07/30/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
They look like mutant offspring of E.T. and Yoda. Gizmo, for instance, is a lovable little "mogwai," a fur-ball pet, as huggable as he is mysterious. But when Billy, Gizmo's teenage owner, breaks the rules of proper mogwai maintenance (keep him dry and in the dark and starve him after midnight), out pop—literally—Gizmo's bad brethren. These clones are ingenious clowns. They skateboard, break dance, guzzle beer and sing Heigh-Ho along with the Seven Dwarfs while watching Snow White in a theater. But beware: Their mean streaks nearly demolish the town of Kingston Falls. Led by the evil Stripe, the gremlins attack half the town, Billy's dog and even his mom. When mogwais are good, they are very good. But when they are bad, they are bankable.
Gremlins is one film this summer that has managed to outgross Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—in the gut, if not yet at the box office. But it is tracking toward the $100 million zone and inching up on Indy financially too. For executive producer Steven Spielberg it is a ghoulish match for the Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel he directed. Sure there are no slimy baby eels, chilled monkey brains or heart-ripping rites, but Gremlins' title characters meet a far grizzlier fate than Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw. One gets his scaly head and torso pureed in a blender. Another gets decapitated by a sword. Another implodes into microwaved mush. "People go berserk," squeals director Joe Dante. "It's everybody's favorite scene."
For Dante, 36, whose previous credits include the killer-fish story Piranha and the werewolf hit The Howling, this creature feature represents a move from B movies to the A list. Given the technical intricacies and the job of getting just the right mix of heart-stopping and heartwarming, Gremlins could suitably be retitled Joe Dante's Inferno. Spielberg, Dante and producer Mike Finnell put screenwriter Chris Columbus, 25, through a sort of nine-circles-of-Hollywood hell—nine rewrites to soften his more gruesome and bloody original, which Spielberg discovered while seeking writers for Indiana Jones. Spielberg helped "tone" the rewrites, made the film "presentable" and got "reinvolved" in editing, but he insists Gremlins is all Dante's. "I was never tempted to direct this one. I picked Joe because I was a big fan of Piranha and The Howling and because he is an inimitable master of the black-comic touch who can mix the scary with the comedic." The pair had a common past, however: Dante directed one episode of Twilight Zone—The Movie, which Spielberg co-produced. According to Dante, "Steven told me he really picked me because Piranha was his favorite rip-off of Jaws."
The Boss, whose Indiana Jones has come under heavy fire for its graphic violence, says, "I don't think Gremlins now has any horrific images whatsoever. It's more of a fun fest than fear test. These aren't maniacal killers, they're party characters."
Compared with the hellions of Columbus' original, Spielberg is probably right. In the first draft Gizmo, the Christmas-gift pet of Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) mutated and, with his cronies, ate the family dog and wiped out the Peltzers. The mother's head went bouncing down the stairs. "That stuff," says Dante, "went immediately."
Spielberg says he cut "seven or eight scenes" and "begged Joe, Mike and Chris to let Gizmo stay pure of heart throughout, to remain a cute little fuzzy mogwai, so we would have someone to root for, a hero."
Gremlins does offer a balanced dose of the D.T.'s and E.T, but if there are heroes they are the sardonic duo of Dante and special-effects wizard Chris Walas, 31, whose previous credits were, he says, "Dragonslayer, the melting Nazis in Raiders and the exploding heads in Scanners." As young movie buffs in Parsippany, N.J., Dante and Walas frequented the same theaters and attended the same high school (six years apart) but didn't know each other. Like Dante, Walas also piled up credits he'd just as soon forget (Caveman, Up From the Depths). The pair met when they worked on Piranha in 1977. But Walas' effects for the dagger-teethed fish were just a warm-up for the violence-prone gremlins.
Gremlins' first design problem was easily solved when Walas matched Gizmo's fur to the coats of Spielberg's two beloved King Charles spaniels, Chauncey and Halloween. But otherwise Giz proved a challenge for Walas, who had to pack a featherweight control box inside the tiny fuzz ball, with wires stretching 10 or 12 feet. For expressive close-ups, he used a Gizmo head three times larger than that used in long shots. "More space, more movements, it's that simple," says Walas, who has a thriving special-effects business in San Rafael, Calif.
