Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits the creature feature classic, Tremors.
You can’t talk the best monster movies without mentioning 1990’s Tremors. It may not be the kind of horror that aims to scare, but its creativity, enthusiasm, and absolute sense of fun makes for a terrifically entertaining time. Big worms, toothy tentacles, and a wonderfully game cast fully onboard for the monster mayhem make for a movie that works for genre fans, younger viewers just getting into horror, and people who love Bacon.
Tremors recently made the move to 4K with a fantastic UHD release from Arrow films, and included alongside numerous other extras is a new commentary track with three of the filmmakers. I gave it a listen and took notes along the way, so keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Tremors!
Commentators: Ron Underwood (director), Brent Maddock (co-writer), S.S. Wilson (co-writer)
1. This commentary is the filmmakers’ first for this film, and it was recorded thirty years after its theatrical release.
2. “Kevin and Fred immediately had such a great relationship, and they added so much to the characters.” They all agree that as fond as they were of the script, the film’s cast elevates things immensely with their skill and choices. “They really make you look good.”
3. The landscape, including the Sierra Nevadas mountain range, have been featured in numerous westerns but also doubled for the Himalayas in 1939’s Gunga Din.
4. Universal originally requested they film the majority of the scenes in Los Angeles. Happily, the filmmakers convinced them otherwise.
5. Test audiences loved the film but would repeatedly chant “kiss her! kiss her!” at the end. The studio paid for a quick reshoot featuring Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) kissing.
6. Producers “asked” the filmmakers to audition Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as they thought both names would help the movie. “We thought ‘the guy from Family Ties? Are you serious?'” It worked out.
7. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski was great at capturing the outdoor landscapes, but he expressed concerns to them “about doing a horror film in the daylight.” He was concerned that everything would be visible. His other horror efforts include Bad Dreams (1988) and The Craft (1996).
8. They get asked a lot about the 1965 Jeep Gladiator that Val and Earl (Fred Ward) drive around. Two trucks were used in the film to help avoid the risk of one conking out. “They’re not actually identical, if you want to study the movie very closely.”
9. If you go to the movie museum in Lone Pine, CA, they can point out some of the filming locations.
10. Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff of Amalgamated Dynamics handled the film’s practical effects, and it was their first feature. “They went on to win many Academy Awards, unlike us.”
11. Chang’s Market was originally written as belonging to a Vietnamese owner and named accordingly, but Victor Wong said “well I’m Chinese, can we change it?” They were happy to do so. Side note, apparently Wong was quite the ladies man in his early San Francisco days where he hung out with the likes of Ken Kesey.
12. One of their concerns with the original script was how a lower budgeted film could afford so many shots of the big worms. They resolved the issue by adding tentacles to the worms’ mouths which were a lot cheaper to create and shoot. Some were articulated creations worked with cables, and others are simple hand puppets — that Gillis & Woodruff were adamantly opposed to until they saw how frequently they were the ideal choice.
13. The first appearance of the full-size graboid at 32:57 is actually a miniature with a matte painting of the mountains behind them.
14. The writers were very against showing underground POV shots for the graboids, but Underwood insisted saying “we needed a sense of direction, where the monster was, where it was moving.”
15. Bacon and Ward both wanted to play their characters like the rural guys they were, and that meant lots of variations of the word “fuck.” The filmmakers let them — until they got an R-rating and had to go back and loop some replacement dialogue to whittle it down to two utterances.
16. The pole vaulting scene was written to take advantage of the landscapes numerous boulders, but on location they realized they weren’t a workable distance apart. They had fake, hollow rocks built, and aside from one windy day that sent them blowing across the desert, they worked beautifully.
17. They’re riffing on old 1950s sci-fi/horror films, but they thought it would be funny if, unlike in those films, their scientific expert had no damn clue where the creatures came from. The studio wasn’t thrilled and “actually asked us to write a scene where you saw Burt find a UFO and eggs or something.” They wrote it, pitched it to the crew, and everyone agreed the idea was terrible.
18. Universal also asked them to write a scene showing an earthquake responsible for unleashing the creatures. They wrote it and shot it, but test audiences had an odd reaction. With that scene included they felt the film was being mean to animals — the coyotes yelping in the beginning, the horse and sheep later on — whereas without the earthquake no one made that accusation. People are weird, man.
19. The “wave” effect where the creature is moving beneath the surface and rolling the dirt or porch boards was accomplished by towing a boat buoy behind a pickup truck.
20. Bacon’s first child was born during Wong’s death scene. “He was on top of the Pepsi machine when the call came in that his wife Kira had gone into labor, so he jumped off the machine and ran out of the soundstage.” It was an understood arrangement.
21. McEntire was worried about the faceoff in the basement as all the shooting might be bad for her hearing, so they doubled down on ear protection.
22. The water tower was originally written to collapse during Rhonda’s rescue, but Universal wouldn’t give them the money to film it.
23. The final worm’s death — a fall from a cliff to an explosive end on the rocks below — was filmed in a parking lot using miniatures.
24. Underwood stood in as Rhonda, wig and all, for part of the final scene as Carter’s double wasn’t on set, but the shot wasn’t used.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“There will be no CG shots in this movie.”
“You have to be real careful, because the crane costs a lot of money.”
“If you’re an actor on Tremors you’re gonna get dirty.”
“Filmmaking is mostly compromise.”
“Sinking cars in the dirt seems to be really difficult.”
“And now, endless sequels.”
Tremors remains one of the all-time monster movies. It’s gotten numerous sequels, a short-lived television series back in 2003, and an aborted TV series in more recent years, but this original film remains a straight-up classic. It’s the rare daytime creature feature that delivers big fun, cool monsters, and legit entertainment whether you’re watching for the first time or the tenth. This commentary by the filmmakers reveals their love and affection for their creation three decades later, and it’s a listen filled with production details and anecdotes. Tremors rules!
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.