Director Steven Quale brings an interesting set of skills into his natural disaster picture, Into the Storm. He has documentary filming experience from the IMAX 3D film Aliens of the Deep, visual effects supervisor/second unit director work on the blockbuster picture Avatar, and a strong sense for managing thrills and chills from the helm of Final Destination 5. While on the Detroit-based set for the film, I joined a select group of visiting journalists in interviewing Quale about bringing his experience to bear on this film, the found-footage genre, shooting in multiple camera styles, and achieving realistic visual effects.
Starring Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Arlen Escarpeta, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Jeremy Sumpter, Kyle Davis, and Jon Reep, Into the Storm opens August 8th. Be sure to check out the film’s recently released trailer here. Hit the jump to see what Quale had to say. Spoilers follow.
Steven Quale: Pretty much just 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. 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. The high school student, a group of storm chasers trying to find these tornadoes and just some local people from the community that are looking at the tornadoes as well. And as a result you kind of have this parallel story of these three things going on, all converging at the end, storylines intersecting and seeing the sort of awe and beauty and the horrific force that these tornadoes can inflict upon both the toll in devastation from just sheer destruction of building and also just loss of homes and just the horror and kind of unsettling quality of having something that you think is okay and then suddenly just a building can just be completely demolished by the horrific wind forces and so it’s just a really interesting exercise to see how do you tell someone something like that in almost real time because it’s really easy to tell a movie that takes place like the life of some famous person from birth to death and you have all the most important highlights that happen in there.
But in a six-hour period there’s a lot of boring things that could happen if you’re showing it real time. So you don’t necessarily have the highlights. But you have what is the most emotional important beats for each of the characters during that time. How are they feeling? How do they react to all the stuff that happens. It’s kind of one of those things, everybody has been through some tragedy or natural disaster and the community kind of gathers and help one another and you kind of get a sense of that and seeing so many tornadoes and other events and hurricanes in the last few years with this crazy weather. I got the inspiration, well can we tell a story that shows some of that as opposed to just a disaster movie and spectacular visual effects. Let’s actually get into what it’s like to be a victim of all this and how do you respond and how do you deal with that?
Due to all the perspectives, will there be a different look for each?
Quale: One of the things is the found footage genre I think is a new genre. A lot of people are getting into it now and there’s different types of subgenres of found footage. There might even be that first person narrative now instead of found footage. We’ll let the film school scholars debate what term they want to call that versus the self-reflexive pastiche aspect of whatever going back to my film school days. So what’s interesting about that is we definitely want to let the audience know that these are different cameras, different people, different styles of cameras. But what I was afraid of doing is 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.
And plus, our story is very unique in the sense that it’s not just one person and one camera and that’s the whole story. There’s lots of cameras because things have changed a lot since the introduction of say The Blair Witch Project and found footage. Everybody has a camera! I mean look at half the devices, every phone has a camera on it, every camcorder, and there are security/surveillance cameras. The world is full of cameras so what we have here is a high school graduation. Every parent has camcorders so now suddenly you have hundreds if not thousands of viewpoints and points of view to actually film this graduation ceremony. Plus you have the professional crew, well it’s actually students doing it that are actually supposed to capture the graduation so now you suddenly have a legitimate, rational reason for all these cameras and because of the technology and the recent events you’re able to do more of that. So our film has three different things happening simultaneously. A group of high school kids that have their own cameras and one happens to be the head of the audio video club so he’s really good with the camera so that makes his stuff better than say the average person. Then we have just a couple of local people who aren’t quite as good with the camera and that will be a little more sort of messy type of stuff. And then we have these professional storm chasers who are making a large format theatrical movie about tornadoes so they are professional filmmakers with state of the art, high-resolution cameras. So their goal is to try to film the eye of the tornado, the shot that nobody has ever seen in this amazing cinematic manor. So because we have a group of half dozen or so professional storm chasers who are professional camera people, we have a great opportunity to make it more cinematic and engaging. So my cinematic style will be reflected in those storm chasers because that’s kind of how I’d do that portion of it if I was and I’ve had years of documentary experience having co-directed Aliens of the Deep, the IMAX 3D documentary, I know exactly what those guys make that type of film. So I applied that experience thinking how these guys would act and relate to shooting in a tornado situation.
So how is all this footage presented? Who has found it?
Quale: We’re saying here’s a film of this whole tornado, somebody went through all the footage of all the people that shot it, put it together, whether it’s a news organization or not, we’re leaving that up to the audience. We’re not saying who cut this but somebody got all the cameras and footage from everything and made a piece that shows this is what happened in this community during this day when this tornado and multiple tornadoes devastated the whole area.
So it means that these people probably aren’t dead?
