‘We're the Lunatics!’: 15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The ‘Burbs’
Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs may not have been a critical success when it dropped back in 1989, but the dark suburban satire has since become a kooky classic. Starring Tom Hanks as suburbanite Ray Peterson — who has himself a week-long staycation, only to go mad as he gets to know his new neighbors — the film pokes fun at suburbia and the idea that any place occupied by humans can somehow be regarded as better or safer.
Let’s take a spin around the cul-de-sac and the making of the movie where the filmmakers had to bring a social worker in to shoot that explosive scene...
Based on Childhood Experience
Writer Dana Olsen tapped into his own childhood experience to write the script. “I had an ultranormal middle-class upbringing, but our town had its share of psychos,” Olsen has explained. “There was a legendary hatchet murder in the 1930s, and every once in a while, you’d pick up the local paper and read something like ‘Librarian Kills Family, Self.’ As a kid, it was fascinating to think that Mr. Flanagan down the street could turn out to be Jack the Ripper. And where there’s fear, there’s comedy. So I approached The ‘Burbs as Ozzie and Harriet Meet Charles Manson.”
Debunking the Michael Jackson Chimp Story
The internet at large will tell you that Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, had to be banned from the set after pooping all over Corey Feldman’s trailer. The story goes that Feldman, close friends with Jackson, was the one who brought the King of Pop’s primate pal with him to set. During a Director’s Reel interview, Dante spoke of the alleged incident: “Bubbles was not big on hygiene, and so one day they went in to clean the trailer, and it was completely covered in monkey shit.”
However, Feldman has debunked this myth himself, calling Dante’s tale a “Joe Dante Special.” Setting the record straight, he revealed that there was a monkey on set (not a chimp), but that it belonged to a fellow cast member: “The guy who played my neighbor (Nicky Katt) — he had a pet spider monkey,” Feldman explained. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love monkeys. I would love to have my own monkey. I want a monkey.’ And he was like, ‘Dude, I’m gonna be honest with you. They’re a pain in the ass.” Katt then brought his monkey to the set to show Feldman what he meant. “So I’m thinking Joe is mixing up the fact that this kid who was one of the actors in the movie had a pet spider monkey that he brought to the set a few times,” Feldman continued. “And I think in Joe’s mind, because he knew I was so fascinated with Michael during Gremlins, and later became friends with Michael during Goonies… so he probably thought it was Michael’s monkey.”
Queenie, the poodle who takes a dump on someone’s perfectly manicured lawn, is played by Darla, the pooch who would go on to star in the Oscar-winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs. She also appeared in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Batman Returns.
The Script Immediately Found Interest Because It Was So Relatable
Dante immediately liked the script, once remarking, “When I tell people about the story, a remarkable number say, ‘On my grandmother’s block, there were people like that. They never mowed their lawn, and they never came out, and they let their mail stack up, and nobody knew who they were.’ And I must confess that in my own neighborhood, there’s a house like that, falling to wrack and ruin. I think this is perhaps a more common event than most people are aware of.”
A Social Worker Had to Attend the Filming of the Big Explosion
Corey Danziger, who played the young Dave Peterson, said that he and his parents had to sign a contract for him to “attend the night the house blew up” because he was underage at the time. Furthermore, a social worker had to be on set to accompany him, even though Danziger wasn’t in the explosion sequence.
Production Was Pressed for Time Thanks to an Impending Writers’ Strike
Dante, the cast, and the crew had to rapidly work to finish production before the Writers’ Strike of 1988, as no revisions could be made to the script once the strike went into effect. “Nobody was ever happy with the script the way it was,” Dante recalls. “On this picture, we just had to smooth out the rough edges ourselves. Luckily, Tom has a very good sense of what works for him.”
They Had to Film a New Ending
Several endings were written prior to production, but Dante and the main cast weren’t happy with any of them. They ended up ad-libbing different possible endings, which still didn’t work. After the Writers’ Strike concluded, the cast and crew had to return to film a newly-written ending.
Hanks Returns to Colonial Street
Famous Horror House
Feldman’s character, Ricky, lives in what’s famously known as The Munsters’ house on the Universal lot. However, Dante didn’t want to draw too much attention to it and tried to keep it out of most of the shots. He clearly wasn’t going for Easter eggs here.
Or Was He…?
A box of Gremlins cereal can be spotted on the counter during a kitchen scene. Dante directed the 1984 Christmas horror-comedy.
A Lot of Improv on Set
Due to Dante’s loose approach to directing and since rewriting the script wasn’t always possible during production, the actors got to improvise a lot during filming. “We decided to shoot in sequence since we were confined to one location, and a great deal of the dialog was improvised,” Dante told L.A. Weekly. “Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommon came up with some great stuff, but the majority of the improvs were between Tom and Carrie. The breakfast scene (‘he’s a hydrocephalic’), and the game show scene (the Jeopardy! questions), and their final conversation are sequences that improved exponentially, often on the first take.”
About That Shimmy-Down-the-Stairs Scene
“I was trying to physicalize the shockwaves that were still going through his head,” Hanks explained during an interview with Empire. “And the stairs were there, and to be quite frank, I don’t think I could do that today without twisting an ankle. But I would like to give myself some degree of credit. I think I was so much in the moment of being shell-shocked and being nearly blown up that there: there’s this stoop, and there’s about five or six steps that lead down to the walk, and I just kind of like flop my feet down them as opposed to taking any real human step.”
Dante and Fisher Tried to Help Feldman With His Drug Problem
Feldman was 18 while filming The ‘Burbs, and his substance abuse was becoming a problem on and off set. Feldman said that Fisher and Dante sat him down and “had a very serious talk with me, because at the time I was just about headed over the edge — Postcards from the Edge. And I was right there, and they could see it. She was a very smart lady, and she was very sober at the time, and she looked me in the eyes, and she was like, ‘Corey, let’s be serious. You don’t have to BS me. I can see what you’re doing. I know what you’re doing. Just be honest with yourself.’”
The Original Ending Would’ve Killed Off Hanks
In the first draft of the script, Ray Peterson was supposed to die, with everyone left thinking that the murderous Klopeks were innocent. But when Hanks came on board, no one thought killing him off would be a good idea due to his likability. Thus began the drawn-out battle of finding a new ending.
Hanks Summed Up the Crux of the Movie
“It was really a story about a guy that should have gone on vacation,” Hanks told Empire. “That’s what I said to Joe Dante at the beginning of it: This is not a story about horrible things; this is a story about a man who should have packed the car and driven away from his house. He’s got two weeks off, and if he stays home, he’s gonna be driven absolutely insane.”