Is Max Landis' superpower screenwriting? The scion of John Landis describes why he was able to bang out the script for Chronicle, the new found footage film about teenagers who acquire superpowers and the carnage that ensues, in just two weeks.
Written by Denis Faye
“Spoiler Alert” is an understatement when it comes to the interview you're about to read – in large part due to the infectious enthusiasm screenwriter Max Landis has for his big screen debut. Chronicle is the found footage-based story of teenagers Andrew, Matt, and Steve who acquire superpowers from a mysterious crystal they find underground. The origin of this subterranean crystal is about the only thing Max seems to keep mum about, perhaps because he's under direct orders to shut up from the folks at Twentieth Century Fox. The rest of the movie, however, is fair game, so he can't resist exposing major plot points as he illustrates everything he has poured into writing the project.
The initial idea for Chronicle came from the film's director Josh Trank. “Josh gave me this idea of shooting short viral videos of kids who'd gone down into a cave and gotten superpowers and then bad stuff happens and it spins out of control,” Max explains. “I said, 'Josh, this isn't a bunch of viral videos! It's a fucking movie! And if we do it right, I think I can make it the best superhero movie ever made!'”
He then pauses to reflect on the grandeur of claim he's just made, adding, “Of course, I was high in hubris at this time.”
Max's conversation with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site is peppered with comments like this, but in context they never come across as arrogant. Rather, it's clear that he loved writing the script – he banged it out in two weeks. He loved watching the movie get made. And now he loves talking about it. In an industry where words like “passion” and “labor of love” are throw away PR lines, it's a thrill to talk to a scribe filled with the real deal, so you'll have to forgive him if he gives a secret or two away.
Is this a deconstructionist superhero movie?
It's an interesting question. Josh just had it as kids with powers. My idea was to take apart that myth and try to tell it in the most emotional way possible. Andrew doesn't turn “evil.” Hopefully, the audience comes with him. He doesn't go to the dark side; we witness his life fall apart until he has nothing. Who knows where he would have ended up had the powers not been there, but the powers don’t corrupt him. That's the most deconstructive aspect that I think will be misunderstood. The powers don't corrupt; choices corrupt. The power is just a gun in his hand.
Photo: © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox
Dane DeHaan in Chronicle.
A lot of people are going into it expecting some popcorn, and we're trying to give them a steak. We're trying to give them a three-course meal. The reason there's been such a positive reaction to the film, beyond the fact that it's a good movie, is that it's really taking them off guard. If you walk in expecting Spider-Man and end up with No Country for Old Men, I think it's a good experience.
He might not be evil, but it's definitely the antagonist's journey. Why did you choose to focus on that?
It all depends on your idea of an antagonist. I see Andrew as the protagonist because we feel for him more than we do the other boys. I mean, Matt's a sweet, smart kid and ultimately will become Superman, but he's not our emotional touchstone. I wanted to take people on an emotional journey they don't usually get from a Spider-Man, X-Men, or an Avengers. I wanted people to have a real journey and the only way to do that, in my eyes, was to make it a bit of a tragedy.
I liked the way you played with the superhero tropes, particularly the costumes.
The moment Andrew puts on that fireman's mask, he's a super villain! It's me telling jokes on the tropes of superheroes. That brings it back to the deconstructionist idea that is at the center, which is “What would this really look like?” When I first started working on the script, I'd play with different ways to show things we've seen in superhero movies. For instance, Andrew's robbery of the gas station, it's just what would happen if you were robbing a gas station and didn't have control of your superpower? He destroys himself!
I'm just going to ramble for a second. Do you mind? Online, when they were promoting the movie, they asked, “If you had these powers, what would you do?” People were saying, “Oh, I'd rob banks! I'd attack people, get all the girls I want.” All this crazy shit. At the end of the day, Andrew tried all that, and what you're capable of and what you can do are different. Just because you have superpowers doesn't mean you can do these things. That's one of the big messages of the movie. People are people.
One thing that worked in the movie was the use of teenage characters. As an adult, I wouldn't make half the choices those kids made, but they were kids, so it worked.
They think they they're going to live forever. They do whatever they want. They don't see the larger consequences. They don't have a grander plan. That's what's fun about it. They make these really fun, simple and, ultimately, sometimes really destructive choices because they don't know any better.
You never explain the meteor in the cave that gives them their powers…
Why do you think it's a meteor?
Yes, you only know what Andrew knows. That's one of the things that was so brilliant about the way Josh shot it. We only see Andrew's world with a few diversions into Casey. You don't get a good origin story about that thing underground? Neither did Andrew.
Clever way to avoid dealing with exposition. Do you know the origin of the… big, glowing crystal thing that might be a meteor?
Of course I know! I know what it is. I know where it came from. I know what it's going to do next.
And the two-week writing time -- was that just a sloppy first draft?
No, it's extremely close to what you saw on the screen. There were things that were lost or had to be cut out for time that will be on the DVD. Other than that, you saw it in the movie. It’s the best development process I will ever have.
The movie was very character-based, so you could have told the same story conventionally just as well, no?
This as a conventional movie wouldn't have sold because it's not the same emotional journey. The reason Chronicle works is the found footage thing. It's a character piece, which most POV movies are not. Our main character is behind the camera. In most of these movies, you don't even see that guy. He's just a nameless third character who just comments sometimes. He's not even one of the leads. At the end, he's always killed and the camera falls.
I said, “Fuck that.” The camera shouldn't just be a view of the world, it should be a view of the mind of the person who's holding it. Josh achieved that brilliantly. You feel for Andrew. He's just a teenager freaking out – all that anger and nowhere to put it. You put that gun in his hand and suddenly there are helicopters crashing and buses flying around Seattle.
You see what he sees and when things go bad, you go, “Yeah, I get it.” You don't go, “Why did he do that?” You know why he did that. He loses his mind and you lose your mind with it.