MVP of Horror: Yeardley Smith remembers the bonkers production of Stephen King's 'Maximum Overdrive': 'The beer would come out at 5 o'clock'

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·5 min read

Hey, remember Stephen King’s gonzo horror movie Maximum Overdrive? Stephen King sure doesn’t. America’s best-loved boogeyman wrote and directed the 1986 cult favorite about self-aware killer trucks, which was based on his own short story, imaginatively titled “Trucks.” Despite being front and center in all the marketing materials — including the movie’s crazy trailer — King’s personal demons upstaged everything else. “The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn’t know what I was doing,” the author later confessed in the 2003 book Hollywood’s Stephen King.

Unlike King, Maximum Overdrive star Yeardley Smith remembers the movie’s chaotic production during a hot North Carolina summer very well. And one of the things she recalls is that King mostly kept his addictions hidden from the cast, which included Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle and Laura Harrington. “He could not have been nicer,” the actress tells Yahoo Entertainment. “He was incredibly humble and was the first to admit that he didn’t have any idea what he was doing. One of the reasons why Stephen says he doesn’t remember [the movie] is because it was the height of his alcoholism and drug addiction, which I didn’t know!” (Watch our video interview above.)

Stephen King on the set of 'Maximum Overdrive' (Photo: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/courtesy Everett Collection)
Stephen King on the set of 'Maximum Overdrive' (Photo: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/courtesy Everett Collection)

That said, Smith — who played newlywed bride Connie alongside John Short as her on-screen husband, Curtis — definitely observed signs that the director might be under the influence of something other than the creative process. “If it was a night shoot, the beer would come out at five o’clock, and he would just start drinking,” she says, laughing. “I was like ‘OK!’ In retrospect, maybe it was not the best decision.”

Of course, there were plenty of other issues besides King’s copious beer consumption that plagued Maximum Overdrive. For starters, the movie was a feature-length extrapolation of a 12-page short story in which a group of people take refuge from the truck-pocalypse at a roadside truck stop. “That just seems like not a great idea to begin with,” Smith notes. And even though the film was shot in the U.S., the entire crew had been brought over from Italy by producer Dino De Laurentiis. “We had a translator on set who would say to Stephen: ‘What would you like to do?’ And then Stephen would say, ‘I want to do this,’ and then the guy would translate to the Italian crew and the Italian crew would discuss it. We must have added on a week-and-a-half in shooting in time just for translation alone.”

Yeardley Smith and John Short as newlyweds Connie and Curt in Stephen King's 1986 horror movie, 'Maximum Overdrive' (Photo: De Laurentis Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Yeardley Smith and John Short as newlyweds Connie and Curt in Stephen King's 1986 horror movie, 'Maximum Overdrive' (Photo: De Laurentis Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Today, of course, Smith is known around the world as the voice of Lisa Simpson. Back in 1986, though, the then-22-year-old actress had only been on two film sets prior to Maximum Overdrive, and that inexperience led her to agree to things that her current self would wisely avoid. Case in point: for the scene where a plow pushes a Cadillac through the wall of the truck stop and Connie leaps out of the way, King and the crew asked Smith to perform the stunt herself.

“They said, ‘OK, Yeardley ... you’re going to stand there and you cannot move until we say go, because we only have one shot at this. Don’t worry, because it’s going to look onscreen like it’s coming so fast, but it’ll be so slow.’” But then the car came crashing through the wall at top speed, inspiring a reaction from Smith that’s 100 percent authentic. “That scream is so real! It was not legal, I’m sure, at all. No hazard pay, no nothing. That’s the kind of shoot it was.”

Emilio Estevez plays the hero of Stephen King's 'Maximum Overdrive' (Photo: De Laurentiis Group/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Emilio Estevez plays the hero of Stephen King's 'Maximum Overdrive' (Photo: De Laurentiis Group/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Released in the summer of 1986, Maximum Overdrive proved a box-office bust and King has long since disowned the movie he doesn’t remember making. (Funnily enough, it hit theaters a month before Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, which is regarded by many — including the author himself — as one of the very best King adaptations.) In the ensuing decades, though, the movie has developed a fanbase that embraces its general chaos and logic gaps, like the fact that there are multiple mechanically powered things that don’t develop an urge to kill all humans.

“The real problem with the film is that we broke our own rules,” Smith says now. “The rule is this comet passes through the atmosphere, and all of the electronics and mechanical things go haywire and kill people. Except for the things we really need! We end up getting on a boat [at the end of the film], and it has a motor. I’m sorry, what? You can’t do that! There were other problems, too, but that seemed big.”

Maximum Overdrive is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and Vudu.

Video produced by Gisselle Bances and edited by John Santo

Watch our full interview with Yeardley Smith

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