Q+A: "Gremlins" Director Joe Dante on the Franchise's Popularity Many Years Later

You rented the same Gremlins movies at the video store whenever possible despite having already seen them one too many times. Your heart skipped a beat when Gizmo’s several jumping, super cute, fuzzy copied Gremlins arranged themselves in a box. You felt the movies were ridiculous but secret fun. And when you returned the VHS tapes back to the video store, you rented them again months later.

This story is real because it was my story whenever I, as a younger person, went to the video store. I loved Gremins because they were the only film series equal parts cute and scary. The director of Gremlins 1 and Gremlins 2, Joe Dante, had some exciting secrets to share about the franchise.

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I am a big fan of the original movies. Along with me, you have many actors and filmmakers who are lifelong Gremlins fans such as Chris McKay, the director of The LEGO Batman Movie. What are some touching stories you can share about successful people you meet who love Gremlins?

I have run into a lot of people who saw the movie, and what is remarkable about it is it came out in 1984. The shelf life of most movies from 1984 is comparatively short, whereas this one just keeps rolling. There was merchandising at the beginning of the show, but it was never intended that way because it was a comparatively low budget movie for Warner Bros. It wasn’t until they saw the dailies of Gizmo that they saw something they would want to merchandise. This was pretty late in the game. They put together a crash course in fast merchandise.

What started out as a somewhat small merchandising plan just boomeranged over the years into far more pieces of merchandise than I ever imagined would happened. This show is extremely popular in japan. There is a company called NECA that puts out the best Gremlins toys. They make great gifts for girlfriends. First, there is a flasher Gremlin. They sell big plush toys of Stripe, the bad Gremlin. They were kind of like dragons. Then the smaller toys, the action figures. It’s a phenomenon I can’t account for. Certainly, no one involved with the film thought it would have such staying power.

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You were lucky working with Mr. Spielberg in the prime of his film endeavors for young adults during the 80’s. Back then, he was taking risks with his filmmakers like you and setting the precedent for what goes on now. Some people thought he was crazy. What ideas did he bring to you with the film on set and the film marketing overall including toys that nobody else was doing?

Gremlins was made for his new company, Amblin. He was instrumental in furthering the careers of lots and lots of people with his TV show, Amazing Stories. He really signed on to get chances for filmmakers to get their first jobs. It went on for two seasons even though it wasn’t big in the ratings. He decided he wanted to make movies he wanted to see, but it’s a lot of trouble to direct them [all at once]. What Amblin did in the 80s was always whimsical. Back to the Future. Batteries Not Included. They were touchstones for the generation. He was building his empire. That lead to DreamWorks, and of course, now is an Academy Award winner.

I was very lucky to be in on that ground floor. He was a buffer between me and the studio. Usually, when any young filmmaker does his first studio movie, there are many young people trying to manipulate him and give him advice. They interfere. He was a one stop shop. If he had issues, he would discuss it with you. He never made you think it wasn’t your movie. He would back you up when he felt it wasn’t right. You could talk to him.

The chimney story was something. [NOTE: In Gremlins, the lead character’s girlfriend lost her father when he died pretending to be Santa one Christmas.] They hated it even after the most successful preview I’ve ever seen. He ran interference, and it was in the movie. It became such a talking point, we were able to make fun of it in the sequel.

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The news media has covered the idea of a third Gremlins movie being produced once again through Amblin. What kinds of toys do you hope are created from the film? How would you like a new generation of young people to embrace the Gremlins legacy you created?

It now belongs to the writer and producers. They said they have a take on it.

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Randy Falk from NECA Toys raves about Gremlins and when he has met you. Can you talk about your experiences with seeing his toys and anything else you have to say about the toy events, his company, etc?

I learned the word “toyetic.” it determines if a toy is worthwhile or not. If a toy is worth selling. If it will be popular.

I still have a lot of Gremlins stuff. They hang around. They’re on my shelves and all over the place.

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I personally feel that Gremlins and other similar toys are so popular today because of the nostalgia for authentic youth storytelling. Today, many stories are scaled back because studios are afraid of upsetting or scaring young fans, to the point where young adult entertainment is bland. What are your thoughts on why Gremlins films remain classics and why do you think people love the toys so much?

I think it’s fair to say if we got that movie made today for the first time, because even at the time there was a lot of outcry, it was too violent for kids, and it helped create the PG-13 rating. I remember being at a screening where this mother was dragging this child out of Gremlins, and the kid got away from her and got back in, and she fumed. She didn’t know I was the director. That impressed me so much, I reenacted it in Gremlins 2.

Times have changed. The 80s were a different era than where we are now. To modern people, the 80s were like the 50s to that generation. The movies had more edge. It’s just gotten to be a very prickly time. I’m very happy that I’m not a kid in this era. Even though there’s so many things to do, the atmosphere in the culture is so repressive. People thought it was repressive in the 80s, but ‘Say No to Drugs” is nothing compared to today.

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How do you hope the next batch of young people feels about Gremlins?

I hope they like it. It seems like it’s on its way to classic status. Each generation sees the movie, gets a little older and shows it to their kids. And that’s how classics are born. That’s why people are still watching The Wizard of Oz. Walt Disney was making all those animated cartoon features. Every seven years, there was a new generation ready to see it. All these people grew older. They were all excited to share them with their friends and children. Gremlins is a movie that gets shared in families. I think it’ll keep doing that.

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Kid Stuff Is Big Biz

Did you think that was all Mr. Dante was going to reveal about Gremlins? Hardly! For more you didn’t know about the franchise, read my article in this week’s issue of Variety.