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Director Josh Trank (pictured left) scored a hit with his
debut feature CHRONICLE, which topped the box office this past weekend.
Scripted by Max Landis, the movie combines found-footage realism with big-scale
action (see review here)—but
as Trank tells us, it all came down to character, specifically Andrew (Dane
DeHaan), an outcast teenager who receives telekinetic powers that allow him to
assert himself…in increasingly violent ways…
FANGORIA: Your father is documentary filmmaker Richard
Trank; did that affect the direction of your own film career?
JOSH TRANK: It was definitely a part of it, but to tell you
the truth, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I had no idea what he did for a
living. I didn’t really understand what a documentarian really meant, but
having spent so much time in dark editing rooms, because that’s where I’d visit
my dad at work, I had a lot of exposure to men and women sitting in a room
telling a story with images. That always interested and intrigued me, and I
knew from very early on that I wanted to do that. I spent a lot more time with
my mom growing up, and she’s a preschool teacher and really good at telling
nap-time stories to 3-year-olds [laughs], and really gets into it. So it was a
combination of a lot of storytelling influences growing up.
FANG: What was it about the CHRONICLE script that resonated
TRANK: Well, it was actually a story I’d developed on my own
for a couple of months before I ran into Max Landis, who is an old acquaintance
from high school. It came from a long list of ideas for little viral videos
that I’d wanted to shoot but never got a chance to, about a group of kids with
telekinesis who film themselves demonstrating their talents in public and
messing with people, and different hijinks and scenarios. I began to realize
that there was more to it, that this could be the beginning of the second act
of a movie, before one of the kids in this group goes too far and there are
horrible consequences. I’d been trying to figure out my first movie for—well,
since I was in high school, really, and the kind of movies that always resonate
with me are coming-of-age dramas and big, epic science fiction/fantasy films.
I’d always wanted to find a way to merge the two, and this seemed like the
perfect way to start off very grounded, almost as a personal documentary that
plays like a coming-of-age drama, and then use the science fiction and fantasy
elements to heighten the drama, the relationships, the stakes and the
So I fleshed it out and was looking for somebody to
collaborate with, and just by chance I ran into Max, and he’d seen a video I’d
made a couple of years back called STABBING AT LEIA’S 22ND BIRTHDAY [see below,
with non-work-safe language] that went pretty viral. I was aware of a lot of
the scripts Max had written, I’d read some and was a big fan. We shared a lot
of very similar passions and influences. So I told Max about CHRONICLE because
I thought it was something he’d think was cool, and he stopped me halfway
through and was like, “I’m gonna write that. I’ll be back in two weeks.” I was
kind of like, “Wow, OK.” And then he followed up on his promise; it’s not an
exaggeration, he literally wrote the script in two weeks, and it was
incredible. He fulfilled all my hopes for that script and went far beyond my
FANG: How easy was it to get CHRONICLE set up at Fox?
TRANK: It was definitely a challenge, because I had a lot
riding against me. I went into the studio as a 26-year-old without a feature
under my belt, and I knew I had a lot to prove, and I had to go at this with as
much conviction as I could muster up. I wrote this four-page director’s
statement which we attached to the screenplay and put out to all the studios.
It was a very detailed breakdown of how I would shoot the movie, what my plan
was, basically saying, “OK, here’s the script and here is exactly how I’m going
to make it.” Fox was the first one to jump at it, and they knew that this was a
script with a plan and that they would be going into business with a filmmaker
who was going to be able to deliver on the material.
FANG: Do you think the fact that Fox was also behind the
very successful X-MEN films helped them see their way to producing CHRONICLE,
which has a similar theme?
TRANK: Sort of; I’d say yes and no. Believe it or not, Fox
doesn’t actually like to re-explore the same territory filmwise that they have
in the past, and they were mainly concerned with how this movie would be
different from those other films. It helped in the sense that they had plenty
of experience making these big tentpole superhero movies, but it didn’t give us
carte blanche to just do whatever we wanted. We had to prove to everybody there
that this would be a very different movie, and that we could justify the kind
of budget we wanted.
FANG: Can you say what the budget was?
TRANK: Well, it was more than PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, less than
CLOVERFIELD [laughs]. It was less than $15 million.
