Gremlins Secrets of the Mogwai Interview: Tze Chun, Joe Dante
Gizmo, the OG small but mighty, big-eyed, big-eared hero is back! The adorable Gremlins creature returns in animated form to take us back in time and uncover his history in Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai.
Spoilers of the Week | June 3rd
io9 sat down with the showrunner of the new Max series, Tze Chun, and Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch director Joe Dante to talk about the return to the beloved cult franchise after nearly 40 years. “I came in a little late,” Dante explained. “I found out about the show, I called Warner Bros., and I thought it was a great concept; I said, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help you guys, let me know.’ And they were very accommodating—they brought me in, I gave my input and all that kind of stuff. But it was well on the way before I went in there.”
Chun (whose other credits include Gotham and comics publisher TKO Studios) gave Dante his flowers—“All Joe did was inspire the entire series!”—before adding, “This just came out of a conversation with Warner Bros., Amblin, [Warner Bros. Animation’s] Sam Register, and [Gremlins executive producer] Steven Spielberg about wanting to do a Gremlins animated prequel. And I came in with a take about the young Sam Wing.”
Secrets of the Mogwai canonically exists in the same universe as Dante’s Gremlins films, the showrunner explained. “There’s the old Mr. Wing from the original movies that he’s in, number one and number two,” Chun said. In the films, the elderly character is played by the late Keye Luke, and he does not want to sell Gizmo to the Peltzer family—for all the chaotic reasons we see as the story progresses. The animated series takes us to 1920s Shanghai, China, where it introduces 10-year old Sam Wing and explores the character’s first adventures with Gizmo before they embarked to America. “Really early on when we were talking about the show, [it was] something that we wanted parents, kids, and teenagers—the whole family to watch together. Me and my co-showrunner Brendan Hay, we’re obviously huge fans of the original movies and we want to make sure that the show appealed to fans of the original movies while also bringing in new fans.”
Audiences are in for a real treat with the Amblin-produced series, which has earned Spielberg’s stamp of approval. It harkens back to the energy of the original films with its action scenes and signature dashes of dark humor and scary moments—something that was important to Chun. “One of the things that I remember really clearly when I first watched the Gremlins movie—and like many members of our writing team, cast and crew, we all watched Gremlins probably too early—we love the movie, laughed really hard. We’re also traumatized by the movie,” Chun said. “And so we really want to capture that tone of being funny and scary and idiosyncratic—everything that Joe did with the movies.”
Dante jumped in, adding, “But that’s part of the key of the whole show—one of the things I most admire about the series is that it’s managed to keep that light and dark thing going on, very much like the original two movies.”
Secrets of the Mogwai’s approach to that signature Gremlins tone is infused with Chun’s take on Sam Wing’s family history and culture, connecting Gizmo and his fellow Mogwai to Chinese folklore. “You know the Mogwai as supernatural creatures; they’re kind of like Chinese legends and myths and creatures and monsters in that Chinese monsters typically have rules of how they operate. They’re really scary, but they’re also really funny. And so to be able to meld those two—the Gremlins franchise with the backdrop of 1920s China—was really, really fun.”
The Mogwai origins in the mind of Dante and original screenwriter Chris Columbus actually took inspiration from Warner Bros.’ own legacy of animation. “There’s a lot of Looney Tunes influence,” Dante confirmed. His Gremlins share some DNA with the gremlin in 1934 Looney Tunes short Falling Hare, directed by Robert Clampett, where Bugs Bunny encounters a cute but chaotic little creature who instigates some dangerous hijinks on a plane. Dante elaborated: “And in fact, [Looney Tunes animator] Chuck Jones is even in the movie and Billy wants to be a cartoonist,” he said, referencing the scene where Gizmo’s new guardian Billy Pelzer meets with “Mr. Jones,” played by the animation great in a brief cameo, to show him his art.
“The thing about about the franchise is, the reason it’s been so popular over the years is because Steven Spielberg decided at the last minute that Gizmo should not change into the bad gremlin after 30 minutes,” Dante said, taking us back to that behind-the-scenes moment. “And he should, in fact, stick around for the entire movie and be the hero’s pal, which was horrifying to us because we’d only built this little bucket of bolts to last for 30 minutes, and now we had to make him the hero of the movie. But in retrospect, I really believe that the difference between Gremlins and and the Ghoulies and the other imitations and munchies was that this character had a heart. It’s the appeal of, like, a baby; he’s kind of like a baby. And Howie Mandel did this voice that was very like a baby character. That’s what the audience fell in love with. And that was the difference between a movie that’s just got a lot of monsters eating people, and a movie that has heart. I think that just kept it alive all these years.”
With Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai expanding the Wing family history, we had to ask if there’s room to explore Mr. Wing’s grandson’s story in any future Gremlins projects, maybe even crossing over with the grown-up Billy Peltzer in a live-action Gremlins 3? Dante laughed and steered the conversation back to the series (we tried!), saying, “That’s the time travel episode that we have not discussed yet.”
Chun added, “I mean, we certainly have a lot of time between 1920s China and the original Gremlins movies. And so we’re hoping for many more seasons after this.”
Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai starts streaming on Max (formerly HBO Max) on May 23.
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