Brad Fuller has loads of titles to his name, 10 under the Platinum Dunes banner, but no amount of experience and knowhow could have prepared him for making a found footage film. Project Almanac stars Jonny Weston as David, a super bright high school student who finds a set of plans his late father left behind – plans to build a time machine. With a little help from his best friends, Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), and his crush, Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), David finishes what his father started while his younger sister Christina (Ginny Gardner) films the whole thing.
While on the Project Almanac set in Atlanta, Fuller took the time to talk to the visiting press about the challenges of playing by found footage rules, choosing to go with a first-time feature director and first-time writers too, the comparisons to Chronicle, the connections to Back to the Future and more. Hit the jump to check it all out and catch Project Almanac when it arrives in theaters on January 30th.
BRAD FULLER: We did. Interesting story, we had a deal at Rogue, Platinum Dunes had a deal at Rogue four, five years ago, maybe longer, yeah, five or six years ago, where we made The Unborn and Andrew Rona was the head of the studio at that time and his assistant was this great guy who I spoke to a lot and he wanted to be a writer, and I lost touch with him, and then three, four years later, he sends the script for this movie. I mean, I didn’t even know he was a writer and he says, ‘Would you guys be interested in producing this?’ And we read it and we just loved the script, so that was kind of how it happened. And then we developed it at Platinum Dunes for a year or two and then we took it to Paramount.
What kind of changes did you guys concentrate on? What was there originally, just the found footage time travel thing?
FULLER: Well, in the original draft they went back to 1896 or something like that. I mean, they really did. It was this crazy thing where they had to get enough electricity to get back to the current day. I mean, we’re going way far.
So it was Back to the Future Part III?
FULLER: It kind of was Back to the Future Part III, that was the problem. [Laughs] And then we just kept working with it. As we were working on the script, you know, the movie business changed a lot and budgets had to get smaller, and we kept pushing for a film that was really about wish-fulfillment. I mean, that was, at the end of the day, what this movie ideally is, and the price that can be paid for accomplishing that. And so we kept focusing on that idea, and the characters. We wanted to make sure that the characters worked. But there weren’t huge changes – I mean, that first draft, that was a big change, but other than that, it was just kind of refining and refining it.
So it was always the found footage?
FULLER: Always. Well, no, no. Actually, it was originally written as a hybrid where there was some found footage in it and then when we set it up at Paramount, they’ve had tremendous success with their found footage movies and they felt that this leant itself to that. To us – when I say ‘us’ I’m always referring to Platinum Dunes, my company with Michael Bay and Andrew Form. For us, a movie that we really loved at our company and we didn’t have the opportunity to make was Chronicle. We thought that movie was terrific. When we read that script we really wanted to make that movie and we didn’t get it, but we were always yearning to do a movie like that, and this felt a little bit Chronicle-y to us, although it has probably a happier ending than that one did. But, you know, that was kind of the model for us.
So the entire thing is found footage now?
How are they shooting it? Is it that the characters have their own video cameras?
FULLER: Yes. Well, the video camera is a character in the movie. I mean, part of the story is – you’re embargoed until we come out, right? Okay good – yeah, so the camera becomes a character. In the first act actually, it helps the kids realize what they need to do.
And just one camera? Or do they have many?
FULLER: Well, there’s iPhones in it. You know, the main camera character is a camera that our character’s father had. But, you know, there’s iPhones and other things also.
Found footage movies tend to have an interesting tone, and a lot of times horror movies can play with humor and different things. Where does the tone of this one come in?
FULLER: You know, I think at the end of the day the tone, assuming we’re successful with this and I think we will be, is fun. We just really want to have fun. For me, this is a very exciting movie. We’re not cutting off anyone’s head, we haven’t killed anyone in the whole movie so far and I think we’re going to go the whole way. It’s better than being in some basement, in some dark basement for five, six weeks. So we want to make more fun movies. It feels like that’s the direction.
Can you tell us about the director? He’s a first-time director, right?
