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.

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