It’s often difficult for the heroes of horror movies to attain the kind of popularity of their evil, monstrous counterparts. For every Van Helsing or Ashley J. Williams there’s a dozen slasher, vampire, and demonic monsters that usually get front cover. Which makes the case of Tremors‘ Burt Gummer played by Michael gross an interesting one. The survivalist who has managed to survive against the giant killer Graboids several times over across the entire franchise of movies and the TV show ha since become a popular fan favorite and the face of the story. With the seventh movie, Tremors: Shrieker Island now available on Netflix, VOD, and home video (Complete with a documentary about the character), I had the chance to talk with Michael Gross about all things Burt, Graboids, and more.
Jacob Davison: So, Tremors just celebrated 30 years.
Michael Gross: Wow. In January, it’s been 30 years since that first one came out and who knew it would still have momentum and excitement going to it. They are a crazy, wonderful bunch of dedicated fans.
JD: Indeed! I wanted to ask you about that, why do you think the franchise has such staying power after all these years?
MG: I always think its starts with good writing. I really do. Chemistry between cast members, things like that. I also feel.. that it’s an old fashioned sort of film. There was a story in American Spectator recently which talked about the 30 year anniversary of it. In it, they spoke of the fact that there’s never person to person violence. Burt for example, I’m very proud of the fact that I believe in certain gun rights and gun safety, Burt Gummer would not hand his gun to Melvin in the original Tremors. There’s certain people who should just not have them if they’re irresponsible. So, Burt hands Melvin an unloaded revolver to get him moving at one point. But that’s as far as he’s gonna go. I believe in responsible gun handling and that sort of thing. But what I’m proud about is the fact that Burt, in any of these films never turns his gun on another human being.
MG: I think the only time that happened was in TREMORS when Melvin pulls the prank with the grabbed tentacle around him and so he aims at him. But I cannot recall any real instance of him pulling a gun on another person. It’s an old fashioned sort of horror movie where it’s humans… these desperate group of Ne’er-do-well, people who think very differently all banding together as a team to defeat a common enemy. In that respect, I think it’s a throwback to a time when we could look at each other and say “Let’s put our differences aside and go fight.” So, guns are always turned on the creatures and I think it’s like an older, 1950’s style of film. We’re not fighting against ourselves, always against the bad guys. I think it’s very redeeming.
JD: Which brings me to my next question about the original, you were doing the sitcom Family Ties and it seems like such a switch. How did you become involved with TREMORS?
MG: Lucky me! I was just called in by the original writers/directors (Brent Maddock, S.S. Wilson, Ron Underwood) and they said “We think you’re a terrific actor, we think you’d be good for that.” According to them, I blew them away! Every actor yearns for the chance to show another side of themselves because… that’s what’s fun! The variety. This was in the final year of FAMILY TIES, in fact we were in the last month or two of finishing the series when the auction came in for TREMORS. My first thought was “Why me?” I can think I can act outside the box, but a lot of people won’t trust you to do that they want to see what you’ve done for that last seven years because they feel that audiences will be comfortable with that and with little else. It’s like Bryan Cranston in BREAKING BAD deciding to find another opportunity like that. And I was just blessed to have the confidence of people who were willing to say “Let’s take a chance” They had me in the room because Universal had said “Okay, we wouldn’t mind this name on screen because he was a TV star.” Fortunately for all of us, it worked out.
JD: Indeed! It’s actually funny, I’ve seen TREMORS three times this year on the big screen.
MG: Oh, that’s wonderful! The scenery is incredible, the cinematography extraordinary, and I was just in that area in January for the 30th anniversary celebration. With the director and writers up in this grand little town of Lone Pine, California. There’s a wonderful museum of western movie making history there. They have a lot of TREMORS memorabilia and we’ve met up for some conferences, a lot of fans and it was great. Bobby Jayne who played Melvin was there, Charlotte Stewart who played Nancy the potter. We had a great time.
JD: Sounds like it! I got this keychain at the Alamo Drafthouse L.A. screening. (UZI4U)
MG: (Laughing) Oh! I love it.
JD: They were giving them out.
MG: I don’t know if anyone’s proposed it, but this is classic outdoor movie fare. And I wish NBC Universal would set up some outdoor theaters. I would personally go there to keep a safe social distance and like a nice 1957 convertible with the top down.
