It’s been three decades since the Steven Spielberg-produced Gremlins first hit theaters and both delighted and frightened an entire generation of kids. In celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary and its first time being released as a digital download, the film’s star Zach Galligan (who played Billy Peltzer) spoke with BuzzFeed about working with the Phoebe Cates, the film’s backlash, why the ’80s classic still resonates with kids today, and more.
How did you first get involved with the movie?
Zach Galligan: Well, you know I’d really love to have some amazing story behind it, but it was basically just a straightforward audition. In fact, I remember that at the time it was just a cluster of auditions that came my way in March of ‘83, and one them was Gremlins. But I did take a keen interest in it because I saw that Steven Spielberg’s name was attached to it as an executive producer — and, of course, he had been the biggest person in Hollywood for the last eight years, ever since the release of Jaws. And me, as a 19-year-old kid, Spielberg was just it; he was like a magic word.
So I ended putting a little bit more focus on that [audition], but I didn’t get the entire script. I just got to read a small portion of the script, like three pages of dialogue, and it was the scene in the movie where Phoebe [Cates] and my character are walking through the snow and she tells me that she doesn’t like Christmas. So I knew the movie was about gremlins, but I didn’t get to see anything [in the script] that had to with the creatures.
So a day or two later [after meeting with the film’s producers], I got called in for what is called a mix and match final session, which is when you audition on camera — which back in ‘83, if you got on tape you knew you were among the final few people being considered. I went in to read with Phoebe, who I was paired with, and I did do this one thing at the end of the scene where I put my head on her shoulder, sorta joking around, and when Spielberg saw it he apparently really loved that. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Galligan with co-star Phoebe Cates (who played Kate Beringer).
Was it a little intimidating working with Phoebe Cates, because she was already so well known for Fast Times at Ridgemont High?
ZG: The thing about Phoebe is that she was intimidating to approach because she was so pretty, but she is such a nice person. Of all the models I ever met in my life, over the last 30 years, she is probably the least aware of her own attractiveness. I mean, she knew she was pretty, but she never made a big deal about it. She was very down to earth and cool.
Even though Steven Spielberg was attached as executive producer, did you have any hesitations about making the film? Especially after reading the script, where it could almost seem/read a bit like a B-movie.
ZG: Well, I knew once Spielberg was attached that the movie would have a pedigree. Remember by that point the Star Wars films had come out, so you could do cheesy [B-movie] space movie or [like Star Wars] you could put some money and thought into it, and make it into an A-list space adventure. So I just figured it was going to be an A-list monster movie.
What was your favorite part about making Gremlins?
ZG: Well, I had never been to California, I grew up in Manhattan. Discovering L.A., in particular in the early ’80s, was pretty spectacular; it was fun and carefree and there was not nearly as much traffic as exists today. It was very much the last gasps of the Beach Boys ideal view of L.A.: sun, the beach, cars, blondes, etc. And, of course, hanging out with Phoebe, ‘cause she had a car and I couldn’t drive, so she’d drive me everywhere. We’d head out to the beach, crank the radio blasting Culture Club. We were both just 19, college sophomores, it was like the world was our oyster — just fun and crazy.
Did you think that Gremlins was going to be as big of a hit as it was, and, also did you even think it would be become this big iconic classic film?
ZG: The funny thing is I thought the movie was going to be a hit, and apparently, according to of the Gremlins folks that I recently got together with, I was the only one who thought it was going to be a hit. A lot of the people who worked on the film thought, Oh, people won’t get it, or the tone shifts will be too radical. And the guy who did special effects, Chris Walas, was terrified that it wouldn’t look good and that Gizmo wouldn’t look believable. Joe Dante thought that it was just going to be more of a cult movie. I thought we were making an action-adventure movie and it was going to be huge, and we had Spielberg, so how could you beat that? As a 19-year-old reading the script I thought, Wow, I would really love to see this movie, much less be in it.
As far it being a classic, in many ways the film is just as fresh as it was 30 years ago, because people have been handing the film down to their kids and exposing it to a whole new generation. If you had told me in 1983 to go back to the films from 30 years ago it would’ve meant films like From Here To Eternity and it would’ve been black and white films, and they would’ve felt like they were from a long time back — 30 years is a long time. But I guess nowadays with the internet, the availability of content at anytime, like being able to download a movie on to your phone at any time, and people’s desire for nostalgia, it just seems like the film never went away.
On that same note, why do you think Gremlins still resonates with people 30 years later?
ZG: I think one of the reasons Gremlins lasts and some other films don’t is because I don’t think the movie has a whole lot of dated things — sure, the cars, my hair, and few things here and there that date the movie — but it takes place in a sort of everytown, in a sorta non-specific time, and that gives the movie a timeless quality.
