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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.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.