Dialogue: Josh Trank on How the '90s and Having Nothing to Lose Influenced 'Chronicle'

Dialogue: Josh Trank on How the '90s and Having Nothing to Lose Influenced 'Chronicle'

May 08, 2012

Chronicle is the type of movie that's easy to pitch with just a handful of words: It's a found footage superhero movie. But that nutshell sell does the movie a disservice. There's more going on under Chronicle's hood than just kids taping their newfound superpowers. Max Landis' script is not only a fresh "with great power comes great responsibility" arc, but a strong coming of age story. And as good as the script and character work is, it's safe to say it's all elevated by first time feature director Josh Trank's sly fusion of the found footage style with grander, more cinematic sensibilities. 

This isn't just a shaky cam capturing telekinesis. Chronicle is a genuinely engaging story of three unlikely friends discovering how to handle their special new abilities, all filmed with some truly inventive camera work that delights in breaking down typical found footage barriers. The film hits Blu-ray and DVD May 15th, and ahead of its release we were able to speak with Trank about what specifically motivated his approach. As a fellow of Trank's generation (though he informed me he was born in '84, not '85 as IMDb lists), I was particularly curious to pick his brain about how the cumulative effects of growing up in the '90s, mainly newfound access to cable and video games, had on his approach to the film. I was surprised by his answers, to say the least, and you just may be as well.


Movies.com: What would you say was the biggest influence growing up as a kid in the '90s had on the shape and approach to Chronicle?

Josh Trank: I grew up in a family of cinephiles. My dad is a cinephile and, I don't know if you've ever heard of the Z Channel, but for those who don't know, the Z Channel is if the Criterion Collection had a cable network and just ran the greatest movies from the history of International cinema and American cinema. My dad was the first in line to get a VCR and tons of 8-hour Long Play VHS tapes. He would record everything on the Z Channel and catalog all the titles in a closet he had full of all these movies. So I, in a very specific way, grew up watching everything you could possibly watch and had access to all of those things at a time when you really had to seek it out. You couldn't just log on to Netflix and see things like Akira Kurosawa or Truffaut, you had to work for it.

So my dad did all the work for it and I just raided that closet. By the time I was nine I could recite for you the entire filmography of, like, Godard. It was just something I was obsessed with, while on the flip side my mom was a Spielberg fanatic. She just loved Indiana Jones and every '80s blockbuster. My mom would get those videos, but my dad wouldn't watch them, he'd just watch his stuff. And my mom would only watch her videos, so it was like living in VHS land with two parents who were very passionate about very different movies.

For me, movies were my reality growing up. They were more real to me than reality itself. And it's a different experience when you're watching these films on a small screen where the aspect ratio is a square as opposed to wide cinemascope, as a lot of films post-1960 were shot. Seeing those films then, you're seeing the movies, but not the pure version of the film. It's like watching a really bad copy. So I was left wanting and hungry for more, and I think that's very particular to growing up in the late '80s and '90s. I don't know what that influence is going to carry over for generations growing up in the 2000s being able to see everything in its most native aspect ratio possible in the clearest possible quality. To have full access to that... for me it was like having a treasure chest of things no one ever knew about. It felt more special.

Movies.com: It's interesting you have that classic background, and I hope you don't take this as a slight, because Chronicle has a very different stylistic approach to any of the films and filmmakers mentioned. So how did you distil Chronicle's style from the styles you studied growing up or is that influence more from having grown up with access to our generation's other great treasure trove, video games?

Trank: To be able to tell a proper story with the kind of attention to detail that a movie like Chronicle really required, I needed that database in my head of movie history. I needed to have all the understanding of how cinematography works in the context of the evolution of cinematography. The vérité form going back to Nanook of the North or the early documentaries of Méliès. Going all the way back, there was a vérité style that ended up influencing, through cinematography than a more fictional, concocted sense. And that's something I wanted to break through into Chronicle, because Chronicle has cinematography that is often very bland.

I wrote up this director's statement charting all of this. That I would be utilizing both an amateur approach where the camera operator is more skilled than your average shaky cam operator, because we all have a friend who can hold a camera steady and Andrew is that character. But we would also employ an overarching sense of cinema where, when somebody is saying something important, we'll have a subtle, albeit late, zoom in onto that character's face, because that is the power of a close up. It makes whatever somebody is saying important. And we could set up accidental wide shots so there'd be a real movie perspective in a film that's supposed to play out kind of haphazard, like none of this is supposed to be happening.

It's interesting that you brought up video games because, for our generation, we had two things going for us. One, we were the last generation, I think, to experience an analog lifestyle in our childhood. That's all gone now, it's completely digital. We were also the first generation to experience console video games. Before our generation, you went to an arcade, and that's a very specific nostalgia I don't relate to. I didn't need to go to the arcade because I had a Nintendo Entertainment System. A lot of the residual influence of that on kids our age is engaging in wish fulfillment. It's about wish fulfillment and escapism, which is the same way with movies, only on an interactive level. Video games from our generation, pre-16 bits, the graphics weren't realistic enough to wash away our need to have an imagination while we were playing those games. The graphics were like we were playing some kind of weird cartoon. 2D cutouts running from the left side of the screen to the right side of the screen. There was a requirement of an imagination. The excitement of a new system coming out, because we grew up in a time when every 2-3 years there'd be a new system coming out that would have groundbreaking graphics. We were always excited about the next thing around the corner, but where we're at right now is very different because video games have reached a plateau of realism. Everything just looks fantastic. I mean, the Xbox 360 has been around, since, what, 2005 or 2006? That's a long time.

And the next step is mobile devices. We're not going to get any better on our televisions, so the next step is going to be how much better we can get on our iPods and iPhones.

Movies.com: Since this was your first feature film, what lessons were you surprised to have learned and how have you advanced them to whatever you're working on now?

Trank: I had done enough work leading up to this to understand what kind of expectations to set for yourself and how much footage you should get and be a perfectionist in everything you can do. I think experience is key in better your art and the more you do-- you always need to be more ambitious and approach things you've never done before because it's your duty. As an artist, you only live one life and you need to live it to your maximum potential. If you stay stuck in one area and just do it over and over again with something your comfortable, you'll never grow.

To me, there were a lot of things in Chronicle I'd never done before, so I did them. Now it's just about doing that again, in a sense, but not the same things I already did.

Movies.com: What are you working on now? Tom Rothman was quite confidently name dropping you recently for developing Chronicle 2 and Fantastic Four, does that put a lot of pressure on you?

Trank: It doesn't put any pressure on me because I have nothing to lose. I got rejected from every single film school ever when I was 18, and there's probably every reason in the world I shouldn't be able to do what I'm doing right now, so why not?

Not to be too pretentious about it, but I can't necessarily comment on any details. All I have to say is I feel like in the process of developing any kind of project as an artist, you don't want to show off the drawing before it's done. But, I'll just say there's a lot of stuff to read out there on the Internet.

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