Feature artwork by Cody Schibi (Purchase Prints + More).
Few movies are written with a sequel in mind. That is, of course, if you have a franchise planned, in which case you’re being both ambitious and presumptuous. Even rarer is a movie that demands a sequel. Sure, there are a few rare gems that manage to further the storyline, or at least retain some of the magical elements that made their predecessor work so well. But, more often than not, sequels just feel like a retread and another sign that Hollywood is running out of ideas.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch is an exception to that rule.
In 1989, director Joe Dante was given complete creative control by Warner Bros. to followup 1984’s Gremlins — and he milked that control for everything it was worth. There’s breaking the fourth wall in an on-screen movie theater, WB cartoons, Leonard Maltin reviewing the first Gremlins before the titular critters kill him, Gizmo as Rambo, new characters that bear a striking resemblance to both Donald Trump or Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, and a complete disregard of the three cardinal rules that everybody knows about Gremlins: Don’t get them wet, don’t bring them near bright lights, and don’t feed them after midnight. It’s a sequel that thrives from knowing it has absolutely no reason to exist.
Not surprisingly, that inside joke didn’t go over too well with critics, fans, and moviegoers in the summer of 1990. Gremlins 2: The New Batch didn’t make back its $50 million dollar budget, and was more or less deemed a box office bomb. However, thanks to home video and countless reappraisals, Dante’s wild and zany sequel has carved out its own cult following. In fact, some critics consider it even better than the original, if only for the fact that it’s something of an anomaly by today’s Hollywood standards. After all, no studio in their right mind would ever give the green light on a risky sequel like this anymore, which is a tragic thought when you consider the film’s brazen imagination.
In short, what Joe Dante set out to do in 1990 certainly worked — and better yet, the film only gets better with age. So, to celebrate its 30th anniversary, we’ve compiled an oral history of potentially one of the craziest sequels that ever existed. Returning to Clamp Center is director Joe Dante, writer Charlie Haas, producer Mike Finnell, and actors Zach Galligan and Robert Picardo.
Dim the (bright) lights!
In Hollywood, if there’s money to be made…
JOE DANTE (DIRECTOR): The studio actually approached me to do a sequel [to Gremlins] about one weekend after the first picture opened. They were not expecting anything, really, from Gremlins. It was sort of a back burner project for them. And they were amazed, as was I, that it was so successful and how it kept getting more successful every weekend and it made more money. And, of course, as always, the cash register rings in their eyes and they say, “Well, we’ve got to have another one of these.”
MIKE FINNELL (PRODUCER): Almost immediately after the first one, Warner Brothers wanted to do a sequel. And Joe and I worked with a series of writers trying to come up with something, and nothing clicked. And this went on for a while and we finally just kind of gave up. Just nothing was working.
DANTE: And frankly, it was pretty harrowing to make. We had to make up the technology as we were going along, we didn’t get much support from the studio, and it wasn’t a very big budget. And it was exhausting, frankly. So as gratified as I was when it was successful, I really couldn’t chase the idea of spending another half a year or a year with puppets. I just didn’t have it in me. So I said, “Thanks but no thanks.”
They kept working for, as it turned out, several years trying to come up with a sequel for a movie that they really didn’t understand in the first place. So, it became very difficult for them to duplicate it since they didn’t understand why it was successful at all. So, they spent a lot of money and hired a lot of writers and came up with a whole lot of concepts, none of which satisfied them, and, frankly, none of which were very good.
Because the real naked truth was that this movie didn’t really need a sequel. It wasn’t created with the idea of a sequel in mind. And the only reason to do a sequel, as we know, is because the first one was successful they think they could make more money with a second movie.
FINNELL: Then a couple of years went by, and our offices were on the Warner Brothers lot. And Joe was just gonna go to the commissary and he ran into Terry Semel, who was then the head of the studio. And Terry said, “Look, we need Gremlins 2. We have to have Gremlins 2. You could do anything you want. I don’t care about the script. I don’t care about the story. It just has to be called Gremlins 2 and have Gremlins in it. Anything else is your call.”
DANTE: They said, “We really, really want a sequel to Gremlins. We want it for this summer. And if you’ll do it, we’ll let you do whatever you want. As long as it has Gremlins in it, you can do it.” And that’s not an offer that you very often get. I’ve certainly never had it before or since. And enough times had passed that the technology had improved. So, the possibilities were expanded from what was possible to do with the first film — and so Mike Finnell and I agreed to go ahead and develop a sequel.
With Joe Dante and Mike Finnell on board for a sequel, they began looking for a writer. Chris Columbus, who had written the first Gremlins, was now a director in his own right. So, the search was on…
FINNELL: So we said, “Okay, now who can we get to write this?” And then Jonathan Kaplan, who was a director and a friend of Joe’s and mine from the old Roger Corman days at New World pictures, he called me and said, “Look, there’s this guy, this writer Charlie Haas. He’s really terrific. He’s very terrific and very imaginative. You should talk to him.”
CHARLIE HAAS (SCREENWRITER): The first movie that I worked on, which Tim Hunter and I wrote, was called Over the Edge and was directed by Jonathan Kaplan. And Jonathan’s a wonderful director and a very nice guy. And he and Joe Dante and Mike Finnell, along with a bunch of other guys, knew one another in L.A. because of having worked for Roger Corman and New World Pictures. So, through Jonathan and Tim, I slightly knew Joe and Mike and some of these other ex-Corman people.
Joe ran into Jonathan at a screening somewhere and said that he was trying to find someone to work on the script for the Gremlins sequel. I think that they had been through a bunch of writers and scripts and approaches before that. And Jonathan had suggested me, and Joe said, “Oh good. Why don’t you call him?”
So, Jonathan called me up, and, for me, this is just sort of out of the blue. The phone rang one day and Jonathan said, “How would you like to write Gremlins 2?” And I just started laughing. I thought, What a great, crazy thing to get mixed up in. So I said, “Yeah, sure. That sounds like fun.”
