The Den of Geek interview: Zach Galligan part two

The second part of our Zach Galligan interview features Gremlins belching, the Oscars, celebrity and There Will Be Blood...

Part one of this interview can be found here

A lot of the people in the mid-80s who found fame all went down slightly different paths, and you made some quite bold choices really, when there must have been other opportunities in front of you. Were they conscious choices?

Well, I’d love to say there were tons of choices involves. A lot of times I took what I could get, like most actors do. But there was a good conscious decision in the mid 80s at least to try and do things that were good, that were quality.

I got offered a mini-series that shot in Israel, for an obscene amount of money and I turned it down for a third less money to do Surviving, because I thought that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Now, I don’t know, I have different priorities now. Maybe I would have taken the three-times-as-much-money to get my quote up, I’d probably have literally an extra million dollars. But I’d have probably spent it by now.

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The thing is you can’t tell, you can’t guess how it would have turned out, or whether things would have turned out differently, whether you would have spent the money, whether you’d have taken the project and met somebody, you know?

You’re doing screenwriting now, too?

Yeah, I’ve written two screenplays, one actually is a charming tale about two young girls who obsessively followed The Beatles when they were recording Sergeant Pepper. It’s tentatively called Apple Scruff. And that’s been optioned by the British actor Cary Elwes, although he is a kind-of ex-patriot Malibu resident now…

And is Apple Scruff born out of your love of music yourself?

Well, yeah. I was actually reading through The Beatles Recording Sessions. And this one sentence called out to me, about how The Beatles couldn’t find female backing vocalists on a Sunday evening. So what McCartney did was nipped outside and picked two fans, two young girls who were perpetually waiting outside. And just pulled them off the street and had them sing backing vocals.

And I thought to myself, can you imagine being those two people, hanging around and hoping to get a glimpse of The Beatles, and then to be asked to come inside and make music with arguably the greatest group of the last 100 years?

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You’re quite envious of that…?

Absolute mindblower! I just couldn’t believe that it happened. So I researched the two actual girls, and unfortunately they were basic teenagers, there was nothing distinctively interesting about them. So what I did was take their stories and it’s based on real events. And I sort of created a more interesting and dramatically compelling composite of what happened, what their experience was like. Because they are the only two fans who got to do that.

You said you had a second screenplay too?

Yeah, the second one is much more straightforward. A romantic comedy, so that needs probably one more revision and it’s good to go. And I’m also working on a novel.

So you’ve spent the last years keeping incredibly busy?

Well the thing that was encouraging is that, well, I went to Columbia University, which is a good college here in the States. And I was going to be an English major, and I started with creative writing the first two years I was there. And I got some very, very positive criticism from my professors. They were saying please keep going, the work is good. So I let it go, and when I moved back to New York, and settled down, and got married, and my life stabilised.

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And when you’re married, you get free time to do a lot of things, as opposed to what I used to do which was chase girls 24/7. Now that I’ve been ‘caught’ and ‘tamed’ I’ve turned my attention to other things, and one of the things I’ve turned my attention to is my love of writing. So I wrote Apple Scruff and thought let’s see if it’s any good, and the first person I showed it to optioned it. So I thought, okay, I’m not horrible then.

I was intrigued by something you put on your blog: that you’re convinced that the 2008 Best Picture Oscar will be decided by what you get free in your mailbox. Do you really think that awards season has come down to something as simple as that now?

I think, and I don’t want to say you’ve misread it, but no one will have a shot at winning Best Picture unless every actor gets a copy. That’s what I mean. It’s not that if you send us your film, it’ll win. It’s that if you don’t send us your film, it won’t win.

And I do believe that. Because when you do send all 120,000 actors in the Screen Actors Guild a movie, and let them look at, it generates such a buzz. And like I said, it gratifies the egos of the outside-looking-in actors. You know, where are my screeners? How come I don’t get them?

People say I want to thank the Academy. The Academy is about, y’know, 8,000 people. The Screen Actors Guild is 120,000 people. And that’s a huge difference. And everyone in the Screen Actors Guild votes for Best Picture and the SAG awards. And when you get a SAG Award win, you’re so off and running in terms of building up momentum, I think it’s important.Brokeback Mountain was the prohibitive favourite until Crash, and then Crash, they sent the screener. And everyone was like, y’know, I love you Crash for sending me the screener, I’m going to vote for it. Because if it wins, you know we’ll get more screeners, and then the next year, guess what happened? The people who sent the screeners won, and guess what? We got more screeners. We got Little Miss Sunshine, and The Departed. And which two movies did the best during awards time? Little Miss Sunshine and The Departed.

This year, I can’t wait to see what we’re going to get. Because if they’re smart, they’ll send us the five Best Picture nominees. We should get all five of those, we really should. That way it’ll counterbalance the effect that it is.So do you schedule a screening season in your house?

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I am telling you right now, that’s my next three weeks!

