The Story Behind Gremlins

From spec script to sequel possibilities...

 

It's hard - and scary - to believe that it's really been 25 years since Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg unleashed Gremlins on the world.

But the chattering, chaos-causing critters are indeed celebrating their silver cinematic anniversary this year, and they don't look a day over 600 (it's the faces).

Take a stroll with us back through time and down the main street of the picturesque small American town of Kingston Falls. As Christmas creeps up, the craziness is about to begin.

And all because one bloke couldn't follow a few simple rules…



1. A Brief History Of Gremlins

Long before the movie entered the minds of Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus and Joe Dante, gremlins had been causing problems for humanity.

The term "gremlin" originated with the Royal Air Force, becoming a slang term with pilots and technicians around the late 1920s. But it was truly popular among servicemen during World War Two, where the imaginary creatures were blamed for equipment failures and sabotage.

Despite the presence of faults and errors in the RAF, it seems that the annoying little beasts didn't favour one side or the other - the German military reported similar problems and "gremlins" as the cause for mechanical failure have long since passed into common use.

That's partly thanks to author Roald Dahl, who was familiar with the myth following his military service with the 80th Squadron of the RAF in the Middle East and a crash landing in Libya.

He was inspired to write a novel titled The Gremlins in 1942, in which he describes males (widgets) and females (fifinellas) of the species. Dahl submitted his story to the head of the British Information service, Sidney Bernstein, who suggested it get passed on to Walt Disney.

While Disney loved the idea and considered it as a film project, it never came to pass, though he helped push it out into the world via a few publications, which meant the concept become popular beyond the armed services.
 
Since then, the troublesome gremlin has spread through pop culture, cropping up in Warner Bros cartoons (Falling Hare, part of the Merrie Melodies series) and even more famously, the 1963 installment of The Twilight Zone, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, which sees William Shatner's nervy passenger bothered by a wing-ripping monster only he can seemingly see.

The segment was remade as the fourth segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Not, perhaps, coincidentally, the film featured contributions from both Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante...

Next: Columbus explores the idea

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2. Chris Columbus Explores The Idea

While neither Spielberg nor Dante worked on the Twilight Zone movie segment that featured the gremlin creature, it must have stuck in their minds as a great concept.

But when it came to Gremlins the movie - it wasn't their idea originally. The first inklings of what would become that script were created by Chris Columbus, then a young, wannabe writer trying to produce samples to grab himself a job.

One idea that struck the young scribe was being overrun by noisy critters, mostly because he was - at night in his New York loft, "what sounded like a platoon of mice would come out and to hear them skittering around in the blackness was really creepy."

But his concept was never truly intended for the screen. At least not until it landed on Spielberg's desk. "It was one of the most original things I've come across in many years, which is why I bought it," the man behind Jaws and ET enthused.

While the script went through many changes and different drafts before it hit the screen (see the next page), the basic concept stayed the same - a man buys a cute little beastie for his son, under the condition that he doesn't feed the furry, warbling thing after midnight, doesn't ever get it wet and never exposes it to bright light.

Naturally, after adopting the new arrival and naming him Gizmo, the son fails in at least two of these, and his small American town is overrun by vicious creatures intent on causing mayhem.

The project seemed perfect as it was part of a new movement of movies that mixed comedy with horror - Ghostbusters was in production around the same time, and the two films would help to inspire the likes of Beetlejuice and The 'Burbs.

And that's without mentioning the avalanche of crazed creature features that would follow - Ghoulies, Critters, Troll, Munchies, Hobgoblins and more can all trace their lineage back to Gizmo and his evil offspring.

With his work plate full, Spielberg knew he needed someone else to tackle the film. So he turned to Joe Dante…

Next: The team - and story - comes together

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3. The Team - And The Story- Comes Together

 
Steven Spielberg asking Joe Dante to tackle Gremlins couldn't have come at a better time for the director.