DANTE: We hired Charlie Haas and we tried to overcome the fact that there really was no reason to have a sequel to this movie. So our approach was to basically take the advice of the studio and literally do whatever we wanted.
FINNELL: I think maybe even before we met him, we may have spoken to him and told him, “Look, we want to raise the stakes. We don’t want it to be set in Kingston Falls in this small town. We want it to go beyond that and do something bigger and more out there.”
DANTE: We wanted to take it away from the small town in the first film, which was very idealized and intentionally made to look like an old movie, and take it into the modern era and set it in a big city.
HAAS: I got a call a few days later from Mike Finnell, and he called up and said, “Well, if you have any ideas, we’re looking for someone to do this.” And the sort of basic guidelines he gave me were, “We want to get them out of the small town and get them into a big city. But the problem is, if you get them into New York or somewhere, you’re trying to close down streets and shoot stuff with these puppets running around that, in fact, are very complicated to shoot. It’s going to be a fortune. It’s going to be a nightmare. So, you want them in the big city, but you want the environment to be contained in some way.” And the other guideline was that we wanted to see some variations on the monster. We wanted to see some monsters that we didn’t see last time. And I said, “Okay, let me see what I can come up with.”
FINNELL: We knew that, in New York, we couldn’t have them riding on subways and running around in the streets and everything, because in those days — of course, this was before CGI — everything still had to be done with puppets and it was just impractical. So, even though we wanted to set it in New York, we needed to keep it in a somewhat controlled space. So, that’s when he came up with the idea of this smart building with all the latest technology.
HAAS: The idea that came to me in response to that criteria was to do it in the smart office building so that you could have a lot of stuff go wrong and make fun of that technology. Which was sort of a buzz word at the time: The smart building and the smart everything else. And I remember going to a presentation, I think over in Alameda, by a company that outfitted smart buildings. And they showed me a bunch of the stuff and I thought it was potentially very funny.
DANTE: We worked in my back room for quite a while, putting everything on cards and coming up with gags and ideas and things that we thought would be different from the first picture or expand on things that were in the first picture.
When it came to the script, all the rules went out the window…
DANTE: I learned from watching the preview of Gremlins that audiences want to like the movie. They went to the trouble to come and see your movie, and you have to make obvious mistakes at the beginning of the movie to lose them. And if you give them these rules, they’ll buy it. They’ll buy it and say to you, “Okay. Well, if you’re going to stick to these rules and not cheat, we’ll go along with you.” And so the rules became the whole reason for the picture. And so we felt, “We’ve got to make fun of those,” because they were so arbitrary.
FINNELL: Joe really wanted to make fun of everything in the first movie, like the rules, for example. The eating after midnight. And the scene where the technicians in the control room of the building are making fun, “Well, what happens if you’re in a plane and you cross the international line?” “And what happens if you have a little something stuck in your teeth and that comes out after midnight? Does that count as eating after midnight?” Just completely making fun of the whole thing. That was definitely something that Joe wanted to do.
DANTE: One of my favorite movies is Hellzapoppin, which is a movie where they break the fourth wall constantly. And I was also a big fan of Warner Brothers cartoons, which do the same thing. And I thought if I could get that kind of sensibility into this movie, and have the Gremlins seem like they’re taking over the movie, maybe even taking over the movie theater that you’re watching it in, then it would have a sort of interactive quality that I thought would be interesting.
HAAS: Joe said, “I want to do a fourth wall gag, and we can’t do one the way William Castle used to do it because he opened movies in so few theaters at a time that he could actually go and put motors in the seats and stuff like that. But we’re opening in,” however many theaters it was, “so it really all has to be on the screen. It can’t be anything in the physical theater.” So then you get the idea of pretending you’re seeing stuff in the theater by going out into the lobby and Paul Bartel is running and all that stuff, which I think worked nicely.
DANTE: My original idea, which the studio didn’t go for, was that I thought if the audience thinks the Gremlins are up in the projectors then they’ll turn around and look in the projection booth. And then I thought if you had cardboard cutout Gremlins on springs that you could put up in the window, then they could turn and they would see Gremlins in their projection booth. I thought that was a great idea but the studio just didn’t want to bother. [Laughs.]
HAAS: Joe always said “You plot it as a drama and you write it as a comedy.” And we certainly tried to do that. But boy, I had no idea at first that he would want to go that broad. It made me really happy because I felt like I could offer something for that.
FINNELL: It was extremely rare [to have that control]. It hasn’t happened before or since. [Laughs.]
HAAS: It took a while for [the film] to take as radical a turn in that direction as it did. And it was because, once you start saying Donald Trump and the cable thing and all this stuff, you realize that there’s just this appetite there on Joe’s part to really go in a crazy comedy Olsen and Johnson, Harvey Kurtzman, MAD Magazine, all those kind of fourth-wall [breaking]. Just really broad.
And my favorite memory about all that is I came down at one point and I said, “Boy, you know, I’m writing the Clamp character and it’s really turning out pretty broad.” And Joe turns to me and says [excitedly], “How broad?!? You think we can get Danny Kaye??” And I think that was really the moment where the penny kind of dropped and I thought, Oh, I see what we’re doing here.
DANTE: Basically, we just let it take us where it was going. We kept the two leads, Billy and Kate, and we decided to create another cast of characters, since we were in a different book now. And we sort of upped the ante with our Gremlins. One of our big problems was, of course, the problem of famous. The original movie was marketed with a campaign where you never got to see the Gremlins, unless you went to see the movie. And we were working with a handicap now where everybody’s familiar with the Gremlins. “We all know knew what they looked like. Where’s the surprise?” So to deal with that, since original Gremlins designer Chris Walas had gone onto become a movie director and wasn’t available, we turned to Rick Baker and asked him.
