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When ‘Twister’ Came to My Hometown

A Hollywood production came to Ponca City, Oklahoma, in the summer of 1995 to make a movie about the destructive power of tornadoes. It seemed strange, to one teenager at least, to tell a story about such a mundane detail of life.

Harrison Freeman

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

In May 1995, right after I graduated from high school, a Hollywood film crew moved to my hometown, Ponca City, Oklahoma, to shoot Twister. Nothing like this had ever happened to Ponca City before and it was strange that it was happening now, right when I, the center of the known universe, was about to leave for college. Like most of my friends, I’d fantasized about moving away for as long as I could remember. What I craved, what I wanted more than anything, was “culture.” We thought of Ponca City as this podunk little nowhere, which it basically was, and we imagined our lives taking place somewhere “relevant,” meaning, I guess, a city where you might bump into a movie star while browsing the poetry shelf at a cool bookstore, the kind where you could order a cup of coffee right there in the shop. Now—before we’d even gone out in search of them—the movie stars were coming to us.

I had a summer job at an old local bank, First National, which exhibited a stately, windowless green facade to the gun shops, Western-wear emporia, and empty storefronts on Grand Avenue. Being a teller meant that I interacted with people all day long (that is, till 4 p.m., when the bank closed), and my whole first week, all anyone wanted to talk about was Twister. I’d cash their social security checks and take their deposits and shake out their purple velvet Crown Royal bags full of loose change into the coin-counting machine and give them back $32 in paper money—“Can you break that up into fives and ones?” they’d say; and then, “Thanks, slick”—and we’d talk about the movie people and their doings. Everyone had a story. Everyone had seen Bill Paxton at the bowling alley or knew someone who had. People came in to share their tidbits and talk about who was nice and who wasn’t. I found myself at the center of a local celebrity-gossip industry that had never buzzed like this before, because it had not existed.

I hadn’t seen any Hollywood people myself, and that whole summer, I never did, but I knew everything that happened with them, or at least everything everyone said happened. Early on a story went around that Helen Hunt had called the police on some kids who were trying to look through the window of the house she’d rented. (We all knew where the house was; the world’s most vicious paparazzi have nothing on a small town when it comes to sniffing out secrets.) According to the rumor, the kids hadn’t technically trespassed. They lived next door and were peeping over their own fence. Because of this exonerating detail, people felt Helen Hunt had overreacted. A wave of anti–Helen Hunt sentiment spread throughout the First National lobby, reaching as far as the small-business loans department. Fame had obviously gone to her head. She was no longer a regular person. Resting their huge purses on the counter, old churchgoing ladies would inform me that Helen Hunt was a “you-know-what,” then clarify that a you-know-what was a “b-i-t-c-h,” and then fiercely but soundlessly mouth the word “bitch.”

My two fellow tellers, Celine and Liz, were both in their 50s. They’d both worked at the bank for years. Celine in particular had no patience for what she perceived to be Helen Hunt’s pompous showbiz airs. The sharpest and most accurate of the tellers, the one whose cash drawer balanced to the penny at the end of each day, she felt that if God had meant to raise some people over others, He would have given them stilts at birth. Derisively, she took to calling her nemesis “Miz Helen.” “What some of these movie people need to understand,” she said, “is that they put their pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. Even”—she raised her eyebrows while she flicked through a stack of twenties—“even Miz Helen.”

“Actually,” I said, “I heard that in Hollywood people kind of hold their pants out in front of them and jump in with both legs at once.”

“Lord,” Celine said.

Every night, I stayed out late with my friends, all of us conscious that our little group was about to disperse. Every morning, I crawled—one leg at a time, if that—into khakis and dragged myself to the First National lobby, where I went into the vault and signed out a drawer containing the tens of thousands of cash dollars that the bank had seen fit to entrust me, a teenager, with. I set up my window, with its noisy adding machine, its tub of fingertip moistener, and its bowl of rubber bands. Then I spent the day making change for sunburned men in denim vests who smelled like lawnmower parts, swapping movie gossip, and listening to local car dealers and personal-injury lawyers bullshit each other at full volume: “Stan! Who let you in here? Hey, who let this old son of a bitch in here? They oughta hire a guard, keep out the riffraff.”

