Interview with Gremlins' Joe Dante

The Howling is regularly cited as one of the two best werewolf movies of all time, and it broke fresh ground when it came to effects work. How do you feel about it now?

I like The Howling. The studio was very concerned with the dailies at first; "Is this a horror picture or a comedy?!"; but they left me alone and I got to do it as best I could considering the time and budget.

John Sayles was a tremendous asset. He was also writing Alligator at the time. I'm still convinced one of our dream sequences ended up in their film and vice versa.

How did you come to be involved with Gremlins?

Chris Columbus's script arrived in the mail at my seedy little Hollywood office after a project called Meltdown had, well, melted down at Avco Embassy. I thought it had come to the wrong address, but it turned out Steven Spielberg had seen both Piranha and The Howling, and in fact cast Dee Wallace in the latter on the strength of her performance in The Howling.

While developing Gremlins as the first production for the new Amblin Productions arm, I was asked to join Steven and John Landis on the Twilight Zone movie, along with George Miller. Gremlins at that time was intended to be a low-budget horror film like The Howling, but as the effects budget mounted it became clear it would have to become a studio picture.

It was an extremely challenging picture to do with the extant technology and Warner Bros. didn't really believe in it, or "get it" until they saw the preview. At that time Spielberg had a policy of completely finishing the director's cut, so we didn't run the usual work print but a completed film with Jerry Goldsmith's score. Nobody was prepared for the audience reaction, which was through the roof, or the phenomenon it turned into. Suddenly my picture was in Time Magazine!

Zach Galligan has talked about the level of toil that each of the Gremlins movies must have been for you: are they the hardest films you've done?

The first one was really gruelling because we were inventing the technology as we went along as well as deviating from the script as we discovered new aspects of the Gremlin characters. A small army of puppeteers was living beneath each set, controlling rods and levers and staring into video monitors with the picture flipped as in a mirror. The last three months of shooting was only Gremlins! It really did get maddening after awhile. And as I said, the studio wasn't especially supportive.

By contrast, the technology had advanced so far by the time we did the sequel that it was much easier and a lot more fun, even though we added lots of new Gremlin capabilities.

Were you reluctant to do the second Gremlins film? And was there a distinctive decision to edge it more towards comedy than horror?

I was pretty burned out on Gremlins by the time they asked for a sequel, so I said no thanks. They dickered around with various approaches and writers for five years, then finally came back to me again with an offer I couldn't refuse: total creative freedom as long as they had a sequel in the can by a certain date. I had in mind to do a kind of Hellzapoppin' Gremlins movie as a social satire where anything can happen. I enlisted my friend Charlie Haas, who supplied a smart, witty script that was much hipper than the original, but also deconstructed the whole idea. It was very satisfying.

You've said in the past that the aim with Gremlins 2 was to stop there being a Gremlins 3. Is that right, and if so, how did that shape your approach to the film?

Obviously there was no real need for another Gremlins movie, so I approached the sequel as irreverently as possible - which got me in a bit of trouble: "You can't make fun of the merchandising!"- spoofing the arbitrary "rules" and everything else. I guess I did it right, there's been no Gremlins 3 as yet...but sooner or later there will be, even if it's direct-to-video. The title is too well known not to exploit again.

It's been said in the past that you'd be interested in a Gremlins 3, but that they wouldn't let you do it with puppets again. Is there any truth in that?

No, what I said was that any new Gremlins movie would naturally be CGI, which would make it a far different animal than the originals. Those movies were defined by the limitations of what was possible to do with the puppets. CGI Gremlins would have no limitations, which is why I think they've never been able to get a handle on a story for another one.

InnerSpace, again, is a terrific film. Do you get a feeling during production when things are going well?

I probably had more fun making that than anything I'd done because the combination of script and cast was so perfect. I thought it was going well - until one day I was asked to go to the head office to be told "it just isn't funny". Not very helpful. It was funny to me - but you can't help second-guessing yourself in a situation like that. "Maybe it's just me... maybe it's not funny..." As it happened, it was funny and we had such a smashing preview that the studio decided they hardly needed to sell it at all -- and it tanked at the box office.

And are you generally satisfied with the way that your work turns out?

You always see things you could have done better when you revisit an old film, but for the most part I can say that whatever's right or wrong about them, the fault is mine. That's true up to about ten years ago, when the interference factor ramped up all over Hollywood.

You can read Simon Brew's full interview here.

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