FINNELL: And at first he didn’t want to do it because he didn’t want to just repeat what Chris [had done]. He knew that the designs had to be basically the same and that wasn’t very interesting to repeat what Chris had done. So, we came up with the idea of this genetics lab in the building where the Gremlins get into the DNA that they’re experimenting with and become all these alternate different kinds of Gremlins. And so then he started to get interested.
DANTE: Rick had a lot of input as to what Gremlins were added to the story.
HAAS: It was very very hard to do the last act. That was a real challenge. That was tough. I remember I gave them the rough draft of approximately the first two acts, and they said, “Oh this is great. You’re doing the right thing. Wonderful!” And I came back with the draft of the third act and Mike said, “You know, the problem you’re having here, which is the problem with the third act on something like this, is you just start to pile up more and more stuff. It’s kind of like we’ll have this or that gag where things go wrong. But there’s no story in that.”
When the three of us figured out that we wanted to pull everything together in the lobby of the smart building and get rid of the monsters in the way that we did, we sort of worked backwards from that. We came up with things like the “New York, New York” number because they’re all in place and we had the catastrophe going and all those things.
DANTE: We came up with what we came up with, and we went to Warner Brothers, and they said “Fine”. Although I think it would’ve had to be considerably even more bizarre for them to say no because they really wanted this movie. And they left us alone and let us make the movie.
ZACH GALLIGAN (“BILLY”): The strange thing with Gremlins 2 is that I was kind of blindsided by it. I really didn’t hear anything substantial about it until Mike Finnell called me in February of 1989, and basically was like, “Would you be up for doing it?” And it was like “Yeah, sure. When?” And they were like “Memorial Day.” And I was like “Wait a second. That’s three months from now.” And he’s like “Pretty much.”
FINNELL: It didn’t come together that quickly. It would’ve been impossible for it to come together very quickly because of the labor involved in creating the Gremlins.
HAAS: I worked on Over the Edge and Tex with Jim Spencer, which were very down-to-earth movies without any effects in them. And I had mostly been doing journalism. I was a magazine writer. And this sort of stuff to me was wonderland. I didn’t know anything about it. And Joe’s a very good storyboard artist and cartoonist. So, I started seeing those drawings and I started seeing the eventual storyboard artist stuff and models that Rick was doing. And we’d go over and see his shop and stuff. And I’m a fan. I was just wowed by all of that.
GALLIGAN: Well, here’s the thing. I try to be extremely honest and present the actor’s viewpoint. Billy Peltzer is not much of a character if you look at all other movies. He’s kind of the pleasant, young man. He’s sort of an every-man, young Jimmy Stewart type thing. He’s likeable, but he’s not much of a challenge to play. He doesn’t have any complexity. Even at 19, I was like, “I wish they’d give me more to do.” That’s actually not true, because he has tons of stuff to do action wise, and he’s the pivotal center of the first movie, but you don’t really learn much about him.
So, I sat down and I read the script. Whereas the main story in the first one is the relationship between Billy and Gizmo, and Billy along with Corey Feldman breaking the three rules rather quickly so we can get the movie going … it became apparent that the second movie is really the story of Gizmo and his adventure. The Billy and Kate story gets pushed to the side. It becomes the B story, and the A story is really Gizmo’s adventure in the building.
I was like, “I better be able to do something cool in this.” So, when I read the electric Gremlin and frying them and stuff like that, I was like, “At least my character has a nice big payoff in the end and gets to be more heroic in the second one. He gets to be more heroic in the second one than he was in the first.”
FINNELL: We also brought Dick Miller back, even though he gets killed in the first movie. But you’re not really sure, so we felt we could cheat that. [Laughs.] And Jackie Joseph who plays his wife.
Of course, a new story brings a new batch of characters…
DANTE: The developer of Clamp Towers, we were also thinking of initially as, “He’s just the bad guy. He’s like Donald Trump.” And he’s even like Ted Turner who was kind of a bad guy because he was colorizing movies at the time. So we thought, “Well it’s a combination of those two guys.” And when John Glover came in — and we saw a lot of other people for the part, and they were fine, and they did the standard interpretation of that character — he was so enthusiastic and so brash and just exuberant that we hired him.
Then, as we started shooting the movie, the character shifted and he became lovable in his boundless, energetic way. And even though he’s essentially the instigator of the bad things that happen, he’s one of the more memorable characters in the picture. And he did a lot of ad-libbing in character — and it was always to the good of the show. He was one of the big surprises of the movie when our villain turned out to be more sympathetic of some of the other characters.
FINNELL: It was fun working with Tony Randall [who voiced the new Brain Gremlin]. That was fun. Because we went to New York, because that’s where he lived. So, we went to New York and recorded him in a studio there. And that had to be done way in advance because Rick had to actually take the tape and program a computer to make the lip movements that matched the dialogue. So, that was a very complex operation. We had to record him way in advance so that Rick had the time to do that.
ROBERT PICARDO (“FORESTER”): Joe Dante is one of those amazing directors that any actor would wish he had in his career because he likes to reuse the same group of actors. He had seen me in a play I did with Jack Lemmon on Broadway where I played his son called Tribute. I had the second lead to Mr. Lemmon, and I played it as an angry, young man, who argued with his father a lot and he feels irresponsible. And Joe saw me in the part, and then brought me in to read for the movie The Howling.
I didn’t quite understand at the time how he could see me play an angry 22-year-old, and then cast me as a werewolf killer, but he saw the connection somehow. And we worked together, and had a great time together on that. And then he continued to cast me. And the very first movie he offered me after The Howling was the first Gremlins. I got a call from my agent — I was rehearsing a play at the time — and he said, “Joe Dante wants you to do a day’s work on this new movie he’s doing.” And I said “What’s the character? What’s the scene?” And my agent said “Well, there is no scene. He’s just going to create something with you.”
And I didn’t understand Joe at the time. I didn’t know that he just likes to reuse the same actors. And I was a young actor who was concerned about not playing an extra in a movie. So, it’s the only time in my very long career where I said no to Joe Dante through my agent. But the next time he came to me and offered me something, which I think was Explorers, and I said yes. And we have probably done a dozen projects together over the years.
