Near Perfection: The 2018 Tremors Pilot

Near Perfection: The 2018 Tremors Pilot

Part 1: “For the fans, by the fans.”

From the very outset, it’s clear the attempted TV revival of ‘Tremors’ is driven by people that love the original 1990 cult movie about underground monsters terrorising a small town in the middle of nowhere. Andrew Miller’s script - which returns to the small town of Perfection, Nevada nearly three decades after the town was attacked by monsters (dubbed ‘graboids’) - even forgoes the traditional “based on a film by” attribution for the far more enthusiastic (and accurate) “Based on the kick-ass film written by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock”.

“It was never a conscious decision on my part,” he said.

“‘Tremors’ was an enormously impactful part of my film development - I remember seeing it in the theatre, I remember seeing it on video. For me, it was the first movie that really introduced horror with comedy and - as a daytime horror movie, it was so powerfully different to anything else, other than, say, ‘Jaws’. So it really left its mark on me, and I never really had to worry about trying to be faithful to the film, because it could never have been anything other than that.”

It wasn’t just Miller... when the ‘Tremors’ team needed help populating Chang’s (Perfection’s general store, owned in the original film by legendary character actor and John Carpenter regular Victor Wing) with souvenirs, they were quite happy to turn to the film’s fanbase for help.

“I’d written these action figures into the script, and they found this kid online who’d been making ‘Tremors’ action figures in this Etsy store,” Miller said.

“He was a huge ‘Tremors’ fan, and had made graboids based on all the movies, and we approached him to see if he wanted to make bigger action figures that we could use in the show. As a thank you, we flew him out to the set, he got to meet Kevin (Bacon), and even brought out a remote-controlled graboid that was really incredible.”

Miller was so impressed with the custom-designed figures, he ordered 200 of them as a parting gift for the pilot’s cast and crew. Throughout the production, it seemed Miller was encountering fans wherever he turned.

“We generated so much enthusiasm as we were going,” he said.

“At one point, we found office space on the lot in Albuquerque, one of the custodians came up to me and said ‘This is my favourite film of all time!’. At no point did I ever encounter people who weren’t excited about ‘Tremors’.”

And then there was the driving force behind the revival, the film’s original star, Kevin Bacon, who played handyman Valentine ‘Val’ McKee, a man who just wants to escape life in Perfection only to become the town’s unlikely saviour as the graboids attack.

“Kevin’s wife was pregnant with their first child when he did that movie... in its video resurgence, it (‘Tremors’) helped define him,” Miller said.

“It was significant to his life in many, many ways. Kevin’s done a lot of great movies and played a lot of amazing characters. So when you ask him about the role that means the most to him, and he says Val, there’s an enormous amount of pressure to do right by him. There wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to piss on that memory or that experience. So from the very beginning, I was only making this for an audience of two - which was me as a fan and him as Kevin. My fandom, I thought, would be fine for everybody else’s fandom. And Kevin was Kevin, so I wanted to make sure he was OK with everything.”

Emily Tremaine (Emily) and Shiloh Fernandez (Nico) in Chang’s

Emily Tremaine (Emily) and Shiloh Fernandez (Nico) in Chang’s

Part 2: A Different Kind of Hero

According to Miller, the genesis of the ‘Tremors’ series came from a chat between Kevin Bacon and producer Jason Blum.

“They got along well, and were chit-chatting about things they could do in the future,” Miller said.

“Jason asked if there was anything from Kevin’s past that he might be interested in exploring as a sequel, and Kevin told him the only character he’d played that he ever thought about was Val. Jason said ‘That’s all I needed to hear’ and began to make plans.”

After plans for a movie failed to eventuate, Blum started to explore the idea of a TV series.

“Kevin said he wasn’t opposed to TV, provided there was a good enough idea,” Miller said.

Miller was one of many writers asked to submit a pitch, with his love of the original and desire to stay true to both the film’s tone and characters helping land him the gig.

“I only know bits and pieces, because it’s a bit like asking someone about the people they were seeing before they started seeing you; it’s unseemly,” he said.

“But my impression was that other writers took a more aggressive, and more heroic approach to the character or Val, they took a bit more of a ‘Walking Dead’ approach. That had never occurred to me; there was only one idea in my head which was ‘oh man… that poor guy… all he wanted to do was get out of town, and 25 years later he still wasn’t able to’. Far from this (the graboid attack) being the opportunity to get him out of town as a 20-year-old kid, it did the opposite, it cemented him in that place.”

A man obsessed - PJ Byrne (Melvin) with Kevin Bacon (Val) and John Ellison Conlee (Harlan) in the background

A man obsessed - PJ Byrne (Melvin) with Kevin Bacon (Val) and John Ellison Conlee (Harlan) in the background

Miller also found parallels between the world around him and the plight he envisioned for his unlikely hero.

