How Did This Get Made: A Conversation With Ron Underwood, Director Of 'Tremors,' 'City Slickers,' And 'The Adventures Of Pluto Nash'

A few months ago, when I resumed writing this column for How Did This Get Made?, I began by making a wish list of filmmakers who I'd been wanting to speak with for years. And one of the people at the top of that list was the subject of today's piece: Ron Underwood

Even if you don't know the name "Ron Underwood," you've probably seen some of his work. Maybe it was when you were a kid. Maybe in school you were shown one of his sweet-natured stop-motion educational films. Films like Courtesy: A Good Eggsample. Or maybe you saw his adorable adaptation of Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle

Or maybe your introduction to Underwood's work came through one of his beloved films from the '90s. Perhaps it was Tremors? Or City Slickers? Or Mighty Joe Young? Again, at some point in your life, you've probably seen a Ron Underwood film. Which makes it all the more ironic that what led me to Mr. Underwood was the one film of his that you've almost definitely never seen. A film so few people saw that even now, nearly 20 years after the fact, it's still considered to be one of the "costliest box office flops of all-time": The Adventures of Pluto Nash

In typical HDTGM fashion, I aimed not only to answer how (and why) did the movie in question get made, but also to explore the ups, downs, and many twists of Underwood's career. And though it can often be hard to pinpoint the exact beginning of a career, in Underwood's case it's simple: it began over five decades ago in a country called "Ceylon." 

But before we jump back in time, there's an observation that I wanted to make: given how poorly Pluto Nash performed at the box office, it would have been extremely understandable if he spoke about the film with some resentment, or if he attempted to passive aggressively allocate blame. But the entire time we spoke, he always took full responsibility for the final product. Not just with Pluto Nash, but for all the films he directed. I just felt that was worth pointing out — because it's rare, because it's admirable, and because I wanted to make that abundantly clear in case any of his tone got lost in the text. 

And now, without further ado, we head to Ceylon, circa 1970...

[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

PART 1: A New Freedom

RON UNDERWOOD: When I was a junior in high school, I applied for an "exchange student" experience. And I wanted to go to the most different place in the world I could go to. And I got my wish. They sent me to what at the time was called "Ceylon." Which has since been renamed "Sri Lanka." 

BJH: Ah. 

RON UNDERWOOD: I was in Nuwara Eliya, a small town up in the "Tea Country." And that experience really changed me in so many ways. I saw American movies [there]. John Wayne movies — people just loved his movies. And we were sitting in...it wasn't, exactly, a theater; it was these big rooms with benches. And everyone would have a fan, fanning themselves. But it was kind of moving to see how much impact American movies made. And then while I was there, I also was making a movie on 8mm about my experiences there. And my family that I lived with was great. They took me all over to experience things that I had never seen before. I went to a very famous parade called the "Kandy Perahera" [Sri Lanka's Festival of the Tooth]. I went to an exorcism that was being done in a little village.

BJH: Did all these places let you record? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I didn't do any shots of the exorcism. But I did fully shoot a Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage I went on. Into the jungle in a place called "Kataragama." 

BJH: Wow. 

RON UNDERWOOD: And that was where these...people would go from all over the country once a year to prove their faith in their religion. And they did these incredible, extreme things to themselves. Similar to things we've seen in other cultures, like walking on hot coals, having meat hooks put through the skin on their back and hanging just for hours on end. I mean, I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. So when I brought that film home and edited it...I just couldn't believe the response I got. And that made me want to make movies, really. 

BJH: That's so cool...not only to create the content to be there and see, firsthand, the power of movies. 

RON UNDERWOOD: I know. It was a life-changing experience...I was applying to college right when I got back. [pause] I grew up watching lots of TV and movies. But all my male relatives were doctors. So I was sort of programmed to be a doctor. From childhood. And I always thought I would be a doctor. I went through with my pre-med applications and I went to Occidental College. I was a pre-med student there for 6 weeks. And then I thought: I just can't do this. I was making deals with all my science professors to make films instead of doing the assignments. 

BJH: [laughs] 

RON UNDERWOOD: And I realized this was just nuts. So I transferred to USC film school. 

BJH: How did your male relatives feel about you deciding to leave the med school track after 6 weeks? 

RON UNDERWOOD: They were very scared for me. They thought I was nuts. Michael Crichton was becoming well known as a writer/director at that time, and they said, "Why don't you go on his course? First you become a doctor and then you become a filmmaker." 

BJH: That's so funny. 

RON UNDERWOOD: I mean, eventually they were fine with it. But it took some time. 

BJH: And what about you? Were you nervous? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I was too in love with filmmaking...

BJH: Was film school what you expected/hoped for? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I was very anxious to get out. I was impatient. I wanted to be making films. And I did make some films in film school. But I was really trying to get out. So I went through college very quickly. I went through in three years. Part of that was I made a deal with my parents: I was gonna go back to Sri Lanka to do a documentary about Kataragama, the pilgrimage I went on...I thought I would make ethnographic films for my career. And, anyway, that changed. And I never went back to Sri Lanka. 

BJH: What changed...? 

