‘Twisters’ Director Lee Isaac Chung Talks Sequel, Climate Change 5

One prevailing word comes to mind when beholding the eponymous forces of nature in Twisters: fear. The term, in the biblical sense, connotes an awe and respect of a greater, not entirely knowable power that puts humanity in its proper place. That’s the impression that helmer Lee Isaac Chung (the Oscar-nominated writer-director of 2020’s Minari) wanted to evoke within audiences of his action thriller, which opened in theaters July 19. “I feel that we are losing our understanding of where we are in our relationship with nature,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I would love to see more stories in which our identity is defined in relation to the Earth, and I felt like this film was a chance to do that.”

Whereas the protagonists’ quest in the original Twister, which grossed nearly $500 million worldwide in 1996, was to gather data from inside a tornado in order to learn how to anticipate them, the follow-up — again from Universal, Warner Bros. and Amblin — advances the premise with a new crew testing a hypothesis on how to “tame” cyclones when they strike. Although this theory is currently still more science fiction than reality, Chung says that he hopes his summer blockbuster will inspire people to regard climate scientists as the real superheroes. A four-quadrant summer tentpole may seem an unlikely vehicle for environmental evangelism, but Chung aims to woo viewers while entertaining them. “Anytime Hollywood is doing anything with climate change, I think we have to stay positive and let people have fun,” he says. “As a production, we want to inspire people to embrace the natural world. That can go quite a long ways toward influencing people to make good choices in their relationship with nature, to study what’s happening on this Earth and to figure out how can we become better caretakers of the planet.”

Some people were surprised when you announced Twisters as your follow-up to Minari. What made this project right for you?

If people saw the things I was doing on the TV side, maybe it would have been a little clearer. I did an episode of The Mandalorian and an episode of [upcoming Disney+ Star Wars series] Skeleton Crew, and Kathleen Kennedy [a producer of the original Twister] was a reference for me to Frank Marshall [her husband, who took over her producing reins on the new film]. One of the Kennedy/Marshall Company producers, Ashley Jay Sandberg, reached out to see if I might be interested in doing this movie. And for me, as I was looking for a project, Twisters just seemed like the perfect thing. As soon as that opportunity came up, it was honestly, like, the project I wanted to do.

What was your pitch?

The first part was basically convincing the studio that, on a technical level, I know how to make an action movie, because if you watch Minari, that aspect is not necessarily proven. The second aspect was what I wanted to do for the characters, for the story arcs and how they come together, and the theme of coming home and dealing with one’s fears. I wanted to bring a deeper sense of place, of Oklahoma — I grew up right on that Oklahoma border [with Arkansas] — and this idea of a character who left for the cities and then has to come home. I felt a deep personal connection because I had done that, I had left Arkansas.

Both Minari and Twisters feature breathtaking cinematography of the land that characterizes that part of the country. What did you want to evoke about those environments?

When I was growing up, we were on a 50-acre farm. There was a pasture, there were woods, and I was outside all the time. We were very far away from our neighbors, from where I went to school, so most of the time I spent was either with my family or I was off on my own, fishing or hiking and doing things in the woods. I feel that we are losing our understanding of where we are in our relationship with nature. I would love to see more stories in which our identity is defined in relation to the Earth, and I felt like this film was a chance to do that, and Minari was a chance to do that as well, to show almost how small we are in comparison to the nature around us. So that was an approach I wanted to take with this movie, particularly when we’re dealing with tornadoes, which are giant and huge and incredibly forceful. They’re just forces of nature that make us feel small and put us in our place in many ways.

Initially, the studio felt that we should film in Georgia because our budget would go further, but I took this project on because I wanted to go back home with it, and that’s what this story is about. So there were a number of concessions I needed to make budgetarily and in terms of schedule to make that happen, but for me going back to Oklahoma was a big priority. Oklahoma has the vast landscapes, a lot of sky, the horizons are very far, and that was something I just wasn’t seeing in Georgia when we were scouting over there. And I’d done Minari in Oklahoma, so I knew what I’d be able to get there. One of the crazy things we did, though, is that we filmed in Oklahoma during storm season, and that ended up proving to really make us feel small, because we got shut down quite a lot due to winds and thunderstorms and incoming tornadoes. We had to submit to nature quite a lot on this production, but it was fitting for this film.

How did you and screenwriter Mark L. Smith find the balance of scientific authenticity in the film while still making it accessible for all audiences?

