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Constantin Film International GmbH and Impact Pictures (Pompeii) Inc. All rights reserved

Expert Q&A: How Close Does Pompeii Reflect Reality?

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Constantin Film International GmbH and Impact Pictures (Pompeii) Inc. All rights reserved

In Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii—in theaters now—Kit Harington and Emily Browning play a couple of star-crossed lovers in 79 A.D. whose forbidden relationship is the most minor of problems: The city they know and love is about to come crashing down, literally, as Mount Vesuvius starts spitting lava.

Like any good Hollywood disaster flick worth its ticket price, Pompeii’s filmmakers employed a fair amount of creative license. But Dr. Rosaly M. Lopes-Gautier, Senior Research Scientist and Manager of Planetary Science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and author of The Volcano Adventure Guide, says there’s a lot the movie gets right, scientifically-speaking. We pressed her for details. 

Among your many other achievements, you’re one of the world’s leading volcano experts. So—scientifically speaking—what parts of a volcanic eruption, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in particular, does Pompeii get right?
They got the sequence of events right: the fact that there were earthquakes before the main eruption, that a big explosion happened during the day but pyroclastic flows [rapidly-moving flows of rock and hot gasses] only reached Pompeii much later (in the movie, it’s during the night; in reality, it was early the next morning). The explosion cloud, the pyroclastic flows, [and] earthquakes, were all done very realistically.

Which aspects are most clearly a case of creative license?
There was pumice rock fall but no fiery bombs, which don’t happen in that type of very explosive eruption. However, the rock and pumice fall did destroy structures and caused fires (probably from overturned oil lamps). The lava lake in the crater was artistic license to convey the idea of magma coming up without the people realizing. The tsunami in the movie was larger than the one reported, and in reality the tsunami didn’t move ships in the city.

What’s the one thing you would have done differently?
I’d probably have made the tsunami less dramatic. However, this is a movie drama, not a documentary, so I think artistic license is perfectly fine.

Could the events of Aug. 24, 79 A.D. happen at Mount Vesuvius again?
Yes, though the eruptions of Vesuvius are not generally as large as the 79 A.D. one. Vesuvius tends to erupt in cycles, and the first eruption in the cycle is the largest. 79 A.D. was the opening of a new cycle, so was the large eruption of 1631.

What are the factors that could contribute to that being a reality?
It seems that the longer the volcano rests between cycles, the larger the initial eruption can be. The end of the last cycle was in 1944, with a not particularly violent eruption. Vesuvius could rest for many years before the next one.
 
What might the potential impact of that look like?
There are over one million people living near the volcano today. Potentially, the impact could be much larger than that of the 79 A.D. eruption. However, the volcano is very well monitored, so there would be warning. 

What are some of the other most potentially dangerous volcanoes around the world?
Many of the volcanoes in Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, and other places around the “ring of fire” of the Pacific are potentially very dangerous, as they can have violent explosive eruptions such as Vesuvius did in 79 A.D., or even more violent. The most hazardous volcano in the U.S. is Mt. Rainier, although Yellowstone has the potential for catastrophic eruptions. When we consider volcanic hazard, we look at the probability of the volcano erupting in the near future, such as the next few decades, and the impact to human life and property. Even a not very large eruption from Mt. Rainier could cause ice in glaciers to melt, creating devastating mudflows.
 
What are three facts about volcanoes that most people don’t know?
1. Volcanoes don’t suddenly erupt without any warning. The movie correctly depicted that they had warning, because of the many earthquakes, but the people at the time did not connect the earthquakes to the volcano.

2. Pyroclastic flows and mudflows are much more dangerous than lava flows. Many lava flows travel slowly enough that you can get away from them, or even walk over them if the crust has cooled enough (cooled lava is a very good insulator, so the flow may still be molten underneath, but with a cool hard crust). Pyroclastic flows and mudflows travel much faster and often it is not possible to escape them using a car.

3. The most spectacular volcanoes to photograph and visit while in eruption are usually the least dangerous ones. For example, Stromboli in Italy, Yasur in Vanuatu, and Kilauea in Hawaii. They have either small explosions or no explosions at all, which makes them very tame as far as volcanoes go.

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© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox
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10 Sweet Facts About Napoleon Dynamite
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© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

ChapStick, llamas, and tater tots are just a few things that appear in Napoleon Dynamite, a cult film shot for a mere $400,000 that went on to gross $44.5 million. In 2002, Brigham Young University film student Jared Hess filmed a black-and-white short, Peluca, with his classmate Jon Heder. The film got accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival, which gave Hess the courage to adapt it into a feature. Hess used his real-life upbringing in Preston, Idaho—he had six brothers and his mom owned llamas—to form the basis of the movie, about a nerdy teenager named Napoleon (Heder) who encourages his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to run for class president.

