the power of corn

‘They Really Fell From the Sky’: Jan de Bont Defends the Practical Effects in Twister

The director explains why, after getting scalped by a lion while making Roar, he had uniquely high expectations for his ’90s action movies. Photo: Amblin/Universal/Warners/Kobal/Shutterstock

Last week, on the occasion of Vulture’s Friday Night Movie Club screening and livetweeting of the 1997 tornado epic Twister, we thought it’d be a good idea to reach out to Jan de Bont, the film’s director. De Bont was one of the key figures in the late 1980s and 1990s renaissance of American action cinema. Besides directing Twister and Speed (his directorial debut, starring the fresh-faced rising-star duo of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock), he was also the cinematographer on Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October (not to mention a number of early Paul Verhoeven films). As Helen Hunt discussed in a separate Vulture interview, the shoot for Twister was an eventful one — partly due to de Bont’s determination to use practical, “real” effects for many of the storm scenes, as well as his desire to mix dialogue and action scenes, which often meant that such scenes could not be performed by stunt doubles. We talked about all this and more.

Twister seems to be one of the rare films from the 1990s where the effects still hold up, for the most part.
We weren’t sure at the time if we could even make the movie, because of the difficulty of the effects. And it took a long time — the hardware and the software had to be designed for the movie. It was like two steps forward and one step backward, but it was exciting. One of the scenes we did as a test, to see if we could make it believable, was the opening with the farm and the family going into the shelter. Another test we did was a shot from the inside of a car, because there would be so many images [like that] — seeing something come at you from the storm and hit the windshield, all while you’re moving forward in a real car. It looked so real. It was such a great effect — something coming right toward the camera, and it really hits the windshield. The studio people were totally stunned at how effective it was. That ultimately decided whether the movie was made. Nothing else. Not the script.

Let’s talk about the script. As I understand, it changed quite a bit, both before and during production?
Yeah. It was written by Michael Crichton and his wife at the time, Anne-Marie Martin. What they told me later was that they based it on His Girl Friday. A couple tries to get back together, and they like to argue a lot, and there’s some humor in it — the structure is very similar. I had never thought about it when working on the script. Michael used to base things on other movies he liked, especially their structures. But the screenplay needed more. The world of storm chasing and the excitement you feel when chasing — the dialogue had to be very energized. You had to get the same type of feeling that you get when you’re part of a chase. I’ve done several chases, and talked to so many people who have done it all their lives. [I felt] that the dialogue had to be moving forward and energized in the same pattern as the action. If you don’t do that, it gets very stilted very quickly.

The problem, of course, is that the film has a lot of establishing scenes, a lot of exposition scenes. To me, that makes a movie almost immediately less interesting. I said, “No, that will kill the movie. You don’t have to explain everything.” It drives me crazy. But the studio insisted on it, and the producers insisted on it, because that’s what they were used to. To me, I always feel that things will explain themselves as you keep watching. It’s like when you see two fighter pilots shooting, fighting another plane — you don’t have to know exactly how the whole system works, how the rockets work. That’s completely irrelevant. Looking back, I feel a little sorry that I was not able to really take more of [the exposition] out.

What were the other challenges of the screenwriting process? Weren’t there lots of different writers that came on?
We had good writers, but all the versions I read were like versions of older action movies. Because that’s what they knew. They didn’t understand that the idea of this movie was that action events are taking place in the background of dialogue scenes. It wasn’t like you have a dialogue and then there’s some action. It’s not sit-down dialogue scenes. So really, the pacing was always off, and also, the [storm chasers] didn’t feel real. I met those guys. These guys do this at the University of Oklahoma, and they’re like grad students. They look very much like the group we ultimately assembled in the cast. That’s how they talked. A lot of that we had to improvise on the set.

I imagine that when the dialogue and the character dynamics are happening during action scenes, that creates an extra challenge for the actors — because they really have to act during action scenes.
That is exactly right, and that’s what I tried to achieve in Speed as well. I wanted the actors to do their own stunts, and of course, not every actor can do that, or wants to do it. For instance, there’s a scene in the car near the end when Helen and Bill [Paxton] get into a hailstorm. And you have to understand that the hailstorm is a real hailstorm: We had two gigantic trucks with huge wind machines spitting out ice cubes at the actors. So, it’s real hail, and it can hurt you if you’re in a moving truck. I told Bill, “Listen, those machines cannot spit out everything the same size of hail. Some pieces are bigger.” And of course some pieces were bigger, and they hit him in the head. He was supposed to duck more often, but he didn’t.