One thing you wrote that really intrigued us, and it made us wonder whether you were happy over how you find fame the way you did: you talk about how the biggest stars are now subjected to a bizarre combination of adoration and total ridicule. And there’s no in-between? I’d suspect that was very different 20 years ago?Yeah, I mean, it’s very strange. One of things, well, the novel that I’m writing about, the theme of it is the effect of celebrity on people’s perceptions. And I think it’s gotten so grotesque in the last.., maybe grotesque isn’t the right word, but so out of proportion to what it should be. It’s almost like now celebrities can now leverage countries.

If you saw what happened with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, when they decided to go to Namibia to give birth to their child, it was like their celebrity was leveraging an African nation. It was just bizarre!

They’re just actors! Only they’re not. They become much, much more than actors now. They become people that are either revered or hyper-idolised or we see this new phenomenon which I call celebrities as pinata, where you pick up a stick and start bashing on them so you can feel better about yourself. And if you bash them enough, all these great prizes will come out and you’ll be even more happy. And it’s just weird.

It’s like, I’m fascinated by the underpinning voices behind it. What drives that? What drives that desire to destroy Paris Hilton? What drives that desire to venerate Angelina Jolie? I do understand it, but it still baffles me. It baffles me when people treat me specially and differently, because I just want to look at them and go ‘what are you talking about, I’m just a person’.

Where would you pitch the responsibility for that? Is it an army of stars followed round by an army of publicists, or do you think it’s a savage media after fresh meat?

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Well, I think really if you had to explain it it would be this. You’ve had corporate consolidation on a mass scale that’s never before been seen in the last 15 to 20 years. And the corporate consolidation has resulted in media consolidation. Because now the Writers’ Guild is basically going up against eight people. They put out an ad, and it’s like this person is the head of Fox, and this person is the head of that. And all of this power is concentrated in a very small group of people.

And I think what they’ve decided is that when you can get eight to ten people in a room and they can decide the fate of the nation or of the media, then you can reach a consensus. So when you talk about the media, you can actually talk about a block of people that have the same agenda. And I think the agenda is to stop Americans and people in general from thinking hard about things. And to stop people from questioning things. Because the best consumer is an uneducated consumer. It’s much easier for me to sell you something if you’re stupid than it is to sell you something if you’re intelligent. I think whether they’ve meant to or not, they’ve dumbed everything down, and they’ve said this is what we worship, money and objects and things and beauty. And that’s it.

So you teach a class of aspiring actors, and we suspect at some point you look at what motivates them to come to a class. What is it that your students are aspring to be? Is it actors or stars?

The students that I have all go to a place called NYU Tisch, School of the Arts. Which is a very prestigious acting institution. All the people that I teach are very, very hyper-artistically inclined. So would they like to be famous? Yes. Do they care about the work? Absolutely. Would some of them be happy being struggling theatre actors so long as they made their rent but they lived around Broadway all the time? Absolutely.

If you constrast that with people in Los Angeles, and some people in New York too, but especially the vibe out in Los Angeles, the difference is that people in Los Angeles are interested in success, people in New York are interested in achievement. There’s a very big difference. The people in New York want to achieve something, the people in LA they just want to achieve success.

And is that one of the things that has tied you closely to New York?

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It’s one of the things that drove me away from LA. There was simply not enough. It’s there. There’s just not emphasis on wanting to achieve something great. Seriously: if people could make money showing somebody taking a shower for 90 minutes, they’d make that. Then they’d do Shower 2, and Shower 3 and Shower 4 and talk about what geniuses they are for making that, and making all the money. But movies about people taking a shower are nothing, just commerce. People at least in New York and some people in LA – you can’t just throw out the baby with the bathwater – but some people in LA are interested in doing great work. But it just seems like very few are interested.

That’s why it’s interesting that someone like Paul Thomas Anderson is such a Los Angelino, because films like There Will Be Blood, that’s an amazing movie that I’m about to write about…

… You’ve seen it? We’re very jealous…

Yeah, I saw it about six weeks ago at a SAG screening, and even though it’s got some colossal problems I think, most notably an ending that makes you go ‘What?!’, Daniel Day Lewis is just so towering in it. And at least Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambition… one of the reasons why he’ll always get a pass from the critics is even if his movies aren’t that great, at least he’s trying to do and say something interesting and moving about, y’know, the human condition. Listen, I like commercial stuff, I’ve been in commercial stuff, I just think there’s got to be more than that.

You’re clearly splitting your time between teaching, writing, television, film: is this deliberate now that you’re floating across a lot of things?

I think it’s the same thing: I looked at your website and I read the Dee Wallace interview, and I have the same feeling that she did. And that’s that you can’t let people detemine what you are. YOU have to determine what you are and send the messages out to people, like ‘hey, I’m a screenwriter, look at this’. You can’t sit around, wondering why people aren’t calling and asking about my writing. You have to put yourself out there, and that’s why I have a blog – and my blog isn’t there to talk about hey look at how amazing I am, here are pictures of me. It’s not really a self-promotional vehicle. It’s to talk about art and music and culture, the world and trends. Anything I’m doing. A slight Internet presence.

