The Den of Geek interview: Zach Galligan part one

In the first part of our interview with Zach Galligan, he talks Gremlins, Cloverfield, his new film and being the 45th greatest teen star of all time...

Zach Galligan found fame with the Gremlins movies, and since then has done a wealth of television and film work, along with a lot more besides. Just before Christmas, he spared us an hour for a chat…

Can we start by talking about your new film, Let Them Chirp Awhile? It seems to be attracting quite a lot of attention, and wondered if you could tell us about it?

This one was interesting. The guy who came up with it was an NYU film student, and he e-mailed me the script…

Does that happen a lot with actors, you being sent the script direct…?

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Well, now we have the Internet it’s happening a lot more. If you put up a blog, people can cut out the middle man and get material to you. Which is really helpful because a lot of time there’s really cool stuff out there that we just don’t see. Because, y’know, the agent is acting in our best interest, but it does sometimes prevent some of the good stuff from getting through.

So I got the script and I read it, and I liked the part. And I thought it was something that I had to do. So I signed up and did it. We shot it last year and it just turned out really, really well. If you check out some of the reviews it’s been getting…

We have..

It’s really charming and it’s about a group of mid to late 20 years olds living in the east village of New York, trying to become creators for the first time and finding out how difficult it is to create anything when it’s already been done. And I play an older hack/playwrite who they kind of look up to, and everyone thinks is a genius, but really he’s just stolen everything from everyone else and passed it off as original.

On your blog, when you were about to start shooting the film, you wrote “Thank the lord, no special effects”. Have you had your fill of them?

Well, all I meant by that was it’s refreshing sometimes to go in and just do some acting. Just simple things where you memorise the lines and say them to other actors without being covered in wires, blood, make-up or whatever.

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And you teach acting now?

Yes, I teach the audtioning class at a place called Stonestreet Studios, which is a school affiliated with NYU.

And how do your students feel about being taught by the 45th greatest teen star of all time?

Well, y’know, some of them did see that on VH1. I don’t know. I think some of them think it’s cool, I guess!

Well there’s not many people who can claim it, to be fair!

I think they think it’s kind of fun!

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And how do you feel about it?

Well, y’know, I was really kind of surprised to get that high up in the ranking. When I participated in it I would have been happy to have got in the 90s. When I turned up in the 40s I was pretty, er, well I was ‘dead chuffed’ about it.

The other thing I picked up from your blog is that you seem quite a fan of the UK?I am. I love England and I love English culture, particularly English pop culture. I was just over there in October for my friend’s wedding and my wife had never been to London before so we had a great time. Doing a lot of touristy things, and a lot of untouristy things.

And I’ve seen Withnail & I maybe 50 times! I show it in my classes when I want to teach some comedy. Because Richard E Grant, there’s not once where he’s really being funny in the movie, he’s playing the reality. He’s great. You can never play something as if you realise the comedy of it.

Can we take you back to the start of your career? We don’t get everything over here that’s made in America, but it seems America didn’t get Nothing Lasts Forever, which seems an intriguing little film and we’d not heard of it before?

It was a very strange situation, because when I got the part, it was really the first lead in a movie I ever got. And I got it in April of 1982, so you’re talking 25 years ago. And, y’know, I thought that that, quite honestly, was going to be my big ticket. Here I am doing a movie with Saturday Night Live people, with Lorne Michaels producing it, and Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and even John Belushi was going to be in it, until he passed away about a month before we were going to start shooting it.So here I am the lead, with all this stuff going on. And then I did the movie, and it turned out very differently, I mean. It’s very artistic and offbeat, and interesting: it’s peculiar and dreamlike, it’s just not a commercial movie. As a result, MGM just had no idea how to market it. They were just baffled. So it kind of fell between the cracks, and to be honest, MGM took it as a tax loss, which meant they couldn’t make any kind of profit on it. They couldn’t release it on DVD.

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So basically what happened was I think they sold it to Turner Broadcasting, and for whatever reason Turner is allowed to show it in Europe. And they showed it in Europe several years ago, and a Dutch kid called Mike Streeter fell in love with it, he sort of championed the movie. And he’s written a book about it called Nothing Lasts Forever.

So now we’ve been having a whole bunch of screenings in the last two or three years, including one this year out in Long Island. Then we had one in 2005, at Lincoln Center, which is like having a screening at the Royal Albert Hall. And it was great, we had a question and answer, Bill Murray was there, he was hilarious. And it was pretty amazing to see 23 years later, people start to appreciate the movie. I’m very proud of it. I just don’t know if it’s for everybody.

And obviously your big ticket movie arrived just a year or two later with Gremlins. How did it come about?

