"It all start[ed] with I guess from when I was a kid - whenever I would daydream, my daydreams would turn into telekinetic fantasies."
While that statement may not make filmmaker Josh Trank unusual in the scheme of a generation raised on a steady diet of first-person shooters and blockbuster action films heavy on wish-fulfillment, that he ended up channeling these childhood reveries into an actual Hollywood career does. And yet who knows where it will lead?
Trank's first feature-length film as a director - he initially gained attention after creating a "Star Wars"-themed YouTube short in 2007 - is titled "Chronicle", a found footage-style offering about three young friends who gain superpowers after discovering a strange energy source. Earlier today I was invited to view some footage from the movie and engage in a Q&A with the young filmmaker ("What Am I Doing With My Life?" Alert: Trank is only 26 years old) prior to the film's release on February 3rd.
To kick off the presentation, which was held at the 20th Century Fox lot in Century City (the project was brought to the studio by producers John Davis and Adam Schroeder), president of production Emma Watts stood at the front of the theater to say a few words about the film and its young director, the sort of "fresh face" that's perennially beloved by Hollywood execs.
"This is one of the new voices," she told us, sporting a look it seems fitting to describe as "mid-1970s Diane Keaton" (believe me, that's a compliment). "It's a superhero film that's not a superhero film. It's like, if you got powers, what would you do? You wouldn't put on a costume. You would be yourself, and you would use them in ways that you want to be."
That, indeed, is "Chronicle" in a nutshell - a superhero film that's not a superhero film. A "grounded", faux-documentary take on a tried-and-true sub-genre that's reached a level of near-saturation over the last couple of years. And who better to bring it to us than someone like Josh Trank? Young, energetic, and attractive, with thick-rimmed glasses and a full head of wavy black hair, it's as if he stepped directly out of a Hollywood executive's daydream and into the real world, fully-formed.
"I probably read everybody's website and everything you write obsessively," Trank humbly announced to the room of journalists gathered for the screening after being introduced by Fox vice-president of production Steve Asbell (and after suffering through the visible embarrassment of having his nearly-five-year-old "Star Wars"-themed short screened). It was his first time doing a press event on this scale, and he definitely came off a little green - but in a strictly charming and very genuine way. I liked him.
(And he likes us, apparently: speaking with Trank at a cocktail reception afterward, he claimed to be an avid reader of the site).
The love-fest was brought to a temporary halt as the first clip began to play:
Two cousins - handsome, jock-ish Matt [Alex Russell] and nerdy, slight Andrew [Dane DeHaan] - walk into a rave. Glowsticks abound. Andrew is filming; we get a brief glimpse of him a minute or so prior to him getting his face (and nearly his ever-present camera) smashed in by some drunk with an axe to grind. Leaving the party in embarrassment, he's later alerted to the discovery of a mysterious cavern out in the woods by Matt and his friend Steve [Michael B. Jordan]. As the trio descends into the darkness below, they come across a mysterious blue light...and then we cut to black.
Trank stepped back up to the front of the room as the lights in the theater came back on, giving us a brief explanation of the footage we'd just seen.
"I think one of the stigmas of POV films is it has to be shaky and amateurish-looking," he said, referring to the relatively steady camerawork (at least for the "found-footage" sub-genre) seen in the clip. "But I think everybody has a friend that can hold a camera steady. ...A big inspiration for me was a film called 'Grizzly Man' [about bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell]...if you look at the footage that [Treadwell] shot, it was like beautiful cinematography that you'd see in a [fiction] movie. To me, Andrew [Dane DeHaan] is really that character."
Oh, yes...Andrew. The wallflower driven to the brink of sanity once he gets a taste of his spectacular new powers (a state of mind visualized quite well in a later clip in which the young man is shown dismembering a large spider using only his mind).
"Andrew is experiencing a lot of obstacles with his dad," said Trank of the character's alcoholic father (shades of Fairuza Balk's character in "The Craft", which "Chronicle" bears more than a few similarities to?). "At the beginning of the movie, he starts off as a very shy, introverted kid, and as he goes through this experience with his friends, it sort of brings him out into the world. He's more confident. He starts to smile more and have fun."
It doesn't last, of course. And over the course of the remaining few clips, the destruction wrought by the young man's descent into madness becomes more intense - culminating in a pretty spectacular third-act set piece that takes place on and around the Seattle Space Needle and includes at least one telekinesis-induced helicopter crash.
Filmed on a tight budget, "Chronicle" nevertheless "felt big" (a term Asbell made a point of voicing several times during the Q&A), though for Fox it also came in at a far lower price tag than your average studio-bankrolled action movie. The more restrictive finances, while limiting in all the obvious ways, also allowed Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John Landis) to remain true to their own creative vision.
"When I thought of this, I knew that it kinda had qualities of an indie movie, because most of the scenes play out with an understated narrative drive," said Trank. "There's kind of quiet moments that connect the bigger ones. But at the same time it has a big, blockbuster scope. And I thought personally that it would be the ultimate challenge to be able to do a movie like this inside the studio system, to really get this made the way we wanted to."
And yet they did, with the film's inventive effects helped along by a coterie of visual effects technicians including Simon Hansen, a friend of "District 9" writer/director Neill Blomkamp (though the film is set in Seattle, it was actually shot in South Africa) who specializes in exactly the type of effects Trank and company were aiming for - in short, as little CG as humanly possible.
"Simon really did have that background," said Trank. "So we collaborated with [him] and a couple of other visual effects companies, and together we just sort of approached every single scene figuring out how to avoid digital as much as possible."
As an example, one clip we'd seen featured the Steve character moving an entire BMW across a parking lot using only his mind - a wonderfully effective bit achieved by having a (presumably) hardy group of men pulling the vehicle with ropes. It was only later, through a time-honored process known as rotoscoping, that they were removed from the image in post-production.
"There were actually about like 45 guys...and we [had] the car on skates basically," said Trank. "So it was definitely a little scary for our rotoscopers...[when we told them] 'Oh, you gotta take everybody out!' We wanted [to do it]...without creating a CG car."
An inventive solution, born of a mixture of necessity and good old-fashioned creative will - the latter of which Trank clearly has in spades. Nevertheless, while I was impressed by much of what I saw at the screening on a purely technical level, I'll withhold judgment on whether he can manage to channel that into an actual good film once I get a load of "Chronicle" in theaters next month.
You can check out a new clip from the film below. Let us know what you think in the comments!
Follow me on Twitter at @HitFixChris