JD: It’s funny you mention that, because one of the other times I saw it this year was at the drive-in in a double feature with JAWS over at the Mission Tiki in Montclair, California.
MG: Oh, wow! That’s great.
JD: Made a fun double feature.
MG: I’ll never forget my first time seeing JAWS. In those days I was wearing contact lenses. I was with a young lady in a movie theatre in the east coast, and she was so afraid she grabbed me in the middle of the film in one of these moments of JAWS and knocked one of my contact lenses out! (Laughing)
JD: (Laughing) Oh, wow!
MG: They flew out of my eye, she grabbed me so hard!
JD: On that note, what do you think it is about monster movies that makes them so popular.
MG: That’s a good question. It’s pure escapism. I think there’s so many… let’s face it, the world is a tough place and we confront so many of our own little obstacles from day to day int he real world that it’s fun to go to a place that is just above and beyond the horrors we face in daily life! (Laughing) That you can escape to it. I’m still a fan of the classic Universal monster movies. The DRACULAS, the FRANKENSTEINS, the INVISIBLE MANS. I have those on DVD. One of my personal favorites that I go to form time to time is a Warner Brothers film I believe form 1956 called THEM! With the exclamation point! Giant ants. I love that film. James Arness is in it among other things. With great fx for its day. So, I go back to those to escape, be a little horrified, eat a little popcorn, and maybe spill a drink on the front of my shirt at a horrible moment! Just indulge in the fear. Just knowing I’ll be alright. You just don’t know that about the real world sometimes, do you?
JD: True. And hopefully not losing another contact lenses.
MG: (Laughing) Yeah, right! Expensive.
JD: Usually, especially in horror franchises, it’s the monster who kind of gets center stage. But Burt has kind of been the one constant through the entire TREMORS franchise. Why do you think that is?
MG: Those original writers created such a fascinating character. An over the top character. He’s irresistible, and that’s why I keep coming back! I don’t want to offend anybody, but I don’t come back for the mounters, I come back for Burt. I come back for that quirky, obsessive compulsive, fearful to the point of comedy prepared- over prepared to the point of comedy. I mean, comedy is about exaggeration. And Burt is an exaggeration. Burt is OCD off the charts. That’s what makes him so completely fun for me. Some people ask me what’s so funny about him, and I say, one of the funniest things about Burt is that he has no sense of humor. He is so damn serious about everything. And that makes it funny! I love coming back to his take on the world.
MG: I love the monsters, I love Burt fighting the monsters, and it’s Burt’s take on the world. In the last few films involve Burt’s interior obstacles which are aside the exterior obstacles which are always the monsters. You know, facing a son he didn’t even know existed, Jamie Kennedy in TREMORS 5. Facing his own mortality in a way he never expected in TREMORS 6. Having to leave a hospital bed to shoot a weapon. Really coming close to not making it. Without giving too much away, there’s emoting he has to face emotionally in TREMORS 7 he hasn’t had to face before. I’m always looking for those emotional obstacles as well as the exterior obstacles of the monsters. I’m more fascinated by his emotional arc in each piece. I think that’s what makes him interesting, the inner conflict of a man.
JD: I did want to ask a bit about TREMORS 7, TREMORS: SHRIEKER ISLAND. What can you tell us about that so far?
MG: I can tell you… well, there’s already been some pictures out there. So it comes as no surprise seeing Burt as Robinson Crusoe at the beginning of this piece.
JD: There were a lot of CASTAWAY comparisons.
MG: A lot of CASTAWAY comparisons, he is very ragged. For those interested, yes, that was my beard! I had said to them, you know, we’re going to be on a crazy jungle location. It’s going to be hot, it’s going to be sweaty, and I don’t want to wear a fake beard because it’ll look like crap and it’ll fall off in the humidity. So, I started months ahead of time because I just thought it would be fun. So that’s all me you see there. Frankly, we’re a little ahead of our time because that’s what people look like when they haven’t been able to go out and get their haircut in months in COVID-19 times!
JD: I know that (Pointing to hair)
MG: (Laughing) There you go! So, that was my idea, to grow my own beard there. There were some hair extensions they added but that growth on my face is all mine and I only wish it could have been longer. That’s obviously something that is very different. He’s gone completely off the grid, if not off his rocker. There’s a reason he left Perfection, Nevada and a reason why Perfection was no longer remote enough for him in his own bunker. Because there was some intrusion so he decided he had enough of civilization. And yet… every time he tries to leave, they keep tracking him down. They pulled him back in as they said in GODFATHER III.
