Six Chronicle Clips & Preview Q&A with Director Josh Trank

Six Chronicle Clips & Preview Q&A with Director Josh Trank
Updated: 01-08-2012


Staci Layne Wilson reporting
Dark-tinged DIY superheroes have been trending in the past year (Kick-Ass, Super) and so comes another film featuring the likes, Chronicle, from 20th Century Fox. It's directed by newcomer Josh Trank (who wowed execs with a short film which would be a prelude to Chronicle), and written by John Landis's son Max (who's working on a new Frankenstein project with Shaun Levy set to direct). The cast is low-key (they looked familiar, but within the realm of normalcy), and the special effects are as lo-fi as possible. Trank, though a first-time director, was adamant that CGI be kept to minimum.
"We met up with this real genius named Simon Hansen," said Trank. "Simon came in and talked about his approach and the way I wanted to do things was keep everything as practical as possible, avoid green screen, shoot - even when we do compositing - real live plates and not create anything digitally. Simon knew how to do all of that. They were pioneers with FX, just real-looking stuff. We collaborated with Simon, brought on a couple of visual effects companies and just looked at every scene and how to avoid digital as much as possible."
I'd heard all the hoopla over the Chronicle trailer when it was released awhile back, but hadn't actually seen it until the other day. I was genuinely impressed. Then I got the invite to Fox to preview even more from the film, and was more than happy to do so. My interest had definitely been piqued, and then my expectations were surpassed. True, I have learned over years that six clips do not a movie make, but one thing that struck me about Chronicle was the actors. I'm really not opposed to unlikable protags (Jay Hernandez as Paxton in Hostel, Charlize Theron as Mavis in Young Adult) as long as they are well-drawn and have some nuance to them.
I, along with a select group of genre journalists enjoyed a tour of the private Fox lot and various soundstages (there was even a Reese Witherspoon sighting!), then were seated in the Little Theater to meet Trank and Fox executive Steve Asbell, plus view some footage. The first thing we saw was the aforementioned short, a darkly comic teen-centric twist on Star Wars. Then we watched some scenes from Chronicle. Chronicle isn't really a superhero movie… it's definitely a super-powers movie. These teens — Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew (Dane DeHaan), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) — are acting like extras from Jackass at first discovery of their mysteriously bestowed new abilities, then they start working on controlling their powers (there's a suspenseful and 'realistic' first-time flying scene). Well… one of them isn't really concerned about control at all, and that's where the sinister, more horrific aspects come into play.
One of the most impressive things Trank noted, especially to a shaky-cam hater like me, was when he prepared his director's pitch, he told Fox folks that he was tired of the quaking POV. "Everyone has one friend who can handle a camera, and then there are all the stabilizers in the cameras today" said Trank, so it stands to reason the stuff Andrew is shooting would be steady and professional-looking. Trank talked about the cinematography of Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man (shot by its doomed subject, Timothy Treadwell) as an example of a real found footage film. Just because Chronicle is a found footage film, doesn't mean the result has to look like amateur hour.
After the clips were shown, Trank and Asbell answered our questions.
How did this wind up at Fox proper as opposed to Fox Searchlight or as an independent film?
Josh Trank: When I thought of this, I knew that it had qualities of an indie movie because most of the scenes play out with an understated narrative drive. The quiet moments connect the bigger moments. But at the same time, it has this big blockbuster scope. I thought, personally, it would be the ultimate cool challenge to do this film inside the studio system. (co-writer) Max (Landis) and I had our own separate reps and it went out to a whole bunch of people, but I didn't know a lot behind-the-scenes. We got the call from (the producers) Adam Schroeder, John Davis and Steve Asbell. Max and I went into the studio, met everybody and walked out like, 'Fuck!' It was amazing and surreal and it's still surreal now. This was our opportunity to make this movie here at Fox proper.
Has it provided you with the ability to open up the scale a bit?
Josh Trank: I would imagine so, certainly for the ambition of what we were trying to accomplish. We were working with a very, very tight budget. But I think you're going to find that anywhere. The main thing is in studios, there's usually a chance the film is going to be distributed as opposed to with the indie route, it's a lot more vague. I did this film called Big Fan with my friend Rob Siegel and it was $100,000 out of Rob's pocket and two and a half years working on it. It went to Sundance and we waited for distribution. After that experience, I was like we just have to make sure this movie is going to get released. That's the biggest thing.
