Joe Dante And The Establishment Of The Ordinary

I am a serious film geek.  (It’s possible that I have mentioned that before in this blog.)  I am particularly fond of popular science fiction and fantasy films–I’m a geek, but I’m no elitist.  One of my favorite directors, in fact, is Joe Dante.

Last night I watched Matinee(1993), which I think is one brilliant film, with John Goodman as director Lawrence Woolsey (who was clearly based on another of my heroes, William Castle).

My roommate mentioned that the film started slowly, which is true, and that got me started thinking about the care with which Joe Dante sets up the character’s ordinary lives prior to introducing the plot elements that disrupt them.

Looking at some of his other films, such as Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985, sadly released by the studio before Dante had a chance to actually finish it), Innerspace (1987), and Small Soldiers (1998), I see the same pattern.

Dante’s grasp of the minutia of ordinary life is amazing.  His films don’t look staged, they look as if the crew simply broke into the homes and businesses of the characters and filmed them on location. What you remember about his films are the crazy moments, the gremlin exploding in the microwave, Kirsten Dunst being tied up by reprogrammed fashion dolls while Led Zepplin blares in the background, Dennis Quaid zooming around inside Martin Short’s body in a tiny submarine.

What makes the crazy scenes work, though, is that they are set against a background of solid reality, a palatable sense of the mundane.  Dante takes the time to build up the world, layering the characters and the sets and the dialog.  Like all good magicians, he shows you that his props are perfectly ordinary objects that you could buy at the corner store. He shows you that his world doesn’t have any wires or mirrors or false bottoms, and then when you are convinced that it’s just an ordinary day in an ordinary town, he pulls a fire breathing dragon out a hat.

It’s a damn good trick, and he makes it look easy.  As a writer of the fabulous, I am intimidated and envious of his technique.  There is such a temptation to get to the “good stuff” right away.  My main villain in Worms Of Heaven is one of the greatest monsters I’ve ever invented, and I want to trot her out right away and rub my readers’ faces in the grotesque.  I have to hold back, though.

Earlier this week I posted about not wanting to write any more backstory before getting to the big battle.  I still stand by that post, but I am finding myself fleshing out a couple of earlier chapters a little more, because I need to make absolutely sure that the ordinary world that I am constructing is solid enough to hold the weight of the fantastic without cracking.

I spend a lot of time focusing on the ordinary in my work.  I try to make my characters believable as people, even when they aren’t entirely human.  I write a lot of dialog about jobs and homes and cars, the things that ordinary people talk about.  I want my readers to be able to close their eyes and “see” the people and places I talk about, to imagine themselves walking down these streets and shopping at these stores.  Then when the story takes a sudden turn down a dark alley into bat country, my readers stick around for the ride.  They can believe that these things could happen, and could happen to them.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Promotion, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Joe Dante And The Establishment Of The Ordinary

  1. L. Palmer says:

    I think the ordinary is almost more important in sci-fi/fantasy, because it creates a connection between the reader and the story. It creates a foundation before things get crazy. For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope there’s a breakfast thing about ten minutes before Luke’s life falls apart.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I remember that scene well–Luke’s uncle is listing the day’s chore’s and Luke is complaining–it not only establishes Luke as fairly ordinary young man, it makes the deaths of his aunt and uncle that much more poignant.

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