That's right, Steven Spielberg's magnificent horror comedy "Gremlins," about a bunch of cuddly creatures that turn into scaly monsters and overtake a small, Rockwellian town, is turning 30 this summer. And to celebrate, Warner Bros has a bunch of exciting things planned. The first of which has already happened: you can now own the movie digitally, for the first time ever (please, take the time to luxuriate in a wonderful clip from the movie, located below). Later this year, too, we will be getting a deluxe, 30th anniversary Blu-ray, complete with two brand-new featurettes featuring Steven Spielberg, alongside other creative principles (like director Joe Dante) and many members of the cast and crew.
We were lucky enough to chat with Zach Galligan, who played Billy Peltzer, the initial owner of Gizmo, the mogwai that inadvertently breeds the gremlin menace. Galligan has become something of a cult icon himself, appearing in notable genre works like the first two "Waxwork" movies, "Warlock: The Armageddon," co-starring a witchy Julian Sands, and last year's slasher throwback "Hatchet 3."
During the course of our lengthy conversation, Galligan talked about his initial introduction to "Gremlins," playing video games on the set with a young Corey Feldman, the response to the brilliant sequel "Gremlins 2: The New Batch," the movie's enduring legacy, and what his recommendation would be to whoever reboots the movie (because, as we all know, it's coming -- whether we like it or not).
In a way, the phenomenon surrounding "Gremlins" is like the titular creatures: unstoppable, overwhelming, and oddly enjoyable. Even after all these years.
Let's go all the way back -- can you talk about how you initially got involved with "Gremlins"?
Okay... Wow... Well, it really wasn't anything to speak of because it just came to me as a basic audition. There are a lot of great stories associated with "Gremlins," but one of the disappointing things is that the getting of the part wasn't all that difficult, which is always kind of strange. Because you try so hard to get parts but some of them just seem to almost come to you. So what happened was they said, "Spielberg is doing this movie called 'Gremlins' and you're not allowed to see any of the script, we're just going to give you a tiny little piece of it and if you want to read for the casting director, Susan Arnold, you can." And I said, "Yeah, absolutely."
So the scene they gave us was us walking around and talking about Christmas and why she doesn't like Christmas. So there's no mention of Gremlins or mogwai or chaos. It's just two kids in the snow. But it's called "Gremlins" and it's Spielberg so you knew something was up. You just didn't know what because you didn't get to see the script.
So I read for the producer and the casting director; Joe Dante wasn't there because he was ill from flying. He wasn't a good flyer back then. So they called me in. And the first time I met Joe Dante was when I met Phoebe Cates at the mix-and-match session. They paired me with her. And the way the story goes, and I guess we'll find out whether or not this is true in the 30th anniversary Blu-ray, because Mr. Spielberg will be able to give his side of the story, I suppose, on the featurette.
The way the legend goes... is that we stood shoulder-to-shoulder and we did this audition where we were pretending to walk next to each other and looking around and glancing at each other. And when it was over, there was a lull, and I didn't really know what to do, because they hadn't called cut and were waiting to see what would happen between the two of us. So I lay my head on Phoebe's shoulder for a second and sighed like she was the most gorgeous thing in the world. Like, Ahhh, doing this scene with this girl is so amazing. And apparently Spielberg saw the tape, because we were putting it on VHS tape and mailing it back to him for review, and apparently when he saw me put my head on Phoebe's shoulder, he said, "Oh, look he's already in love with her, I don't need to see anything else." Apparently, everyone on the tape that was after us didn't even get seen. Because once Spielberg saw that she and I had this dynamic, he figured we didn't really need to act, we just needed to show up.
Did you have any interaction with Spielberg, or was he off in a glass castle somewhere?
No, we did. He's reasonably hands-on, but he didn't have that much to do with "Gremlins" because he was doing "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" at that time. So he was off in Sri Lanka and all of these other places. There was a lull in "Indiana Jones" during the end of production, for about two or three weeks, so for the last few weeks of the shoot, he was there a lot. So he would be on the set and be behind the camera and consult with Joe. Sometimes he would make suggestions that we would implement. Sometimes Joe would like them and sometimes he... didn't. So yeah, he was around.
