Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait
Steve Daly
May 17, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Bill Paxton was staring at a hotel bedspread in Iowa last July when he realized something was very wrong with his eyes. ”The room was there, but at the same time it wasn’t there,” he recalls. Paxton was halfway through filming Twister, the action epic in which he and Mad About You‘s Helen Hunt star as a husband and wife whose quarrelsome tornado-chasing partnership has torn apart their marriage. That day, he and Hunt had been sitting in the cab of a truck shooting close-ups, each of which had been exactingly lit with exceedingly bright electric lamps by crews working for director Jan De Bont, the Dutch cinematographer who’d turned Hollywood auteur with his previous movie, the $300 million-grossing international hit Speed.

”Those lights, they were like sun balls,” says Paxton in his genial, broad-as-a-barn Texas twang. ”They had to pump light into the cab to get the exposure down, to make the sky behind us look dark, stormy. Because it was too bright outside. And these things literally sunburned our eyeballs. I got back to my room, I couldn’t see.”

Neither could Helen Hunt. The joint diagnosis, by a local ophthalmologist and a UCLA eye specialist that the Twister company consulted: Both Paxton and Hunt had been temporarily blinded by the enormous outpouring of illumination. A Plexiglas filter in front of the beams solved the problem; meanwhile, the actors took eyedrops and wore special glasses for a few days to recuperate. There was no permanent damage.

EW

”You know how old people wear those shades after they get cataract operations?” asks Paxton, who will turn 41 this week. ”That was us. Pretty scary.” But being keen to ride Twister to stardom after a winning performance in last summer’s Apollo 13, Paxton sees no evil when he looks back at the shoot-first, ask-questions-later modus operandi. ”It wasn’t something you wanted to continue doing, but we weren’t in any real danger,” he says. ”Fortunately, I’m oven tempered for flexible strength.”

Given De Bont’s hard-driving production style, flexibility and strength were essential casting requirements. ”We all got bruises and cuts,” says Cary Elwes, who plays a malicious scientific foe determined to beat the Paxton and Hunt characters’ posse to each breaking storm. ”But compared with Helen and Bill, I had an easy time of it.” De Bont was apparently all too willing to test his actors’ endurance and trust to give the film the photo-realist edge he wanted. Twister was a far bigger, more technically complex project than the $30 million Speed, and De Bont, 52, jumped hurriedly into the production after departing TriStar’s Godzilla when he and the studio couldn’t agree on the film’s already enormous budget (he’d spent more than half a year on preproduction when he left). De Bont says Twister cost close to $70 million; of that, $2 million to $3 million reportedly went to the director. Other handicappers speculate that last-minute reshoots in March and April (mainly to clarify a scene about Hunt’s character as a child) and overtime requirements in postproduction and at Lucasfilm’s special-effects shop, ILM, raised the price to the level of Speed times three.

Because so many of Twister‘s tornado-chasing scenes ultimately had to be shot in bright sunlight when Mother Nature didn’t provide overcast skies, De Bont asked ILM to more than double its original plan for 150 “digital sky-replacement” shots. “Jan told us, With 150 shots, that’s not a tornado movie,” says visual-effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. “That’s a movie with tornado sequences.” The increased workload, says visual-effects producer Kim Bromley Carson, meant that Twister‘s scheduled April 29 effects delivery date was “as close to drop-dead as it gets” — especially after Warner Bros. moved up Twister‘s release from May 17 to May 10, giving it two lucrative weekends before Paramount’s Mission: Impossible opens.

Seeding the clouds for Twister‘s story was an equally frantic affair. The movie credits the screenplay solely to Michael Crichton and his wife, Anne-Marie Martin; they were paid a reported $2.5 million for a script that De Bont considered only “an indication of possibilities.” Revisions began with Joss Whedon, who’d done an uncredited overhaul of Speed, rewriting through the early spring of 1995. When Whedon got bronchitis, Steven Zaillian (the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenwriter who, ironically, also had a hand in Mission: Impossible) took a crack. Then a barely convalescent Whedon returned, churning out upgrades right through the start of shooting last May. “I turned in my last pages on June 24th, I believe,” he says. “That’s the date I got married. I had to say, ‘I hope you like this, because I am leaving the country now for a honeymoon.'” Even before that, two weeks into production, a third hand, Jeff Nathanson, had been flown to the set. He stayed there until the movie wrapped.