“Hey buddy, you workin’ hard or hardly workin’?”

“Hey man, when we gon’ get out to the club, play us some holes. I was just noticin’ my wallet felt a little light.”

“Shit, Russ, I been married 23 years, mine’s always light.”

It was strange enough that Ponca City was being used as a home base for a film production. To my friends and me, it was even stranger that they were making a movie about tornadoes—a movie not only set in Oklahoma but centered, literally, on the weather. Our stupid weather! This was completely confounding. It was like finding out Steven Spielberg wants to produce a hundred-million-dollar blockbuster about your parents’ dishwasher.

In theory—sure, of course—you could describe tornadoes in a way that made them seem interesting. Unbridled forces of destruction and all that. To me, though, they were like giant trucks and oil wells, just another fact of life I was trying to flee en route to someplace more interesting. They belonged to the mundane world of low, little towns clustered around tall white water tanks. We’d studied the sublime in English class, the awe and terror nature’s power can inspire in the souls of fragile humanity, and that was an exciting idea to me because British poets had felt it. But I wasn’t dumb—I knew the sublime didn’t happen in Oklahoma. Like, come on. The sublime happened in important places, in Europe, and the Northeast. Maybe a little bit of sublime occasionally broke out in California, near the coast.

Tornadoes were like the commercial country music of weather. They were unstoppable but in no way thrilling. We’d been dealing with them, hiding from them, our whole lives.

Once, twice, three times a year, for as long as we could remember, the air would darken and deepen, the sky would change color, and a siren would start to wail. This meant we had to get to a shelter. If we were at school, we’d line up and parade downstairs, where we’d sit on the floor next to the thickest walls while shushing teachers paced back and forth. If we were at home, we’d go to our own basements or storm cellars—though surprisingly few people had either—or else we’d drive to a designated bunker. This was normally the nearest elementary school because in Tornado Alley, they built cafeterias underground. I remember the strange after-hours feeling of being stuck in the school when the school was closed, being stuck in the school with my family, being stuck in the school when I didn’t even go to that school anymore. Playing catch with crushed paper water cups to pass the time until the hail stopped clattering, and the radio said we could go home.

Much more often—almost any time it rained in Oklahoma City—our TV shows would be interrupted by breathless, overeager weathermen, fidgety TV sprites with names like “Galen Broward” or “Chase Bellroy.” Why did weathermen’s names always sound like two place names stuck together? (Not kidding; if you ever want to code a foolproof Fictional Midwestern Weatherman Generator, just write a script to grab two or three names off the Oklahoma counties list. Hello, I’m Logan Garfield, coming to you live from our state-of-the-art NEXRAD center with my colleagues Noble Lincoln, McClain Mayes Latimer, and Grady Adair.) Why would you pre-empt The Simpsons for those guys, much less make a movie about them?

A tornado might be powerful, frightening, dangerous; it might be a force that carved scars in the earth and ripped towns in half. I just didn’t see how it could be a story, when it was so obvious what stories were. Stories were things that happened somewhere else.

The summer went by. People got used to living with the movie around. The white male stars—i.e., very nearly the entire cast of the film—for some reason seemed to feel easier and more welcome in town than Helen Hunt did, and they spent a lot of time out and about. They got a reputation for being regular dudes. The cast of Twister looks so crazy in retrospect. Todd Field, who directed In the Bedroom and Little Children, is in Twister. Alan Ruck is in there, a decade post–Ferris Bueller, more than two decades pre-Succession. The wildest thing to me now is that Philip Seymour Hoffman is in Twister, meaning Philip Seymour Hoffman and I probably spent weeks or months living in the same small Oklahoma town in the summer of 1995. At the time, though, no one gave a shit about Philip Seymour Hoffman, because no one knew who that was.

