'Chronicle' Director Josh Trank on Reinventing Two Genres

Chronicle brings a new spin to the found-footage genre. Rather than ghosts, we are dealing with superpowers. A trio of kids discover something strange in a hole in the woods that gives them superpowers. At first, it is a fun party trick; a muscle that they keep in shape. But one of them, Andrew, takes it to a very, very dark place. We spoke to writer/director Josh Trank about reinventing both the found footage and superhero genres.

How did you go about representing the teens in this film?

As far as the modern teenage experience, this film plays wish fulfillment without any cynicism attached to it. So we have these scenes where are main characters are out there and having fun, they are doing it without any shame. It's not age-based or generational. If this were the 1920s, these kids would be having fun in the same way. I wanted to shoot all these scenes with the actors to keep everyone present and in the moment, without doing filmmaker techniques where you foreshadow or try to imply things about the story or about the theme. You just let this play out naturally. When they are having fun, when they are out there flying, that's what we are feeling along with them. When things go dark, you go right along with them.

I have a very optimistic view. My dad made Holocaust documentaries. Growing up with all these Holocaust movies about kids who were being killed and this horrible time period... you would think that there would be no optimism. I feel like now we live in a very confusing time as opposed to a blatantly apocalyptic time. I think the world can go any which way. It's interesting because on the internet, in real time, you can get the modern teenage experience. They are out there, talking, documenting their thoughts. Since I think all kids are basically the same, no matter what generation, it's just technology and political times... yeah I think times could be great. That's sort of what this movie shows: that it could be great. But human nature has its tendencies to ... pendulum can swing either way.

How did this end up at Fox proper, rather than Fox Searchlight?

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, with quiet moments that connect the bigger moments. But at the same time, it has a big, blockbuster scope. I thought it would be the ultimate cool challenge to do a movie like this inside the studio system so I could really get it made the way I wanted to. Max and I had our own separate reps, and I knew it was going out to a whole bunch of people. We got the call from Adam Schroeder and John Davis and Steve Yasbow. It was amazing; it was so surreal. It is still surreal now.

Has it allowed you to open up the scale?

I would imagine so. Certainly with the ambition of what we were trying to accomplish. We were working with a very very tight budget, but I think you are going to find that anywhere. The main thing is, in studios, there is a good chance that the film is going to be distributed, as opposed to the independent route, which is a lot more vague. 

How much of the effects were practical versus digital?

There was this fine balance between our three young actors. They are very trained, experienced young actors who brought a level of discipline to this. This was the first time in a professional sense that they were being asked to not always hit their marks, to improve a little bit, just be loose and have fun with it. The trickiest part - I do a lot of takes. There are always certain beats that I wanted everyone to hit in certain scenes. So in the repetition and finding those happy little accidents, that was the biggest challenge: to get enough stuff that you had that reality and looseness. I do a lot of storyboarding, so even in doing these scenes that appear to be fully improvised and unfolding as you are watching, there is a very specific plan in every scene. It was really training  and planning to make it look like an accident. 

Why set it in Seattle? What did that provide for you?

I grew up in the 1990s and I loved Nirvana.... Honestly it was originally set in Portland. When we brought it to the studio.... I grew up in Los Angeles, so 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 we decided to set it there. When we were developing it at the studio, Steve said, "What about the Space Needle?" We were trying to think of a city that had something almost science-fiction about it. New York is where every epic superhero film takes place - or a version of New York - because there is so much there, but we didn't want to go that route. I couldn't think of any major [action] film set in Seattle. And I thought we could use the Space Needle to do some cool stuff.

Did you develop this film as a straightforward movie, or did you always see it as a POV found footage film?

It started out as a found-footage film. I thought if you had a character who was really gifted and used his camera telekinetically, I thought there would be a unique movie there. When I was imagining those scenes, I actually had a hard time seeing what that would look like, so that was really exciting.

I played a lot of Grand Theft Auto; a lot of third-person games. In those, you have left-stick to control the camera, so that was a big inspiration.

Why did you call it Chronicle?

I thought, "What is this movie, really?" I was trying to think about the themes. It was kind of a journal, these guys are chronicling what happens to them. Chronicle just seemed like a cool, mysterious name and it has so much to do with the themes of the film.

What are your thoughts on the current state of superhero movies?

I think they're great. I think they are always evolving. There are always surprises. You get an interesting filmmaker to do an interesting take on these characters we grew up loving. It's always this really cool gamble. I'm always for it. 

What was the process of special effects like?

We shot the movie in South Africa. We met up with Simon Hansen. He was a friend of Neill Blomkamp's, and we just met him on a regular interview. Simon came in and talked about his approach to visual effects, and it was how I wanted to do it: keep everything as practical as possible. Avoid green screens as much as possible. Even if we had to do compositing and stuff, we would shoot real-life plates. Simon really had that background. He and Neill and a couple other guys were pioneers in that in South Africa. Really real looking stuff. We collaborated with Simon and brought on a couple other visual effects companies, and just approached every scene figuring out how to avoid digital as much as possible. 

Any specific examples?

The car is a good example. When he knocks the truck through the guardrail, it was just all timing. We had a real stunt driver in the truck. We shot in the car, looking through the rear window, and we timed our cues so that when Andrew swiped his hand across, the driver would go right through the guardrail - we had a paper-thin guardrail for him to drive through.

Another example was moving the BMW across the parking lot. There were actually about 45 guys with ropes. We had the car on skates. It was definitely a little scary for our rotoscopers, who had to take everyone out.

What about the scene where they are flying?

We actually created these big, circular rigs that spun, which allowed for all sorts of dynamic interaction. We had this rig of constantly moving lights that would sort of replicate moving through clouds, hitting sun rays and all of that. That was comped onto a green screen, but we used the practical lighting to guide us, to know where those lights would be coming from.