Project Almanac is facing quite the uphill battle. One, found footage now comes with a negative connotation, two, it isn’t easy to convincingly sell time travel and three, the movie’s release date was pushed back a year. If you’re skeptical, it’s understandable, but having been on set and having seen the film at San Diego Comic Con, I can assure you that Project Almanac is a fun, fresh and surprisingly grounded success.
Back in July 2013 I got the opportunity to visit the film’s Atlanta, Georgia set where stars Jonny Weston, Allen Evangelista, Sam Lerner, Ginny Gardner and Sofia Black-D’Elia as well as director Dean Israelite, writer Andrew Stark and producer Brad Fuller were all there to discuss the use of found footage, how time travel works and what makes this movie such a blast. Hit the jump for over 20 things to know about Project Almanac.
Click here to check out the trailer for Project Almanac.
First, here are the basics. The film stars Weston as David, a particularly bright high school student who finds his late father’s time machine blueprints. With help from his friends, Quinn (Lerner) and Adam (Evangelista), David sets out to finish what his father started and build a functional time machine while his sister Christina (Gardner) films what happens.
Fuller first met Stark back when he was Andrew Rona’s assistant at Rogue. “I lost touch with him, and then three, four years later, he sends the script for this movie.” Fuller continued, “We read it and we just loved the script.”
Fuller met Israelite through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman. Israelite is Liebesman’s cousin and also worked as his assistant on Battle: Los Angeles. Fuller noted, “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.”
Israelite locked the gig by putting together a killer presentation. “He came up with a presentation that was art.” Fuller pointed out that typically he’ll give a potential director a script and he or she will come back with a few notes. Israelite, however, shot a couple of scenes from the movie and returned with an incredible multimedia presentation. “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.”
The writers came up with the original title, Almanac, using a random word generator. Stark and Pagan wanted to name the movie after the secret project that David’s father was working on so they decided to do it the same way that agencies name covert projects, by using a random word generator. Stark joked, “I’d love to take full credit, but somewhere is a website that you just keep pushing spacebar. We just got lucky that that word came up.”
It wasn’t always a fully found footage film. “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.” Fuller continued, “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.”
In the first draft, the characters traveled back to 1896. Fuller further explained, “It was this crazy thing where they had to get enough electricity to get back to the current day.”
Building a time machine is more interesting than actually time traveling. Stark recalled hearing a story about one of the largest photo libraries in the world and the requests that they get for impossible photographs, like pictures of Joan of Arc and Jesus. That got Stark and co-writer Jason Pagan thinking, wouldn’t it be interesting to go back in time with a video camera and see what those things really looked like? However, Stark noted, “We wrote this section in the middle where the kids were building the machine itself and learning to use it and testing it, and it actually was the most interesting section of the movie and so we sort of were like, let’s go back in history some other time.”
Project Almanac is packed with time travel Easter eggs. Stark noted, “The movie is fraught with sort of Easter eggs and secrets and little moments and things that harken back to many different parts of mythology.” For example, Stark and Pagan came up with the idea that the people responsible for starting the time machine blueprints were big fans of time travel movies so “some wiseass in this sort of DARPA covert operation decided to name it after something he was a fan of.”
One character is named after a girl Stark and Pagan dated at the same time. Stark explained, “Jason and I, the way we met is we both dated the same girl at the same time and found that out the hard way, and so there is a particular character in the movie who is not the most favorable and she’s named after that person.”
There was a very lengthy audition process for the movie. Evangelista recalled, “We’ve been auditioning for this for like six or seven months.” After a good deal of auditions, callbacks and mixing and matching, Lerner and Evangelista got their parts. While the filmmakers were still casting some of the other roles, they had them make a little found footage movie of their own. Evangelista explained, “We had to go into Ralph’s and film a raw footage story.”
David – The Leader: Weston explained, “My character is David and his father passed away when he was young and left him kind of something behind.” He continued, “I’m this kid with a couple of really close friends. Not necessarily popular, you know?”
Adam – David’s Spock: “I would say if Quinn is the devil, Adam’s like the angel on the shoulders.” Evangelista added, “He’s like Spock to Kirk. He’s the no-nonsense, this is strictly facts, we should be careful, we should be safer, and Quinn is like, ‘WHAT?!’ And does the exact opposite.”
Quinn – The Costa: Lerner noted, “I’m like [David’s] friend that’s super confident and is all talk and is like, ‘Dude, I’ve hooked up with tons of girls,’ and it’s like, really I haven’t, but I act like I have all the answers. It’s like in Project X, it’s like Costa.” In fact, Lerner actually auditioned with sides from Project X.
Christina – The Camerawoman: As Gardner explained, Christina is “the annoying little sister that’s always giving David crap for being a nerd. He’s in his room doing science stuff instead of hooking up with chicks and I’m always giving him crap for that.” Evangelista also pointed out, “Ginny does most of the camerawork.”
Jessie – The Love Interest: “I think at first she seems kind of like your typical popular girl, but she’s pretty badass in my opinion.” Black-D’Elia also dubbed her the “catalyst” of the time travel mission. Whereas the guys aren’t very popular and more tepid, she’s confident, a bit bored with her current situation and ready to make something happen.
It isn’t easy nailing time travel logic. When the characters go back in time in Project Almanac their actions affect the present so the filmmakers really had to take the time to sort out the narrative during the development process. Israelite noted, “The logic is hard. You come up with a great idea and you get all excited that it’s going to work.” He continued, “Then you go down two hours and then one guy turns to everyone and goes, ‘Wait, that makes absolutely no sense because if he was there, then this wouldn’t have happened, then this,’ and it completely implodes.” However, that doesn’t mean the Project Almanac team was a slave to the time travel logic. Israelite also added, “I think it was being respectful to the logic, but then also being able to let some of the logic go when the emotion of that was more important or the fun of that needed to be more important.”