Joe has said in interviews that whenever he didn’t know how to cast a role, he would give it to me. It’s almost like he’s his own traveling movie studio. He has a group of actors that are like the contract players in the studio inside his mind, and he just assigns us. When he reads a script, he just thinks of different ones of his group of players. He thinks of us for certain roles. And there’s no greater blessing for an actor than to have a director like that. And the fact that he knows you and sees your talent and says, “I see you in this role,” it just gives you the courage as an actor to do your best work.
You go “If Joe thinks I can do it, I guess I can.” [Laughs] And that frees you to bring your best game to the set.
DANTE: The Robert Prosky character was based on Al Lewis, and people say, “Well, why didn’t you get Al Lewis?” And we said “Because then Al Lewis is going to do Al Lewis and if we get him, it’s not going to be as interesting as if we get a real actor.”
FINNELL: Robert Prosky was also a stage actor. He was a Chicago actor originally. I believe that’s where his career started, doing theater in Chicago.
DANTE: I was supposed to make a movie in Atlanta, and I was touring the Turner Broadcasting Studios basement. Way over in the corner of the basement where TBS was, was this mock horror set in this dungeon. And I recognized it because that was the show that Al Lewis used to run on Saturday mornings and he’d run old movies while he’d host. And I thought, Well, this would be a really good character to put into Gremlins 2 as the guy who is disillusioned because he wanted to be a reporter and he wound up as a horror movie host and now he gets the chance to be a reporter. It was just one of the elements that crept into the picture.
FINNELL: Joe had always wanted to work with Christopher Lee. He was a huge fan, and me too. So we said, “Oh, we’ve got to get Cristopher Lee.” And we did. And that was fantastic. That was great. Having him come over and working with him was a lot of fun.
DANTE: I had never met Chris. He had come in with this pretty distinguished beard that he had grown for some other movie. He read the script and he sort of wanted to play it goofy. He wanted to play it like Jack MacGowran in the Fearless Vampire Killers. And I had to take him down to the set, which was very austere and cold. And I said, “Chris, I really want Christopher Lee. [Laughs.] I don’t want a funny mustached madman. I want a guy who’s very cold.” And he got it right away and, of course, he was wonderful.
FINNELL: Haviland Morris played the Marla character, and she was terrific. She was mainly a New York stage actress, actually. I can’t remember if we met John in New York or LA, but we met Haviland in New York. We always went to New York for every movie, because there are a lot of stage actors, and you’re going to get more professionals.
With a cast in place, filming began May of 1989 in Times Square…
GALLIGAN: The first day we shot was the Friday before Memorial Day in Times Square, blocking off Times Square in every direction. 7th Avenue, Broadway, 42nd Street, 43rd Street, 44th Street. Why they picked that weekend, I have no idea. It couldn’t have been more expensive. But they did and it was nuts. I think the adrenaline rush you got from shooting in Manhattan was unlike anything. You had sawhorses and police and hundreds of people watching from the side of the streets. And we’re doing Steadicam stuff. So, there was a real jolt of energy.
FINNELL: With the New York crew, the New York production assistants have a way of intimidating people to keep people away from the action and control things. It was great. It was fun to shoot. It was like an adrenaline rush, shooting in the middle of Times Square in the middle of the day on a week day. It was nuts. But it was fun to shoot in New York City.
DANTE: You can’t fake New York. You can fake it on the backlot if you don’t have any wide shots. But if you’re in New York, you want to make it look like New York.
FINNELL: Pre-production, like on the first movie, took a while because the Gremlins had to be built, and none of the Gremlins from the first movie could be reused because the rubber deteriorates over time. And also Rick Baker wanted to tweak the designs a little bit. So, it took months for him to design and build everything. Probably five months or something like that.
DANTE: The first one took a long time because we had to shoot with the actors, and then we had to shut down and rebuild all the puppets as they were falling apart in order to shoot all the Gremlins material that didn’t have the actors in it. And so that whole process probably took six months. We had some down time and then during the second half, we did the scene in the bar with Phoebe Cates and brought her back.
In this movie, I think it was a little easier schedule wise because of what we were doing. We weren’t constantly trying some thing that didn’t work, which happened on the first movie all the time. We’d test things and you’d have marionettes and you go look at it, and if it didn’t work, you have to go back and start over. This movie was a lot easier to shoot than the first one, partially because we had already made so many of those mistakes before and the fact that the technology was better,
FINNELL: Because we were going to New York and we wanted to have a lot more Gremlins and this building and all these gags and everything, we knew that it was going to be more expensive, so we budgeted it accordingly. And we knew it was going to take a long time to shoot, so we just scheduled it accordingly. It was a long schedule, but we were able to stay on schedule and keep the costs where they were supposed to be.
GALLIGAN: My recollection was that Gremlins 2 ran very, very smoothly, and it was not a coincidence because they had done it once so they kind of learned from their mistakes. So, it was much more an efficient operation.
DANTE: The new problems are anything that you wanted to do that we didn’t do in the first one — like having them talk and having them walk around and just dealing with all the different kinds of Gremlins. Like the vegetable Gremlin. All those things have to be tested. So, a lot of time was spent before we made the movie, making sure that you’re not having problems on the set that you could’ve figured out before you had all those people standing around.
GALLIGAN: For Gremlins, the script was written in a way that had no awareness for how difficult the technology was going to be. So there’s all of these scenes of me picking Gizmo up and carrying him around the room and holding him and talking to him, in which case I had to be strapped with dozens of cables taped to my body under my clothes so that Gizmo could work while he was in my hands. And that took an unbelievable amount of time and effort and was just a complete disaster. It worked out well, but it was time consuming.