That was one of the most challenging elements of this film, to talk about the science of what’s happening with tornadoes in a way that’s understandable within a summer blockbuster film that’s, like, two hours long. In the original Twister, the idea of putting these Dorothy sensor balls into a tornado is completely science fiction, but it inspired a generation of people to want to do scientific research on storms. And with this movie, the endeavor that Kate [Daisy Edgar-Jones] is on to see if she can disrupt the dynamics of a tornado, this is also based on a lot of science fiction. We’re just theorizing, and it’s definitely not something we want people to be doing, but we wanted the film to pay homage to science and research and conducting very big ideas out there. So our producers brought on Kevin Kelleher, who was the technical adviser on the original Twister. Kevin worked with Mark and me on the subsequent drafts of the script, and he was in the room for VFX meetings and for all these discussions on, theoretically, how would we collapse a tornado? All of that is based on real science. And then the trick, once we had the science in place, was how do we communicate that to viewers? And that’s all just filmmaking language, like having [actor Anthony Ramos] describe what they’re doing with packets of butter at a café, or having a graphical interface on his vehicle that explains where they’re going to plant the radars and what they’re going to be doing. What I was thinking as I was reading the script and planning the film was any time I personally had a question where I wondered, “What does that mean?” that’s when I would assume we needed to tell the audience something.

How has technology changed since the original film?

The technology has come such a long way. Industrial Light & Magic did the VFX for the original, and one of their artists on that film, Ben Snow, was our VFX supervisor on this film. He was very excited for this one because he knew how far they had come at ILM in terms of how they can incorporate so much physics into what happens within a natural event. They’re able to take environments and not just show tornadoes with incredible detail, they show the effects of the tornadoes in incredible detail as well, to the level of every blade of grass, basically.

But I think what [Twister director] Jan de Bont did in the ‘90s that made that film feel very real was that he used a lot of practical special effects. That’s something that we all wanted to do to keep ourselves honest, so we worked with Scott Fisher, who’s an incredible special effects artist. He often works with Christopher Nolan, so he comes from that school where they only use VFX if absolutely necessary. Scott was always involved in the conversations between Ben Snow and I to figure out, how do we make any environment that we’re filming really feel like there’s a tornado ripping through it? He had a jet engine, he had so many incredible, powerful fans, and we just had them lined up, covering over 100 feet of space, and we’d have actors running through these giant wind tunnels, and we’d throw a lot of stuff at the actors as well.

How did you implement Universal’s GreenerLight sustainability program into the production?

This is one of the first, I believe, productions to be working under that initiative. We just wanted to do common-sense things on this shoot. Films can end up being some of the most waste-producing activities, and we wanted to be responsible in terms of, for instance, not having too much food waste. We provided excess food to local food banks, we didn’t want to just throw that out. We weren’t idling vehicles for no reason, we wanted to conserve fuel. We basically had a committee on this production making sure that we were making common-sense decisions to not have excess waste and excess fuel consumption. I like to think of those things just as common sense. Where I grew up, we just tried not to waste stuff, and that’s what we tried to do on this production.

This film didn’t feel very preachy about environmentalism, but what type of message do you hope to impart to viewers?

I definitely didn’t want to be on a soapbox with this film. I just wanted to set audiences in the reality of what’s happening with tornadoes and tornado outbreaks these days, the unpredictability and the greater number of outbreaks that are actually happening right now. It’s all about making sure people are prepared, and there a lot of great people in Oklahoma who are keeping people safe. As long as we empower those people and really draw attention to the scientists, the meteorologists, the law enforcement, the Red Cross, all of these heroes on the front lines, I think we’re going to be in good shape.

Putting characters — and through characters, audiences — into these situations in which they experience tornadoes in the different ways that people out there are experiencing tornadoes, that in itself goes a long way as a cinematic experience, more than preaching. Something that I said at CinemaCon that I really meant was that if we can show the beauty of nature and really fill people with an awe of nature, there’s a lot more for us to be optimistic about than to just show the bad things that are happening.

As a production, we want to inspire people to embrace the natural world. We’re not wanting to just be alarmist and negative; we want to have a message of positivity with the film, and just make sure that people go out and have fun as well. Anytime Hollywood is doing anything with climate change, I think we have to remember to stay positive and to let people have fun.

This story first appeared in the June 2024 Sustainability issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to see the rest of the issue.

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