One of the original Tremors big three alongside Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, Michael Gross is the sole returning original cast member for Tremors 5: Bloodlines, which sees Burt Gummer in a whole new world of hurt. We spoke to him on the South Africa set in the third and final part of our Tremors 5 interview series…
You’re the only character from the Tremors films who’s back this time…
We’re always performing a balancing act, particularly after 13 years: what’s new, what works, what do we hold on to? We’re still working on the script as we’re working here, because no collaboration is perfect and we’re trying to find our way, letting everybody be creative within the process. What works best is one central vision, you know, and it’s finding that vision and agreeing on it that is sometimes difficult.
One of the things that [commissioning editor] Patti Jackson and I talked about, one of the things we’ve learned from this already, is we think we must create what we call a ‘bible’ about this. Right now the bible’s in our heads. Sometimes you can explain the bible to somebody and they will hear what they want to hear – which is what people do – or they will mishear, or they will purposely not hear what you’re saying, and you find yourself working at cross purposes. I’m going to tell you something else, too. We fervently would love to work with the original people again [Stampede Entertainment’s SS Wilson, Brent Maddock and Nancy Roberts]. We’d like nothing more. There isn’t a day that I’m not on this set that I don’t wish I had [co-creator] Steve Wilson sitting at my left shoulder saying ‘do you want to try it a slightly different way?’ or ‘you might rethink that’ or ‘that’s spot on’, whatever. Because that was a collaboration that I absolutely loved and if I have any sadness about this process, it is the fact that they’re not involved in this project.
What I’m amazed at is that there are so many people out there who otherwise lead very normal lives who see these films with some regularity and are absolute fanatics. My father’s stockbroker, for instance, I said ‘Dad, he watches Tremors once a month, are you sure you want him handling your money?!’.
Did you see the script for Gummer Down Under [Stampede’s proposed sequel pitched after Tremors 4)? What was your response to it? Obviously you can’t talk about content…
No, I can say that it had great possibilities but in my conversations with them even they knew that it was something that needed upgrading and improving, it wasn’t where they wanted it to be. It was an early draft of a possibility and while there were good things in there, they were the first to acknowledge ‘this is not the finished script by any stretch of the imagination’. So as it went in different ways, Australia became Africa, and I think all the richer for it, frankly. Not that there isn’t great richness in the Aboriginal culture of Australia and things like that, but Africa’s Africa. I mean, my god…‘there’s a giraffe walking behind you! There’s a zebra, there’s an ostrich!’ [all this in reference to an extra features interview filmed with a bunch of special guests wandering along behind]. That being said, both scripts – both this and Gummer Down Under – dealt with Aboriginal peoples.
At one point in the film Burt is trapped in a difficult situation involving a lion, and facing up to his mortality. You seemed to be ad-libbing a lot on set. They kept saying ‘Michael, do this!’…
Quite a lot. Which is difficult, and which is why I’d like to see some of it because when I ad-lib, I try to be careful to ad-lib as Burt. Some of it, I thought, might have been inappropriate, not quite Burt. I want it right for the character. I will sacrifice a comic moment if it doesn’t come out of character and situation. I don’t want cheap laughs. I want it to come out of the situation – does it come out of tension, does it come out of the fact that there’s no other way to do a thing?
I try to get references, historic references in, and sometimes classic references. I managed to lobby for some Shakespeare in Tremors 4 when there was something said over a grave. I forget what Shakespeare play it’s from now but it’s like ‘fear no more the heat of the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages, thou thy worldly task has done, home art gone and ta’en thy wages’ [it’s from Cymbeline]. Does Burt…to what degree does he break down? I tend to like his fear manifesting itself through defiance and so that would be my choice. At one point [the director] said ‘cry, break down’ and I thought ‘okay, I’ll do that’. I see a sort of defiance, acceptance. I thought immediately and I inserted a line…there was this line ‘thus I give up my spear’ which is the last line that Captain Ahab says, in Moby Dick. Ahab sort of goes down cursing with the whale and that’s what my choice would be – a Burt that is not in tears but saying ‘I will fuck you as you eat me!’. I want to be true to this man and I feel I am his advocate at all times.
How easy is it to slip back into character? Is it that once the cap goes on you’re right there in the zone or is there any more work to it than that?
You know, in some ways it is easy, when the cap goes on and the outfit comes on. It’s strange, the first couple of times I was here as a civilian I walked in and they said ‘let’s try on some clothing’ and I put the cap on and I put the vest on and put on some of the fatigues and I find myself looking into a mirror talking to myself as Burt, which is very odd indeed, but I guess that’s what we do. It’s like putting on a mask and saying, you know, it’s Halloween and I’m pretending. But then I always have to remind myself ‘where have I been? Where have I come from?’, and it will be different because I’ve changed in thirteen years, to a degree, but I’m struggling to hold on to what I had before. There’re still places here where we’re pitching things to the director and producers. I don’t know how blatant I want to be but there’s somebody says to me in this piece ‘that’s a weird relationship, a man obsessed with an animal like that’ and I don’t say anything in this script but I’m looking at a Graboid monitor or something and I want to turn to him, without looking up, and just say ‘read Melville’. I love that Burt has a weird classical education in very narrow ways.
How was it working with the lion?
There was a moment or two when it got a little frightening, only because we were fighting over the same piece of meat! They were trying to get the lion closer to the cage with me by throwing meat in my direction and some of it flew through the bars. I wanted to keep him there so we could have some good shots but he’s seeing me with the meat and he’s looking at me as a competitor. There were a couple of times where he really growled at me and I thought ‘oh dear…’. I thanked god for that cage at that moment! But really I was more worried about the sun because I have a very fair complexion, but these kind ladies [the make-up team] slathered me with sunblock so I was fine. The toughest thing was just the circumstance itself; being in the open air and the sun…and wanting not to make a complete ass of myself! My greatest enemy out there was not the lion but the sun and, at times, struggles with my own confidence. Am I going to be able [to do this]?
Are there any references to other characters, or acknowledgements of what’s gone before in the Tremors series? Because obviously in some ways it’s a kind of reboot, but it’s not…
There are scenes which are kind of an homage to the tone and the way we do things, but not to specific characters. There is reference to the past, but a past you haven’t heard of before. Which is part of the surprise! I couldn’t tell you or I’d have to kill you!
Tremors 5: Bloodlines will be available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from 12 October. For more news on the biggest movies, pick up the latest issue of SciFiNow.