A Brief Discussion with Joe Dante

On December 3rd, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a panel at Los Angeles Comic Con. The panel, hosted by the podcast Geekscape, was a Q&A with Gremlins director Joe Dante and one of the Executive Producers of the upcoming Gremlins project at HBO: Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, Brendan Hay. The nerd in me was super excited about this. Gremlins played a crucial part in beginning my love for horror films. I think I was only about 6 years old when the film was shown to me by my dad. It scared the living hell out of me but I also thought it was funny. Plus, Gizmo was the cutest thing I had ever seen. (I’m still partly obsessed with the little dude). Gremlins, from a very early age, also shaped my sense of humor. It was crucial to my film development. So, you can imagine how happy I was to sit in and listen to this panel.

They talked about so many of Dante’s films. But, began it all with Innerspace. Originally a straight spy movie, Joe Dante said “this is ridiculous. You can’t make a serious movie out of this”. They then hired a new writer, and his take on the concept was “what if Dean MartinInnerspace (1987) - About the Movie | Amblin was shrunk down and put inside Jerry Lewis” and “that”, Dante said “I understood.” “It was one of the most fun films to make”, he said, “in particular because Martin Short is so funny.” Dante told of Short on set:

He would beg in Katharine Hepburn’s voice ‘Please, Joe. One more take’ and take 10 would be different than take 1 and you’d wonder is this the same movie even.”

Innerspace was a film that had Spielberg money, so they had the funds for good special effects. And, in fact, Innerspace won an Academy Award for its special effects. One of Dante’s personal favorites of his, it was released exactly the way he wanted it to be. “In fact” Dante says, “I’ve been pretty lucky, generally, in that most of the movies that I’ve done have been pretty much released the way I’ve wanted. There are a couple glaring exceptions but, for the most part, whatever’s wrong with them, you can blame me for” (this had me wanting to scream from the front row. For reference, click here.)

They spoke about The Twilight Zone and what Dante thought the problem with the film was:

This is terrible. You’re going to make a feature film with feature film money…Let’s do what Rod Serling would have done and adapt something that hasn’t been done before…The stories thrive on the fact that they have twist endings. And the fans know all the twist endings.”

Originally, Every Segment In Twilight Zone: The Movie Was Going To Be  InterconnectedBut, the film went on as planned. So Joe Dante did the only thing he could think of: he picked an episode and tried to change it around enough that the audience wouldn’t realize which episode it was until about half way through the segment. “It’s a Good Life” was directed by Dante, and it’s honestly the segment I remember most because it feels like an acid trip gone wrong. Dante noted that there was little no studio interference when making the film (largely due to the tragic accident that happened on set), which led both he and George Miller to think “Oh, this studio film thing ain’t so bad” as both were fairly new to that at the time. Dante quickly found out with his second studio film, Gremlins, that that was not the case.

The bulk of the conversation from there was about Gremlins, and the upcoming prequel project. Dante spoke about the original Gremlins script and how much darker it was than the actual movie: “The mom got killed and her head bounced down the stairs, they ate the dog, I mean it was really gruesome”. Once the studio became involved, work went into making the film more family friendly, which Dante noted actually improved the film, as it’s now become this weird touchstone.

One of the things to stay in the film from the original script is the famous Phoebe Cates monologue. In an original sample, very early on in the process, the monologue appears.  When Steven Spielberg originally saw the Gremlins script, he thought it would make a great horror movie, as he was starting Amblin at the time and, according to Dante and the industry “the safest thing is to always make a horror movie because they usually make money” So, with Columbus’s script in hand, Spielberg went to Joe Dante, the king of good low budget horror films at the time. And then it became apparent that to make the gremlin creatures even halfway believable, that it was going to cost “more than a $1.98”. So, Spielberg went to Warner brothers, and Gremlins became a studio movie. And, when the studio is involved, everything changes.

So this traumatizing monologue is a remnant of a horror movie. The character it was originally for, according to Dante, was for a scene in McDonald’s where the Gremlin’s had eaten all the people and left all the McDonald’s. The guy who owned the franchise, who was a character, had that monologue. Dante wanted to give Phoebe Cates more to work with than just being “the girl” in the film. So, they decided that she did not like Christmas and they repurposed the monologue.  According to Dante, at the first days dailys of that story, the editor turned to Dante and said “this is never going to be in the picture.”

They then began talking about what’s to come in the Gremlins franchise. “It’s to answer the ever present question of ‘when are you going toGremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai': Joe Dante, Annecy World Premiere - Variety do Gremlins 3?” Dante says. Making a prequel “dodges all the problems of being a sequel to a sequel. It’s a prequel”. Due to release in 2023 (pending whatever happens with the HBO/Discovery merger) will be an animated Gremlins series called Gremlins: The Secrets of the Mogwai. The show follows Mr. Wing (Sam) as a child in China and gives us a look into the origins of the Mogwai. According to Dante “It’s sort of a little dark and then gets a little darker but it’s still okay for kids” and that’s the same energy as Gremlins so I am here for it. Secrets of the Mogwai channels the spirit of the first two films, which was a large goal. “Make sure the laughs are genuinely funny, that the scares are genuinely scary” says executive producer Brendan Hay. Fingers crossed HBO Max gets their stuff figured out soon.

Of the original Gremlins film, Dante says “None of us that worked on the movie can account for why it is so popular, but we are all very grateful.”

At the end of the discussion, I walked up to the table, not to get a picture with the man himself, but just to say thank you. Anytime I come across an actor or director who impacted my personal film growth, I thank them because somewhere out there, a kid has just watched one of their films for the first time and it’s changed them and shaped them in the same way it did me. His response to me saying thank you for doing what you do? “Whatever that is”. A legend.

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