Zach Galligan talks Gremlins, Waxwork, Hatchet III and More

I had the pleasure of interviewing Zach Galligan. The interview is below.

Q: Allegedly you were cast in “Gremlins” based on your audition chemistry. Can you elaborate on that?

ZG: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Except I never actually spoke to Spielberg about why he cast me. On the “Gremlins” (affiliate link) Blu-ray, there’s a 17-minute feature on the animatronics so people can see how those things worked. We can finally show you from start to finish. But there’s also a half hour documentary on the making of the film. As far as I know, Spielberg has never spoken publicly on film about the movie before. He talks about the casting, and I’m dying to see that, because I’ve never heard him talk about it before. He likes to let Joe Dante take all the credit for that.

Q: How hands-on was Spielberg as a producer?

ZG: Well, he wasn’t too hands-on during the actual production, because he was doing “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” at the time. So he was away in Sri Lanka and other far-flung locations. But in pre-production, he shaped the script with Chris Columbus, he cast the two leads or at least had approval over us. He was responsible for hiring Joe Dante as director. The script was originally very dark and violent when they first got it. In the first draft, my mom gets her head chopped off and it rolls down the stairs. Spielberg said, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen. That’s not going to happen at all.” And Gizmo died halfway through. He turned into a Gremlin and then went away. But Spielberg said, “No, Gizmo’s a good character. He should be Billy’s sidekick.” And actually it was Spielberg’s idea to put Gizmo in the little car and kill Stripe at the end. I didn’t even know that until I saw the final cut, because we filmed it that I killed Stripe by opening the shade. I saw it and I was incensed. I saved the day, but now this little fuzzy thing that can’t even walk saves the day.

Q: Joe Dante is obviously a legend in the horror community. What’s he like?

ZG: He’s a very laid back guy. He’s more of a technical director than an actor’s director. So he would say to me and Phoebe in his squeaky voice, “I don’t know much about acting so you guys just do your thing. If you get out of line, I’ll let you know. Have fun.” If I got too large, he’s say bring it down. Or if it didn’t register, he’s say to bring it up. But other than that he was pretty cool, pretty laid back. Never panicked. Things broke, and he would just say, “Well, that’s going to happen.” He was the antithesis of the “screamer director”. That’s not him at all. He’d say, “it’s complicated stuff, it’s gonna break. Everyone just take five hours off and we’ll have it fixed.” When putting the 30th Anniversary Blu-ray together, they found this 30-year old VHS tape under Joe Dante’s bed. On the tape, it is just footage of following Hoyt Axton around, schmoozing with people. They tried to remaster it. It’s still grainy, but watchable. It’s called “Hanging with Hoyt”.

Q: Can you comment more on the robots breaking down?

ZG: Yeah. Chris Walas, who was sort of in charge of that, would know better. But Chris was hired on by Joe Dante. They had worked on a couple things before. Dante offered it to him, and Chris took it and Chris was only 28 at the time. Being 19 I thought he was old, because 9 years older seems old when you’re 19. So I didn’t realize how young he was. He told Joe he’d do the effects for “Gremlins”, (affiliate link) but what he didn’t tell anyone was that he had no company, no staff, no studio, no nothing. So he immediately had to go home, hire people, rent space and start the effects. He had no company, so he had to make up most of the effects as he went along. They would ask him, “Hey, can you do a flasher Gremlin?” And he’d say “Oh, sure.” And then he’d have to run home and freak out.

He said it was the most stressful, nightmare job of his life. He hated every second of it. But it made his whole career. On top of that, he had 1% of the merchandising rights, so he made something like $11 million at the time. So it made him a wealthy guy and he never had to work again, though of course he did. But he says every time he thinks about it he gets sick to his stomach with anxiety. It was a year and a half of total anxiety and he came close to having a total breakdown. But thirty years later it still holds up.

Q: And there was still traditional puppetry, too, right?

