The phrase “pleasant surprise” gets bandied about far too often, but here’s one case where it’s actually an understatement. Based on its initial trailer and subsequent commercials, Chronicle, the new sci-fi flick opening in theaters today, looked intriguing, but also rife with potential problems. For one, it’s yet another found-footage genre movie, and we all know how overused that format has become, and then there’s the matter of its central characters, three high school kids, and, as has been made painfully obvious in past Hollywood teen movies, Tinsel Town’s filmmakers seem helpless against writing high school students as obnoxious caricatures.

Fortunately, though, first-time director Josh Trank had bigger, more ambitious, and more profound things in mind when the 26-year-old first dreamt up the story for Chronicle. The film’s surface-level hook is its exciting, comic-book-reminiscent premise, that of three kids (played by Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan) who gain telekinetic powers and the ability to fly after discovering a mysterious object (and that’s all we’ll say here).

Yet what makes Chronicle, written by fellow 26-year-old Max Landis, such an unexpectedly powerful work is its emotional center: DeHaan’s character, Andrew Detmer, a loner who, in the midst of getting bullied at school and abused by his alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) at home, buys a video camera to put a wall in between himself and reality.

As Trank’s debut motion picture, Chronicle is one hell of a calling card, an assuredly conceived found-footage triumph that both pushes the first-person style in new directions and rollicks with “wow”-inspiring action sequences. Complex recently caught up with Trank to discuss the film’s surprising Columbine influences, how his love of video games factored into Chronicle’s look and feel, and why found-footage can be a great tool if used properly.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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What struck me most about Chronicle was how much darker and more emotionally complex it is than the commercials and trailer hinted at. Was the plan all along to have people walk into the theater expecting one thing and then catch them off guard with another?
Yeah, I kind of knew, going back before the script, just in the concept, that if this were a movie that came out without my involvement, I’d be very skeptical of it. It, A, is a found-footage movie, and movie fans and movie critics are justifiably skeptical of POV movies, because we all feel that we know what to expect of them, that they’re going to be one-dimensional as far as character and story are concerned. And it’s more about the gimmick, experience, and cheap thrill, but to have something that kind of looks like that on the surface and in the trailer, and kind of implies something a little bit more deep psychological, with a big budget and scope, I knew that, even for the most skeptical movie fan, there would be some kind of interest. So I think it’s really good if people go in not knowing what to expect and feeling skeptical.

Being that you’re a first-time filmmaker, and Chronicle has such a huge scale and such a dark storyline, was this a difficult movie to get off the ground in the first place?
It was challenging, but we both, Max [Landis, the screenwriter] and I, had a lot of people who were on board from the beginning, and I had a lot to do to prove myself during the six-month development period before we got the green light. Before we sold the script, this was an idea of mine that I had ended up pitching to a friend of mine, Max Landis, and he wrote this incredible script based on my story. What we had was this great script that everybody really responded to; Fox bought it, they loved it, and they were like, “OK, we have this great script and a first-time filmmaker who’s attached to direct it—let’s see what we can do.”

Like I knew that I’d be skeptical if I was an audience member who saw a trailer of this film, I knew that the studio would be a skeptical of me as a 26-year-old, so I wrote a very detailed director’s statement, going over all of the ways in which I would film the movie, how I saw the movie, and what it was, and how the production would work. All I was able to do from the beginning was just own the fact that I’m a very young filmmaker and it’s my first movie, so all I can be is extremely honest about what I’m trying to do with it. Everybody was very excited, and I think studios do really want to work with first-time filmmakers when it’s a project and a vision that they can really get behind, and this was just that kind of a movie.

