One genre that I personally find particularly tough to nail is that of the zomedy kind. It’s always going to be a tall challenge to strike just the right balance between gruesome gore and killer comedy whilst injecting some emotional substance into the equation. I’m happy to report that Joe Dante’s Burying the Ex is a sterling example of how to mix all those elements in just the right quantities to create the perfect recipe. After all, this is the mind behind the likes of Gremlins and The Hole we’re talking about.
Based on screenwriter Alan Trezza’s original fifteen-minute short of the same name, Anton Yelchin plays Max, a twenty-something whose romance with his dream girl takes an unexpected turn when his dead ex-girlfriend comes back from the dead and thinks they’re still dating.
With this cadaverous horror comedy releasing digitally this June 19th both in the UK and U.S.A. SCREAM’s Howard Gorman caught up with Joe Dante as he revealed what it took to bring Burying the Ex to life since it first came to his attention back in 2009…
SCREAM: Something that surprised me is that you said the ball really got rolling for Burying the Ex after World War Z was a hit. Your film is fields apart from that type of zombie film so what was it that made you say World War Z got things going?
Joe Dante: There were a lot of zombie projects around at the time but nobody was particularly excited about any of them because they were all mid-level projects that were probably not going to be that big. Then there was a lot of bad press about World War Z because they had had a bad preview or something and they did some re-shoots. The gossips just love to badmouth things but then it opened huge and everybody went, “Wait a minute! Maybe there’s still some life in these zombie movies yet.” So then a few investors started to loosen their purse strings and our picture managed to flip in in a spot under the door and we got it made for not a lot of money in twenty days. We were also able to shoot it in L.A., which is extremely rare because most movies are not made here any more. At one point, in order to save money, they had said they wanted to shoot it in New Orleans because they could get a tax incentive but I said, “Yeah, you could do that but the script itself is so L.A.-based and in its core it’s about Los Angeles and it’s almost a documentary of the way a certain strata of the society lives in L.A. right now. To take it away I think you’d have to invent a whole new back-story.” Anyway, I managed to talk them out of it and we shot in L.A. and I think the picture’s better for it.
The film is based on scriptwriter Alan Trezza’s short film. Have you still yet to see that short and why were you so reticent towards seeing it before shooting, and even afterwards?
I still haven’t seen it. I thought I’d wait for the DVD. [laughs] My reasons were that Alan directed the short and wrote it, and he was also the producer of this picture and I didn’t know what his take was on it or visually what kind of thing he wanted to do but I didn’t want to know what that was until I was done shooting the movie. I have so many influences in my mind from the thousands of movies that I’ve seen over the years and they pop out on set. They inform the shots you’re doing and sometimes you don’t even realise until you look at a scene later and you go, “I know where I got that from!” So whatever it was that Alan had done with it, I wanted that to be his movie and I wanted this to be my movie.
Talking of influences, Anton Yelchin’s character, Max, is a real film buff and allows you to pay homage to a lot of movies. Was that always intended in the script or was that more your doing?
He did originally work at a place called Scary Mary’s but we had to change that to Bloody Mary’s because there already was a Scary Mary’s. He worked there and it was a Halloween store but I don’t think it was quite as much of a movie memorabilia store as I decided to make it. It is actually based on a real store in L.A. called Hollywood Book and Poster which just recently closed because the guy who ran it, Eric Caidin, passed away. Since Anton is a real film buff anyway, I thought it would be fun to have his character be essentially a monster kid, particularly in the sense that it makes the movie a sort of a monster kid’s wet dream. Not only is this kid incredibly geeky, but he also has this gorgeous girlfriend with whom he has great sex. Then, when the fat kicks in and she dies, he finds yet another girl who is gorgeous and this one knows and loves all the stuff he loves which makes this a complete fantasy.
You say Anton is a real movie buff but is it not true that he is scared of watching a lot of more recent horror? Did you recommend many movies for him to watch as inspiration for his character in Burying the Ex?
Well Anton goes through periods in his movie geekdom. When I met him he was going through his Douglas Fairbanks Jr. silent movie period and was getting into talkies and early horror movies so I steered him towards some of the classics. He had seen some of them already but I recommended things like the James Whale and the Tod Browning pictures and all that. The problem he has when he tries to limit himself to a particular genre or period is that he sees a movie and then he sees this thing that leads him to another movie which leads him to another movie and now he’s off his reservations looking at westerns. It’s very difficult, when you are a movie buff, to restrict yourself to one kind of thing because, if you are at all curious, anything that you like in a movie will lead you to one movie and to another.
I think you got to spend more time than usual with the cast because it was a lower budget movie. Did you use that time essentially for pre-production preparation?