RON UNDERWOOD: Well, I got all my shots [for the trip to Ceylon]. And my wife got all her shots for going to Ceylon. Which back then was a lot of shots! And during the summer between my junior year and senior year of college, I made a documentary...for one of my classes I made a 2.5-minute film about hang-gliding. And the guys I shot, they said, "When you finish your film, can you show it to us?" So I went over to their house and showed them the film. They said, "Wow, we love this! We'd like to hire you to make a film about hang-gliding." 

BJH: Nice!

RON UNDERWOOD: They said: we have a kite manufacturing company; we're just getting going, and we wanna have a film to promote the sport. It was just the beginning. So during the summer I made a movie about hang-gliding with these guys. And then I didn't realize it, but it was the first film on hang-gliding. So Paramount released it as a short. 

The film was called The New Freedom and clocked in just under 14 minutes. 

RON UNDERWOOD: That was when I was 19 years old. And then when I graduated, they asked me to work for them in the summer. So my choices were: get paid to do these commercials in Hawaii (where I could make a honeymoon), or go to Ceylon. I always wonder what would have happened if I went to Ceylon instead. But I know one thing from my almost-46-year-marriage: it wouldn't have lasted that summer in Ceylon. 

BJH: [laughs]

RON UNDERWOOD: Now that I know my wife better. So I sort of accidentally stumbled into the right decision. 

PART 2: Welcome to the Monkey House

After USC, Underwood and his wife — then an aspiring dental hygienist — moved to Milwaukee while she went to dental school at Marquette. A couple years later, they returned to Los Angeles and Underwood attended AFI. 

BJH: If, while you were at AFI, I had asked you, "Ron, what do you see yourself doing in 10 years?", what was your film-related goal at that time? 

RON UNDERWOOD: Well, at that time, I applied to AFI as a Producing Fellow (as opposed to a Directing Fellow). I'd only really done documentaries before. At 'SC...my "16mm film" was on the Garden Grove Walk-in/Drive-in Inspiration Center. Which was the first Drive-In church in the country. And so that was my...so I was doing documentary kinds of films. I hadn't worked with actors, really. So I didn't know if I even had that ability. 

BJH: Right. 

RON UNDERWOOD: So at AFI I had the experience of getting to intern with a producer. And decided I didn't want to do that forever!

BJH: [laughs]

RON UNDERWOOD: Which saved me a lot of time, so that was great. And I met an acting teacher who was a former Academy Award winning actress, Nina Foch. She became my mentor through my career and I became close to her and really loved working with actors because of her, really. 

BJH: That's great. And once you started to move in that trajectory, did you begin to think about writing? Because you were obviously a self-starter doing the documentary stuff...what were you thinking you wanted to do at the time? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I wanted to get in to feature films. That was my goal. So I did writing (which was not very good). I got production jobs from AFI. From my internship, that [led to my] first job. I was a production assistant on Future World. And they hired me from my internship there. It was kind of early in Hollywood in terms of "location management." So the producers and all the people who were involved with that film saw that I helped a lot with getting the locations and stuff worked out. And finding the right locations for the film. So on their next film, which was Peter Hyams' Capricorn OneI was the Location Manager. And that was a real growing experience too. With Future World and Capricorn One I really learned about the mechanics of filmmaking work in the Hollywood world.

When I was finishing Capricorn One, I was offered location management on another film called Comes a Horseman, which was a big Western with Jane Fonda. Big cast. And I realized that...I had been away a lot for Capricorn One. And my wife was working as a dental hygienist and couldn't really travel. And this was going to be a year in Colorado. And I just felt our marriage wouldn't last. So I turned it down and went into short films. Then I learned about this short film market that I didn't really know about before. Mostly it was selling films to libraries around the country. Or to schools. That sort of thing. So while I was on Capricorn One, at night, in my garage at home, I was making a short film for that market. My wife and I worked together on it. We took eggs; blew out the stuff inside the eggs; and I would stand them up and then walk them around and do stop-motion with these eggs. I was making a film for education about "Courtesy" using these eggs. It was called Courtesy: A Good Eggsample

Underwood's short became very popular in the education market. 

RON UNDERWOOD: I still get royalties from that: Courtesy: A Good Eggsample, which was made in 1977.

BJH: That's so funny. 

RON UNDERWOOD: I mean, somebody's still using it somewhere! 

BJH: Did you do more shorts? 

RON UNDERWOOD: So I did over a hundred shorts. I felt like I was never going to get out of that world once I got in. I was trying all the while to get out into features or television...but I just couldn't do it. And I wasn't just doing strictly educational films. I did children's book adaptations. I did a Kurt Vonnegut adaptation from Welcome to the Monkey House called "Deer in the Works." 

BJH: I love that book. 

RON UNDERWOOD: I do too. That was a very personal story to me. And I was hoping that that would, you know, get awards or something to get some traction out of shorts. Didn't quite do it. But I ended up making a film...Two of my friends that I met at USC, S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, were working with me on these short films. They would write them. Brent would edit them a lot. Steve would do stop-motion animation. I mean, we both loved it, but he was much better at it. He was a real devotee to Ray Harryhausen and the stop-motion world. 

