Warner Home Entertainment has recently released their
special edition DVD of director Joe Dante’s “Innerspace” on Blu-ray. The 1987
film is a sci-fi comedy that afforded Martin Short and Meg Ryan early career leading roles in a tale of inspired lunacy. The premise of the script centers on a narcissistic former military test pilot Tuck Pendelton (Dennis Quaid) who volunteers for an unprecedented scientific experiment. Doctors have the technology to shrink him and inject him into the body of a rabbit. They also obviously have the ability to bring him back into the outside world where he can resume his normal activities at his normal size. The purpose of the experiment is to allow medical technicians to eventually inject operatives into human beings so that they can perform miracle surgeries. However, there are some bad guys who are looking to benefit from the amazing technology by selling it to the highest bidder. After Tuck has been reduced inside a hypodermic needle, there is an altercation between the villains and scientists. A chase ensues that extends outside of the laboratory. By happenstance, Jack Putter (Martin Short), a nondescript grocery store clerk, is injected by the needle. The result is that Tuck is now floating around the bloodstream of an unwitting, innocent man. The laughs result from Tuck's ability to communicate with Jack and convince him of what is happening. Drawn into the mix is Tuck's girlfriend Lydia (Meg Ryan), who Jack befriends at Tuck's urging. In the zany antics that follow, Lydia is finally convinced of the fantastic scenario after she has become targeted by the head villain, a zillionaire named Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy). By then, there is a desperate race against time to get Tuck back into the real world before he becomes a permanent part of Jack's DNA.
"Innerspace" is a throwback to an era when major studios would routinely turn out family friendly comedies that were devoid of today's mandatory gross-out jokes and mean-spirited pranks. The entire cast seems to be having a blast under Dante's direction, perhaps because his films are glorious evidence that he has never grown out of the wonder of the types of films that appealed to him as a kid. The movie is a particular triumph of sorts for Martin Short, who proved he could carry a major budget production as a leading man. The special effects hold up extremely well even today (no surprise the film won an Oscar in this category).
We caught up with Dante all these years later to ask him to reflect on his thoughts about "Innerspace".
CINEMA RETRO: How do you feel the film holds up into today's modern age?
JOE DANTE: I've always liked it and I had a lot of fun making it. I think you can tell when you watch it.
CR: It's especially evident listening to the commentary track on the Blu-ray. It's no secret that you have been heavily influenced in your work by the classic and cult horror and sci-fi movies of your youth. Is it fair to say that "Innerspace" was a satire of "Fantastic Voyage"?
JD: I can't vouch for that because I wasn't in on the creation of it. When I was first offered it, the script had no comedy at all. I didn't think it worked that way so I went off and did something else. When I came back, they had a new writer and he approached it as comedy from the concept of what would happen if we shrank Dean Martin down and injected him inside Jerry Lewis. That was a concept I could relate to.
CR: Steven Spielberg executive produced the film. Was he involved before you were?
JD: Actually no, because I was offered the picture by Peter Guber when it was in its serious incarnation. During the time I went off to do something else, Spielberg had become involved. He was probably an impetus for turning it into a comedy.
CR: Did he have any constraints on you regarding your vision of the film?
JD: The atmosphere at Amblin was pretty free. The thing Steven would do is protect you from the studio and sometimes from the other producers. It was a very filmmaker-friendly atmosphere over there. You got all the best equipment and all the best people and all the toys you wanted to play with. Plus you had somebody on your side who was also a filmmaker and they knew exactly what you were talking about when you had a problem or you had a question.
CR: In terms of casting, you seemed to have your own stock company of actors you liked to work with: Dick Miller, William Schallert, Rance Howard, Orson Bean, Kathleen Freeman and even Kenneth Tobey.
JD: I think when you look at a director's filmography, you see the same faces popping up all the time because these people are copacetic and sometimes they become your friend. You originally hire them because you like their work and you like to watch them do their stuff so, whether it's Ingmar Bergman, Preston Sturges or John Ford, they have "go to" people that they put into almost every one of their pictures. The only down side comes when you have made a lot of movies and now you have a lot of people you want to include but, of course, you don't have parts for them.
CR: That tradition doesn't seem to be as prevalent today.
JD: That's because the business has changed so much. The movies aren't made in one locale anymore. There are less opportunities for an actor to shine over and over in a supporting role because when a movie goes to Canada or Australia, you have to use their local people. All those people who built up followings from television and movies and sometimes even radio were constantly being seen by people. Today there's just no opportunity to do that. Not only are there less movies, there are fewer roles and most of the films aren't made in Hollywood any longer.
CR: With "Innerspace", were the leading roles already cast before you got involved? Did you rely much on the casting director?
JD: No, once you are involved with a movie, you're in on all those decisions. The good thing about casting directors is that you can tell them who you want to see and they have the ability to make that happen. They make deals, they make contracts. I was using Mike Fenton, who was one of the best casting directors in the business at the time. Many of my best pictures were cast by Mike. Today, it's a little more piecemeal because so many of the movies aren't made here. So you have dual casting directors. You have the Hollywood casting director and the Canadian casting director. When it gets down to the smaller roles, they almost always cast in the locality you are shooting in. I made enough movies in Vancouver that I actually started to build up a Vancouver stock company because the talent pool there isn't that vast. I sort of bemoan the fact that actors don't have the opportunity for that kind of career longevity. When they decided to start giving all that money to the stars it came out of the casting budget. All of a sudden there wasn't much money for the supporting actors.
