Tremors, the tale of a remote California town besieged by deadly creatures that attack from beneath the soil, has never fit neatly into any one movie category. Is it horror? Comedy? Action adventure? Science fiction? In spite of (or maybe because of) its genre-bending nature, the film has become a favorite of not only movie fans but also the cast and crew who made it. The latter came out in force on March 26 at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas to commemorate the Tremors 25th anniversary.
Co-hosted by Creature Features and Famous Monsters of Filmland, the reunion drew so many Tremors alumni, it took two panels—one before and one after the screening—to give everyone his or her due. Both were moderated by David Weiner, who penned a story for Famous Monsters of Filmland that revisited the film.
“This one set a precedent for us,” said Creature Features owner Taylor White, addressing the crowd of several hundred to open the evening. “It’s the most cast and crew members who have RSVP’d for an event. You’re going to see it in the movie: there’s a real sense of camaraderie.”
On hand to reminisce were Tremors director Ron Underwood, writers/producers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, producer Nancy Roberts, cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, production designer Ivo Cristante, visual effects artists Robert and Dennis Skotak and creature effects designers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. They were joined by cast members Michael Gross, Finn Carter, Robert Jayne, Charlotte Stewart, Richard Marcus, Conrad Bachmann and John Goodwin. A make-up artist and regular contributor to Make-Up Artist magazine, Goodwin was one of the initial victims of the creatures, known as Grabboids, back in his performing days.
Tremors has particularly special meaning to Gillis and Woodruff. It was the first major film the two landed after leaving Stan Winston Studio to form their own shop, Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. Though they had been associated with such films as The Terminator and Aliens, Gillis and Woodruff were an unknown commodity, and uncertainty abounded.
“We didn’t know when we left if we would ever work again,” remembered Gillis during the pre-screening reception. “Then we got the call from Gale Ann Hurd. She said, ‘I’ve got this project, Beneath Perfection.’ She asked if we wanted to know what it was about. We said, ‘No, just send it over!’ We fell in love with it immediately. Thought the writing was just spectacular.”
Because funds were tight, Gillis and Woodruff couldn’t afford a shop. During their panel, Gillis recounted how that became an issue when the filmmakers wanted to visit their studio for a meeting. “We said, ‘Where are you guys located? We’ll meet at the Marie Callender’s in Toluca Lake.’ We kept doing that until we got paid and went to our friends at KNB to sublease space. We lied our way into the job.”
“But it was the only time we ever lied,” interjected Woodruff. “That’s a lie,” Gillis quickly retorted.
Weiner emphasized that all the effects Gillis and Woodruff created were practical and the film is CGI-free. “I remember saying, ‘How did they do that?’ when I first saw the film,” Weiner said. “And I thought the same thing after seeing it tonight. ‘How did they do that?’”
Woodruff and Gillis offered details about the different Grabboids they engineered, ranging from the spattering versions rigged with pumpkin-filled condoms to the quarter-scale versions used in the miniature sequences created by the Skotak brothers.
Much to the creature designers’ surprise, one of the most effective Grabboids they created was a puppet of the tentacle heads that kept popping up through the sand. Because he had longer arms than Gillis, Woodruff operated it, but he noted that the pair initially resisted creating it.
“We just thought it was a stupid idea to build a hand puppet of the Tremors head,” said Woodruff. “I think Brent took credit for the idea: monster hand puppet. It could be one of the best things that we built for the entire movie.”
“It was so useful,” added Gillis. “We thought, ‘On every job we ever do from now on, we’ve gotta have a hand puppet.’”
But what Gillis and Woodruff appreciate most about Tremors is the creative freedom they had. The only instruction was to not make the Grabboids look like the worms in Dune. With the script offering little description as to what the creatures actually looked like, the two let their imaginations run wild. “We just started drawing crazy stuff, cracking open books on wildlife, microscopic creatures and snapping turtles,” said Gillis.
“It was a time when we were respected as artists. We were sought out as enthusiastic monster-loving artists,” observed Woodruff during the reception. “Today, that is the last thing a Hollywood studio is involved with. Hollywood will tell us what we can build—in some cases, how we should approach something. It’s such a different world. It’s really hard to have that divine spirit of coming up with something new and exciting.”
Both Woodruff and Gillis believe that’s a big reason Tremors has made such an impact. In the years since it first hit the screen, it’s been followed by three direct-to-video sequels. A television series based on the film ran in 2003. Weiner’s call for a reboot during the second panel was met with enthusiastic applause.
“I know if I can come up with a monster that excites me, it’s going to excite other people,” said Woodruff. “We just don’t get those opportunities like we did 25 years ago.”