If you’re searching for a Mogwai, don’t go to Chinatown: you’ll get weird looks. This is just one lesson Empire learned while embarking on our quest to reunite the creators of the Gremlins movies — director Joe Dante, star Zach Galligan, puppeteering masterminds Chris Walas (film one) and Rick Baker (film two), plus Dante’s lucky charm, actor Dick Miller (Billy’s neighbour Murray Futterman) — with some of the actual creatures they used. (Phoebe Cates, sadly, turned out to be stuck up a chimney.)
It’s been 30 years since Gremlins burst into pop culture like a green, cackling monster out of a Christmas tree. And 24 years since the go-for-broke sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, unleashed even more anarchic beasties on a New York skyscraper. In Cinovation Studios, Baker’s LA workshop, the folks behind the movies catch up (Galligan and Walas haven’t seen each other since 1984), ham it up for the cameras and reminisce about the days when Gremlins ruled the Earth.
And in case you’re wondering: Gizmo turned out to be in the safe keeping of prop-collectors Bob and Kathy Burns. Thanks to both of them and Prop Store for the loan of their puppets.
Gizmo and friends, photographed exclusively for Empire by Austin Hargrave, Los Angeles, 2014.
The Gremlins movies were famously hard to make. Has the pain faded?
Joe Dante: There was no pain making the second one. Warner wanted it, so they let us do whatever we wanted. But the first one... Let’s just say the studio was unconvinced that this was a great idea for a movie. They did it mainly to make (executive producer) Steven Spielberg happy. So we were a little over-extended.
Chris Walas: I pulled out the first draft the other day and read it. And I have no idea how I could be so stupid as to commit to that project. I’d written one word on the front cover: “HA!” I didn’t think it could be done. The technology didn’t exist. I didn’t have a shop or a crew. But I was desperate for money.
Dante: Chris and I had worked together since Piranha, and we were planning a 3D remake of Creature From The Black Lagoon. Then Gremlins came along. It was a good job, but there just wasn’t a lot of budget. All these creatures had to be created and we had no idea how we were going to do it.
Walas: Weren’t you thinking about monkeys?
Dante: First we talked about stop-motion. Then realised we’d still be shooting if we did that. And at one point someone — I hope it wasn’t me — suggested we try monkeys in Gremlin suits.
Rick Baker: Hey, it worked in (Laurel and Hardy movie) Babes In Toyland.
Dante: But that one just had a Mickey Mouse head on. We actually did get a monkey and put a head on him and watched him careen around the editing room, pooping on everything in terror. We decided it wasn’t really going to work out.
Baker: Sounds good to me!
Were the Gremlins always going to be reptilian?
Dante: (Screenwriter) Chris Columbus actually drew one in the script. It wasn’t too far from what we ended up doing.
Walas: He described them as armoured things with big white spiked horns. But I wanted a visual connection to the Mogwai. That’s why they have those huge ears.
The dog in the movie, Mushroom, thought Gizmo was real.
Dante: Gizmo was a little more complex. Originally he was meant to be in the movie for the first couple of reels, before turning into Stripe, the bad Gremlin. And about six weeks away from the shoot, Steven Spielberg had this brilliant idea — and it was a brilliant idea — to make him the sidekick. We built a giant Gizmo head and got lots of close-ups. And he became the de facto star of the movie. We even reshot the ending, much to Zach’s chagrin.
Zach Galligan: The first time I saw it, it was great — I’m on screen doing all these stunts and leaping around. And I’m thinking, “Here comes the part where I save the day.” Then suddenly Gizmo turns up in a little pink car and starts doing heroics. (To Dante) J’accuse!
Dante: What can I say? Steven was in love with Gizmo!
Audiences loved him too. But he was famously not as popular with the crew…
Dante: Well, he drinks. He’s very difficult to direct. And he got quite a swell head by the second movie. You’ll notice he hasn’t worked since.
Walas: The original script was a nicely written but straightforward horror movie. The Gremlins were nasty monsters with no real character, and Billy (Galligan) runs around with a sword slicing them in half. Then, when Gizmo suddenly became this little animal doing cutesy stuff, I had to race to keep up with it all. There was no fun with the Mogwai, ever. There just wasn’t.
