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Movies Are a Break From Real Tornado Science

INTERVIEW

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 1996



BOSTON

Many a meteorologist is tut-tutting over this season's crop of tornado films, from Hollywood blockbuster "Twister" to Fox TV's more modest "Tornado."

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Some worry aloud (or via e-mail) that thrill-seeking viewers will try running down tornadoes themselves. Others write long, derisive messages hooting at dialogue that mangles weather jargon and scientific explanations as badly as a twister mangles a corn field.

Amid all the criticism, one might think Paul Sirvatka would be a bit defensive these days. Dr. Sirvatka, a meteorology professor at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellen, Ill., served as technical adviser to Fox's "Tornado." Yet Sirvatka says he enjoyed the experience - despite bloopers in the final production. The folks in Hollywood "are telling a story, not making a documentary," he says. "I've seen real [National] Weather Service products with as many errors."

The screenplay's original writer came from the Glen Ellen area, Sirvatka says, and as the screenplay took shape, Sirvatka's name came up as one who could provide guidance on technical details.

"He wanted to hear our jargon and talk about how storms act," Sirvatka recalls. The script was finished early last fall, and shooting began in March. Everyone was pushing to beat "Twister" to the screen, he says.

"I did the best I could to make things as realistic as possible," Sirvatka says. Yet despite the time spent with writers and producers, he adds, the directors and editors dropped some of his suggestions "for story reasons."

"I had to learn to accept that," he says.

In other cases, actors flubbed their lines during taping. For example, Sirvatka notes, the crew and scriptwriters went to a lot of trouble to match the intensity rating of the tornadoes in the stock footage with the rating assigned to them in the dialogue.

The rating system, known as the Fujita scale, is based on damage and ranges from 0 to 5. In the dialogue, however, one of the actors described the scale as 1 to 5. "That was one big gaffe I wish they'd remedied," Sirvatka says.

Sirvatka attributes many of the errors to the rushed shooting schedule. But whatever the mistakes, he credits "Tornado" with having a realistic plot: meteorologists squeezed by funding cuts and caught in rivalries with ratings-hungry TV weathercasters.

That, he says, is much more plausible than "Twister's" good chaser vs. bad chaser antagonists. That portrayal is laughable, he adds, when held up against the VORTEX project, a two-year, tornado-research effort that involved more than 75 scientists from 11 universities, as well as from federal agencies in the US and Canada.

Despite the criticism "Tornado" has received from colleagues, Sirvatka remains unbowed. Noting that many in his field may be underestimating the ability of most moviegoers to distinguish between story telling and Meteorology 101, he adds, "If people get their science from Hollywood, then we're in more trouble than we think."

Would he answer another screenwriter's call? "Oh yeah! I would definitely do something like that again."