BJH: Right. 

RON UNDERWOOD: So we made lots of films together. And one of those was a film about "How to Write a Term Paper."

BJH: [laughs]

RON UNDERWOOD: It sounds exciting, I know. 

BJH: [still laughing]

RON UNDERWOOD: But! We would do all of these films in dramatic ways so that we could be writing dramatic scripts—working with actors. We knew that's what we wanted to do, so we were trying to further that. So this was a film set in the future with a teenage girl that has a robot who she wants to have do her term paper when it's assigned to her. But the robot is very clever and he gets her to write the term paper step-by-step without her even realizing that she's doing it. And when we finished that film we said: that character—that robot—was so great. It'd make a really good character for a feature film. Steve [A.K.A. "S.S." Wilson, one of his two screenwriter friends] had done the stop-motion for it. And we thought: we could make a film together with a robot as a main character. So we had this plan: Brent and Steve wrote the script; Steve was gonna do the stop-motion; I was gonna direct it. And that was in 1985, I think, and that was Short Circuit

BJH: Wow. 

RON UNDERWOOD: And their script came out right at the time of a potential writers' strike. I can't remember if there was a strike that year, but there was fear that there was going to be a strike, at least. And the studios needed to get scripts that were ready to go. And Brent and Steve got — through a writing class that Brent was in — got to an agent, Nancy Roberts, who got the [script] out to the community. And there was a huge bidding war for it! It was...from our little movie that we were gonna do for, like, a million dollars it became a major motion picture set up at Tri-Star. And I was just a hindrance. I mean, I had never done anything other than short films at that time. And I was [therefore] a liability to the project, so I stepped away. But Brent and Steve became very hot writers based on that script. Because it was a script, basically, that didn't need to be re-written and could go right into production. And it did. They're great friends who said, "Let's keep working together. Let's get together and decide what we can do that a first-time director can get hired for."

Shortly thereafter, the triumvirate re-teamed for a cult classic that became so successful it would go on to have (at least) five sequels...

PART 3: “Things that didn’t bother them before…they just went through the roof being upset” 

RON UNDERWOOD: We started working on TremorsIt was an idea that Steve had. He had lots of index cards with film ideas he had from years...and this was one he had gotten when he was sitting on a rock out in the desert, working in the military in California. And so we thought: well, that's a good low-budget idea for a film. Because the monster's underground and off-screen, mostly. And studios will allow first-time directors to be horror film directors. 

BJH: Ha. True. 

RON UNDERWOOD: [Brent and Steve] did a treatment and we thought: because they were so much in demand that we would take the treatment and pitch it around town. So we went everywhere and just met blank stares when we started talking about 30-foot, underground, monsters. Giant worms. 

BJH: Yeah, so take me through that a little bit more. What was your pitch? 

RON UNDERWOOD: The idea was very much the movie. It was: this little town, cut off geographically from the rest of the world, with one road in and one road out; that is under siege from something that they can't understand because people are just disappearing. And people are dying up on top of telephone poles just trying to wait out these creatures. It just made no sense!

BJH: [laughs]

RON UNDERWOOD: So we thought that we had something really good, but we were just met with blank stares. And it took time because Brent and Steve were very busy writing scripts. But eventually we decided that the only way to get it off the ground was [for Brent and Steve to write] the script and show people that this was worth doing. So Brent and Steve wrote the script [on spec] and we sent it around. 

More specifically: Nancy Roberts, who represented all three of the filmmakers, sent the script around. 

RON UNDERWOOD: And Nancy knew we needed someone of "weight" to help give our low-budget film credibility with the studios. So she went to Gale Anne Hurd, who became an executive producer on it. She came out of Roger Corman and low-budget filmmaking, so she really understood that world and knew that we knew what we were talking about. 

BJH: Gotcha. 

RON UNDERWOOD: Before that...I had done some other things during those years. The short film business sort of died away [during the '80s]. What happened was the home video market came along. We were charging $500 for a 15-minute film to schools and libraries. And suddenly they could get a feature for $29.99...

BJH: [laughs]

RON UNDERWOOD: Home video just killed that market. It was interesting. But I had worked so much with kids during those years that I got into children's television. And in children's television I did a film with stop-motion and live-action called The Mouse and the Motorcycle based on Beverly Cleary's book. It became a Peabody Award-winner, so that sort of allowed Hollywood to say, "Oh! Maybe he is okay for this business..."

BJH: Yeah, I know how it goes. 

RON UNDERWOOD: Then I did the sequel to that: Runaway Ralph. That got an Emmy nomination for me. So that helped...actually while we were developing Tremors all those years, I was hired by Disney to direct my first feature: Hocus Pocus.  And Hocus Pocus had a cat in it. A mechanical cat, as I recall. Anyway...The Mouse and the Motorcycle had a cat in it, so they knew I could work with cats. So they hired me for Hocus Pocus

BJH: [laughs]

RON UNDERWOOD: And [at that time] I didn't really understand how that part of Hollywood worked — the whole development thing. I sort of turned a "go movie" into a development deal. I didn't quite understand the whole process. And...I went to do Tremors because I was involved with that for so long and it was dear to my heart. 