Quale: Well it’s interesting because we have some clues here so some people may die and some people may not die but we show the aftermath and then the audience has to go on a ride and figure out what happened to who and how and why and kind of learn the story. And then you kind of get introduced to the characters and figure out okay well this jacket belonged to whom and why is it here and then you can kind of figure it out all the way to the end.
The stories somehow interlink?
Quale: Yes exactly. Like anything you have multiple things happening but they’re not directly related but throughout the film you realize what those connections are. The old six degrees of separation. You dig far enough and you see something related to people and that connection interlinks them and for whatever reason that happens and that’s how good stories work provided it’s not too convenient that these things happen, believable rational reasons why A happens, B happens, and then C happens as a result of A and B.
Was your background in special effects helpful for this film?
Quale: We have an amazing technical crew here. I’ve always been fortunate to work with very talented people but we’ve got an unbelievably talented group of professionals here in all departments. It’s a joy. It makes my job easy actually but you do have to have the big vision of knowing. Because if you’re shooting a shot and there’s a big tornado behind you and you frame like you normally would because of what you’re seeing, you miss the tornado. So you have to tilt up and say hey big tornado up there! I’m always saying “guy, enormous tornadoes, it’s a big thing, a big cloud, it’s amazing!” The actors see nothing and so you have to kind of inspire them and what I did was I went on YouTube and did a lot of research and edited together all the greatest hits of tornado type footage of real tornadoes and showed it to them. And they were like wow that’s amazing and so now they have an idea when they’re looking at the blank sky of what that would actually look like. And the thing about the YouTube thing that got me so inspired and excited on this project is there’s a lot of great reference out there of real tornadoes and the spinning action and all that and not all of it’s amazing high quality footage but what it is because so many cameras exist out there and phones and everything, the person at the right place and right time, they turn it on and they shoot it and you get this amazing F5 tornado that nobody has seen before. I mean that’s the huge difference say when Twister was made it was just VHS camcorders and there were a couple of great footage of some Texas tornado way back then but it wasn’t very high resolution. Now you’ve got these amazing images so the visual effects guys, I’m like look at this, let’s try to match this.
And one of my mandates has been let’s keep it real. This isn’t an action movie, this is a real event that we are saying occurred that we’re trying to show in a very real visceral way. In a way that you just happened to be at the right place to get it. Otherwise up until now nobody’s been in the eye of a tornado. They’ve been close. But we’re saying we’re going a little bit further and getting that footage in the eye and the key is to try to keep it real, have a little bit of those mistakes and make sure the visual effects are grounded in reality. And my years of experience with that, I’ve always felt that the closer to reality you can give even a reference image to the visual effects company the better it is. Because if you’re trying to create something completely from scratch you just make it up and it doesn’t quite feel organic or real. But if you take a photo or a video and say hey this is what it looks like when the light hits a tornado and it’s spitting things out and there’s debris and this is what rain looks like then they can say ah I get that and incorporate it. So yes my experience has helped immensely in this because there’s a lot of complicated technical challenges in trying to make it all fit together seamlessly so it’s a coherent piece. It’s just basic filmmaking techniques but you just have to keep your eye on the big picture so you don’t get obsessed with just the visual effects because then if you don’t have compelling characters or interesting drama or good performances then the effects mean nothing. So it’s always a balance. My job I see as all these factors are important and at certain times of the day you have to concentrate on one versus the other during that narrow window. Right now I’m concentrating on you guys because they are doing a huge lighting set up and don’t need me. But when I get back on set I’m going to have to look and say okay this about the tornado. We have to make sure all that works but at this point well let’s make sure this performance is believable or let’s work on this and it’s all about time management. Overall it makes it some much easier if you have a thorough understand of visual effects because it’s a shorthand. You don’t have to talk to your visual effects supervisor and he’s talking back in a foreign language. You understand the common things. It’s a shorthand, it makes it much easier to work because you know what can work and what can’t work.
Since it’s based in reality, how do you make it more than just tornado week on discovery channel?
Quale: Well the difference is it’s got spectacle to it. When you see the trailer to this you’ll see unbelievable shots that are like oh my god look at that. That entire building was devastated but yet the tornado kept coming and you were right there in the eye of it all. And the compelling human drama of following what the characters are and what they’re doing and how all that happens. What differentiates it from say other movies about tornadoes is it’s a multi-story structure where we have actually multi-character structure where we’re telling the story of several people’s lives during that day that intersect with each other so it’s not just about storm chasers like Twister was. It’s about storm chasers but it’s also a whole other story about high school students and these two young high school students that like each other but then they get swept in front of a tornado and they have this whole relationship and the sort of trauma that occurs when you’re there away from your parents and all this horrific stuff is happening and you’re trapped and a bunch of different things like that.
