The Gremlins director talks about the ground-breaking British screenwriter best known for the Quatermass serials and films. This is an edited version of Neil Snowdon’s interview with Joe Dante on Nigel Kneale, which is published in the newly released book We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale.
Joe Dante is one of the great heroes of American cinema. His highly subversive, wildly entertaining movies are unique in the landscape of Hollywood cinema. Cine-literate, politically aware and scathingly satirical, his extraordinary filmography from The Howling and Gremlins to The Burbs and The Hole will make you laugh, feel and think. Dante is also one of Hollywood’s great advocates for cinema history. His encyclopaedic knowledge is on display in all his movies, and at his website, trailersfromhell.com.
Neil Snowdon, editor of We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale, interviewed Joe Dante about the great British screenwriter best known for the ground-breaking Quatermass serials and films (1953-1979) and The Stone Tape (1972).
Neil Snowdon: What was your first exposure to Kneale’s work?
Joe Dante: I think the first thing I must have seen was Quatermass 2, which was called Enemy from Space here, and it was a double bill with some other movie I can’t remember, it was the second feature, and I found it really electrifying. I thought it was a very intense and unusual movie. I was not aware of the TV series, or the prior picture. It was 1957, so I guess I was 11 years old. I was probably more aware of the Hammer connection than I was the Nigel connection – or Tom as he liked to be called – and that led me backward into learning a little bit more about the movies and who made them. In the old days we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have Wikipedia, so we couldn’t just look up somebody’s credits. You had to go to the library. And even then it was pretty difficult to figure out where you would look to get credits for writers and directors. But I managed to figure it out, and of course his name started appearing on more films that were a little higher profile, like First Men in the Moon, and it was quite obvious that he was somebody to be reckoned with. Then of course I found out about the published work, the TV scripts, The Year of the Sex Olympics and all that, and as I went into college I became quite a fan of his work. I used to read John Wyndham and all the other British sci-fi guys too, but there was something about the way Kneale approached his projects. I was particularly taken with his penchant for co-mingling science fiction with Celtic mythology and history. So by the time I got to see Quatermass and the Pit, it was a pretty revelatory movie. There just weren’t any other movies around – outside of maybe 2001: A Space Odyssey – that were doing that kind of speculative writing. The idea of where we came from, ‘We are the Martians’ and all that, was pretty heady stuff.
Where did you see it?
In America it was called Five Million Years to Earth, because there was no Quatermass connection at all in American culture. So it went out on a double bill with The Viking Queen, and I saw it at a fleapit theatre in Philadelphia. It was probably a year or two old by the time I saw it, and I was just blown away by it. You gotta remember a lot of these pictures were seen either as Saturday matinees, early on, or in grindhouses. When I went to Philadelphia there were a lot of theatres still standing from the 40s, including one called the ‘News Theatre’ that had a square screen and originally ran newsreels all night for people who came off their shifts at the munitions place. So they would run Scope movies and you would see the middle of the picture and the rest of it was on the wall because they never bothered to change the screen. These were places where, basically, drunks went to sleep. And so they were fairly dangerous places, but that’s where all the movies that I wanted to see were playing. There was another theatre called ‘The Family’, which was a triple-bill theatre right in the shadow of City Hall in Philadelphia, and it was the one theatre where you didn’t go into the bathroom. You didn’t go downstairs. You just held it! Because there were stories about people not coming back from the bathroom! And I saw some amazing events there. I saw somebody get knifed during a screening of Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body, and I just, I moved&#;133 The great thing about the place was that they would never turn the lights on, and it was a 24-hour theatre. So they would only clean it if somebody threw up, and they would do it while the movie was on. So whatever happened, you could still see the rest of the movie if you just changed seats Sometimes you would have to change seats several times during a picture depending on who was sitting next to you. But that’s really the kind of places that I saw most of these pictures.
They’re relatively atypical movies for the time, especially Quatermass 2.
They played a lot of drive-ins. A black and white picture like Quatermass 2 was a picture that would be available on a flat rental for very little money, for years after its release, until the prints wore out. So it would just be like ‘oh, throw that one in, that’ll be the third feature’. They used to call that ‘the clearance movie’. That was the one that was supposed to get all the people to drive out of the drive-in before it was over so that people could go home. ‘The Chaser’ that’s what they called them. Nonetheless sometimes that was the best movie.
And so things like The Abominable Snowman would have played in exactly the same way?
Well, The Abominable Snowman has the lowest-brow trailer in America. I have a website called Trailers from Hell. If you watch the trailer for The Abominable Snowman – click the button and watch it without the commentary – it is the most annoying and condescending trailer that I have ever seen. They obviously thought this was a real piece of shit, and of course it’s a fantastic movie. It’s one of the best British pictures of the 50s. It started as a TV play and the good thing about the movie was that they did have all that great footage from the Pyrenees, so it’s a fairly expansive-looking movie, and it is so well cast.