Stripe and his cohorts were architecturally more complex: They required machine parts, foam-latex skins, elastomer or urethane undersells. "The heads and faces," says Walas, "were mainly interchangeable. We had to create a library of spare parts."
Many of the images, gags and ideas in the second half of the movie were improvised. "We'd do a lot of story-boarding, get on the set and throw it all away," says Dante. "We had to tailor events of the story around what we thought the gremlins could do." Walas jokes, "We found that they could not do calculus."
The blender bit, Dante says, was conceived on the spot. So was the microwave blowout. Says Walas: "We just said, 'Let's blow one of 'em up.' " The components for the catastrophe consisted of a red light, a microwave shell and a gremlin head that was hooked up to a high-compression air cannon. Bullet tips were rigged in the glass of the microwave door so that at the proper moment, everything exploded.
The shot of Gizmo strung up helplessly as off-camera gremlins hurl darts at him was, Dante says, "a completely made-up shot, which we snuck in while Mike Finnell was off having little coronaries because we were slightly behind schedule." Later Walas had to race to his cluttered trailer workshop when Dante asked him, "Can gremlins skateboard?"
Dante's toughest job may have been framing shots to hide the forest of cables and dozens of technicians. In one scene Stripe required 64 controls. For the movie-theater scene, the seats were all gutted and the technicians, up to eight per creature, were forced to squeeze underneath what remained to make the gremlins behave like Muppets run amok. One problem for that sequence was finding enough humans to man the controls. Even producer Finnell took on two gremlins.
There was, of course, downtime. During one of the most complex sequences, more than a dozen gremlins trap waitress Phoebe Cates inside the tavern. Beer and junk food got into the gremlins, facial expressions dropped off and parts broke. "There'd be crew members asleep, dead tired on the floor in the heat, waiting for glue to dry," says Dante. "God forbid an executive would walk in at that moment and scream, 'What are you doing in here?' " Says Walas: "The only way this picture was finished was Super Glue."
As sweethearts saving the town from gremlin Armageddon, Zach Galligan and Cates found the beasts disconcerting. Phoebe, says Dante, told him, "I don't wanna see 'em, go near 'em, have anything to do with 'em." It was, indeed, a long way from her Lace miniseries to latex monsters. "I'm the worst scaredy-cat in the world," says Cates. "I kept telling myself the second I got too scared I could walk away."
When Galligan held Giz, the wires ran up his sleeves, through holes in his shirt, down his body and out holes in his socks. The cables didn't really rub him the wrong way, but the commotion was distracting. "There were guys with headsets and joysticks whispering commands, video cameras all on Giz, and I'd have to keep him in perfect position, hit my marks, get my lines right. I had these cables running up and down my arms and legs and I had to stay in my key light. It was like ridiculous."
Spielberg's arrival on the set, during a hiatus from Indiana Jones galvanized everyone. "It was amazing," says Zach. "Technicians you hadn't seen for weeks magically appeared the minute Steven walked on. Suddenly it's like, 'Zach, is your makeup okay? Hair all right?' It was like an aura, an energy he creates. I felt it. He left and there was like a hangover for an hour."
Before Spielberg departed he got himself a walk-on, actually a roll-on in a motorized wheelchair equipped with a mini-TV and Old Glory. He appears onscreen for 10 seconds at an inventor's convention attended by Zach's screen dad, Hoyt Axton. Says Spielberg: "Joe called me and said, 'Get down here and do this part.' " Dante's version is slightly different. "Steven just suddenly decided he wanted a cameo. We were bleary-eyed and totally burned-out by then. Steven incurred the everlasting enmity of everyone by coming down and saying, 'Boy this looks like great fun, I wanna be in this picture.' "
Even more fun than his cameo in a leg cast is the over $237 million so far generated by his two summer blockbusters. Clearly Spielberg is delighted. "Dante and Finnell were on schedule, under budget and made an $11 million film that should have cost $25 million. They performed a miracle." As for criticisms of his films' graphic nastiness, Spielberg says it will have "no effect at all on how I make my movies. I'll make them using my best judgment and being as responsible as I possibly can be."
