Dean Israelite interview: Project Almanac, WarGames

We talk to the director of Project Almanac about teen movies, critics, found footage and his forthcoming WarGames remake...

With Project Almanac, Dean Israelite went from maker of short films to feature director. A teen sci-fi fable about a group of friends who build a time machine and watch as their meddling with the past begins to ripple out of control, it’s shot in a found-footage style with lots of references to all kinds of contemporary bits of tech: Xboxes, smart phones, YouTube and Twitter. Simply put, it’s a time travel movie for the iPad generation.

Ahead of Project Almanac’s UK release, we spoke to Israelite about the making of its debut, critics’ complaints about its supposed product placement, working within the constraints of the found footage genre, and why he’s so keen to remake the Cold War teen adventure, WarGames.

I wonder if you could talk first of all about how you developed the story when you came aboard, because I know the script had already been written, hadn’t it?

Yes. The writers had been working on the script with the producers for I think about two years before I came on, and they had been through many more iterations than even we went through in the time I hopped on to shoot it. But even from when I came on until we went into production, the script changed a lot. It changed in a few ways, and it didn’t change in a fundamental way. 

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It changed in the sense that we really tried to home in on what this movie would look like if it was really about teenagers today, and what they would do with this device. How we could create a fun, wish-fulfillment adventure in the vein of movies we all loved as kids, like The Goonies or Ferris Bueller or Risky Business, in a sense. Really tap into teenage culture of today, and explore what they would do if they had this device. That was a main directional choice that we took. 

The other thing we homed in on was, how do we make the time travel feel different to other time travel stories that had come before us? We were obviously standing on the shoulders of giants in the genre, so how can we find our own small place in that genre?

To me, from the very beginning, it was all about making the time travel totally imperfect. Completely unpredictable. Full of obstacles and conflict. So what I wanted to happen was, we’d have kids who need to learn as they start to put this machine together – how it might work. They make way more mistakes than they have successes in the first act of the movie. 

And because of that, once they get the time machine to work, we as an audience will feel like that moment is earned. We never had the budget and the resources, and even if we did, I never wanted to have to deal with what the time travel itself might look like. Originally, in the draft, their were ideas of wormholes and vortexes, and all that was very interesting, but I felt that we’d seen a version of that before. 

What I became more interested in was, what are the effects of time travel? On the characters and on the environment around them. If we concentrated on what the time machine does to the environment, once you turn it on, rather than the actual journey from one time and place to another would look like, I thought then we could be doing interesting things that would remain grounded, and feel a little more real. Because the stuff you’re going to see manipulated in the frame are things we interact with in our everyday lives – glasses of water or books or a lamppost or light fixtures. Once we came to this idea, that we wanted it to affect the environment, and also be very violent and unpredictable, that became the focus in the script.

Then the thing that did not change, even as the way we rendered the time travel change, and the way we tried to get into the wish-fulfillment of these characters changed a lot, what didn’t change was the protagonist’s journey. Always, from the first draft, it was a coming-of-age story and it was always a story about a kid who had to come to learn that the only way to truly change his past was to learn to live with it. To learn to accept it.

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His journey always, from the first draft, was about a kid who had to learn that it’s not about changing who he is, it’s about realising that he was enough from the beginning. That theme, that central idea, was always in the heart of the script, and it’s a huge credit to the writers, Jason and Andrew, and really remained our true north, even as we were changing other stuff around that. 

It’s interesting, because a lot of time travel films are about regrets, second chances or righting wrongs. This one’s about accepting the past for what it is.

That to me was what was powerful about it. It was the main thing I latched onto. I hoped we could make the time travel thrilling, and the wish-fulfillment really exciting and contemporary. But underneath all that, we needed some kind of heart beat. I think it is interesting, and I think it speaks to teenage culture and all of us when we were kids. It’s hard in high school to accept who you are. It takes your high school years and into college in your 20s to really start to feel comfortable about who you are, what you’ve done and where you want to go. To settle into yourself. I think it’s really apt that it’s what the movie deals with, especially for teenagers. 

I wonder as well whether the film’s a bit of a comment on the way we all use phones these days and film things on them. Because it’s almost as though the time machine becomes like a mobile phone: instead of living in the moment, you’re going back and changing the past, like recording a gig on your phone instead of just enjoying it as it unfolds in front of you.

Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I never quite thought of it like that, but definitely what we had thought about was the idea that the machine was almost a false power. That for the protagonist, for all the help he’s getting with the time machine, what’s important is what’s happening inside, and by the end, without giving too much away, that comes full circle. 

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But yes, that idea of teenagers and their obsession with devices is definitely a conscious thought throughout the movie. Obviously, they film the movie on multiple devices, which is totally a comment in and of itself, they’re using their devices all the time – they’re on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. They bring up all of that stuff all the time. They use those to find out what was or wasn’t cool to check out at Lollapalooza. 

The time machine itself interfaces with their technology – the Xbox, their smartphone, their apps. It’s a comment about the ubiquity of technology in teenage culture, and how they might go about building a time machine, in the sense that they’re using the technology that’s around them. 

So you’re right in your point that at some level it all just becomes a crutch, that it’s all just a little bit empty. Hopefully the movie gets to that point too. 

One point I’d like to make if I can. I’m reading all these reviews about how we have all this product placement in the movie. We have Xbox! We have product placement in the time machine! It’s totally false.

There is no product placement. We put the Xbox into the time machine because we thought that’s what kids would use. They needed a graphics processor, so they go into the thing they have available that has a graphics processor inside it. And that’s the Xbox. There’s a bit of a fantastical logic to all of that, but what was important to me was, that feels true to teenagers.

There was a conscious effort in all of that, rather than us trying to get money from Xbox. 

