At one point, during its earlier incarnations, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was going to be directed by Joe Dante. Eventually, that task fell to Robert Zemeckis, who did an excellent job - but Dante would seem the ideal first choice for such a project.
His affinity with Warner Bros. cartoons - Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, etc. - is well-known. Indeed, Dante's biggest hit - "Gremlins" - has often been described by critics as being something of a live-action cartoon in the anarchic Warner Bros. mold (he even got WB cartoon vet Chuck Jones to do a "Gremlins" cameo). Indeed, that description is even more apt when applied to Dante's wild-eyed segment of "Twilight Zone - The Movie," titled "It's a Good Life," which in retrospect seems like a direct precursor to "Roger Rabbit."But with "The 'burbs," zany Joe Dante seems to have almost calmed down. ("The 'burbs," by the way, was the No. 1 movie in America last week, setting a new record of $11.1 million for an opening weekend this time of year, despite being panned by most critics nationally.)
"There's not very much in the way of special effects," Dante said in a telephone interview last week. "And I didn't do as many in-jokes as my other films." Dante often includes loads of visual and one-liner "throwaways," such as this moment in "The 'burbs": The main characters enter the home of another character played by Gale Gordon, and in the foreground, on a piano, is a photo of Lucille Ball, in whose TV shows Gordon co-starred for many years. No attention is drawn to it; it's just there.
"Those are in the realm of `wouldn't it be funny if . . .' " Dante explained. "That one just came out of the fact that he (Gordon) was cast in the role, and when we went through the things we needed to put into his house, we imagined that maybe he was an old hoofer and a picture of Lucy on the piano wouldn't seem out of place. But they have to be used so as not to disrupt the flow of the movie. They're funny if you see them, but if not, that's OK."
Though it was probably the presence of Tom Hanks' name above the title that made the film such a remarkable hit during its first weekend, Dante notes strongly that "The 'burbs" is not a "Tom Hanks vehicle."
"It (Dana Olsen's script) was at Imagine Pictures, which is Brian Grazer and Ron Howard's company. They came to me last February, and at the time it was titled `Bay Window.' And I was kind of attracted to it. I liked that it took place in a small area, and I thought it was a challenge to pull that off.
"He (Hanks) was the first actor we hired, and he was a dream. He's very funny, he's always there, he's most deferential to the other actors and he had a real rapport with everybody else in the picture. He had just come off of "Big" and he was looking for something like this, an ensemble piece."
Dante also has high praise for Carrie Fisher, best known as Princess Leia in the "Star Wars" films, and veteran actor Bruce Dern.
"Bruce in person is actually a very funny guy, but almost no one thinks of it because he's had so few opportunities to do comedy on the screen.
"I had worked with Carrie in `Amazon Women on the Moon' " (an anthology comedy that was never widely released) and we got along great. This was really a thankless role, the hero's wife, and Carrie is such a funny person that we felt she could get more out of this mundane role if we hired her. She and Tom (who worked together in "The Man With One Red Shoe") did a lot of relating."
The film is about a "normal" suburban neighborhood where Hanks and Fisher's new next-door neighbors seem ultra-weird. In fact, Hanks and two other neighbors (one played by Dern, who seems to be spoofing his own past roles as a wacked-out villain) become convinced the new family is a group of satanists. Most of the movie is about their ill-fated comic attempts to find the truth.
"We shot it entirely on the back lot at Universal. Almost all of it was already there. One of the houses is the old "Munsters" house, another was used by James Stewart in "Harvey," Dan Aykroyd's for "Dragnet." They were all just sitting on this little street up on the back lot. And it was stylized and weird-looking."
One of Dante's most recent films was "Innerspace," a sci-fi comedy that starred Martin Short and Dennis Quaid, and which did very well in other countries but failed to attract an American audience - until its video release.
"In the old days a picture would play for awhile, then disappear from theaters. Then it would show up again on a network movie and go into syndication. But cable and video now make it so every movie has a second run. It's a whole different ballgame."
Despite the new rules, Dante still makes his movies for the big screen. "You find people who make movies starting to adjust what they do for the video screen. I won't shoot on Cinemascope for that reason - if you do you'll only see half the image on TV. But I do make my movies to fit the theater screen."
For several years Dante has said he won't make the much-talked about sequel to "Gremlins," but now, he says, it has become a more attractive proposition. "Before, I could never come up with any reason for making it other than to make a bunch of money. But lately we've come up with an idea, and if it works out, we may do it. But it wouldn't be until 1990."
In the meantime he has a development company and several scripts he is considering, including a new version of Jonathan Swift's classic "Gulliver's Travels." When it is pointed out that the story has been filmed several times before, Dante simply says: "Yes, but it's never been done right. It's always been done as a children's story."