Joe Dante On How Converted 3-D Blockbusters Screwed Indie Horror The Hole (Plus: Whatever Happened To Omri Katz?)

Joe Dante Hole 3D

It's been a frustrating four years for Joe Dante, whose latest feature, the kid horror flick The Hole, has endured a rough road to release since filming in 2008. The effective and spooky chiller, about two brothers (Chris Massoglia, Nathan Gamble) fighting the stuff of nightmares with their neighbor (Haley Bennett) after opening a mysterious void in their basement, was one of the first recent films to film in 3-D — but, as Dante recalled to Movieline, being at the forefront of filmed 3-D was ironically also what hurt The Hole's distribution hopes.

The Hole, an independent feature filmed in 3-D, found itself fighting for specialized screens with big studio fare and, as Dante tells it, "just got crowded out" of the marketplace. It opened domestically Friday in Los Angeles and Atlanta ahead of an October 2 DVD/Blu-ray/VOD/iTunes release, though the lack of a 3-D Blu-ray offering means most audiences won't see it in its intended format. (A Region 2 3-D Blu-ray was released last year.) That's a shame given that the critically-acclaimed PG-13 adventure marks a return to the milieu of youth horror for the iconic director of such classics as Gremlins, Explorers, The Twilight Zone, Innerspace, The 'Burbs, and Matinee.

Dante, who runs the fantastic Trailers from Hell and still, wonderfully, calls movies "pictures," rang Movieline to discuss The Hole's long road to release, his penchant for kid horror, the Glee actor he had no idea he'd cast four years ago in the film, and where Eerie, Indiana/Matinee teen actor Omri Katz — one of many promising young talents given an early start by Dante — went off to when he retired from acting.

How does it feel to have The Hole finally come out, years after filming it and after all you've been through getting it seen?
I feel kind of like the people who made Cabin in the Woods — it’s great relief. You don’t paint a picture to put it up in the attic and have nobody see it. You certainly don’t make movies for that reason. You usually assume that somehow it’s going to escape. And this was very frustrating because of the fact that I talked them into shooting it in 3-D was ultimately its Achilles heel, because by the time we were ready to release it all the theaters we were planning to play in were filled with big box office pictures that had been converted from 2-D into 3-D and didn’t take the time and trouble to shoot it in 3-D like we did. They were all high profile stuff and we had this little horror film with no stars, and we just got crowded out — and we continued to get crowded out, and then we had trouble getting a distributor. It was very frustrating.

And we’re talking The Hole being pushed out of 3-D screens by movies like Clash of the Titans, one of the all-time worst examples of 3-D filmmaking.
Particularly then the converted 3-D stuff when they were just starting out was terrible. It was too dark, and it’s badly done — it’s not intended to be shown that way. When you make a 3-D movie you actually have to plan the way the visuals look because there’s a parallax issue and there’s an issue of editing, you can’t edit very quickly in 3-D because the eye won’t adjust fast enough for it. There are a whole lot of rules that you have to go by if you want to make a good 3-D movie and most of these movies were just made like normal movies. It just doesn’t work that way.

Tell me about your 3-D approach. How did you conceive of using the format?
The idea was that because it’s a movie about people’s fears, I wanted them to identify strongly with the characters, and because it’s a very small film with six or seven characters and five locations, one of which is a basement. I thought that it would be much better to do a 3-D thing that drags you into the movie and puts you into the hole so that you feel like these people’s fears are your fears.

Even watching it in 2-D I was taken by a number of very interesting camera moves and compositions — you play a lot with depth within the span of single shots.
I remember watching movies on TV that had been shot in 3-D and thinking, this is much more imaginative than normal movies.

Add to that your sound design, which had me nervously looking around the shadows as I watched the film, and the essence of the film itself — there’s something quite elemental about darkness and one’s own childhood fears that had me spooked. It’s rare that films made these days for younger audiences are actually, viscerally scary.
Look at how Walt Disney chose to make his animated cartoon stuff. All the moments in Bambi and Snow White and Pinocchio that are really memorable are the scary ones. It’s primal. It’s a primal thing. It comes from sitting around the fire in caveman days and hearing stories.

In The Hole these fears are primal but also very contemporary, in that you don’t often see stories about children dealing with issues like abuse.
Well, that was a little tricky but that was one of the things that appealed to me about the script. It didn’t go where the standard horror movies went. It was a little deeper and a little more personal. The tightrope we had to walk was to try to find a way to suggest things that might have happened without having to freak out little kids who might be seeing it.

There’s a wonderful secondary world you create within the film with fantastic sets that really convey a child’s perspective — the fog of memory where rooms feel huge, you feel tiny, and adults seem to be seven feet tall…
Have you ever gone back to a school that you used to attend as a kid, and everything seems like it’s gotten smaller?

The desks don’t fit as well anymore!
And the halls are not as wide. The ceiling is lower. It’s really weird!

This project came to you with a script already written. Had you been actively looking for films to direct?
I’m always looking for films, but the horror scripts that I get tend to be very repetitive and often not that interesting. This one just stuck out because I liked the characters and I liked the setup, even though it was kind of familiar because I’d seen it in other movies, but it didn’t go where I thought it was going to go. That’s what piqued my interest.

You have a great history of creating vivid film worlds for children, populated by children. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s probably because I’m just a big kid myself. I don’t have any of my own, and I like actors in general but I find kid actors particularly fun to work with because they come with no preset conditions. They don’t give you acting tips. They just “be.”

How did you find your cast? Haley Bennett in particular is tremendous here.
She’s wonderful. That’s another reason I’m so sorry that this picture didn’t come out, because the kids didn’t get the benefit of the work they did. She’s great, she’s got a big future. Chris Massoglia had been in a picture called The Vampire’s Assistant, which I never saw because I was trying to get the producers to let me look at it before I hired him and they were so protective of their movie they never let me see anything. So I hired him because I thought he was the best kid for the part. And as far as Nathan [Gamble], he had been in the Batman movie and he was in The Mist, but it was really his own personality and presence that struck me. When I started to work with him, he really was the best child actor I’d worked with since Ethan Hawke. He’s got an innate ability to be natural and respond realistically to anything that you’d throw at him. He’s a 40-year-old in a 12-year-old body!

Speaking of the great child actors you’ve worked with, Explorers was a fantastic showcase for its cast but you also worked a few times with a kid named Omri Katz. When I was growing up, I –
Had a crush on him?

Maybe. Maybe I had a crush on him.
Well let me tell you something: Omri got out of the business and he came to visit me a couple years ago, and he is now the most striking-looking and handsome guy. I think he became a ski instructor. I said, “You should be acting!” But I haven’t heard from him since. So I can’t set you up on any dates, sorry!

Let’s see if we can work something out, Joe. And by the way, it looks like in The Hole you cast Chord Overstreet from Glee before he became Glee-famous.
What? Oh my god, yes, I remember him. I didn’t realize that! They blond guy who gets thrown in the pool? Well see, you told me something about my movie that I didn’t know.

It’s a testament to your knack for discovering new talent.
I’m still finding them!

Follow Jen Yamato on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.