The Gremlins script that first landed on Steven Spielberg’s desk was a very different, altogether nastier monster, to the film that eventually made it to the screen. Inspired by nightmares of rats nibbling his fingers in his sleep, the then-NYU film student, Chris Columbus, had written a horror story packed with the sort fed-after-midnight viciousness that’s the antithesis of his later work on Bicentennial Man and Mrs Doubtfire.
Early drafts featured the film’s hero coming home to find his mother’s head bouncing down the stairs and a scene where the gremlins go to McDonald’s and eat the customers instead of the burgers.
Spielberg was impressed enough to buy the script, but not impressed enough to direct – ET had given him his fill of working with puppets and, besides, there was the small business of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom occupying his thoughts.
Spielberg had first encountered Joe Dante when Universal’s legal department threatened to sue over Piranha’s similarities to Jaws. Luckily, however, the director reckoned it was the best of the many big-ﬁsh rip-offs, he persuaded the lawyers to back down, and maintained sufficient interest in Joe Dante to offer him the Gremlins gig and a directing slot on The Twilight Zone movie he was supervising.
Down to his last $100 and miserable enough to assume Spielberg’s package had been sent to the wrong address, the Gremlins script couldn’t have arrived at a better time for Joe Dante.
Even so, rumours about Spielberg’s very hands-on approach on Poltergeist — questions still persist over whether he or credited helmer, Tobe Hooper, actually directed the thing — made Dante worry that he wouldn’t necessarily be the man in charge.
“Frankly, I had some trepidation about it,” he said, “because nobody wants to be making a picture for someone who should really be making it himself”
As it turned out, Spielberg kept the production at arm’s length, only turning up on set for a couple of days (enough to ﬁlm a cameo) when Harrison Ford injured his back on the Indy set. Dante recalled, “The last thing he said to me was, ‘Go ahead, make the picture. It’s your picture. Don’t even show it to me until you think it’s finished.’ Now, even Roger Corman never said that to me.” Nevertheless, the executive producer’s influence would hang over the movie like a dog suspended in Christmas lights.
Spielberg always had visions of filming Gremlins as a low-budget B-movie, shot on location under real-life snow. But, as Joe Dante got into pre-production, it soon became clear that it could easily turn into a logistical nightmare: “We found as we went on that it was going to be not that easy to make the picture cheaply because there were a lot of effects and a lot of gremlins. Wiser heads prevailed and once it was apparent how big a deal it was going to be, it seemed that the only way to do It was with a studio.”
Spielberg always had visions of filming Gremlins as a low-budget B-movie, shot on location under real-life snow. But, as Joe Dante got into pre-production, it soon became clear that it could easily turn into a logistical nightmare: “We found as we went on that it was going to be not that easy to make the picture cheaply because there were a lot of effects and a lot of gremlins.
Wiser heads prevailed and once it was apparent how big a deal it was going to be, it seemed that the only way to do It was with a studio.”
So production took place in the summer of 1983 on lots across Hollywood, with the Universal main square, that would later become Back To The Future’s Hill Valley, turned into a wintry Kingston Falls (a clear tribute to the Bedford Falls of It’s A Wonderful Life).
Dante also reckoned a more cartoony look would help out his man-made stars. “My feeling was that because the gremlins were pretty stylised looking, that the rest of the movie should also be stylised. I thought they’d look a lot more real against a non-real backdrop.” But stylised or not, Gremlins was a ﬁlm that was going to live and die by its monsters, and for those Dante and producer Michael Finnell turned to Chris Walas.
I turned pale when I read lines like – ‘Hordes of gremlins — thousands and thousands of them — pour through the town,” said Walas, the special makeup effects veteran of Piranha and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, charged with bringing the gremlins to life. Early suggestions included time-consuming stop-motion animation (in the end just one shot made it into the movie) and even trained monkeys with prosthetic ears, but sanity won out with the decision to use puppets.
In theory, Walas and his team had a lengthy pre- production to design and prepare, but they failed to count on Spielberg’s desire for regular progress reports. Walas explained: “Mike and Joe would say: ‘How are you doing on this design?” and I was scheduling for a seven-month pre-production. ‘Okay,’ we’ve got to shoot this thing for Steven in four days, so we need a couple of puppets that do things.’ We had just finished the full sculptures, so we panicked a lot.”
It was always assumed that the gremlins (or GMs, as they were known on set) would be lizard-like, but as Walas pointed out, “They aren’t scary, and they certainly aren’t funny, so we tried to put a little more character into them.” His designs took on all the usual scaly reptilian characteristics, but he fused them with bat-like ears (the gremlins are, after all, nocturnal) and expressive human faces. That was the easy part.
