Tom Hanks plays suburbanite Ray Peterson, whose plans for a peaceful vacation at home are shattered by his apprehension about a weird new family, the Klopeks, on the block. As each day reveals yet another disturbing piece of information about the Klopeks, Ray can't help wondering: Just who are these people,and what are they up to? His misgivings are stirred up even further by the paranoia of his other neighbors,leading to a series of comic events that turn the otherwise quiet neighborhood upside-down.Screenwriter / co-producer Dana Olsen drew his inspiration for The 'burbs from his growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. "I had an ultra-normal-middle-class upbringing but our town had its share of psychos.As a kid, it was fascinating to think that Mr. Flanigan down the street could be Jack the Ripper. And where there's fear, there's comedy." said Olsen. Added producer Brian Grazer, "I liked the concept of a regular guy taking a vacation in his own neighborhood, plus it was funny and very well written." When Grazer began seeking the right director to match Olsen's script, he said, "It suddenly dawned on me that Joe Dante would be fantastic because it's a mixture of comedy, horror and reality.
"When I tell people about the story," said Dante, "a remarkable number say, On my grandmother's block there were people like that- they never mowed their lawn, they never came out and they let their mail stack up and nobody ever knew where 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 people are aware of."
To portray the pivotal role of Ray Peterson, Dante set his sights on Tom Hanks. Said Dante, "He's the reigning everyman, a guy that everybody can identify with, definitely in the mold of Jimmy Stewart or Jack Lemmon." Producer Larry Brenzner said, "Hanks is an actor capable of acting funny, rather than funny acting. He also has no problem with the transition from comedy to pathos...and now he's proving himself as one of this country's most versatile actors." Since the release of The 'burbs, Hanks has won two consecutive Academy Awards for his starring roles in Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994).
Hanks was attracted by the opportunity of working with Dante. "Joe has a stylized, visionary way of looking at the entire movie," said Hanks. He was also intrigued by the character of Ray, who he sees as a man with a secret problem. "He's got everything, he's married, he's got a kid, he lives in a nice house in a relatively nice neighborhood. And he should be terribly happy and he's wondering why he's not. There's something at the core of this that is not right. And that's the challenge for me or the part, to communicate Ray's off screen dilemma."
The 'burbs also presented a unique technical challenge to Dante, who said, "I can't think of many pictures since Lifeboat that all take place in the same area. There was a lot of temptation to broaden it and go outside the neighborhood, but it seemed to violate the spirit of the piece. It's almost the kind of thing that could be a stage play, except that you could never do on stage what we've done with this movie." To this end, production designer James Spencer surveyed Colonial Street on the Universal Studios backlot (site of countless TV shows) and said he could turn that street into the neighborhood they needed. The all-American "Beaver Cleaver" house had to be carted away to make room for the dilapidated Klopek residence, two completely new houses were built and the entire street had to be reconfigured.
The 'burbs was filmed entirely on the Universal Studios backlot and sound stages over a 10-week period in the summer of 1988. Many of the key members of Dante's production team, including director of photography Robert Stevens, production designer James Spencer, costume designer Rosanna Horton and composer Jerry Goldsmith, are veterans of previous Dante projects. "I like to let them come up with their own concepts," Dante said. "I think that it's more exciting for them to work that way than to just slavishly follow instructions." For example, cinematographer Stevens contributed a visual plan that began with a prettier look and segued into more jarring images. "For the early scenes," said Stevens, "I used soft, diffused light and generally set the camera at normal height. As the story progressed, I made subtle changes, so that by the end the images are more contrastly and the camera is shooting from a lower angle. The idea was to subliminally suggest the reality coming into the forefront."
Dante extended a similar freedom to his cast. "Actors have good ideas and they deserve to be listened to," he said. "I think when you can encourage the actors to contribute to the part they will almost always give better performances." Dante was particularly impressed with the working methods of his leading actor. "Tom doesn't like to do scenes the way they're done, " Dante explained. "He goes out of his way to put a little different spin on everything. And his being as good as he is and as open as he is encouraged the other actors to do the same. It set a tone for the movie that made it a lot of fun to make."
"When you look at Joe's other films," said Hanks, "you see this world which is completely pleasing on the surface and yet deep down inside something horrible is going on. What's so bizarrely interesting about this black psycho-comedy is that the stuff that goes on in real life in a regular neighborhood will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck."