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Watch the Skies: Visiting the set of Steven Quale’s directorial debut

Into The Storm
05 August 2014

Under a clear sky on a rural patch of road just outside Auburn Hills, Michigan, a monster storm is about to touch down.  Huge fans capable of generating up to 100-mile-per-hour winds have been positioned for maximum effect while four massive construction cranes loom overhead to darken the skies and hammer the road and everyone on it with driving rain.

This is the set of Into the Storm, an adrenaline-fueled thriller that will plunge audiences in the eye of the storm as an unprecedented series of powerful tornadoes converge on the small town of Silverton, seen through the eyes and lenses of the people living through it.

Orchestrating the controlled chaos on set is director Steven Quale, who is no stranger to extremes, having ventured into the darkest depths of the ocean with James Cameron as co-director of the documentary Aliens of the Deep and helped lead the visual effects team on Avatar.



“I loved this project,” Quale tells us in the lull before the movie storm.  “When I read the script, I could see the potential to create these massive, complex tornadoes with the kind of detail and realism that hasn’t been possible before.  But, at the same time, it was a chance to focus on real people in a community and how they band together in a crisis because, at the end of the day, you can’t fight a tornado.  In this scenario, the only thing you can do is run away.”

Producer Todd Garner knew from Quale’s feature directorial debut, Final Destination 5, that his sensibilities as a filmmaker were the perfect match for Into the Storm.  “In our film, the tornadoes are the monster,” Garner tells us as the cast and crew gear up for the scene.  “The film posits an unprecedented event that brings together a whole variety of different kinds of storms—rope tornadoes, jumper tornadoes, a fire tornado—all culminating in a massive, unprecedented mega-tornado, bigger than anything we’ve ever seen.  Steven has a mind for visual effects, so I knew he could make the storms live, but he also has a feel for character drama and I knew he could ground the spectacular visuals in a compelling human story about people dealing with this immense force they find themselves up against.”

Living in L.A., Garner himself has experienced powerful earthquakes and came up with the idea for the film after witnessing their effects on himself and those around him. “I was fascinated by how people came together and helped each other in a crisis,” he remembers.  “I was also interested in the way these events are documented now.  It gave us an opportunity to take audiences on an incredible rollercoaster ride and bring them into the experience in a whole new way.”



On set and throughout the film are cameras, not only the production’s state-of-the-art digital cinema cameras with SteadiCam rigs, but everything from mobile phones to grainy security cameras, all being harmonized and coordinated by director of photography Brian Pearson. 

Garner expands, “HD, digital cameras, small flip cameras, every format, every lens.  Into the Storm specifically lent itself to a different kind of storytelling because we want you to be a part of this experience, and Steven’s vision is to make it feel as real as possible.  I like the idea of watching this story unfold on a big screen through a whole variety of footage because of how immersive it can feel.  You are the camera and the emotions are real because you’re like another character in the movie.”

Standing at the eye of today’s storm is Richard Armitage, who gained international attention as The Hobbit Trilogy’s Dwarven warrior Thorin Oakenshield.  The British actor literally flew to Michigan directly from the Trilogy’s set in Wellington, New Zealand.  “Yes, I came straight from The Hobbit movies to do this—the flight was my break,” Armitage laughs.

He’s not the only one about to get hammered by movie rain.  Also on set are cast members Matt Walsh and Arlen Escarpeta as storm chasers tracking the emerging cyclones in their specialized tornado-chasing vehicle, and Sarah Wayne Callies as a scientist who has joined the team for research purposes, along with young actors playing kids from the nearby high school.

When the film opens, no one has any idea of the scale of what’s about to hit this small town, but by today’s scene, the monster has revealed itself and is headed right for them.

Quale gives some brief direction to the actors then clears the set of everyone but rain-slickered cameramen.

“Speed … “ someone calls over a loud speaker.  “Rolling … and action!”
Suddenly, a deafening roar fills the air as the storm is unleashed all around us—with the powerful wind machines spinning gallons of water and special effects debris into a self-contained cyclone of chaos. 

Callies scrambles to the side of the road, where the pavement gives way to the large bore of an underground storm drain, but there’s no way in—an iron grate’s has been welded over it.  “The drain is blocked on this side,” she shouts over the din.

