Q&A: Chronicle Director Josh Trank

The filmmaker on his brilliant found-footage superpower movie.

One of the most exciting films to emerge in 2012 is Chronicle, the debut film from Josh Trank, which is out in UK cinemas now.

The director, son of documentary maker Richard Trank, teamed up with promising screenwriter Max Landis (son of An American Werewolf in London director John) for this thrilling superpower movie.

Filmed in the found-footage format, it follows a disparate trio of high school students who develop powers of telekinesis. What they do with these increasingly powerful skills turns a film full of hilarious sequences of boyish pranks into an epic sci-fi on a low budget. Read our full review here.

We caught one of the first screenings of the film a few weeks ago, and had the pleasure of Trank’s company for an informal Q&A. Below, he describes how District 9 was an inspiration, his ’80s influences, and finding his cast. We’ve edited it to keep it spoiler-free.

On working with Max Landis.
‘I knew Max when I was a teenager, but it was a fly-by-night relationship. Then he added me on Facebook six years ago; we kind of had a mutual status update humour thing, then we became virtual friends and kind of friends. I was living in New York working on this movie Big Fan, moved back to LA in 2009 and ran into him coincidentally. I had been working on Chronicle as a feature script for about a month at that point - it was like a treatment or an outline, very close to the movie you saw, but it was the bare bones. I told Max about it, and he said ‘I wanna write that!’ I thought it was a perfect match, as he’s a real comic book aficionado and it worked out well. He wrote the script in two weeks and blew me away. I knew that the script had potential to work as a conceptual, elevated genre drama. We put it out to the studios and Fox bought it pretty quickly, and it was fast-tracked. That was August 2010 and we prepped in South Africa the following February.’

On the origins of the concept.
‘It’s not such a unique story. I think everyone when they daydream wonders off into ‘I wish I could move that over there…’ It occured to me that if I had telekenesis, it would be a skill I could develop. I thought, ‘what if I could fly, what if my friends were in on it’. It’s celebration of our love and passion for comic book heroes and superhero movies. The thing that really separates Chronicle from traditional stories and arcs is that a superhero begins with a moral objective, some kind of a conquest like justice. These are just kids. Other than shit that goes on at home, they don’t have anything to go out to he world and prove, other than ‘look what I can do’. We’re huge fans of Akira and movies that question the idea of what a protagonist means to a story, where you begin a movie with a character and you assume he’s the good guy.’

On the found-footage format.
‘I’m a big film buff, and among my own friends, found-footage is seen as sacrilege, an aesthetic that only works as a gimmick or a one-off experience. I grew up with my dad as a documentary filmmaker, so I was raised in a lot of editing rooms, and saw how they put pictures and archival footage together to tell a story. I’ve always wanted to blend genres - a documentary approach to something more fantastical and science fiction-driven. I was really inspired by what Neill Blomkamp did with District 9 and Alive in Joburg, which was a traditional documentary approach. I wanted the challenge to strip away narration and narrative and plays out like raw, untampered footage. Our rules were - every scene plays like a long single shot. We discovered a lot of things in post, and realised the pacing didn’t work, so I knew I had to give something up there. Some of the jump cuts don’t have a reason, but we tried to ease them in in a graceful manner.’

On the raw emotion of his teenage characters.
‘It was always there from the start. One of the biggest challenges, before we even sold the movie to Fox, it was a hard-R script, saying fuck and shit, because that’s how kids talk. One of the things people responded to was the realistic dialogue, which didn’t sound like movie dialogue. When we brought it into Fox, and it was understood it needed to be a PG-13, we had to alter the dialogue in a way that didn’t compromise the realism in the performance. We auditioned over a thousand actors in the course of a month and a half. Andrew, played by Dane DeHaan was cast very early on - he’s such a talented actor, and we were very grateful to get him. We had to find other actors, who weren’t just on par with him, but who had an instant rapport. Able to play off of each other in a way that you wouldn’t question. The dialogue you see in the movie is pretty to script.’

On the ’80s feel of the banter.
‘I didn’t really realise until I saw the first cut of the movie how ’80s teen-esque the stuff plays out. It’s an indirect, heavy influence - I grew up watching Amy Heckerling movies, and films that portrayed the teenage lifestyle as fun and quirky in a wish-fulfilment kind of way. That’s had an influence on how these guys relate to each other, because there’s a charm, an ‘I want to be hanging out with these guys’ vibe. You don’t see that so much anymore in teen movies. We weren’t conscious of it - all the other influences we were conscious of.’

On his future projects and those Fantastic Four reboot rumours.
‘I knew this movie could work, and could be special, but it’s been surprising how everyone’s responded, as a lot of people seem to like it. I’m like, pinch me. I don’t want to assume anything. I’m working on original ideas, and there are things that I’m talking about, but there’s nothing until there’s a deal.’

On the US Akira remake.
‘Honestly, this isn’t a political answer, but after the Dawn of the Dead remake, I stopped judging remakes, as I thought it was a very effective remake. It’s all in the filmmaker.’

On the trailer and marketing for his film.
‘I said, ‘don’t show anything! Just show creepy, abstract images and lure them in!’ It seems to be getting attention. There are some clever guys in marketing, and it’s their full-time job. I let those guys do their due diligence to what works for the movie. The TV spots are working really well. I wanted them to embrace the style of the movie, and that it goes dark and comes a completely different movie.’

On whether Chronicle is a film for the YouTube generation.
‘If they want it to be, and they’ll ultimately decide in a couple of weeks. I think it speaks to the fact that we’re looking at the most self-photographed, self-filmed generation ever. From the time kids wake up, to when they go to sleep they’re photographing and filming themselves and their friends and I think there’s an emerging aesthetic that’s coming out of that. I think when someone writes the book on it, we’ll know what it is.’

Filmbeat have an interview with Trank and his stars Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan below.