Travel Back in Time to the Set of Project Almanac

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Just west of the heart of downtown Atlanta, Georgia, there is a big open field, the former site of the Bowen Homes public housing that were demolished in 2009, but in July of 2013 it was the scene of a music festival, sort of. Production on Platinum Dunes and Paramount’s found-footage time-travel film Project Almanac had set up shop in the acreage and created an atmosphere totally unlike anything that had ever really occurred on the land. The wild festivities of Lollapalooza were going on the muggy July day we visited the set.

A big water slide sits on the edge with shaded areas and a VIP tent across from it, and in the middle is a wall with “Before the world ends…” in bold letters. Hundreds of wishes and desires are scratched into its face and our lead character David Raskin (played by Jonny Weston) walks by with his crush Jessie (played by Sofia Black-D’Elia). They talk about the wall in front of them, while the camera watches from 30 yards away. Jessie says something we can’t hear, but David responds by trying to plant a kiss on her.

The group of assembled journalists, all hidden from the brutal sun under a tent, watch as the attempted romance plays out over a number of takes. We start to play “Most eccentric costume” with the colorful collection of extras on the set of the film featuring the likes of the Hipster Kilt Man, Beer hat Bronie, and the girl with tiger stripes painted on her face clutching a balloon animal.

“I’m about to have no shirt on and a bunch of girls are going to be painting on my body,” Sam Lerner, who plays one of David’s friends, Quinn, in the film, later said.

“Tough times,” adds Allen Evangelista, who plays Adam, another part of the film’s circle of friends.

“I know, it’s tough,” Lerner sarcastically interjects. “I read that and was like, ‘UGH.’”

It’s an appropriate day that we’ve been brought to the world of Project Almanac as the colors and commotion on set are indicative of the film’s nature and central tenant: true to teenage life. Even though the film is a science fiction romp, it holds the spirit and ideals of the teenage aesthetic at its core. Everyone has fantasized about what they could accomplish with a time machine and this film will exhibit exactly those fantasies.

“I always thought that the movie had to be really raw, very edgy, and that everything had to be super grounded and feel very real,” director Dean Israelite tells us. “If this was going to be a story about kids discovering time travel and building a time machine, then we needed to believe that they really did it. From day one, my take on the movie has been grounded, real, raw, and in terms of the kids and what they bring to it, real sort of recklessness and youth and a joy to all of that.”

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Chaos continues on the set as other sequences from the music festival sequence take place. Lerner’s Quinn goes down the giant water slide with David’s younger sister Christina, played by Ginny Gardner. The pair approach us after a take, drenched from head to toe.

“We all were obsessed with it and I was like ‘This role is freaking perfect for me,’” Lerner said. “And I definitely wanted to be a part of it a while back.”

“I’ve wanted to be a part of it since day one,” Ginny echoes. “The first time I read the script I got so excited about it and by the whole found-footage thing was such a cool exciting idea that isn’t done a lot and if we could do it and do it well it would be a very, very fun movie.”

Ginny’s Christina, the “annoying little sister” character (her words), is the guardian of the camera in the film. Though she appears on screen some, her character will provide the POV for their jumps through time and space.

“We did some practice stuff with the camera where I held it a couple of times, or we do a lot of the times I’ll spin it on myself and say something to camera. So that’s all really rehearsed to get the hand-offs just right. A lot of stuff where I set it down and put my face into it and I’m fixing the camera. It’s cool to be working with the camera and see behind-the-scenes from the camera’s perspective.

Sam chimes in saying: “She’s going to have tons of voice over.”

One of the many challenges a found-footage movie brings with it is a simple question, why is the camera on? Given it is both a physical object in the story and the window for the audience, there has to be a reason for why it is both on and displaying the events as they unfold. The film’s co-writer, Andrew Stark, elaborated on this challenge amidst the brouhaha of the set.

