'Chronicle' director Josh Trank talks found footage, bloated budgets and coming of age
Right off the bat, you should know that I really, really liked "Chronicle"; it's a fresh, engaging, shockingly well-made superhero film that makes inspired use of the essentially stale found-footage genre, and it heralds a major young talent in director Josh Trank. I wasn't sure what to think when I screened about 15 minutes of footage in a special Q&A session a few weeks ago, but now I'm confident in saying that this thing is the real deal, and you should absolutely see it on the big screen if you can.
The best part of the movie being good is that I really liked Trank when I met him, and I always appreciate the experience of encountering a successful person in their 20s who isn't arrogant (an exceedingly rare phenomenon, particularly in Hollywood).
As an added bonus I got another chance to speak with Trank a few days ago, this time over the phone, and at the risk of sounding like a sycophant I liked him just as much the second time as I did the first time. Here are a few excerpts from our brief chat:
On striving for originality in the found footage sub-genre: "I really wanted to make a found footage movie...where it doesn't feel like a found footage movie. ...I felt that there were a lot of untapped opportunities shooting a movie from the perspective of one of the characters. You have an instantly intimate connection with the character and how that can serve as a really potent storytelling device and how that can enhance the drama and enhance the experience for the audience."
On how "Chronicle" is really a coming-of-age film disguised as an action-packed superhero flick: "The film at its very core has to be a truly teenage coming of age tale. Those are my favorite movies. I love movies that explore the experience of being a teenager and all the conflicts and expereiences that shape young people in moving into adulthood. ...A film I've always wanted to see is a coming of age tale that uses fantasy and science-fiction elements to enhance the drama of the characters."
On how the idea for the film came about: "I've always wanted to make movies my whole life. I have a laundry list of kind of viral ideas - I've been doing that for a very long time. Shooting these small little scenes without any context to a broader story. A lot of these scenes I wanted to shoot involved a group of kids with telekinesis, recording information where they're demonstrating their talent in public, essentially by pranking on people and doing hilarious things as like a private joke. And I realized that this could work not just as a viral anthology, but [that] there's a real movie there."
On why so many effects-heavy big-studio films have such bloated budgets: "Usually in big budget studio movies with big visual effects, the directors who get attached to those films don't come from a visual effects background, or a 'figure it out yourself' kind of background, which is really where i come from. [As] they go into the visual effects process, they have an understanding and a knowledge of what to expect when communicating what they want to the visual effects companies, but they don't necessarily come to production to achieve those things that would make them cost-effective, and I guess interesting. So they end up throwing $100 million at this big visual effects company to essentially figure it out, and that wasn't the case with 'Chronicle'. ...I wrote a very detailed production plan of how i wanted to achieve about 90% of the effects in the movie."
On "Chronicle"'s own, reportedly $15 million, budget: "It was less than that, but that's the ballpark."
After speaking with Trank, I also got a few minutes on the phone with the film's three lead actors: Dane DeHaan (Andrew), Michael B. Jordan (Steve) and the shockingly-Australian Alex Russell (Matt). The young thesps play a trio of teens (Andrew and Matt are cousins) who acquire fantastic superpowers after discovering a large, glowing crystalline object in an underground cavern in the woods. While initially it's all fun and games, things take a serious turn when Andrew - an awkward but intelligent social pariah - becomes increasingly drunk with his new power and begins lashing out at the world he feels tormented by.
All three actors, I should mention, give very good, naturalistic performances that really help sell the "reality" of the concept. A few highlights from our brief chat:
DeHaan, on how much of the characters' dialogue was improvised: "It was pretty tightly scripted. I think the movie gives off an improvisational quality, because Max Landis did an amazing job of caputring the voices of three teens from three different walks of life. And I think that it was written in such a naturalistic way that it comes off as improvisational. Not that there weren't things in the movie that weren't more spur of the moment, but almost everything you see in the movie is scripted exactly as we first read it."
DeHaan, on why Andrew ultimately becomes the most powerful of the three: "I personally believe that we all get the same powers, and then...[the speed with which we master them depends on the] different kind of people we are. I think that Andrew is the most inquisitive and curious about the power and really wants to know exactly what it is and exactly what he can do with it. And because he's just more into the idea of it, and into developing it, his develops at a faster rate."
Russell, on where his heroic character might go in a potential sequel: "To be honest, if it was going to go anywhere, definitely the overriding factor in that, in sort of furthering the story, would be Matt wanting to use the powers for good, wanting to find out more about where they came from. ...There is a lot of talk of a sequel, of having a sequel. And I think that there is potential for a sequel from the story, but it's not like the end of this film leaves one feeling like there must be one. I think if there isn't a sequel, no one would look back and feel that we didn't tell the story in its entirety. I think 'Chronicle' is an amazing story...the film holds well as its own piece. A sequel would be a kind of bonus."
Jordan, on the painful and nerve-wracking wire work required for the part: "Still to this day I just don't like heights, just being in that painful harness. The wire work was very intense. We did Pilates and yoga, trying to stretch our core as much as possible, but it was definitely a challenge for me."
Writer's note to those afraid of heights: you might want to cover your eyes during the film's vertigo-inducing flying scenes.
"Chronicle" hits theaters this Friday.
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