By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Screenwriter John Swetnam is on top of the world. Two of his screenplays have been turned into feature films that will be released this Friday (August 8): Warner Bros’ tornado movie “Into the Storm” and Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment’s 3D dance movie sequel “Step Up: All In.”
Success has been a long time in coming. The film school graduate spent years and years and years writing unproduced screenplays. To make ends meet, he worked various jobs: a waiter at The Olive Garden and various minimum wage soul-sucking occupations.
“I used to work across the street as a building manager,” he says, looking out from a Four Season hotel window to an apartment structure 30 yards away. “I used to unclog toilets there.”
An Air Force brat, who lived all over the world but spent his formative years in Knoxville, says he always was attracted to movies. He initially wanted to be a director, but learned quickly how difficult it was. So he focused on writing. His first script was called “Fifty Yard Gain.” The plot inspired by the East-West football rivalry back home in Tennessee, a dark and twisted love story about a boy and a girl from rival schools. After graduating from Middle Tennessee State (in Murfreesboro), he moved west to Southern California and enrolled at Chapman University, where he earned a Master’s degree in screenwriting. With his degree in hand, he headed north to L.A. in search of fame and fortune. He penned 16 unproduced screenplays over the next nine years. Frustrated, he eventually made a risky financial decision: he put $50,000 on his credit card to make a short film called “Evidence,” a crime drama using “found footage.”
“It turned out pretty decent and it got me a manager and an agent,” recalls Swetnam. “Todd Garner, the producer of ‘Into the Storm,’ saw it, and he wanted to do a tornado movie that used the found-footage device.”
Though he had lived through several pretty nasty storms in Tennessee and elsewhere, Swetnam wasn’t quite familiar with the science of tornadoes. He jokes that he was so unfamiliar with that weather phenomenon that he originally called his screenplay “Category 6,” which refers to a hurricane’s strength, not a tornado’s.
His source materials for his first draft were videos of actual tornadoes he saw on YouTube. He used screen grabs from those videos to illustrate his script. He also met with a UCLA meteorologist to correct the factual errors in that draft. The film stars Richard Armitage (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”), Sarah Wayne Callies (“The Walking Dead”), Matt Walsh (“Ted”) and Max Deacon (“Hatfields & McCoys”).
Swetnam recently spoke about writing “Into the Storm” and “Step Up: All In” and what is ahead.
Q: Do you have any firsthand experience with tornadoes?
Swetnam: In Tennessee, there are tornadoes all the time. We’d have eight or nine siren warnings. It was crazy. So I knew, immediately, how to do it. It wasn’t like I was fascinated with tornadoes. It was that they wanted to do a tornado movie with some kind of POV, to get into the middle of it. I just knew what to do. Literally, the first script I wrote in four days or something. It was just like “boom,” I could tell the story. So it wasn’t like “I must make a tornado movie.” It was more like, “I must eat! So I’ll write this tornado movie.” (He chuckles.) I’m a huge fan of technology and trends and stuff. Ten years ago if you said tornado movie, I’d think “Twister.”
Q: What’s been the response from would-be moviegoers so far?
Swetnam: I’ve already gotten a lot of hate mail like, “You hack! You stole ‘Twister.’” But it’s not at all that. Just because it involves tornadoes, it’s not the same. If that were the case, you couldn’t make more than one basketball movie or different World War II movies.
Q: If they hate you, you must be doing something good.
Swetnam: Exactly, and I’ve got lots of haters! So I must be killin’ it. When Todd said he wanted a point-of-view/found footage movie, the first image I had was YouTube, because I’d seen a bunch of clips of actual tornadoes. When I wrote the script, I put pictures of what each looked like on the page. Like, where we have the firenado, I had a picture of an actual firenado. Then, on the next page, I’d have five roped tornadoes, and a picture of that would be on the following page. Every tornado was based on an image from YouTube. The pictures sold the movie. The writing did not do it. The young audience I write to see things differently now. When I see a fight scene in my head, it’s not (trained fighting) like you seen in “The Bourne (Identity)” movies. It’s a sloppy thing on YouTube like World Star Fights, non-professionals hitting each other.
Q: What do you think of the finished film? Is it what you imagined when you were writing it?
Swetnam: It’s so much cooler than I though it would be. Normally, you write a movie and you have this vision in your head, and it turns out not nearly as good as the vision. But this one turned out way cooler. It’s not so much found footage, but it’s more POV. Every camera can be explained. You can explain them but people don’t care anymore. When I wrote the script, I think I had 70 cameras in the script. It would be like, “Security camera. Cut to this.” I thought people needed to be reminded that it was all from the camera’s viewpoint. Then, (director) Steven Quale just edited it to make a great movie. You didn’t need to explain which camera it was.
Q: So why no sharks (like in “Sharknado 2”)?
Swetnam: In my mind, real tornadoes don’t need sharks.
Q: Did you ever go through a tornado?
Swetnam: Yeah. I’ve also had friends in some devastating tornadoes. The movie’s about having fun. I think it has a good heart.
Q: How do you feel about this coming out the same day as “Step Up: All In?”
Swetnam: It’s crazy! And I start directing my movie two days after they open. I feel like lightning is going to strike me soon. I’m bringing three of my buddies out from Tennessee to the premiere. They know it’s not exploitative. My intent was never about that. I had three things posted above my computer when I was writing this: inspirational, tornado and point of view. My dream was to write something that embraced all of those things. Even if you’ve been in a devastating tornado, I hope that you would be able to see this and enjoy it. It’s a fun movie and, because of the casting, it has a lot of heart.
Q: Where do you consider home?
Swetnam: I’m an Air Force kid so I bounced around. I lived in East Tennessee, just outside of Knoxville, for years. That’s where I went to high school. The two guys that are coming to the premiere with me are from there. Then, we went to college together in Murfreesboro. I’ve lived in Tennessee and I go back there three or four times a year. My mom and my new dad live in Jefferson City. I was born in South Carolina, and then I lived in Japan, England, all over Maine. We moved once every three years. It was a wild life.
Q: How do you feel about your success?
Swetnam: It’s strange and surreal. I literally tattooed on my chest “Be Grateful Every Day.” I had that tattooed after I sold the script for (“Into the Storm”). You can’t become jaded. That’s why I literally have it on my chest, because I don’t want to turn into someone like that ain’t me. I’m from Tennessee. I’m tight with my friends from back home. If you don’t remember the hustle and hard work, then (the success) isn’t fun.
Q: What’s next for you?
Swetnam: I’m about to direct my first (feature-length) movie, “Breaking Through.” There’s some kind of new language happening. It used to be when MTV emerged, it was all about quick cuts, but I don’t think that’s it anymore. Kids don’t see things that way. It’s another dance movie but with found footage, so I’m kind of merging my worlds. John Legend’s producing it and he’s doing the music with me. It merges YouTube and the Internet and all that stuff. We just got financed so we’re shooting in a week.