In 2004, the indie film screened at Sundance, and was quickly purchased by Fox Searchlight and Paramount, then released less than six months later. Today, the film remains so popular that last year Pedro and Napoleon reunited for a cheesy tots Burger King commercial. Here are 10 sweet facts about the ever-quotable comedy.

1. DEB IS BASED ON JERUSHA HESS.

Jared Hess’ wife Jerusha co-wrote the film and based Deb on her own life. “Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, ‘I hadn’t really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders,’” Jared told Rolling Stone. “Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, ‘I like your sleeves … they’re real big.’” 

Tina Majorino, who played the fictional Deb, hadn’t done a comedy before, because people thought of her as a dramatic actress. “The fact that Jared would even let me come in and read really appealed to me,” she told Rolling Stone. “Even if I didn’t get the role, I just wanted to see what it was like to audition for a comedy, as I’d never done it before.”

2. NAPOLEON'S FAMOUS DANCE SCENE MANIFESTED FROM THE SHORT FILM.

At the end of shooting Peluca, Hess had a minute of film stock left and knew Heder liked to dance. Heder had on moon boots—something Hess used to wear—so they traveled to the end of a dirt road. They turned on the car radio and Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” was playing. “I just told him to start dancing and realized: This is how we’ve got to end the film,” Hess told Rolling Stone. “You don’t anticipate those kinds of things. They’re just part of the creative process.” 

Heder told The Huffington Post he found inspiration in Michael Jackson and dancing in front of a mirror, for the end-of-the-movie skit. But when it came time to film the dance for the feature, Heder felt “pressure” to deliver. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene,” he told PDX Monthly. “This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory.” Instead of hiring a choreographer, the filmmakers told him to “just figure it out.” They filmed the scene three times with three different songs, including Jamiroquai’s “Little L” and “Canned Heat.”

3. FANS STILL FLOCK TO PRESTON, IDAHO TO TOUR THE MOVIE’S LOCATIONS.

In a 2016 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, The Preston Citizen’s circulation manager, Rhonda Gregerson, said “every summer at least 50 groups of fans walk into the office wanting to know more about the film.” She said people come from all over the world to see Preston High School, Pedro’s house, and other filming locations as a layover before heading to Yellowstone National Park. “If you talk to a lot of people in Preston, you’ll find a lot of people who have become a bit sick of it,” Gregerson said. “I still think it’s great that there’s still so much interest in the town this long after the movie.”

Besides the filming locations, the town used to host a Napoleon Dynamite festival. In 2005, the fest drew about 6000 people and featured a tater tot eating contest, a moon boot dancing contest, boondoggle keychains for sale, and a tetherball tournament. The fest was last held in 2008.

4. IDAHO ADOPTED A RESOLUTION COMMENDING THE FILMMAKERS.

Jerusha and Jared Hess
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In 2005, the Idaho legislature wrote a resolution praising Jared and Jerusha Hess and the city of Preston. HCR029 appreciates the use of tater tots for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” It extols bicycling and skateboarding to promote “better air quality,” and it says Kip and LaFawnduh’s relationship “is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho’s technology-driven industry.” The resolution goes on to say those who “vote Nay on this concurrent resolution are Freakin’ Idiots.” Napoleon would be proud.

5. NAPOLEON WAS A DIFFERENT KIND OF NERD. 

Sure, he was awkward, but Napoleon wasn’t as intelligent as other film nerds. “He’s not a genius,” Heder told The Huffington Post. “Maybe he’s getting good grades, but he’s not excelling; he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t know how much of an outcast he is, and that’s what gives him that confidence. He’s trying to be cool sometimes, but mostly he just goes for it and does it.”

6. THE TITLE SEQUENCE FEATURED SEVERAL DIFFERENT SETS OF HANDS.

Eight months before the theatrical release, Fox Searchlight had Hess film a title sequence that made it clear that the film took place in 2004, not in the ’80s or ’90s. Napoleon’s student ID reveals the events occur during the 2004-2005 school year. Heder’s hands move the objects in and out of the frame, but Fox didn’t like his hangnails. “They flew out a hand model a couple weeks later, who had great hands, but was five or six shades darker than Jon Heder,” Hess told Art of the Title. “If you look, there are like three different dudes’ hands—our producer’s are in there, too.”

