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Short Films in Focus: Twisted

I have to admit this month’s installment is a bit of an indulgence on my part. The description alone made this film a front-runner for Short Films In Focus. It’s about drive-ins and tornadoes. I have a fondness and fascination with both. Clearly, director Jay Cheel does, too. Many people believe drive-in movie theaters no longer exist, but I know of at least four in Illinois alone. There are a few still holding on and have even survived into the digital age. I try to visit them in the summertime whenever the long drive seems worth the effort (good weather and a pair of good  or fun/bad movies).

But Cheel’s film is not about the survival of these establishments, but rather how mother nature caused some major destruction. “Twisted” tells of an urban legend that developed in Thorold, Ontario at the Can-View Drive-In where, legend has it, a tornado touched down and destroyed one of the four screens, which happened to be showing the 1997 blockbuster “Twister” at the time of destruction. Witnesses recall seeing characters in the film running away from a twister while heavy winds picked up and slowly did damage. However, the staff and other witnesses remember that evening much differently. Actually, no movies played that night. The theater closed early. Also, the screen that had been destroyed was not the one that would have played “Twister.” 

Cheel’s film is about memory and how we sometimes manufacture a memory because it seems plausible and that the version of that memory we store in our heads will not go away. At first, the testimonials of the witnesses who swear “Twister” played on the screen during the tornado sound no less credible than the owners of the drive-in who say otherwise. Who is to be believed? The owners appear to have no reason to deny the story, but the other witnesses sometimes question the validity of their own memory. If it didn’t happen, why do they remember it happening? It’s a deeper conundrum than just one person’s word against another and Cheel is up to the task of exploring that without coming up with any definitive answers (he does, however, round it out with a fun little punchline at the end).  

“Twisted” is a beautiful looking documentary that fools its audience into believing that it will be another doc about a bygone era, with its clever use of Roy Orbison’s “Try To Remember” as the camera drifts through the empty parking lots with dilapidated movie screens. The interview subjects are charming enough. Having a local journalist in there who seems on the fence about what had to be reported makes a good through-line for the viewer. Cheel also does a phenomenal job of recreating what it might have looked like if “Twister” had been playing as a tornado destroyed a movie screen. It makes for a compelling memory that one wishes were true. 

And hey, maybe it is. We would love to believe in this kind of cosmic coincidence. Tornadoes have destroyed drive-ins before, but during that movie? Whatever the case, the urban legend is out there and some will choose to believe it. Some won’t. Perhaps best of all, Cheel has made a documentary that will have you thinking about your own distorted memories and also make you want to visit a drive-in soon, no matter what the weather. 

How did you hear about this urban legend?

Having grown up in the area, I'd always been aware of it through stories shared by friends and acquaintances who said they knew somebody who knew somebody who was there when it happened. I think generally it was thought of as an urban legend, but due to the fact that a storm did actually hit the theatre, there has always been some confusion about where the truth ends and the legend begins.

Did your viewpoint change in any way after making the film? What do you think happened?

I think I had the same viewpoint going in as I did by the end of it; that it's a GREAT story that's been shared by many people and only gets better every time it's shared. As for whether it happened, I don't think so. But that doesn't make me want to stop believing that it could have!

How did you go about re-creating the drive-in destruction during “Twister”?

We had access to the Can View Drive-In and its staff for two nights, so we brought in rain, wind, and lightning machines and had some fun with those. The screen itself was destroyed using some CG. It was a lot of fun, but a very cold shoot as we had to wait until the drive in season was nearly over so we could have access to the place on a night in which it was closed to the public.

What was their (the drive-in staff) feeling on the project?

I think the staff was thrilled to be a part of it both in terms of having this story told but also taking part in the filming. There are a lot of film fans that work at that place and it was great having them involved. It's a passionate crew of people and one of the best local businesses in town. I go there nearly every weekend throughout the summer and do whatever I can to support them in hopes that they'll stick around for a long time. The drive-in theatre is nearly extinct, so I'm always grateful to still have this one that's been with us for so many years.

What went into the decision of leaving in the drone camera accident (I’m guessing that’s what that was)?

We were getting some aerial shots of the drive-in and the drone got a little too close to the trees. It crashed there and we spent about an hour trying to figure out how to get it down, but ultimately it was left overnight until we could hire somebody to fetch it. I was able to review low res previews of the footage before we got the drone back and knew immediately that we could use the take. I had already filmed my interview with John Mitterer, so it was a great happy accident when I discovered that line about me having control over my camera. Now it's become a moment in the film that most people seem to talk about, which is great.

What’s next for you?

I'm currently working on a three-part documentary series for the streaming horror service Shudder. I'm also developing another feature doc and working on a screenplay. For those who enjoyed "Twisted," you can also check out my previous feature docs "How to Build a Time Machine" and "Beauty Day."

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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