CR: It just seems that you don't see familiar faces to the degree that you used to see. Walter Brennan, for example, who seemed to be in every other movie that was released.
JD: You just can't have that kind of career any more. There just aren't those kind of opportunities.
CR: For "Innerspace", apparently the role played by Dennis Quaid was originally envisioned to be a much older man.
JD: As I recall, there was talk about having him be "burned out". Therefore, they would have needed someone who was in their forties. But I think that sort of went away quickly. Dennis was actually perfect casting for it and once you decide on the age range of your main character, that sort of affects all the other characters around him.
CR: This was an important early career milestone for Martin Short. Did he do a lot of improvisation during filming?
JD: All I can tell is that take ten was so different from take one, you would wonder if it was the same movie. For me, it was a process of discovery. Marty was building his character and sometimes he would try different things. Sometimes an idea in the first attempt would blossom into something else in the sixth or seventh take. Sometimes that can be tough on the other actors, especially if they gave their all on the first couple of takes and they have to keep going through the motions. But in this case, it was such a copacetic movie and everyone was having such a good time that it became "The Marty Short Show".
CR: Did you see Meg Ryan's future star potential during the filming of "Innerspace"?
JD: She had already been in "Top Gun" but in a small part. She also had the lead in a picture called "Armed and Dangerous" with John Candy that had come out recently. But this was a great step up for her and of course, she was introduced to Dennis and later they got married.
CR: "Innerspace" was made in the pre-CGI era when you had to actually make the effects really work. How does that compare to making a movie with today's technology?
JD: Today, you would be working on a computer and you would never go outside when it came to getting all the effects. At ILM, they actually built all those things for "Innerspace". The miniature work won an Oscar. I don't know that they could be that much better today.
CR: Some of the most impressive effects don't have to do with the sci-fi angle but rather the miniaturization of some of the key characters whereby they become the size of small children.
JD: That was the genius idea of Dennis Murren (Visual Effects Supervisor) who wanted to do it in camera, as they did in "Darby O'Gill and the Little People". It's called the "Schufftan Effect", named after its inventor, Eugen Schufftan. It's a process that involves putting the characters close to the camera so they will look big and taking characters way far away from the camera to make them look small. Then you build all the props and sets in perspective so that, when viewed a particular way they all look like they are in the same frame but the small people look small and the big people look big. The camera can't stray from that particular point or it gives the joke away. So every single shot that we did that way had to be carefully calibrated. But it was a lot of fun.
CR: What is most impressive is that all these effects are being employed in the midst of a major car chase sequence.
JD: Yes, it gets pretty wacky towards the end there. I'll provide with a couple of stills to show you how it was done. (see section at the end of this interview.)
German lobby card.
CR: I think this film also illustrates the value of a good production design, which is often taken for granted by mainstream audiences.
JR: We did a lot of medical research, obviously, and a lot of science research because you don't want to go too far away from reality in trying to get people to believe something they would find unbelievable. The whole design of the laboratory and the fact that all the extras were actual scientists helped. You know, I certainly wasn't going to be able to tell extras how to do scientific experiments in the background. So they were there for a week or two and I think it gave it a certain verisimilitude that the film would have lacked if we had just tried to do it on our own.
CR: Was there any one particular sequence that stands out in your mind as being difficult to bring off?
JD: There were some challenging aspects to the scene in which Martin Short has to turn into Bob Picardo's character, "Cowboy".
CR: Yes, the "Face Morphing Scene", if you will. Most people thought that was achieved through special effects.
JD: No, it was done in camera. When one character is playing another, there was a determination that had to be made about whether we were going to dub his entire voice and make it sound like Marty Short is doing an impression of this guy. We decided not to because it was funnier the other way. All the effort involved in trying to get the audience to believe in the initial change was that, in order to get Bob Picardo back into the bathroom in time to be trussed up- and the scene begins with him in costume- we had to do a very fancy camera trick. To replace him in mid-scene with Marty Short as him, Bob had to take off his clothes and run around the corner and hop in the bathtub in time for the camera to discover him when it goes into the bathroom. It was very challenging.
CR: Picardo steals every scene he's in.
JD: He's great- and he ad-libs like crazy.
CR: Were there any consequential scenes that were deleted for any reason?
JD: Not really, much to my chagrin, actually. I was not of the belief then- and nor am I now- that comedies really work well with two hour running times. Most of the great comedies are about 80 minutes. But because this was so jam-packed with plot we just went to preview with it at two hours.We felt the audience would tell us what to cut. But they liked the whole movie the way it was. So that's the way it went out. We didn't really lose any major scenes.
CR: How do you feel the movie has held up over time?
JD: I think it was probably the movie that I had made up to then that was the closest to my intention. As a result, I was very happy with it. When I look at it today I still think it's a tremendous amount of fun. Because of the lame title, which sounds like a ride at Disneyland, along with some not very canny advertising, it didn't do that well theatrically. But it was a tremendous hit on home video. Because of that, it's been looked back on as if it was some great success whereas, in fact, it was pretty much a disappointment in its day. But it's one of those movies where all the pieces fit. I think it's a very satisfying experience to watch.
BONUS! The photos below are fromJoe Dante's personal archive and illustrate how the miniaturization sequences were achieved.
The two behind-the-scenes pix of the car chase scene show how the Schufftan process works--the car is split in two, with a normal size driver seat and an over-sized back seat area that makes Fiona Lewis look comparatively small. There's also a larger front end with large-scale dummies in the foreground.
These two photos show the size of Marty Short's throat and the lucite bloodstream the camera careens down when Quaid gets drawn toward the heart valve.