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I thought it was quite funny. I liked the idea of using a Toyota Prius as well, to power it. I thought it was quite a fresh idea.

Yeah, it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek. It’s meant to be fun and playful.

I wonder if you could talk a bit about the found footage aspect. How did that develop? Did you conceive of it as a found-footage movie from the beginning, or did you maybe think of it being more of a hybrid at one point?

From the very beginning, the truth is that I wasn’t going to approach it as a pure found footage movie. I wanted it to be a hybrid as you say, more in the vein of something like End Of Watch, but tonally very different. You come into a lot of the scenes through the characters’ devices, but a certain point you slip from their devices, and you’re shooting it in a somewhat more conventional style between the two cameras. Then you hope the audience goes with it and doesn’t feel the difference, but you’re able to tell the story with maybe more of a variety of tools. You aren’t compelled by the absolute limitations of found footage. You enter into a contract with the audience; you start the scene looking through their devices, then go into a more conventional cinema-making style, and because the aesthetic’s the same, you don’t push the audience out of the movie.

That was my initial approach. As we started to develop the script with the studio, it became very important to the studio to make it a quote-unquote pure, honest found footage movie. What I had to go back and figure out for myself was, would I be able to achieve the feel, tell the story with the intimacy and the theatricality, with the absolute limitations of found footage? I had to storyboard some of the hardest scenes – the big time travel scenes where you have a lot of detail you need to shoot, a sense of spectacle you need to cover. 

As I started to storyboard those scenes, I found that the limitations were allowing me to make interesting stylistic choices that I otherwise wouldn’t have made. It forced me to think about, well, if I can’t move the camera, how can I get a cool wide shot where I can put the camera down on a table at a weird angle? How do I keep the scene alive just with all of the blocking, and how will that give a cool, real-time feel, but also keep the scene very dynamic?

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It forced me to make unconventional choices, and it led to things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in a conventional movie. That began to feel like a really exciting opportunity, that yes, absolutely, I can get the feel I wanted to within these limitations, and maybe I could make some interesting, unconventional choices within it. 

Am I right in thinking that, although a found footage film has to look spontaneous by its nature, the reality of making it is the opposite: you have to plan everything very carefully, otherwise it won’t cut together properly?

Right. 100 percent. Every single shot in our movie has been planned ahead of time. Every single shot was either shot listed or storyboarded. There is a lot of planning that went into everything, because it’s very hard to capture the scene in a way that, as you say, feels spontaneous and off-the-cuff, when in fact the actors are hitting all of their marks, saying all their lines in the script, and you’re coordinating practical effects and visual effects, and planning for all of that stuff in post-production. So there’s a lot of meticulous planning that goes into all of that to make it feel off-the-cuff.

How do you think the fact that we all have filming devices around us, and we have things like YouTube now, how’s that changed formal filmmaking? Is it a two-way street, where the look of, say, YouTube footage has found its way into cinema?

I think there’s no doubt about it. Even if you look at the reaction my film has gotten, where it feels to me that once you are of a certain age – not everyone, this is a generalisation – but once you are of a certain age, there’s a big disconnect between the film and the audience. The audience can’t get past the found footage, jerky nature of the film itself. Once you go below a certain age – 25 and under or something – it is the complete opposite reaction. There isn’t a thought given to that. They don’t even comment on it. It just becomes a part of the way they consume and create their own media. I don’t think it’s going to change the fundamentals of cinema, in terms of visual storytelling – visual storytelling will always have the same fundamentals – but I do think it’s entered the water supply. It’s a new stylistic choice. I don’t necessarily mean found footage exclusively, but rather that YouTube aesthetic. By the way, I don’t mean ugly or unproduced. It’s just a feeling.

You must have shown the film for young viewers – teens and 20s – in test screenings. What sort of feedback did you get?

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Well, those things are always tough, because you need to analyse the feedback, and uncover what the notes behind the notes are. You have to be careful, because you need to be making your movie. Although you can take on an audience of 200 people’s points of view, you still have to be making your movie. So you filter it through what you’re trying to do. 

So say an audience wants a happy ending, doesn’t mean that’s what they actually need. That’s a golden rule in terms of preview screenings. What is helpful is that it tells you how engaged they are in the storytelling. What jokes are and aren’t working. Where the time travel logic breaks down for them, or where it’s just interesting enough that it holds their attention, and then on the other side of the spectrum, where it’s so overly explained that they start to lose interest. So in those arenas, it becomes extremely helpful. It was helpful, for example, in our third act, where we asked a lot of the audience in terms of them engaging with the time travel logic. It’s helpful to see where they’re with you and where they start to break down.  

So I’ve heard you’re doing WarGames. Is that right? You’re still working on it?

Yes. Still working on WarGames. Have a few other things in development, but WarGames is definitely up there as one of the things I hope will go next. We’ve been developing the script, and I think it’s an exciting project. If there’s ever a reason to remake a movie, it’s WarGames. If there was ever a movie primed to say something new and bold and relevant for our time, it’s WarGames. So that’s why I see the potential in remaking the movie.

Like any filmmaker, I think I’m always very sceptical of remakes, because the story’s already been told. Why tell it again? With this particular title, I feel it’s primed to say something new. 

Do you think you’ll make it in a similar style to Project Almanac? The found footage style?

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No. It definitely won’t be the found footage style, and it probably won’t be as handheld. I haven’t figured out fully the stylistic approach, but absolutely the film will have to feel immediate, intimate, energetic, and have a kind of teenage youthfulness to it. That will influence the energy of the photography, and I think it will have to feel unflinchingly real, because we’re going to be dealing with the technology we interact with every day, and the consequences of that, and so I think that world is going to have to feel completely real for it to feel relevant to everyone in the audience. 

Dean Israelite, thank you very much.

Project Almanac is out in UK cinemas on 16th February.