Dante says critics have jumped on Spielberg because "he has become a target due to the sweetness of E.T. If these pictures didn't have his name on them, there'd be no discussion. Look, I saw movies as a kid and had nightmares, thinking crickets outside my house were giant ants. But I didn't ax-murder anybody."
As for Cates she believes grown-ups worry too much about children. "Kids are underestimated," she says. "They walk out of theaters saying, 'Dad, I know it's only a movie.' And it's the parents who pee in their pants."
Ironically Cates' big scare on the set was caused by another kind of creature. "During Phoebe's bar scene," recalls Dante, "she was surrounded by gremlins. They're throwing things at her, and she suddenly shrieks, 'Aaaaaaayyy.' I said, 'Wow, now that was a great scream.' I wondered what happened. By this time the puppeteers had gotten into the personalities of the gremlins they operated, so the gremlins look around at each other, making faces like 'It wasn't me. I didn't touch her, I didn't do it.' I asked Phoebe what happened. 'Look in there,' she says, pointing down. 'That's the biggest cockroach I have ever seen.' Just goes to show," Dante says. "Life is indeed far more terrifying than art."
Flo finds gremlins even messier than Mel's Diner
Playing Mrs. Deagle, described in the script as "the meanest woman in town," Polly Holliday knew she was going against the Flo of her TV-sitcom image. Holliday blends the Wicked Witch, Scrooge and, she says, "this rich and crabby woman from my hometown of Childersberg, Ala."
Until Gremlins, Holliday's major mark in the movies had been made serving as one of Dustin Hoffman's role models for the Dorothy Michaels character in Tootsie. The Mrs. Deagle role was the most physical she had ever done. Billy Peltzer's dog, "trained to seem ferocious," she says, "tore at an arm padded with foam, and I had to fall backward." Holliday spent a full day carrying a large, unwieldy snowman's head into the bank where Billy worked "There wasn't really any snow, that's for sure," says Polly, 47. "It was more like 90 degrees in Burbank, and I was sweltering under the makeup and heavy coat."
As for her debut in high-tech scare flicks, she says, "Those creatures'll give ya pause." When the gremlins sing carols outside her home, they proceed to invade it and shift her motorized invalid chair into overdrive, up and around a spiral staircase. "They were awfully uuuugly, weren't they?" she drawls.
Holliday is no dummy, but one took her place when the chair was catapulted from the top-floor window into the snow. "They built the most awful contraption you ever saw to push that chair out," she says. But before she left the set that day, she gave the director explicit instructions. "I told Joe I had Mrs. Deagle wear these little red booties, just like the Wicked Witch of the East when she gets crushed under the house in Oz. So I said, 'Joe, you make sure when I land head first in the snow that my little feet and red booties stick up, real stiff.' " Holliday might be similarly inflexible about letting kids see Gremlins. "If I were a parent," she says, "I'd see it first before deciding. It's pretty grisly, isn't it."
A prime-time M.D. lends Gizmo vocal support
Even with all the wires, cables, pulleys switches, microchips and latex, Joe Dante had to employ human beings to make gremlins speak. The man with the Golden Giz-zard came from where else but St. Elsewhere. Comedian Howie Mandel, 28, who plays the sardonic Dr. Wayne Fiscus on the hit TV sick-com, beat out "hundreds," he boasts, for the job of giving Gizmo a voice. He meticulously dubbed the little mogwai's gobbledygook during three 12-hour marathon sessions in a 24-track L.A. studio, synchronizing his sounds with the fur ball's moves and moods. He signed an oath of secrecy for the project and never even explained his hoarseness when coming home to wife Terry at day's end.
Mandel, whose stand-up act takes him from Vegas to Jersey, recalls going to audition. "I shared an elevator with a woman who apparently had an appointment with a gynecologist whose office was on the same floor as the sound people for Gremlins. The door opened, and we both heard these awful shrieks and yells from down the hall. I got out and she stayed in. Then I imagine she went down again and found herself another gynecologist."
For Gizmo, Mandel's voice is barely tricked up electronically, though in parts it was 10 percent accelerated. He had to master nearly indiscernible Giz-speak: "glub-glub" (water), "neat-neat" (fun), "woof-woof" (dog), "yum-yum" (food), "light-bright" (reminders to keep lights off) and, of course, "caca-mogwai" (references to his bad-gremlin clones).