And if you look at Gremlins 2, I don’t believe there’s a single time when Gizmo isn’t in some kind of box or cage. And the reason why they did that is because it is exponentially easier. For example, instead of me carrying him around and being wired under my clothes, I’m carrying him in a red toolbox. You don’t see him in the red toolbox, but I put him down on the bathroom counter and I lift up the lid and hey, you can now wire him through the bathroom counter. You cut a hole into the bottom of the thing and then stick Gizmo into the tool box and then you have all the wiring hidden by the bathroom counter and none of it is on me.
DANTE: If we had just started to make Gremlins 2 on its own, without a first picture, we’d probably still be shooting it. [Laughs.]
GALLIGAN: We started shooting and I’m in practically every scene for the first six or seven weeks. Then I’d have seven weeks off in the middle, and then like six weeks more at the end. So, here I am, doing Gremlins 2 and I’m all in it. I’m like, “Gremlins 2. Let’s do it.” I’m working 14-hour days, and then all of a sudden, I’m off. And it’s the summer of 1989 in June and almost all of July. I go out, I don’t have to work anymore. I’ve got six weeks off. They’re like, “Hang around if you will. We’ll give you a go ahead if you want to leave.” And I was like, “Can I leave? I’d really like to go visit my family in New York?” And they’re like “Yeah, sure. There’s no way we’ll use you for the next two weeks. But make sure you’re back in two weeks.”
So, I go to the Hamptons and I’m laying out in the sun, and then I peel and then I can get white again. Seven weeks is a long time, and I come back and everybody has still been working nonstop on this movie. And I’ve had this seven-week vacation. So, I walk in and I’m like Nixon in 1968. I’m tan, rested, and ready. And I walk in the door and I’m like, “Hey, everybody. How’s it going?” And everybody looks at me like they wanted to kill me. Because they’ve all been working 14-hour days for the past seven weeks and I’ve had this unbelievable summer vacation. They’re like, “Fine. What do you want?” And I’m like, “Woah!” They’re 13-14 weeks into shooting and they’re tired and starting to get stressed.
FINNELL: That’s what we did with the first movie. And so we did the same thing here. For the principal photography, it was anything involving actors and then we’d go to a much smaller crew with no sound. You don’t need sound. You don’t need wardrobe. Well, you need some wardrobe because the Gremlins wore some clothes. [Laughs.] But when there’s only Gremlins in the frame and no people, we broke all that stuff out and shot that, which is what we did in the first movie.
After conquering New York, it was time to Clamp down in Los Angeles…
HAAS: I was in LA for some other business at the time, and I went over to visit, and I could just see that it was the most excruciating, boring, painstakingly difficult stuff you could do. I just thought, Thank God that I’m not spending these days on the set and it’s them and not me because boy does that look hard. [Laughs.]
GALLIGAN: The first time we were shooting [in the Clamp Center], you’d come in at the typical call time, 7:30 in the morning. You get in hair and makeup straight away. So, you get to set and the second AD comes and says, “Hey Zach, they’re ready for you for blocking rehearsals for you and Phoebe.” So we do the shot of Phoebe and I walking through the revolving door, and the guy gets caught in the revolving door and you watch him fly around and his briefcase goes everywhere. And we walk through the thing and I give her a kiss and she goes off to work. So, we do the blocking rehearsal which takes 15 minutes, and now it’s 8:15.
And Joe Dante goes, “Okay, [cinematographer John] Hora. Come here for a second. So uh, take a look and how long do you think it’s gonna take to light this?” And John Hora is a very meticulous DP that takes a long time to light things. And this is just a gigantic set and I think to myself ,Uh oh. And John Hora looks around and he goes “Huh. Uh huh.” Then he turns around and he does another 90 degrees and he goes, “Mhm.” And then he turns around another 90 degrees and goes, “Uh huh. Uh…” “Come on, John. Just give me your best guesstimate.” “Uh. 15 hours.” And he’s like, “Okay, that’s it for today!”
So, I went home at 8:15, and I got called the next day at like 9:30, and they were just finishing lighting the entire thing. And, of course, once it was lit, it was lit for the next couple of weeks.
FINNELL: Jim Spencer, our production designer who had done the first movie and then had also done Innerspace for us and The Burbs, he designed it. Well, first he went to New York and found the exterior of this building, and we decided that was it because it was this very new, modern, sweet, black, forbidding building. I can’t remember exactly where it was, but it was in Midtown. And so we made a deal with the owner of that building to shoot outside it. I think it was only a day or two that we had to shoot the exteriors.
But once we had the exterior, he was then able to design the interior to match the revolving door and everything, and then go in and do whatever he wanted in the lobby. And then we made deals with companies to have various retail shops inside the lobby. And then that was it. It was really a terrific job that he did. Everything had to be designed. It was all sets. There were no practical locations, obviously. So, he just designed the whole thing.
GALLIGAN: Some filmmakers like to have the set completely lit and dressed so that the camera could go anywhere. They were like, “I want the stores stocked.” You would get in the elevator and it would work and take you up to the second floor. I remember walking into some store that sold plushies or Beanie Babies or something like that, and you could walk in and they would have a working cash register and the store was stocked like a real store.
DANTE: It was one of the biggest sets that they ever built at Warner Brothers. It was a double-layered mall, and they had a U-HAUL on the second floor, which I always thought was funny. It became a tourist attraction. People used to come to the lot just to see that set. In fact, Paul Mazursky was thinking of importing that set to New York and doing Scenes From a Mall using our set. But logistics were just ridiculous and it wasn’t worth doing. But it was quite a cool set to work on.
PICARDO: It’s funny. In order to make a movie about financial excess, about opulence and just glitz and too much money, you have to spend that. You can’t make a movie satirizing that without spending the money. So, in a way, you’re living the very thing you’re making fun of. And personally, I remember getting paid on that movie better than I normally got paid on a Joe Dante project. I think it’s the only time of the 15 times I’ve worked with Joe that I got billing on the paid ads.
DANTE: Albert Whitlock came out of semi-retirement to help us out with some of the wide shots of the Gremlins in the Clamp lobby because we had to duplicate sections. We’d shoot pieces, use all our puppets, and then stop the camera and rewind and then move the puppets over to another area and do it all over again. So, that was rather time consuming and technical.
