“Movies Aren’t Really Made That Way Anymore”: The Cast of ‘Gremlins’ on Nostalgia, ‘Gremlins 3,’ and the Making of a Cult Classic

The line of ticketholders stretched clear around the corner of 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street on New York’s Lower East Side; it’s not a giant auditorium, the second screen there at the Anthology Film Archives, and Saturday night’s screening of Gremlins — part of Anthology’s retrospective for character actor Dick Miller, pegged to their run of the new documentary tribute That Guy Dick Miller — had sold out quickly. The enthusiastic crowd filed in shortly before the 9:15pm start time, buoyed not just by the opportunity to see this 1984 fave on the big screen (on 35mm, no less), but by a Gremlins reunion, with supporting player Miller and stars Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates fielding questions beforehand from the super-fans. The Q&A started a little late, as people from the stand-by line were allowed in to fill the few empty seats. The three actors sat in their chairs, in front of the audience, for a good ten minutes before it began, as fans stared and popped photos, like they were behind the glass of a cult movie aquarium. From my front-row center seat, I overheard Galligan muse to his co-stars, “The power of nostalgia…”

Moderator Michael Gingold of Fangoria — fondly recalling his first viewing of the film as a 16-year old movie geek — led the discussion, which (in keeping with the spirit of the retrospective) began with the two younger actors recalling working with Mr. Miller. Galligan, making his big-screen debut, was so intimated by the veteran actor that he stuttered a bit in his first scene with him; when his mother first saw that scene in the movie, she asked, “What’s the matter with you?” His reply: “I’m working with Dick Miller, Ma.”

Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan in "Gremlins"

From there, the conversation expanded to their memories of the production — a difficult one, heavy on puppets and practical effects and the like. “Movies aren’t really made that way anymore, with that kind of animatronic, hand-worked… it took a real village,” Cates recalled. “You’d have like, one guy at your feet here, blowing a straw that was meant to just have one effect, and two guys here, and one person sort of helping — it just was incredible.”

That stark difference, between the puppetry and “real” creatures of 1984 and the CGI effects of now, are one reason why a new Gremlins seems like a stretch, Galligan explained when that question came up (as it presumably always does). “What it really comes down to is two major things,” he said. “One, it’s been 25, 26 years since we shot Gremlins 2. It’s an incredibly long time to come up with a part three, from a business standpoint. But the other situation really is the advent of CGI, and now it’s totally eclipsed practical effects and animatronics — so if a studio wants to do it, they’re not gonna pay for the practical effects. It’s just gonna be CGI. And if it’s gonna be a CGI thing, Joe [Dante, director of both films] doesn’t wanna have anything to do with it. So there you go.”

For what it’s worth, Gilligan has a solution: “I think it should be Gizmo with practical effects, and then the gremlins with CGI. Little compromise there.” He’s given it some thought, and you can’t blame him. When I asked all three actors if there was a specific moment from the shoot, a specific memory that encapsulated the experience for them, only Galligan could conjure one up: “It was all so new, and I was so young. I guess maybe the last shot, when I realized it was the last shot — I think it was August, the first week of August. And Joe was like, ‘Yep, this is the last shot, you’re done.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ Pretty trippy.”

Zach Galligan, Dick Miller, and Phoebe Cates at Anthology Film Archive's reunion screening of 'Gremlins'

Not long after that, the Q&A wrapped up so they could run the film. The guy next to me had a replica of Mohawk from Gremlins 2, in his “spider gremlin” form; as Phoebe Cates passed in front of us, he asked her to sign it. He handed her a Sharpie. She signed it. I thought about Galligan’s memory of the end of the shoot, how it was so new and he was so young; he’s not so young now, 51 years old, with 63 IMDb credits that don’t have the word “Gremlins” in their title. But he knows the score. “I’m still that guy from Gremlins,” he told the Daily Mail last year, somewhat haunted by his decision to head to college after the film’s success, rather than going to L.A. and striking while the iron was hot.

Maybe it’s depressing to feel that regret, to spend your life reliving this experience you had when you were 20, but if that’s the case, Galligan doesn’t show it. He was the first one to arrive for the screening, tossing his jacket over his chair at the front of the theater, affably signing autographs and posing for photos. And as I ducked out of the screening, I couldn’t help but notice Galligan standing in the back of the theater with That Guy Dick Miller cinematographer Elle Schneider, watching a movie he’s probably seen more than any of us. As he said, nostalgia is a powerful thing—but no one is immune from it.

Anthology Film Archives’ Dick Miller program continues through April 12. They will screen Gremlins (and Gremlins 2: The New Batch) on April 10, with director Joe Dante in attendance.