Then on the trucks, driving through the cornfield, a little bit later. It’s a seven-foot-tall cornfield, and the actors have to open the car door and then stand out for the jump out of the car. They have to do that because I want to be on their faces when they jump; I don’t want to cut to stunt doubles. The moment you cut to a stunt double, the reality effect is immediately gone. And we taught them very carefully how to do it and the limitations of how far you can open the door, because at that speed, the corn is still very strong. So at one point Helen opened the door, and started to speak, and then she forgot that she had to hold onto the door, and she let the door go. And then the power of the corn closes the door on the side.

What you see is an incredible, reality-based response from actors, and not only in those scenes, but even in the windstorms. We had two gigantic jet engines, mounted on big trucks, and they were going full blast while debris was thrown in front of them, blowing toward the actors. Of course, you take the softest debris you could find. But as you see that and feel that coming at it — those powerful winds are so strong from the jet engines — you’re really walking against a storm. So, you’re not acting anymore. There’s nothing you have to do. You actually react. You respond to the power of the wind, and that makes it all very real.

And then, when they ride in the car and the combines start falling from the air, that’s not visual effects; that’s real effects. We dropped those combines hanging from helicopters onto the road as the car was driving, which, of course, makes for the best reaction you can get from the actors, because it’s goddamned real. They really fall from the sky, and it is not like a little fall. No, it’s a real combine, and multiple ones, and then they fall to the left and the right. And you have to drive around. It looks dangerous from the ground, but in reality, it always was safe to do it. Using longer lenses, you make that distance seem even shorter, so it looks like it’s really close to the car. Generally, it was always like 20 feet or 30 feet in front of the car. It’s a little close maybe. But it’s just spectacular to watch in real life.

That makes me think of Speed, and Keanu Reeves, who today is an actor famous for doing his own stunts, and he’s very close to his stunt people. In fact, his former stunt double now directs movies with him. I feel like you kind of introduced the concept of Keanu Reeves as action hero in Speed.
He hated stunts, and he hated action! He was afraid of it. He was more like a happy-go-lucky guy at the time, with high aspirations of dramatic theater. Let me tell you this, it took me a lot of effort to get him to do the things I wanted him to do. But then near the very end, he finally started to enjoy it, because I showed him some footage and he realized, “Oh my God, that is such a different thing now. That is not a stunt person. People can see it’s my face. It’s not over my shoulder. It is in my face while things are happening around me.” And then he started to enjoy it. But it took him a long time, and he was always a little grumpy about it. He said, “Oh, I’m not an action hero. I don’t like it. I don’t know how to do it.” Initially, of course, that’s what I liked about casting him, because I didn’t want those gung ho action heroes. I wanted a guy who happened to be thrown into a situation that is not normal to him, too. And seeing him respond to tough situations that he physically and mentally had to really respond to instead of act is a completely different work experience.

See, that’s the whole point of that movie. Everything in that movie is real. The people who are on the bus in Speed — I only cast people who actually had ridden buses in L.A. and knew what it was to sit on a bus for hours and not get bored with it. They never got bored. They were talking to each other. They were looking outside. And you always got really interesting-looking actors. They were always involved in what was going on. You could never get that with the professional cast extras.

And Sandra actually was driving the bus. She’s actually steering the bus. Those reactions as things are happening around her, hitting whatever structures around her — quite often, it is her driving the bus. Of course, there is a safety stunt driver laying on the top of the bus with a steering wheel and brakes as a first assist, who can immediately respond if something started to go wrong. But Sandra doesn’t know that, in a way; she knows that he’s there, but she doesn’t know if it’s her driving, because she still has to steer, she still has to push the gas pedal and brake. That reaction, you cannot act that. Look at any driving scene of people in movies. The car’s always towed, and you can see from the faces that they’re not really driving. In Speed, there’s never a tow car pulling the bus. It’s always a person in the bus who’s driving. And what you achieve is that the people on the bus, all the extras, too, they feel like, “Man, we all are on our own here.” Because they never see the driver. They just see Sandra driving the bus. The reactions are so real, and that energizes almost everything immediately.