FULLER: Yes. Dean Israelite is a first-time director. We know Dean because Dean’s cousins with Jonathan Liebesman who’s directing Turtles for us up in New York. So we knew Dean from Jonathan. Dean also worked with Jonathan on Battle: LA even though we didn’t make that movie, everyone who made that movie, we’re all friends, so we knew Dean. And then when we got the script we gave it to Dean because he was looking to do his first movie. And he came up with a presentation that was art – I mean, Dean is as hard-working a director as I’ve met in a long time and when we gave him the script, he didn’t come back and say, ‘I’ve got three notes on the script.’ He came back with a full multi-media presentation on how he would make this movie. So he was the only director we went to. We as a company loved him and we had to convince Paramount that this was the right guy with the right vision and that he would be able to execute it. But, you know, a movie like this, from my point of view, it’s good to have a younger director because this is a younger story. I don’t have to be cool. The directors I hire have to be cool and I feel like Dean’s really cool. Like, I’ve never been to a rock concert like what we’re going to here, you know? [Laughs] He knows all about that, and the kids love him, and he communicates with these kids in a great way, so it feels to me like we made a very good choice.
What was in that presentation that really sold you?
FULLER: He shot a couple scenes from the movie and then he cut it together and added some music to it, and then he did storyboards, and then he did this crazy thing where he had storyboards, which I’ve seen before, but then he acted out the storyboards with a score. So he brings in his computer, and his computer has – have you seen the Beats, but they make a Pill, it’s called the Pill now and you can plug it into your computer and you get sound? So he’s got that, he’s got music, and then he talks the whole storyboard, the whole sequence, for seven minutes perfectly, telling [Paramount president] Adam Goodman exactly what would happen all the way through. And it was just very impressive. He was just so prepared.
FULLER: No. Well, it might. It depends how much Paramount gives us for music. We’ll see. [Laughs] I’d love it to. It’s an important part of this movie, but we’ll see what we have.
The assistant that you said was a writer, was that Andrew [Stark] or Jason [Pagan]?
Do they ever go back in time far enough that it becomes a problem, that the camera stands out?
FULLER: No. No. If anything, the camera they’re using stands out in modern day because the camera that most of the film takes place on is about 10 years old. But those cameras were good, too. Luckily their dad had a great camera, so the movie’ll look good!
What did he do on Battle: LA? What’s Dean’s background?
FULLER: Dean was Jon’s assistant on Battle: LA. He kind of followed him around and apprenticed Jon on that movie. That’s a big movie to walk around – but Dean also went to AFI. He shot a great short. It’s excellent. We were really impressed.
I remember I did the Battle: LA set visit and I remember the story that Jonathan gave an extraordinary pitch to get that movie that was very similar to this.
FULLER: Yes, very similar. That was a crazy pitch that Jonathan did. He did a great job with that.
When you guys were casting the film, it seems like most of them are fresh faces. Was that important?
Was there any pressure to get more recognizable young stars?
FULLER: No. Luckily Paramount was great about that. Truth be told, we don’t pay the actors a ton of money in these movies so usually we’re taking, you know, people at the beginning of their careers and so it’s a long auditioning process and all of these actors, I didn’t know any of them before we did this, before we auditioned them, and their auditions were pretty good. Sofia [Black-D’Elia] I had heard of because she came in a couple times on Transformers 4, so Michael was aware of Sofia. Jonny [Weston] I was kind of aware of. I knew his movie. I hadn’t seen it at that point. My sons had seen that movie. And the other three, fresh faces, came in, auditioned and got it.
FULLER: The most challenging thing for me has been shooting a found footage movie. I’ve never done that before. And found footage movies have their own rules. It’s just different. I’ve been doing this for a long time now and I’m used to doing it a certain way and basically every rule or trick that I fall back on does not exist here. So it’s kind of, you’re out here, it feels like, without a net. It’s very challenging because we want it to feel like an authentic found footage movie, but it also needs to look a certain way and we have to make sure we’re capturing the story, and it’s a lot of different things to manage.
Have you picked up on any dos or don’ts from other found footage movies?
FULLER: Yes, I have. Well, Paramount’s been very generous. They’ve shown us some of their other found footage movies. I guess one of the things is, if you’re shooting a found footage movie, it’s counter-intuitive because if I know that you and I are having a conversation here, I’m going to want to see you when I’m a viewer in the movie, but in a found footage movie, you can’t always see the person who’s talking. So sometimes your head will be cut off or the camera will be looking over there and you and I will be having the conversation, and that’s a very hard thing to get around, you know what I mean? Hard to say, ‘Well, how are we doing a scene without the actors really, actually, in the scene,’ and things like that. So those type of things where you’re trying to make it feel like you’re capturing something authentically found footage-y, that’s the hardest thing to do. I’d love to do master, over and over. It’s very simple and we’ve done it and we kind of know what that is, but you don’t do that here so the challenge is, how do you capture the dramatic scenes and still make the camera feel like it’s a witness to what’s happening?
