“I seem to take on films that parallel what is going on in my life,” saysdirector Ron Underwood, who made his feature film debut on 1990’s Tremors,the subterranean monster flick starring Kevin Bacon. “I loved the offbeattone that the script adapted from the ’50s monster films I had seen as akid.”
Underwood’s inspiration to direct sprang not only from watching hisfather’s photography hobby, but also from watching cinema staples such asDr. Zhivago, The Graduate, and Citizen Kane. “I would watch these moviesand enter an entirely different world,” he says. “I was so emotionallyinvolved with the characters and what was going on in their lives, that Iknew this was something I wanted to do-I just didn’t know how I was goingto get into it.
After working on educational films and children’s TV for 15 years,Underwood made his break into features with a little help from his friendsBrent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, the writers of Tremors, who insistedUnderwood direct their script. “I was doing educational films andchildren’s TV for so long that I began to get frustrated. It was sorepetitious,” he recalls. “I can’t knock educational filmmaking, though,because once I got into doing features I realized that all of my past workhad enabled me to learn the art of filmmaking,” Underwood says. “It gave meconfidence on the set and helped give me a feeling for what worked anddidn’t work. The experience helped me to continue making movies once I gotstarted.”
Remaining open to change (“because you never know what will lead to what”),Underwood again shifted gears to helm the 1991 hit City Slickers. Thedirector recalls seeing a bit of himself in Billy Crystal’s midlifecrisis-ridden cowboy-in-training. “Knowing what the main character wasgoing through made the film incredibly important to me,” says Underwood. “Iknew exactly what I wanted.” One particular scene which stands out forUnderwood is when Crystal’s character brings in the herd. “I had such aparticular picture in my mind of what the ranch was supposed to look like,but I couldn’t find it anywhere,” he says. Using special effects, anotherpassion of his, Underwood and his creative staff made matte paintings ofmountains and scenery which they then combined with footage shot on aColorado ranch. “Every tool, whether it be sound effects, music, or visualeffects, helps tell the story, and I wanted everything used in this film totell this character’s-and my-story.”
Another chapter in Underwood’s story was written in 1993 with thefantasy-comedy Heart and Souls. “I’d just started directing this film whena little girl was killed riding her bike to my house to play with mydaughter,” he remembers. “The film looked at death in a more positive way,which helped me get through the trauma.” If one believes in divine power,it is no coincidence that Underwood’s life and film experiences havemirrored each other. But what a foreshadowing for a high-school-kid whosefirst visit to a film set was during a shoot for The Poseidon Adventure. “Iwas visiting a friend, Harold Stein, who was one of the visual effectscameramen, and I started walking around this set of a ship turned upsidedown that had tables and chairs and toilet bowls hanging from the ceiling,”Underwood recalls. “It all looked so real and so romantic,” he says. “Idon’t think making movies is romantic now, but it can be.”
Harold Stein, interestingly, was a cameraman on the original Mighty JoeYoung, which brings Underwood’s story up to date: He’s currently heading upthe remake. Not willing to reveal how his life imitates art in this case,the director does promise it will be, “an inherently emotional story thathas the muscle and strength of an adventure film.” Sounds something likehis story.