Last year in Oklahoma a famous father-and-son team of storm chasers were heard screaming, “We’re going to die! We’re going to die!” on a Highway Patrol radio moments before they were indeed killed by one of the savage twisters they’d devoted their lives to following.
Storm chasers are single-minded in their pursuit of danger, willing to risk all for the thrill of the hunt, and in the new movie Into the Storm, Matt Walsh plays just such a character. He’s Pete, a TV reality star who endangers his crew when one of the biggest storms of all time hits the rural town of Silverton.
While the subject matter is serious, behind the scenes Walsh was dealing with a comedy of errors he couldn’t help but laugh at. In the film his fortress on wheels is Titus, a storm-proof tank that can roll its way through anything. In real life the tank’s windows leaked constantly, the windows shattered every time someone slammed the lid, and basically, “It never worked!” Walsh lamented. “It was like Bruce the shark from Jaws. Someone even stuck a sticker of a shark on the back, and you can see it in the movie. It was a running joke.”
On Pete’s crew are cameramen Jacob (Jeremy Sumpter, Frailty) and Daryl (Arlen Escarpeta, Final Destination 5) and meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies, “The Walking Dead”).
Jacob gets thrown around quite a bit, which actually made Sumpter feel right at home – he did tons of wirework as Peter Pan in the 2007 film of the same name. Daryl fares a bit better, but it was still a lot of buffeting about and getting drenched for him and co-star Callies. The two were paired up for interviews, and here’s what they had to say about working with director Steven Quale (who also directed Final Destination 5).
Sarah Wayne Callies: Steve worked really hard to make sure we had as many practical effects that he could to spare us the indignity of acting against a fake tornado. You don’t wanna be like “Wooo!” all over the place, you know. He made it real. I certainty read scripts differently now. I figure out how many pages am I wet for because there are only a certain number of tornadoes, but then you realize as soon as you’re wet, you are wet for the rest of the movie. So you come to work and they put your clothes on and then they literally put you in front of a fire hose.
Arlen Escarpeta: Just wet you down.
SWC: You start to realize why many actors only do one weather movie in their career. Steve and I have talked about working on a film that would be called “Warm and Dry by a Fireplace.” That is my next professional ambition.
Dread Central: I would like to know from each of you, since you have both done horror in the past, how does a disaster film mimic horror in terms of suspense and timing? And is it the same sort of acting experience?
AE: That’s a great question. That’s so funny – I have never thought of it from that aspect, but now that you bring it up, it’s very similar. In a sense there is a monster… there is a thing that is out there that is trying to get us, and you have this group of people that are struggling to stay together and stay alive. And in the midst of that you have the internal issues and arguments. It’s very similar. I think the only difference might be there is no boogie man around the corner. You know who our boogie man is, and it’s real. And it’s a lot more relatable in terms of something that can happen anywhere. Just maybe a couple days ago we had that crazy thunderstorm here in L.A., you know over in Venice Beach. Lots of people were struck by lightning.
SC: I think there is definitely the sense that when the threat comes from a weather movie like this, you can’t beat it. You know, you can kill a zombie; you can defeat Freddie Krueger. I think in a lot of horror movies there is an antagonist that theoretically with the proper tools you can overcome… you can’t stop a tornado, you can’t fight it, you can’t beat it, so there is a sort of inexorable quality. What I think certainly unifies them is that you know the audience only cares about the danger that the protagonists are in if they care who those protagonists are. And they are only as afraid as we are. So if we invest this tornado with something real, if we build these characters into people with lives, it makes sense that then an audience will care, but all the special effects in the world aren’t going to do you any good unless they are anchored with characters that matter to people. And actors who are willing to get really wet.
The wettest of the wet are local high school kids played by Alycia Debnam Carey and Max Deacon – as Kaitlyn and Donnie, they take shelter in an old abandoned building, only to find themselves in the water-filled death trap. Much of the time they are submerged up to their chins.
Carey didn’t mind it too much, and she was actually pretty thrilled to star in a storm-centric fright flick. She used to watch all the shows about extreme weather on TV. “Tsunamis, volcanoes, tornadoes. That was my jam as a kid!” Both she and costar Deacon “loved the movie Twister.”
Nathan Kress, who plays Donnie’s bratty brother, Trey, does a lot of running from the intense weather. It wasn’t easy, though he did try to get in shape before cameras rolled. “My cardio was awful. I tried running for like a week. Then I gave it up. So when I’m breathless in the movie, it’s for real.”
All three of the younger stars said they watched YouTube videos of actual storm chasers, and just regular people caught in storms, to learn all they could to make their characters as realistic as possible. Deacon said, “Until you see these, you have no idea how many times real people say ‘oh my god’ and ‘oh shit’, like, 50 times in two minutes.” Into the Storm is PG-17 and so, “We couldn’t do that.”
Speaking of dialogue, there is one line in the film that got some real chuckles. It’s something about the storm being “like the zombie apocalypse.” When asked about it, Callies doesn’t chuckle. She says, “Not my idea, nor the idea of the actor who had to say that. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
Even the film’s screenwriter, John Swetnam, won’t take credit for the obvious wink to “The Walking Dead.” “I don’t know where that came from,” he admitted. However, he did jokingly take credit for my favorite sequence in the film (a fleet of unpiloted planes flying haphazardly in the sky), “Yes, I totally wrote that! No, no I didn’t.”