I think it also speaks to our inner desire sometimes to want to break things and not be a good boy or girl. The gremlins are clearly the ones have the most fun in the film, trashing the town, going to the bar, smashing things, etc. It’s all gleeful chaos, which makes the movie fun.
Gremlins is increasingly becoming a holiday classic, is that weird to you?
ZG: Well, I think it’s kinda weird because I always associate the movie with summer, particularly the first week of June, ‘cause that’s when it was released. But, it makes sense because it has so much of a Christmas theme to it and if you are removed from it, by even five to 10 years, then you would have no idea what month it came out. So you would just see it and see the Christmas content and it would become a Christmas film, sorta of in the way Die Hard 2 (which was also a summer blockbuster) has also become a holiday movie.
Did you find it hard to work with so many puppets and special effects?
ZG: Well, I think the people who were working the puppets had a lot more hard work than I did! I just mainly had to deal with having a lot of wires and cables strapped to my body, which I kinda got used to after a while. But for me it was like this: If the special effects worked then, great, we were shooting the movie. But if the thing broke, then it was like, Hey man, more time to go down to Spielberg’s office and play his huge collection of arcade games like Centipede, Millipede, and Food Fight.
You have to understand that if Gizmo broke, then it was like a seven-hour delay, so we’d have a lot of free times on our hands. So I’d go down [to Spielberg’s office] and play, and on days when Corey [Feldman] was working, he’d trail after me like a little puppy dog, so we’d play Food Fight together. We played so much, that in fact Spielberg had the arcade game moved close to where the cameras were so that the second assistant directors wouldn’t have to go chase us down all the time.
Were you surprised at backlash the movie received from parents?
ZG: Um, I wasn’t 100% surprised, because I saw the poster that the marketing division had come up with and it really just put a little bit of mention of what the movie was about. The tagline was “Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous.” So they gave a little tip of the cap to the dark side of the movie. But basically if you didn’t read the tagline, you just saw a young man in a pair of jeans holding a box with something really cute and fuzzy creeping out of it. It also followed in the heels of E.T., so it appeared to be another cute creature movie and that is exactly what they got for like 43 and a half minutes until chaos happens, or, as Joe Dante likes to call, “It’s A Wonderful Lizard of Oz in Hell.”
Do you think there’s anything fans don’t know about Gremlins?
ZG: Something I didn’t know until a few months ago, and I was stunned to find out, was that Chris Walas, who did all the special effects for the film, had just gone out on his own (solo-wise) and that the technology and special effects that were used on the film did not exist and he was creating them as he went. He was flying by the seat of his pants, making and creating everything in about a week in advance.
Chris was having lots of anxiety and panic attacks about creating the special effects for the movie, second guessing himself, and he kept thinking, How am I going to this? Nobody’s going to buy it. I’m going to get fired. I’m ruined. He really thought it was going to be the last job he ever did in Hollywood. Of course, the movie made him and it also made him a wealthy guy because Spielberg gave him 1% of the merchandise. So when it hit a billion dollars in merchandise sales, for Chris, who was only 28 at the time, it was like ka-ching!
Speaking of merchandise, the movie was a merchandise machine. What was your favorite tie-in product?
ZG: Being on a lunchbox was awesome and being on a thermos was pretty cool too. But, definitely it would be being on Topps Trading cards, because as a kid I traded them all the time, along with baseball and basketball cards. So to go to a store anywhere in the country where you could get a pack of cards and when you open them up there you are, with a stick of gum in it, it was just surreal.
OK, so what is the most common question you get about Gremlins?
ZG: Well the most common question that I get from dudes 95% of the time is, “What was it like working with Phoebe Cates?” That question never goes away. But overall the most common question is, “How did those things [the gremlins] work?”
Another question I get a lot, especially the last six to seven years is, “Is there going to be a Gremlins 3?” And my answers is always, “I have no idea.” But it’s been too long since the last film came out, so I don’t think there is going to be a Gremlins 3.
Lastly, there has been a lot of talk over the years to reboot the franchise, is that something you would be interested in participating in?
ZG: Yeah, I mean you have to see what they’re going to give you. There are three possibilities on how they will use you: They will use you for a cameo where you walk by and then you’re gone; they use you like the way they used Jeff Bridges’ character in Tron: Legacy, where they sorta bring your character back; or they cast you as an older person, like instead I’d play Mr. Futterman or I’d play the teacher, or the dad, and they cast another 19-year-old kid as the son. So depending on what they’d offer I think it would be fun to go back and revisit. I mean, why not?