You know, there wasn’t a great deal or pre-pro. [laughs] We actually didn’t have the cast in place until about a week before we shot. Having said that, because it was a smaller scale movie we were pretty crowded together in small spaces and did see a lot of each other but we didn’t get to do rehearsals or anything like that. On a low budget movie you can’t rehearse on the set because the set has been bought for a particular time so there would be somebody else using it. So we could do read-throughs and talk about it but you don’t really get to do a full-on walkthrough or anything like that because you often don’t have the time and you often don’t have the access.
Given the constant raunchiness and some pretty gnarly scenes towards the end of the film it surprised me that you were hoping to get away with a PG-13 rating.
Well that wasn’t my idea. That was the producers’ idea as they felt they could make more money with a PG-13, which is probably true. We did actually cover ourselves in terms of language and shooting different versions and when we did submit it to the ratings board here they gave it an R and we asked them how we could get it down to a PG-13 rating but they said that we would have to re-shoot. Even though there’s not a lot of gore and there’s not a lot of nudity all they talk about is sex [laughs] so it was really difficult for the ratings board to say that this was a movie for a PG-13. So they shrugged and said OK and this is the movie, but if I’d known we were going to go for an R rating I might have gone a little bit further in some areas, but I still think it’s fine for what it is.
You aren’t getting any younger so did you find it easy to get into the mindset of these youngsters with such voracious sexual appetites?
Well you know, they’re not unlike people that you know. What I liked about the script is that it has a certain believability to it and the characters talk like real people. They say when you cast a picture correctly you don’t have to do a lot of directing and I think that’s very true in this case.
Talking of the rest of the cast, you always wanted to make sure that, even though Ashley Greene’s character is slowly decaying, she remained beautiful throughout the picture. Why was that so important to you?
I think the idea of the character is that she is desirable and that’s one of the reasons Max stays with her, because she is so physically beautiful, even though she is so demanding and difficult. I thought that it was very important that, even when her body was rotting, she still maintained a sort of “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed” quality. In the end, even though she’s the villain, she becomes kind of sympathetic.
What was it about Alexandra Daddario that made her the perfect contrast to Ashley Greene?
There’s a certain aristocratic quality to Ashley and I think Alexandra has more of a “girl next door” quality. It’s like what I said before, this is a total fantasy because no film geek would ever have two girls as gorgeous as this interested in him, but that’s part of the fun. I think Alex is very funny and very lovable so she’s a perfect foil for the very controlled and haughty Ashley character.
I know you aren’t a big fan of remakes and sequels and you recently said, “They remake pictures that people just don’t want to see remade. Who really wanted to see Robocop?” What are your thoughts on the news of a remake of The Howling from Emaji Entertainment?
Again? [laughs] Do you know how many Howling movies there have been? [laughs] Eight! Eight Howling movies!
But this is going to be a remake of your original rather than a sequel.
Well good luck! [laughs] What can I say? My first big hit was a Jaws rip off so I’m hardly in a position to get on my high horse and say that other people shouldn’t remake other people’s pictures. All I was saying was that I think that in their frenzy to remake things into those tent-poles – so they don’t have to be original – there’s a lot getting lost. I went to the movies this weekend and I saw trailers for a remake of Point Break, a remake of Man From U.N.C.L.E. and three Marvel movies that are all franchise movies and all sequels. That’s all that I saw and that’s all they were showing so it’s like well isn’t there anybody with a new idea? Is there anybody that wants to try something different? And the answer is no! They’re afraid to do it because they’re afraid it’s not going to work, like Tomorrowland didn’t work. Now they’re all pointing to that and saying, “Well see that proves it. You have to do remakes. You have to do sequels. You can’t do new stuff!” It’s ridiculous. The low budget films are novel because they can afford to take the risks but if you’re going to spend 150 dollars on a movie and if you do it like Tomorrowland did and you try and do something new and it doesn’t work you’re out of a tremendous amount of money. It’s understandable the fear, I just think it’s deleterious to the development of the movie business.
So just to finish off, can you let us in on anything you have in the pipeline for the near future?
Oh I’ve always got things in the pipeline. The question is how long is the pipe and how long is it going to take to push this stuff through? [laughs] I mean, Burying the Ex has been on the board since 2009 and finally it’s getting released and it was shot a year and a half ago. I have a number of things that I’m trying to get financed and the majority of them are European because I have a European passport. I’m thinking I might be able to get a better response, financially, if I do some European pictures. You just constantly have to keep pushing and keep developing and keep juggling projects because you just never know which one is going to happen. If you’d asked me three years ago if I thought Burying the Ex was going to get made I probably would have said no.
Thank you so much for speaking with SCREAM Joe and we wish you all the best with Burying the Ex and all those projects you’re juggling at the moment.
My pleasure, Howard. Thanks so much.
We’d like to thank Joe for talking to us about Burying the Ex which is available digitally from June 19th. In the meantime we’ll leave you with a taster:
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)