One of the positives for a studio in a found footage movie is low cost. Obviously we don’t want the number, but on the range of Platinum Dunes movies, is this on the lower end?
FULLER: Yeah, but all of our movies, I would say, with the exception of The Purge, which that was a different lower-budget realm, everything is within the same $7 or $8 million dollars that we’ve always done. This is on the lower end of that, but we’ve done movies, I can tell you that Texas Chainsaw cost less than this did and Nightmare on Elm Street cost more. It’s kind of in the middle.
You said there was a point when the script went from including found footage to being entirely found footage. What were some of the challenges to justifying every moment that you’re going to have to film?
FULLER: Well, frankly we’re wrestling with that on a daily basis. Like I said, you have dramatic scenes that are taking place in a way where you want to convey the characters’ emotions, but you can’t fall back on the close-up of this to feel their emotion. And the question is, how do you convey that emotion with a camera that might be on the other side of the room? And sometimes it’s about re-blocking a scene or having a character pick up the camera and take it over somewhere else and you have to motivate that aspect of it, which has nothing to do with the scene really, but you have to do it so you can capture the emotion on the character’s face. It’s stuff like that that’s really challenging, that I’ve never had to deal with. You know, I was never good in algebra and this feels like it’s a lot of algebra.
Is there any aspect of it that you feel gets opened up by …
FULLER: Oh, absolutely, because what it does is, you don’t cut because the shot isn’t perfectly constructed, right? And you’re looking for the magic to happen between the actors that no one was expecting. For example, you guys came right as it was happening. One of our characters here was dancing around and a hot girl comes up to him and just starts kissing him. I think you guys just missed when that happened. We didn’t tell him that this girl was going to do that. We just had this hot girl come up and truly just start sucking his face. [Laughs] And when you capture that, the look on his face is different than if he knows he’s going to make out with this hot girl. Stuff like that, and then if you do it in found footage, it feels natural. It was natural. You know, if we were lighting it, if I was in the basement about to kill the girl right after she made out with him, I would have to light it perfectly. None of that here, you know? We don’t really have lights, as you see, and we just kind of had to capture that moment the way it was. So it’s very liberating in that respect. You get a lot of liberating things. You know, it’s just different.
When you name the movie Almanac and it’s time travel, you obviously think of Back to the Future II, and this doesn’t have a sports almanac in it. Was that a discussion, if it was going to point people the wrong way or was that a positive?
FULLER: Well, you can’t talk about time travel without those movies. I mean, they’re seminal. I want to buy that sports almanac. If I saw that was for sale … [Laughs] You know, there are things like that that we tip our hat to in this movie, and I think you kind of have to do that. We don’t, well, you’ll see. You definitely can’t make a time travel movie without talking about Back to the Future.
FULLER: No, the specific sports almanac? No, no, we didn’t do that. No, “almanac” is the name – am I allowed to say this? “Almanac” is the name – I’m allowed to say the whole thing? “Almanac” is the name of the project that our lead’s father was working on when he was trying to develop time travel in 2004. And he worked for DARPA [The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and that was the name of the project.
So maybe he was a Back to the Future II fan?
FULLER: [Laughs] Yes, definitely. That’s probably where it came from. You can ask the writers.
You said most of the found footage is shot by this camera that he found that belonged to his father. How are you capturing what happens before that?
FULLER: That’s a great question. We are using iPhones. For the most part, it’s all iPhone.
Is there a reason why they’re shooting on their iPhones at the beginning of the movie?
FULLER: All I can tell you is my kids shoot everything that happens. [Laughs] I have a 19-year-old and a 16-year-old. You’re welcome to talk to them. There is nothing in my house that is private anymore, so this is what these kids do. I mean, my dinner last night is on the Internet. You can go and see it. My son shot it and it’s right there. If Paramount didn’t shut it down, my son would be making 500 Vines today. Now I didn’t know what a Vine was three weeks ago, but I know what it is now and he does them out there. This is this generation. That’s why I said I don’t have to be cool but Dean is because that’s kind of the way the world is. Instagram now has a video thing, did you all know this?
Yeah, Vine’s already outdated.
FULLER: Yeah, Vine’s outdated. I feel like our audience in this movie will understand that everything is on Facebook or Twitter and all that.
Are you literally shooting this on iPhones?
