[A variation of this interview appeared in the December 2014 issue of DEADLY Magazine] Released more than 30 years ago, Joe Dante’s Gremlins has left an indelible mark on both the horror genre and the entertainment world as a whole. The movie was a true rarity at the time, masterfully blending a heartwarming holiday story with a cautionary tale of what happens when you let nature run amok, Gremlins has become a true classic film that continues to impact new generations of fans.
At the time he came onto Gremlins, Dante had mostly independent projects under his belt, making the project a huge leap for him as a filmmaker. In fact, when he was first approached to direct Gremlins, he thought it was a mistake after receiving Chris Columbus’ initial spec script in the mail one day unexpectedly. “Chris had written Gremlins initially as a spec script and it was intended to be the first, low-budget horror movie out of Amblin Entertainment. I remember they mailed me the script and when I saw it was from Steven (Spielberg) and Amblin, I immediately thought they had the wrong person (laughs). I didn’t know what to think.”
The decision to keep Gremlins as a more straight-forward horror movie was short-lived though as once Dante came on board, the project underwent a lot of various changes, much like the titular characters themselves.
“Amblin had originally intended to shoot Gremlins in Oregon as a low-budget production but it became apparent that in order to do the movie right, we were going to need more money. And at the time, Warner Bros. really wanted to get behind Amblin’s first-ever production because they wanted to work with Steven in the future, so they came on board to help. “
“Chris (Columbus) and I started collaborating on the script once we were thrown together during pre-production; that’s when the tone and story of Gremlins really changed. Originally, we were going to make more of an R-rated horror movie that had no family-friendly elements at all. The creatures were nastier and in the first version of the script, they kill the dog and cut Billy’s mom’s head off and throw it down the stairs. Gizmo even turned into one of the bad Gremlins too halfway through the movie so there were some huge difference between the original story and what we ended up filming,” added Dante.
After he and Columbus finished the revisions to Gremlins, he was given yet another surprise that no one on production saw coming. “One of Spielberg’s ideas for Gremlins that he came up with after reading the reworked script was that Gizmo wouldn’t change because he was so captivated by his design, he didn’t want to lose that character at all. So we changed the script so that Gizmo could stick around to help out the hero in the finale.”
“It was a great idea but it was a huge problem for production just because the Gizmo puppet was such a pain and we had only prepped for him to be around for half of the shooting time, so we had to make some big adjustments to how we were going to shoot this movie and we had to make Gizmo into a real character too that audiences would enjoy and want to root for.”
The one aspect to Gremlins that underwent very little changes prior to shooting was the look of the monstrous version of the titular creatures, as the design was very close to how screenwriter Columbus had originally conceived them back when he was working on the initial spec for Amblin.
“Chris (Columbus) had drawn a version of the bad Gremlin in the script and that is pretty close to how the final design of the creature ended up looking,” explained Dante. “The look of Gizmo wasn’t as fully fleshed out so that final design was then refined by Chris Walas who was also responsible for a lot of the magic that went into making Gizmo a fully-realized character, not just a puppet.”
The creatures weren’t the only well-conceived characters in Gremlins; in fact, one of the biggest reasons that the film has continued to resonate with fans over the last three decades is due to Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan), his parents and all the memorable residents of Kingston Falls who must endure the horrific events of that fateful Christmas Eve. Dante discussed the approach he had to creating both of Billy’s parents, roles that are generally overlooked within the horror genre.
“We were very conscientious of the fact that Randall Peltzer’s failures as an inventor paralleled his failures as a provider for his family. And when we first started doing readings, we had Pat Hingle come in and he gave probably the best reading out of everyone (not to disrespect Hoyt Axton’s work at all). But it was heartbreaking and so moving but we quickly realized that wasn’t the intentions of the role at all. We didn’t want this to be a sad story about this failed inventor; that would have thrown off the tone of the entire movie. And Hoyt had that folksy charm and warmth that this story really needed so we brought him on.”
“Frances (Lee McCain) was a trooper and I loved the fact that she was a character that was going to fight back. What’s really great about that kitchen scene is that she uses all the tools from her own world to defeat the Gremlins and it’s very effective. So many times you see characters who seem hapless in those types of situations but Mrs. Peltzer just took charge because she wasn’t someone who was just going to run away from what was happening inside of her own home,” Dante added.
Finding the perfect hero for Gremlins was a huge task for the filmmaker. According to Dante, “We did a lot of casting for the role of Billy; I think we saw every young actor at the time. We had guys like Emilio Estevez and Tom Hanks reading for the part but what got Zach the role was the chemistry he had with Phoebe (Cates) during their screen tests. It was palpable and I think he may have even had a bit of a crush on her too when we were making Gremlins. The two of them were so likeable together that I knew audiences were going to fall in love with them too.”
