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Sean Casey Heads Deep Into “Tornado Alley”

Sean Casey Heads Deep Into “Tornado Alley” (photo)

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When Sean Casey set out to make an IMAX movie independent of any of the traditional ways such large-format films are made, people probably thought he was nuts. Then again, Casey does a lot of crazy things.

As one of the stars of the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers,” he demonstrates this on a weekly basis as he criss-crosses the Midwest in a tricked-out armored behemoth known as a Tornado Intercept Vehicle (or TIV for short) actively searching for ways into the eye of the storm to bring it to viewers. The start of production of “Tornado Alley,” Casey’s directorial debut, actually predates his time on television, but has well exceeded it since Casey has spent the last eight years with his team driving 400 miles a day during the height of tornado season searching for the most ferocious ones to put on film. The result is both a chronicle of efforts by the scientific community to better understand the formation of tornadoes — represented by the VORTEX2, which races with the TIV — to extend the warning time the denizens of the area have to clear out, and a document of both the beauty and devastation that results from the funnel clouds.

Still, on the list of things to be possibly committed for, filming a project close to a decade without knowing if and when it would ever be distributed might place a close second to huddling inside a tank and hanging on for dear life while trying to capture that perfect shot for Casey, who recently took time to explain his reasoning, what it’s like to film inside a storm and making an indie IMAX film.

How did this film come together?

I was actually working on an IMAX film called “Amazing Journeys,” so I was actually on a little, teeny island in the Indian Ocean called Christmas Island and we were filming these red crabs that were migrating from the interior jungles of the island down to the sea shore to deposit their eggs. I was there for about 10, 12 weeks and I started to go insane because this island was only four miles by two miles. But they had a public library, so because I was waiting for these little baby crabs to return from the sea, I checked out a book about storm chasing and the idea of this extended road trip chasing extreme weather across the United States really sunk its hooks into me.

It was something I desperately wanted to do, so when I got back to the States, I did some research and found a gentleman by the name of Dr. Josh Wurman, who seemed to be the most active severe weather meteorologist in the field. So I just cold-called him and said, “Hey, I’ve got this IMAX camera. Can I come out and storm chase with you?” He said, “Yeah,” but I’m sure at the time he didn’t know that I’d be a thorn in his side for the next 12 years.

03292011_TornadoAlley2.jpgYou spent eight years on this film alone – was a lot of that just about finding the right tornadoes?

It takes awhile to get extraordinary footage out there not only because we wanted these incredible tornado shots, but we wanted shots of hail bombarding a town – all these shots that can happen out there. That’s why it took so long because not all that stuff happens in one season. It’s very rare you see the kind of hail that’s in the film and it’s rare to see these big, beautiful rotating supercells when they have really nice structure. And then of course seeing these tornadoes, that’s a challenge to film. When you have this IMAX camera because that’s the most unwieldy tool you could ever use to make a documentary, but the great thing about it is the images that it captures and its only saving grace is the stuff that you film will be on a very large screen and the detail in those images is really special.

Is it tough to edit these films since you probably can’t watch the film on an IMAX screen until it’s finished?

We’re editing on relatively small monitors, so it’s quite a different experience when that’s projected and the cost associated with trying to project all that film is cost prohibitive, so you’re taking a very big gulp when you finally start cutting the negative because there’s really no way to gauge how the editing will change when it’s projected on a big screen. You wish there was a process where you could do a cut and then project that cut onto a large screen and say, okay, this shot’s got to be longer. This shot’s got problems, we’ve got to change that.” You really can’t do that in this format. So after you do your cut on the Avid and you cut the negative, you pretty much have to live with what you’ve got up there. There’s a lot of instances where I was thinking, “man, we should’ve stayed on this shot for another 10 seconds or…” But that’s part of doing these IMAX films.

You had previously worked on the IMAX doc “Forces of Nature,” which was also about natural disasters. Did you learn anything from that film that you could incorporate to this one?

