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Chasing ‘Twisters’ and collaborating with ‘tornado fanatic’ Steven Spielberg

Growing up in the Midwest, filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung developed both a healthy fear of tornadoes and a reverence for Jan de Bont’s 1996 disaster film “Twister.” He saw the movie in the theater with his family when he was a teenager.
Lee Isaac Chung, director of the upcoming film "Twisters," discusses the film during the Universal Pictures and Focus Features presentation at CinemaCon 2024, Wednesday, April 10, 2024, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Growing up in the Midwest, filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung developed both a healthy fear of tornadoes and a reverence for Jan de Bont’s 1996 disaster film “Twister.” He saw the movie in the theater with his family when he was a teenager.

“I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t know you could chase after these things,’” Chung said. “That, to me, was very mind-blowing.”

These were forces of nature he and his schoolmates in rural Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border, were being taught how to safely hide from. And here’s Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Alan Ruck driving towards them. Intentionally.

When he was hired to direct “Twisters,” storming theaters on July 19, he knew one thing was non-negotiable: They needed to shoot in Oklahoma, not on soundstages.

“I told everyone this is something that we have to do. We can’t just have blue screens,” Chung said. “We’ve got to be out there on the roads with our pickup trucks and in the green environments where this story actually takes place.”

There would be sacrifices that would have to be made, cutting the number of shooting days to make the budget work, but it was important. “Twister” might have been a major blockbuster, the second-highest grossing film of 1996 behind “Independence Day,” but for Chung it always seemed like a local film done in his backyard. He’d also filmed “ Minari ” there, his autobiographical family film that got six Oscar nominations, including best picture and director.

While most might remember “Minari” as a quiet, contemplative film, it was actually the one that got him thinking about doing something with more spectacle. At the end, there’s a dramatic fire.

“We actually lit this barn on fire and just took the risk of filming it in one take,” Chung said. “I remember being so filled with adrenaline after that that I was like ‘I want to make a disaster film.’”

The first place he went to location scout for “Twisters” was a farmhouse. The owner came out and greeted Chung with a hug and the tidbit that he was actually an extra in “Minari.”

“I felt like I was coming back home. It was a confirmation that we made the right call,” Chung said. “'Minari’ and ‘Twisters,’ even though they’re very different, I kind of think of them as my Oklahoma movies.

There had been talk of a “Twister” follow-up for a few years, with Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment working with “The Revenant” screenwriter Mark L. Smith to develop a new story and figure out the best director for the job. Separately, Hunt was even reportedly at work on a next chapter, and there were several directors under consideration.

But Chung proved his passion to Steven Spielberg, Universal and Warner Bros., which is overseeing international distribution.

“It’s like I could see it,” he said. “I was firing off in my mind all the emotions that I want the audience to feel."

The movie, considered a standalone and not a direct sequel to the 1996 film, stars Daisy Edgar-Jones, Anthony Ramos and Glen Powell as a new bunch of storm chasers. None of the characters from the original are returning, but the legacy of their work is there — the Dorothy sensors are back and so are references to the fictional Muskogee State University.

“We do highlight the idea and the fact that, environmentally speaking, storms have become more unpredictable. Tornadoes have become more unpredictable as well. That’s just hard science," Chung said. “We also address the fact that the technology around what we can understand about tornadoes is growing as well.”

They hit the ground running with production starting in spring 2023, to capitalize on the area's actual tornado season. One day, they were filming a scene of Edgar-Jones and her friends running from a giant tornado, trying to find safety. The crew was also getting warnings of a giant storm coming in and were cautioned to film what they needed as quickly as possible. Soon after they’d made their day and sent everyone home, they got a report that a tornado had touched down about 40 miles away.

Chung and his associate producer decided to celebrate with some of El Reno’s famous fried onion burgers.

“We got the shots we needed. The skies were perfect because it looked like a tornado. We got everyone out of there safely. And a tornado actually touched the ground after we filmed it,” Chung said. “It felt like a strange, ‘only when you’re making a movie’ sort of day.”

Everyone had gotten so used to shutting down for weather, tornadoes, storms, lightning, that when it became obvious that the actors were heading for a walkout there were plenty of jokes about “what’s another strike?” Similar to Shawn Levy’s experience with “Deadpool & Wolverine,” it gave them time to take a breath and reassess.

“It felt good to go back in with renewed energy,” Chung said.

Spielberg executive produced the original, but his fascination with tornadoes goes back further than that. Remember the scene in “The Fabelmans” when his mother takes the kids out to try to chase one themselves?

“He is a true tornado fanatic,” Chung said. “I had clips for my pitch to him from YouTube of actual tornadoes and every single one of them, he would say, yes, I’ve seen that. I’ve seen that. It turned out he had seen every single YouTube clip of a tornado that is out there.”

“Twisters” isn’t quite finished yet. Chung said it’ll likely be done by June. And he’s feeling good about it, having already gotten a pretty major confidence boost from Spielberg, who Chung called a true partner throughout the process.

“He loves ‘Twister’ and I could tell he loves this movie as well,” Chung said. “I’m humbled by that.”


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Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press