FANG: Those movies represent the two extremes of the found-footage genre; obviously it’s much easier to tell a more intimate story
than a big story in that format. Was this a particular challenge?
TRANK: Yeah, because I wanted to maintain the same tone we
establish at the beginning of the movie, in the first scene where Andrew turns
on his camera, all the way until the final moments. Regardless of how extreme
we went in scale and scope, I wanted to make sure the movie had the same
connection to Andrew and to the emotionality of the story, because the second
you pull away from the characters and become too objective, which is what the
found-footage format does, we become too detached in observing them. So we had
to put a lot of thought into the way every scene was framed and how every scene
began and ended, so it connected that way.
FANG: How did you approach maintaining that connection with
Andrew even as he becomes sort of the villain of the piece?
TRANK: Well, Andrew is, regardless of the good-guy or
bad-guy definition, the protagonist of the movie. And I think the meaning of a
protagonist is the person whom the audience is closest to throughout the film,
and the one we should have the most sympathy for. We should feel happy for him,
we should feel bad for him, we should feel happy or bad with him. We go through
a very intense emotional journey with Andrew, and we understand enough about
him that when he hits that point of no return, we feel bad for him.
When you see a supervillain, you want the supervillain to
die, you want him to be stopped, you want the good guy to rise up against evil.
CHRONICLE isn’t that story. CHRONICLE is about a kid who is meek and
defenseless and susceptible to abuse from his peers and his father, and is
given a godlike gift. His friendship with Matt and Steve holds him together and
allows him to experience happiness for the first time in his life through that
gift. Once he loses that connection and that relationship, it all unravels, and
he doesn’t have anyone to give him advice or moral grounding. There’s a
humanity in Andrew from the beginning all the way through to the end, and as
long as the audience can constantly sympathize with him, he never really
becomes a supervillain. FANG: How easy was it to find the actors who could not
only embody the characters, but make them naturalistic given the format you
were shooting in, contrasted with the fantastical nature of the subject matter?
TRANK: Well, I think the way you just described that is
verbatim what I wrote in my director’s statement [laughs]! It was very
important, if not the most important thing in creating this film, to find
actors with a naturalistic quality, who didn’t have the chiseled looks of
Hollywood stars but had that kind of star quality. We wanted actors who were
young and talented and had a familiarity about them so they could fit into
those teenage archetypes but not be limited by them, so they wouldn’t become
stereotypes. Dane DeHaan, who plays Andrew, was a very early pick for us. We
saw his work on IN TREATMENT, and he embodied that completely; he had both a
vulnerability and strength to him. There was a relatability to him that felt
like, if I saw this kid in the context of a documentary, I would both
absolutely believe it and be very intrigued by him. We were really lucky to get
him; he’s insanely talented.
Then we auditioned about 1,000 more actors and narrowed it
down to 15, and did mix-and-match sessions with the guys. We’d get a bunch of
different Matts and Steves, put them together in a room with Andrew in
different combinations and played with scenes to see which group would be best.
And when we got Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell together with Dane…they had
never met each other before, but the chemistry was instant. Everybody in the
room—myself, our casting directors, our producers, the studio—knew this was our
group. They seemed like they’d known each other for years; they had an instant
rapport. It was so much fun to watch, and we wanted that relationship to pop
out of the screen, and for the audience to feel like that was their group of
friends from high school, or for kids in high school to feel like that’s their
current group of friends.
FANG: You and your team did a great job of making your Cape
Town, South African locations look like the Seattle area.
TRANK: Well, Cape Town is a very diverse environment. You
can find a place that looks like the desert, places that look like the Pacific
Northwest, places that look like Santa Monica. So in picking areas that had,
say, more pine trees, we would just limit the side of the street we were
looking at so we would get a more Pacific Northwest look. It was always about
picking and choosing which angle and which area and which direction we were
shooting. As far as the homes and schools and everything, our production
designer, Stephen Altman, is amazing. He has a history of creating sets and
locations that look authentically American in different, unique ways. He did
that show SHAMELESS, which has a wonderful, dirty, grungy, gross-apartment look
to it, and he also did RAY, in which he created Americana on a very small,
tight budget. We had a small budget too, and Stephen created bedrooms, built on
top of pre-existing locations and did a lot of different things to create the
small details of what we would see in a true-to-life depiction of Seattle.
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