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."
Steven Spielberg also sat in on a meeting with Dante before he took off to direct Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and as Walas recalls, "It was a riot. All of us were running around the room impersonating what the Gremlins should act like. Steven sent notes along the way during pre-production, make the fur like his dog, take the fur off the ears…Just enough of a change that we had to rework every puppet we had finished. Frustrating, but he was absolutely right."
In fact, Gizmo was originally going to be turned into Stripe, but Spielberg fell in love with Gizmo, and decided a month before the shoot commenced that he should stick around for the whole movie. "We had this bucket of bolts with fur that was only supposed to last a couple of reels, and now he had to be the star of the movie," Dante says.
Gremlins pioneered an animatronic puppet approach to bring their characters to life, and like many effects films that broke new ground, the process was trial and error. "I had no idea whatsoever how to do the effects," Walas tells us. "I really wasn't sure it was even possible." A number of potential ideas were thrown around, like stop-motion, having actors in costume on oversized sets, even putting monkeys in Gremlins suits. "Having worked with animals in suits before, I was completely against that," Walas says. "They had a trainer bring a monkey into Joe's office, and the monkey apparently went nuts and wreaked havoc in the room, so that was the end of that line of thought."
"We could have done the whole movie stop motion," Dante says. "But that would cost a lot more than we had to spend, and it would have taken forever. The basic problem was, what can these puppets do, and can they do the things they're supposed to do in the script? Given the technology we had to work with, the story was reconceived around the ability of the puppets, and the puppeteers to make them happen."
"I saw it as a puppet movie from the word go," Walas says, "but we had to go through the process to get everyone on the same page. I don't think the studio had any faith that we could do it at all when we started. I should say that I was personally terrified for the entire length of the show. It a gigantic project for me, beyond anything I had done before, and the time and schedule were not on my side."
Just like the scene where a ton of Gremlins were created in the swimming pool, "the project just kept getting bigger and bigger," Walas says. "More Gremlins doing more and different things."
Of course this was before the age of CGI, "So we had to come up with anything and everything we could to make these puppets seem like living creatures," Walas says. "There weren't any real guidelines for this stuff at the time, and very little, if any, resources, so we were continually scrambling to find materials and supplies. We became a puppet factory, assembly line style. Parts were being run for no particular reason other than to have a supply of parts on hand so that we could construct full puppets overnight as the need arose. I should say I was personally terrified for the entire length of the show."
As Walas continues, "I had a crew of strangers for the most part, and a lot of them were essentially trainees; kids just out of school, local artists who had never worked on a film before. But I had a good number of seasoned pros on the show as well, enough to make the difference. In the end, I was astonished that it got done and it gave me the confidence that I could run a big crew and turn out big-time studio work with the best of them."
As much as Dante wanted the Gremlins to be realistic, the movie was intentionally shot on a backlot, giving the film a deceptive Frank Capra-esque feel, the perfect place to unleash a ton of monster mayhem. Dante didn't feel the Gremlins would work in the real world, and he said, "There's no way you're going to get this unreality to be convincing if you plop them out in the sunlight. We made a conscious decision we didn't want this to look like a real movie. There was a quaintness to doing it as a backlot movie, which I thought would contrast with the modernity of the Gremlins."
Looking back on the physical effects that Walas had to work with on the film, he says, "I think we did a good job of pushing the limits of what was available in the day. I wish we had more time and money, and I wish we could have done blue-screen puppeting. But overall, I think Warners got their money's worth out of us, and the audience went for it. That was the biggest thrill for me, watching the movie with a regular audience and seeing their connection with, and reaction to, the characters. It made all the craziness worth it."
Yet before the movie's release, Warners had reservations about Gremlins, especially when the bad ones came in, thinking their destructive antics were in bad taste, but Spielberg came to Dante's defense. When the executives told Dante, "We gotta cut some of these gremlins out," Spielberg replied, "Oh, and then we'll call the movie People, right?"
When Gremlins was released in June 1984, it was a big hit that finally made Joe Dante an A-list director. As far as the public uproar over the movie, Walas says, "It think it had less to do with the film itself than it did with the ad campaign. The studio sold it like it was the next E.T., with cute little furry hands coming out of a box. It was more the studio pulling a fast one on the audience. The fact that Temple of Doom came out at the same time and had someone ripping out a beating human heart was more of a justified shock. I don't think we ever thought we were getting away with anything, we were just making a very strange, fun film."
Looking back on Gremlins, and the nostalgia many have for Amblin films today, Walas says, "It's nice to feel a part of something that has had so long a life. It's nice to know that our efforts are still appreciated, especially on a film that was such a challenge. It was a groundbreaking time in creature effects, and so many of the basic techniques that were established on those 80s effects movies had unique flavor to them. It was a good time."