Galligan: If you look at the film, the camera almost never pans below my waist. That’s because there were 12 people down there, duck-walking around with joysticks, while cables ran up my body. I’d have to be smiling and having a fabulous time with this little furry thing while this contraption pinched my flesh. But the first time Gizmo started moving, it was incredible. He’d be so cute, I’d get the inclination to touch him. And the puppeteers were so good that he’d instantly react. It was kind of a miracle, really.
Dante: The dog in the movie, Mushroom, thought Gizmo was real. We got reactions out of him that were just incredible.
Galligan: Mushroom was an amazing dog and I loved him. I think it’s one of the better animal performances on screen.
Dante: He came to visit me on The Burbs. And he remembered me!
Did you ever settle on a back story for Gizmo? In the rather whacked-out novelisation, he’s created by an alien named Mogturmen.
Dante: George Gipe, who wrote that, never got to see the movie. He made up a whole background — a complicated one — for the creatures. In my mind, they came from China, and were the results of the mating of a dragon and a panda.
Walas: I never thought about it. I tried to think about Gizmo as little as possible.
Dick Miller: They’re talking about a completely different picture to the one I was in. I never saw any of these things.
Dante: That’s true. In the first movie, apart from the part where he’s run over by a snowplough, Dick doesn’t have any scenes with the puppets. Lucky him.
After the main shoot, you did nearly two months of straight puppet-work. How was that?
Dante: Torture. We were just experimenting, basically. Trying desperately to make things work.
Walas: I’d barely survived the main production. And this was literally one puppet shot after another. At best I averaged three hours sleep a night. It was just a very hectic, panicked endurance test. Sorry, I just wanted to complain for a moment there...
Baker: I visited Chris on the set, and he was on crutches. Didn’t you fall off the back of a truck?
Dante: And you had a kidney stone…
Walas: You name it, I had it. Yeah, we were doing the shot on Billy’s roof where the monsters are hanging off the Christmas lights. And I was running back and forth fetching more Gremlins. I had a cold and was juiced up on medicine...
Dante: This is so sad!
Walas: And I flew out the back of our truck. Smashed my ankle pretty badly. But I kept working.
Dante: We work ’em ’til they drop.
Walas: It was the most difficult film I’ve ever worked on, bar none. But you felt like you were really part of something. The crew was great and Joe was fantastic. So at the same time as I was having the most horrendous experience of my life, it was also pretty much the best experience I ever had.
The movie opened on June 8, 1984 — the same day as Ghostbusters.
Dante: It did. Ghostbusters routinely beat us in terms of money — everywhere but New York City. Because while shooting there they had pissed off so many New Yorkers that they decided not to see it. And for some reason Gremlins was huge there. When the picture was over, Steven Spielberg sent myself, the editor, (producer) Mike Finnell and Chris Columbus to Hawaii as a present. We checked into the hotel and who was standing there but Ivan Reitman and the Ghostbusters group. They were having a vacation too. There was just no way to beat or elude them.
Galligan: I threw an opening-night party at the Mayflower Hotel in Manhattan. People would pop out to the midnight show, then come back and go, “Dude, it was awesome!” It was crazy — I’d lived in New York all my life, just an ordinary civilian, but from about two weeks after the release everybody would freak out when I walked into a coffee shop. It was a bit much, quite honestly.
Baker: When I saw the movie, I was blown away by how much Chris did. I knew the circumstances and still there were things that made me say, “How did he do that?”
Gremlins fever swept the world. What were your thoughts on the merchandise?
Dante: It was a bit of an afterthought. I remember the day we watched dailies of Gizmo coming out of his box for the first time. These hardened Warners executives started going, “Ooh!” In the back of my head I could hear cash-register noises. They instantly put their merchandising staff into high gear. Board games and Colorforms and clothing and bed-sheets...
Galligan: Lunch boxes.
Dante: The less said about the breakfast cereal, the better.
Galligan: I had a bowl of it once. It was bad.
Dante: Just awful. Like peanut butter gone wrong.
Baker: You didn’t want to eat it after midnight.