GALLIGAN: [Executive Producer] Steven Spielberg was shooting this movie called Always with Richard Dreyfus and Audrey Hepburn. He was shooting that at the time, and I guess he had an off day or something because he came by the set. And he wanted to show his son, Max, the spider Gremlin because his son was 10 at the time or maybe even younger. And what kid isn’t gonna want to see special effects stuff? Especially Rick Baker’s special effects stuff?
FINNELL: I love the moment when Haviland Morris is coming down the corridor and she sees the giant spiderweb and she says, “This is new.” [Laughs.] As if, “What have they done to the building now?” I get such a kick out of her. She’s great.
PICARDO: I had my first and only scene with what is called the butt puppet [on this film]. A butt puppet is a puppet that has no animatronic. It’s just an old fashion, stick-your-hand-up-the-sock puppet. In the scene where Forester is running down the hall and is being chased by the female Gremlin in love with him — who Joe named Gretta Gremlin — when she’s clamped on to me and trying to kiss me … I was operating that puppet. My right arm would sneak around to the front of my body, and then inside my shirt sleeve and my jacket sleeve, they created a false arm with a false hand. And then they sewed the fake hand onto the back of the puppet’s head.
So, my own arm was inside the puppet, and I was basically molesting myself with my right arm, banging the puppet into my face as she was trying to kiss me over and over again. And it’s weird because you’re playing two different characters. Your body is one character and then your right arm is a separate character, and they have different rhythms and they can’t move the same way. It’s like you’re playing two things at once. All I know is that my arm was so intent on playing this love-struck Gremlin that I beat the shit out of myself. I had black and blue marks around my neck and around my chest when I went home that night because the female Gremlin had been so adamant in her advances.
GALLIGAN: Rick Baker is arguably the most talented person I’ve ever met. He’s just ridiculous in terms of what he can and can’t do. It’s just ridiculous how talented he is. I’m not sure if you’re aware of his Academy Award credentials, but he has 12 nominations and 7 wins.
PICARDO: That last scene, we did probably nine takes or 12 takes of that last shot. And the one that’s in the movie, I remember it distinctly because it was the kinkiest one I did, the kind of Aw what the hell look. The crew laughed and Joe said, “You expect me to print that?” Meaning it was so weird or disgusting. And then, of course, that’s the one that’s in the movie.
FINNELL: The musical number was based on this Busby Berkeley number in Dames, which was an old Warner Brothers musical from the 30’s where “I Only Have Eyes For You” and [Ruby Keeler] comes out of the eyeball face. So, we kind of copied that. And it was a big deal. But we built a miniature of the lobby of the building and had all these tiny little Gremlin figures in some of the shots. Like some of the wide shots. But then we went down and shot all the individual coverage of the Gremlins. And then the big thing where they melt at the end.
DANTE: That took forever. That took at least a week to do that. And then we had a machine, which was called a Gilderfluke. And it would make the puppets mouths move in an A-E-I-O-U fashion. So it would look like whatever tape we were playing back was actually being spoken by the puppet. It was very time consuming to get it all in sync and to get it to work and all that. But it was worth it because it was really a lot of fun to make. It was difficult and it was exhausting but it was creatively very satisfying.
FINNELL: There’s something about having these things actually there that cause these little accidents in the performance that just work. Of course, when it’s CGI, everything is meticulously planned and executed, so you don’t get those little extra things. But also for the actors. They’re actually reacting to something that’s in front of them as opposed to just a stick being held for them to look at and pretend that there’s something there. When there really is something there, it’s better for the actors. So, there’s definitely a plus to doing things practically.
DANTE: The melting [sequence] was a big deal. Cleaning up after that, it’s a pretty big job. [Laughs.] It was messy and it’s also just as slippery as it looks, so you had to be careful that somebody wasn’t going to fall on the set.
PICARDO: It’s absolute insanity, and just when you think it couldn’t get sillier, you have a bunch of Gremlins singing “New York, New York”. I mean Joe Dante has an extremely unique and subversive sense of humor. I have to say, more than any of his other movies, this just turns so many movie conventions on its ear.
Let’s not forget about the man behind the building…
PICARDO: John Glover made a brilliant choice to play Clamp like an overgrown child. As somebody who had always gotten his way and couldn’t imagine not getting his way. He had a million ideas, some of them good, some of them idiotic, but he couldn’t tell the difference. He just spouted them out, and I thought that made his character charming.
So, it fell upon me to be the asshole, so to speak. The first thing you see of me is my $600 shoes. I really wanted to be a statement about the financial boom of that era and money was everywhere. Money was thrown at everything and money was all that mattered. So, I wanted to be a guy that lead with his Gucci Armani whatever. That’s what defined his success.
But, it’s always delightful to see the asshole get his comeuppance, and I knew that the bigger jerk I was, the more fun it would be when I get deconstructed … when my whole self-image gets torn apart by the female Gremlin who chases me around.
FINNELL: [Glover] brought this childlike quality with the enthusiasm. That wasn’t necessarily, as I recall, in the script as written. I believe that he made the character more likable because he was just so enthusiastic about everything. But I think that works for the movie.
GALLIGAN: All of the scenes with me and Picardo and John Glover were tremendous fun. It was just really fascinating to watch John Glover work. I had been very familiar with him over the years from some of the stuff that he had done. And he’s a really, really formidable actor. I cant say enough good things about him.
PICARDO: Clamp was so clearly based [upon Trump]. Daniel Clamp and Donald Trump. You can’t deny that one. And I will not make any comments as to the Gremlins that are presently in DC.
About those meta moments…
DANTE: Leonard Maltin, who’s a friend of mine and I’ve known him for years, didn’t like Gremlins. He wrote a bad review about it in his book, and so I thought, Well, what would be funny is for him to come into our movie as if he’s got a show on the Clamp channel, which obviously runs almost anything, and trash the movie and then have the Gremlins kill him. And I tried that on him and he said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” So he came in and did it.