There are rumours that the current incarnation of Hammer Films are planning a remake. From what I can gather in speaking to his wife, Nigel really didn’t like the idea of people remaking things from his work.
At the time he wasn’t keen on the movies either. I think he was almost always happier with the TV versions. I found that he had quite a blind spot about Val Guest. I think that in retrospect, Val Guest is emerging as one of the most interesting British directors of his period, and Tom was always kind of dismissive because it wasn’t exactly the way that he wrote it, which it couldn’t be because they were all serials, they were long and they had to be compressed. And he did the compressing.
You mentioned earlier First Men in the Moon, that movie would have screened a lot more widely in the US.
That was a big movie. The Harryhausen movies used to get a big advertising push from Columbia, so that picture played a lot of places. Whether it was ultimately successful financially, I don’t know but it was a ‘couldn’t miss it’ movie, it was everywhere. For some reason, in the rotation, the later Sinbad movies are better known. They’re not as good, needless to say, but I think because it was a period picture, that may have hurt it.
I’ve always thought it was one of the best scripts that Harryhausen ever had.
It was. That and Jason and the Argonauts I think are the two best scripts he ever had. But in the advertising, they really shied away from pointing out the period. And the picture starts with modern astronauts, so there’s a lot of that in the trailer. I don’t know what the story is, but it was an odd one-off that didn’t have the impact that some of the other Harryhausen pictures did. It’s a great movie. It’s funny that Tom isn’t better known here in the US. I assume he’s better known in Britain.
He is, but not as well as you would hope or expect, considering his influence, not just on the genre, but on the medium of TV itself. He really did pretty much invent TV drama as we know it here in the UK. The Quatermass Experiment was the first TV drama to be a national event, it really did empty the pubs when it was showing. You were not only a fan of his work but you also worked with him.
He became one of my favourite writers so when I actually got to meet him, it was quite amazing. I guess it was after Gremlins maybe, I can’t remember. I was at Warner Bros and my friend Jon Davison was working at Orion, which used to be American International, and somebody came up with the idea of remaking The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, and Tom did, I think, two treatments for us on it, which was quite different from the story of the original film. It really just used the title. And we got a little traction from the people at Orion, but I think ultimately they just decided that wasn’t what they wanted to do, and we never really moved any further than that.
I’m trying to imagine what a Nigel Kneale version of The Man with the X-Ray Eyes might have been, it sounds like we missed out on something that could have been an amazing film.
He took it in a more metaphysical direction. Not that there isn’t a metaphysical aspect to the original movie, but he decided to expand on that. And I think that must have been what scared them off. If he had just synopsised the same movie and handed it in, they probably would have said OK because that’s what they knew. But when you give them something that’s off-beat that’s like ‘I don’t know, do we really wanna do that? With this British guy?’
You were attached to Halloween III for a while, and I believe it was your suggestion that they approach Nigel to write it. Did you meet with him for that?
Oh yes! I met him frequently, we would go out to dinner. We would go to a place called Dharma Greg, which was a Middle Eastern restaurant where you had to eat with your hands. He seemed to like it for some reason. And he would hold forth, in his way. Sometimes a little negatively, about certain people, or projects, or things, or whatever… but he was always fascinating to listen to. I found him a big, garrulous guy, who had his intimidating side, but I liked him. I was just so much of a fan that he could have ordered me around dismissively and it would have been OK with me, but he didn’t do that.
But you hadn’t met him at the time you suggested him to John Carpenter as someone who could maybe write that movie.
No, I had not met him then. I just thought that he would be great for it because John said that he didn’t want to do Halloween II again. But he had this other idea, and as soon as I heard the kernel of the idea – and I was supposed to direct it at that time – I said we should get Nigel Kneale. And of course, John was a big fan, but it hadn’t occurred to him that Tom might be available, or interested, or want to do it. So, that went forward and then I took the job on the Twilight Zone movie, because it was a real job as opposed to this maybe job, and John went on ahead and I guess Tom turned in what he turned in and John futzed around with it, a little too much maybe for Tom’s comfort, and he ended up taking his name off it.
That’s quite a big deal, to take your name off a project like that.
It is. It affects your residuals. It’s a ballsy thing to do, but certainly when you see the movie you can see his influence in the picture. And Tom suggested Dan O’Herlihy to play that part, which was perfect I thought. All those scenes with Dan O’Herlihy I think you can really see Tom in them. But all the scenes with the secondary characters seem like filler. Later there was The Creature from the Black Lagoon that John Landis was planning to remake, with himself as producer and Jack Arnold (director of the original movie) returning as director.
As I understand it, you also had some involvement with that?