“Oh, we were rewriting till the last day,” says De Bont cheerfully. Says Paxton: “We were always trying to catch these weather windows and cut-and-pasting the script. A lot of people were panicking, and Jan had to keep his head. He held it together.” De Bont also faced the unenviable task of topping Speed‘s extraordinarily kinetic vehicular chases with Twister‘s breezes — not an easy dramatic challenge. In his drive to make Twister the event of the pre-Memorial Day movie season, did De Bont scoff at risks and stomp etiquette? Absolutely, say many of the Twister stories whirling out of Hollywood. Not since Waterworld have so many phones buzzed with talk of weather worries (due to both torrential rains and inappropriately sunny skies) and a director who, according to crew members who left five weeks into filming, was “out of control.”

Even vegetables conspired against the film. “One morning,” says ILM’s Bromley Carson, “we came on set and all the corn had grown these little tassels overnight. So nothing was going to match.” A pained visiting executive turned to her and asked, “Are we making Wheatworld?”

Of course, some of the rumormongering was so much hot air, the standard schadenfreude of Hollywood hyperbole. (“Helen Hunt destroyed her corneas!” said one thrice-removed observer.) But Hunt herself confirms that the set was never less than one big high-pressure system.

“It certainly wasn’t less grueling than I expected,” says the 32-year-old actress, her brow knit in that irresistibly plaintive, Jamie Buchman way. “I mean, the mere fact that Jan hired me is ridiculous. Everyone was telling him, You can’t put an $80 million movie on the line because Helen has to go back to her TV show in August. Even big-budgeted action movies that are under control, you’ve got to allow for them going over. Jan was like, ‘I’m doing it.'” In the end, the Twister shoot was extended because Paul Reiser was willing to delay filming for Mad About You by two and a half weeks.

At first, as Hunt talks of 93 shooting days marked by blistering heat waves that sorely taxed her long-haired pet Samoyed, Johnny, she seems resolutely upbeat. Her perfect skin is tan from a trip to Mexico, and she’s been in New York City with her boyfriend, actor Hank Azaria (best known these days as The Birdcage‘s houseboy, “Agador-Spartacus”). Her grayish-green eyes look dandy and undamaged. But as she cordially parries the war-story anecdotes blowing around the studio commissaries, Hunt begins to look haunted.

Is it true that she and Paxton had to have hepatitis shots after filming in a ditch crawling with bacteria? Yep. Did she smack her blond pate repeatedly on a low wooden bridge while shooting the same sequence, evidently so exhausted that she kept forgetting she shouldn’t stand up so quickly? Pretty much, yes. And didn’t De Bont’s oft-spoken desire to put his actors “as close as possible” to the action lead her to do a few shots she now thinks better of? Yes again, especially one stunt in which Hunt opened the door of a vehicle that was speeding through a cornfield, stood up on the passenger side, and then — clonk— got the door full in the side of the head when she let it go momentarily. As Paxton describes it, “Ka-WHAM! Hel-lo, wake-up call! Boing, check, please! That ended that day’s shooting. It scared the hell out of her, and I don’t blame her for being upset. We did it again, but with a piece of railing holding the door open.”

Some secondhand sources say Hunt got a full-blown concussion. She won’t discuss the details, but she acknowledges the mishap. “God, you’re reminding me how brutal it was,” she frets. “Who’m I kidding? It was totally brutal.” She recalls that she felt like a dazed refugee when she went back to Mad About You straight from Twister‘s final Oklahoma locations. At least, though, she found a decompression confidant in Paul Reiser. “More than anybody,” she says, “Paul knows and understands how much I hate to be hit in the head.”

What Hunt appears to dislike just as much is an offhand suggestion, made by De Bont in a separate interview, that she was the architect of some of her own mishaps. “She hurt herself a couple of times, yeah,” says the director, his crisp Euro-accent and piercing, slate blue eyes giving him a simultaneously charming and authoritarian air. “I love Helen to death, but you know, she can be also a little bit clumsy, sometimes.” Meaning? “She hit her head so hard on that bridge, over and over again. I couldn’t believe it. She was just so into the scene, she forgot. One time she almost fainted, she hit it so hard. And there was one other time she got hurt a little bit…she was supposed to hold a [car] door and when the shot was over, she kind of forgot the door was still there. It banged. It wasn’t very hard.”

