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Interview HTF Exclusive Interview with Director Dean Isrealite (Project Almanac) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Home Theater Forum recently had the pleasure of talking with Dean Isrealite, director of the time-travel themed Project Almanac. The story centers on a small group of friends who uncover an experimental time-travel device. The leader of the friends, and MIT-hopeful, is able to get the machine working and the group then begin small steps into the past. But soon, things begin to unravel in the ‘present day’ they create as a result of their incursions into the past, and their adventures may be their undoing.


The film is shot in the ‘found footage’ style, capturing footage from personal recording devices the group uses to document their experiments and adventures. Time-travel stories are plenty in cinema, and Project Almanac manages to bring a fresh voice to familiar conceits of time travel stories, and with a likeable, youthful cast, keeps the energy and fun high while the pressure of their dangerous adventures begins to grow.


Project Almanac is available now from Paramount on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.

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HTF: Talk about the challenge of shooting in the Found Footage style used for Project Almanac. What considerations do you have to make regarding how much movement to allow the camera to make and how to fit in times where the camera can logically be placed on a stable setting in order to give the audience some time to orient. How hard is that to set up sequences and shots when shooting in that style?


Dean Isrealite: Yeah, it's extremely challenging. I mean, I'd never shot [that way before,] none of my shorts were shot Found Footage, one was hand held, which I like a lot, but none of them were actually Found Footage. It's the real challenge. The challenge for us was [that] we have both an intimate personal love story that's going on - in which you need to photograph a lot of small beats between characters - and then you also have the time travel. A lot of times, those two things are intersecting in the same scene. You need to be able to both be very specific and intimate, and then also give yourself enough scope that you're filming the adventure of the movie. And then kind of match to work out how you are going to be able move the camera into those radically different positions, to be photographing those very different emotions, was really a fun challenge because it allowed you to figure out cool ways where one character could pick the camera up and do a certain thing, and then maybe place it down on a table. And that, then, allowed the audience to orientate themselves and give you the scope of a cool wide shot, in and out, to use sort of all the props in the foreground, the way that they started to float and become affected, in an interesting way, and to continue telling the story of the time travel. And then maybe the table would move and that became a dolly shot, and maybe someone else would pick the camera up.


You had to be very inventive with how the camera has to move. It allows you to do, I think, unconventional photography. That leads you to cool and interesting places where some things are more interesting because you're barely seeing them. They're taking place more off-screen than they are on-screen. I think it leads you to interesting places. But going back to your original question, it is very challenging to be able to choreograph the camera in order to achieve all the different kinds of moments and emotions that you need.


HTF: Project Almanac was your first feature as a directorial feature. What, if anything, did you find particularly different on a production of that size, I mean, outside of budget and time, compared to the shorts that you've created?

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Dean Isrealite: To be honest, I didn't find it that different. I just found that there were more people in each department and the scrip was longer [chuckles] - so you had to really track off over a much bigger period, and try keep a much bigger story intact in your own mind, knowing where you are in each moment. But I'd done a lot of short that went to the American Film Institute – which is a great school, and also being an assistant on a big-budget movie, sort of shadowing the director so I felt, very prepared for the challenges. When I showed up on set on the first day, of course, there were a lot of nerves involved, but I did feel ready to direct the movie.


HTF: One of the things that I enjoyed about Project Almanac was that it's a fun movie, but it doesn't become distracted by that sense of fun. You have a very youthful cast, working with a very interesting concept; and then you’re able to introduce weightier, more serious considerations in the story. Talk about getting the right cast, and the importance of finding the right actors to be able to have that convincing sense of fun on camera, and then to be able to transition as things start going awry to that more contemplative, serious tone. And then of course, getting the right chemistry for the romantic relationship, in particular, to take place.
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Dean Isrealite: Yeah, you're exactly right. All of those different, again, emotions, and moods all come down to the cast being able to be versatile in that way. And I really do think that the movie is successful because of these kids. We couldn't have just cast any five kids and I can't picture the movie with another five kids, honestly, and we auditioned a fortune of people. What I was looking for was kids who were able to be very real in the moment even when you're having a fun, playful time, and for that to never become an act as if you’re winking at the audience, in any way, never trying to be funny. And [this cast] just organically had really good comic timing with each other. So it feels like a bunch of real kids really having a good time, but it never feels heightened in any way.