7. THE MOVIE MESSED UP NETFLIX’S ALGORITHMS.

Beginning in 2006, Cinematch—Netflix’s recommendation algorithm software—held a contest called The Netflix Prize. Anyone who could make Cinematch’s predictions at least 10 percent more accurate would win $1 million. Computer scientist Len Bertoni had trouble predicting whether people would like Napoleon Dynamite. Bertoni told The New York Times the film is “polarizing,” and the Netflix ratings are either one or five stars. If he could accurately predict whether people liked the movie, Bertoni said, then he’d come much closer to winning the prize. That didn’t happen for him.

The contest finally ended in 2009 when Netflix awarded the grand prize to BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, who developed a 10.06 percent improvement over Cinematch’s score.

8. NAPOLEON ACCIDENTLY GOT A BAD PERM.

© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

Heder got his hair permed the night before shooting began—but something went wrong. Heder called Jared and said, “‘Yeah, I got the perm but it’s a little bit different than it was before,’” Hess told Rolling Stone. “He showed up the night before shooting and he looked like Shirley Temple! The curls were huge!” They didn’t have much time to fix the goof, so Hess enlisted Jerusha and her cousin to re-perm it. It worked, but Jon wasn’t allowed to wash his hair for the next three weeks. “So he had this stinky ‘do in the Idaho heat for three weeks,” Jared said. “We were shooting near dairy farms and there were tons of flies; they were all flying in and out of his hair.”

9. LAFAWNDUH’S REAL-LIFE FAMILY STARRED IN THE MOVIE.

Shondrella Avery played LaFawnduh, the African American girlfriend of Kip, Napoleon’s older brother (played by Aaron Ruell). Before filming, Hess phoned Avery and said, “‘You remember that there were no black people in Preston, Idaho, right? Do you think your family might want to be in the movie?’ And that’s how it happened,” Avery told Los Angeles Weekly. Her actual family shows up at the end when LaFawnduh and Kip get married.

10. A SHORT-LIVED ANIMATED SERIES ACTED AS A SEQUEL.

In 2012, Fox aired six episodes of Napoleon Dynamite the animated series before they canceled it. All of the original actors returned to supply voices to their characters. The only difference between the film and the series is Kip is not married. Heder told Rolling Stone the episodes are as close to a sequel as fans will get. “If you sit down and watch those back to back, you’ve got yourself a sequel,” he said. “Because you’ve got all the same characters and all the same actors.”

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James Cameron is Making a Documentary to Reassess the Accuracy of Titanic
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20th Century Fox

While making the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, James Cameron was a stickler for the details. The writer-director wanted his homage to the tragic ocean liner to be as historically accurate as possible, so he organized dives to the site, solicited experts to analyze his script, and modeled the set off photographs and plans from the Titanic's builders. He even recreated the ocean liner’s original furnishings, right down to the light fixtures. Now, 20 years after the film’s release, E! News reports that Cameron will scrutinize the film’s authenticity in an upcoming National Geographic documentary.

Titanic: 20th Anniversary is slated to air in December 2017. It will feature Cameron and a team of experts who, together, will evaluate the film's accuracy using new historical and scientific insights about the ship's fateful sinking on April 15, 1912.

"When I wrote the film, and when I set out to direct it, I wanted every detail to be as accurate as I could make it, and every harrowing moment of the ship's final hours accounted for," Cameron said in a statement. "I was creating a living history; I had to get it right out of respect for the many who died and for their legacy. But did I really get it right? Now, with National Geographic and with the latest research, science, and technology, I'm going to reassess."

It's not the first time Cameron has revisited his Oscar-winning epic; in 2012, the director made some tweaks to the film for its 3-D re-release after receiving some criticism from renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“Neil deGrasse Tyson sent me quite a snarky email saying that, at that time of year, in that position in the Atlantic in 1912, when Rose is lying on the piece of driftwood and staring up at the stars, that is not the star field she would have seen," Cameron explained. “And with my reputation as a perfectionist, I should have known that and I should have put the right star field in." So he changed it.

In the case of Titanic: 20th Anniversary, Cameron and his team will give viewers an updated interpretation of the Titanic’s sinking, and reexamine the wreck using new underwater footage, computer-generated simulation, and research. They’ll also scrutinize some of the film’s most famous scenes, and provide biographical context about the filming process.

We’re sure fans, historians, and, of course, Kate and Leo, will approve.

[h/t Mashable]

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