“Gizmo was the biggest pain in the butt ever in the history of mankind,” said Walas of the seemingly harmless pet who spawns nearly two hours of anarchy. “The overriding idea always was that the mogwai be as cute as possible. We were constantly fooling around and changing things, because it’s very challenging to try and come up with something that is basically a teddy bear but doesn’t look like a teddy bear.”
So, knowing they were going to require Spielberg’s okay on the design. they decided to base Gizmo’s colouring on Spielbergs cocker spaniel, Chauncey. “It was a brilliant move, but boy, it was murder.” Whereas‘ Gremlins’ puppet stars would. nowadays be created with CGI, however, making them believable with 1980’s technology caused plenty of headaches for Walas and co.
The big problem with puppets is that they need operators, and some of these creatures required up to 12 people to work the controls. As Dante recalled, “What everyone should remember is that with so many wires and crew people on set, it was a miracle that we could even move the camera.” Specially constructed spaces underneath the stages swarmed with Walas’ team, all of them transfixed on the special mirror-image monitors that relayed their performances.
Meanwhile, Dante’s original idea that the monsters all be eight or nine inches tall (a reference to the rumour that ‘gremlins’ grounded planes in American World War II) went straight out the window, as it became clear that there wouldn’t be enough space to house the then-state of the art animatronics.
“We used all sorts of methods to operate the mogwai and gremlins,” recalled Walas. “Radio signals, rods, handwork, marionetting, cables and what I call ‘throw ’em across the room puppetry’.”
Over the course of making Gremlins, a hundred standard gremlin puppets and 20 mogwai were built, along with specialist puppets for every occasion. Indeed, several Gizmo puppets were often used in the same shot – when he’s carried, you see the remote controlled model until he’s sat down slightly out of View.
The camera would then pan down to an already deposited, cable—driven version, leaving Walas just seconds to whip the wireless mogwai out of the way. In Mr Potato Head-style, there were full-size Gizmo faces for different moods – happy, sad, confused – but for close-ups Walas constructed ‘superfaces’.
These were a foot in diameter (three feet including ear-span) and big enough to ﬁt the motors and hydraulics required for a ﬁill range of expressions. “Once we got our superfaces going, they could do just about any facial movement we wanted,” Walas explained. “It was fun, really, because they could come up with a lot stranger expressions than you or I.”
But just before production started, Spielberg made a decision that put his underlings on the back foot. Until now, the script had Gizmo transformed into lead gremlin Stripe but, using his not insubstantial box-office acumen, Spielberg pointed out that the oh-so-cute mogwai was the story’s hero and should take a more proactive role in the movie — he even insisted that Gizmo appear in shot when leads Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates share their ﬁrst kiss.
“It was quite a blow to Chris Walas and it was a shock to the rest of us,” explained Joe Dante. “The problem was that he hadn’t really been engineered to do a lot of the things he was now going to be called upon to do, and so, since this happened so late in the game we found ourselves scrambling while we were shooting to invent ways of puppeteering Gizmo, so that he would be able to look moderately convincing.”
This explains why Gizmo spends the second half of the movie inside Billy’s rucksack, a brilliantly simple cover-all that frequently led Walas to beg, “Can we use the backpack guy?”
By the time Gremlins headed into a lengthy post-production, its ﬁnal tone was still unknown. And with none of the monsters’ dialogue included in the screenplay, no one even knew what they were going to sound like.
Figuring they were childlike in nature, sound designer Mark Mangini made up a series of simple nonsense phrases: ‘Yum-yum’ for food, ‘Glub-glub’ for water and ‘Woof-woof’ for dog.
Such was Spielberg’s desire for authenticity (and no doubt marketability overseas), the voiceover artists had to record new nonsense in other languages, using native slang and even traditional German drinking songs.
But even with the Spielberg golden touch, Warner Bros still wasn’t sure about the ﬁlm it had on its hands. Dante explained: “When the studio saw the picture, they pretty much liked it, though they thought there were too many gremlins in it. Steven Spielberg replied, ‘Shall we cut them out and call it ‘People’ instead?” Warner Bros also remained uncertain about the ‘Santa in the chimney’ scene – at one point they were prepared to physically cut it out of cinema prints – but the all-powerful Spielberg chose to back up his director.
They needn’t have worried. Despite the levels of violence that, along with TempIe Of Doom, led to the creation of the American PG-13 certificate, Gremlins went on to massive success, spawning a highly proﬁtable merchandising campaign, and a not-quite-so lucrative sequel.
So the next time your TV goes on the fritz or your washing machine conks out, turn on all the lights, look in your cupboards or under the bed. ’Cause you just can’t tell. There just might be a gremlin in your house!