ZG: Yes and no. For stuff in the background, they’d have puppets that could wave their arms. But anything in the foreground was animatronic. And I’d say it broke probably a quarter of the time, maybe 20% of the time. Most of the time it worked really well.

Q: Do you consider “Gremlins” to be a Christmas movie?

ZG: Well, here’s the thing. It came out June 8, so it was a summer movie. I didn’t really understand that, but Joe Dante said, “Well, you kinda want to see a Christmas movie in June because it’s hot, it’s muggy, and you miss Christmas in June. You don’t miss Christmas at Christmas because it’s Christmas.” We also kind of bag on Christmas a little bit, with Phoebe Cates and the story of Santa getting stuck in the chimney. But over the last eight to ten years, I’ve noticed it growing. I have more people telling me that every Christmas they put in “Gremlins” (affiliate link) and watch it with their family. Every Christmas Eve. So it’s morphed into a Christmas tradition for some people, which is great, because that turns it into a movie that will never die, like “Wizard of Oz”. A film that you can show over and over again on Christmas, like “Die Hard”.

Q: Leonard Maltin gets killed in the sequel, as a joke about a bad review he gave the original. Can you comment on that?

ZG: He panned it. He was really good friends with Joe Dante and producer Mike Finnell. So they were like, “Wow, you’re our buddy and you panned our movie?” And Maltin told them if he didn’t like a movie he couldn’t say that he did. Fair enough. But he was a good sport about it, and agreed to get murdered by the Gremlins in the sequel. So he got his comeuppance.

Q: For both films, you worked with Dick Miller. That must have been incredible.

ZG: Oh yeah. There’s this documentary out, called “That Guy Dick Miller” that covers his entire career. I talk about him a bit in there. But if you look at his IMDb, his credits are astounding. He’s worked with everyone from John Wayne to Tarantino, to Scorsese to DeNiro. He’s a walking Who’s Who of film. The thing about Dick is that he’s incredibly “Dick”. He’s a tough, Army guy from Brooklyn. He has what I’d call retro swagger, like 1940s, 1950s swagger. That’s just kind of him, Mr. Futterman. He doesn’t hate foreign movies and foreign cars, he’s not xenophobic, but that’s pretty much him. He has that tough “don’t tread on me” attitude. And in “Gremlins”, (affiliate link) he was actually the first actor I worked with. Him, Phoebe and I did a scene where he’s drunk and we take him out of the tavern and put him in the tractor or bulldozer. That was the first scene we shot. As you know, movies aren’t actually shot in sequence. Except “My Fair Lady”, so there’s a piece of film trivia for you.

Q: How about working with Christopher Lee?

ZG: Christopher Lee is an amazing guy. First of all, he’s incredibly tall. He;s something like 6’5″. He’s also probably the most polite, well-mannered guy I’ve ever met in my life. His manners are flawless. His acting is flawless. He’s kind, gentle, sweet. And the cool thing was that “Gremlins 2” (affiliate link) was his 200th film, so we had a cake for him and got to sing “happy 200th”. We had a little celebration, he was very gracious, and seemed to get about as misty as an Englishman can get. It was an amazing experience working with a gifted actor like him.

Q: So, there’s this story that when promoting the “Gremlins” films in Chicago, you had a run-in with some local critic celebrities?

ZG: Yeah. Warner Brothers had a legendary publicist working for them named Frank Casey, who was sort of the liaison, he would take everybody around Chicago and do all the usual stuff. So when I was there in 1984, they took me before someone I had never heard of on ABC Chicago named Oprah Winfrey. I did a live spot with her, which is really cool. But I unintentionally got involved with the feud between Siskel and Ebert. They had a really intense rivalry about which one of them was going to get things on the air first. So Siskel had me on some local station, and he thought he was going to trump Ebert by having me on live. But then Ebert found out, so he had me tape a spot with him in front of the Chicago Theater. That’s where it was premiering. And then I went over to the station Siskel was at, and he asked if I had talked to Roger yet. I said, “Yeah, I just came from there.” And he was like “Oh, cool.”

