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.
''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.