Dante: Or ever!
Why did it take six years for the sequel to arrive?
The less said about the breakfast cereal, the better.
Dante: The studio never really understood the tone of the first picture. One executive liked the movie and the others were just perplexed. But when it opened big, all of a sudden they wanted another one. They put teams of writers on different concepts. Apparently one idea was Gremlins Go To Vegas. Another was Gremlins On Mars. Whatever they could think of. Gremlins Meet Ma And Pa Kettle!
Baker: I’d see Gremlins Meet Elvis.
Dante: Or Gremlins Vs. Godzilla. Eventually, they came back to Mike and I and said, “If you give us a picture for next summer, we’ll let you do whatever you want.” We decided to change the canvas and take Zach and Phoebe to New York.
Walas: I did not hesitate to pass. The first film really did come close to killing me. I thought a second, more ambitious one was probably going to finish the job!
Baker: I turned it down myself several times. When the genetics lab idea came up and I realised I could make the Gremlins into characters, I became more interested. But I still was afraid. I saw what it did to Chris and frankly I was afraid to compete with what he did. But my wife urged me to do it, and it turned out to be just great. My daughter was born on that film. In the shot where Gizmo becomes Rambo and the camera pans along the desk, Joe let me put a little framed picture of her there.
Galligan: The work Rick did was mindboggling. When I heard he was going to do the second one, I freaked out in a fanboy way, because I was a huge fan of American Werewolf and had read all the Starlog magazines. I remember the first time they showed me the Brain Gremlin talking. It was a jaw-dropper.
Dante: There was even crazier stuff that we wanted to do but couldn’t afford. There was an Elephant Gremlin at one point. And we wanted to turn Christopher Lee into several Einstein-like characters. I don’t remember why.
Miller: I wasn’t privy to this side of it. This is amazing to me, hearing these stories.
Baker: One of the reasons I wanted to do the movie was to work with you, Dick. Bucket Of Blood, man. (Pause) I’m sorry about that time you fell through the set.
Dante: I think that’s in the outtakes on the DVD.
Do you have a favourite puppet? Or is it like picking a favourite kid?
Dante: Luckily my kids don’t look like that! I like the Bat Gremlin. I’ve got it in my screening room.
Walas: Mine is the skateboard Stripe from the first film. I kept him for a long time. But we really mistreated those puppets. They came out soaked with beer and salt from the bar scene. Plus sweat from the puppeteers’ arms. It was a bad chemical mix.
Baker: I’m a Gizmo fan. We did puppet shows all the time for Max Spielberg, Steven’s son. I’d hide puppeteers in cardboard boxes in an alleyway at the back of the lot, so we could say to him, “Come see Gizmo.”
Galligan: I’m a Gizmo guy, too. Just before this interview, I took a really close look at him in his cage. And it’s strange — I didn’t think I would, but I felt a little twinge of something. He’s been in my life for such a long time that now he feels real in some way.
Rumours of a new Gremlins movie keep on coming...
Dante: You know, they’re remaking everything and they’ll certainly get around to this. About ten years ago they started thinking seriously about a reboot. I know there have been scripts and I know very high-profile people have approached them with a pitch. For whatever reason, since they have to be approved by both Amblin and Warner Bros., nothing seems to have gelled. But as we speak, they could be writing the very script that’s going to be shot.
Walas: Gremlins just doesn’t go away. People in the effects business want to talk to me about it all the time. I go to Japan and there’s ten year-old girls drawing me pictures of Mogwai. They love it over there.
Baker: It’s always had a real special place for me. My big memory is of bringing the ultrasound of our daughter into the shop and everyone gathering around the TV to look at it. We were making all this cool stuff and then I had a daughter too.
Galligan: I’ll never forget the time Marilyn Manson came up to me at a bar and said, “I have a Gremlins lunch box. Would you sign it?”
Dante: He had it with him?
Galligan: He had it in the trunk of his car! We went out to get it and he said, “Do you know Corey Feldman? Maybe you could ask him to sign it too...
This article originally appeared in Empire magazine, issue #302 (August 2014). Photography by Austin Hargrave.