director Joe Dante (Gremlins, The ‘Burbs, Small Soldiers) to discuss his latest directorial effort, Burying the Ex. The film stars Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Fright Night) as Max, an all-round nice guy, and Ashley Greene (Twilight, The Twlight Saga: Breaking Dawn) as his overbearing but incredibly beautiful girlfriend, Evelyn. Their relationship takes a nosedive after they decide to move in together and Max realises it is time to call it quits, but there’s just one problem: he’s too afraid to break up with her. Fate steps in when Evelyn is involved in a freak accident and dies, leaving Max single and ready to mingle. Several weeks later, he has a chance encounter with Olivia, played by Alexandra Daddario (Texas Chainsaw 3D, San Andreas), a cute and spirited girl who might just be his soul mate. But that same time, Evelyn returns from the grave as a dirt-smeared Zombie and she’s determined to live happily ever after with Max… even if that means turning him into one of the undead.
How did the script first end up in your hands and what was it that appealed to you about it?
Let’s see, the writer, Alan Trezza, handed me the script… six years ago? Five years ago? Can’t remember. And just said “I want you to take a look at this”. I didn’t realise until after I read it that it was based on a short film that he had shot himself, then expanded into a feature. I liked it because I liked the characters and I liked the humour. It had some funny dialogue. There was some funny situations. And it was very economical, it was not a gigantic, huge, expensive movie, it was something that was realistic to do for a low budget. So I attached myself, as we do, and we went out looking for financiers and studios and people to make it and stuff. Over a period of years we occasionally came close to getting it made and then something would happen and it wouldn’t happen (as so frequently happens). And you might pursue other things as well because you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. And then right around the time of World War Z becoming such an unexpected hit, with such a bad buzz [from] test screenings, it surprised everyone and made a lot of money. Coupled with the success of The Walking Dead, I think financiers started to say, “well, y’know, maybe there is some life in the zombie genre after all.” So we managed to scrape together enough money to shoot for twenty days in LA – in LA! Amusingly, ‘cause no one makes movies there anymore. And it turned out to be this sort of cute, funny zombie movie.
In terms of talking about zombie movies these days, there definitely seems to be a new sub-genre that’s arisen, with films like Life After Beth and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s upcoming Maggie; they’re zombie movies that zero in on dealing with a loved one coming back from the dead. I was wondering what you think makes Burying the Ex stand out from that new crowd?
Well y’know this was actually written before Life After Beth and before Warm Bodies, and before those other pictures, so, if this was gonna be a burgeoning trend we certainly weren’t aware of it at the time. I think what happens with horror films is that filmmakers definitely try to find ways to present the old tropes. People who watch horror movies – they expect certain things when they go in. But if that’s all you give them, then they come out and they feel disappointed, because it’s like they’ve already seen it. So the trick is to try and find new homes for these kinds of monster situations. And of course the idea of – if you take it seriously, the idea of a loved one coming back is fairly dramatic. It’s the Monkey’s Paw story. And I think people have latched onto that. Y’know – how many times can you go to the well, and tell the same story, is the question. And of course all these movies are different, they all have different characters, they all have different plot points, and all that – but there’s enough of them that it ends up becoming a sub-genre of movies that all fall into the RomZomCom [laughs] area. Romantic Zombie Comedy.
I really felt that Anton [Yelchin] and Alexandra [Daddario] reminded me quite heavily of Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates in Gremlins albeit a more modern take. Was this conscious on your part? Did you ever feel the same resonance with those archetypes or performances?
Well they are archetypical performances because they’re archetypical characters, but – there is a similarity, certainly a physical similarity [chuckles]. But the thing I find refreshing about Alexandra’s character is that it’s really every horror movie geek’s dream to think that he’s actually gonna be able to find a girl who looks like her who likes the same stuff they do! [Chuckles] It’s very rare! [Laughs heartily]. It’s horror geek wish fulfilment.
How do you feel Ashley Greene stands up to other movie monsters, and what inspiration did you try to feed her?
Well Ashley’s character presented a particular problem in that you want to have a girl who’s sexy and desirable, but you don’t want her to stop being sexy and desirable just because her skin’s rotting off. You need to find someone who’s particularly attractive to get away with that! And what I liked about what Ashley did with it was the changes in character and the manic laughter that would occasionally appear and go away, the way her character is constantly changing her attitude once she comes back. Which makes her really unpredictable – she jumps up and down like a little girl, then she’s really serious and she’s gonna kill him, and I found that to be very amusing and I think that in the end I find her character very sympathetic. She’s genuinely confused and hurt that he doesn’t want to be with her just because she’s dead. [Laughter]
What was your favourite scene to shoot?
Favourite scene to shoot, let’s see… I haven’t seen this movie in a long time. Well, let’s see – I enjoyed shooting at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, frankly just because it is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. All that dialogue about who’s buried there and all that stuff. At one point in order to save money the producers had wanted to switch to [another cemetery] and shoot it there, because it’d be a little cheaper. And I said, y’know, the heart and soul of this movie is the Los Angeles-ness of it, and the landmarks and the culture which I’m not so sure translates to other parts of the country. And luckily we managed to find a way to get to shoot it here. But it’s almost like Los Angeles is a character in the movie because it’s so – and there has actually lately been so few movies set in LA, in the current culture. It’s almost [chuckles] a documentary about the way that a certain strata of society operates in Los Angeles. So I like shooting the exteriors, ‘cause I just like LA, and I like getting LA on film. Talk about sub-genres, there’s a whole raft of movies that are just about Los Angeles.