“We wanted to try and create a sense that these were moments that would incredibly be captured because something special was happening. And somebody was turning something on. We’re making believe in the character enough that they would actually just want to capture this moment in their everyday life. So, it’s a little bit more, I think, ambitious in that way, but as opposed to just like ‘this event has happened and we’re covering everything because of security purposes now.’ It was just like these are kids; they’re doing something amazing, and you know, hopefully everybody believes that, in this moment, they were turning the camera on because something awesome is happening in their lives.”

Brad Fuller, producing partner to Michael Bay, would later chime in that the teenage practice of filming everything around them is actually quite common.

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“All I can tell you is my kids shoot everything that happens. I have a 19 year old and a 16 year old, 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.”

Time is a strange construct in Hollywood. Studios have no qualms about having films lingering on the fence of development for years. In film school, the mantra they instill in you is “Hurry up, and wait” when you’re on a set, a tactic that seems to carry over to the development side as well. Project Almanac has been hanging around for a long time even by Hollywood standards. Its journey begins with Andrew Stark, former assistant to Andrew Rona, the former executive of Rogue Pictures, with whom Platinum Dunes had worked with on a few occasions. Stark previously spoke with Fuller about wanting to be a writer and years later brought the first draft of the film to them.

“He sends the script for this movie, and I mean, I didn’t even know he was a writer, and he says, ‘Would you guys be interested in producing this?’” Fuller recalls. “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.”

Those years of development on the script weren’t simply “Development Hell” as so many other projects find themselves in. Changes were of course made, but the story was given a shape and a form, and the found footage angle.

“It was originally written as a hybrid,” Fuller revealed. “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. 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. And 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.”

Stark opened up about the genesis of the project, which he co-wrote with Jason Pagan, saying it began from a story regarding strange requests.

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“Someone was telling us a story about one of the largest photo libraries in the world and the insane requests that they get for like pictures of Joan of Arc, pictures of Jesus. Like just things that are literally historically impossible to have photographs of, and it made us think about what would be interesting about being able to go back in time and bring a video camera with you and see what things really looked like. And then 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 started, like let’s go back in history some other time. Let’s just actually play with the time machine all through the movie and figure out. You know, watch kids try to get back further, and further, and further, and do more damage in their life. And treat time travel as more of a super power than actually just a place to go to like other movies have.”

After the film lingered in development, it was finally ready to kick it into high gear, and that’s where first time director Dean Isrealite comes in. The cousin of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman (a favorite of Platinum Dunes, having directed “Turtles” and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning for them), Isrealite had apprenticed under him and acted as his assistant on the 2011 release Battle Los Angeles.

“When we got the script, we gave it to Dean because he was looking to do his first movie…And when we gave him the script, he didn’t come back and go ‘I’ve got three notes on the script,’ he came back with a full multi-media presentation on how he would make this movie.”

Israelite assembled a group of friends in his apartment on a Friday afternoon and shot scenes from the film for about five hours. He went on to add his own rough VFX to the footage and by Saturday his piece was assembled and ready for presentation.

“For that whole time I was sure it was never going to work,” he told us on set. “But I think that the nature of putting it together that quickly, having it that rough, having it that raw actually showed me what the film could be and what’s exciting about the movie.”

Fuller revealed that Israelite was the only candidate they ever entertained as the potential director for the film, not only due to the tenacity of his sample but his connection with the younger generation.

“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 [laughs]. He knows all about that, and the kids love him, and he communicates with these kids in the right way, so it feels like we made the right choice.”

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The madness continues on the set as a pair of girls, one dressed as an angel complete with feather wings and the other a devil, run past where we stand. We start to ponder the title of the film, which was at the time simply just “Almanac,” and the first thing it brings up is of course Back to the Future Part II. Even if the title of the film wasn’t a direct reference to the Zemeckis classic, and it almost wasn’t as it was titled “Welcome to Yesterday” when originally set for release in October 2015, it would still conjure a comparison to the 1989 film.

“We’re fans of pretty much every time travel movie,” Stark said about himself and co-writer Pagan. “I mean ‘Back to the Future 1.’ ‘Back to the Future 2’ actually we’re big fans of. And you know, we watched ‘Looper’ and all these things…..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. One of which being that, in our head at least, the original people who started designing the blueprints (for the time machine) were fans of time travel movies and certainly some wise-ass in this sort of DARPA covert operation decided to name it after something he was a fan of.”