Cary Elwes would go shopping at the bookstore where a couple of my friends worked. They got to know him a little. Just imagine, they’d say. You’re going about your shift. You’re shelving Pet Sematary ahead of The Tommyknockers or whatever. And who should stroll in but your old regular customer, Westley from The Princess Bride! The Dread Pirate Roberts! Zero percent dead! The villain in Twister, he was an excellent sport in the fiction aisle at Brace Books N’ More. This was true even though the store was not yet serving coffee, and would not start doing so, if my memory serves, for another six or so months.

At a certain point, the word went out that Twister was looking for extras. They were shooting B-roll footage nearby and needed Ponca Citians to stand in the background and be townspeople. Well, we should be able to handle that. People were extremely tickled at the thought of appearing in a movie. Sign-up instructions were passed around the bank lobby. A lot of my friends put their names down. I didn’t, because I had decided to process the cognitive dissonance Twister presented me with by writing off Twister as stupid. (I was not wrong about that, exactly, though my reasons were terrible. You could translate that phrase into Latin and paint it on my personal crest.)

I think I also avoided Twister because I was nervous. Not about the movie; about everything. The fact was that I was scared out of my mind to leave home, the very thing I most wanted to do. This is an old story, of course, but it was new to me. By August, I knew how many days remained not only until I got on the plane but until each of my friends left town. We counted down the summer in a series of artificially cheerful goodbyes. We do such strange things with our lives. Hardly anyone ever moved back. All of this seemed a lot more important to me than some movie about Bill Paxton getting hit with a flying cow (we were hazy on the details of the plot).

Not long ago, I watched Twister for the first time since I saw it in the theater. Very little of it brought back any of the feeling of the summer of 1995 to me, though, of course, that was never Twister’s purpose. (That said, what else do we mean when we say we’re “nostalgic” for a movie? What is it that we miss?) The movie is a lot of fairly garden-variety male-protagonist worship—Bill Paxton’s character communes with tornadoes by running dirt through his fingers; everyone is constantly talking about how he has a mystical connection to storms, etc. etc. etc.—wrapped up in some extremely shaky physics with a touch of boilerplate ’90s alt-culture lip service thrown in. Cary Elwes, the “evil” meteorologist, is morally bankrupt because he took funding from the corporations, man, and “cares about the money, not the science.” (Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin were reportedly paid $2.5 million to write the script for the film, which made more than $494 million for its producers at the box office.)

There was one scene that did kind of feel like that summer, though. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, intrepid as ever, have rushed off ahead of their science team and are trapped in the path of a monster tornado. It’s bearing down on them, unimaginably huge, roaring so violently that I’m afraid my ’90s self, writing for a ’90s Ringer, would have compared it to, like, a Soundgarden riff. (The Mudhoney of tornadoes!) If our heroes want to live to analyze wind another day, they have to flee now, but at the last second, Helen foolishly decides to run right at the tornado. She’s absolutely terrified, she’s shaking, but that’s the power of the sublime. You want to lose yourself in it. “I want to see it,” she says. “I want to see it.” The fact that I felt some version of this horror-struck compulsion about moving to Massachusetts, rather than flinging myself into the annihilating embrace of an F5 superstorm, probably says everything about how sheltered and helpless I was. But then, that’s why art exists: to remake our most humiliating secret feelings into very expensive metaphors generated by Industrial Light & Magic.

My friends told me later about the day when they got to be extras. They drove out to a field somewhere. Makeup artists fixed them up with bloody wounds. Costume assistants put bandages on them. They had gauze wrapped around their heads. They were playing the victims of a storm. Tornadoes had been trying to kill us through our whole childhoods, and now, the second we’d grown up, Hollywood was here to finish the job. The field was full of people pretending to have been injured or killed by something that could still very plausibly injure or kill them. They moaned on pretend stretchers. They were loaded into the backs of pretend ambulances. Pretend EMTs shook their heads over their lifeless forms. Most of this footage never made it into the movie, of course. It’s possible that there’s a vault somewhere in Los Angeles—probably far underground, like any good storm shelter—full of footage of my childhood friends and neighbors bleeding out, PG-13 fashion, on the grass. Some of them said they spotted themselves when the movie came out the next year. I tried to look closely, but it all went by too fast. I didn’t recognize anyone.