Yes. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was a project. In Jack Arnold’s later years, in a rare case of studio largesse, Universal was very good to him because he’d been there for a long time. He’d spent most of his career at Universal. And when he lost his leg they kept him on. They seriously intended, I think, to make this remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with him directing. I was the back-up director in case he couldn’t go up the hill, or go under water, or whatever it was that he wasn’t going to be able to do. I was there to step in if needed. That fell apart for reasons that I was not privy to, but I know that the script that Tom wrote had extra monsters in it, for some reason. It wasn’t just about the creature from the black lagoon, there was another monster as well. And I know that he and Jack had a lot of issues about what should be in the script. I don’t know that that was a happy pairing. And when ultimately the whole thing went south, the studio had spent probably millions of dollars on treatments and scripts for The Creature from the Black Lagoon, none of which have ever panned out. Now it’s up to a point where, so much money has already been spent on a picture that it’s almost not worth making it because they have nothing they can use. The other question of course was the design of the costume, which has become very iconic. They wanted to change it quite a bit, and I think the fans were not happy about that. It just became a hot potato and it didn’t happen for a while.I don’t think Tom’s script was ever published. But John Landis might have one, because he was ostensibly the producer of that.
It was an unusual pairing. In that Nigel was always quite dismissive of the ‘Bug Eyed Monster’ approach to horror and science fiction.
Which was why I was surprised that his take on it was less metaphysical than his other stuff. I don’t know how much of that was writing to orders, and he was already into it, and so he would give them what they wanted. There are connections in the script, discussions about the Devonian age and where we all come from, and those kind of things. But it was basically a monster movie, and not a particularly distinctive one. That’s why I think he would be dismissive of it.
Do you have any particular favourites of his work, now that you’ve pretty much caught up with all his stuff?
Needless to say, I’m partial to the ones I first saw, because I was so impressed with them. I didn’t see the original Quatermass picture until much later, but I really admired its newsreel like quality. All three Quatermass pictures are pretty high on my list, although I wish that Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass and the Pit had been a little less brightly lit. Arthur Grant was a good DP, but for some reason it’s just so over lit that it doesn’t have the gravitas, visually, that it would need to match the story. It would have been better to not show the cleansing of the Martian hives at all! But script-wise, it’s the best of all of them I think.
Especially considering that it looked a lot better in the TV version, where they had even less budget as well!
The design of the aliens in the TV version was better. They’re much more complicated and insectoid. These guys looked all smoothed out and like they’re carved in stone, whereas the originals are all rotting, and have little pieces that stick out, like a combination of a frog and an insect and they were really cool. But for some reason the movie didn’t go with that design. They did manage to do the final special effect well. It’s a cheap movie and there are a lot of effects in there. The whole town falling apart and the big apparition in the sky and all that stuff was done for like a dollar ninety-eight, so I think they probably ran out of money before they got to the Martian war scene.
It seems to me that Nigel is appallingly underappreciated. What do you think is his legacy to the genre?
I think his legacy has become, sadly, more of a cult legacy than a general one. Those of us in the business who love these kinds of movies, and love this kind of material, revere him. How far that has travelled outside our circles however, is open to question. There might be a little bit of genre snobbery. Also I think that in today’s writing about the genre, if it’s before a certain period it’s really not that well known.
Inevitably this book is going to appeal to the people who already like him but I’m trying to keep it open and accessible to people who might not have come across him. Young genre fans who perhaps haven’t encountered his work yet, so that we might be able to encourage them to go look at it, to experience his work.
That’s why I started Trailers from Hell, it was to try to get people – young people – to be interested in movies that they really otherwise don’t have any connection with. Anything that happened before they were born is certainly ancient history to them. Oddly enough, for my generation, things that happened before we were born were very interesting to us. We saw all those 1930s horror movies that all were made before we were born, and they were a revelation. We thought they were great! And there was a whole fan culture starting up that was basically just people our age. Which is, I think, one of the reasons that the genre that was so disrespected when I was a kid has now become so mainstream. Because so many of us ended up making movies, and decisions about what movies get made, and invading pop culture so that all this stuff is not beyond the pale anymore.
We’re of different generations, but certainly when I was growing up here in the UK, TV was showing an enormous amount of old stuff. It meant that I was exposed to Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Ray Harryhausen, Charlie Chan, King of the Rocket Men…
But none of that is the case now. There’s no place to go to see those things. And so that little piece of culture exists in the fervent minds of a dwindling few. And I think that’s true not just of this genre but all old movies and all old books, and old everything, is that they have their niche fans, but they are lost in the general market place, in the world of Reality Television and the crap that people watch and the millions of options they have. Now there’s a zillion things that they can do, and even new movies are only a part of that. But old movies are really remote from them and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s imperative to write books like this one, so this stuff doesn’t get lost.
Interview by Neil Snowdon