“That was in our heads, at least,” he added. “I hope I don’t get sued for that.”

In fact, the very first draft of the film was much closer to Back to the Future Part III than the movie you’ll see on the big screen, with a pair of friends building a time machine and getting trapped in the past.

“It was this crazy thing where they had to get enough electricity to get back to the current day,” Fuller revealed. “I mean, we’re going way far. It kind of was ‘Back to the Future Part III,’ that was the problem.”

Fans of the classic series know the elements of time travel as dictated by Doc Brown in that film, and the requirements his machine must meet to take the journey through time, but the time machine in Project Almanac is both similar and different to the DeLorean of Back to the Future.

“What’s cool about the time machine is that it’s very sort of MacGyvered together,” Dean reveals. “They create it from parts from Home Depot and stuff they found in their basement. They find all of these blue prints, these schematics from twelve years about 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 provide their own ghetto version of the time machine and that’s why the time machine has limited power and will only take them back a few days and a few weeks, which I also think is cool about the movie. It’s time travel, but you can only go back two days. So It’s sort of like this high concept treated in a very low-fi way and so that logic applies to how they are building the machine as well.”

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The leap in time will be a grand visual effect in the film, a treat for the viewer. Similar to what Back to the Future delivered with its flaming tire marks, albeit with a little more of a presence on screen.

“I think the concept behind it is it really affects the environment in adverse ways, so when you turn the time machine on there’s going to be a whole bunch of chaos. There’s going to be weightlessness involved, because it has this electromagnetic energy all of the metal objects around you start to levitate, a bunch of stuff just starts to shake. There’s shock waves that emanate out from the time machine and so when you’re outside it’s almost like this huge storm starts to brew. Things speed ramp, but again all of the chaos is grounded in real elements in a scene. So when they are down in the basement and they turn the time machine on, all of the tools start to levitate and spin and the glass starts to shatter and freeze and maybe go backwards and reform itself, the camera starts to levitate, because it’s metal, so it starts to take on a life of its own and the characters have to yank it out of mid air.”

The environment isn’t the only thing that will be effected by the act of time traveling, as those taking the step into the past will also be effected in ways that are more realistic than one might think.

“I’m South African,” Israelite confided. “So I fly to South Africa all of the time and I’m totally f***ed up after a twenty-four hour flight. I’m totally f***ed up when I get there and I haven’t time traveled… So If I’m f***ed up just going on a plane, what are these characters going to feel like when they go back in time? That was the launch pad for the concept behind every element that’s involved in how we are trying to shoot it and how the characters are performing and what’s going to happen to the camera and the editorial.”

After a long day of flirting by a wall of wishes, stars Jonny Weston and Sofia Black-D’Elia finally approach us to talk about the film. Their characters travel in different social circles, Jonny’s David more of a nerdy, smart kid with Sofia’s Jessie the “popular girl” whom David aspires to date. Sofia revealed that, despite little connection between the characters at first, she provides the catalyst for their ventures through time.

“Because they’re smarter and not that popular and all of that,” she reveals. “I think that they may be a little bit tepid and afraid to get started with everything. I think my character is kind of bored with where she’s at in school and life, really.”

“She definitely serves as an inspiration,” Weson adds. “the way that she comes in and brings the passion that we all kind of – not that we lack, but she brings kind of a level of balls.”

“That’s really eloquent!” Black-D’Elia remarks.

“Can I say balls?” he inquires.

“Beautiful, yeah,” she adds, still reeling. “Really beautiful and poetic.”

The pair are politely, yet firmly, told to hurry and take their lunch break.

“I guess we don’t wanna go to actor jail,” Weston says with a laugh.

“This is the first time they’ve ever wanted us to go to lunch this badly before, by the way,” Black-D’Elia adds. “Usually it’s the other way around!”

Time is still of the essence. Project Almanac opens in theaters on January 30.