An Interview with Michael Gross, star of "Tremors," "Tremors 2: Aftershock" and now...
By R. Scott Bolton
Although probably best known for his role as the father of Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox) in the long-running sitcom, "Family Ties," Michael Gross has a long history of acclaimed performances in theater, films and television. One of his most endearing and enduring characters is the sharp-witted survivalist, Burt Gummer, in the "Tremors" films: "Tremors," "Tremors 2: Aftershocks," and now, "Tremors 3: Back to Perfection."
Recently, we were fortunate enough to speak with the friendly and pleasant Mr. Gross about his work in the "Tremors" films and, specifically, about what it's like to be Burt.
Video Verdicts: Mr. Gross, it's a pleasure speaking with you. We've been fans for years, particularly of the "Tremors" films.
Michael Gross: Well, thanks. You're one of those "Tremors" lunatics, huh?
VV: I guess so. There's a lot of us. My 13-year old son is one as well.
MG: Oh, great, great! Did you get a chance to see this new one?
VV: Yes. As a matter of fact, he and I sat down and watched it together.
MG: Well, what did he think? That's interesting...
VV: You know, he loved it. In fact, I'll give you his exact quote when it was over. He said, "The 'Tremors' movies are my favorite movies. They're the best."
MG: That's great!
VV: Tell our readers a little about the third "Tremors" film.
MG: I think "Tremors 3" is wonderful because we return to our roots. That is to say, the small town of Perfection, Nevada, which is plagued by these pre-Cambrian life forms and, by golly, we didn't get all of them, obviously. I think one of the fun things about the "Tremors" franchise is that people are always so interested to find out how these creatures will mutate in subsequent movies. We had graboids in "Tremors 1," and shriekers in "Tremors 2" and "Tremors 3" offers something even more outlandish.
VV: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that, but I don't want to spoil any surprises.
MG: Exactly. I don't want to give it away because that's an object of a lot of conjecture. On websites and chatrooms. "What's next? What are they doing? What's the secret?" In fact, we kept the sets strictly off-limits to a lot of people because there's a lot of people trying to ferret out information about what we were doing and it was our little secret and I wouldn't want to spoil it for anybody.
VV: That just goes to show how important these movies are to their fans. Like my son, the "Tremors" films are these people's favorites.
MG: Yes, and it's not just people your son's age. My father has a stock broker who claims he throws a "Tremors" party once a month. He gets together with some friends, they order some pizza and some beer, and they sit there and watch "Tremors." Maybe one day it will wind up in motion picture houses at 12 midnight. Everybody says the lines along with the people on screen.
VV: Speaking of lines, one of my favorite lines in the film comes when someone says they need a lighter. And one of the characters says, "Burt's got a lighter." And Burt looks at them and says, "How do you know I have a lighter." And the person replies, "Because you're Burt." And Burt says, "Yes, I am." And he produces the lighter.
MG: That's right!
VV: Did you ever think that you'd be doing a third film as you were doing the first film? Did you ever think that Burt would become part of a franchise?
MG: No. That's probably one of the reasons I'm not a studio executive, although I think a lot of what they do is like a craps games anyway. No one knows what's going to catch on sometimes. We knew we were having fun. I knew it was an intriguing character. I thought "Tremors 1" was a great hearkening back to the sci-fi movies of the '50s. I love the fact that there is a kind of innocence to all of the "Tremors" movies in a funny sort of way and that's hard to come by in this day and age. But I think one of the things is that it's old-fashioned in the sense that ... I have a lot of guns in the course of this thing, a lot of armament. And, as you can see, these guns just keep getting bigger. You see what we start off with in the third movie. Two .50 caliber machine guns. Turret mounted machine guns and I love the fact that, like in the old '50 movies, we never turn those weapons on other human beings. It's us, against things of another species. And I think that's the kind of innocence you don't find anymore. We're not blasting each other away, we're blasting the monsters. And I think that people are attracted certainly by the fact that there is true terror there. These things are dangerous, they can kill you, there is a credible threat. I think people are also intrigued that we manage to be funny at the same time.
VV: Yes. That's a very important aspect of the films.
MG: As terrifying as it can be, there is humor. And, needless to say, any actor would love ... well, I wouldn't say that Burt is the role of a lifetime, but he is certainly the role of the decade. You know, he's really such fun. Anybody with that amount of obsessive compulsiveness is fascinating. And I think that the reason people like him, too, is that - at the heart of all that silliness - is a human quality and that's fear. Burt is, in his own way, extremely delicate because he's so fearful. There's a fragility about him. He doesn't do well without all this infrastructure around him and, to me, in the hands of a lesser writer, this would be a serious dramatic point. In the hands of these writers, he just gets funnier and funnier.