BJH: I think it's just amazing that you're doing Beverly Cleary adaptations — so you're, like, the perfect guy to speak at a library or to a school — but you're also this guy who terrorizes kids with Tremors

RON UNDERWOOD: [laughs] Yeah, I know. I felt badly for our youngest daughter because she was a little too young for it [Tremors]. But she was at the screenings. 

BJH: So tell me some highlights from the production of Tremors—favorite parts? Most challenging parts? What are you most proud of? 

RON UNDERWOOD: Well, I was very excited to do it. I'd made over a hundred films by that point, so it was not, like, my first time on set. Which was great. I hated that it took me so long to get to do that feature. [But in retrospect] I'm so grateful that it did take me that long. Because I really was comfortable with directing [by that point]. I was most surprised by a couple of things. One was: I thought that doing a feature I'd have so much time and be able to spend the time for nuance and everything else. I found I was just as pressed for time as I ever was on my little films. That's just part of filmmaking, generally. 

BJH: Right. 

RON UNDERWOOD: We had looked for locations all over the west and decided on Lone Pine, California, where it's a high desert just below Mount Whitney. And I was worried that the cast and the crew were going to be just too hot. It was, you know, a desert. And the first day of photography, it started snowing. And I thought, wow, this is just gonna be really bizarre. And it was...and that's something that I've always taken to heart about filmmaking: whatever you're thinking, it's going to be different, probably. [laughs] And be ready for everything that you can think of. 

BJH: That's a great lesson. I told one of my good friends that I was excited for this interview and he's a big Tremors fan. He wanted me to ask you how you came up with the name of the town: Perfection, Nevada. 

RON UNDERWOOD: I can't remember, but I think it was Brent's idea. It seemed so perfect in so many ways. The title of the film at that time (and the script) was Beneath Perfection

BJH: Ah, okay. 

RON UNDERWOOD: We loved that title. 

BJH: That's a great title. So who changed it? 

RON UNDERWOOD: The studio didn't like it. 

BJH: Interesting. 

RON UNDERWOOD: Yeah. We actually had crew jackets made with Beneath Perfection on them and we sent them to the studio executives. And I heard that one of the executives threw the jacket at somebody, saying, "That's not gonna be the name of this movie!"

BJH: Ha!

RON UNDERWOOD: It was also...Universal was going through the purchase by Matsushita (in Japan) at that time. And earthquakes are such a big thing in Japan. [So] it was the studio's idea to name it Tremors to make it sort of tie into earthquakes. And actually they...they were very happy with the movie. We tested the movie and the audience just loved it. And the studio was very excited. But they wanted to know where these creatures came from. The studio executives. And they wanted to tie it into earthquakes (for Japan). So they wanted us to shoot a new opening where an earthquake happens and that unleashes creatures from the core of the earth. 

BJH: Okay...

RON UNDERWOOD: We didn't want to do it, but our agent [Nancy Roberts] advised us that the studio was very adamant about it. So we did it to the best of our ability. But in that opening, the setup involved a coyote being killed by the Graboid (unleashed by the earthquake that happens). And we go out and preview the film after that and [now] the audience is just turned off from the very beginning about cruelty to animals. 

BJH: Ha!

RON UNDERWOOD: Things that didn't bother them before, like horses being eaten by the Graboids, they just went through the roof being upset about that. So it really taught me a lot about perception and setups and how important the beginning of a movie is for setting the tone. 

BJH: That's a great lesson. 

RON UNDERWOOD: And then we got to cut it out, which was a gift to us. We loved that. 

BJH: I can't believe the studio admitted they were wrong. 

RON UNDERWOOD: Yeah, I know! But we had the proof, kind of, from the screenings. 

BJH: That's true. And so...at what point did you realize: oh, this could be something real big — something really popular? 

RON UNDERWOOD: [long pause and world class deadpan] Never. 

BJH: [laughs]

RON UNDERWOOD: I mean, when it came out that was really gratifying. I think it was Richard Schickel in Time magazine who said it was [already] a cult classic. It got some really nice reviews...so that was great and I felt really gratified by that. But [the studio was] really going for the core horror audience to make that movie work financially. And that movie was just not anything like Freddy Krueger or Friday the 13th or the things that were hot at that time. It was so different that that audience didn't come out on opening weekend. So I got a call Saturday morning. It was released Friday and the executive Jim Jacks, who was a big supporter of the film, called the next morning and said, "Ron, we just can't support the film, unfortunately." 

BJH: Wow. 

RON UNDERWOOD: That's how fast those decisions were made. So it was disappointing. But the timing was very good for home video starting up and it did so well on home video that that's why there's seven Tremors right now. 

BJH: And there's gotta be some good symmetry there: that the thing that killed your shorts business is the thing that salvaged your first feature. 

RON UNDERWOOD: [laughs] Yeah. 

