The Calm Before the ‘Storm': On the Set of Post-‘Twister’ Disaster Flick ‘Into the Storm’
More than 15 years after 'Twister,' we're back in the path of a tornado. A lot of tornadoes, actually. It's been almost two years since I visited the set of the upcoming film 'Into the Storm,' but considering the two years of extreme weather we've had, it stuck in my head.
The film is the story of a small town called Silverton that is hit with storm after storm. (A town near Detroit was the site of the set.) The film is directed by Steven Quayle who brought us 'Final Destination 5.' He was also the Visual Effects Supervisor and 2nd Unit Director for a little film called 'Avatar.'
On set, massive fans tousled the streets of Silverton, as we were between storms, but certainly not quiet. According to Quayle, these storms take place over merely half a day. "It starts in the morning when everybody is going to the last day of school, only a half day then they have the graduation ceremony. So it’s a bunch of high school students getting ready for the big day, graduation," he said. "And then suddenly the weather looks like there could be some cloudy things, possible rain or whatever. But then this unbelievable storm comes in, and this enormous tornado narrowly misses the school, and then suddenly spawns this huge fury of tornadoes all over, and then the story is basically about half a day. It starts there and you follow everything almost in real time as you have this parallel story of three things happening."
Where 'Into the Storm' differs from its obvious soul sister, 'Twister,' however, is through the use of found footage. As a result, what we get is a number of different storylines told through the perspectives of professional storm chasers, adrenaline junkies and heroic townsfolk.
Yes, we're seeing a bunch of people film, but it isn't traditional found footage. "We definitely want to let the audience know that these are different cameras, different people, different styles of cameras," said Quayle. "Some found-footage movies tend to be overly conscious of that, and so they make the camera so zoomy, so jerky that it makes you sick basically. There’s a different sensibility, aesthetically, for filming something that’s on TV with a small screen versus the large screen of cinema. And when you do the same things it might look fine on your little monitor, but when you blow it up on the big cinematic screen -- I have years and years of experience with large format -- it makes you sick, it’s too much. So you have to find a fine balance between that to make it feel real and visceral, but at the same time not get the audience sick. So we’ve done a lot of tests, and I go up to the monitor and put my face right up to it to simulate what it’s like, and I insist on seeing all the dailies projected on a big screen so we can fine tune that balance and make it work."
A few disaster-striking tornadoes is nothing new to Sarah Wayne Callies, an actress who made a name for herself on AMC's hit zombie drama 'The Walking Dead,' though she would often wake up early during filming to watch the Weather Channel in preparation for the day. In 'Into the Storm,' she portrays a professor of climatology and meteorology, and, as she says, she's the "source of exposition" and the audience's way of learning what's really happening. While she begins as an "all-science" sort of character, that changes. "She starts with a group of storm chasers and what’s kind of interesting is the question, 'Is she going to switch over from the storm people to the human people?' And I think that she’s the one whom we tell the story of the balance between science and people. Pete [one of the storm chasers, played by Matt Walsh] comes down on one side of that, and Gary [Richard Armitage] represents the other side, and she kind of gets pulled between."
Walsh's Pete is the veteran storm chaser in the group. He built their storm-chasing vehicle, the Titus, all by himself. "It drives like a beast," said the actor. "We’ve had many problems with it. It’s like the shark in 'Jaws,' [it] keeps breaking down and I’ve broken some windows, but when it works it’s pretty fun. It’s very large and heavy and there’s a turret where you can sit on top so you can get that angle of where you’re shooting. And like I said it has these grappling claws that dig in. It’s pretty amazing."
Armitage (of 'The Hobbit' movies and 'Captain America' fame) plays Vice Principal Gary Morris of Silverton high, who's also the football coach. As he explains, "He’s got two boys, Trey and Donnie. He’s asked them to create a video diary of the graduation ceremony. So they’re going to make a time capsule video diary of the town, and then this storm comes and the two boys get separated. Through the story Gary’s mission is really to try to find out where his son has got to. Because he can’t communicate with him, he’s lost contact and he’s got Trey with him so he’s trying to juggle two things: protect the older son and go in search of the younger son.
"Preparation wise I started to look at the science behind tornados, and then I sort of decided that I would quite like to be caught unaware by it rather than knowing too much," he continued. "I wanted him to get caught up in the shock factor of what the tornado was rather than understand it in the same way the guys in the weather van do. But I looked mainly at the idea of a guy who is a normal guy and every man who is forced into a situation where he has to become heroic for a day to save his sons. And he has to effectively do that thing that we all hope have in us, which is to run into a burning building and save a child, to dive into water to save a child. But nobody knows if we have the potential until you’re faced with that situation. And before you realize, you’re becoming a hero, it’s already happened. And this is all in a space of a day, so that’s really the center of my character."
I want it to kind of be captured and found rather than having any control over how the performance is, which is why it feels like there is no performance.
He also explained how the "found footage" aspect works with his character. "Well this is one of the reasons why Trey [played by Nathan Kress] comes with me is because he has the camera. But, of course, you have to ... that’s the game of the film. You have to acknowledge that and then ignore it. But each camera becomes a character. There’s times where my son isn’t in the scene but his camera is, and I have to talk to him as if he’s there. But it’s a camera operator. So each camera becomes a character. Some of them are surveillance cameras. So you have to know very specifically that you don’t start talk to a surveillance camera like it’s a person. So it’s very unusual. I’ve never filmed like this before. There are no formal set ups and the lighting is obviously to look like it’s not lit. There’s no such thing as a close-up unless Trey or Donnie is doing a punch zoom. But I don’t know what size the shots have been. I always know what lens we’re on whether it’s mid or tight. I’ve not asked that question because I think I actually don’t want to know in this instance because I want it to kind of be captured and found rather than having any control over how the performance is, which is why it feels like there is no performance. That’s a good thing. It’s a different kind of work, it’s sort of uber-naturalism. Although at the same time you build your relationship with your camera operator that you can create the illusion that just finding a moment, which does involve that kind of choreography with the camera. Otherwise they’re always on the back of your head as you run away."
'Into the Storm' opens in theaters on August 8.