On paper Warner Bros.' summer '96 adventure Twister has it all: a hot director (Speed's Jan De Bont), a scripter with the Midas touch (Jurassic Park's Michael Crichton, who penned it with his wife, Anne Marie Martin), and a promising cast playing tornado-chasing scientists (Mad About You's Helen Hunt and Apollo 13's Bill Paxton). So when this dust buster touched down in the cornfields near Ames, Iowa, and in wheat fields around Ponca City and Norman, Okla., last summer, the last thing anyone expected it to become was a tempest in a teapot.
In an ironic spin, this movie about two weather junkies racing to reach the eye of a tornado was battered by wind, hail, and genuine funnel clouds. ''The weather,'' says De Bont, ''was not only unpredictable, but incredible. In the morning, it would rain; two hours later there would be sunshine. Then the hard winds would blow.'' But even more damaging than the disputes with the elements were the crew's skirmishes with the Dutch director.
According to sources, the relationship between De Bont and his crew became so strained, the National Weather Service would have been well within its rights to issue an advisory. Much of the rancor stemmed from two incidents: (1) De Bont pushed a camera assistant into the mud after the assistant got in the way of a complicated shot involving wind machines; and (2) a deteriorating relationship between De Bont and Twister's director of photography, Don Burgess (Forrest Gump), reached the boiling point when De Bont allegedly called the team ''incompetent.''
Burgess and more than 20 camera people walked off the set (one source close to the production puts the number as high as 40). The environment became so hostile that according to sources, crew members considered printing T-shirts emblazoned with the director's favorite expletive: ''F---ing hell s---!''
Burgess, who left the production because of creative differences and was replaced by Jack N. Green, declined to comment (the camera assistant has remained anonymous). De Bont who insists his attitude was not abusive but efficient denies making the disparaging remark and offers his own version of the shoving incident. ''With the wind machines it was very loud,'' says De Bont, ''so the crew had to watch my hand signals. I cued action, and he [walked] right in the middle of the scene. We kept losing good performances because of stupid things like that. I don't think I'm a hothead, but I do believe you have to be passionate. These crews get paid well, and when they screw up, I'm going to call them on it.''
The studio's confidence in the film, scheduled to open during the all-important Memorial Day weekend, has not wavered. Execs are said to be encouraged by positive reaction to early footage and by De Bont's ability to bring the film in on budget (nearly $70 million). ''Jan was totally professional,'' says a spokesman for Warner. ''We had repeated screenings and he brought [the film] in early.'' Adds Marvin Levy, spokesman of Amblin Entertainment, the film's production company, ''It is a wonderful piece of work.''
The film's stars are also standing by their director and the movie, despite having incurred cuts and bruises from flying debris during the production. Hunt, who passed up a role in John Travolta's Broken Arrow for Twister, succinctly says that making the movie was "a great experience." Paxton goes a step further: "Sure, there were hardships," he admits. "You don't put a story like this on the screen without paying the freight. Rumors may abound, but come next summer we're gonna blow 'em away." Batten down the hatches.