The casting of Cates was viewed as something of an unconventional choice for Dante who knew that the actress, best known for her work in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, was viewed as more of a sexpot than a serious actress at the time.
“Phoebe definitely had a bit of a ‘bad girl’ reputation prior to working on Gremlins. Even before she worked on Fast Times and did the infamous pool scene, she had starred in this movie called Paradise which she had done some nudity in too so I think casting her in a family-friendly movie really surprised some people. The reality though is that Phoebe is way more like Kate and the furthest thing from being a ‘bad girl’ so I liked that Gremlins showed off that side of her and allowed people to see her for more than just someone who looked great in a bikini.”
Probably the most infamous scene in Gremlins belongs to Cates’ character, where she sullenly tells her love interest Billy about her ‘worst Christmas ever’ in a darkly comedic moment that also became one of the film’s most divisive scenes. “Everybody had a problem with that scene (laughs). That moment was really the only big bone of contention either studio had. It was actually a monologue that a secondary character had given in the original script; there was this scene in a McDonald’s and everything where they had to feed the Gremlins burgers to keep them happy and this character makes this horribly tragic speech about their worst Christmas ever and it was something I really loved.”
“But when we did the rewrites, we ended up cutting that character and it was still something I wanted to use,” added Dante. “And because Kate didn’t really have much of a backstory, I thought it would be perfect for her and would give her a chance to totally steal a moment. But Warner Bros. were diametrically opposed to us keeping that scene in the movie, so much so that they went to Steven and asked him to make me remove it. But he just told them I was the director and if I wanted it in the movie, it stayed. So it stayed (laughs).”
The controversies for Dante wouldn’t end there; Gremlins contained another scene he’d have to fight for and that would ultimately lead to the MPAA making some huge changes to the way they rated films in 1984.
Dante explained, “We also got a lot of backlash for the Gremlin exploding in the microwave scene just because everyone thought that it was too gruesome. In fact, it was because of us and because of Raiders (of the Lost Ark) that the PG-13 rating was invented. We were too strong for a PG rating but we weren’t an R at all so we were given a PG. What’s funny to me though is that once home video was invented and became so popular, ratings were kind of a moot point because no one really enforces them in their homes so who cares what a movie is rated then.”
When Gremlins was released during the summer of 1984, the filmmaker had every confidence in the film, even if the studios behind it didn’t necessarily share in his convictions. “One of the great things about Gremlins was that Warner Bros. and Amblin pretty much left us alone; Warner was convinced that this movie was going to be Spielberg’s first folly so they had no idea what they were getting and had no expectations. So that’s why the first half feels like a (Frank) Capra movie and the second half plays like a monster movie; we did it because we could get away with pretty much anything. And it all worked really well.”
“But I knew we were going to be a success after our first test screening and the movie did phenomenally our opening weekend,” said Dante. “We opened the same weekend as Ghostbusters- and Gremlins has always sort of been overshadowed by it- but the film did great business and even came in at number one the opening weekend in New York City, ahead of Ghostbusters. That was probably due to the fact that Ghostbusters was filmed there and caused everybody a ton of headaches for months while they were shooting so New Yorkers were kind of tired of those guys for a while (laughs).”
“And to see how quickly everything happened with Gremlins in regards to the marketing and merchandising though was really something; before we knew it, Gizmo dolls and t-shirts were everywhere and this was a film that everyone was talking about.”
June 8, 1984 may have been the day where Gizmo and his Mogwai buddies forever became engrained in the pop culture lexicon, but it’s also the day where everything changed for Dante and his career as well, catapulting the graduate of the Roger Corman filmmaking stable into the big leagues and allowing him to continue to create films that celebrate his offbeat brand of storytelling.
“I think it’s fair to say that if I hadn’t done Gremlins, I wouldn’t have had any of the opportunities that came my way after. It made my career and I think it also changed the way a lot of people looked at ‘horror’ movies too. They didn’t have to be just slashers or straight-forward horror movies anymore; we proved that you could make a scary movie for fans of all ages.”
“And it amazes me to see how Gremlins continues to grow,” added Dante. “I was just at a screening of it at Sitges and we sold out a 1,000 seat theater, if you can believe that. It was just incredible and the fact that the movie still continues to be shared with new generations is really wonderful. It’s become a holiday classic almost like The Wizard of Oz; everyone eventually shares Gremlins with their kids and that’s pretty awesome.”