Fortune has smiled upon me and over the past several weeks and I have had the opportunity to pick the brains of some of my childhood heroes (still my heroes). This week I am excited to present to you, S.S. Wilson. The geeky readers among you will have just flipped out and as for the rest of you, if you don't know his name you will certainly know his films.
Starting in animation his career has taken him to the dizzying heights of Hollywood with the hugely popular Short Circuit opening #1 at the American Box Office. His films have seen him work with the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Barry Sonnenfeld, Robert Downey Jr and Sidney Poitier to name just some. In addition to creating the ever-enduring Tremors franchise he has also turned his imagination to writing books with his first novel, Tucker's Monster, being published in 2010.
So far my featured interviews have all been with people who have influenced me in one way or another. S.S. Wilson and his writing partner, Brent Maddock, were like guardians to me. So much of my childhood was spent square-eyed in front of the tv lost in their universe and always looking for the next adventure. His brand of fantasy is the type that inspires my own writing and, in my opinion, is what cinema is all about (escapism).
He was so gracious in granting me his time and as you will see his thoughts are insightful, fascinating and candid.
What was your favourite movie as a child?
I had many I liked, but King Kong (1933) remained one I returned to over and over.
Was there a particular moment when you realised that you wanted make movies?
Yes. I had just enrolled in college and signed up to take psychology classes, since my father was a psychologist. During my first week, he asked why I wasn’t signed up for film or television courses. “You’ve been making movies since you were 12!” he pointed out. So he talked to my advisors and changed my courses. Strange to say, I’d never thought about making it a career. Seemed like a hobby. But from that point on my path was set.
Was your family supportive of your decision to write?
Yes, see above. They were very supportive of all my early experiments with stop motion animation. Later, I made a living doing animation for some years before succeeding as a writer.
How did you first become involved in the industry?
I went to USC film school for graduate work. There I met people whom I would work with for much of my career. Ron Underwood (who years later would direct Tremors) hired me to do animation for short films he was working on. Brent Maddock and I started writing spec scripts off and on, eventually selling Short Circuit.
Some of my readers may not know that you co-write most of your work with Brent Maddock. How did the two of you form a writing partnership?
Brent and I met at USC. We shared an apartment for some years and worked on short films together. Brent wrote and directed some of them. I did animation. We both worked in production, animation, editing, sound, etc. From time to time we would write spec screenplays in hopes of breaking into “main stream” Hollywood. After years of such efforts, it did not seem like it was going to happen. But then we wrote Short Circuit --
Your first produced screenplay was Short Circuit. This was a hugely successful hit. How did things change for you personally and artistically from this moment?
It was an enormous change. I went from working as an animator on obscure short films to getting calls from Steven Spielberg, then getting an office at his Amblin Entertainment on the Universal lot. This all happened very quickly with the sale and production of Short Circuit. While we were thrilled to have all the work and attention, creatively we soon found that writers have little or no say in production, casting, editing. So after a time, we began to be frustrated, as we were used to having more creative control (in our short film days).
Was Short Circuit 2 something that you championed or was it the product of the studio’s desire to milk the success of the original?
The studio wanted to do it as the first film was a big success in its day. We were advised not to do it. Believe it or not, in those days people who did sequels were considered hacks or 2nd tier film makers. But we were protective of our character, Number Five, and we felt it’d be fun to work out another adventure with him, so we agreed to write the script.
Will you be having any involvement with the upcoming Short Circuit remake?
We wrote two drafts for the production company, but they did not like them. For one thing, they felt a little kid should be added to the story. We were unable to convince them otherwise. A number of writers and directors have come and gone since. We don’t know what stage the project is in now.
*batteries not inc. was an important film to me as a kid. How did this little gem come about?
First of all, I love that you got the title right. This was written during our time at Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. At first it was to be an Amazing Story (TV series of the time), but it got elevated to theatrical film status. Matt Robbins and Brad Byrd had revised Mick Garris’ script, and pre-production was already underway. But Spielberg felt it needed to be shortened (partly to fit the budget). Robbins, the director, was increasingly busy with
pre-production, so they brought us in to work on it. We went through several more drafts, working with Spielberg, Robbins, and Byrd on revisions, ultimately doing quite a bit of
Of course your name is synonymous with the hugely popular Tremors franchise. How much of the final film represented your original vision?
With Tremors we got back creative control, as we sold it as a spec script with ourselves attached as producers and our friend Ron Underwood directing. So, more than anything else we’ve ever worked on, Tremors comes closest to being exactly what we envisioned.
You directed Tremors 2 and 4. Do you enjoy directing?
I love it. I’d never considered directing until Ron asked me to direct 2nd unit on Tremors. I felt that as a writer and animator (both done alone, very slowly) I wasn’t cut out for the frantic pace and pressure of handling a crew in live action production. But once I realized I could direct the fairly large 2nd unit crew, I really got the bug. So I jumped at the chance to do T-2 when Universal decided they wanted a direct-to-video follow-up.
Your films attract a large fan base. Do you attend many conventions and do you enjoy a connection with these fans?
I enjoy connecting with fans. For many years I was too busy to get to many conventions. But I try to answer fan questions on our company website, Stampede Entertainment. Lately, as I’ve branched out into writing novels like Tucker’s Monster, I’ve been able to get to more conventions and special screenings. It’s always fun. You meet people dressed up as Graboids. Really.
There has been a lot of chatter and gossip about a fifth Tremors movie being set in Australia. Is there any truth to this?
The script for Tremors 5 was written because Universal expected it to follow Tremors 4 immediately. And yes it is set in Australia. But the dynamics of the DVD market changed – people started buying less – and Universal pulled the plug. So, it has always driven fans crazy that the script exists but that Universal (which owns all the rights and has total control over what is done or not done) does not want to pursue it.
What’s been a personal career high for you?
Tremors! Selling Short Circuit was the big break, but Tremors and its sequels were the most creatively satisfying.
And what about a personal low?
The death of Frankenstein vs the Wolfman. We were hand-picked by the head of Universal to write what was to be ILM’s (George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) first all-CG feature. Brent was to co-direct. An enormous staff went to work and some awesome state-of-the-art tests were shot. Brent moved to Marin County to start pre-production. But by then several Universal movies had under-performed at the box office and Universal’s head was replaced. The incoming exec had never liked the Frankenstein idea and killed it, basically over night. This was a huge disappointment, as everyone really liked the script and, at the time, the movie would have been something really different, both technically and artistically.
Burt Gummer (Tremors)
Which of your films is most personal to you?
Again, it’s the Tremors movies. I love all the characters and I’ve particularly enjoyed trying to create a world that is true to itself, that does not cheat on the rules that have been established in each previous film.
Are there any scripts of yours yet to be made?
Not that Hollywood will buy. We have other scripts that we think are exciting and fresh and that we care deeply about, but Hollywood is not interested in them, given that the studios now do only remakes and sequels. I very much doubt that we could sell Tremors in today’s Hollywood. But we keep trying. And I have some guarded hope that one of my novels might, ironically, get turned into a movie, since studios will only make projects that are based on something already known in the marketplace, like that mega-hit, Battleship.
With the current popularity of remakes, do you think that originality been tapped out in Hollywood or is this a way of keeping legacies relevant?
Originality has not been tapped out. It is being ignored. It is nearly impossible to sell. It is the independent movie world where the creative films are being made, like Looper. Keeping legacies “relevant” is primarily the dream of the marketing departments that now run Hollywood.
Do you have a favourite film?
No. I love lots and lots of movies equally. For me, movies fall into many different categories, and I’d find it impossible to say that “x” comedy is better than “x” drama, for example, as though there’s a series of check boxes you can fill in, or a point system you can use to arrive at the one all-time great film.
I ask most of my guests if they have any favourite Australian films? Do you?
Off the top of my head, The Road Warrior, but I’m breaking my own rule if I say that. I’m sure if I thought more I’d come up with others I like just as much.
If there were one film in history that you wish you could have written, what would it be?
Well, it sounds suspiciously like another “what’s your favourite film” question, but I’ll say this: I’m a comedy-action-science-fiction writer. I’m completely in awe of many films that have what I consider really great writing (character and dialogue). Paddy Chayefsky’s Network is an example, and I could name a dozen others that I like (and am in awe of) equally. But I’d never even aspire to write something like that. Partly that’s because all the ideas I get have fantastical elements. They just come to me. Stories about “real life” or the human condition don’t. I think I’ve found what I’m good at. Oh, and I enjoy it.
What’s next for you?
Brent and I working on another spec, still trying to find what today’s Hollywood will buy. We also have a project we humorously call “Tremors in a building” we’re trying to interest people in. I’m about to put out a second novel called Fraidy Cats ( in which it is revealed that two cats actually caused all of Dr. Frankenstein’s problems!).
SS Wilson, thank you for your time and thank you for Burt Gummer… my hero!
You’re welcome. I like Burt, too. He’s one of the few characters in our scripts that I named (Brent usually comes up with the character names). I even live in a solar powered house out in the desert. Maybe I’m turning into a (slightly milder) version of Burt!