One issue that was a concern before seeing Chronicle was how the kids themselves would come across, and this is a movie that obviously hinges on its young characters. They could have very easily been annoying and obnoxious, like most teenage characters in movies, but all three of them are very well-handled, sympathetic, and strongly acted. Was it difficult to find the right actors who wouldn’t turn the characters into those annoying caricatures?
Well, I am very sensitive about characters being annoying in movies. I’ve always felt that way since I was a kid; whenever I see a movie about teens, it’s so easy to call “bullshit.” I actually think that teen movies from the ’80s got them a lot better than teen movies from the ’90s. We wanted to find actors who could bring that same quality to the screen. Fast Times At Ridgemont High is one of my favorite movies; it’s a film that’s a human comedy, it’s a drama, and the characters all, in a way, fit the teenage archetypes, but they don’t become stereotypes because each of the actors brought their own presence and their own personality to the screen. Each of those personalities are so infectious and contagious, and the audience wants to be there and have fun with them.

So we really looked for actors who had those qualities; actors who were unknown and kind of on the verge of breaking out and didn’t carry manufactured Hollywood looks and faces. Dane DeHaan was one of our first picks. We were fans of his work on HBO’s In Treatment, and he really had this look in his eyes and this big, looming personality that came out of him. He really felt like the kind of actor who could carry a performance where you have sympathy for him, but you’re also kind of afraid of him snapping and losing control. You want to be on his side, though. We got him really quickly.

When we auditioned the rest of the actors, it was about 1,000 other actors, I think. We narrowed it down to 15 over two months, and we did a mix-and-match audition, where we took a bunch of Steve’s and a bunch of Matt’s, put them in a room with Andrew/Dane and had them do different kinds of scenes. And when we got Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell in a room with Dane, it was instant to everybody in the room that this was our cast. These guys, they had never met each other before, but it seemed like they had this relationship, and there was just something funny about the way that they talked to each other and related to each other—it was a real screen relationship.

Did you give them a lot of pre-shoot time to become closer friends? Because they have this really strong, natural chemistry and rapport with each other throughout the movie.
We actually put them in a house for about two weeks during prep, in South Africa, where we shot the movie. I basically told them, “Guys, the most important thing here is that we all become 17-years-old again, so here’s an Xbox, here’s a Playstation, and here’s a bunch of games—I just don’t want to get any calls from the police.” [Laughs.] They were like, “Hell fucking yeah!” And we didn’t get any calls from the police.

Another interesting thing about the movie is that one of your starting points, in terms of the story itself, was the Columbine incident, no?
Well, there were so many influences in this movie, and I think what we were really trying to merge were both comic book myths of superheroes and supervillains, and the idea of someone having god-like powers. Like “The Force” in Star Wars, you either had to go to the dark side or you’re a Jedi; you’re either good or you’re bad. The idea was to merge that with the real-life, mass media interpretation of good and evil.

When the kids went on a shooting spree in Columbine, I remember that I was 14 and I was in high school. Eric and Dylan, the kids behind it, had on these kind of bad guy costumes—that’s how we always saw them on the news. Guys in black trench coats, looking very evil and scary, and murdering their classmates, and there’s nothing you can really take away from that other than the fact that these kids are evil murderers, without having any interest of going beneath the surface and exploring what led up to that, and how those kids became mass murderers donned in bad guy costumes.

Nobody starts out evil—we know that. It’s life circumstances that lead them to that. Bowling For Columbine and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant really intrigued me. With Bowling For Columbine, I think Michael Moore just gave the perfect exploration of both the mass media interpretation of the event and going into the minds of these kids. These were messed-up kids who had hit a point of no return. There was no way to stop them from doing this, in their minds, unless people just kind of allowed them to do it. And I always feel like the real bad guys are the parents and those who refuse to act when there are obvious signals of disturbing behavior.

In Chronicle, Andrew (Dane DeHann) goes to a very dark place. We show the whole film from his perspective; we know, from watching the movie from start to finish, that this isn’t a kid who started out that way. Andrew starts out as a very meek, defenseless, innocent kid; he’s never done anything to anybody. Everybody in his life abuses him, and he’s susceptible to abuse—he allows it to happen, without ever fighting back. And suddenly he’s given this god-like power, and in the hands of the meek and abused, a god-like power is a very, very dangerous weapon. He’s not gonna become a Jedi; he’s not gonna go the Matt Garetty (Alex Russell) path, which is, you know, kids who aren’t abused and aren’t picked on won’t have any reason to lash out.