Time travel is harder in Project Almanac. Israelite explained, “I’m South African so I fly to South Africa all of the time and I’m totally f*cked up after a 24-hour flight. I’m totally f*cked up when I get there and I haven’t time travelled, so if I’m f*cked up just going on a plane, what are these characters going to feel like when they go back in time?”
What does time travel look like? There’s no flashy light or disappearing trick in Project Almanac. Israelite’s version of time travel is very raw and grounded. Israelite began, “The concept behind it is that it really affects the environment in adverse ways, so when you turn the time machine on there’s gonna be a whole bunch of chaos.” When David and his friends flip the time machine switch, the electromagnetic energy will cause weightlessness, objects will start to shake and shockwaves will emanate out from the time machine, almost as if a huge storm is brewing. Israelite added, “Things speed ramp, but again all of the chaos is grounded in real elements in the scene.” For example, when they’re down in the basement, the tools start to spin and levitate, and then there’s also a scene during which they unscrew a light bulb, but the bulb stays lit because it’s giving out all of this electromagnetic energy. Israelite concluded, “It’s the regular world reacting in irregular ways.”
How does this time machine work? A time machine may be an out-of-this-world concept, but the Project Almanac time machine is comprised of real world elements. Israelite broke it down for us. “They find all of these blue prints, these schematics from 12 years ago that were put together by DARPA, but they don’t have the money or the resources to build the machine that’s laid out, so they have to improvise their own sort of ghetto version of the time machine and that’s why the time machine has limited power.” At the heart of the machine is this glass circuit, something Israelite likens to the flux capacitor. The way the kids feed information into the glass circuit and pull information out of it is by using the graphics processor from an Xbox and some common CPU processors, and then they have them interface with some hydrogen that they steal from school. They use an app they created for their phones to plug in their desired date, boot up the machine, it pulls hydrogen into the glass circuit and that’s where the fusion reaction takes place so that they can go time traveling.
This is a Michael Bay movie. There are explosions. Lerner and Evangelista were thrilled to tell us about an “explosion” scene they shot the other day. Evangelista explained, “We had some pyrotechnic stuff, so that was kind of cool.” Lerner clarified, “Let me back up for a second there! It was like some smoke and sparks going off.” He continued, “And then [Allen] comes and fire extinguishes me.” Evangelista added, “That was the first time you hear the whole set just crack up because it was perfect timing.”
This was a top secret shoot. At the time, the cast couldn’t announce their involvement on social media. Evangelista noted, “Out of anything I ever read, this is probably the most security-wise.” Lerner added, “I’ve never dealt with anything like this. There’s a secret title of the movie around here. It’s like Cinema 1.”
The goal is to deliver a fun film. “At the end of the day, the tone, assuming we’re successful with this and I think we will be, is fun.” Fuller also pointed out, “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.”
From a distance, you might not have realized this was a movie set. We pulled up to a field and found a blow-up slide, a gigantic tent, an area with some seating and tons of people walking around, much like a town carnival or festival of sorts. Sure enough, the unit publicist soon revealed that that’s exactly what the set was supposed to be – a music festival. Or at least part of a music festival. The plan was to shoot the key scenes and get close-ups in the field, but then to film the rest at an actual festival. At the time they were considering Lollapalooza.
As we got closer, everything came into focus. The tent had a VIP lounge, a stage and space for dancing, the outside seating area was brimming with color and extras dressed in a wide variety of outrageous attire were admiring a long wall titled “Before I Die,” which had a wealth of “before I die” goals scrawled across it. But the real action was over at the Slippery Slope Supra Slide.
Weston, Black-D’Elia, Evangelista, Lerner and Gardner were all there shooting a scene. They each took turns coming down the water slide with the camera in various places – going down the slide with them or waiting at the bottom and watching them come down. They all had red wristbands on and a few had “VIP All Access 2014 Spring Music Festival” lanyards around their necks.
For the most part, Gardner held the camera as the group went up, came down and then cheered and bantered. We only caught bits and pieces of the conversation, but at one point, Black-D’Elia turned to Weston and yelled, “You stopped and held up the whole line! I had to push you down!” Later on he joked back, “I’m so unscared, I’ll go head first!” When the two of them weren’t flirting, there were jokes about Evangelista and Gardner’s characters having a little something going on.
After a couple of hours, the crew moved over to the wall. They began rehearsing a far more intimate scene with Black-D’Elia and Weston. She’s standing there reading the wall alone. We see him approach from behind, but before going up to her, he rehearses what he’s going to say first. Finally he moves in and they walk and talk for a bit until she walks away. We didn’t have headsets so couldn’t hear any of the dialogue, but it was clear he was trying to make a move and failed.
After some rehearsal time with the two main actors, they started bringing in extras for additional camera rehearsals. There were loads of fun details when it came to background performers. People were dancing like crazy, others were playing Frisbee, some were reading or writing on the Before I Die wall. One guy had his face painted like a tiger, there was a French maid strutting around with an umbrella, a goofy looking guy rocking a broken umbrella, girls with angels wings, a guy with a beer mug hat and so many more, and Israelite and his team took great care in placing all of them.
Israelite’s eye and work ethic were particularly impressive. Initially I thought he was the AD because he was talking to everyone. He was so involved, working with the actors and calling for more extras. He’s easily one of the most hands-on directors I’ve ever had the opportunity to see work on set.
Check out even more from my Project Almanac set visit: