termiteterrace_film termiteterrace_film
Feature Film

Joe Dante Talks About ‘Termite Terrace,’ The Film He Tried To Make About Warner Bros. Animators

As part of a short film series about films that were never made, director Joe Dante (Gremlins) talks about the time he developed a film about Golden Age Hollywood animators called Termite Terrace, the unglamorous nickname of the Warner Bros. animation studio in the 1930s.

In the video, Dante recounts how his friendship with Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones inspired the film, and how he developed the idea with screenwriter Charlie Haas (Matinee, Gremlins 2: The New Batch) in the early-’90s:

Warner Bros., unsurprisingly, didn’t express any interest in a historical drama about animation artists and passed on the idea. Dante has, in other interviews, referred to it as the “heartbreaker” of his career.

Haas’ script for the film has circulated privately for years and has been read by various people. Cartoonist Cole Rothacker is one of those people, and he wrote about it on Tumblr, describing it as “a pretty terrific script, giving animators, who have tedious, thankless jobs, a moment in the spotlight, a movie that pays great tribute to them and all their hard work. It does for animators and Looney Tunes what Goodfellas did for mobsters.”

Rothacker also points out that the film had a strong point of view — that of Chuck Jones’:

All the names were changed, some characters were combinations of 2 or more real people, but it was basically the story of when Chuck Jones first arrived at the WB lot in the late ’30s and rose through the ranks, going from in-betweener to director. It shows the struggles Jones went through, along with his mentor Tex Avery. The movie is definitely from the perspective of Jones, as it depicts the Bob Clampett analogous character as an incompetent, two-faced lout.

Shortly after Warner Bros. passed on Dante’s film, they re-branded Bugs, Daffy, and the rest of the Looney Tunes roster for the 1996 film Space Jam, which was a hit for the studio. Dante eventually worked with the Looney Tunes characters, too, when he directed the 2003 live-action/animated combo Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a creative misfire that was micromanaged to death by Warner Bros. executives who used 25 writers on the film.

If you want a taste of what Termite Terrace might have looked like, here’s an actual late-1930s studio gag reel from Warner Bros.’ animation studio that shows the artists and execs goofing around:

(Thanks, MonsieurU)

  • Matthew

    Is there any compelling reason why this film can’t still yet be made?

    • Executives probably don’t believe audiences would be interested in a film about animators who aren’t Walt Disney……

      • Fried

        Are they honestly wrong though? This type of documentary/film honestly would only be interesting to a niche art/animation crowd. They would have to REALLY turn up the drama to make it interesting to a mainstream crowd. Probably to the point of severe inaccuracy, kind of similar to Straight Outta Compton.

      • Inkan1969

        So market it as an independent film.

      • irving washington

        audiences are not interested, that’s a fact not a point of view

        • Max W

          Audiences aren’t inherently NOT interested in animators. If the characters are interesting and the story is told in an engaging way, why wouldn’t people want to watch it? Look at MadMen; are audiences interested in the “boring” life of 1960’s advertising execs? Apparently, yes.

          • fried

            People are interested in drama. That’s why reality TV shows thrive. That’s why Kitchen Nightmares is popular even though it’s basically just a professional chef critiquing failing businesses. But in order to make it appeal to mainstream american audiences, they have to amp up that drama to an insane level. Just compare the UK Kitchen Nightmares to the US version.

        • AmidAmidi

          Gotta side with Max W. There are incredible stories from the Golden Age that most people don’t know, and if put together with a bit of creative license, you’d have a series or film that would be as entertaining (if not moreso) than period pieces like “Mad Men” and “Vinyl.”

          • irving washington

            I’d love to see it made certainly and I agree it could be interesting, to us. However imagine something along the lines of Bowfinger but without the guy ever leaving his desk.

    • Beamish Kinowerks

      Well, it’s likely still Warner Bros.’ intellectual property, and given the fact that it deals with said studio, it’s unlikely that it could be put in turnaround and produced by another company. Charlie Haas is just a terrific screenwriter and novelist, and I’d love to read it.

      • Matthew

        But after that Tom Hanks thing at Disney, you think anyone might have remembered it and given it a second look?

  • Treg Brown

    Great story & link Amid

  • Timothy Reckart

    That gag reel is fantastic!

  • giban is my name

    I wonder if this statement about clampett is real or something they just came up for the sake of creating an antagonist for chuck

    • wagnerfilm

      I read Jones’ autobiography Chuck Amuck years ago and while it has been awhile, I don’t remember any disdain for Clampett in it. Though it’s possibly just because Jones may not have been the kind of guy to have put any backbiting in his book.

      • Tony

        There’s also no mention of Clampett, at all. Bob is also absent from “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie”, when Bugs mentions his many “fathers”. Apparently, Jones went the “If you can’t say something nice, don ‘t say nothing at all” route.

    • George

      I think Eddie Selzer would make a great antagonist for the movie. He was the most hated guy in the studio.

  • Steve Flack

    Well, in their defense, Space Jam has made them way more money than this ever could have.

    • Fried

      It also reignited a HUGE interest in Looney Tunes among children in the late ’90s.

      • Gerry

        I worked with Chuck Jones and he told me regarding Space Jam that Bugs Bunny would never, ever ask for help. Not from Michael Jordan, not from anyone. The very premise of the movie is a total betrayal of Bugs’ character! I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for him to watch a bunch of execs half his age trample all over those characters like that. What a skid mark on their legacy.

        And for what? A temporary resurgence in interest among kids in the ’90s and some short-term money? Look at Looney Tunes now after following this strategy. Barely even relevant today. WB have been absolutely terrible custodians of these icons.

        • Fried

          Yeah and blah blah Chuck Jones complained about Porky Pig saying I wet myself. The point wasn’t whether or not it was a good Looney Tune movie, only that it made Looney Tunes relevant again in the eyes of kids. Maybe you don’t want Looney Tunes to be for kids, but WB has been pushing them for that demographic for over forty years now. Maybe it’s time to accept modern day Looney Tunes doesn’t appeal to you, and hasn’t for a long time, otherwise it’s kind of a futile thing to be upset over.

          • Gerry

            But they’er NOT relevant in the eyes of kids anymore despite that very, very temporary resurgence, though the originals had DECADES of staying power and appealed to all ages, including kids. So I’m not really sure what you’re going on about.

            “Maybe it’s time to accept modern day Looney Tunes doesn’t appeal to hardly anybody, and hasn’t for a long time…”

            I went ahead and fixed that for you, too.

          • Fried

            You underestimate how difficult a resurgence is and overestimate the staying power of the old shorts because you already have an animation biased towards it. It wasn’t that long ago that Looney Tunes Show was airing and getting good ratings, but I’m sure you find that as a bastardized version of the Tunes because they don’t appeal to you, ergo they appeal to no one.

            Of course, trying to tell someone to get over the Looney Tunes is about as fruitless as someone actually hoping Looney Tunes will return to it’s Golden Era from the 40’s. Again, maybe it’s time to accept they haven’t been relevant to you in over forty years.

          • Funkybat

            All they need to do is make the full, un-edited Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts ubiquitous again. I wasn’t even born when the last gasp of WB’s animations studio shut down, and neither were most of my friends. We all grew up seeing these cartoons on semi-constantly on afternoon syndicated program blocks, Saturday morning blocks of an hour or more, as well as the occasional “package film” in theaters. Looney Tunes characters are treasured classics to us not because we grew up seeing them before the meain feature at matinees in the 40s and 50s, but on TV, the primary media outlet of the time.

            Get the classic shorts out there on easy-to-access media of today; Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes. Get them on tablets and phones, get them where kids today are likely to come across them. They won’t appeal to EVERY child but it’s a solid bet that they will appeal to a LOT of children. The “violence in cartoons” hysteria of the 80s and 90s seems to have died down, and most parents of young kids today grew up watching the un-butchered, funny versions of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. We know now, factually, that cartoon violence does nothing to encourage real-life violence, so get those classic toons out there int he media and let them reclaim their name from the middling efforts that have come since Space Jam derailed the characters.

