Director Steven Quale Q&A – Into the Storm

QUESTION: Can you talk about the feeling you wanted to create as you introduce us to the characters that we’re about to go on this incredible ride with in Into the Storm?

STEVEN QUALE: For me, it’s actually two parts. At the beginning of the film, there’s the father and his sons, and the other people from the small community of Silverton who are doing their normal thing. The threat of a storm is coming, but nobody knows it’s going to become something as big as what it eventually ends up developing into. Then, on the other side, we meet a group of storm chasers who are actively seeking a tornado but can’t seem to ever be at the right place at the right time.

There’s a lot of suspense leading up to when the storm finally hits, and then, once it does, the third act is just non-stop where you’re just fighting for survival. And when the two groups converge—the storm chasers seeking the thrill of the tornado and the people who are just trying to survive—it’s interesting to see their dynamic together and how they come to help each other out in the end.


 QUESTION: Richard Armitage plays Gary, the father who has to go out into the storm to find his son. Can you talk about what qualities you wanted for Gary and what Richard brings to the role?

STEVEN QUALE: Well, Richard Armitage has this wonderful quiet presence to him, and what I liked about him as Gary is that he could be a Vice Principal, who maybe is in charge of the football team as well, and does some other activities for the school. At the same time, he’s trying to deal with his two kids, being a single father and having teenagers in that awkward moment in life when they’re rebellious. So, as a result of all that, things aren’t exactly smooth in his family life and he’s just doing his best to try to be a good father, but he’s spread kind of thin.

But then, when this tornado hits, he becomes the reluctant hero. Suddenly he has to step up and take charge, and try to save the school by going completely against what the Principal because he knows instinctively the right thing to do to try to save these people. He is able to have those leadership qualities and lead not by intimidation, but by inspiration.

What I liked about Richard playing this character is the contrast because everybody knows Richard from The Hobbit movies, and here he is, this huge warrior, super strong and powerful, even though he’s small. It’s nice to have him play just a normal guy who doesn’t have all these amazing powers and just has to use his intelligence and his reasoning to try to convince people to go with him to save as many lives as he can when this horrific disaster occurs.

QUESTION: How about Sarah Wayne Callies as Allison, the scientist who joins Pete, Matt Walsh’s character, and the storm chasing team? What was it like working with Sarah and what did she bring to the role?

STEVEN QUALE: Sarah Wayne Callies is an amazing person. She was wonderful to work with, as were all the actors on this project, but she just brought this immediate intelligence and believability to the character. The very first time I met her, I knew immediately that I would buy her as this dedicated, enthusiastic scientist researcher who’s trying to save lives by learning more about these storms and trying to predict when they’re going to hit, to try to have earlier warnings than they currently have.

So, for her, it’s all about saving lives and helping the community through research, as opposed to the thrill-seeking aspects of storm chasing, or the idea of getting the most amazing video shot in history that Pete has. They’re kind of at odds with each other because of that. She just wants to get the scientific data and Pete wants to get spectacular-looking video footage to show how amazing these storms are.

So, what Sarah brought was a total believability to the character, and particularly with her relationship with her daughter onscreen, and what was kind of fun is we were able to use Sarah’s actual daughter to play her fictitious daughter in the movie for the scene where they Skype together. So I was really pleased, and it was adorable to see both of them together, so I was fortunate in that respect. You can’t always do that, per se, in films, but that was wonderful little thing, and again, I just loved how much conviction Sarah brought to it, and also her likability.


QUESTION: How did you work with the actors to communicate the massive visual effects components they’d be interacting with while also bringing naturalism and spontaneity to their performances?

STEVEN QUALE: Well, what was important for me was in the whole film, from visual effects all the way to the characters and performances, was to have a sense of realism. When I did research for this movie, I found that tornadoes are so spectacular in their own right that you don’t really have to augment it. What’s there in actual Mother Nature is stunning and horrific, impressive and awe-inspiring … lots of adjectives when you see these images and video of real storms and tornadoes in particular.

So, I filtered that down to all aspects of the film. I wanted the performances grounded in total reality. I wanted the characters, the situations, the conflicts not to feel contrived, but to feel believable. With all the actors, the idea was to try to make it feel as real as possible. We developed back-stories for each of the characters that aren’t included in the film, but gave them ways to relate to what they were doing. Then we just worked as a team.

Part of what helped keep it grounded was the fact that we shot the film using handheld cameras for the most part, and in a kind of relaxed environment. Yet it had to be very structured because of all these visual effects that we would be adding later. We also had practical special effects with wind machines, and so forth. So, we had to maintain what you normally have in a movie, with rehearsals and hitting your marks and all of those normal things. But we let it be a little looser as far as the back and forth between everybody.

With improvisation, interestingly enough, you find that if you go too far with it, it almost becomes incoherent as far as dialogue. If you actually take a recording device and record a person’s conversation, people cut each other off so quickly and so frequently, and you finish other people’s sentences. It’s kind of a shorthand but you can understand it when you’re in a conversation with someone. When you make a movie, that same thing can be incoherent and it just doesn’t feel real.