Well the thing that’s so weird about Gremlins was that people would think that there was some massive competition for the role. And maybe there was behind the scenes, but as far as I experienced it, I went in and met the casting director Susan Arnold. We had a chat for ten minutes, came back the next day, met the producer Mike Finnell, he apologised and said Joe Dante was sick and couldn’t make it, but he really liked my reading. So he wanted to see my reading and then he asked me afterwards if I would come in a couple of days later and screentest. And I said sure.

So I came back in and there was Phoebe Cates, and we got paired together. And they put us both on tape and we did it once. And they said thank you very much and left it. I went off for Spring Break, and I was gone a day and a half when I got a call saying you’ve got to come right back because you’ve got the part. It was one of the easiest parts I’ve ever gotten. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Is it a movie you’re still fond of?

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Well, y’know, I’m not trying to compare myself to The Beatles, because I’m not The Beatles! But they went through this thing where I know George Harrison said ‘can we stop talking about The Beatles because I do other things’. And then eventually, later in life, he came around and said y’know, The Beatles is a pretty great band to have been a part of. So I think I went through a period when I wished everyone would shut up about Gremlins. Because I got fed up that people just talked about Gremlins, Gremlins, Gremlins. And it became such a big part of my life it started to become my identify by 1991. So I think I went through a period of refusing it. But I think now enough time has gone by and yeah, I love it. I think it’s cute, and in America it’s become a cultural icon.

Did the fact that you were getting fed up with talking about Gremlins impact that films you chose to make, particularly in the 1990s?

Well I think I became very good friends with the director Anthony Hickox and we did a few Waxwork movies, and I also did a little appearance in Warlock 2 as a cameo, and Hellraiser 3 where I was impaled with a pool cue. And then he wanted me to do, I can’t remember, a horror movie, and I was look: I kind of have to step away from the horror genre for a while or that’s all I’m going to do. I’m going to turn into John Saxon, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I wanted to do other things.

So, yeah, I wanted to do other things. I did a lot of television stuff, I also had done The Hitchhiker, Tales From The Crypt, I had done everything you could do in the horror genre. I had done a movie like Waxwork, I’d done the scary Spielberg movie, I’d kind of done it all. So now like, can I do movies about falling love, or having a girlfriend, or having relationships? And it wasn’t where every time I went to work I was covered in blood.

Gremlins though is still hugely popular over here, inspiring many spin off movies. But there’s an old adage about never work with animals or children. Where do Gremlins fit in to that?

Well, I think it was W C Fields who said that, and he was right. You’re certainly not going to get much credit. If you stop and think about who was in the Lassie movies, it’s difficult to think who was in them, apart from Elizabeth Taylor. You remember the dog, not the people! So if you’re going to be in a movie and it’s called Gremlins, it’s going to be about Gremlins, and what people are going to remember are the Gremlins. So you’re going to pretty much anticipate that.

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It was slightly different from that, though. I think what helped differentiate Gremlins was that there were a series of interesting characters?

I think one of the reason why the second movie..[pauses]… there are two reasons why the second movie didn’t do as well as the first movie. The first primary reason is the scheduling. It should have come out in May. Instead, they got cocky, they got amazing test scores, and they tried to get it out opposite Dick Tracy. And we got slaughtered because we could not compete with the Warren Beatty/Madonna thing. If he hadn’t been dating Madonna, I think we would have probably won. In the 1990s, she was like a supernova we just couldn’t get past.

But the other reason that I think is a problem with Gremlins 2 is that I don’t think the humans and the Gremlins interact enough. You have a human section, and then you have an all-Gremlin section, and then you have human, then Gremlin. So there are sections of Gremlins 2 where after four or five minutes you’re, like, I’m in a Muppet movie. And I think that’s a problem. I think if you look at the first Gremlins, the Gremlins and the humans interaction is never lost, they’re seamlessly woven together at all times, with maybe a slight exception being the bar scene.

There was also quite an unnaturally long gap between the two films? Was that something to do with Joe Dante being reluctant to go back and do another one?

You’d have to ask Joe Dante that. But one thing I can tell you is that very few people understand what Joe Dante and his producer Mike Finnell went through on those Gremlins movies, and why they’re so reluctant to do a third. That is that they wanted to do it right, and to do it right you needed to do animatronics.

When we shot the first one, we started shooting in mid-April 1983, and we finished the first week of August for the human part. Now, I left and I went back to New York, and they stayed there for another four months, shooting nothing but creature stuff. So I came back in November/December, and I’d moved on with my life. I was so excited about the movie, and I come back to the same studios to visit them, the same stages that I shot on five months earlier, and they’re all still there, but burnt to a crisp. Trying to get these puppets to do things. And that’s not even mentioned the year and a half of pre-production that went into the movie.