FINNELL: Joe wanted to get revenge. [Laughs.] So, I called up Leonard and I said, “Look, we’re doing Gremlins 2 now. And I know you didn’t like the first movie, but we’d love to do this scene where you are doing your show and giving a bad review. And the TV studio is in the building. And then the Gremlins come up and attack you.” He thought it was very funny. And, at that time, he was doing Entertainment Tonight, so he had to actually get their approval to allow him to do the movie and they said “Fine.”
DANTE: The studio was just completely against [breaking the fourth wall in the movie theater] because they don’t like the idea. They don’t like the idea of reminding the audience that they’re watching a movie. And, for me, I love going to the movies and watching a movie and being reminded that I’m watching a movie.
I always thought that was one of the appeals of like the Hope and Crosby movies, where they constantly joked about Paramount and the fact that there were people out there watching them. I liked that. And I thought, This is a gimmick that is only being used in cartoons. There’s a number of cartoons where it looks like there’s a hair in the gate and then a big hand comes in and grabs it out. And I thought, Well there’s a Warner Brothers cartoon sensibility to this movie that I’d like to ramp up in this scene. So we did it and it’s in the movie.
FINNELL: We actually tried to get Clint Eastwood to do it. He probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, but he was in the middle of shooting something I think in Africa. And then we said, “Well who else would be like an intimidating sort of figure?” And I think it was Joe who said, “How about Hulk Hogan?” So, we brought in Hulk Hogan. He was a lot of fun. Boy, he was a big guy. It was hilarious. I remember he would be on the set and everybody would stay away from him because he was so intimidating and scary looking. He would just be standing there by himself and nobody’s talking to him or anything. [Laughs.]
DANTE: But then when it came time to put it on video, I thought, Well gee. The gag of being in the theater and having the Gremlins take over the movie doesn’t really work on your VCR. So, they let me shoot a separate section instead of that piece, so that instead of the film burning, the picture glitches like it’s a video tape and then John Wayne comes in and gets through to the Gremlins instead of Hulk Hogan.
FINNELL: We had to get permission to use [Wayne’s] image from his son, Michael. And so I said, “But we’re also going to need to get somebody to do his voice because we’re going to need to add some lines that your father would never have said.” And then he said, “Oh, well you gotta get Chad Everett.” So Chad Everett came in and did the extra lines that we needed.
DANTE: The Chuck Jones opening was originally a bit longer, and the studio was very antsy and they said, “They wanna get to the movie.” This came from the idea of when I used to go to the movies in the ’60s, they would always run a cartoon before the movie, because that was part of the program. News reels and serial chapters and stuff like that. So, I was very used to seeing a cartoon before the feature.
And then when I came out to California, I discovered that the old cartoons weren’t being run anymore, and it was all new stuff like The Pink Panther and The Ant and the Ardvark and these things that were boring shit. And the audiences didn’t like that, having to wait through that stuff to get to the movie that they came to see. Cartoons weren’t that popular anymore.
So, the studio was concerned if the sequel has a cartoon, then they’ll get bored because, “Where’s the movie?” And so we had to make it shorter. But it’s still, I think, a great way to start the movie because it really captures the Warner Bros. anarchy that used to infuse those cartoons.
After months of filming, production wrapped, and, true to their word, Joe Dante, Michael Finnell, and Charlie Haas retained creative control. Even so, the studio had their concerns.
DANTE: It’s hard to show these things to people when they’re not finished. So, you try to get them to let you finish it as much as possible before you show it to them. But, if you put it in your contract, as I had at the time, that I get a preview of my own that they don’t get invited to, just so I can see what’s working and what’s not working, then I don’t have to show them a movie that hasn’t been trimmed to fix the things that you see wrong with your own movie.
So, we had a preview of the picture, which was a somewhat longer version, and the problem basically was, and it’s almost always the case with a preview of your first rough cut, is that there’s too much exposition in the beginning and that you don’t get into the story quick enough. And I think that was the case here.
FINNELL: Yeah, they were still behind it. Maybe it was a little bit more out there than they would’ve liked… [Laughs] But it was what it was. Also, there wasn’t much that they could do at that point. But I think they generally liked the movie as I recall.
DANTE: Of course they had their concerns. It’s their money. I understand that and I try to make them happy when I can. And that’s always been true of every studio I’ve ever worked at. You have to all be on the same page. And if you don’t make them happy, they’re gonna make you unhappy. But in this case, except for the fact that they didn’t like the movie anymore than they liked the first movie, they were true to their word and said, “Alright, this is the movie that we’re going to go out with.”
HAAS: The studio, I realized at some point, is always going to defer to Steven [Spielberg]. If they said, “Gee we don’t want to see this or we do want to see that,” Steven said “No” to them. Steven had that kind of veto power with them. And not to get too much into the politics, they always gave me a ton of notes. Warner Brothers gave us a ton of notes. But it was not as important as it was to find out what he wanted.
DANTE: The studio always go to [Steven] and they’d say, “Oh my God. Fix it. Make him fix it!” And so, you do the usual run where you go through the movie with Steven, and we talk about the movie and how can we make it any shorter. Because basically I think they just said, “Get him to make it shorter.” And so we did that, and then a few things came up, but nothing very important. It was the movie I wanted to make, and there wasn’t much you could do about it after it was made. They were there when we were shooting the picture, they saw the rushes, and they could’ve said something, but they didn’t say anything.
GALLIGAN: The movie was scheduled to be coming out the first week of May, and the competition was very weak. It was a Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn movie called Bird on a Wire, and it did not have a lot of buzz around it. So, we were scheduled to go opposite them and get an early start in a crowded summer filled with Robocop 2 and Dick Tracy. It was a very, very full summer. And, of course, we were gonna be the surprise hit that you didn’t really know about.
