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[Interview] Director Joe Dante On Rom-Zom-Com ‘Burying the Ex’

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After many years in development, the newest feature film from genre favorite Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling) is finally hitting the big screen – one particular screen, that is, as the film is slated to premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival this Thursday, September 4th. The horror comedy Burying the Ex is Dante’s first theatrical feature as director since 2009’s The Hole, and explores the niche subgenre of zombie-themed romantic comedy (Rom-Zom-Com), one that previously achieved a great deal of cult success with Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and most recently last year’s Warm Bodies.

Based on a 2009 short by Alan Trezza – who expanded his own story to feature length – the film stars Star Trek‘s Anton Yelchin as Max, a horror fan and proprietor of a movie memorabilia shop who falls for and eventually moves in with the lovely Evelyn (Twilight‘s Ashley Greene), only to discover that his new beau is more than a little bit psycho… but that’s nothing compared to her behavior after she’s dead.

Prior to the Venice screening, I got a chance to chat with Dante about the project’s long road to release, and along the way we took a quick breeze through zombie cinema history. Of course, you know I also had to ask him about the status of the upcoming Gremlins reboot…

Bloody-Disgusting: It’s great to see you back in features after doing quite a bit of television recently. Apart from the technical and financial aspects, what are the creative differences between how you approach a feature and how you shoot an episode?

JOE DANTE: Well, the main thing is that when you’re doing TV, you’re always answering to somebody else, so you have to follow the strictures, rules and styles that are laid down for that show; the show’s rules may not allow for certain kinds of shots, or a certain style of editing. Whereas if you’re doing a feature, it’s all yours, and you can usually approach it however you want. Of course, the result is much more personal than any of your TV work.

BD: What first brought Alan’s story to your attention? Did you see the original short?

DANTE: Actually I’d never seen it… in fact, I’ve still not seen it. Alan just showed me the script, and told me after I’d read it that it was based on this short that he’d done. I liked him, and I liked the script, and it was a situation where we said, “Let’s see what we can do with this.” That was about five years ago, and over that time several opportunities came and went. But we persevered, and suddenly, with really no warning at all, a situation presented itself whereby if we could make it within a certain time-frame, we could probably get the money. So we just geared up and got it made.

BD: Did you and Alan make any changes to the original concept in the process?

DANTE: We did work together on the script – I had some ideas that I thought would make it better – but Alan really did most of that himself. It was a sold script when I read it, and he had already fleshed out the main ideas completely by that point. I don’t think the movie we ended up making was really that much different from the original script I read five years ago.

BD: Zombie features come in and out of vogue, but they’re seeing a resurgence at the moment. Do you think the success of films like World War Z helped you get this project financed?

DANTE: I have a feeling that World War Z‘s success was the one thing that finally put this thing over, because it really wasn’t being taken too seriously before that picture came out. As you said, the zombie genre has a pretty checkered past. It goes all the way back to the 1930s with White Zombie and King of the Zombies, which were basically considered junk; even I Walked with a Zombie, which most of us hold up as a classic now, was considered junk back in the ’40s when it was made. The same goes for Zombies of Mora Tau in the ’50s. It wasn’t until 1968 when Night of the Living Dead became a big cult hit, and the name “zombies” started to be associated with what would really be considered “ghouls,” that the genre started to pick up steam – especially after the Italians jumped on board with their own movies. Who would have thought in those first few decades that a studio would spend as much money on a zombie film as they did for World War Z? It’s a huge change of fortune for the genre.

BD: You clearly have an encyclopedic knowledge of horror, and from what I’ve seen of Burying the Ex, it looks like that knowledge and affection for the genre is going to be a big part of the story.

DANTE: It is, it’s definitely what I’d call a “monster kid” movie. But it’s for monster kids who have grown up a little, and by that I mean it’s a little sexier than usual. The hero of the film works at a movie memorabilia store, and he’s basically the stand-in for all the people like us, who grew up watching this stuff and loving it. Anton is a big film buff himself, and he’s was constantly watching movies and discussing them while we were shooting the picture.

BD: So are we going to see a lot of those knowing winks to classic horror that were scattered throughout films like The Howling?

DANTE: Oh yes… horror fans will spot a lot of things they recognize.

BD: I was living near Hollywood Forever Cemetery when you were shooting some scenes there. Is that the first time you’ve filmed at that location?

DANTE: Oddly enough, I’d never even been there at all before, even though I’d heard about the outdoor film screenings they have there in the summer, and I’d always wanted to know what it was like. We shot there for a night or two, and it’s a very cool place. I think this is a very L.A. movie; at one point we thought about shooting it in New Orleans or Seattle to save money, but I think that wouldn’t have captured that L.A.-centric feel that we needed for this story.

BD: I read that at one stage you were considering online crowd-funding to get fans involved in the development of the film. Did that plan come into play?

DANTE: That was a very late development. We were actually shooting at the time that they decided they wanted to try crowd-funding. I did something similar a couple of years ago for Trailers from Hell, and I know that you can’t just wake up one morning and decide you’re going to take that approach; you have to plan it vigorously. There are some people thanked in the credits who donated funds to the production as a part of that, but I’m not sure I’d call it entirely successful.

BD: Do you have any distributors interested yet?

DANTE: We’ve had some nibbles, but I think the producers are waiting for the premiere in Venice to figure out what to do.

BD: One thing I’m sure fans are dying to find out is if there’s any news about the new Gremlins film. Have you been involved with the development of that project?

DANTE: Lots of people have asked me, but honestly I don’t really have much to do with it. There are two major entities involved – Warner Brothers and Amblin – and various people have been trying jump through the hoops with the studios to get this picture off the ground for years. Although some very well-known people have come up with a concept and some good ideas over that time, for whatever reason they were not seized upon until recently. I’m told they’re finally working on something now, but frankly I have no idea what it is! [laughs]

BD: What’s next on your agenda?

DANTE: I’m doing more television right now, which helps pay for the time it takes me to raise funding for these film projects [laughs], of which Burying the Ex was one that took a number of years to get made. It’s just one of the many pictures that you pull out of your pocket and they say, “Okay, what else have you got?”

BD: You have to have so many irons in the fire to beat the odds.

BD: Yeah, you really can’t exist in this business with just one movie that you’re trying to get made; you have to have a lot of them, because the chances of any one of them happening are fairly remote. For example, this one was almost a fluke, and you have to be able to strike when the iron is hot. If you’d asked me two years ago if I’d thought this particular film was going to be made, I would’ve had my doubts, because it took such a long time to make it happen… but then, all of a sudden, there it is. If there’s one certainty in this business, it’s that you just never know.

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