Armitage spots a manhole cover in the middle of the street.  “Get a crowbar,” he cries.  Pelted by water and wind, the actors struggle to pry it up until Quale yells “Cut!”

And just like that, the storm drizzles to a close. 



“It’s difficult to prepare for a film like this,” Armitage tells us later, once the scene is in the can and the actor has taken a break to change into dry clothes.  “Even after studying the script and doing your work, you walk on set and run into an unpredictable set of circumstances, as you are witnessing today. The tornadoes in this film are extreme and the way they are creating the effects is extreme too.  Just trying to stay on your feet and keep your eyes open isn’t easy.  But I like that!  I like walking into a scene thinking it’s going to be one thing and then seeing how it gets turned on its head.  It becomes a bit of an endurance test, which is great.”

Armitage stars as Gary Morris, a vice principal and father of two teenage boys, who over the course of the story’s roughly eight-hour span has to fight to get his high school graduating class to safety and also find his son, who is trapped in the storm.  “He’s an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances,” the actor describes, “someone who isn’t really a hero, but who has to step into the boots of a hero in the moment.  I like to think that Gary is behaving in a way that he is not necessarily conscious of.  It will probably take him some time to realize how close to death he has come.”

When asked if he thinks he’d react that way in the same situation, his answer is thoughtful.  “I hope I would, but the truth is that you never know.  Most guys think they would, but it’s a different thing to actually be in that situation.  Would you run in or run away?”

Seeing Armitage interact with the two actors playing his sons, you sense a shorthand and affection that makes the relationship believable.  California native Nathan Kress (TV’s iCarly) plays Trey, the younger and tougher of the two.  “At the beginning of the movie, Trey is very immature and the rebel of the family, who is trying to be the cool one,” Kress says.  “He’s always giving his brother a hard time, but as they deal with this situation, he’s sort of forced to become an adult in some ways.” 

Donnie, played by newcomer Max Deacon, has a more strained relationship with his father.  “Probably because he has had a rough time at home and is in his head a lot,” Deacon explains.  “On the day we meet him, he has decided to disobey his dad and go out to help this girl Kaitlyn that he has been quietly in love with for years.  This is a real step for Donnie because he’s someone who doesn’t take a lot of risks.” 



Alycia Debnam Carey (Where the Devil Hides) plays Kaitlyn, who is desperate for help on her environmental documentary, but the effort leaves Kaitlyn and Donnie stranded at a remote abandoned mill when the storm hits.  “That was a bad idea!” admits Carey, “although, at the same time, Kaitlyn probably couldn’t find a better person to be trapped with.”

Armitage tells us, “The casting is great because I actually do feel more protective of Max than I do of Nathan in terms of their characters’ different strengths and vulnerabilities, and this story galvanizes those relationships to the extreme.  In the end, they will all come out of those eight hours very different from how they came in.”

Sarah Wayne Callies, who was last seen fleeing zombies in TV’s The Walking Dead, faces a different kind of menace in Into the Storm.  Callies plays professor of climatology and meteorology Allison Stone, who is with the storm chasers as a scientist, not a thrill-seeker.

“This is Allison’s first season studying what these guys chase year after year,” Callies explains.  “So, she is on the fence as to whether or not they are doing something legit or are just mavericks.  She also has a young daughter back home.  This is the first time Allison has been away from her, and there’s a real risk that she won’t be coming back.”

Having grown up the with two college professors for parents, Callies is a born researcher and consumed as much information as she could about the field, including conversations with a meteorology professor at the nearby University of Michigan.  But nothing could prepare her for experiencing what Quale had in store for the actors on set.  “The first time they turned the wind machine on me, it blew me 20 feet off my mark.  But that was part of the draw for me.  I get to fly around and do wire work—it’s pure adrenaline, and really fun.  How many times in your life do you get to work in a playground like this?” 

Callies was also drawn in by the human story in the midst of this big tornado movie.  “The tornado is the catalyst, but what happens to these characters is very simple and very moving.  It’s about how people who are strangers can become almost family over the course of a single day, when that day threatens all their lives.  I think Allison starts this journey very invested in science and ends up more invested in people, so for her, the big question becomes if she should stay with the storm chasers or help Gary find his son.”

On the other side of the spectrum is her fellow storm chaser Pete, played by Matt Walsh (The Hangover, Ted), who is dead set on driving into the eye of the storm to capture the shot of the century, come hell or high water. 