PART 4: A Part of Growing Up

RON UNDERWOOD: You know, it was funny because I had to be working all the time to support my family (we have three kids). So all through my short filmmaking, I had to have like 2-3 projects going at the same time to survive. I couldn't afford not to be working. Then after Tremors, ironically, it was the longest period of unemployment I'd ever had. Because I didn't want to do the same thing. I didn't want to do a horror film as my second film. And I wanted something I connected with. And Nancy Roberts, my agent...got me an early script of City Slickers that had been written by Lowell [Ganz] and Babaloo [Mandel]. And I just loved it. 

BJH: Sure. 

RON UNDERWOOD: I mean, I fell in love with it partly because...so the reason I made the Kurt Vonnegut film Deer in the Works [years earlier]: I was 30 years old then, and I was going through a mid-life crisis. I'd had three kids and felt like I was going to be doing these short films for the rest of my life. And that story, "Deer in the Works," was about this guy who was a writer working in the PR department of [a company like] General Electric. And his wife was in the hospital having twins (so they had 4 kids now). And he just felt trapped in this company. So [connecting back to City Slickers] I really related to the mid-life crisis that "Mitch," the Billy Crystal character, was going through. And that's the thing that made me want to make that film. It wasn't so much the adventure as that. But I also loved cowboy movies; because so many of the movies I watched as a kid were cowboy movies and I always was playing cowboys as a kid and I loved cowboys. So that was a great gift to be part of a film about mid-life crisis.

BJH: What did you learn about mid-life crises from directing that movie? And going through your own, or being in the midst of your own at that time? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I learned that it's a real thing. And it's...it's a part of growing up. And understanding what's important in life. And I think there was a lot of truth in the film about that: that you've got to find your one thing, and that's what's important. I was probably one of the less experienced directors they were talking to to make that film but I think I connected so deeply with it that came across when we would talk in meetings. 

BJH: Was there a time that you were interested in, or there was a possibility that, you would direct the sequel [to City Slickers]? I mean, it did well. Did you want to keep going with that? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I mean...I obviously did and I didn't. I wanted to keep doing different kinds of things. It's not wise Hollywood-wise...

BJH: [jokingly combative] You gotta find your "one thing" Ron! And stick with that thing! 

RON UNDERWOOD: [laughs] I know! And so many people do and that's so great for them. But I wanted to do a variety of things. I mean, I had it in my deal that I would direct my sequel. But I was in the middle of [directing a fantasy comedy starring Robert Downey Jr. called] Heart and Souls and Billy said, "I know you're doing this other movie, but I'll do the prep for you. You can just step in at the time we start shooting." But I just couldn't do it. I mean, I would have loved to have been involved. I would have loved even more if they had gone on an African safari or something else. I was...sorry not to be involved. But at the time, sequels weren't quite the same thing they are now. 

BJH: Sure. Well let's flash forward a bit and talk about Pluto Nash. What is the earliest you remember about that movie: that there might be a movie; that you might be involved; what's the very first start of that story? 

RON UNDERWOOD: So a connection with City Slickers is that it was in development at Castle Rock, the same company that made City Slickers. They sent me the script. Eddie Murphy was already attached. And I was just completing Mighty Joe Young and that experience was a really positive one for me, although it was lengthy; it was a three-year project for me. And I enjoyed all the visual effects work on Mighty Joe Young, and it ended up getting an Academy Award nomination for that. So I thought doing a film based on a colony on the moon would be kind of fun for that.  

BJH: [laughs]

RON UNDERWOOD: I knew that the script needed a lot of work. But I also knew that Eddie's schedule was tied for up at least nine months. Or maybe seven months? I can't remember exactly. So we had the time, I thought, to work on the script. 

It's worth noting that the script Underwood had received was merely the latest iteration of a script that Neil Cuthbert had written fifteen years earlier. 

The below mentions from Variety give a small snapshot of the project's many stops and starts between 1983 and when Underwood came onboard in 1998: 

  • NOVEMBER 1983: Producer Martin Bregman...[is] going ahead with his other pic projects at Universal including...a futuristic comedy, "Pluto Nash," by Neil Cuthbert. 
  • MARCH 1985: "Pluto Nash," brought to Embassy by producer Martin Bregman to be directed by Rick Rosenthal...[is scheduled for] a late Summer.
  • MARCH 1989: "Crocodile Dundee" director Peter Faiman will direct the comedy "Pluto Nash" for Bregman at Universal. 

RON UNDERWOOD: Yeah, it was a popular project that had been around since the '80s...a lot of stars flirted with it. Harrison Ford, I think, and others. I mean, so many films linger in development. It's hard to know why...

BJH: Sure. 

RON UNDERWOOD: [Pluto Nash] was a pretty straight ahead movie, but set on the moon. That was, I think, some of what was liked about it; but also some of its weaknesses.

BJH: What about...you're obviously close with your wife. What did you tell her about this project [as you were getting initially interested]?

RON UNDERWOOD: I liked the challenge of making a film on the moon, of course. The thing I didn't have in it, which I will always regret (and never do a thing again without it), is that core piece of storytelling like the mid-life crisis; or making death less painful in Heart and Souls or whatever that thing is. I can't say that I had that [with Pluto Nash] and it was a mistake that I would regret. 