So, we came up with a hybrid where you interject just enough of that into it, but still stick to the dialogue and the way it was written. It’s just a very fine line, but I had wonderful actors who were very talented, and did a great job of making it feel believable and real.

QUESTION: So, moving on to the other main character of the movie, can you take me through what went into creating these massive tornadoes onscreen, in terms of both on-set effects and working with visual effects companies to bring them to life digitally?

STEVEN QUALE: Well, when I first read the script, I thought there was an amazing potential for the tornadoes. We have four major tornadoes that hit and, in some cases, merge together, and my fear was that you could potentially have a feeling of repetition. But it also occurred to me that the tornado is a character, so like any great character in movies it can be very diverse and have different attributes. So, as I did the research for this film, I found that tornadoes can be radically different.

Having grown up in the Midwest—in Madison, Wisconsin—I never actually experienced a tornado directly growing up, but we had numerous tornado watches and warnings when you’d have to go into your basement and wait it out. But I did have some indirect experience with it in terms of friends and relatives. But when I was looking at all the videos and all of the photographs of tornados, I was surprised and amazed at all the different types there are.

There are the really thin and narrow rope tornadoes, which can have multiple vortices in the same tornado storm system. And then you’ve got the more traditional tornado, which is just a big wedge that goes up into the sky, which we’re most familiar with. And then you have these mile-wide or two mile-wide wedge tornadoes, which are enormous tornadoes that can spin with rotational speeds as high as 300 miles-per-hour.

Then there is a fourth one, actually, the fire tornado, which is probably one of the most spectacular things in the film. As I was researching this, I found that it’s an absolutely true phenomenon, and it looks almost exactly like we depict it with our digital simulation.

So now we have four different, unique tornadoes throughout the film, and as each tornado comes, it gives the audience something new and unexpected to deal with. So that, for me, was this moment of ‘Ah-hah!’ I knew we could escalate and build up to the end when we have this giant, two-mile-wide tornado, which is just destroying entire buildings, like a giant beast coming at you, and it’s unstoppable.

Then, the difficult part was how do you create all that and do it in a photorealistic manner? We wanted it to be absolutely real. So we took all our reference footage and showed it to the visual effects companies. These are probably some of the most difficult visual effects to accomplish because everybody knows what clouds look like, and everybody knows what trees look like blowing in the wind. 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. We had to create these tornadoes and these digital cloud formations that looked exactly like the real tornadoes.


It took a lot of effort and time, and many passes at watching it and tweaking it, because the way they create these tornadoes is through really complicated math procedures. Procedural techniques aren’t artistic, meaning if you want a cloud to have a certain look and paint it a certain way, it’s hard to do that when you’re dealing with these procedural simulations that are basically computational exercises inputting wind sources and other calculations.

Sometimes you get lucky with those, and they look good, but sometimes they can be kind of boring. The big challenge was trying to use the artistic and the scientific methods, and having those two meld together so that the effects companies could deliver digitally what I wanted. All of the effects companies did a fantastic job getting there.

What we found was that to make the effects feel as real as possible, we had to have our principal photography shot in an overcast situation. If hard sunlight is hitting your main actors, and you have an overcast grey tornado in the background, it just doesn’t match. So I insisted that we have overcast skies for all of our shooting.

The problem with that is it’s not practical because not every day’s going to be overcast. Ironically, they have what they call weather cover days, and normally they’re for rain or overcast situations; we had just the opposite in our film. If it was bright and sunny, we had to go to an overcast situation.  

So the solution was to get these giant construction cranes and put these silk screens on them, basically. Instead of having the silks be white, which you normally would use to bounce light off of, Brian Pearson, the cinematographer, came up with the idea of making the silks dark grey, like storm cloud color, so that dark grey light would bounce and block the sun, and create an overcast look directly over the actors.

The only problem with that is that would only work in a twenty- or thirty-foot square area directly where the actors are, and we were shooting wide distances that would show the whole environment. So what we did is we figured, as long as we can get the actors in shade, we can digitally paint out the rest of the frame and create it with digital trees and dark, overcast skies. That way, it would all feel coherent, like it is in this gloomy, dark, stormy weather.

That was the big challenge, and then the challenge for the actors was to endure the high speed of these hundred-mile-an-hour fans that are blowing in their faces. We did some tests, and I always made sure they were safe. But when you stand in front of a hundred-mile-an-hour fan blowing, it’s intense, but it’s totally doable. And when you stand in front of a rain tower that’s pouring rain on you, it’s bearable; you can deal with it. The problem is when you combine the two, now suddenly those raindrops are like projectiles going a hundred miles-an-hour, hitting you, like little needles hitting your face.

The actors did an amazing job, having to always be running around with that rain and debris hitting them. It also added so much realism to the film because all that stuff flying around was real and we augmented it with digital rain and debris. We did a hybrid approach, a combination of the practical special effects and digital effects integrated throughout the film, and it worked flawlessly.