“At the time, we were having this incredibly strange, horrific election process which, to me, felt relevant - Val became America to me in the sense that, as a nation, we were looking at this vision of ourselves in the past - an idealised version of ourselves that wasn’t true but that we imagined to be glorious and heroic and great, that we couldn’t get past. The danger there is that you become so enamoured with this false idea of the past, that you’re incapable of seeing the dangers lurking beneath the surface. And, like in America right now while we were rhapsodising about how great we used to be, all these other issues were developing - like racism and sexism, which suddenly erupted and we were completely ill-equipped to deal with them. That, to me, was Val. He has had this idea of himself as a 20-year-old, and because he still has the same hair and the same physique, he’s able to delude himself into thinking that he’s still the hero he was in the original movie. But the truth is, he can’t fight the graboids as that guy. And he was never as heroic as he thought he was back then. So the point of the season would be starting with this broken hero, who’s lost everything because of his own ego and imagination, and building him back up over the course of the season to become the hero he wants to be to beat the graboids.”

The idea, Miller said, appealed to Bacon as both actor and producer.

“From an actor’s point of view, from a storyteller's point of view, that’s really what appealed to Kevin,” he said.

“It took the character in a different direction from the movie, but it felt right - it felt like that’s how things would go for him.”

Bacon, Miller said, was utterly unselfconscious when it came to taking on a character that was not only broken but also in pretty rough shape.

“When we were pitching it, I’d written up this pitch about this whole idea of him ageing and how he’s not what he used to be,” Miller said.

“Kevin emailed me, it was Thanksgiving, and he said ‘we’ve been up north at this house, I haven’t slept in a week, I haven’t shaved, I fell, I hit my head, and I look like shit, so I took these pictures of myself that I’ll send to you if you want to use them in the pitch. Of course, having said that, he’s still about the most handsome human being I’ve ever met in my entire life - so even at his worst, he still looks like a movie star. But he was completely unselfconscious in the way he approached this character, both physically and emotionally. Actors can be very protective of their own image and their brand, and it came hard to play a character that takes the audience too far away from how they see you. That’s not the case with Kevin; he dove into it as deep as any actor could.”

And nothing would demonstrate how willing Bacon was to forgo his heroic image than the opening scene for the new ‘Tremors’.

Haley Tju (Jai Chang) with Megan Ketch (the pogo-stick loving Mindy)

Haley Tju (Jai Chang) with Megan Ketch (the pogo-stick loving Mindy)

Part 3: Revisiting Perfection

The ‘Tremors’ pilot begins on Val McKee (who, in addition to handyman, now advertises his services as a graboid hunter), driving through the desert alone, singing along to The Black Crowes’ ‘Hard to Handle’ when a call of nature interrupts his karaoke.

Choosing a secluded spot, Val gets ready to relieve himself, but - given he’s 25 years older now - the plumbing isn’t working as well as it used to.

“The way I pitched it, it was like ‘he’s talking to his penis, he’s talking to God... nothing’s working. Then he thinks the graboids are coming, it scares the shit out of him and he pees himself,” Miller said.

“The producers said ‘he’s a movie star! He’s not going to pee his pants on film!’ So I called him and asked, and he said ‘it makes sense... if anything’s going to release it, that would.’ That was his attitude... I never asked him to do anything that didn’t make sense, and he embraced that.”

From there, we’re introduced to Chang’s (which, as it now stands, is a monument to the past, filled with photos of Val in his prime, enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, along with all manner of obscure graboid relics and souvenirs) and the current residents of Perfection. There’s Grace and Jai Chang (Uni Park and Haley Tju), operators of Chang’s; Nico (Shiloh Fernandez), an employee of Earl’s (the successful plumbing and handyman business established by Fred Ward’s character from the film, seen here only in a photograph) who’s also seeing Val’s daughter on the sly; and Harlan (John Ellison Conlee), a pseudo-philosopher with more than a few screws loose (think equal parts Miller from ‘Repo Man’, The Dude from ‘The Big Lebowski’ and mental patient). 

Outside of Val (and the photo of Earl), there are two returning characters from the original film - Melvin (played here by PJ Byrne), whose character spent a large chunk of the film perched atop a shed and Mindy (Megan Ketch), the film’s pogo-stick loving child.

Melvin’s grown up to be something of a sleaze, resentful of the better-looking Val, while Mindy - who had her life saved by the then-dashing, youthful hero - has grown up with something of a crush on her ageing saviour.