Finding himself at a low ebb in his career, Dante was smarting from the fact that his last two jobs - horror comedy The Howling and the third Twilight Zone Movie segment - had issues.

The Zone film was tainted with tragedy over real-life deaths while John Landis was shooting, and The Howling had been frustrating because though it did decent business, Dante hadn't seen a penny since he wasn't a member of the Director's Guild Of America.

After watching and enjoying The Howling, Spielberg got in touch with Dante, offering to back him as director under his deal with Warner Bros and with The Beard producing through Amblin, which gave him extra clout.

His talent for making horror and comedy work together wasn't the only reason that Dante got the job - he was also cheap, and Warners was convinced that Gremlins had to be affordable. It didn't quite work out exactly how the executives would have liked, but Dante got a lot done with the budget.

But that was for shooting - first, they needed a workable script.

Columbus cranked out several different drafts as the story evolved. Originally, the tone was focused much more on the horror, with few laughs present.

In early versions, the nasty beasts not only killed and ate lead character Billy Peltzer's dog, but also slaughtered his mother, sending her decapitated head sailing down the stairs as Billy returns home in the middle of the madness.

Oh, and not forgetting the planned scene where evil Gremlin leader Stripe and co hit the local McDonald's, only to snack on the customers, leaving the burgers intact…

Unsurprisingly, Spielberg and Dante vetoed that idea, choosing instead to switch the appeal to more of a family audience, while maintaining a lot of the chaos. "Our gremlins are somewhat different," Dante has said of the villains. "They're sort of green and they have big mouths and they smile a lot and they do incredibly, really nasty things to people and enjoy it all the while."

Writing about the beasts was one thing. Bringing them to life would be a whole new set of challenges…

Next: Creating the critters

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4. Creating The Critters

With a budget in hand - one that would eventually inflate to $11 million, more than Warners really wanted to spend - Dante and co could start recruiting people to make the Gremlins.

CG at the time was still largely in its infancy, and in any case, Dante preferred working with puppets and physical effects.

Chris Walas, who had worked on the likes of Scanners, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Return Of The Jedi, was the man brought in to create Gizmo and the rest.

Almost from the start, the monsters were trouble. Gizmo was originally supposed to turn into Stripe, but Spielberg wanted the big-eyed fur ball to stay intact through the whole film, figuring that cinema-goers would become attached to him. As usual, he was right - but it caused incredible trouble for the puppeteers down the line as Giz was built to take part in the limited action of the first half of the movie.

And he was so prone to breaking down that the scene where the gremlins hang him up and chuck darts at him was added to make the tired and frustrated crew laugh.

Different sizes and types of both Gizmo and his gremlin spawn were created for different scenes. Some moments called for bigger versions of specific parts - including faces while eating and for the moment where Giz gives birth to the other Mogwai from his back - which was created using balloons attached to air pumps.

Balloons would also come in handy for one iconic shot in the movie - where Billy's mother shoves an attacking gremlin into the microwave and turns it on, messily exploding it.

The final piece of the effects puzzle was finding the right voices for the creations. Howie Mandel - now better known for presenting Deal Or No Deal in the US - was recommended as the voice of Gizmo by voice-over legend Frank Welker (who would tackle Stripe). And Michael Winslow, best known for the sound-effects obsessed copper in the Police Academy movies, also lent his talents.

Mandel, who recorded his improvised "dialogue" (mostly squeaks and warbles) after the film was shot, explained why he made his choice: "Gizmo was cute and naive, so, you know, I got in touch with that... I couldn't envision going any other way or do something different with it."

But while Giz and the rest were the stars of the show, they still needed a cast to work against…

Next: Finding the humans

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5. Finding The Humans

The gremlins might be the ones who many remember from the final film, but it's the cast that grounds the film and gives it the emotional heft for the craziness to spring from.

Zach Galligan, then largely an unknown actor (sadly, that's not changed much in the years since Gremlins and its sequel) got the gig mostly because Spielberg liked the chemistry that sparked between him and Phoebe Cates, who took the role of his love interest, bar tender Kate Beringer.