Was there a sense, on set, that you guys were making something special? Or was it just another job for you?
Well, it certainly wasn't another job for me. It was something that I felt was going to be a huge break, or at least I thought would be a huge break. Now what's funny is about a month ago, we got a bunch of us together for the 30th anniversary and we talked about things having to do with the movie and I was absolutely horrified to find that I was the only one who thought it was going to be a big hit. Everyone else thought it was going to be this cute, off-center movie but people wouldn't get it.
The special effects guy had very little confidence in his work. He was 28 and said, "they'll never buy Gizmo, he doesn't look real. I'm terrible." He was very self-deprecating and unsure of himself but he was, of course, proved incredibly wrong. A lot of people just thought it wasn't going to do well at all, that the tone was going to be all off and people wouldn't get it. So here I was, at 19, going, "It's Spielberg! It's going to be amazing! What do you expect?" Then it came out and it exploded. Even though it came in second to "Ghostbusters," it's one of the few movies I've ever seen where the second weekend gross was higher without adding theaters. Usually you go, "Oh, it only dropped 20%, that's great!" But we went up 14% just on word of mouth.
The shooting was notoriously difficult. Can you remember the most frustrated you ever were?
Well, I've got to say the special effects guys were way more frustrated than I was. I was 19, in California for the first time. I was working with Phoebe Cates. I was living the life of Riley. So when the Gizmo broke, [special effects designer] Chris Walas would come over and go, "Oh dear, oh my" and he'd be muttering under his breath. And we'd be waiting to hear what the prognosis was. He'd say, "Well, that'll be an 8 hour break." We'd say, "Oh my gosh -- 8 hours?" So normally I'd be pretty bored but Spielberg let me use his office, which was right down the street. So I'd go, "8 hours? Cool!" And I'd run down the street to Spielberg's office and he had all of these arcade games, like "Defender" and "Millipede" and "Food Fight."
So I'd go and play those games and Corey (Feldman), who was 11, when he was around, he'd trail behind me. So he and I started this incredible "Food Fight" rivalry, which he got very frustrated by, because I was 19 and he was 11 and I could basically outplay him. And he would get unbelievably frustrated. They would have to keep running to Spielberg's office to get me and Corey back to set. So Spielberg finally said, "Let's just move the machine to set, maybe 10 or 15 feet away from the camera. So when they need to go shoot, they can go shoot, but when they're done they can go play." So they moved the "Food Fight" machine to set and the hijinks continued. So for me it wasn't frustrating at all. I was just like, "Yay, more play!"
I wanted to talk about "Gremlins 2: The New Batch." It's one of my favorite movies but was not terribly well received when it first came out. What was your experience on that?
I think the sequel is a great movie. I think that it's been vindicated over the past 25 years. When the New York Times published their review of the "Gremlins 2" Blu-ray, Joe Dante sent me an email that only said this: "Vindicated at last." Here's what happened with "Gremlins 2": I think it had much less to do with the movie than it did with Warner Bros' decision, and I know Warner Bros is listening but, Warner Bros' decision to open it against "Dick Tracy."
Originally we were going to open in early May, against "Bird on a Wire," which was a Mel Gibson/Goldie Hawn movie. Which was okay, a perfectly innocuous movie. But what happened was that "Gremlins 2" tested so incredibly positively that Warner Bros executives got excited, maybe overly excited, and said, "Let's move it up and see if we can take out 'Dick Tracy,' which was scheduled to be a big summer blockbuster, because we've never gotten scores like this in our life." Like they were getting 96, 97 out of 100. They were just incredibly excited. So had they opened it on May 3rd, we would have had seven or eight weeks before "Dick Tracy" came out and my guess is that people would have loved it, it would have gotten great reviews, and it would have steamrolled the competition and there would have been a "Gremlins 3" and a "4."
