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Exclusive: 'Chronicle' Director Josh Trank Talks Superheroes

Josh Trank's feature directorial debut is set to reinvent not one but two genres. Chronicle is a found-footage film that follows a trio of high school students whose mysterious discovery in the woods one night grants them superpowers. At first they just use it for mischief, but one of them, Andrew, starts to go power-mad. I chatted with Trank on the eve of his big debut about his lifetime love of movies, and the rigorous casting process he went through.

We are getting close to the premiere of Chronicle, your feature debut. What are you feeling? Anxiety? Nervousness?

I'm numb. I'm feeling all of those things at once. I don't know what to expect; I've never been through this kind of an experience, on this scale. Once I made a movie with my friend Robert Siegel called Big Fan and we got into Sundance with it. I remember all the feelings I had right before we premiered it there, and that was pretty nerve-wracking and didn't know what to expect. But this is 2800 screens... it's pretty weird.

Where did the idea for Chronicle come from?

I have wanted to make movies my whole life. I've always pursued movie-making obsessively. It's all I have ever wanted. It's my only hobby. While other kids were playing sports, I was borrowing cameras and shooting things. I didn't shoot a lot of traditional short films; I would shoot experimental videos where I would merge real life with science fiction or fantasy elements.  Going into my 20s, I built up this long list of ideas and a lot of them involved a group of kids with telekinesis who would film themselves demonstrating their powers, usually to mess with people or cause trouble. I had a little epiphany a few years ago that all of these scenes could work together for a bigger movie. So I was very excited, and it was like I saw the whole movie right in front of me. It would play as a coming-of-age drama. It would open like a documentary, raw footage cut together, and it would be about a kid who is susceptible to abuse by his peers and his father. He's an alienated kid, and his camera is his outlet. He is really just documenting what is going on in his life. This is a character who is able to hold the camera steady and has a visual eye so it would be a comfortable and interesting movie to watch - not like a traditional found-footage film which can be amateurish and hard to watch.

I knew the first 15 minutes of the film had to play out without any superpowers or fantasy. Eventually this kid would make some incredible discovery that would lead to his telekinesis and he would begin filming for a completely different reason. He would have two friends that he would share this with, and the movie would really be about the psychology of friendship and sharing an experience connects people who should be different enough that they wouldn't really hang out outside of school. Eventually they would lose that connection and that kind of friendship, which would cause that character to go back to where we started. A kid in that position with god-like powers could be very dangerous.

I ran into an old acquaintance of mine from high school, Max Landis. I told him about this idea for Chronicle and he stopped me halfway through and said he would have a screenplay in two weeks. I kind of didn't believe him, but he actually came back, two weeks later, with a screenplay. All that potential I thought [the idea] had, he delivered and exceeded.

Did you see yourself as Andrew, the main character?

Yeah. I definitely saw a lot of myself in Andrew. Max saw a lot of himself in Andrew... there was a lot of combinations of us in that character, as well as the character Matt. He's kind of the guy we all try to be: good-looking, but awkward John Cusack-like guy. He has a lot of philosophy in his back pocket, he thinks he knows everything, but he doesn't have a lot of experience to back up his theories.

How did you get Fox, one of the biggest film studios, behind you and behind this project?

I had a lawyer and agent; so did Max. I wrote a director's statement to attach to the script, which described in a very clear-cut way how I would make the movie. The agents decided to "go wide" with the script, which meant they would send it to a couple dozen different producers around town on the same day and see who bites. Adam Schroeder, a producer at Davis Entertainment has an overall deal with Fox, and he was really the first one to be aggressive and jump on it. Adam set it up at Fox in like five minutes, and Fox brought Max and I in for a meeting. We were kind of, "holy shit, we're at Fox" when we went in. We had an hour and a half meeting with Steve Asbell, our executive. He was very enthusiastic about making this movie because it could be done on a low budget and there is the potential for a really great movie. That's all that anyone wants to do in this industry: make a good movie. 

We had a six-month development process, during which time I basically storyboarded the entire film, did a lot of pre-vis animations, shot a couple test scenes, and just did everything possible to prove to the studio that this movie would work. 

Two of your three main actors are more or less unknowns. What was the casting process like?

There were a lot of qualities we needed in the main actors, so we knew it would be a real talent hunt. The actors needed to be "real movie actors" who could be filmed in the context of reality - almost a documentary. Actors who looked like they could belong in reality. We wanted to avoid manufactured Hollywood looks. We needed actors with a naturalistic look, but something almost iconic about them, something infectious, something charming. The moment you see them on screen, you are immediately intrigued by them. 

I was a fan of Dane DeHaan's work on In Treatment. He just embodied the character [of Andrew] and all the qualities we were looking for. He's an actor who has this vulnerability and this almost frightening strength about him. He's so raw. He loved the script and we were very lucky to get him. He set the standard by which we auditioned the rest of our actors. We probably auditioned a thousand more actors in a month and a half long process. We narrowed it down to 15 Matts and Steves, and had a few days of "mix n' match" sessions where we would do different combinations of actors in different scenes with Dane. When we got Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell in the same room with him... the three of them had never met but it was as if they had known each other for years. Everyone in the room knew this was it; these were the guys. They had this screen relationship, something we knew our audience would watch and relate to these guys.

Were you specifically looking for actors who weren't very recognizable, or was that just how it worked out?

We wanted them to not be recognizable but feel almost familiar. 

Did the actors get a chance to shoot any of the POV footage themselves? Was there much ad-libbing? 

No. We really stuck to the script. It takes a lot of talent to unlearn everything you have learned about your acting skill. They had to rehearse rehearse rehearse all these lines and all these beats and all these very complicated scenes. Some involving big visual effects, and some involving emotional complexity. Then they had to get to set and be really loose with it, play it as if it was improvised and unfolding in real life, to roll off each other in a naturalistic way. 

We shot the entire movie on the Electra camera, which required a very large camera crew. our cinematographer was really obsessed in our quest to "design" this movie the way we wanted it to be designed: handheld and organic and intimate, but at the same time controlled and using a lot of angles and clever, subtle techniques to keep the storytelling flowing.