Absolutely, and I’m inferring here that your decision to focus on LA as its own beast within the story – did you play fast and loose with Alan Trezza’s script?
Alan Trezza’s one of the producers! It’s very hard to play fast and loose with the producer’s script while he’s on set. However, he was very good about [it], so there’s a lot of material that’s in the movie that’s pretty funny that isn’t in the script because the actors just came up with it on the set, from just working on the scenes and trying to make them better. So he was very supportive about all that.
So any time you wanted to inject some Joe Dante-ness into it he was happy to oblige?
No, I think he was sort of expecting that. He wouldn’t have troubled to give me the script if he didn’t expect me to do that.
Going back to Ashley Greene’s character being relatable; your last film The Hole, which I really enjoyed by the way, it feels like between that and Burying the Ex you’ve been interested in exploring fears and doubts that plague young people. And in Max’s case it’s his desire to break up with Evelyn but not wanting to hurt her – I found that very easy to understand. Is that a theme that you find to be prevalent in your films, and if so, why?
Well y’know the thing about themes in my movies is I’m never really aware of them until people point them out. It’s encouraging to hear that you’re the person who saw The Hole, ‘cause I know there was one person [chuckles] in your country who saw it! It actually did quite well there, it was here that nobody saw it. I look back on movies that I’ve done that have kids in them. Now I don’t have any kids myself but there are lots of kids in movies that I’ve done and they’re always dealing with the same issues, the same doubts, the same coming-of-age problems and in that sense it’s a recurring thing. And I really don’t do very many pictures about elderly people, as much as I like older actors, I end up making movies mainly about young people.
In regards to the end of Burying the Ex, was there any temptation to leave it ambiguous in any way, leave some sequel bait?
Well, I don’t know what a happy ending would be! [Laughs heartily] She makes him a zombie, she makes them both zombies, there’s a triangle!? I don’t know! No, not really, I don’t think anybody was thinking ‘sequel’ here. I’ve done movies that ended with people thinking in sequels, but this isn’t one of them.
Do you wish to see more of this ‘Screwball Horror’ like Burying the Ex, do you want to see more of that in the marketplace, do you think there’s a good audience for it?
I really won’t know because it’s going out on VOD – who knows what audiences are like? I know this movie plays very well in the theater with audiences because I’ve seen it that way. But I don’t know that… when movies are released on demand it’s not like going to the box office and seeing a line around the block and saying “my movie’s a hit”. You just get these dry figures, you have no idea whether people like [it] or if they slept through the whole thing, it’s very disconcerting, to do this, and unfortunately in this budget range that’s pretty much how these movies are distributed.
In terms of other output that’s out there, what’s the best horror film that you’ve seen recently?
[Pauses, ruminating on it] The last horror film I saw… might have been The Babadook… at the Stanley Film Festival, that was almost a year ago… I must have seen something, but nothing that seems to have resonated. I’ve seen lots of trailers, I saw the trailer for Guillermo [Del Toro]’s new picture [Crimson Peak] which looks very good, but… but I can’t remember the last horror film I saw.
I have to apologise now for my next question, but I’ve gotta ask… are you involved with the Gremlins reboot/rejig/whatever that is?
[Laughs] I don’t know what it is, and I’m not involved, because nobody asked me, so they’re gonna do whatever it is what they’re gonna do. And I have no idea what’s that gonna be. Or whether or not this is yet another false alarm about the Gremlins reboot.
Right, because there have been some in the past?
There have been rumours. Over the past fifteen years there have been at least five or six different stories about the new version of Gremlins, whether it was a sequel or reboot or whatever. And nothing ever came of any of them. And money changed hands. People were hired, worked on things and were paid, but nothing ever came of them.
Well I guess it’s one of those things, if it happens, it happens, and people will wait and see. Personally I don’t think it’s necessary.
Yeah, but they’re often not necessary. Was the new Robocop necessary? I don’t think so. Was the new Total Recall necessary? I don’t think so! And audiences didn’t think so either.
You know they say “people vote with their wallets” and I feel like we did, but the reboots and remakes and all the rest of it still seem to keep on coming.
I was at the movies this weekend, to see San Andreas, and they showed trailers for the remake of Point Break, the remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the sequel to God-knows-what, some Marvel thing, it was like, y’know, there was not a single original trailer, everything was something that had been done before.
Yes, well it’s playing in ten theatres here in America in different cities which is nice, it’s better than no theaters! Like The Hole had no theaters, or not many theaters. So that’s good, and then the rest of it is VOD, so most people will unfortunately see it on their computer.
If not Gremlins, then what is next for you?
Oh I have three or four projects I’m [taking] around trying to get financing for. Because I have a European passport, it’s probably going to be something shot in Europe.
I owe it to my 9-year-old self to ask… is there any chance of a Small Soldiers sequel?
I… don’t think that’s in the realm of possibility. It was not the hit that they wanted, and… nobody at the studio loved it. Kids loved it, and that’s great, but… it just, it’s one of a kind. The stand-alone.
Absolutely, it makes it more special in my heart of hearts.
Take it from me and my generation, we loved it, so thank you very much.
Great! Thank you.
Burying the Ex is released on VOD on June 19th.