But Warner Bros decided to go up against "Dick Tracy" and what they underestimated was the fact that Madonna was the biggest star in the world in the summer of 1990 and everything she touched was unbelievably magnetic. And the fact that Warren Beatty was dating her at the time and he and her were making the rounds, made it the must-see movie. So when we went head-to-head, "Dick Tracy" killed us. Because when they tried to get us on the talk shows, it was all Warren Beatty and Madonna. So when it came out, the response was very muted and the competition was 10 times harder than it would have been, had it come out on May 3. So I think the release strategy kind of backfired a little bit and I think that hurt the franchise. I think if they had just released it in the "Iron Man" slot, the story we'd be talking about with "Gremlins 2" would be vastly different.
There is always talk of a remake or a sequel or reboot. Do you have thoughts on that?
What I can tell you is that they are in the process of rebooting it. I know that the process is going reasonably well. I know that they are writing something, right now, as we speak. I would obviously never have any idea or presume to have any idea about my cooperation with a reboot until they approach me or sent me some kind of script. You would have to figure one of three possibilities would be apparent: 1. I would have no involvement in it; 2. I have a small, cameo-type involvement in it; or 3. and hopefully the Warner Bros people are listening to this, would let me play the new Billy Peltzer's teacher, or play the dad, or play the cop. Just move up and play another part.
What would your advice be to whatever filmmaker comes along to remake "Gremlins"?
Ideally you'd want to do it all with practical effects. But, you know, putting myself in the studio executive's shoes, that's not financially feasible. What would be a really smart move on the part of the filmmakers would be to split the difference. So when you have the new Billy Peltzer interacting with Gizmo in some of the more intimate scenes, you would have an animatronic Gizmo. But when you had whole flotillas and hordes of Gremlins, you could go for the CGI. I didn't really think this until I went to San Diego Comic Con and dealt with the rabidness of the fans there, but you really risk angering some of your viewers if you ignore the older fan base that liked the original films and just concentrate on marketing it to the 19-and-unders. I don't think that needs to happen. I think you can throw bones to those older fan bases -- you could use practical effects or use some of the older actors. I think "TRON Legacy" did that really well, by re-doing "TRON" but still having Jeff Bridges in it.
You want to tip your cap and show some respect to the originals while still doing the rebooting. JJ Abrams understands that. That's why the "Star Wars" movie has Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher and Chewbacca. So many people would say, "Well, who cares if Peter Mayhew is in the new 'Star Wars'?" But about 70% of "Star Wars" fans care. They have a personal connection to Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and they want him in there. They don't want some tall guy, they want him. It doesn't really make sense, because you probably couldn't tell if it was Peter Mayhew or not. But it doesn't matter. They want it.
Are you still taken aback by the level of passion fans have to this movie?
I am pretty surprised by the staying power. But it kind of, now, in retrospect, makes sense, because parents are passing it down to the next generation. Most of the time parents I encounter say, "You know I pulled it out for the first time and just showed Nathaniel." And there's some grinning 9-year-old kid with a Gizmo doll in their hand. The movie is kind of timeless. There are very few things that link it to the '80s; a little bit of the technology, perhaps my 80s hairstyle, whatever that perm is they gave me. I remember sitting in the chair thinking "What are you doing?" I couldn't really say anything about it because I was a 19-year-old and thought, Well, she knows what she's doing. My hair is pretty much like it is in the second one. I didn't understand why they wanted to make me look like Kirk Cameron before Kirk Cameron ever existed. What is surprising to me is that, in the last 8-10 years, it has morphed into an "It's a Wonderful Life" slash "Die Hard" slash "A Christmas Story" Christmas movie. It now gets ranked as one of the top 5 or top 10 all-time great Christmas movies.
Here I was thinking I was making this big summer blockbuster and, thirty years later, I'm like, "Oh crap, I was in 'The Wizard of Oz.'"
"Gremlins" is available for digital purchase now. Find out where to download.