Cates' casting was much more controversial, as the producers were worried that she might not be identified with the wholesome Kate after risque turns in the likes of Fast Times At Ridgemont High. She soon proved everyone wrong.

Galligan felt like he identified with the lead, saying later that he was "a geeky kid - and so being in this picture for me was really kind of a dream, I mean what I get to do, what my character gets to do, blow up movie theatres... got to work with great people."

He's not wrong - the supporting cast is a roll call of great character thesps.

Hoyt Axton won the role as Rand Peltzer, Billy's inventor father and the man who brings Gizmo home. He was apparently the filmmakers' favourite choice, despite Pat Hingle - who would go on to the likes of Commissioner Gordon in Tim Burton's Batman - offering a better first test screening (Spielberg and co were worried Hingle might overshadow the younger actors, whereas Axton complemented them.)

Glynn Turman took on the part of Roy Hanson, the high school science teacher who initially tries to study the creatures, but is killed by one of them wielding a lethal needle. Initially, he was going to die with hundreds in his face, but Spielberg preferred the idea of a single shot to the backside.

In one of his earliest roles, Corey Feldman helped move the plot along (it's he who spills water on Gizmo) as Pete Fountaine, Billy's best mate. And while Keye Luke, who plays the Chinese grandfather who refuses to sell Gizmo was 80 at the time of shooting the film, he'd was in such good shape that he needed makeup to look older.

Finally, Cates' Fast Times co-star Judge Rheinhold and character performer Edward Andrews nabbed small roles that became even smaller as the film was edited.

With a cast locked down, Dante could shoot…

Next: Lights! Camera! Action! Terror!

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6. Lights! Camera! Action! Terror!


Dante shot on both the Warner Brothers backlot (mostly for the early scenes in Chinatown where Rand Peltzer buys Gizmo) and Universal Studios.

The main thoroughfare of Kingston Falls was the same street set used in Back To The Future, which might explain why so many of the buildings look familiar. You might recognise the cinema (here boasting movies named with the working titles of other Spielberg output, including ET) and the the "Colonial Street" set where both Billy Peltzer and Marty McFly have family homes.

Some parts were naturally rebuilt - the bank where Billy works was the aerobics class in BTTF.

The film's wintry, Christmas setting actually helped the puppet effects, since the fake snow could be used to hide a multitude of techniques used to bring the monsters to life.

But don't go thinking it was ever easy.
 
"The first one was really grueling because we were inventing the technology as we went along as well as deviating from the script as we discovered new aspects of the Gremlin characters," recalls Dante.

"A small army of puppeteers was living beneath each set, controlling rods and levers and staring into video monitors with the picture flipped as in a mirror.

"The last three months of shooting was only gremlins! It really did get maddening after awhile. And  the studio wasn't especially supportive."

As mentioned before, Gizmo would break down endlessly and some takes in that final three month period began to take so long to set up that crew members would fall asleep. Fortunately, Dante's luck would change.

"It was an extremely challenging picture to do with the extant technology and Warner Bros. didn't really believe in it, or "get it" until they saw the preview.

"At that time Spielberg had a policy of completely finishing the director's cut, so we didn't run the usual work print but a completed film with Jerry Goldsmith's score.

"Nobody was prepared for the audience reaction, which was through the roof, or the phenomenon it turned into. Suddenly my picture was in Time Magazine!"

And that was just the beginning. Wait until the film got into the wild…

Next: Gremlins gets loose

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7. Gremlins Gets Loose

Gremlins arrived in the wild on the weekend of 8 June 1984 (we'd have to wait until December to see it in the UK). Dante and Spielberg opted to release the movie in the summer so as not to have it seen as just a Christmas film.

The plan was a successful one - despite launching the same weekend as Ghostbusters, Gremlins scored an impressive $12.5 million first weekend. It would go on to be the fourth highest-grossing film in the US that year, behind Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and Spielberg's own Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.

