Forgetting about the man-hours that go into a film production before the cameras start rolling is something many of us do. People do so where it concerns art and labor in most fields because it’s easier to reduce finished products to the “genius” or “talent” of a creator than fathom the work that actually goes into making those indelible traits possible. So watching an Oscar-winning make-up/special effects artist like Chris Walas go through the process of advancing from reading a script that seemed impossible to bring to fruition to flying by the seat of his pants on-set with months of preparation and a wealth of ingenuity proves invaluable. Besides experiencing test footage few have ever seen, such an endeavor also reminds us that “movie magic” is anything but.
So while Gremlins: A Puppet Story may not look or feel like a polished feature film, it undeniably lives up to its promise of shedding light on a regularly disregarded piece of the Hollywood puzzle. Culled together from VHS tapes and still photos shot for internal purposes such as lighting, articulation, and practicality, Walas takes us back three-and-a-half decades to the apartment where much of who and what Gizmo the Mogwai and Stripe the Gremlin could and would become originated. Think darkened college lecture room with a speaker standing behind a podium in the front of the class as images play on the big-screen to get a sense of what he’s put together. It’s an assemblage of rare documentation set to stream-of-consciousness commentary by the artist who made it happen.
Expect some awkward starts and stops as well as some repetition when visuals from the beginning and ending conjure identical responses. But know that the same unscripted style that ensures these dry moments manifest also fosters the unencumbered environment necessary for anecdotal gems to fly left and right. We feel the anguish in Walas’ voice as he sees a photograph of Gremlins being molded to recall how he didn’t yet know at that moment that Warner Bros. was seriously thinking of tanking the entire project. We sense the mix of exasperation and adulation when the shift from a monochrome Mogwai to a duotone palette arrives alongside the admission that Steven Spielberg requested the creature look more like his dog at the eleventh hour—a marked improvement.
It’s these types of serendipitous revelations that put us into Walas’ shoes while also exposing how amorphous and malleable a production this size is. Case and point: Gizmo wasn’t a character for a majority of his lengthy preparation because he wasn’t yet part of the script. Think about that. The third lead beside Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates was literally a last minute addition demanding both rewrites and an evolution of thinking and mechanics to turn tiny puppets Walas thought he’d be able to forget about after the first act into the heart of the entire film. I’m pretty sure I grew an ulcer just hearing him talk about the stress he had to overcome despite knowing via hindsight that he did ultimately succeed in full.
That’s what makes this film important beyond its aesthetic shortcomings. It might be a glorified behind-the-scenes DVD extra, but that fact doesn’t erase the unique insight or archival treasures contained within that will make any fan of Gremlins rejoice and every movie-craft historian or prospective puppet-maker/puppeteer salivate. Walas has practically put together a master-class for anyone to watch as a means for inspiration, education, or entertainment depending on his/her goals. It’s the story of maquettes and sketches capturing the imagination of collaborators and financiers alike to create something wholly new and exciting. From there it moves into weeks of process of elimination and months of fabrication with the help of a village of artists all focused on the same ambition: to bring the impossible to life.