Interview: Twisters director Lee Isaac Chung on balancing his “summer popcorn blockbuster” sequel with environmental importance

This summer, the epic studio disaster movie returns with an adrenaline-pumping, seat-gripping, big-screen thrill ride that puts you in direct contact with one of nature’s most wondrous – and destructive – forces.

From the producers of the Jurassic, Bourne and Indiana Jones series comes Twisters, a current-day chapter of the 1996 blockbuster, Twister. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Minari, the film stars Golden Globe nominee Daisy Edgar-Jones and Glen Powell as opposing forces who come together to try to predict, and possibly tame, the immense power of tornadoes.

As the film whirls its way into international theatres, Peter Gray spoke with the acclaimed director about blending an environmental message with entertainment value and the importance of filming on location.

When it was announced that you were the director, I felt like people saw it as an odd choice after Minari.  But you’ve directed episodes of The Mandalorian and The Skeleton Crew, so it probably feels more natural than we expect.  Was that part of the appeal for you? To take a film on that people wouldn’t have expected from you?

Yeah, I guess I don’t worry too much about that public perception idea.  People might find it odd.  In fact, when I was working on Skeleton Crew, I was telling Jon Favreau that I really wanted to do Twisters, and he was giving me advice on it.  At the end of his advice, he said, “People might think it’s odd.”  That threw me for a loop.  I didn’t know that.  And now I realise people do find it a little odd, but I was chasing after what I wanted to do personally.  The things that interest me, (the) things that I feel would be really challenging for me, the things that scare me…so (Twisters) was a thrilling choice.  I wanted that thrill.

The importance of how we treat the earth is one of those messages disaster films like to push.  What I really loved about Twisters was that it never felt like a “message” movie.  How was it for you in balancing the entertainment with the environmental message?

I honestly felt like this has to be a summer popcorn blockbuster.  The (type) that I love going to when I was a kid, and I didn’t like when anyone preached to me as a kid, so that’s kind of what was in my mind.  I just wanted to treat climate change and all those things the way that the characters would look at it.  So that was my baseline of what I thought I would do with this, and not try to drive home a message, but just present things as reality and let the characters play within that space.

Minari and Twisters, the cinematography? It’s so beautiful when you look at the landscapes.  It’s showing our relationship with nature through these beautiful showcases of land that we’re at risk of losing.  Knowing this was filmed on locations too just adds to the importance.  Was that something you wanted to convey?

God, I love that question.  Just the way you framed it was exactly what I would say to people on the crew all the time.  I’d say “We’re always wanting to portray the things that we are at risk of losing”, and portraying those things with great beauty.  Absolutely.  (And) filming in Oklahoma was a priority for me.  We looked at other locations, but I said I’d love to go back to Oklahoma, where I filmed Minari, and get on the red dirt roads, get out on the pastures, in the fields, and shoot it on film.  All of these things were very much part of the artistic decisions behind how to present this place.

You can tell this has been filmed on film, it just has this look to it that brought me back to the original.  And, apart from the special effects we see, you can just tell the backgrounds are real, and that’s so important in this day and age of filmmaking.  And as you were talking about what you’re relaying on set, you have this cast!  Obviously there’s Glen Powell, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Anthony Ramos…but you have people like Maura Tierney and Katy O’Brian.  All these bit players, but they’re just as important as everyone else.  How was it for you to have this cast at your disposal?  No actor is too small, so to speak, and everyone here has their own personality and their own character, and in a film like this one, we need to care about these people.

It was such a luxury to work with this cast.  I mean, this cast is incredible.  And there were so many scenes where I just wanted each person individually to add something.  To do something.  Just create and let them feel free.  I felt with that first film was when I watched it, I just wanted to be friends with all those people.  Chase tornadoes with them.  Hang out with them.  You could feel that friendship within that film.

With this one, I wanted that to come through.  All the actors knew that that was important, and they hung out a lot in Oklahoma together.  They were together all the time, and we just got along like a family.  I’m hoping that spirit comes through in this movie, and that people will feel it.

Absolutely it came through.  That was one of the things I felt when watching, that I want to chase tornadoes with these people, as crazy as that is.  Thank you so much for bringing a blockbuster like this…this is the reason why we go to the cinemas.

That’s very cool, thank you so much.

Twisters is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.