Perhaps a man who immediately insisted “I’m fine” after being clocked by a Twister camera — and once had his scalp torn open by a lion while shooting a 1981 adventure film called Roar — can’t help sounding comparatively blasé talking about any injuries, but it doesn’t sit well with his leading lady. “Clumsy?” says Hunt, head cocked, brow furrowed again. “The guy burned my retinas, but I’m clumsy.” She never raises her voice above a sitcom-sassy retort, but judging by her narrowing eyelids, she’s peeved. “The thing about me is, I have all the courage of a stunt person, but I don’t have all the talent. If you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson, and you’ve done 9,000 action movies, you’re used to everything blowing up. I wasn’t. It was new for me. The last day of shooting, Jan took me aside and said, ‘I love working with strong women, and you were very strong.’ I thought I was a good sport. I don’t know ultimately if Jan chalks me up as that or not, but one would hope so.”

Exactly how Hollywood chalks up Jan De Bont himself in the wake of these stories depends on which prevailing breeze you cock an ear to. Judging by his next assignment — he’s deep in preproduction on Twentieth Century Fox’s Speed 2, which is scheduled to start filming in Miami in September with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock — De Bont’s action-auteur badge gleams as brightly as ever. And if Twister sucks in the $100 million everyone expects it to, says one De Bont detractor, the studios “will continue to put on blinders when they turn somebody like him loose.” Perhaps the strongest ill wind emanates, understandably, from the camera crew that departed Twister in its fifth week. Heading that crew was Don Burgess, a respected director of photography who shot Forrest Gump and, after Twister, went on to film Paxton’s next picture, the Terms of Endearment sequel, The Evening Star.

A member of the original photography team describes one of their main resentments as a sense that “De Bont didn’t know what he wanted till he saw it. He would shoot one direction, with all the equipment behind the view of the camera, and then he’d want to shoot in the other direction right away and we’d have to move [everything] and he’d get angry that we took too long…And it was always everybody else’s fault, never his.”

De Bont professes no animus toward Burgess’ crew, but he doesn’t share their view. “We had to make schedules for at least three different scenes every day, because the weather changed that often,” the director says. “Don had trouble adjusting to that.” Burgess’ crew insists that if anything, their man has a reputation for quickness; apparently he shortened the recent Executive Decision shoot schedule after being brought in to back up another cinematographer. Regardless, counters De Bont, “the studio was unhappy that we didn’t get more done, and they kind of [gave] me an ultimatum: Either you start taking scenes out, which I didn’t want to do in particular, or you get on schedule.”

By the time De Bont knocked over a camera assistant who had missed a cue — an easy mistake, say Burgess partisans, given the multiple camera setups and constant, deafening wind-machine noise on the set — the Burgess-De Bont alliance was finished. The divorce announcement shocked the cast. “We were blindsided,” says Hunt, “because the conflicts, to both men’s credit, were kept away from us.” Burgess and his camera operators, assistants, and grips stayed one week more while a replacement was found in Jack N. Green, a steady hand on many Clint Eastwood films, including The Bridges of Madison County, A Perfect World, and Unforgiven.

“I’ve seen a lot more difficult directors to work with than Jan,” says Green, “and I’ve seen a lot easier directors. He’s socially an extremely congenial person. He has a wonderful family and his wife is so sweet. But he focuses so intensely on his job, he’s extremely demanding…and this picture had some of the most difficult [conditions] of any I’ve worked on. You combine all these elements — rain, hail, wind, debris — with his call for five cameras on a small setup and up to 13 cameras on a larger setup, and your level of concentration has to be intense.”

De Bont’s insistence on using multiple cameras — he wanted a “documentary look” — led him to expose a staggering 1.3 million feet of raw film for Twister (whole movies are often completed with no more than 300,000 feet), a count so sizable that Eastman Kodak bought the production champagne. The actors, though, weren’t completely bubbly at what that aesthetic meant for life on the set. “When there’s one camera rolling, everybody’s attention is, How do we get everything we want into this one frame and keep it safe?” says Hunt. “When you’ve got four cameras going, everybody’s focus is split. Then add to that the fact that once the wind machines were on, nobody could hear anybody. You couldn’t say, don’t roll, the person’s not out of the way, or hold on, I need to check this again.”

Just before the end of the shoot, lensman Green himself was injured when a hydraulic house set, designed to collapse on cue, was mistakenly activated with him inside it and a rigged ceiling hit him in the head. “Wrong place, wrong time,” he says. “I had a back injury and had to go to the hospital. I missed the last two days. But on something like this, you’re not going to come out of it without some bumps and bruises.” With Green sidelined, De Bont took over and wrapped the movie as his own director of photography.

“That’s Jan, man, right there with that hundred-millimeter lens,” says Paxton. “He’d put these big-ass huge Panavision cameras so tight on us. I’d say to Helen, ‘Hey, look out. That thing’ll take your head off.'” Or maybe make your career.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Wells.

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