How would you say the kids in your film might differ from previous generations?
Josh Trank: As far as the modern teenage experience, this movie plays wish fulfillment without any cynicism attached to it. We have these scenes with our main characters out there having fun and doing things, they're doing it without any shame. It's not age-based or generational. If these kids were in their 20s, I think they'd be doing the same thing they're doing here. I wanted to keep everyone in the present and in the moment, without doing filmmaker techniques where you foreshadow or try to imply things about the story or theme and just let this play out naturally. When they're having fun and flying, we're up there with them, and when things go dark, they feel very dark because this is what it would be like.
Do we ever see what happens in the cave, as to how they got their super-powers, or is that left as a mystery?
Josh Trank: We do, and it's pretty cool. It's early on. That clip we showed you, the first clip was leading right into it. You will see, for sure.
Can you talk a bit about working with these three young actors?
Josh Trank:  Our three main actors, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, and Dane DeHaan, are well-trained, experienced young actors who brought a level of discipline to this and I think, for the first time, they were being asked to not always hit their marks and improv a little bit and just be a bit more loose and have fun with the scene so the performance part doesn't come across so slick. The trickiest part is I do a lot of takes and there are certain beats I want everybody to fall on in certain scenes. Sometimes I would only tell Alex something or I would only tell Dane something to see how it would play out. So it was about the repetition and finding those happy accidents before someone told me we had to move on. That was definitely the biggest challenge in the tight schedule, to get enough stuff. I would do a lot of storyboarding. Even in planning these scenes that appear to be fully improvised, there is a very specific plan in every scene. Lots of rehearsal, training and planning to make it look like it was just an accident. There was a lot of design to it, behind-the-scenes
Why is the film set in Seattle?
Josh Trank: I grew up in the '90s, and I loved Nirvana. No, honestly, it was originally set in Portland. I grew up here in Los Angeles, and any place that has seasons, I find fascinating. I've always been fascinated by the Pacific Northwest, and Max happened to be fascinated by it too, so I decided to set it there. When we were developing it internally, Steve said, 'What about the Space Needle?'
Steve Asbell: Anywhere by New York or Los Angeles, I think we've done enough damage there.
Josh Trank: We were trying to think about a city that has something science fiction about it. New York is the place where every big epic super-power film takes place, or a version of New York City. We didn't want to do that route, we wanted to go somewhere else. Other than some random movie in the '70s where John Wayne plays a cop in Seattle, I couldn't think of any other movie that was set in Seattle, so we were all very excited about it and the set piece we showed you a clip of.
Where does the title come from?
Josh Trank: I thought what is this movie, really? I was thinking about the themes and it's kind of a journal, this character is chronicling this. Chronicle just seemed cool and mysterious. It has so much to do with the themes of the film that it should absolutely be called Chronicle.
Steve Asbell: When the title was on the cover of memos, people thought we were doing another Chronicles of Narnia, which was not the case. (laughter)
What's your take on the superhero films today?
Josh Trank: They're always evolving. Back to Superman up until Marvel's the Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises and this movies coming out this year, there's always surprises. I think it's a filmmaker thing. You get an interesting filmmaker to do a take on characters you loved growing up and obsess over. I think it's this cool gamble. I'm always for it.
Do we get a sense of how long Andrew has been chronicling all this on camera, before the movie starts? Has he been doing this a long time?
Josh Trank: The movie opens up with the first time he has ever turned on this camera. He got his camera, originally, to document what's going on in his home. His mom is suffering from a terminal illness, and his dad has been an alcoholic for many years, and it's been getting worse and worse. He originally starts filming for that purpose, and then it slowly turns into something else.
When they were flying, were they on wires?
Josh Trank: Actually, we created these big circular rigs that spun and allowed for all sorts of dynamic interaction. Our cinematographer set up all these constantly-moving lights that would represent passing through clouds. That was comped onto a green screen, but we used the practical lighting and all those elements on set, in the digital stage.
Are there plans to continue the story of Chronicle? Any sequel ideas rolling around?
Steve Asbell: Both Josh and Max have a much bigger story involved with this that delves into the mystery of what happens to these characters. This film is about these kids and it has the potential for more. They told me a little bit about it and it's awesome, but we wanted this film to feel like its own piece. It's a really good movie.
Chronicle opens in theaters February 3rd, 2012.
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