Swetnam has tackled a variety of genres, but mainly dance and disaster. “After Step Up: All In, and this one, I’m the dance/tornado guy in this town. It’s getting me a lot of work!” he laughed. When asked his thoughts on the Sharknado phenomenon, Swetnam said, “Real tornadoes don’t need sharks.” However, he jokingly said, “I’d be into doing Tarantu-lanche.”
If the writer himself isn’t funny enough, there are two characters in Into the Storm who serve purely as comic relief. Those guys are wannabe YouTube stars Reevis and Donk, played by “Last Comic Standing” champ Jon Reep and Kyle Davis (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”). When asked if they did their own stunts, Reep quipped, “Actually, we did each other’s stunts.” Both comics said pretty much all of their dialogue was improvised – “Otherwise we would not have had many lines.” When asked how they would describe their characters, Davis said, “We are the Philip Seymour Hoffman of Twister.”
One rather interesting tidbit revealed on the press day was the fact that all of the actors who were holding cameras – from Flips to Go-Pros to semi-professional rigs – are also DPs, as much of their footage was actually incorporated into the final cut of the film. I was curious about how this worked out in the editing room – it’s got to be mind-boggling with all those different sources and multiple takes and angles on the same action.
Director Quale said, “As a filmmaker who is used to working on projects where you have total control over every aspect, it was actually a sort of challenge. But I really enjoyed it because now suddenly I have every actor having a camera that is recording, that could potentially be a shot in the movie. And so we had to train the actors how to operate the cameras and the camera crew was learning what the actors were doing. And we had to have the continuity, so you have the shot where an actor has a camera, then we would reshoot that sequence with a professional camera operator in the same angle to get all the subtleties we needed because when you add the digital effects in the background, you need a high resolution, high quality camera to do that.”
DC: Do you feel a disaster movie can in a way mirror the timing and suspense that you need for horror to be scary?
Steven Quale: In a way. There is the same level of dread. But in these giant natural disaster movies, there’s more of this sort of beast that is coming at you as opposed to a boogie man, which is more like a horror movie, which gives you a lot of surprise moments that make you jump.
DC: Yeah, I did notice no cats jumping out from nowhere in this one!
SQ: Right! This is more a giant unrelenting force that is coming that you have to deal with. But then it becomes a moral question… not even a moral question, but a character question. What do you do? Do you turn and run away, do you help the person next to you? The tension comes with whether the tornado is going to hit you and or if it’s going to miss you. Because a tornado is very random in the wind pattern. See, you can have a fierce tornado coming right at you, then at the last minute it can veer off. Or not. So I think the tension there is similar but a little different as horror films go.
DC: We all know the golden age of disaster films was the 1970’s, but we have moved on technologically from there. Still, there’s just ‘something’ about those oldies. Did you look at any films for inspiration?
SQ: Well, it’s interesting because when I make a movie, I tend to try and avoid looking at any other films because I want the script and the material to give me inspiration and to figure what I want to do out of it. I am aware of it but I am not like, ‘We have to top Twister!’ or ‘We have to do this.; I remember being a kid seeing The Towering Inferno in a matinee and thinking it’s nighttime [like in the film] and the doors open in the movie theater and it was bright daytime. That taught me a lesson as a really little kid how the magic of cinema is because as a kid I was convinced it was nighttime and we were on these roofs and there were these fires and then it was a complete illusion: The doors open and it is daytime. It was an eye-opener and great inspiration for me to get into movies and creating that illusion. So I think that all the old movies were great, but I try to get inspiration for the source material and the research I do for each of the projects I am working on.
DC: When you have a movie like this, or any movie where you have characters in distress, are there particular challenges in setting it within the contemporary age in which everyone is connected? And now with weather technology like the early warning systems and all that.
SQ: Absolutely. I mean it’s getting harder and harder to do movies where people are lost or you can’t find one another cause the technology easily allows… you have instant communication, instant GPS, and so the one good thing is the research that we did. We found that in severe weather situations, the winds blow down cell towers and other things so it does disrupt the communication more so if you had the old fashioned land line. So there is some legitimacy to that. Or the phones get overloaded cause everyone is calling. But it is a very difficult challenge nowadays to make movies like that and make it believable so that people aren’t saying, “Give me a break, you know how can that happen.” So what we did was have partial cell communication and then it doesn’t work. Or having batteries go dead. There are ways you can get around it, but it is a challenge these days, definitely.
Into the Storm opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, August 8, 2014.
The film stars Richard Armitage (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Sarah Wayne Callies (TV’s “The Walking Dead”), Matt Walsh (Ted), Alycia Debnam-Carey (Where the Devil Hides), Arlen Escarpeta (Final Destination 5), Nathan Kress (TV’s “iCarly”), Jon Reep (Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay), and Jeremy Sumpter (Soul Surfer, TV’s “Friday Night Lights”).
Related Story: Visit our Into the Storm news archive
In the span of a single day, the town of Silverton is ravaged by an unprecedented onslaught of tornadoes. The entire town is at the mercy of the erratic and deadly cyclones, even as storm trackers predict the worst is yet to come. Most people seek shelter, while others run towards the vortex, testing how far a storm chaser will go for that once-in-a-lifetime shot.
Told through the eyes and lenses of professional storm chasers, thrill-seeking amateurs, and courageous townspeople, Into the Storm throws you directly into the eye of the storm to experience Mother Nature at her most extreme.
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