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