BJH: And were you conscious of that at the time? Or was that more something that you realized afterwards? Like: did you feel like something was lacking at the time? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I did feel like...[long pause] I felt like we could address that in the script. And the script had many writers. It's not like we didn't try to make that script really reach its potential. I think, literally, millions were spent on the script. 

BJH: So is what you described earlier how things played out? Did you end up having 7-9 months to work on the script and think about it before Eddie was involved; and then did you go into production after that? Or did the process change? 

RON UNDERWOOD: We did have those months to work on the script. Eddie was always very pleasant and easy to work with in some regards. But he didn't like the scripts we were writing. He kept rejecting the scripts. And we'd bring on a new writer and try again; and we'd bring on a new writer and try again. And it just...he wasn't responding. I mean, maybe we should have stopped at that point. I don't know. He said that his best work was: a film written for [someone like] Sylvester Stallone or Harrison Ford and he would bring the comedy. And so our last draft was fairly straight. Probably the straightest [of all our drafts]. And it's...I don't know. I feel like Eddie gave a lot. But he didn't...I mean, he wasn't feeling that funny, I don't think. 

BJH: Gotcha. 

RON UNDERWOOD: Originally when I was hired for the film, the plan was we were going to make it in London. And I went over to London and started prep. I really loved the people I was getting involved with, crew-wise, over there. And Eddie was excited about working in London. [But] we had a producer who I really was at odds with a lot through the filmmaking and I think that led to some problems with the film. But he really convinced the studio that it was gonna be too expensive in London and it should be done in Montreal. 

BJH: Interesting. 

RON UNDERWOOD: So the film was moved to Montreal after a period of pre-production. And Eddie didn't really like Montreal. Whether that affected the movie? It might have. Would it have been a different movie if we'd have made it in London? I know that there would have been certain things that would have been different. This was probably the first big movie to be made in Montreal...[clarifying] films had been made in Montreal for decades, many of them great films, but they were for the most part French, low-budget films. So taking a film of this size, where they didn't have studio space and they built a studio for us during those months we were waiting for the script. They actually built a studio for this film. 

BJH: Wow. 

RON UNDERWOOD: And Castle Rock, you know, knew that we had some problems. They knew that the script wasn't where I hoped it would be. I was getting other offers during this time—because this seemed to just be going on and on. But I felt an obligation to go through with it just because we'd been spending all this money; and we had this commitment with the studio we were having them build. I felt a real obligation to my friends at Castle Rock, who gave me such a huge break in my career. 

BJH: Right...so you said that Eddie was, like, rejecting the scripts. He wasn't happy with the scripts. At what point did you end up moving forward? Was it just that you ran out of time? Or was there a version that you all felt good with? How did that all progress? 

RON UNDERWOOD: Well, we got a fairly straightforward script. [clarifying] We had a meeting with Eddie and his agent and the producers of the film and the studio. And that's when he said: I want it to be just kind of straight, and I'll bring the comedy. And we did that draft and went into production. We still knew that there were problems with it. We had another writer come up to Montreal and continue to work into shooting. 

BJH: Do you remember how long, approximately, the production was? 

RON UNDERWOOD: [long pause and another world-class deadpan delivery] Forever. 

PART 5: An Escalating Self-Prophecy

RON UNDERWOOD: I was on [Pluto Nash] for four years. 

BJH: Wow. 

RON UNDERWOOD: I can't remember, exactly, how many shooting days we had. But it was a long production. 

BJH: And at some point, even before that, you obviously met Eddie. What was the first meeting, or first meetings, like with Eddie, and what was your rapport like with him? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I enjoyed him. I mean, he's engaging and fun and nice. A nice man. I didn't have a super close relationship with him. But we had a good working relationship, I thought. 

BJH: And did production start smoothly? Did it go smoothly when you actually started shooting? What was the on-set atmosphere like? I know you were having friction with the producer, you said. But on a day-to-day basis, was there friction? Or was that just sort of a macro thing that didn't really impact the day-to-day? 

RON UNDERWOOD: It was a different kind of process. Eddie really doesn't...he doesn't block scenes. So you block the scene with the other actors and his stand-in and then he comes in...he wanted everything to be ready. He'd come in, I'd show him where all the marks are and where everybody is, and he's a very bright instant learner and could get it quickly and would perform and would leave. So it wasn't the kind of set that I was used to. But it wasn't that we had lots of problems, I would say. [The unusual thing for me] was the waiting and having more time between set-ups than I would normally have. It was...a little bit of a draining process in that regard. 

BJH Sure. 

RON UNDERWOOD: And some of the production, because of the size of the production, was pushing some of the limits of what we could do in Montreal at the time. 

BJH: That all makes sense...and was the film going well in your opinion? Were you looking at dailies and thinking, "we are making the movie that we should be making"? 

RON UNDERWOOD: No. I knew it wasn't...I knew we didn't have the kind of wit and the fun that I would want. And so it was difficult. And it was difficult because it was such a long process. I can't say that I knew exactly what to do to straighten that. 

