Gremlins was a big breakthrough for director Joe Dante, who previously gave us the genre greats Piranha and The Howling. Gremlins would also be a big step forward to animatronic effects, thanks to Chris Walas, who did similar slimy magic for David Cronenberg's The Fly.
Before the success of Gremlins, Dante worked for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, making his debut comedy, Hollywood Boulevard, in 1976. Next he followed up with Piranha in 1978, then The Howling, which was a big horror hit in 1981, and also broke a lot of ground in make-up effects with Rob Bottin's werewolf creations. While The Howling was a success, Dante didn't make a lot of money from it, and his career was stuck in limbo afterwards, which is why he was surprised when the screenplay for Gremlins arrived at his dump of an office on Hollywood Boulevard. Dante didn't know Spielberg then, but Steven was a fan, Piranha was his favorite Jaws rip-off, and he was apparently inspired by The Howling to cast its star, Dee Wallace Stone, as Elliot's mother in E.T.
Gremlins was written by Christopher Columbus as a writing sample, and as Dante recalls, "He hadn't written it with the idea that it was something that was going to be produced, so there was a lot of stuff in the script that was pretty hard to do." Initially Spielberg wanted to make Gremlins as a low budget, non-union horror film in Oregon. Yet Dante tells us, "As we developed it, it became apparent that were weren't going to be able to make it very cheap, and it was going to have to have the studio behind it in order for us to pull off what was in the story."
Previously, make-up artist Chris Walas was working on a remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon with Dante, but Universal decided to scrap the project and made Jaws 3D instead. "I was devastated," Walas says. "I'm a huge Creature fan, and was thrilled to be working on that one."
Then Dante sent over the script for Gremlins, and Walas says, "I was overwhelmed at the amount of work in it, and that was when the script was (just) a simple horror movie without any characters, just little monsters. I normally make notes on a script as I read it, but I was too astonished at the Gremlins script to make many." Once Walas finished reading the script, he wrote one note on the cover page: "HA!"
Walas started making some simple sketches with Dante, his producing partner Mike Finnell, and Chris Columbus all providing feedback. "Joe used Chuck Jones cartoons as a reference for the Mogwai," Walas says. "He wanted them to have the same emotional range of some of the Warner Bros cartoon characters."