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Gremlins 30 years later

Director Joe Dante and monster creator Chris Walas reflect on making genre movie history

One of the most iconic movies of the 1980s, Gremlins opened on the same day in the US (June 8th, 1984) as another classic family-orientated horror-comedy opus – namely, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters. Whilst the latter lunatic romp may well have endured as the one that most people want to see further sequels from, it is Gremlins which boasts a far more skilful blending of bloodshed and belly laughs. Produced by Steven Spielberg, and launching B-movie master Joe Dante on to a career in the A-list, Gremlins also showcased some decade-defining special effects work. One of the chief architects of the onscreen creature carnage was makeup mastermind Chris Walas (who had previously exploded heads in David Cronenberg’s Scanners) – and, for the 20th anniversary of this timeless mix of laughs and lacerations (it was released December 7 in the UK), we sit down with both monster-maker and director.

Can you speak about the genesis of Gremlins?

Joe Dante: Christopher Columbus wrote it, as a writing sample, and he never intended for it to be produced. Steven Spielberg took a liking to it and thought that he could make it cheaply in Oregon or something (laughs). He had seen my previous films, Piranha and The Howling, and he had just done Poltergeist with Tobe Hooper. He wanted to produce another scary movie without breaking the bank, but it became apparent the more we worked on it that it was not going to be cheap to get these creatures to run around.

Chris Walas: The production was changing all the time. It started as a horror movie with all of the Mogwai becoming bloodthirsty monsters and then it changed into this wacky dark comedy with the added character of Gizmo. So the effects end of the picture grew astronomically as the characters and story changed. It was nearly impossible keeping up with the production.

Can you relate some of the effects challenges that you had?

Joe Dante: The technology was nowhere near what it is now. So Gremlins was basically a Muppet movie – we had to create puppets. But the movie changed while we were making it because the gremlins were funny, they weren’t scary. So we emphasised the comedy a lot more…

Chris Walas: I can’t lie; I think Gremlins came closer to killing me than anything I have ever done in my life (laughs). It was absolutely gruelling for me and I once worked out that I averaged between three to four hours of sleep a night. And that was for months on end! The scope of the film was overwhelming and other than Jim Henson’s work, there wasn’t a lot of puppet work being done on that scale, so there wasn’t a lot of peer reference to go by. We were building entire puppet rigs overnight as ideas sprouted daily on the set. It was without doubt the most difficult and relentlessly exhausting show I ever did. But it was also probably the most fun and rewarding.

“I can’t lie; I think Gremlins came closer to killing me than anything I have ever done in my life” – Chris Walas

People often forget that Gremlins is a Christmas movie – yet you have a scene in which you explicitly state that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. For a film with a child-friendly character in Gizmo, how on earth did you get away with that?

Joe Dante: The studio hated it, but that scene was in the script. At first it was written for another character and we gave it to Phoebe because her character didn’t have much to do in the movie (laughs). But the studio kept bugging me: “You have to take this out or we’re going to get bad reviews, people are going to get up and leave.” I said “It is fifty-five seconds long, come on… and look - I think it’s important, I think it kind of encapsulates the tone of the movie but I’m not going to cut it out.” So they kept trying to get Spielberg to make me cut it out and he wouldn’t make me cut it out. Even after the picture opened they were still circulating memos with the footage so people could go to the exchanges and cut the prints to get the scene they hated so much out of the movie (laughs). But then the movie was an unexpectedly huge hit and everybody was happy.

Would either of you want to do a Gremlins 3?

Joe Dante: Are you kidding? I did not even want to do Gremlins 2! It was really a hard movie to make and we got no support from anyone while we were doing it, which made it three times as hard. And then when they said, “We want to make a sequel”, I said, “Not me, I’ve had it with these gremlins – get somebody else!” At this point I don’t think they will do Gremlins 3. They will probably just remake the original film but it will not be the same because now it will have CGI effects.

Chris Walas: Yeah, Gremlins 3 would surely be done today with CGI. Anything – anything – can be done today with CGI it seems. But I doubt very, very much that you can come out with the same movie if you do Gremlins with digital monsters. The Mogwai and gremlin characters interact so closely with the actors, and so much of that original film was done spontaneously, that I think it would be nearly impossible to capture the same feel with any other approach. There’s a certain reality that puppets create that is obviously different with other techniques.