QUESTION: In creating the tornadoes, how important was the sound for you, and can you tell me about working with the Per Hallberg to create that component of the storm?

STEVEN QUALE: Well, the sound is always very important for me and I feel that it is fifty percent of the movie going experience. So when we got Per Hallberg to be the supervising sound editor, it was amazing. The first thing I told them was I don’t want lion roars, I don’t want over-the-top sound; I want it to feel absolutely real.

He took that and went way beyond any of my expectations, so I’m thrilled, of course, with the sound, and we even did things like intentionally re-recording dialogue sloppy so it sounded more real, as opposed to making it perfectly pristine and audible. We would futz it a little just to make it feel like it was recorded in the real environment. And with the Dolby Atmos mix that we did, we could literally have the sounds of the tornado enveloping you everywhere in the theatre. It’s like a horror movie where you don’t see anything, but you hear it. And it gets more and more intense until finally, the storm hits and that’s all done with sound. Per and his team did an amazing job.

One of the things that I always like to do with both visuals and sound is to create dynamics. If it’s loud throughout the whole movie, you build up a tolerance, you block out the sound and it becomes quite monotonous.  But if you go from really loud to really quiet moments and get that contrast, that dynamic range, then that perception for the person watching it is that the loud moments are more horrific and scary, and the quiet moments are quiet, and tension-building. That worked really well for this film, and it’s a testament to all the hard work of all the artists and technicians that worked on both the sound and the visuals. But I think that sound is incredibly important to the movie, and hopefully people will be able to see this in really good theaters, and get that experience.


QUESTION: You shot the movie using a variety of cameras, from SteadiCams to security cameras and iPhones. You even have cameras on the Titus, the storm-chasing vehicle in the film. What did you want to achieve using this shooting technique?

STEVEN QUALE: Interestingly enough, my take on this was that we have cameras and point-of-view shots that would traditionally be considered part of a ‘found footage’ movie. But I didn’t want that to be distracting for the audience; I didn’t want it to get in the way of the storytelling. So we used lots of different cameras, and we had an amazing camera operator in Peter Rosenfeld.

The irony of this film is that the entire movie was shot handheld. We didn’t have camera dollies or cranes or any of those techniques that you’d normally use in a movie. But the audience doesn’t notice. About halfway into it, you forget about the cameras and the ‘found footage’ aspect; it just becomes a movie. And we did that intentionally.

I told Peter, ‘I want this framed like a movie. I want good composition, I want steady shots, but we want to do it handheld so we achieve a little bit of that tension and realism.’ Because, with handheld, if you do just a slight zoom-correction during a shot, like a person who would, it’s imperfect. But it’s just enough of that imperfection that it feels organic and real. And when you add a digital tornado to that shot, now suddenly it feels like you’re really there, as opposed to a Hollywood shot with a camera crane booming up, perfectly still, and then suddenly it feels a little fake because you’re aware of the technique.

That worked out really well, and we had tons of different cameras. The biggest nightmare was trying to keep the cameras dry with all the rain pouring in, but the camera department did a wonderful job.


QUESTION: Tell me about the Titus, the ultimate storm-chasing vehicle that Pete, played by Matt Walsh, drives in the film?

STEVEN QUALE: The Titus was a vehicle designed by David Sandefur, our production designer, which drew inspiration from an M1 Abrams tank. He’s really into cars and worked with a group of artists and designers and came up with this concept of the hydraulic outriggers with grappling claws that deploy anchors to secure the vehicle to the ground and so forth.

Fortunately, since we were filming in Michigan, we found a specialized auto company, Kustom Creations that does prototypes and concept cars for Detroit and they were able to build the Titus for us. It was based off a Dodge pickup truck, and then heavily modified. All we had was the chassis of a pickup truck, and they built the entire vehicle on top of that and did a wonderful job. It is almost a little mini-character in and of itself when you’re trying to deal with all the storms in this movie.

And Pete, played by Matt Walsh, is obsessed with getting the ultimate shot of the tornado. Specifically, he wants a tornado to come right over him in his tornado-reinforced vehicle, the Titus, and to be able to shoot the eye of the tornado—the inside of a tornado where the storm is quieter. Nobody’s ever really seen the inside of a tornado, so that’s been his lifelong quest.

So, we thought, ‘Well, what would the inside of a tornado look like?’ We did see some footage of a tornado that rotated slightly, almost parallel to the ground. There was a telephoto lens on it, so we could almost see inside. It was a rope tornado, so it wasn’t quite the same as a wedge tornado. But it was very interesting, so we based the inside of our very large, two-mile-wide tornado on that, and wanted that sense of its large size and diffused, misty light you see the further up you go. It’s like the atmosphere of a cave.

Method Studios, which was the effects vendor that created that shot, did an amazing job of getting the scale, the scope and the beauty of it. Because one of the things I noticed with tornadoes is that there’s an awe and a beauty to these storm systems in addition to their horrific destructive power that you have to respect. I wanted to capture a little bit of that in contrast the horrific violence of the storm, and in that moment when we’re inside its eye, I think we were able to do that.

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