JD: There’s some new cast in the movie, what was it like working with them?
MG: They were all wonderful. Jon Heder… I’ve been a fan of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, I loved his work in that. He’s a very creative, very funny, irrepressible sot of guy. It became a great partnership. Had a great time.
JD: Nice! And Richard Brake and Jackie Cruz, what was it like working with them?
MG: Super. Absolutely super. I had not known Jackie before, I knew Richard by reputation. Wonderful, classically trained actor. We had a great time. He took his work very, very seriously. He was a damn good sport because all of us wind in some… precarious, uncomfortable positions doing this sort of action adventure stuff. And Richard, by god, he was a real stand out with what he had to deal with sometimes. Dragged into this sorry mess in the middle of the jungle and he was a consummate professional.
All of us were! Let me put it this way, we all get wrung through the mill. And there were moments of frustration. I’m actually two months out of surgery for a torn rotator cuff I incurred on the shoot of the film. So, I had to get shoulder surgery afterwards. I mean, I keep thinking of new and inventive ways to hurt myself! You can do something right. A fall, a stunt, you have to have your face on camera. You can do it right seven times. But you twist something or fall wrong once and you go “Oh, boy I felt that…” I just hurt myself badly, y’know then have to go through the film for two more weeks with an injury. Bu that’s what ibuprofen is for! (Laughing)
JD: Fair point. I also wanted to ask, having worked across the franchise through several movies, what has it been like working with the creature fx over time as things shifted. Since the first TREMORS was all practical fx and over the years things have turned more to CGI and a mix here and there.
MG: Like most actors and probably most fans I enjoy the practical creatures the most. You have something right in front of you, yes, it’s not real and I know it’s not real. But you have a very strong visual in front of you. Now, we do have some of that in TREMORS 7 but let me say that even working with CGI I’ve worked with CGI in 2, 3, 4, 5,and 6 and in some of TREMORS 1 with models and miniatures, that sort of thing. So, we’re always pretending. Even if it’s three dimensional creature in front of us we have to pretend it’s real.
It’s just a different level of pretense. In the same way I have to go out there and pretend I’m an actual monster hunter instead of cowardly Michael Gross (laughing). I have to pretend with the monsters. It’s a slightly different level of pretense but it all works fine. We’re all given good visual ideas of what these things look like and where they are off camera. I pretend for a living. There’s never any doubt what I’m doing is pure pretense so I just do it again and again. And the great thing is I pretended as a kid for free! I never got paid. I knew that stick I held was not a sword or a gun. Now I get paid for pretending, and it’s just an extraordinary blessing. Let’s put it that way.
JD: On the subject of the graboids, since they’ve been through so many forms and designs over the years, do you have a particular favorite?
MG: That’s a good one! Well, look. Who can resist that big one that Burts through my basement wall? That three dimensional piece because not only was it the first time, you know like your first love! (Laughing) That’s a hell of a way to put it. I think in some ways that first one, because it was three dimensional and right in front of me. There was something frightening particularly about that one, some of the fear you see was genuine or this reason. Because you knew it would take them days to set up that film again, it was on a soundstage in Southern California.
They had like eight cameras running, so when that thing came crashing through that wall you had better not screw up. Otherwise it was going to cost them time and money to put that whole set back together. And you did not want to be responsible for that. There was a certain amount of fear. Sometimes I think my motto should “Better acting through personal embarrassment.” Because you don’t want to be the one to screw things up. Reba and I were standing there, guns in our hands, saying “We better get this right because it’s going to be a whole lot of trouble if we don’t.” I’ve enjoyed all of it, but you never forget the first one.
JD: Oh yeah! When I saw it at the drive-in, the end scene “Broke into the wrong goddamn rec room didn’t ya?” People applaud by honking their horns and flashing their lights and it just rang out from everyone.
MG: I would have loved to see that at a drive-in! Perfect.
JD: It is a good drive-in movie.
MG: Classic. And with JAWS?
JD: Yeah, it was a double feature with JAWS.
MG: I would have loved to have gone. As I’ve said to other people, after this amount of time I feel like I’m an advocate for Burt. I feel like I’m there to defend him, defend his memory and carry ti through. A Kind of legacy character for 30 years. I love when people are still excited by him and the fact that people keep coming back.