Then I think that ability to be very natural in the moment then leads itself to the more dramatic stuff, so they're able to move into that mode as well. I think those that is really carried very well by Johnny Weston who plays the lead. Johnny, I would say, defaults as an actor to the more intense side of the spectral. He likes drama a lot. He's really good in it. He's a very complicated actor in the sense that he really thinks hard about what he's doing and gets very involved in what he's doing no matter how complicated or simple the thing is. He brings that complexity to every moment. He's also - and I think this is rare - he's also able to have a real levity about it. I think his ability to really label extreme helps to balance the movie. You can go to both those places in a natural way.

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HTF: Project Almanac is one in a long line of films and literature that have explored time travel, and I found that it brought something refreshing. And not just the found footage style but the nature of the complexity the characters were dealing was kind of refreshing, and I think having a youthful cast exploring that topic was also refreshing. But I'm interested to hear from you if you checked out the plethora of time travel films out there - Time Machine, Terminator, smaller budget ones like Primer and Predestination from a couple of years ago before you put your own spin on it. Did you find yourself re-watching any of those ahead of tackling this time travel story?


Dean Isrealite: You know, I've seen I think almost everything that you just mentioned just as a film fan. I was never really seeking out to make a time travel movie, but when I got the script, I loved it and really wanted to do it. It's not as if I was the biggest time travel fan on the planet and therefore to the movie, it was that I got this really interesting, cool script that had time travel in it, and that explored a lot of interesting things. And that's what spoke to me. I know the writers went back to all of those movies multiple times to see how they had done things, to see how we could try do things differently in our film. In fact, when I got the movie and I got the job, I went back and re-watched Back to the Future, and I re-watched Primer. And then I stopped because I found that we were trying to, as you say, "Put our own small spin on it," and find that youthful edge to it, and find the kind of contemporary style within it.


Once we found that I stopped going back because I just wanted to focus on what we were trying to do and not really be influenced by the other forms. So you inevitably are going to come to the room every day when you're breaking the story and keep referring to other things, which in some cases, can be useful; but at a certain point, you just got to try and dive in to it yourself, if that make sense.

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HTF: Yes, it does. On working on the film, what was the hardest scene or sequence to get right? Either from the complexities of thinking through the ramification of time travel, and whether or not you're staying true to the rules that you've established in the film, or just simply choreographing a particular sequence to have the actors move around, have the camera where it needs to be, and then incorporate visual effects. What was the the biggest mountain to climb?


Dean Isrealite: That's a good question because there's so many different things and so many different challenges. I think the hardest step on it would be not where there's a lot of complex camera movements and a lot of complex visual effects that are integrating with the camera - that was almost the stuff that was most fun and we were so prepared for that stuff, with all the storyboard and animatics. I think the hardest stuff, honestly, is when it's just two characters talking to each other, and there is meant to be a connection between the two of them. You’re trying to find the right balance in terms of their flirtation and their looks, and being real with each other. In the film, there’s a scene where Jessie comes down and David is fixing the time machine, trying to push it to go further. They have a long scene, and he starts talking about his dad. It's all really an exact shot because I can't get coverage. That was very difficult because they have to hold frame the whole time and they have to be connecting in the real way. That's harder than the gags.


HTF: I believe you're working on the Power Rangers movie. Are you still working on the War Games remake too?


Dean Isrealite: No, not really. I shifted all my focus to Power Rangers. We're already prepping that, so that's what taking all of my time.


HTF: Thank you for taking the time to speak with Home Theater Forum today. The best of luck with Project Almanac as it hits home release and best of luck with Power Rangers.


Dean Isrealite: Thanks very much. This is fun. Thank you.
 

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