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So the same thing, it’s a two to three year thing for them with these puppets. And they’ve done six years of it out of their life. The idea of another three years? Firstly, they don’t know what else to explore – there’s not been anything that’s made them go ‘wow, that’s really interesting’. And I think maybe if they saw something they liked maybe they would. And as far as money goes, they’re fine for money. So I think they say listen, for us to go through hell again for another three years, it’s got to be something spectacular.

And the studio keeps wanting them to use CGI and they don’t want to use CGI because they think it looks like animation. And it’s a problem.

They show both films over here fairly regularly, and the mechanics of the creatures themselves seem a lot more sophisticated in the second one. So what was the difference for you?

I think by the time of the second one, they had really figured out ways so that the Gizmo didn’t have to be strapped so much to me, but could be strapped to pieces of furniture or objects. So in the second one there’s that cute scene where I take Gizmo and put him the filing cabinet, and I close the door and his hand starts thumping and thumping like it’s a cartoon hand. And there’s an example of the screenwriter, yknow, almost saying I’m going to try to avoid having it strapped to Billy, so we’re gonna try it in the filing cabinet because that’ll be easier.

And then I put it in the tool box and go and talk to him when he’s in there. That was a simple trick where you go and have a shot of me putting the toolbox down, I open the box and then we cut. Then we took a different angle and they drilled a hole through the sink in the bathroom, and they’re operating it through a hole in the sink. Because after we’re done shooting the scene, they won’t need the bathroom any more, so they can destroy it.

So they just carve a huge hole, and put the Gizmo through the hole, and then through the bottom of the toolbox, and they shoot his close up like that. It was a much more conscious effort to get the Gizmo out of my hands. The biggest thing of course, don’t forget, was there was a change at the top of the special effects, and we went from Chris Walas to Rick Baker.

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Now I tend not to use hyperbole, but I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that Rick Baker is a genius with a capital G. The guy’s revolutionised everything he’s touched. He’s unbelievably brilliant, and when he approaches things, his knowledge of technology, he’s like ahead of the curve. He’s just a brilliant guy.

And when he came in, some of the stuff he did with some of the Gremlins in Gremlins 2, at the time, it was absolutely jaw dropping. I mean, with the intelligent Gremlin, the brain Gremlin, that was voiced by Tony Randall, he came up with this system that works with the voice. And once you have the tapes, you had this thing where the computer was attached to all of the wires.

So this combination of pulling on the wires would create this facial expression that mimicked the letter E. And this pulling on the wires would do the letter G, all the way through the alphabet. And they’d get the voice, would phonetically transpose everything by computer for the facial expressions, and there’d be a two and a half second delay. So you would play the tape, it would go through this incredible computerised thing, and the Gremlin would sit there and would be talking, and it would be about two and a half seconds behind. Then, all you had to do was move the tape up two and a half seconds and it fit perfectly. So when you played the tape back, it looked like the thing was talking. And remember, he did that in 1989, way before the Internet, and way before computer programs were sophisticated. It was on another level.

You should have seen – when he demonstrated that thing, everyone was stood around like it was some kind of magical invention. It was unbelievable. It was an incredibly high level of sophistication.

And they spent a lot of money on Gremlins 2. The first Gremlins they spent about $16m on that, and now it’s six years later, and the budget was $37m. Okay, the budgets are so huge and astronomical now, but that’s almost like making a $120m with no stars. It’s like you’ll see this movie coming out, Cloverfield, and you’ll see what that’s going to be like when you don’t have to pay stars and go with unknown actors. And that’s going to be a $70m movie, and you’ll see what $70m gets you when you don’t have to pay above the line talent.

You followed up Gremlins yourself with Surviving, one of your most acclaimed roles. And if we’ve calculated this right, you must have been very early 20s and acting next to Paul Sorvino, Molly Ringwald, Ellen Burstyn and River Phoenix?

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You’re correct, I was 20 when we shot that movie. It was pretty intimidating at the table read, I gotta tell you. You’ve got an Oscar winner, Oscar nominee and a future Oscar nominee in Paul Sorvino, a Tony nominee. Everybody involved in it was pretty solid. So yeah, you just had to come with you’re ‘A’ game.

And I think the key thing was that the script was good. You see with the Writers’ Strike going on here, and it’s important. Because if you’ve got a great script, the movie will follow almost no matter who you put in it. But if you’ve got a poorly written script it doesn’t matter. You can put the greatest actors in it, it’s going to come off poorly.


Click here for part two of the interview, featuring Gremlins belching, the Oscars and the modern day celebrity…