"Into the Storm" is a different sort of summer tentpole, says director Steven Quale.

The found-footage disaster flick opening Friday, about a spate of deadly tornadoes hammering a small Midwestern town, has its roots in the reality of what such an experience would be like for the townsfolk, rather than flights of fancy, according to the filmmaker.

"The one overriding priority I had on this movie was I wanted to keep everything as real as possible," he says. "We go right to the extreme and we have the most powerful tornado ever in history, we have multiple tornados that all occur over the course of one 24-hour period. All of that's based on certain realities. What I did was I tried to keep everything as real as all the reference videos."

Quale's referring to the abundance of storm-chasing imagery available on YouTube and elsewhere, not to mention across the Discovery Channel and elsewhere on the dial. It's a far bigger point of reference for this flick than, say, Jan de Bont had on 1996's minor classic "Twister."

"You don't have to imagine what it's really like," Quale says. "You can see what it's really like. You can see images. They're grainy, they're shaky and handheld. We happened to capture them in a cinematic manner, right there up close with high-quality cameras, but there's a reference there.

"It's not like a science-fiction film where you don't know what it is. I'm proud of creating visual effects that feel real and believable because you work so much in the science-fiction or superhero world and it's a nice change."

The movie has some enormously complicated setpieces captured on a budget that's far more modest than your average summer action picture. Creating spectacle sequences such as the destruction of a high school required a tremendous amount of planning, Quale says.

The filmmaker learned the art of the spectacle over the course of years spent working with James Cameron, including as a second-unit director on "Titanic" and "Avatar."

But Cameron's technical prowess isn't what Quale admires most.

"He's one of those unusual people that has the creative talent to be able to use the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain, the story and the technical," Quale says.

It's a combination Quale hopes he's brought to "Into the Storm."

"There's a certain desire to feel what it must be like to be right there," Quale says. "And in this movie you can do it in the safety of a movie theater. Hold onto to your date, go along for the ride and experience it."