DANTE: We had a Memorial Day release date and we had planned for that and finished the movie and all that. And as I was timing the last couple of reels, I got a call from the studio saying, “We’ve moved your date.”
GALLIGAN: I went up to San Francisco in April to do a press junket, and that was a lot of fun because I always enjoyed that city. And after we did the press junket, we came back and they were like, “Warner Brothers moved the date from May 7th to June 15th.” And I’m like, “What? Why did they do that?” And they’re like, “Well, the test results went through the roof and now they’re feeling super confident about it, so they want to go head to head with Dick Tracy.” And I was like, “Really? Why do you want to go head to head with this potential blockbuster like that?” And literally, within days after they moved the date, Warren Beatty came out with the news that he was dating Madonna.
DANTE: And they kept saying it was a good thing, but it didn’t seem good to me. Especially since the TV spots were already running saying that the picture was going to open on Memorial Day. And what had happened was they had learned that Dick Tracy, the Disney picture, was going to open on July 4th and maybe outgross Batman, which was their biggest hit. And they didn’t want that to happen, so they said, “Well, let’s take the Gremlins movie and let’s stick it against Dick Tracy, and guarantee that they won’t topple our record.” Which didn’t help us any, because by the time our picture came out, people had seen the TV spots and they thought, Well, wasn’t this picture out already? So, it didn’t help at all.
By the time the movie did open on June 15th, it was not the smash that everyone was hoping for. It did not recoup its $50 million dollar budget. However, the reviewers — Maltin included — responded warmly.
FINNELL: The reviews were generally much better than the first movie. The reviews were really quite good, actually.
DANTE: This isn’t the kind of movie the critics made much difference on one way or the other. There’s some movies that need critical support, particularly movies where attention needs to be focused on them. But there’s other movies that are purely commercial movies that people are either excited to see or not. There are actors who have had careers based on movies that the critics have always hated. But they like the actors, so their pictures always made money.
HAAS: I remember when the picture was about to open my wife said, “Oh, we should have a screening here and invite friends and family.” We had been to the cast and crew screening in LA, but we live here in Oakland. So we four-walled the local movie palace and showed the picture. And I was so happy because no one had seen it yet and no one knew about the gag where the film appears to burn and then the Gremlins are in the projection booth and so forth. I was so happy because I was sitting surrounded by friends who all actually believed that the film had just caught on fire and been ruined. And it was so great to see everyone faked out by that. That was one of my happiest memories from that.
GALLIGAN: When I saw the screening, and it opened with a Bugs Bunny cartoon, at first I went, “Oh my God.” Because I know that Joe loves cartoons. I’ve actually been to Joe’s house and he screened original 8 mm or 35 mm cartoons for me on his projector. He’s got a library of something like, at that time, 500 cartoons. So, he’s about as big of a cartoon aficionado as you will ever find on the planet. And I thought, Oh, this is so clever. He’s going to do this screening like an old school cinema. He’s going to open with a cartoon.
And then I realized the cartoon was part of the movie, and I was like “What??” And it transitioned from the cartoon into the live action movie, and I found that a little jarring. I thought, Uh oh, if that’s a little jarring for me, who is not only a Gremlins fan but is part of the franchise, what are the fans going to think? I started to get a little concerned. Then I watched the movie and it was just like Mad Magazine with the famous Sergio Aragonés cartoons in the margins, where every frame of the movie is packed with in-jokes and things are happening. So, I said, “This is Dante unchained.”
Alas, the legacy speaks for itself…
DANTE: It’s the one movie of mine that I can look back and I can lay claim to everything in this picture. We try to put our personalities into the movies as much as we’re allowed to do. And this movie is me. I just see myself in every scene and my thoughts and my prejudices and my opinions. It just reflects my personality and the way I think. It’s unfiltered, I guess, is the word. I didn’t have to go through anybody. I didn’t have to get permission to do things. I was just able to do it because they said, “Go ahead and do it.”
HAAS: When there were still video stores, we would go to one of the video stores around here, and everything I had ever worked on was in the cult section. [Laughs] They all sort of have cult followings. Although this picture at the time did well enough overseas that it wasn’t a big problem to the studio.
FINNELL: I’m extremely proud of it. I love it. There’s so much in it. There’s so many funny gags and characters. I love the movie. I’m very happy with it.
HAAS: When I saw the Key and Peele sketch the first time, I thought, I’m dreaming and this is crazy. How did this ever happen? I thought it was wonderful. I thought it was brilliant. They even bothered to get it to where the guy imitated Joe so well. It was marvelous.
FINNELL: It was hilarious. He’s dressed up to look like Joe. I couldn’t believe that. And I love Key and Peele. So, when I saw that, I was just flabbergasted. I was just blown away. I thought it was great.
GALLIGAN: I would say there has been a seismic shift in the last 10 years towards people who actually prefer Gremlins 2 to the first one. I would say, as of 2008, it was 80 percent Gremlins, 20 percent Gremlins 2. And, as of today, I would estimate that it’s closer to 60/40. Or maybe even, dare I say it, 55/45, in favor of Gremlins. And that is a shocking swing. It’s shocking to me. But I can tell you why I think it’s happened.
Because of streaming services, people don’t always see movies in the correct order. So, people who saw Gremlins 2 first say to themselves, “Oh, this is what a Gremlins movie is. It’s a hilarious, slapstick comedy with an occasional scare.” And then they go back and see Gremlins and they go, “Oh my God. It’s dark and scary and sick. And what’s that story with Phoebe Cates dad? Oh my God, that’s gross.”
DANTE: These kind of opportunities don’t come down on trees. Not many people get the chance to do something like this and I think that’s one of the reasons why that picture is still popular because it’s kind of unique.
HAAS: I think by the time that you’re old you’ve figured it out, but you kind of have to get old to figure it out, which is that you never really know at the time how it will end up resonating with people or how you will feel about it for years. That’s a great compensation for being old is you get to go, “Oh yeah! That was fun! That was good.” And it’s very nice.