Mandel was recommended for the job by his friend Frank Welker, a voice-effects wizard who did most of Gremlins' slurping and screeching. Welker was familiar with Mandel's trick voice—a blend of Donald Duck and a Heimlich emergency squeal. "It started when I was at a birthday party, at age 11," says Mandel, "and I began to choke on some cake. This weird voice came out instead, and it seemed, as I was gagging, to entertain all the kids."
Mandel expects Giz-ese to be integrated into his largely improvisational stand-up routine. "Now my friends all ask me to do Giz," he says. "Then they ask me how I got into that little suit." At least they haven't asked him to stay out of their pools.
As rough as it was coping with 25 rejections of a pet project, inspired only by scampering mice in his Manhattan loft, Chris Columbus did not need one more patronizing film tycoon on the phone. The guy was laying it on pretty thick: He was impressed with Chris' student film, liked his writing, sympathized with him over Hollywood's baffling indifference. This was, however, no ordinary mogul, but a man empowered to banish Columbus forever from typing's temple of gloom.
" 'Gee,' " Steven Spielberg recalls saying, " 'I'll buy the script,' and so I kind of paid for it right there on the spot. I don't remember now how much. Not a lot of money." Money talks in Hollywood, but discipleship under Swami Spielberg is, says Chris, "the ultimate screenwriter's dream come true."
Spielberg's L.A. office has full-time staffers who do nothing but return—unopened—all unsolicited material (though one story pitch arrived, he says, shrewdly disguised as a singing telegram). But Spielberg himself periodically checks out student films "looking for the next Larry Kasdan or Bob Zemeckis. You never know." Columbus' I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here, a 22-minute, coming-of-age opus for NYU's film school, caught the master's eye. "Chris has the capacity to relive and relive his childhood. It's the Peter Pan syndrome, an allergy I share," says Spielberg.
Columbus, the only child of two Warren, Ohio factory workers, has awakened from the dream far from groggy. He has finished Young Sherlock Holmes for Paramount, is rapping out a second project for Spielberg and is "itching to direct"—an urge that intensified after he wept from frustration at a screening of Reckless, his first feature, which became too collaborative.
Though Columbus and his wife, dancer Monica Devereux, have moved to a new apartment, "she and my film school buddies have been great at keeping me down to earth," says Chris. Nothing, though, could diminish his exhilaration when he watched a packed house go berserk as Billy Peltzer's mom went after gremlins in her kitchen with carving knives. Says Chris, "I just said to myself, 'This is why you make movies.' "
Undergrad Zach Galligan got an instant education making the movie
"Guess who got the male lead in Steven Spielberg's new film?" Zach Galligan's mom asked her son on the phone on March 14, 1983. The Columbia University student was down in Fort Lauderdale cavorting with the spring-break gremlins, and he was stumped. He had auditioned for a film with Phoebe Cates, but that was set in a small all-American town at Christmas. Indiana, possibly, but no Jones. "Well," said Mrs. Galligan proudly, "you are."
"No," he said. "You're mixed up. I tried out for a Joe Dante film."
"Uh-uh," she insisted. "Steven Spielberg is the producer, and he just had a long talk with your agent and you got the part."
Zach floated into a local hangout and spotted his friends. "Okay, guys," he said, "guess who got the male lead in the new Spielberg movie?"
"Matthew Broderick?" guessed one.
"No way. You're looking at him."
Before the champagne there was stunned silence until one friend whispered to another, "The guy's stoned, man, he's definitely on something." Sure enough, Zach hustled through spring semester three weeks early and was soon on something, all right—location—in the Peltzers' homespun answer to Animal House.
At Columbia, Galligan, 20, whose main previous credit had been the role of Argentine journalist Jacobo Timer-man's son in the NBC-TV movie Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, had tried to be a small man on campus. He never went public about being in the business and quietly studied film theory with cinema professor-critic Andrew Sarris. "He's incredible," Zach cracks. "Don't ever play the Silver Screen edition of Trivial Pursuit with him. He'll ace you."
But can Sarris boast SAT scores of 650 in English and 720 in math and a role in Pippin while attending Collegiate School in Manhattan? It was there that show business corralled Galligan. "Every year casting agent Juliet Taylor comes by to round up five or six drama-clubby types and audition them," he says. "I happened to be cruising the halls, without a pass, and wound up in the lunchroom with drama-club pals at the fated moment."