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I do it every now and then, because my feeling is that if I don’t have anything interesting to say, I’m not going to say it. Some people have a blog that’s, like, today I brushed my teeth. Well who cares? Who cares that you brushed your teeth. Okay – you brushed your teeth! That’s so massively egocentric it’s just ridiculous.

Going back to the difference between the NY and LA culture. Do you think that’s theatre driven?

The thing that’s the most disappointing about Los Angeles is that it has so much potential to be a theatre town. But nobody cares. The worst theatre I’ve ever seen in my life I’ve seen in LA. I mean some of the theatre is just dreadful. A lot of it is just bored actors saying I’m just going to do it myself, which is great, but it’s just they’re not any good. And the plays aren’t any good. They’re not doing Arthur Miller, they’re doing what they wrote about being actors. And it’s just bad. And then you’ve got some stuff in LA, the LA Opera House, I’ve seen performances there that are just phenomenal. And downtown LA has some good theatre. But why it doesn’t have its equivalent of Broadway I really don’t know. It could so easily have something like that, with all the talent sitting there doing nothing. It’s very strange. It’s a movie town, it always will be a movie town, and all anyone cares about up there is movies.

Are you tempted to do more theatre yourself? You did some in the 80s?

I did Broadway, I did Biloxi Blues, and I did this play out in San Francisco called Doing Judy, which was absolutely hilarious. And then I got offered the chance, last January, to do the great play by Craig Lucas called Reckless, at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and I passed on it because I wanted to stay in New York to teach, and also January, February, March is pilot season out here. And I wanted to take some more shots at getting a regular in a television show.

That’s the thing, that, if you’d ask me what the most baffling thing is about my career, it’s, to me, I seem tailor-made for TV, and yet TV networks never wanted me. People say to me ‘how come you’re not on TV, where’s your TV series?’ And it doesn’t even have to be why aren’t I starring in it. Why haven’t I played a supporting character on a television show? And I can’t answer that question.

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Because you’re done lots of TV, but it tends to be a couple of episodes here, an episode there?

I’ve done tons of TV, but it’s always an episode here and there.

And is that something you’re driving for now?

Well, I’d at least like to try the challenge of working nine months out of the year, which I’ve never done, but nine months out of the year on a project, and trying to create a character long term, I think that’d be really interesting. To say nothing of the fact that it would be kind of nice, considering I live in Manhattan, which next to London and Tokyo is one of the three most expensive places to live.Have you tried writing for television?

I actually haven’t, but I have a couple of ideas.Before we wrap up, we have to ask you this: we’ve been told on absolute authority that you did the Gremlin belching noises?

Yes I did. There was a lot of craft service on the set of these movies, and I had a habit of drinking diet soda. And diet soda tends to be a little bit more carbonated, or seems to be, than regular. So I could belch like insanely loudly, and I’d walk around the set sometimes and let rip. And people would be like, that’s absolutely disgusting.

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So they said to be in the end, when you come in and do the Gremlins looping, do you want to do Gremlins belching as well, and I said sure. And I came in, and I grabbed a Diet Coke, and they said get up there, and when you feel like you’re ready to go, then go. And I stepped up to to the microphone, and I chugged the soda, and the people behind the desk were going ‘Gremlin belching take one’, and they point to me.

And I turned my back to them, chugged the soda and I belched for the better part of a minute fifteen seconds, a really long time. And you’ve got to remember that my back is to the sound technician, so when I’m done, I get the last little bit out. So I say how was that, and I turn around, and the sound technicians are slumped on the sound boards with their heads down, convulsing with laughter. They’re laughing so hard that they didn’t want to ruin the take, they lift their head up and they’ve got tears over their faces.

And then there’s a glass booth behind, where Joe Dante and Mike Finnell were, and they were howling with laughing at the sound guys’ reaction. It was one of the funniest fucking things you’ve ever heard!

They used a lot of it in the movie. And one of the belches was found to be so perfect that it got taken off and put on a permanent Hollywood sound effects reel, to replace the old one.

Do you get repeat fees on it?

I don’t get residuals on it, but there are a couple of episodes of Seinfeld where Kramer belches, and it’s unmistakably my belch. My wife even recognises it. She says ‘oh my God honey, that’s your belch!”. She was justifiably proud!

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So where for you in the next year or two? More writing, more acting?

Basically what the plan is now, I don’t think too many people have more acting jobs right now because of the strike. So everything’s kind of shut down, and we’re in a holding pattern. And when you’re in a holding pattern and there’s nothing to do, the key thing then is to work even harder. Now you can fix the parts of the scripts that were in trouble, write the novel you’ve been putting off, do this, do that, etcetera. So I’m going to go really hard into the writing, I start teaching again from January 23rd, all the way through August. So teaching a lot of the time, writing a lot of the time, and we’ll see what happens with the strike. Because once it’s resolved, you’ll see a tremendous amount of work ramp up. There’s a lot of people waiting on the sidelines ready to work, and they’ll be a big explosion of activity once it gets resolved. But I don’t think that’ll be for a couple of months.

Zach Galligan, thank you very much!

You can find Zach’s blog, There’s Nothing You Can Do, right here.