When Chronicle’s big final showdown hits, we see Andrew’s destruction and fully-formed darkness through various cameras, from ones operated by people on the street to surveillance cams. Is that you way of showing how the media and outsiders’ views of people we see inflicting damage on video is totally subjective? Like you were saying about how people saw the Columbine kids on the news.
Exactly! That’s exactly it. If we turn on the news one day, and we saw pieces of footage from the “Andrew Detmer Seattle attack,” we would have no other reason to believe that… We would all assume that Andrew is a very evil kid, but luckily we have all of the footage that Andrew had filmed beforehand of his life to understand that he wasn’t that kid.

There were a lot of tapes, some that are online and on YouTube… And I don’t want to make too much of a blatant connection between Andrew and Columbine here, because those kids were pretty malicious, and that is the difference—we see that in Bowling For Columbine, and we sort of see that in Elephant. Gus Van Sant took a little bit different of an interpretation of what those kids were. But there are videos on YouTube or Eric and Dylan, just moments they filmed of their life, and there isn’t really much to analyze in those videos, other than the fact that they were kind of normal-ish teenage boys with a cynical, mean-spirited edge to them. We do see other videos of them torturing animals, which is a completely different issue. I wouldn’t draw a connection between that and the scene in Chronicle where Andrew splits the spider, because that’s just purely out of rage.

You can learn a lot from watching meaningless, quiet moments in somebody’s life. It’s important to understand that no matter what crime somebody commits that, number one, they’re human beings, and there’s a way to understand how these people come to be, and what leads people to act on their anger and rage.

The film handles the Andrew character really well. There’s a really interesting line where he says, “You don’t feel guilty when you squash an ant—I think that means something,” which shows how he’s contemplating his darker impulses and trying to rationalize them.
Yeah, and if you notice in the movie, Matt, played by Alex Russell, is always quoting philosophy at the beginning of the movie, and once he experiences this gift with his friends, which allows him to partake in scenarios that to his knowledge no human being has ever experienced, he kind of drops the philosophy act. He’s a smart kid who sees the bigger picture and wants more out of life; he lives in a small town, and doesn’t see a lot of greatness around him, so he constantly looks to justify, philosophically, his own purpose in life. And once he experiences greatness in life for the first time, he drops that act.

Andrew, on the other hand, when he goes on that rant in the junkyard, it’s almost like he’s finding the philosophical justification of the way he’s feeling. So there’s a shift in dynamic there between those two characters, and how somebody tries to rationalize the world in front of them.

One way that Andrew tries to see the world in front of him is through the camera that he always has with him. And through him, you do a lot of very unique and interesting things with the found-footage technique; unlike other recent movies, you seem to be making a concerted effort to push the format in new directions. When you first started developing Chronicle’s story, what made you want to do it from the found-footage, first-person POV?
Because I think if you’re gonna go for something, you gotta go all the way. I’ve never seen a movie that does what we tried to do, and what I think we pulled off pretty successfully, which is to stick to our guns stylistically and open up a movie very grounded, go to some very extreme, over-the-top places, but always keep it within that same feeling and tone that we started the movie with. I looked at it as a really fun and kind of ambitious challenge to approach every single scene and find a way to utilize the found-footage with thoughtfulness and logic, as opposed to hybridizing it.

I’m a huge, huge fan of District 9 and Neill Blomkamp, and I don’t think there was anything wrong with the way he hybridized that film, I thought it was brilliant, but that was Neill’s movie. I didn’t want to just go for that because it would be a little bit more easily accessible—I wanted to figure a way to, within the conventions of found-footage, make the movie cinematic almost in a way that makes it feel hybridized but without cutting out of the first-person perspective. And using all of the rules that come out of using telekinesis, and allowing that open up the film.