VV: That's a very interesting point.
MG: Well, I love Burt. You know, there's a little scene in the third movie that is quintessential Burt. Burt is so fear-driven that he's a paranoid, ultimately, but a comic paranoid. And there's a scene in which he goes up to his house to punch in his keycode on his pad. But before he does, he takes a good look around and stands in front of the pad - there's nobody there for miles! - but he blocks the keypad with his body. Because Burt would rightly assume that there's somebody in the hills with a high-powered telescope who wants his keypad information, wants the code. Now that's the level of paranoia. Does it get funny? Yeah, because it's just so over the top. I love that. I love that about him. It's inherent in the fact that he has no sense of humor. It's because he doesn't consider life funny that we find him funny and his extremes which are so marvelous in human behavior.
VV: In "Tremors 3," Burt gets a little gooier than he has in the past.
MG: Right. I get messed up.
VV: What was it like doing that scene? Again, I don't want to give anything away.
MG: I will say that I was in a very confined space when we shot that scene and it got kind of scary. I'm not normally a person who's ordinarily claustrophobic but I had to crawl into a recess, be covered with a bunch of stuff, be covered over, and it was dark and small and not a lot of fun. My heart rate went up while I was waiting for them to yell, "Roll camera!" and "Action!" That scene to which you're referring - and I won't give away too much - is one of the great surprises of this movie. And when I first read this scene, I thought, "Oh, my golly. What are they doing here? This is a strange turn to take." And that's what I love about these. There are all these reversals in the "Tremors" movies where you go down one road and find out it will lead to a completely different place than you thought it would. Case in point, in "Tremors 2," one of my favorites, just a silly little scene, we were running from a monster and we see a building over yonder, we run about 50 paces to the building, open the door, close it, we're on the other side. We turn around and find that the building is actually not complete on three sides. They had only put up one wall. We were totally exposed! I love that sense of reversal. That's one of the things that's great about what these writers do, they'll keep a sense of terror and fear and threat and manage to keep it funny and that's quite a balancing act.
VV: In this film, for example, going up on the roof to be safe is one of those reversals.
MG: Yes, exactly! Exactly. And one of the great things I love about Burt and what the writers do with him is he will prepare himself in certain ways and then we find out that, once again, he's not prepared because the animals have mutated in such a way that they've found a way to get around his best defenses. He couldn't possibly plan for every contingency and he thinks he has. You know, it's funny, I love the sense of that, too. I think it's probably one of the reasons why the lowly virus will ultimately beat us as a species for all our intelligence because they mutate so. Their rate of change is so incredible in just a few generations. I think the ability to mutate, the ability to transform oneself is really the key to life, to staying alive, to a vital life. And I think it's to our discredit as a species that a lot of times humans are the only ones who sit around and say, "No, I won't change. I can't change. No. Can't do it. What you see is what you get." And I think we do ourselves in that way. That's why little specks of things we can't see with the naked eye may ultimately get the better of us.
VV: The endangered species aspect of "Tremors 3" is pretty funny, too.
MG: You know, there is a special ... one of the things that I always discuss with the writers ... is that there's a certain flavor to a "Tremors" movie, a certain take on life. Which is just great. I mean, to me, it's the horror version of the "Naked Gun" series with Leslie Nielsen. There's a flavor to all those movies. And one of the things that I want to do with subsequent "Tremors" movies is capture that same flavor. There's a special world that the characters and monsters in the "Tremors" films that no other monsters or characters seem to inhabit. And I love that catch that flavor again and again.
VV: And I think they've done it again with the third film. It plays just like the first two.
MG: Do you think your son would like to see a "Tremors" television show?
VV: I know he would. One of the things he asked me after we finished watching "Tremors 3" was why there were no "Tremors" action figures. He wants a Burt action figure.
MG: He does? That's funny! (to the publicist) We're getting a call here for Burt action figures!
VV: That's something else that's good about the "Tremors" films. I can sit there and enjoy the film with him. I know it won't be overly violent, I know it won't be filled with profanity. I know that it will be fun and relatively clean.
MG: Yeah, there's certainly a bit of adult humor from time to time and it's so far over kids' heads that the kids don't get it. There's one scene in "Tremors 3" where Shawn Christian is trying to get Jody, the young lady, up on his shoulders to get a better vantage point and he says, "Quick, spread your legs!" and she says "What?!" and he says, "You know, just climb up on my shoulders," and she says, "Oh, thank God." Stuff like that. Where adults get a kick out of it and the kid doesn't know what it is. I love that kind of stuff. It's just been such fun. The whole series for me. I'm not sure ... I don't know what they're gonna do. As you've seen from the former movies, there's always one that gets away. Whether or not they'll make a fourth, I don't know.