That’s when I cut my teeth on “Storm Chasers.” I spent those three years collecting footage for “Forces of Nature” and it was during that project I felt like you know what? In these rented minivans, when that tornado’s coming right at you, we’ve got to get out of there, but you’re seeing the most amazing things right when you have to leave. That’s when the idea came that we need a better tool than a minivan for some of these tornadoes. We need a vehicle that we can film the hail pounding around us and can get in front of these tornadoes and film them and have trees crash around us and feel okay about that. So from “Forces of Nature” came [that] idea…and I wanted to keep chasing. I wanted an excuse to stay out there, so of course, the obvious thing to me was do an IMAX film just on tornadoes [with] footage that no one has ever gotten before.

What is it like to direct something where there’s so many elements you can’t control?

It was huge…because the weather changes so quickly out there, just cutting scenes that were shot in the same day – some of it didn’t match because the lighting changes so drastically when you’re underneath a storm or you’re just off to the side of a storm. There’s so many different variables out there and it’s all happening very, very fast.

03292011_TornadoAlley3.jpgIt’s described in the film what modifications you made to the vehicles to protect yourself in the middle of a storm, but what concessions did you make to actually film things outside of it?

I had to learn how to weld. When we started this project, I had no funds, no money at all. The only thing I had was my father [George Casey, the longtime documentary filmmaker] owned an IMAX camera, so I knew I wasn’t going to have to pay rent on it. That’s the only way this film got made. All I needed now was the right tools to get the footage, so I had to learn how to build TIV 1 and I had to build TIV 2. There was a huge learning curve because I didn’t know how to weld before this. I can build stuff, but these were some big projects. There’s nothing off the shelf that you can buy [for these vehicles], so you have to make it yourself. Just the turret alone, that took me six weeks to make – just the first one, but after I figured out how you make a turret that can rotate and hold an IMAX camera, then the second one only took me about two weeks to make. It was little things too. How do you lock your door? You’re not going to install a normal car lock because it just doesn’t work. You want to make as everything as simple as possible out there because the more complicated the tool you make, the more things can go wrong.

You were doing this all without knowing whether the film would ever see the light of day too, since it was a completely independent production, which is unusual for IMAX since there are so few screens. What was navigating that process like?

That was very difficult. Usually, people start making an IMAX film and they have their funds in place. They’ve got, say, a corporate sponsor, maybe a [National Science Foundation] grant, maybe they have IMAX theaters that have all kind of pitched in and are helping fund a film. For me, I had none of that and I wasn’t aggressively looking for it. People knew what I was doing and in the first two years, I was talking to people, but who’s going to invest in kind of an odd idea? A guy’s going to build a tank and drive into a tornado and film it?

I think a lot of people had concerns about the viability of it and the wisdom in funding a project that’s like a kamikaze operation, so it wasn’t really until two years ago when I had gotten all this footage and I think people got a little used to the madness and thought it was a good idea. So I finally got this company called Giant Screen Films to sign on as the distributor.

The other thing was we really didn’t have a good science element in this film because I was waiting for this VORTEX2 project to get out into the field. They were supposed to get out there in 2006 or 2007, but [the National Science Foundation] didn’t give them funds, so it was only 2009, 2010 that we had the natural science for our film because that was the largest field expedition ever put out there.

03292011_TornadoAlley4.jpgHowever, the central storyline of the film is how the VORTEX 2 and the TIVs race to find the tornadoes — did the film in your head have to evolve considerably when that came into the picture?

When I first started on this idea, I had no idea about VORTEX 2. I just wanted to keep chasing and trying to push my comfort level as far as filming these tornadoes and I knew the story would finally come. Initially, I didn’t really want the TIV to be in an IMAX film at all, but then with “Storm Chasers” and showing what I was doing, at that point, the TIV had to be in the film [since] in a way [it’s] an iconic image.

Still, you have to admit, it’s pretty amazing to see on one of those humongous screens.

They are pretty cool looking. [laughs] I say that now, but hopefully they don’t look dated in 10 years. But we’ll see. I [just] fell completely in love with the power that these storms create – how they miniaturize everything around them in this dramatic, violent fashion. I wasn’t used to that kind of aliveness in the sky. I wanted to capture [that] excitement, and the excitement of the chase and how beautiful weather could be.

“Tornado Alley” is now open in IMAX theaters. A full schedule can be found here.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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