And then they tried to move the live spot up in the news broadcast. And TV stations have a wall of TVs showing the other stations so you know what the other networks are doing. They were getting ready to go live, and I put my microphone on, and while I’m doing that, Ebert came on. He somehow managed to get on a minute or two before Siskel did. Siskel just turned crimson. Three seconds later we went on the air and he had to pretend to be all happy, but he was seething inside that he got beat by 90 seconds. That happened the second time, too, with Ebert sneaking in a minute early. It drove Siskel insane. It was like the Road Runner and Wile Coyote.

Q: Do you think there was something about “Gremlins 2” that killed the franchise?

ZG: Well, I don’t think it was the film that killed the series. I think it was the release date more than anything else. They were originally going to release it May 3, which I now call the “Iron Man” date. So it would be opposite the Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn movie “Bird on a Wire”. (affiliate link) We would have slaughtered that movie. But instead, Warner Brothers got the highest ever cards from test audiences, something like 96%. So they got really cocky. And at the time, they had a friendly rivalry with Columbia, which was putting out “Dick Tracy” (affiliate link) that summer. Warren Beatty, ever the shrewd showman, was dating his co-star Madonna at the time. They were like the biggest couple in the world. But Warner Brothers said, “Hey, we got such good scores, let’s put it opposite ‘Dick Tracy’ and kick their butts.” That plan backfired.

It was released June 15th, two weeks deep into the summer season. And it got slaughtered. I don’t think it was the quality of the film. If you look at the New York Times Blu-ray review they had a couple years ago, it was like I had written it. It was glowing. Joe Dante sent it to me in an e-mail and the subject line said “Vindicated At Last”. A lot has changed since that movie came out. Most studios now generally take their movie and move it rather than put it up against other big movies. It’s stupid to go head-to-head, and it’s just bad for business. But yeah, because of “Dick Tracy”, (affiliate link) the Gremlins sequel made $48 million compared to the first movie’s $148 million.

Q: Let’s talk “Waxwork”.

ZG: Yeah. First of all, “Waxwork II” (affiliate link) is completely insane. I did it and don’t understand it. I showed up, read my lines and tried not to bump into the furniture. We shot it over a five week period, it was a blur. They had an A-unit and B-unit shooting simultaneously. So for five weeks, six days a week, I would shoot with one unit and then go to the other. I really don’t remember much of the shooting other than all the running from one set to the other. Working with Bruce Campbell was, of course, great. So that was cool.

The first one was a little less crazy, but still nuts. The director is a friend of mine, Anthony Hickox. He’s a real horror fan, and a wild guy. Wild Englishman. Working with the individual actors was great. Dana Ashbrook was great, and I love Michelle Johnson. Beautiful woman. Both of those movies were very fun, very silly. Good times. I’m actually surprised that 25 years later people still watch them and bring them up because they were very small, under the radar movies and they’ve managed to have an impressive staying power.

Q: You appeared in “Hatchet III”. How did that come about?

ZG: Well, that was pretty easy. I woke up, checked my e-mail, and there was a message from Adam Green asking if I wanted to do a movie in New Orleans. Click-click-click on the keyboard. Y-E-S. That’s basically how I got that. If you’ve seen his show “Holliston” (affiliate link) or know anything about that guy… he’s “Gremlins” (affiliate link) obsessed. I don’t know if this was conditional, but sort of as a thank you for hiring me, I went over to his house, he put in his “Gremlins” Blu-ray and I did a special, secret commentary for him and Joe Lynch. He would pause different scenes I would tell stories. There’s all sorts of stuff that I can’t really say on the commentary, stuff that would not be “correct”, shall we say. It was the early 80s, I was 19, so there were some shenanigans going on.

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