FULLER: No, we’re shooting it on a RED. I mean, Michael Bay’s name is on this movie. It’s gotta look a certain way. If it doesn’t, that will not be good for me.
Do you feel like there was excitement between all the various partners and studios because of the concept, the genre elements, touching on the Chronicle thing, you’ve got a little bit of Project X going on out there?
FULLER: Listen, we hope it does. At the end of the day, I think that for our company, we’re always eager to make commercial films and when we read something that has a lot of commercial appeal we get behind it and push it as hard as we can. This obviously checked all those boxes for us and more. And luckily it’s not such an expensive movie where the studio has put themselves in a position, you know, we have a little bit of luxury to experiment. Paramount has established to a certain degree what a found footage movie is. My question is, what’s the next generation of a found footage movie and where does it go? If we would have talked a couple years ago and you had asked me about found footage, I think I probably would have said, ‘I don’t know if that’s a real genre yet.’ I mean, I knew the Paranormals were working, but it truly has spawned a whole different genre. Especially in the horror world. And I guess it’s incumbent upon us to break it out of horror and bring it into this. And Paramount’s trying to do that with Destination Wedding. They have a comedy that they’re trying to do it with. So it could become a whole different subset. And the thing about it – and I don’t meant to get too macro – but it kind of makes sense on a macro level that – I keep referring to my kids but that’s the only way that I know what’s really happening in the world – my son is watching movies and reading books on his phone so the question then becomes, a found footage movie feels very natural to see on the devices that are capturing it, so it feels like maybe it is something that’s here to stay and maybe that’s the way that movies get made going forward.
You said that it’s up to you to take it out of horror and into this. What’s this? What would you call the genre of this movie?
FULLER: What are you guys calling it? … well what was Chronicle? What would you say Chronicle was?
I guess sci-fi …
Found footage superhero, I guess?
Found footage thriller?
FULLER: Maybe that’s what it is.
Teen action drama.
FULLER: I would never use the word ‘drama’ in anything that we do. [Laughs] It just doesn’t seem to fit.
You mentioned Michael as one of your partners. What’s his specific involvement? It’s a name that our readers obviously gravitate towards.
FULLER: Well, as a company, this is our 11th film together. His involvement is the same. It’s the three of us sitting in a room, figuring out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to make it work, and Michael lends his expertise at different times in the process. Michael’s very involved in the script, he’s involved with the casting, he’s involved with the wardrobe, he is very involved with the cut when we get to that, and he’s very involved with the marketing. I talk to Bay 20 times a day, he knows everything that’s happening here, he knows everything that’s happening on Turtles.
And he’s working too.
FULLER: And he’s working too. So we’re all kind of tired.
You guys ever do three movies like this at once?
FULLER: Well, I don’t mean to be arrogant but we have another thing going right now, too.
FULLER: We have four things happening right now and we’ve never had that happen. And it’s a true blessing to have that happen. We’ve always been a small company so that there’s always one of us somewhere and this is the first time that one of us can’t be …
What is the fourth thing?
FULLER: We’re doing a pilot for A&E. It wraps next week.
Do you have any ideas for marketing? At this point nobody really knows anything, so is that the game you’re going to play as you roll it out?
FULLER: Paramount’s really smart about that and I’m not going to question them. I think that they consistently nail it, and really, I think this is right up their alley. I’m sure they’ll come up with a lot of brilliant things. I’m not trying to be political. Whatever they want to do.
I’ve heard Chronicle mentioned a lot as a reference point here. I think one of the things about Chronicle is that it escalates in scale in an unexpected way. Is there anything like that …
FULLER: You know, Chronicle gets very big in its third act. Is that what you’re referring to?
Yeah, and not necessarily. I don’t expect explosions and big action stuff, but does it go places that are not necessarily expected?
FULLER: What you’re seeing today is the equivalent of whatever a big thing in Chronicle would have been. We don’t have our characters going into a very dark place necessarily. There’s a little bit of that. When you mess around with time travel there’s always ramifications in doing that. But whereas Chronicle went dark, I’m hoping we go fun.
Would you say that Chronicle is also similar in that the camera is a character in the film?
FULLER: In Chronicle they did it a very clever way where he could control the camera with his mind. We can’t do that. The camera is a character in this film in that specifically one of our lead characters is always carrying the camera and she’s always talking, so it’s almost like it’s her, kind of. And then she’ll pass it on to other characters, but for the most part it’s mainly her.
Is it the sister?
FULLER: Yeah, Ginny [Gardner].