“For me, those characters were the easiest access point, and also the most interesting,” Miller said

The new generation of graboid hunters, ready for action (l-r) John Ellison Conlee (Harlan), Kevin Bacon (Val), Toks Olagundoye (Jessica), Megan Ketch (Mindy), Uni Park (Grace) and PJ Byrne (Melvin)

The new generation of graboid hunters, ready for action (l-r) John Ellison Conlee (Harlan), Kevin Bacon (Val), Toks Olagundoye (Jessica), Megan Ketch (Mindy), Uni Park (Grace) and PJ Byrne (Melvin)

“For people who knew the movie, they probably hadn’t thought of those characters much over the intervening years, but they’d be delighted to see them again. And if you didn’t know the movie, it wouldn’t matter. All you needed to know is Mindy was nine and on a pogo stick when Val saved her, and that Melvin was on top of a little lean-to, bouncing a ball and driving everybody crazy. And I was just tickled by the idea that both of these characters, their evolution had been deeply affected by Val. Val’s like the third youngest character in the movie, so it felt like these guys would be the most impressionable and the impact of those 25 years would have been the most profound. Mindy being in love with Val felt like a natural progression, she was literally grabbed from the clutches of death by this incredible cowboy hero - why should’n’t she be in love with him? And why wouldn’t Val be the standard by which she judges all other men in her life, which is why she’s failed so badly in relationships in the past? Similarly, with Melvin, why wouldn’t he be obsessed with destroying Val, or at least being driven with this hatred or obsession for 25 years that’s turned him into a monster?”

When you gotta go... Kevin Bacon’s Val gets ready to answer a call of nature

When you gotta go... Kevin Bacon’s Val gets ready to answer a call of nature

Miller says the decision to go with less prominent characters from the original fulfilled a commitment to both the studio and the network to satisfy fans of the original while keeping things accessible to new viewers. Part of that request, he says, involved a commitment to steer clear of both the direct-to-video sequels and an earlier TV series (featuring Michael Gross’ survivalist turned graboid hunter Burt Gummer).

“The network was much more interested in the original than the sequels, tonally and creatively,” he said.

“This was fine, because we were imagining the town going in a different direction to the sequels anyway. So the idea was to branch off, to say ‘look, we all love this movie and there’s this fantastic universe that exists out there. This isn’t that. This is different. It’s with Kevin, and it’s a different mythology.’ Having said that, my semi-private goal was to find a way to get those universes together. I’d never discussed this with the people behind the sequels, this was just me at Blumhouse saying ‘we have a town, we have all these writers, we have a huge graboid puppet, what if we could use some of our characters to spin off into movies and tie them in with characters from the other movies.’”

Of the new characters, the most central is Emily (Emily Tremaine), Val’s estranged daughter. Like her mother, Rhonda (played in the original film by Finn Carter) Emily’s a scientist, and she’s returning to Perfection to give her dad some problematic news - she’ll be moving to Greenland for two years for an internship.

“Principally, it’s a father-daughter story, because she represents the worst part of what he’s lost,” Miller said.

“In addition to beating the graboids, the first season arc would be about winning back her love.”

As the pilot begins, Val and Emily’s relationship is more than a little strained. Val longs for a past that didn’t exist, while Emily is distinctly uncomfortable with her father’s refusal to accept reality. In one instance in the pilot, Val brings up a “happy” memory where they bonded over ice cream sandwiches (“I had ice cream, you had beer,” she retorts) while, in another, he talks fondly of the time where they spent the day eating treats and watching the Steve Guttenberg, Olsen-twins starring film ‘It Takes Two’) when Emily was five.  The only problem was, it was in a graboid bunker, with freeze-dried cake and freeze-dried ice cream... spent partly in fear for a graboid attack that never happened (“I loved that birthday because I got to be with you and mom. For the last time,” an exasperated Emily explains to her clueless father).

“I wanted those things to be funny and sad at the same time,” Miller said.

“He has his daughter right there, and all he can see is the past. He’s talking wistfully about this time they spent together in a bunker, fearful of a graboid attack. There’s nothing remotely romantic about it. It’s just awful, but at the same time, it’s beautiful... it’s beautiful, and it’s tragic. You know he’s a good guy with a good heart, but he just goes about everything in the wrong way. She hates the past, he loves the past and, ideally, we would have used those ten episodes to get them to meet in the present.” Unsurprisingly, Emily’s attempts to leave are thwarted as we encounter a new type of graboid, as well as some new bad guys of a much more human variety.

Anotherfilmnerd's earliest cinematic memory was seeing Don Johnson throw up all over a suspect in John Frankenheimer's 'Dead Bang'. Ever since, he's devoted his life to searching out cinema that's weird, wonderful and features vomit in the most unlikely of places.