The choice of having Andrew figure out how to move the camera around him without holding it, and having it float around him, is a really clever way to keep the POV style but also open it up and get more coverage and depth in scenes—the camera and shots aren’t always so on-his-shoulder, like they are in most movies of this kind. Did that idea come to you right when you decided to shoot Chronicle as found-footage?
Yeah, it was one of the first things that popped into my mind. There’s as much movie influence in this film as there is video game influence, and without ever commenting on it in the film. I play a lot of video games, and in third-person action games, you’re a character and you’re controlling a camera that’s following you around, and you’re controlling it with the right stick, whether you’re using an Xbox controller or a Playstation controller.

If Andrew is 17-years-old in 2012, this is a kid who grew up playing games in a three-dimensional platform space, from Nintendo 64 on, so it’s instinctive when you pick up those games and play them that you know how to control that camera, as if the camera is embedded into your brain.

So if Andrew was doing this in real life, and he had a camera following him around, at a certain point he wouldn’t even have to think about it. At the end of the film, there’s this ease and effortless to the way the camera is following him, and I always thought of it, and I would share this with the actors, that they were playing a video game.

The decision to show the final action set-piece through various cameras, not only the one that Andrew is controlling so effortlessly, is really unique. What was the benefit of opening the viewpoints up, for you?
Well, that’s because there are, like, per every ten feet you walk there are probably a dozen or so cameras, from people’s personal cameras to security cameras, or something else. I knew that, having this big action set-piece, you could essentially film the whole thing almost as traditional coverage because you have so many camera angles to choose from; you could play it like traditional coverage. In traditional cinematography, you have the 180-degree rule, which is a way to geographically block out action, so if you’re looking from screen right to left and then you cut to the next shot, you’re still following that action. There would be enough camera angles in a downtown area that you could creatively make this whole big action scene, and most people’s cameras today are pretty high-quality, so you could follow that with the same kind of look and feel as a big blockbuster action sequence.

There are moments in that sequence where Andrew is operating some of the cameras on his own, and I’ve heard a lot of different responses from that. A lot of people really like it and think it’s fun and plays with convention; other people kind of think it’s overkill. And I feel both ways about it.

I like with how it plays with being overkill, almost to a ridiculous extent, because, A, you can justify that Andrew is so dominant and so in control of everything around him telekinetically that he can do this without even really being conscious of it, because he’s been controlling a camera for the last many weeks. And, B, there’s something kind of meta about it, that we’re almost following this action sequence conventionally, but we now live in an age where we photograph everything, and every single thing is filmed, so a kid with telekinesis would be narcissistic enough to control, like, dozens of cameras and want to film himself doing this. [Laughs.]

Aside from the really fascinating use of multiple cameras, the main thing that impressed me about that final sequence is how big its scale is, especially coming from a first-time filmmaker working within the seemingly confining limitations of a found-footage movie. That sense of awe-inspiring scope exists throughout Chronicle, too, particularly during the flying scenes. How difficult was this movie to execute from a technical standpoint?
I had varying degrees of understanding what kind of technical work would need to be done in this movie, with the visual effects specifically. In some areas, it was very basic, as far as the more complicated, high-end 3D compositing and creation of 3D environments—that stuff, I had a very basic understanding of. I’m a very quick learner, and I’ve always wanted the opportunity to work with those kinds of effects, so I was very keen and excited to work with the things I didn’t have total knowledge of. But I’d say that for about 70% of the visual effects in this film, I had a pretty thorough idea of how I wanted all of it to work.

In any movie, or in any production, it’s going to be the most challenging experience of your life, and I did feel quite a bit of pressure and responsibility to deliver on the promise of this movie, which is a bit of wish fulfillment in a bottle. If this kind of a movie that represents the fantasies of every man, woman, and child in a way, because this isn’t just a movie for a teenage boys—it represents something that everybody has wanted to do. Everybody has dreamt of flying and moving things with their mind.

So I wanted the look of the film and the experience of watching it to be satisfying to everybody who would see it, and not just be the kind of movie where people say, “Oh, that was a very cool concept, but it could have been a lot better.” I really wanted this to be as perfect as possible, given the budget and time frame.