It was back on June 8th, 1984 when Joe Dante’s now-classic horror comedy Gremlins arrived in theaters for the very first time, pushing the boundaries of PG-rated entertainment and delivering a timeless tale with some of most memorable cinematic creatures that were created by special effects artist Chris Walas.
At the time, Walas only had a handful of credits to his name, including Humanoids from the Deep, Piranha, Scanners and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the rising F/X star would prove to be the perfect artist to tackle the daunting task of bringing both the Mogwai and Gremlins to life. Considering that Walas’ special effects work on Gremlins still remains one of the most impressive feats of practical F/X mastery in film history, we thought that speaking with the man behind the monsters would be the perfect way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dante’s beloved dark comedy.
Check out part one of Daily Dead’s extensive interview with Walas below and be sure to head back here on Monday for the second installment which promises more tales from the set of Gremlins and an in-depth look at what Walas went through to create Gizmo and his Mogwai pals three decades ago now.
Were you brought on to Gremlins because of your previous collaborations with Joe Dante on his earlier films and how early into production were you hired?
Chris Walas: I had been working with Joe on a proposed remake of the Creature from the Black Lagoon for Universal, but that project was shelved. Mike Finnell and Joe then asked me to look at another script that they were considering at the time, simply called Gremlins. The project wasn’t a go or anything at that time, as it was undergoing a feasibility study to see if it could even be done. So I was brought into the project quite early in the process.
When it came time to design the Mogwai and the Gremlins, how much of the design concepts came from you? Did you have much input to contend with from Dante and the studio for the final versions of the creatures or did they give you a lot of artistic freedom?
Chris Walas: I was given a lot of freedom to come up with the designs for Gremlins. There were no other designers, per se, on the creatures. I started with Chris Columbus’ script descriptions and worked from there. The Mogwai wound up being very similar to Chris’ original description: roughly ten inches tall, furry with pointed ears. I did a couple of versions for Joe to give me feedback and we arrived at the design fairly quickly. But there were a number of changes along the way.
The Mogwai were initially brown with fully furred ears. I seem to remember that it came from Steven Spielberg’s office to remove the fur from the ears and make them translucent. And then we changed the fur to match Steven’s dog’s coloring. And of course when it was decided that one of the Mogwai would not change into a Gremlin, but stay the same and be Billy’s friend, I had to come up with a defining visual cue that would identify Gizmo from the rest of the Mogwai. So I gave Gizmo an eye ring of white fur as the cue.
The Gremlins went through a longer and more involved design process though. Chris Columbus’ original description had them being armored things with a long tail and horns replacing the ears. There were definitely a lot more discussions about the look of the Gremlins than there were about the look of the Mogwai.
I always wondered if it was a bigger challenge for you on Gremlins having to essentially be designing two versions of the same creature- one that’s endearing and adorable and one that’s grotesque and scary (although I tend to think they’re pretty adorable in their own way too). Can you discuss the process of creating these creatures that essentially have two looks to them?
Chris Walas: One of the important design considerations for me was to have some follow through on the biological look of the creatures. At the time I was designing these guys, the project was still a straight horror movie and there was no Gizmo yet. Working chronologically, I started with the Mogwai and when I felt we were all agreeing with the direction that design was taking, I started on the Gremlin design. The description Chris had in the script of them really had no relation to the Mogwai description, so I did a few napkin sketches to try and get us going on a look that let you believe the Gremlins came from the Mogwai.
Chris Columbus did a pencil sketch that Joe really liked and I took that to the next level. So the Gremlin design was more of a process. There were a lot of considerations for making the designs work visually, but also for making the designs practical in terms of being workable as puppets. To me, the Gremlins and Mogwai are just different moods of the same creature, so it was fun designing both of them together.
Considering how articulate Gizmo and all the Gremlins were throughout the movie, were you ever concerned about the challenges of all the puppetry that was going to be required to bring these guys to life?
Chris Walas: This project terrified me from the start. The script had the creatures doing so many different things, almost all of them difficult. And this was in the early horror version of the script, which was nowhere near as ambitious as the film became. The sheer scope of all the puppetry work was overwhelming. I really didn’t know how much of it could be achieved. And at first, it wasn’t certain that puppets were the way to go for everything. Joe wanted to dress monkeys up in suits for the creatures. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but it wasn’t a case of “hey, let’s make a puppet movie”. It was much more a case of “How the heck do we do this stuff?”
Once the puppetry had been decided on, I was still terrified that we were biting off more than we could chew. And that just kept getting worse. Suddenly, the Mogwai are doing more stuff; suddenly Gizmo comes into being and is in the whole movie, suddenly the Gremlins are doing ten times as much stuff as we planned. It was a production that just kept growing. And I was terrified that the audience just wasn’t going to buy into our cartoony creatures. I was trying to create these creatures that were real characters. That was very much Joe’s intent. But would an audience go with it?
The tensest moment for me was when I watched the film with an audience for the first time. I was sure the audience was going to boo when Gizmo first comes out of his box but the crowd went wild. I think that was the best payoff for all that work that I ever had.