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A chat with Joe Dante, cartoonist-turned-filmmaker

As a young man, Joe Dante wanted to be a cartoonist. So he spent two years at an art school. ``Then they told me cartooning wasn't an art,'' he recalls with a rueful smile. ``So I found my way to the movies!''

Dante never lost his love of outrageous drawings, though. A cartoonish wit shines through the best moments of his movie work: the creature-caricatures in ``Gremlins,'' for instance, and the wacky architecture of his segment -- ``It's a Good Life,'' about the scary little boy with weird powers -- in ``Twilight Zone: The Movie.''

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In the same league is the uproarious outer-space scene in ``Explorers,'' the current Dante release. Who but a cartoonist would have dreamed up the goofy aliens who greet our heroes at the climax of this adventure -- puffy, outgoing monsters living in a world of scrambled video images and talking in a nonstop barrage of TV-show clich'es?

Yet, ironically, this is the scene Dante is ``least happy with'' in the movie. ``It was made in the biggest hurry,'' he explained during a recent interview. ``When we showed up on the set to shoot it, the paint was still wet. And we couldn't really watch it when we edited the picture, because so many of the special effects weren't ready yet.''

This was typical of the problems Dante faced while ``Explorers'' was in production. ``I wanted it to be a simple, small picture,'' says the young director. ``And I still see it that way. But it ended up having more special effects than I expected. We had to shoot a lot during the night, because so much of the action takes place after dark. And we were dealing with kids, who are only allowed to work a few hours a day.''

On top of this, he adds, the script was loose and nebulous just where you'd expect it to be tight and precise. There was no difficulty with the bulk of the story, about three teen-age boys who build a homemade spaceship in a backyard. But what would happen when they finally took off for outer space? ``It was pretty vague what they'd find out there,'' Dante says. ``Even when we started thinking about the aliens, we had no idea what they'd look like.''

Given these challenges, and a lack of time to meet them as carefully as he would have liked, Dante doesn't consider ``Explorers'' a fully finished film. Yet he feels the project was worthwhile, and he hopes it shows a side of his artistic personality that wasn't so visible in the shenanigans of, say, ``Gremlins'' and ``The Howling.''

``This was a stretch for me,'' he says. ``It's not that easy to take three kids and make them interesting for two hours. But we did everything we could not to make it a hardware picture. We tried to keep it little despite the budget. And this is sort of a gentle movie -- the first one I've made where nobody gets killed, shot, or even injured. . . .''

He also enjoyed the company of his teen-age actors. ``There's a feeling as you get older that you can't have things in common with kids anymore,'' Dante says. ``But working with these kids, it was amazing how they have the same problems we had when I was their age. The world changes, but some things stay just the same -- the problems, worries, insecurities. It's kind of refreshing.''

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This rapport led Dante to involve the boys as fully as possible in the production. ``We tailored their characters around their personalities,'' he reports, ``and we encouraged them to give their input on the dialogue. They were always telling us, `Hey, nobody talks that way.' And we'd make changes.''

Yet he didn't intend the film as a ``youth market'' item. ``I didn't make it as a kids' picture,'' Dante insists. ``I think it's a mistake to try and aim a picture at any particular audience. You find yourself second-guessing what some unreal nonperson -- a statistical demographic -- would think. And people who try to aim movies at kids always end up underestimating them. . . .''

Dante knows a thing or two about ``youth movies.'' He served his film apprenticeship at New World Pictures, a factory of low-budget programmers headed by Roger Corman, who has served as mentor to some of today's most interesting young directors. Dante's projects there included his directorial debut, the fishy ``Piranha,'' and work on the screenplay of the riotous ``Rock'n'Roll High School.''

His time with Corman was a crash course in poverty-row filmmaking, and he recalls it with fondness. ``People praise the special `golden glow' that New World pictures had,'' he says with a grin, echoing a story that Corman graduate Ron Howard also loves to tell. ``But that was no photographic style. It's just that we were hours behind schedule all the time, and the sun was always going down when we tried to finish our last shot!''

Dante left New World to make his satirical werewolf movie, ``The Howling,'' and join whiz-kid Steven Spielberg on the ``Gremlins'' and ``Twilight Zone'' projects. Along the way he was noticed by some members of the critical establishment, who praised him for an unconventional and inventive visual approach.

While he appreciates the attention that critics have given him, Dante rejects high-flown theories about his work. ``I'm still finding a style,'' he says. ``I guess I went through an excessive period, and I'm afraid I won't abandon that anytime soon! But I'm probably one of the most unconscious directors. I just do what I think is the right thing. . . .''

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