And that's partly thanks to a canny marketing move that saw it promoted as a much sweeter film than the chaotic final result. Still, the trailer and poster campaign caused a few problems, as some audiences walked out, thinking they'd been duped into thinking this would be as cute as ET. "So the idea of taking a 4-year-old to see Gremlins, thinking it's going to be a cuddly, funny animal movie and then seeing that it turns into a horror picture, I think people were upset," chuckles Dante. "They felt like they had been sold something family friendly and it wasn't entirely family friendly."

The film scored a PG in the US (and a 15 here), but is famously credited - alongside The Temple Of Doom - with encouraging US censors to create the PG-13 rating.

It was helped overseas by Mandel, who learned to say what legible dialogue Gizmo uses ("bright light!") in a variety of languages, which meant jokes coiled translate well overseas.

Gremlins scored mixed reviews - with Roger Ebert approving and Leonard Maltin calling out the film's violence. His comments earned him a cameo in the sequel, where he's throttled by the creatures.

Ah yes. The sequel…

Next: The New Batch

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8. The New Batch

With Gremlins on its way to plenty of profit, the studio - which, you'll recall hadn't shown a lot of interest when it was being made - quickly asked Dante to pump out a sequel.

Figuring that the original had a closed storyline and that any follow-up would only be shoved into cinemas to make money, the director originally declined, not least because he was also exhausted from making the film.

Naturally, Warners began the development process anyway, spitballing ideas for the beasts to invade everywhere from Las Vegas to Mars. But nothing stuck and executives quickly realized they needed Dante's talents back.

Demanding proper creative control over every aspect, Dante got his wish and began work on a sequel with triple the budget.

"Obviously there was no real need for another Gremlins movie, so I approached the sequel as irreverently as possible - which got me in a bit of trouble: 'You can't make fun of the merchandising!' - spoofing the arbitrary 'rules' and everything else."

Aiming to bring the same anarchic, irreverent, pop culture-satirising spirit to the sequel, Dante got to work.

Scriptwriter Charlie Haas brought in an idea that Saw Billy and Kate move to New York to start new lives working for the Clamp corporation, which also worked well as it meant the story could be contained within Clamp's huge "smart" building and could keep the film within budget - there wasn't the money available to have the gremlins attack all of NYC…

But even with the cost-saving setting, some earlier elements in the script never made it on to the set, while Steven Spielberg complained that early drafts had far too may of the creatures that could comfortably be accommodated in the running time.

Dante's ditching of the rule book extended to one big set piece sequence, inspired by his love of William Castle's films. In the original version of he film, the print breaks, revealed to be the work of the little gist, and wrestler-turned-actor Hulk Hogan appears, demanding they get the show started again. This became a VCR moment for the home video release.

Despite its intentions to spoof both sequels and the original film, The New Batch wasn't as embraced as much as the first, leading to it ranking as only the 31st highest-grossing film in 1990.

But that hasn't stopped the rumours of another...

Next: And More?

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9. And More?

"I guess I did it right, there's been no Gremlins 3 as yet...but sooner or later there will be, even if it's direct-to-video. The title is too well known not to exploit again," is how Joe Dante tells it.

Naturally, that hasn't stopped all the rumours, whispers and possibilities springing up in the years since The New Batch.

Even if something does happen, however, Dante is sure he won't be involved and that it won't have much of a direct link to the first two. “Well, I’m sure there will be one. I know I won’t have anything to do with it. They won’t ask me. But the goal with Gremlins 2 was to make sure there wouldn’t be a third. If there is one, they’re welcome to it.

"I think what’s holding it up is that they can’t conceive of what to do because the first movies were defined by the technology, it was what the puppets could do and do well and not do and that’s what the movies became.

"Now you could do anything with CGI so the field is so open that nobody could focus on what exactly it should be. I can’t say I’m looking forward to seeing it."

Us neither, if we're honest. Leave the puppet pests to history and the fans, like the amazing short above, which is fully Dante approved...

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