            Children watching Space Jam and “The Looney Tunes Show” as their first exposure to the characters are to be pitied as much as someone whose first exposure to the world of Star Trek is Star Trek V or STar Trek: Enterprise.

  • Andrew Kieswetter

    I think if they made it now,Jack Black would be the perfect choice for Tex Avery.

  • GOATmaybe

    Is that Gag Reel Narrated by Mel Blanc?

  • Joshua Marchant

    I always thought Sam Neil would make a brilliant Chuck Jones and Eric Stonestreet is the spitting image of Tex Avery.

    Any other suggestions for casting? Who would play Clampett? Or Friz? Or Schlesinger?

  • Too Many Cooks

    B-but I liked Clampett. Would they have to portray him that way?

  • John Richardson

    This makes me think of the old feature “Bugs Bunny Superstar” from the mid-70s, a very entertaining documentary which included a lot of this history from Clampett’s point of view. Sure would be nice to see a dramatization of that era, if they did it right.
    Jack Black might could be trained to do Avery, but he’d have to keep those eyebrows under control!

    • Michelle Klein-Hass

      Not Jack Black, John Goodman as Tex Avery. He would be dead solid perfect.

  • JodyMorgan

    “Rothacker also points out that the film had a strong point of view — that of Chuck Jones…” To be honest, that considerably lessens my interest in the script (and prospective film). I mean, I love Jones, to the point where I’d say his cartoons are my favorite WB cartoons, but I’ve already got Chuck Amuck and “Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood”. While I’d enjoy a semifictionalized account of his ’30s work for Schlesinger, I’d be much more excited for an account of Termite Terrace in the ’30s and ’40s that was more even-handed, perhaps even Rashomon-like in its presentation of multiple viewpoints.

    • Sara Bersani

      Now that would have been great

    • Someone on Facebook suggested a film from Bob McKimson’s point of view, given his longer track record of having been with Warners from start to finish.

      • Funkybat

        Yeah….setting him up as the “straight man” observing (while still participating) in all of the ups and downs of that era, seeing who came and who went, who won what power struggle. That’s a great idea, mush better than what sounds like a well-done but one-sided portrayal of the “heroes and villains” of Termite Terrance. Everyone has their flaws and their assets, and even though I’ve heard lots of both hurled about for Jones and Clampett, there is no question that both were talented cartoonists.

        • He even had that accident that left him with the ability to draw without mistakes! That’s something of interest to bring up! He obviously didn’t make the classics like the others, but he managed to keep a full ship afloat for the duration.

  • Mel

    The Rolling Stones also once said “I don’t make much money but I know where to put it every time.”

  • MonsieurU

    Hey Amid, happy to see this article !
    Great interview by Joe Dante, very passionnate. Definitely a movie I would’ve loved to see.

  • Pedro Nakama

    He could always fictionalize it and create new characters and just set it in the 1930’s.

  • Harry

    I LOVE Bob Clampett!
    Plus, I think it’s hypocritical that Chuck Jones would accuse Bob Clampett for “stealing” ideas even though Chuck himself would take Bob Clampett’s Rover and rename him Charlie Dog without giving Clampett credit.

  • David Hayman

    It’s been documented that Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett’s animation units were fierce rivals, one that led to some great output. I’m not surprised that the script would demonize Clampett for dramatic effect, but in real life its not hard to see how Clampett’s zany style heavily influenced Jone’s as he transitioned from his cute Disney period. Wackiki Wabbit or Case of the Missing Hare are perfect examples of Jones embracing the speed and attitude of Clampett. Aside from their personal indifferences they obviously had a deep respect for each others work.

  • Eddie J Miller

    I wish that movie had been made! Anytime I see this old gag reel, or hear stories about the WB animators I imagine a ‘Mad Men’ type series, commenting on the changing world through the lens of animation. If you followed the WB studio from the 30s until it closed in the 60s you can see World War II to the crazy 60s and even on to the advent of television animation. Hey, Netflix, make this series!