Walsh is already drenched as we walk with him to the set where he’ll interact with his character’s handcrafted storm-chasing vehicle, the Titus.  “Pete has spent years putting the Titus together and believes it will be able to drive into the eye of a tornado, through winds of over 170 miles-an-hour,” he says.  “That’s always been his dream, but when we meet him, he has basically lost his funding, so he’s desperate to make this work.”

In addition to Allison, his team includes two cameramen—Daryl, played by Arlen Escarpeta (Final Destination 5), and Jacob, played by Jeremy Sumpter (TV’s Friday Night Lights)—as well as his right-hand-man, Lucas, played by stunt coordinator-turned-actor Lee Whitaker (Live Free or Die Hard).

The fifth but no less essential member of their team is the Titus itself, the brainchild of production designer David Sandefur, who spent months conceptualizing what the ultimate storm-chasing vehicle might look like before enlisting auto specialists at Kustom Creations in nearby Detroit, who built the hero vehicle on the chassis of a modified Dodge pickup truck.  When we see the Titus up close, the tank-like monster looks like it could stand up to what Pete has in mind. 

Outfitted with bulletproof Lexan windows, 4mm solid steel armor plating and a 12-ton winch, the Titus is designed to stay firmly rooted to the ground in 170-mile-an-hour-plus winds using custom grappling claws—heavy steel outriggers that, when triggered, jut out from its sides and drive anchors deep into the earth.  The interior of the Titus is fitted with a full weather center connected to the vehicle’s anemometer, humidity sensor and potentiometer. 

But the Titus’ job is not only to withstand the powerful forces of a tornado but to get it on film.  Among the 24 cameras mounted onto the Titus is a gyroscopic, stabilized digital cinema camera tucked inside a glass turret on its roof with a full 360-degree view of the action—a key feature for both the story and the filmmaking in revealing the colossal scale of what Pete came to Silverton to capture. 



Towering over and around the characters is its intimidating main character—the storm itself.  “I think it’ll be exciting for the audience to go inside this massive tornado with its horrific power of destruction and, at the same time, see its beauty,” the director details.  “With advances in sound and visual effects, it’s now possible to do that in an incredibly visceral and realistic way.”

Quale’s a firm believer in the notion that “sound is 50% of the moviegoing experience” and enlisted Oscar®-winning sound editor Per Hallberg (Skyfall, Braveheart) to give the storms their concussive power.  The visuals are currently being hatched on hundreds of computers spread across among a number of leading visual effects houses, all working from high def video references and a detailed previsualization (“previs”) Quale put together with VFX producer Randall Starr. 

Effects have come a long way since the 1996 tornado thriller Twister, and Quale has been on the frontlines of their evolution, so he knew going in that the realism and detail he wanted for this film was achievable.  “In our film, you’ll see four different, unique tornadoes, and the tension escalates until you see this giant, two-mile-wide tornado coming straight at you like some massive, unstoppable beast,” Quale describes.  “These are probably some of the most difficult visual effects to accomplish because this is not a science fiction movie where you can create your own universe to have a unique particle effect and special rays that cause destruction.  Everybody knows what clouds and trees blowing in the wind look like.  So we had to create these tornadoes and these digital cloud formations with total realism on every level, but also make sure that everything we shot in live action would match those dark, stormy skies exactly.”

Hence the darkened silk screens, wind machines and rain towers that we learn have been a constant on set.  “You just have to keep track of what the storm is doing at that moment in the film,” Quale adds, “and constantly remind everybody that there is a big tornado in the background.”

Green screens are no problem for Hobbit movie veteran Armitage. “Oh, I’m very used to that,” he laughs.  “And Steven has a very strong image of what kind of a monster this storm will be and how the characters are scaled against it.”

Even though the storm is the film’s main event, Quale sees the characters as its heart.  “We can use sound and visual effects to put you inside the storm, but what really brings you into the experience is the characters themselves,” he reflects.  “We’re taking this journey with them, and experiencing this terrifying event through their eyes.  So for us, true realism comes down to the performances, and Richard, Sarah and all the actors are bringing so much real emotion to the film, which will make the experience of this giant, terrifying storm all the more visceral and real.” 



Into the Storm Film Page

Venture into the storm when the film hits US theatres on August 8 and UK cinemas on August 20 from Warner Bros. Pictures