How a last-minute Steven Spielberg note made ‘Gremlins’ into a blockbuster

Yesterday”s episode of Marc Maron”s WTF Podcast was a great one for horror fans, as the comedian invited two masters of the genre onto the show: Halloween and The Thing director John Carpenter and Joe Dante, who directed such cult horror classics as Piranha and The Howling before going on to great popular success with the 1984 blockbuster Gremlins. Both interviews are absolutely worth a listen, but the discussion around Gremlins stands out thanks to a moment in which Dante described the big change (seemingly mandated by producer Steven Spielberg) that ended up making the movie work as well as it did. Here”s the relevant soundbite:

“In Chris Columbus” original script, the idea was that the cute, cuddly Gizmo mogwai character would turn into the bad, evil Stripe character. The idea was that you wanted to get people interested in the character and then surprise them by having, ‘oh look, he”s got a bad side!” But about three weeks before we started shooting, Steven had an idea, which sent everyone into a panic, because we were just about to shoot. He said, ‘I don”t think Gizmo should turn into Stripe. I think Gizmo should be the hero”s pal and stick around for the whole movie.” 

“And the reason we were so horrified was because the [Gizmo] puppet was so small, and there was so little room to stick gears into it. We had basically engineered it so that it would be good for a couple of reels, and then we wouldn”t have to see it again. But now, it was a major character. It was gonna have closeups, it was gonna have emotions, it was gonna be another character. So we had to think ‘how are we gonna do this?” We had to rebuild him. And we had to build a giant Gizmo head that we could photograph because it was the only thing that could express any kind of subtlety. Cause the other ones, it was just too small…And we managed to pull it off! And at the preview, the audience fell in love with Gizmo.”

It”s hard to imagine Gremlins without Gizmo as a major character, isn”t it? The furry, pint-sized mogwai may well be the most adorable character in cinematic history, and he provides audiences with a real emotional investment in the outcome in a way that the human characters simply couldn”t. All due respect to Dante, but you've gotta hand it to Spielberg, the most successful popular filmmaker in history, for understanding the psychology of the audience in a way that his collaborators simply couldn”t.

There are lots of other fun tidbits in there, from Dante talking about the absolute disaster that resulted when they tried to put a gremlin head on a monkey (“He went berserk and ran all over the editing room and pooped on everything”) to his clear, lasting disdain for what he claims was Siskel and Ebert's takedown of the original, much gorier Gremlins script (which I cannot find evidence online to back up). You can listen to the full episode here.