Steven Quale interview: Into The Storm, Final Destination 5

Director Steven Quale talks to us about his latest film Into The Storm, working on James Cameron's The Abyss, bad weather and more...

Steven Quale’s career seems to have been constantly submerged in water. Having worked with James Cameron back on The Abyss, their relationship has meant Quale’s involvement on multiple projects including Titanic and a co-director credit on the documentary Aliens Of The Deep. Quale’s solo feature directorial debut was on Final Destination 5, which wasted no time in plunging most of its cast into water, though they were mostly followed by rather heavy and deadly objects.

We caught up for a chat with Mr Quale to discuss his experiences of soaking actors in water and the challenges of filming a special effects heavy blockbuster, while managing to present a film with a new narrative perspective, as Into The Storm incorporates a first-person perspective into its story, while keeping all footage to a professional level and avoiding the dreaded shaky cam. We also asked about the fire-nado because, quite frankly, how could you not?

Firstly, congratulations of the film, it was so much fun and it was great to see such a spectacular and warm-hearted disaster movie back on the big screen. What drew you to the disaster movie genre, as they used to be very prolific back in the 90s and then disappeared?

Well you know what drew me to the script was having grown up in the Midwest and experiencing tornado warnings, but never actually seeing a tornado and knowing what it’s like. And obviously the seminal movie Twister, and today with the digital technology to be able to really make it photo-realistic and believable and spectacular with the different types of tornados, I just thought it was great challenge as a filmmaker to do all that. And then to say something contemporary about all of that by shooting in what I call ‘the first person narrative approach’, where you have all these different cameras that are actually photographing the event, because we live in a world where literally there are millions of cameras out there.

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Every cell phone has a video camera in it and so now we are living in a time where everyone has video of everything, and it’s only going to get more and more intense and so I was trying to tell a little… I was reflecting that phenomena in the choice of the cinematic techniques that we used through the use of the found footage – well, some people would call it found footage, I prefer to use the term ‘first person’, because I tend to think that found footage gives it a negative connotation of a cheap movie, that’s just like a horror film genre or something, when [Into The Storm] is a big blockbuster, mainstream, effects-driven film that has that technique of a camera that is done in a more stylistic manner, that kind of is a hybrid between the two.

I mean it’s all justified with the cameras, but it’s done in a way that is a little more cinematic and easy to watch than a really shaky, jerky horror movie on a found footage camera. Is that a long winded enough answer for you! [laughs]

For someone like me, who works with technology every day, even I find it hard to adjust to the amount of filming that takes place now, and it’s worrying that so many people seem to be more intent on filming life, rather than living it. You even have the scene in the movie where the camera operator is in the tornado’s path and seems to hide behind his camera, rather than dealing with what’s in front of him…

Yes. I think that’s the reflection, because I know a lot of filmmakers and they actually… there’s a great quote and I forget who said it, that you can hide behind the camera but at a certain point you have to start living life – it’s sort of like a security blanket for people who can put their eye in the viewfinder and feel like their troubles in real life aren’t happening, and as long as they’re recording something, it’s giving them a sense of removal from the reality. 

At the screening of Into The Storm I attended, it was presented in Dolby Atmos, which was just phenomenal – as much as people will talk about the visual effects, you must have put a hell of a lot of work into the audio?

Well, for me the most important thing in a movie is the story and the characters and what the actors bring, and then when you go to the technical side of filmmaking. Then you have sound and visual, and I think a lot of people focus on the visual, but I think the sound is 50 percent of the movie-going experience, and so as a result of that, I believe that you don’t want to undermine or belittle the sound.

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And having Per Hallberg as the sound supervisor – here’s an amazing, Oscar winner for movies such as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and the most recent Bond film – he had the tools and the talent and the people to make a phenomenal sound and my guidance for him was ‘Keep it as real as possible, I don’t want lion roars or anything unbelievable. I want realistic sound for all of these events.’ And I’m really heavily involved in collaborating with these amazingly talented people, to get a dynamic range, to have the overall balance and mix – I see myself as more a conductor – they create the minutia and the details and I hear from afar and kind of shape it and I’m really proud of how this movie sounds.

I mean it’s an experience that has to be seen at a theatre, watching it on YouTube on a little video screen is not going to be the same experience for this film. 

With you mentioning the story – you had a great cast, with Sarah Wayne Callies and Richard Armitage to name a few, it must have been a thrill to work with such good, dramatic actors?

Don’t forget Max Deacon, another guy from the UK, I mean it was amazing we got father-son both from England trying to be American with their American accents, and they did a phenomenal job. And then you have Alycia Debnam Carey, who’s Max’s love interest in the movie, and she’s from Australia, so you know we had a lot of American accents in that movie and it was basically because they were the best actors, when we looked through and tried to pick everybody.

But Richard and Sarah were a joy to work with, they brought so much to their characters, they’re really talented individuals and really fun to work with. And it was just really, really enjoyable and they put up with such hell with the wind machines, the rain towers, all of these physical things that just drenched them every day and still managed to deliver such amazing performances. I’m really proud of what they were able to contribute and what they did to the movie.

I did think actually, because I know you’ve worked with James Cameron before, about a film like The Abyss where you had actors up to their eyeballs in water…

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Well I just remember having worked on The Abyss myself as a 20-year-old, and that being without a question the most difficult film shoot in cinematic history, I think. I knew what it was like to do this stuff and I tried to do whatever I could to help everybody, by having the water as hot as possible to try to make it comfortable for people, and you do all these things and try to do all these precautions, but things always slip through the cracks.

We heated the water, but overnight it got cold and nobody told me about that, so the next morning they fire the jets of water and everybody’s screaming because it’s ice cold and nobody turned the heaters on overnight on a cold, Michigan evening! Then it’s like, “Oh my god how can we fix this?” But I had a lot of experience dealing with water, and it’s just one of those ironic things that it keeps coming back in my movies! [laughs] 

There’s a natural element of terror to the movie, just by the inclusion of tornados, but I wondered if directing Final Destination 5, which has a certain ethereal quality to the horror, helped to channel the fear element in the movie?

Well what I learned from Final Destination was the most important thing in a horror movie is suspense, because you can have horrific shocks and it’s real easy to scare the people by having a really loud noise and everybody jumps, but tension and suspense building up to a horror moment is priceless. When it’s done right for the audience they react so… they’re squirming in their seats and it’s just amazing.

And in Final Destination 5, with the tack scene with the gymnast, building up to that horrific death, it’s all about the tension. So I brought that tension aspect into Into The Storm, when you’re in the hallway waiting for the tornado to come and you don’t know what it’s going to do and then it rips the ceiling out. It’s that uncertainty and holding your breath and trying to sit there and not knowing what’s going to happen – that’s what I learnt from those two movies.

I also have to mention what I’d describe as the fire-nado, which was absolutely superb to behold in the film – is that actually feasible?

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That’s absolutely real, and there’s video on YouTube. If you search ‘fire tornado’, you will find actual fire tornados like that, and we based it on real footage, some from obscure sources – there was one in Australia – and at any time you have the heat and the fire and a tornado that goes on top of it, it would suck the fire up just like that, so that is an actual phenomena and we worked really hard with the digital effects company to get that fire to look as photo-realistic as possible. And that’s a pretty horrific, yet intense and amazing sequence – I think, at least, and as a filmmaker I’m very proud of how that ended up.

And rightly so! Mr Steven Quale thank you very much.

Into The Storm is out in UK cinemas now.

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