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‘Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai’: Joe Dante’s Take, Pitching Steven Spielberg, Gizmo Charisma, Getting China Right

Annecy 2022
Courtesy of Warner Bros

HBO Max’s animated prequel series “Gremlins: Spirit of the Mogwai,” which world premiered on June 16 at France’s Annecy Animation Festival, begins with a hint of “The Sound of Music.”

A young Gizmo stands in his bucolic grassy homeland, hidden down a huge hole in snowbound high Himalayas, chanting from a circular stone dias, replete with mysterious engravings. As his fellow Mogwai chant back, positioned on grassy knolls around him, suddenly the hills are alive with the sound of Mogwai.

Then a shadow falls out of the sky – a huge heinous eagle plummeting towards the Mogwai. Most scarper. Plucky Gizmo, however, hurls rocks at the eagle and, flipped up onto its back, is transported out of his home, as the eagle whooshes up the hole in retreat.

Falling into a boat on a young Yangtze river, Gizmo is discovered by a travelling circus and taken to 1920s Shanghai.

Joe Dante on a Game-Changing Steven Spielberg’s Decision

The opening is a literal origins story, giving early part-explanation as to how Gizmo ends up in a Chinatown antique store at the beginning of 1984’s “Gremlins.”

It will also serve to enamour a new generation of audiences to Gizmo, a plucky orange bat-eared pelt-bodied Mogwai with a heart of gold – possibly the cutest furball in cinema history.

On Thursday, 38 years after he brought Gizmo to the world, “Gremlins” director Joe Dante received a hero’s welcome as he walked to the stage at Annecy’s Bonlieu Grand Salle for a post-screening Q&A on the HBO 10-part half hour series, produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin and Warner Bros. Animation. He was accompanied on-stage by Tze Chun and Brendan Hay, the show’s executive producers.

“No one is more surprised than we are that this franchise is still popular after 40 years,” Dante confided. But credit has to be given where it’s due, he argued.

“In the original script of ‘Gremlins,’ the Gizmo character turned into a bad Gremlin after about half an hour. We planned to make the movie a little bit darker,” Dante told a hushed audience, awed by the presence of this filmmaking legend.

“But Steven Spielberg decided in his wisdom that Gizmo should stick around and be the hero’s pal. If we had made the movie the other way, nobody would remember it. The addition of Gizmo made the difference. In his own way, he’s the star of the movie.”

Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai”: The Set-Up 

Gizmo is also one of the stars of “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai.” The other, from a first episode viewed in Annecy, looks set to be the snub-nosed 10-year old Sam Wing, the future shop owner Mr. Wing in the 1984 movie.

Season 1 explains how Sam and Gizmo meet and finally bond as, with street thief Elle, they battle to return Gizmo to his family and uncover a legendary treasure, crossing much of China.

When receiving the first-draft screenplay, “What I responded to most was the idea of doing a prequel, especially after I had kind of made the sequel to ‘Gremlins’ sequel-proof. It’s a brilliant way of getting back into the series by going back to the roots,” Dante said.

If Episode 1 is anything to go by, “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” weighs in as highly Amblin-esque, a big premium play for the entire family – kids 8+, co-viewing parents and adult original movie fans, says Warner Bros. Animation– which frames a coming-of-age tale in epic adventure, exploring themes of family and friendship.

One particular lure for Chun, the series writer and showrunner, was seeing the friendship between Sam and Gizmo develop over the course of the season, he said. “It was really important to us that they just don’t become friends right away because they come from two different worlds.”

Amblin and Warner Bros. Animation were also very excited about exploring the Gremlins mythology, Chun noted. The show adds a fourth rule about how to treat Mogwai, Hay added.

Pitching Steven Spielberg, Producing in Lockdown with France

Making “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” took four-to-five years,” Hay recalled.

One milestone was pitching Steven Spielberg. “I was incredibly nervous. I knew that I was nervous when I was stressing out in the parking lot,” Chun admitted, to audience laughter. “We pitched and it went well. And Steven Spielberg’s first question was: ‘Is Joe happy?’

First footage just began to come in as COVID-19 struck, Hay recalled. “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” was produced with France’s Blue Spirit studios, which supplied animation. Remarkably, working across two continents, the rest of the show was pretty well produced in lockdown.

“One thing we always went back to throughout the whole production in every department from story boards to animation was to keep the feel of an Amblin movie,” said Hay. “So the scares have to actually be scary, the laughs have to really play as funny and you have to actually care about the characters.

There was one hint of the scares at the end of Episode 1 as Elle meets up with the English industrialist whose eyes flame unnaturally.

The Look, and Techniques

One visual reference for “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” was “Spirited Away” and other “painterly” films, said Chun.  CG sometimes can age. We wanted to make a show that didn’t age quite as quickly: We wanted it to feel like if you actually paused the frames, you can see brushstrokes,” he added.

Backgrounds are painted, the characters, however, are CG: “We wanted to move the camera in a very cinematic way, like the original movies and Amblin films,” Chun said.

Caught on a large screen, such as the Bonlieu’s, one of the major visual impacts of “Secrets of the Mogwai” is the kinetic power of long dolly-style shots, the camera hurtling down passageways backstage at the circus, or gliding past Himalaya peaks and ice walls, adopting the eagle’s POV.

Each episode has its own visual concept, delivering different kinds of scares, Chun anticipated.

The Series’ Importance for the American Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Community

“I remember on day one when I was writing the pilot, and I got to write as the first line: ‘Note to the reader. Unless otherwise noted, all characters are Chinese,’” Chun recalled.

“I honestly never thought that I would live long enough for that to be the case, that I could write that into a screenplay of a show for a studio that was going to be distributed on a major network,” he added.

“Behind the camera, so many of the storyboard artists, and directors [of departments] are Chinese American. We have incredible Chinese and Asian voice cast,” Chun went on.

The series is steeped in Chinese culture and mythology, producers, writers, directors and artists conducting extensive research to portray 1920s China accurately while introducing the audience to spirits and monsters packing out Chinese mythology. Sam’s grandpa was originally imagined, for example, as having a queue cut – shaved with a long ponytail – but this was finally ruled out as historically inaccurate. Mythological figures include fox spirits and inhabitants of a Spirit Market, based on ancient watercolours of underworld ghosts.

1984 “Gremlins” was made with envelope-pushing black comedy, tipping its hat to ‘50s B movies. Such figures are one indication that the animated prequel series will indeed get darker.