You’ve worked with a number of actors who became big stars. What was it like working with Philip Seymour Hoffman on Twister? Did you sense that he’d become such an acclaimed actor?
He was actually the last person we cast. I met him and immediately liked him. I had not seen anything from him. Even though action was not his thing, he totally made it believable. He put so much enthusiasm in it, in the storm sequences. He was a revelation. I found it really hard not to put a camera on him. There’s always something in his face, in his demeanor, in his turns and twists. He cannot walk straight. He really becomes that person, and he doesn’t need much makeup. His whole body changes. I think what is so special is that he believes what he’s doing, and I don’t think he could act if he doesn’t believe that he would be that person. I had no idea that he was going to become such a huge star, but I could definitely see the beginning of it.

The ’90s seemed like a real golden age of action filmmaking — starting right at the end of the ’80s, with Die Hard, which you worked on as well. Speed and Twister were seminal movies during that action renaissance. 
I think that was the best time in filmmaking. It was at the high point of the traditional action movie, and it was a transitional period, where we were all desperate to add a new layer of life to the movies. Suddenly, we were able to create a layer of energy that was never really seen in movies before. In action movies, it had all been static action — cameras didn’t move, and there were always stunt doubles, so you never had an integration of the real actor with the real stunts and the real action. Die Hard especially was a breakout movie in that regard, where we basically always had the actor involved in the actual action moment. There was almost never a cutaway to a stunt-double scene. So there was better connection between the foreground and the background. That integration, I think, was extremely important. We could have those kinds of moving, roving cameras, which gave it a new kind of energy, as if the audience was actually present at the time. That was our goal. I like to put a camera right where the audience would have liked to have been if they were there. It immediately will be better, almost instantly.

All this talk of cinematic authenticity, I have to ask you about Roar, a crazy 1981 movie made with real lions that has generally been deemed the most dangerous film production of all time. You were the cinematographer and you were mauled by a lion. 
Yeah, that was actually the first movie I made in Hollywood. I always planned to come to Hollywood. It’s a plan I had since I was 12 years old. I had worked on quite a few movies in Europe. I thought, Well, this might be a great experience for me. The producer did The Exorcist. I thought, Well, that could be really exciting, and I like The Exorcist. But then when he told me, “Oh, it’s going to be five months.” Five months? I mean, the longest movie in Europe in those days was five or six weeks. I couldn’t really imagine that you could work that long on one movie. [The film eventually took five years to finish shooting.] And then, as we started working, it became basically a trip through hell. We had animals escape. We had a flood destroying the whole set. We had a fire destroying the whole set. Each time, everything had to be rebuilt. We had people getting injured left and right.

And I was getting injured myself multiple times. During one scene, Tippi Hedren and her daughter, Melanie Griffith, were in a little boat on a lake, and they were chased along the side by a group of lions. We were filming on the lake with multiple cameras, and one was in a hole in the ground, which the lions are supposed to run over as the camera would pan to Melanie and Tippi in the boat screaming. And then one lion smelled there was something there, and he put his head in the hole. It’s a very small hole, and he grabbed my head, and he totally scalped me. I couldn’t see anything. My skin was hanging in front of my eyes, my face, and all I felt was some bloody mass and gushing blood. I remembered that I’d been told to make yourself as big and as loud as you can. So I stood up, but not knowing where the lion exactly was, I kept rotating. My assistant who was next to me under the camera, he had fainted — and good for him, he was down below. There were trainers there, but they were all looking at the action on the boat. They didn’t look at me to see if everything was okay. Then Tippi started to scream and yell, and they thought it was all part of the action. So it took a little while for them to realize what had happened, then they finally started coming out with fire extinguishers to get the lions away. I had to go to the hospital. I was there for a long time. They couldn’t do surgery for multiple days because there was too big a danger of infection.

And you kept on working after that.
Let me tell you why I kept working: because I had such nightmares from that episode, and the nightmare was mostly about the teeth of the lion on my skull. You know what that sound is that you make on the chalkboard? The scratching sound, but a hundred times stronger. The teeth on both sides of your skull in stereo, because that’s how I remember it — stereophonic sound. I woke up every night. The doctor said, “Maybe you should go and visit them.” And then I decided to go back for a short time.

Jan de Bont Defends Twister’s Practical Effects