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A Visit to ‘Innerspace’ With Joe Dante

DanteFilmmaker Joe Dante has seen some of his work reach new heights of popularity well after the conclusion of their theatrical runs. His “The ‘Burbs,” Tom Hanks starrer, for example, “didn’t set the world on fire when it was new,” he says — though the black comedy involving very bad neighbors and a lot of paranoia debuted at No. 1 at the box office. However, he goes on, as a home video release, “it’s become this beloved classic. It’s all because people watch these films through the years and talk about them and these communities of sorts spring up around them and that’s very rewarding.”

Now it’s time for another crazy Dante comedy to find a new audience and be seen again by old fans with the Blu-ray release of “Innerspace.” The 1987 feature had Dennis Quaid as a pilot whose secret mission involves being shrunken down to microscopic size and injected into a rabbit — except he gets into the blood of grocery store clerk Martin Short by mistake instead.

“It looks great on Blu-ray,” Dante finds. “I think comedies are always best seen in theaters with an audience, but this film proven resilient, largely because of home video. That’s true of many pictures of the ’80s that would have kind of been more or less forgotten, if only their theatrical reputations followed them. But home video has gotten them to successive generations.”

“Innerspace” was “one of the only movies I had ever done that hadn’t come out on Blu-Ray, and now it is,” notes the director whose list of comedy-fantasy-fright film fare includes ‘Piranha” and “Gremlins.” Looking back at “Innerspace,” he says, “It was a movie that was a lot of fun to make — one of the best experiences I’ve had.”

The initial pitch for “Innerspace” went like this, Dante recalls: “What if you shrunk Dean Martin down and injected him inside Jerry Lewis — and with that as the concept in mind, the most Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis guys at the time were Dennis and Marty. Dennis had done ‘The Right Stuff,” which made him perfect for it. Marty had been a tremendous success, first on Canadian television and then on U.S. television on ‘SCTV,’ with a particular brand of humor that was very popular at the time, and he was getting movie offers. Usually actors like that don’t get lead offers, but this was the lead and this was, I think, a good career step for him.”

The effects by Industrial Light & Magic were convincing enough not only to win an Oscar, but to make the late film critic Roger Ebert believe that Dante and company had used actual medical film. “I had to send him a little rubber platelet in the mail to show him that all that stuff flying around was actually little rubber things flying into the camera,” he says.

Yes, this was before computer generated imagery, and the ILM guys made “actual miniatures constructed and shot with cameras.”

The down-to-earth, articulate filmmaker is ware that movies mixing comedy with complex fantasy and science fiction — the kinds of films that upon which his considerable reputation rests — “are now in short supply.

Everything is so expensive. Special effects are usually relegated to a 30-minute segment in the middle of Act III in which millions die, or people fight on girders suspended from helicopters. It’s all about spectacle now. The kinds of movies I used to do are I used to do are made for cable — or they’re just not made at all,” says Dante, who most recently has been occupied at the helm of TV’s “Hawaii Five-O.” “So TV is the natural outlet for people who want to buy cat food and pay the bills.”

Although he enjoys the series, the rigid structure of TV drama, with its set character arcs and time limitations, isn’t the creative playground he knew and loved in the past. Then, studio development executives gave filmmakers money and “you knew the movie was going to get made.” Nowadays, everyone is in a scramble to find their own financing, and “it’s very difficult,” admits Dante, who has a number of projects in the works.

“You have to have different irons in the fire,” he notes. “Everybody in town is juggling more than one movie. You have to, because if you meet with a financier and he says, ‘Well, this project isn’t really for us,’ you have to be able to pull out a couple more because you don’t want to waste the opportunity.”

Financiers also tend to fancy remakes, because “with so much money on the line, it seems safer to go with something that’s already been successful,” he points out.

Indeed, “They’ve already remade a number of pictures of mine and they talk about remaking others,” he notes. “The trouble with remakes — and I have no problem with them because some of our favorite movies were remakes; ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’ were remakes — there’s nothing wrong with remakes, but they sometimes don’t take into account that the original was part of its time. Sometimes these stories don’t push forward into the future into any sense. Someone controlling the purse strings thinks ‘This will be new to kids.’ But for every remake that works, there are two that don’t, and sometimes it’s not the execution. It’s the concept.”

What would Dante think of a remake of “Innerspace”?

He laughs. “When ‘Innerspace’ came out, people said it was a remake of ‘Fantastic Voyage.’ I don’t know, personality-wise, who would fit as well into those parts.”

Dante candidly admits, “I did ‘Innerspace’ partly because I thought it would be a commercial movie and I had just come off a movie that was a critical and commercial disaster (the Ethan Hawke-River Phoenix “Explorers,” which developed a following on home video) and I figured, ‘I’ve got to get back into the mainsteam. So I started off ‘Innerspace’ thinking it was a commercial movie, and then I kept adding all these crazy ideas into it, so that by the end of the picture, it was another Joe Dante movie. I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to be true to myself. I can’t make someone else’s movie.”

For which fans are grateful indeed.