BJH: How do you deal with that, as both a director and as a person? You're not the kind of guy who's going to quit in the middle of this. I mean, you stuck with the project because you felt a sense of responsibility. But it's not going that great. How do you get up every day and work on this? And there's a lot of people who are working hard on this. 

RON UNDERWOOD: Yeah...

BJH: ...so what was going through your mind at the time? 

RON UNDERWOOD: It was hard. It was, you know...I tried to encourage good work. And we had incredible artists working on that film. Amazing people in every area. So it wasn't that we didn't have the talent. And the cast is an incredible cast. I mean, the people we had were just amazing. And I don't want to just blame it on a script problem because, you know...I'm the guy in charge. So...I felt that it was not really working fully. And we had talks about it behind the scenes. But it wasn't very obvious how to correct it.  

BJH: Were there things that you tried to take in a different direction? Things you tried to implement that either didn't work, or other people weren't on board with trying? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I don't remember anything we tried to do that ended up not going forward. 

BJH: Gotcha. This is probably something I probably should have asked earlier, but Hollywood is very iterative, where someone likes something because someone else liked it. What were they thinking — what did they think the best case was for Pluto Nash? It would make more sense if there had been a movie like Pluto Nash in 1996 and the studio thought: oh, this will be our that

RON UNDERWOOD: Well, it was a kind of family comic-book-kind-of thing in a way. There wasn't anything quite like it, I would say. I think...literally, I think the film was not very good. Ultimately. But the thing that killed it probably the most was the internet word about the film. That got out. I think it was Ain't It Cool News...

Underwood is correct. In January 2001, a writer for AintItCoolNews.com saw a test screening of the film and published a review entitled: "...PLUTO NASH should be blown out an airlock!!!" 

Below are a few excerpts from the article:

  • "Almost no laughs!" 
  • "Hackneyed action scenes"
  • "Thankless roles are Luis Guzman...and Jay Mohr..."
  • "Nowhere to be found is the wisecracking Eddie Murphy of Beverly Hills Cop and The Nutty Professor. This is Metro bad. It's hard to believe this movie comes from the same director who made Tremors and City Slickers."

RON UNDERWOOD: [Ain't It Cool News] started writing a lot of things about it. And it made the studio nervous. And they delayed the release which made it even worse. 

BJH: Right, right, right. 

RON UNDERWOOD: So it was an escalating self-prophecy of... ... ...Underwood never finishes the sentence. The obvious reason is because whatever word was on the tip of his tongue — be it "doom" or "disappointment" or "failure" — is better left unsaid. And that might actually be the reason. But I have an alternative theory, which requires backing up a bit...

So all of the negativity began in January 2001, with that terrible review on AintItCoolNews.com (a terrible review that, notably, was based on a version of the film that was still so far away from completion that it didn't even have special effects). Nevertheless, that review, as summed up nicely by Michael Cieply for The New York Times, served as "a major link in a Rube Goldberg sequence that ultimately put 'Pluto' in a tough spot. According to people who know about the film, Castle Rock executives became nervous...[and they] commissioned [two weeks of] reshoots in Los Angeles. This pushed the budget to a reported $100 million. Worse, it caused the film to miss an anticipated April 2001 release. That set off still more bad Web buzz, even though the reconstructed film is said to have tested well with younger audiences and adequately with adults."

In fact, when the finished version of the film was finally released (in August 2002, 16 months after its originally scheduled release), the reaction at Ain't It Cool News was...mildly positive. Per their review of Pluto Nash: "The film, even when it's getting swamped, is still kinda likeable. If LILO AND STITCH is the fascinating guy at the party that you could talk to all night, and MASTER OF DISGUISE is the insanely annoying dickhead that won't leave you alone, PLUTO NASH is the passing acquaintance that you're vaguely pleased to run into." 

It is, of course, not at all unusual for a film to drastically improve between test screening and final product (especially when so much extra money and time were put into post-production), nor is it unusual that a media outlet would seemingly feel so differently about a test-screening-version and a final product (especially when you factor in that the final product was reviewed by a completely different writer than the one who believed "PLUTO NASH should be blown out an airlock.")  

Truly, none of the above stands out as unusual. But what does seem unusual is this paragraph from Ain't It Cool's mildly positive review of the film: "It's a little frustrating to me, because everyone, right down to the film's producers, seem to think this is going to tank. It took them two years to get the thing out, although I couldn't tell you particularly why."

To me, that paragraph feels unusual in a way that has become more and more usual in the years since The Adventures of Pluto Nash. By which I mean: the phenomena of a negative news story (particularly one about something still in progress) sparking a news cycle that ultimately impacts the development of the thing that the original story was about. 

Or maybe "unusual" isn't the right word. Perhaps "unnerving" is more accurate? Or maybe, actually, there is not yet a good word for this internet-era interplay between Art and Media—and that's why Underwood was unable to finish his sentence...