VV: Of course. But it they do, will you play Burt again?
MG: Oh, yeah. You know, part of the fun is the whole act of invention in this thing. I get to know and love Burt so much and the writers are so wonderful in letting me have my input. You're really talking about "Would Burt say this?" "Would he say that?" The way we tweak these things talking about different situations. I enjoy him. They created him and let me run with it and now, in a lot of ways, it's become a real partnership. The Burt franchise, if you will, has become something that I so enjoy. And it's fun for me, just in terms of an overall career, because of my strong association with kind, loving, gentle Steven Keaton, to have something like this to juxtapose with that image and keep audiences guessing.
VV: When you watch the "Tremors" films, that's one thing that's very obvious. You're having fun.
MG: My wife swears that it rubs off on my real life, too. Certainly, living in Los Angeles part-time. I have repeatedly one of the best earthquake kits of anybody in Los Angeles county. When the kids moved out, I got rid of some of my water. I used to have two 55 gallon barrels of drinking water behind the house along with several barrels of batteries and bandages and, you name it, I have it. It's got a little smaller since the kids moved out.
VV: Well, that Burt paranoia might not be such a bad thing. You never know when you might need it.
MG: The next thing you know, there'll be a collision with an asteroid, and then where would we be.
VV: Everybody will be coming over to your house for water.
MG: Well, that's why survivalists have guns. I never really thought about it. You know, survivalists were so associated with guns and things like that. I did a lot of reading, particularly with the first "Tremors" movie, about the survivalist movement and realized, of course, that they weren't necessarily violent people but the guns were there because when all your neighbors who were not prepared came knocking at your door, you had to have a way to keep them at a distance. Because the ones who are going to pooh-pooh you are the first ones who will be there saying, "Can I have some of that water of yours?"
VV: How is it working with basically the same bunch of people for the three "Tremors" films?
MG: I must say it is a great family. The writers and directors have almost no egos. They constantly solicit comments. Nobody's afraid to speak up on the set because we had such a relatively short shooting period, we were actively solicited for our comments right up to the last minute, right up to the time they shoot. We talked a lot about this thing, the whole process seemed to be accelerated. Universal wanted it and they wanted it quickly. It was just the best group to work with. On the DVD I say that it's a tribute to how nice everybody was that we're still friends after what we went through together. We shot in the winter time in L.A. which meant for relatively short days just because we ran out of light quickly. It was in November. That added additional pressure. I actually hurt myself on the film, which is kind of interesting. About seven weeks ago, I had knee surgery for cartilage I tore up.
VV: During one of the action sequences?
MG: Well, I wish I could say it was something terribly exotic. I mean, there were a few little things I did - tiny little somethings where I should have gotten hurt but didn't. This was just running across some ground in our final sequence in a junkyard as we're running away from these things at night. We were just doing multiple takes of this junkyard scene and I was running over uneven ground and I was a little unsure of my footing and all you need to do torque your knee in such a way. Simple little thing. As I say, nothing exotic or romantic, I was just running across ground, things I've done a million times. The bad thing about it was that I hurt my knee. Fortunately, we were in the final week of shooting and it wasn't a terrible thing and there was workman's comp to take care of me when it was all over.
VV: And you're okay now?
MG: Yes, yes. I've been just been going through physical therapy for the last six weeks and it's coming along real well. The doctor seems to think I can go out and run a marathon one of these days again if I want to, which I don't care to do.
VV: Yeah, but you might like to make another "Tremors" movie.
MG: Exactly. And I want to be in shape for that. I was also gratified to find out that this is not an injury ... I got a little down because I was thinking, "Oh, God, here I am . Getting too old for this stuff. Maybe I shouldn't be doing these kind of movies anymore. Trying to keep up with these young whippersnappers." I was gratified to find 15- and 16-year olds next to me in the physical therapy office with the exact same injury. High school athletes or hot dog skiers. It's an injury specific event, not an age specific event. It has to do with how you twist your knee, not how old you are. So, I'm happy to report I would gladly do a fourth, if it came to that, without fear.
VV: Thanks for your time, Mr. Gross!
MG: Scott, thank you, and ... what's your son's name?
VV: His name is Joshua.
MG: Tell Joshua I appreciate his kind comments and it's a pleasure giving him a good time. Tell him Burt says hi!
For more information, please visit http://www.tremors3.com.