At the same time you have another story with a group of all these storm chasers and the conflict with them and what they’re trying to do. There’s a certain morality: do you film a horrific disaster when things are going or do you put down the camera and help the people because horrible things are happening. There’s that fine line where…journalists have that. Do you report the event or do you help the event because people are injured or it’s a war. We’re not going heavy handed with that but we are kind of subtlety giving some sort of weight to what happens when you’re trying so hard to film something because it’s all about the end product when in fact maybe you learn something that’s there’s more to it than getting the shot.
What drew you to the project?
Quale: Initially I thought trying to do something that’s saying it’s found footage and it’s real engaged me because part of my motto even in the cinematic world is whatever genre you’re doing you have to focus it on what you’re audience is and what you’re trying to say with that film. But trying to do something that just feels real and captures the amazing spectacle of the storms. Part of what drew me to this project was I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and we didn’t have a lot of tornadoes but there were plenty of tornado warnings and sirens. So I remember being in the basement of my house as a kid watching the TV set and they say tornado warning, tornado has touched down nearby and thinking oh my god what would it be like to actually be in a tornado and one of my best friends actually was in a tornado and their house was devastated so he always told me first hand stories about that. So I always thought that it would be amazing to revisit that. And then when Todd Garner came up with the concept of a found footage tornado disaster project and my agent sent me the script I immediately said I have to do this project. And New Line loved the project as well and they quickly developed it and it all happened right away and it was a perfect match for everybody because I have a lot of unique talents from my past that happen to fit perfectly to fill in what is need to do justice to this project so it isn’t just another twister movie or disaster movie. There are many more refined elements to make it much more interesting.
How do you stay out of the shadow of Twister?
Quale: I think that’s easy because Twister was a great movie but it’s been a few years. It was 96. That was quite a long time ago. And again it’s different because we’re dealing with three different characters simultaneously as opposed to just the storm chaser aspect of it. And another thing we’re doing is it’s a more urban film. Twister was all about the rural areas and farms. We’re downtown. Imagine the difference with the ability of the visual effects to show the devastating effects of a tornado in a downtown square as opposed to way out and seeing one barn go up. We’re there when a high school with a thousand students, faculty and parents at a graduation ceremony, a tornado is coming right at them, they have to rush into the storm shelter section. That’s a complete different level of human drama as opposed to just a couple eclectic people, scientist type people chasing a tornado.
Quale: We see everybody and give them equal time. Like I said it’s a parallel thing, I don’t want to give too much away but we have this engaging drama that goes on with them. It’s like what happens with young kids doing what they’re doing in high school and that relationship with their father at a time when it can be awkward that you’re wanting to rebel or not rebel, we have a good son and a bad son and I wont give everything away but there’s some interesting connections there with their father. It’s been a joy to work with everyone. Richard, Max and Nathan. They are all amazing actors and seeing together is just really fun. And we’ve done a lot of interesting stuff that’s very engaging and a lot of people can relate to. And again that grounds it in reality so that it feels a lot more interesting. One of the great things about a found footage genre is you don’t have to start with action right away. It gives you time. You show what happened, this horrible tornado tragedy and then you can say 8 hours earlier this is what the day started like. This is having breakfast. And you get to know the characters. So when it finally happens and people are in danger, you care about them because you know about them and relate to them. This person is having problems with this, this person is in love with this person. So it’s just basic human traits that are compelling and engaging with the interpersonal relationships that are there set against this horrific backdrop of unbelievable storms that nobody has ever seen.
How important is it to keep a level of surprise?
Quale: Trying to keep the twist in Final Destination 5 was a very difficult thing and we had to be very secretive about it. We even thought about not having the final script page because it was such a revelation dealing with the original and that it’s a prequel and all this sort of stuff. So we worked really hard with that and it was very ingenious in the writing. I think having twists and turns are interesting and I think it engages the audience but I don’t think it’s an absolute necessity. You can still have a successful movie without that. But I think the more you can do that it makes people think. Most people underestimate the intelligence of the audience. The audience is really smart and good filmmakers know that and give credit to that audience and try to give them stuff they can see and try to think themselves through. If you do that, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a twist ending or a surprise but just keep them trying to figure things out, I think that’s very healthy in a film. And I highly recommend that any filmmaker try to incorporate that organically if it fits in the story they are telling.
Be sure to check out our set visit interviews from Into the Storm with the following cast and crew:
- INTO THE STORM: 35 Things to Know about Steven Quale’s Natural Disaster Film Starring Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies
- Richard Armitage Talks INTO THE STORM, How the Story Incorporates Found Footage, Character Interaction, Wire/Waterwork & Practical Effects
- Sarah Wayne Callies Talks INTO THE STORM, Insight into Her Character, Intimacy of Trust, Green Screen vs Theater, Wirework Stunts, and Tornado Chasing