One of the first things the writers of “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” did when they started developing the show was brainstorm and write down every question they’d ever had about the mysterious little creatures on a giant whiteboard.
Tiny, furry, adorable bipeds with giant ears, the Mogwai were first introduced in Joe Dante’s 1984 classic “Gremlins.” The film established that there were three important rules to follow when dealing with Mogwai: don’t get them wet, feed them after midnight or expose them to light. But not much else about the creatures, including their origins, was ever explored in the film or its 1990 sequel.
For Tze Chun, the showrunner and executive producer of “Secrets of the Mogwai,” which premiered on the newly rebranded Max on Tuesday, the “Gremlins” mystery that consumed him most was around the elderly shopkeeper Mr. Wing (played by the Chinese American actor Keye Luke) and his history with the Mogwai Gizmo.
“You understand that he’s Gizmo’s protector, but you don’t really know very much else about the relationship,” said Chun of Mr. Wing during a recent call. In the original film, the shopkeeper only appears briefly at the beginning and the end of the film, reflecting the sensibilities of that time.
“I think that for Asian Americans growing up in the time period that I did, you really zero in on any type of representation on screen, like Short Round [from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984)] and Data [from “ The Goonies “ (1985)],” said Chun. “The list is short. [So] when you’re looking at them, you’re projecting so much on them because it’s so rare that you get to see it. You just wonder what their backstory is, what their interior life is.”
An animated prequel series, “Secrets of the Mogwai” is set in the 1920s. Ten-year-old Sam Wing (voiced by Izaac Wang) — who grows up to be the Mr. Wing in “Gremlins” — lives a happy if responsibly routine life helping out at his family’s medicine shop in Shanghai. But that life is forever changed when Sam meets Gizmo (A.J. LoCascio) and is tasked with delivering the Mogwai back to his home.
Joined by a street smart teenage thief named Elle (Gabrielle Nevaeh Green), the new traveling companions have to navigate their own trust issues as well as various supernatural obstacles along the way. The 10-episode season tells the story of their journey across China as well as the story of how their relationship evolves — with all of the associated emotional trials that can be expected of new friendships.
Both Chun and executive producer Brendan Hay cite “Gremlins” as a formative movie experience. Beyond a sense of wonder and adventure, they were each struck by how the film was able to be scary and funny and weird. It’s a tone the creatives hoped to recapture in “Secrets of the Mogwai.”
In addition to being able to delve into Mr. Wing’s backstory, Hay explains that setting the series in 1920s China was “a chance to own the somewhat throwaway origin that the Mogwai have in the films.”
“In the films, it’s clear that they’re of Chinese origin, but it’s not that developed,” said Hay. “This is our chance to tell that story and really embrace it [by] actually try[ing] to find a place for Mogwai that fits into Chinese mythology, or at least builds off of existing Chinese mythology, and have fun in that world.”
This involved delving further into the Mogwai’s untold mythology, including addressing why and how the creatures exist as well as revealing a fourth rule about them in the new series. Still, Hay estimates that at least half of thequestions that the writers brainstormed have yet to be addressed.
For Chun, mixing “Gremlins” with Chinese mythology and folklore was a no-brainer because of that “funny and scary and weird” tone captured in the original the film.
“A lot of spirits and creatures from Chinese mythology are not just scary, but they’re also funny and they all have their unique idiosyncratic things,” said Chun. “And [much like Mogwai, they have] rules that make them tick.”
Many of the episodes feature spirits and creatures that Chun grew up hearing about from his parents or “seeing on dubbed VHS tapes from the Chinese video store.” Aside from following an almost creatures-of-the-week format, the “Secrets of the Mogwai” team also strove to have each episode of the first season set in a different part of China. The team also aimed to highlight different types of horror situations in each episode to “play within the genre.”
“We’ve seen Gremlins in the suburbs, we’ve seen Gremlins in the city,” said Hay. “We wanted to [see] where else we could take our tone but put it into a slightly different setting and style.”
Because each episode of “Secrets of the Mogwai” involves different shades of horror, action and comedy, “everybody [in the crew] got to bring their unique skill set” to the show, explained Hay.
This included storyboard artists and directors who could “totally make you cry” with “very heartfelt emotional moments” as well as those who could “draw the most insane, terrifying action sequence you’ve ever seen,” Hay said.
The series’ premise and setting also allowed Chun to include a line he’d long dreamed of being able to put into a script.
“I remember sitting outside at the Warner Bros. Ranch and typing on the title page to the pilot script, … ‘Unless otherwise noted, all characters are Chinese,’” said Chun. “I’d waited my entire life to write that into a script and I was so happy that I was finally able to.”
Thus, the cast of “Secrets of the Mogwai” includes prominent Asian American actors including Ming-Na Wen, James Hong and BD Wong as well as guests voice work by Sandra Oh, Randall Park, George Takei and Bowen Yang.
But the show’s Asian and Asian American representation doesn’t end with who audiences see and hear onscreen. Many of the writers and artists working on the show are also of Asian descent.
“In Hollywood, there’s not necessarily the history of talent development for people of color, especially for Asian Americans,” said Chun. “A lot of the times, we were giving people their first step up, going from board artist to director or revisionist to board artist.”
Chun also said that it feels like a landmark time for Asian and Asian American stories and storytelling. And indeed, “Secrets of the Mogwai” arrives on the heels of a range of critically and commercially successful stories including “ Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “ Turning Red,” “ Beef,” “ Never Have I Ever “ and more.
“What’s been really exciting is a feeling of exuberance in that we’re not limiting ourselves to a certain type of story,” said Chun. “I think that there was, for a time, not just a perception from the outside about what Asian American stories could be, but also within the Asian American community [of] ‘these are the stories that they want from us.’ Now, with all the boundaries that have been broken by incredible filmmakers, and showrunners and creators, I don’t feel like there’s that limitation from either the outside or the inside.”
‘GREMLINS: SECRETS OF THE MOGWAI’
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
How to watch: Max