PART 6: Relaxed, Rock Steady, and Ready to Terminate

BJH: From your perspective — just: your career going forward — when they delayed the release, what did you think would be better for that? That the film kind of got buried? Or that it came out and did not do that well? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I mean, I took responsibility for it. I mean, it is the film I made. That was me at that time making a movie. So I take that responsibility. I lost some of my drive for getting involved with another film like that. Or not like that — just another feature film. Between Mighty Joe Young and that, that was seven years of my life. And it was hard after Pluto Nash to think of going into a long period of working on a film. The stamina it takes. So while that film was coming out, I did something that my agents had always said not to do. Which was: take on a television movie. Because I really liked the script by Howard Korder. It was Stealing Sinatra, about the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. with William H. Macy and David Arquette. And I really loved doing it. And then I was offered an episode of a television show. And I'd always been told that [in television] directors are just kind of "traffic cops" — that "the actors already know their characters." 

BJH: Right. 

RON UNDERWOOD: The first show I did was Monk and Tony Shalhoub said, "Please! I want direction! I live with this character all my life. I need new input!" And I thought: wow, this is fun. And that led to my doing television. 

BJH: So tell me about your transition to television. I'm 38, so I remember growing up at a time when television was considered "the gutter." 

RON UNDERWOOD: [laughs] Right. 

BJH: So I know that people reading this will probably think: oh, he just went to television. That's a normal thing to do. But back then, it wasn't...

RON UNDERWOOD: It wasn't. And it was...and I was lucky in a sense to have this refocus of my career at that time. Because [not long after] so many of my friends wanted to get into television and couldn't because everyone wanted to be in television. 

BJH: So...I know the answer to this is: a million things. But what is different and what was different between directing film and directing television? 

RON UNDERWOOD: It's really...it's so much the same and so different all at once. The process of shot-by-shot and planning out what you want is similar. But the timeframe is just so short. So in hour shows you get seven days of prep. And on the kind of normal hour show formula, it's eight days of shooting...generally that's the timeframe. And most shows [now] want feature-film quality — as much as you can give them — in that short amount of time. For me, it came at a good time in my career, in that I have a lot of energy and I like to just get in there and do it. And it's like a sprint, and I'm running fast the whole time. And with a feature you can't run that fast. You have to pace it just to be able to have the stamina to be able to get through the whole thing. So it's very different than a feature in that regard. I mean, I get great satisfaction from directing television. And the actors are usually incredibly grateful for direction and lovely to work with. The crews, I'm inspired by constantly. And every month I'm pretty much with a different crew; a different cast; a different tone. Which is so much fun for me. 

BJH: That's kind of what you always wanted!

RON UNDERWOOD: Yeah. For someone who likes different and variety. They've all been really great. Yeah. I think whether it's comedy, like Ugly Betty, or it's drama, like Scandal...every show's needs are so different. And the style is different. And the way of working is different. And as a director, you're sort of fitting into their world as opposed to creating the world that they fit into, as you do in features. 

BJH: You've been super generous with your time. But can I ask you two more questions? 

RON UNDERWOOD: Yeah. 

BJH: So maybe Pluto Nash...not the greatest movie of all time. Not your favorite movie. But what are a few things that you're really proud about with that movie? 

RON UNDERWOOD: I really enjoyed the cast we had. It was a stellar cast. And I really loved getting to know all those people and working with them...and creating that world of what this "Little America" was. And the little touches that I could bring in. Little things about the moon that were important to me. Then there's some odd things: for a film that we were doing in 1999 and 2000; like the [$100 dollar] bills had the picture of Hillary Clinton on them. They were called "Hillarys." And [another example] as Pluto is driving out of the city, trying to get away from the bad guys, the first time, they drive by the little community that says, "If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home Already. Trump Real Estate."

BJH: That's really funny...and then last question. So let's say I called you up and I said, "Hey, Ron. I'm in Montreal. I'm directing my first feature. It's a big budget film. A sci-fi film. The star...I'm not super getting along with. Things are not going so great." What would your advice be to me, to help get me through it?" 

RON UNDERWOOD: I would say that anxiety won't help you. I mean, I certainly was not experiencing personal anxiety. Because I knew that that really would not be helpful. And I would say that for filmmaking in general (and partly just with experience it gets easier); but early on when I was doing the short films, I did a film ironically called The Stress Mess, which was about how stress hurts your productivity. This was for businesses, this film. And I had cast Carl Balentine, who's an old-time TV comedian/actor. And Art Matrano, who was an old time TV comedian, as the two lead characters of this. I had no idea when I cast them that they had both been on the Ed Sullivan Show; both feeling like the other had stole his act. 

BJH: Ha!

RON UNDERWOOD: And they hated each other so much. I can't believe they took the roles. But I was so stressed during that film that I...it was becoming a total nightmare for me. And after that experience I thought: I'm not a big drinker, but I want to feel like I've just had a scotch when I go on the set. And that's part of the job of the director. To come on and be relaxed and rock steady for everybody. [But at the same time] I [should] have the determination of The Terminator. And I think of The Terminator, how he moves through the day with one single thing he wants to get through. And I try to give that combination to myself. Of having that kind of direction, but in a very kind of laid-back way. And that will help a lot of films. 

BJH: Right. That's beautiful. Thank you so much.