Few Hollywood directors are hailed as "subversive" quite as often as Joe Dante. That's a little surprising, considering that he's best known for flippant and effects-heavy family entertainment. But subversive? Certainly. How else could he take a children's action comedy (Small Soldiers) designed partly to shift a line of spin-off toys, and turn it into a corrosive satire on Hollywood's obsession with merchandising? Or follow his one bona fide blockbuster Gremlins with a Brechtian sequel about the absurdity of sequels? Or twist a live-action vehicle for Bugs Bunny and the Warner Bros cartoon stable (Looney Tunes: Back in Action, released this week) into a story about a venal, bureaucrat-ridden Warner Bros summarily sacking its contract star Daffy Duck?
Dante is probably as devoted as anyone to the Warners cartoon heritage created by animation masters like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery - but devoted in his own warped fashion. His segment for Steven Spielberg's 1983 Twilight Zone portmanteau movie was a horror story about a boy who brings cartoon characters to life in terrifying demonic form. "A number of downright scary cartoons were made in the Golden Age," Dante says over the phone from LA. Critics have interpreted that episode as a veiled self-portrait. In reality, though, the process works the other way round - Dante turns humans into cartoons, whether it's his regulars, like hatchet-jawed Dick Miller, or muscle-lump Brendan Fraser in Looney Tunes. Dante may not quite rank with Fellini in transmuting flesh into sketchbook grotesque, but he's the closest celluloid comes to vintage Mad magazine.
Given his habit of bending commissions to his own idiosyncratic taste, it was surely reckless of Warners to entrust Dante with what's effectively the family silver? "It's a hell of a lot less reckless than handing it to the people they've been handing it to for the last couple of years," he says. If you ever saw the Bugs Bunny basketball vehicle Space Jam, you'll know what he means.
There are certainly distinct Dante touches in Looney Tunes, not least the entirely gratuitous inclusion of his favourite screen monsters of the Fifties and Sixties, such as Robbie the Robot and the Fiend Without a Face. "That particular section was hotly debated," he admits. But truth be told, Looney Tunes is hardly vintage Dante, and reading between the lines, you suspect he knows it. Production was fraught, with Dante shooting an unfinished script after the one he expected to film was scrapped at the last minute. "The writing process involved nearly 30 people writing new jokes which had to be somehow shoehorned into the picture. It was not a pleasant process. It was worth doing because it was Looney Tunes, but it was a picture which the studio never really understood or much liked." At least the studio had no qualms about being lampooned. "I never heard, 'Don't make fun of Warner Bros.' They liked the idea that there were actually two Warner brothers who didn't have a clue." Thirteen years earlier, in fact, Dante had fallen out with Warners over Gremlins 2. "They came to me and said, 'We'll let you do whatever you want,' they were so desperate to have a sequel. This was my take on what a sequel was, and they were confused and upset when they saw it. I kept reminding them they didn't know what to make of the first one and it made a lot of money."
That Dante has survived as such an individualistic film-maker is something of a miracle, given his repeated ill fortune. His sci-fi adventure Explorers was taken away unfinished by a studio in a hurry to release it. On Small Soldiers, he had to tussle with Burger King - the film's "promotional partners" - who had the right to final cut. And he narrowly missed directing The Mummy from a John Sayles script.
Given their lack of exposure, you may not even have heard of Dante's most personal films - notably the autobiographical Matinee, a film both satirical and tender, about growing up a sci-fi buff during the Cuban missile crisis. The idea of Dante as a political, or even a particularly individual, film-maker, has never caught on in the US.
"The pictures aren't taken that seriously. Very few of the American reviews of Small Soldiers were politically oriented - they just took it as a story about toys."
Dante owes his survival skills to a training among that select band of American mainstream film-makers - including Scorsese, Coppola, Demme and Sayles - who started out under Hollywood's master of the cut-price quickie Roger Corman. In the school of Corman, says Dante,"there was a tremendous bond among the students against the headmaster. If Roger said you couldn't have a generator to shoot at night, you'd have to shoot with your car headlights, or sneak the money into the budget somewhere else to fool him. We were all going, 'We can't wait to get out and make real movies.' But when we went and worked for studios, we only belatedly realised the degree of freedom that we'd had."
Watching Dante's studio features, the classroom metaphor sticks: Gremlins 2 is like an animatronic remake of Vigo's Zéro de Conduite, with the feral critters as unruly pupils ripping up the curriculum. But Dante isn't convinced by the term "subversive".
"That conjures up the image of someone who's conspiring at night to subvert the material they're working on. That's not really it, but I have a social agenda of my own, I have my own opinions and my own personality. The most subversive thing I do is try and make pictures that reflect my personality, and that in itself is quite an effort - especially on a film like Looney Tunes, where there are so many cooks and where the intent is so basically commercial." Admirers continue to hope that Dante will again get the chance to make something that's entirely - or as near as dammit - his own. "I haven't been allowed to. People hire you for what you do well - another reason why I hesitated doing Looney Tunes, because I didn't want to toil in the same vineyard again. I'd love to make another Matinee, but it was hard the first time."
Even so, you can read Looney Tunes: Back in Action as a further episode in an American auteur's encoded testament, and see a certain volatile fowl as Dante's alter ego (or alter id) raging and spluttering against the system. As Dante points out: "Chuck Jones used to say, 'Everyone wants to be Bugs Bunny - but we all know that we're really Daffy Duck.'"
'Looney Tunes: Back in Action' (PG) is released on Friday