He went up for Taps and landed an agent but no part. He subsequently squeezed in a first film role in Nothing Lasts Forever, which will be released this fall, and followed that with Prisoner, an ABC-TV After-School Special, then Gremlins—all in his first two years at Columbia, where he'll be a junior in January. Galligan's parents are divorced. His mother, Carol, is a clinical psychologist and his father, Arthur, is an antitrust attorney. Zach lives in his mother's West Side apartment but is looking for his own place. He calls himself a "massive reader," goes on "moviemania binges" and admits that "just for fun, I may check out lines for Gremlins." Galligan still has more wit than ego, but he has already mastered celebrity crypto-speak. "It is happening at this very moment," he says about a love interest offscreen. "That's as specific as I get. It's a she. I will say that. And she is a student somewhere in these continental United States. She is not in the film biz. She's normal."
For Phoebe Cates, life after Gremlins isn't ghastly at all
Scaredy-cat Cates found a way of dealing with the gremlins, "by believing they were real. If you don't believe that they're really there, if you don't have a true rapport with them, the audience won't believe it," she says. Since the film she's worked hard to make believers of her post-Gremlins nemeses, theater critics. Phoebe has just completed a seven-week off-Broadway run in The Nest of the Wood Grouse. The biting satire of contemporary Moscow was a sellout success, but Cates' two scenes as a seductive student having an affair with an ambitious and married ministry official provoked some critics to outstrip Stripe for general unfriendliness. "I'm not one to go out and get the reviews," she says, "but they're hard to avoid. What saved me emotionally—why the bad ones did not affect me that much—was that there were a couple of really nice reviews that made it worth it. Doing a play was great, incredible. You can play your character differently every night. You have more control. No one can stop you in the middle and yell, 'Cut.' "
Phoebe, the New York-bred daughter of television producer Joseph Cates, jumped at 17 from modeling to her first film, Paradise, and immediately had to Brooke much abuse for the shameless rip-off of The Blue Lagoon. "Paradise was the skeleton in my closet," she admits, though her own frame, extensively revealed, hardly seemed skeletal. "I wasn't thinking 'career' then. I have nothing against nudity, though it's a drag for an actress. But it shouldn't be gratuitous. I definitely wanted the film then. I didn't know if I'd ever work again."
She is proudest of her role as a worldly student in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High and sees her mini-series opus Lace as a craft-stretching kick. "It was one of the most fun times I ever had making a movie. I had been scratching the surface before, and for Lace I took all kinds of risks as an actress. It's just that some of the risks, like working with an accent, didn't work."
TV does pay well, though. Phoebe claims her highest salary for three days' work was for a beer commercial in Japan. That helped offset the pay cut she took to hone her skills in theater, and it also helped her buy a new two-bedroom condo near Manhattan's Lincoln Center. Phoebe, 20, spends most of her time with boyfriend Billy Branigan, 26, an aspiring composer-rocker and younger brother of Laura Branigan. They met a year ago at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York.
She spends her time in New York studying acting, taking dance classes (she once planned on being a dancer, until a knee injury put it beyond her reach) and hanging out with friends such as Zach Galligan. When she goes to L.A. she stays in her father's Westwood apartment. "It's nicer than a hotel for long periods of time," she says, though Billy betrays a touch of road fever. "I love hotels," he says. "They make your bed. You can throw toast all over the room."
It's when the room-service carts, trays and food start moving on their own that Phoebe freaks out. The Exorcist remains her No. 1 scare flick, and she does a wonderful Linda Blair imitation, bugging her eyes, pulling her hair out, hoarsely moaning, "Reaaayyyy-gan, ouahhhhhhh." Says Billy, "All I have to do is start that sound, and she screams." Adds Phoebe, "My cousin did it great. I carried a Polaroid with me of her doing it. Now that movie caused nightmares. I think if I ever met Linda Blair, I'd die. I swear I'd just die."
Still, even a scaredy-cat like Cates can sleep with the lights out after her close encounters with Gremlins. "I was surprised how much fun the film was," she says. "I found myself shrieking and hysterically laughing. It was like a cartoon."