Interview: "Chronicle" Director Josh Trank Talks Inventive Found-Footage, Troubled Teens & Video Game Influences

Interview: "Chronicle" Director Josh Trank Talks Inventive Found-Footage, Troubled Teens & Video Game Influences
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.

Tags: chronicle, josh-trank, superheroes, video-games, michael-b-jordan, sci-fi, found-footage
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