You know the Fantastic Four controversy (if not, check out EW and ScreenRant’s breakdown, or my previous takes on it here and here). Now, get to know the man: Who is Josh Trank? Well, he told his version of his life’s story in an epic multi-part podcast interview with Kevin Smith, though it was recorded before Fantastic Four came out.
He’s everything I learned:
-He Was Surrounded By Hollywood Film Studios As a Kid
Born to two Los Angeles natives, the now-31-year-old Trank has lived in various parts of the LA area his whole life, including Culver City, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, etc. However, for at least the first six years of his life when he was in Culver City he was literally seven blocks away from the old MGM building, which is now the Sony Pictures lot. He went to a Jewish school and eventually had his bar mitzvah at Temple Isaiah, which is just down the block from the 20th Century Fox lot. However, proximity like that doesn’t mean a whole lot to a little kid since big industrial buildings pretty much just look like, well, big industrial buildings.
-His Dad Won An Oscar
For the first portion of Trank’s life, his mother worked as a graphic designer for advertisements, and his father worked in the media department at the Simon Wiesenthal Center where he directed/produced Holocaust and Jewish-related documentaries. The Wiesenthal Center is perhaps most famous for its Museum of Tolerance, which has continual “This Day in History” audio documentaries and The Hall of Tolerance, where you walk through a room in which the PA system pipes out every racially charged or derogatory word imaginable as a way of basically saying, “See, that didn’t feel nice, did it?” Trank’s father produced the “This Day in History” segments, occasionally letting young Josh sit in on editing, and if you listen closely you can actually pick out his dad’s voice as one of the people yelling out derogatory words in the Hall of Tolerance.
When Josh was 13-years-old, his dad won a Best Documentary Oscar for The Long Way Home, which is narrated by Morgan Freeman. That means that Josh’ dad has delivered an actual Oscar acceptance speech before, and in it he thanked his wife and kids, i.e., Josh and his sister.
-He Grew Up Loving Obscure Movies from the Z Channel As Well As Popular Movies from Blockbuster
This is from BirthMoviesDeath, but he told the same story to Kevin Smith:
My Dad would record everything that ever played on the Z Channel (which, for those who don’t know their L.A. movie history, was a pre-HBO, local movie channel, now long gone, that basically played everything that the Criterion Collection has in its catalogue today, but way more). Due to my Dad’s passionate movie fandom, we had a cabinet at home filled with probably over a hundred diligently labeled VHS cassettes, and each one contained between 3-4 movies (good old long-play). On the labels, my Dad had written each movie title, followed in parentheses by the year of the release and the last name of the director. So growing up, I had two main sources for home entertainment: Blockbuster Video and the movie cabinet. I frequented both, understanding that there were major, major differences between them. The movies from Blockbuster were easier to watch and understand. They were “fun.” And the movies in the cabinet were, usually, challenging and harder to understand what they were “about.”
When I was really young, I would spend all of my free time scanning the tapes and just picking out whatever title sounded the most like something from Blockbuster. If I saw names like Fellini or De Sica or Truffaut or Kobayashi, I would avoid those altogether because they sounded like they were probably “really hard.” But by the time I was thirteen, my curiosity about those oft skipped titles and names hit a boiling point and I just started watching them all. And I never turned back after that. Those movies filled me with a kind of happiness and raw stimulation no movie from Blockbuster could ever match. Even though many of those movies didn’t make immediate sense to me at that age, the voices behind them did, and I constantly re-watched them all, over and over, throughout my coming of age, until I understood what every movie in that cabinet was “about.”
That all being said, he still loves movies like Commando.
-He Worked in Beverly Hills High School’s Public Access TV Station Trank’s mom switched careers from graphic design to pre-school teaching in Beverly Hills, and through her job she hustled him and his sister permits to be able to attend Beverly Hills High School, a public school which is not quite as overrun with rich kids as 90210 led us to believe since many of the super rich kids simply attend private schools. Still, Trank was definitely among the “poor kids” at Beverly Hills High, and his lifeline throughout his time there was working in the school’s professionally/student-run public access TV station, which is KBEV-Channel 6 in Beverly Hills. By his own admission, Josh was a terrible student with barely passing grades largely because all he really cared about was learning how to make and produce film and television. Through his time with KBEV, he was essentially gifted a four-year internship at a legitimate TV station meaning he left high school with professional expertise in cutting film, running cameras, etc. He says he graduated high school with about a 1.0 GPA, but he had gained invaluable experience producing, directing and editing probably hundreds of hours of content.
-His Step-Mother Was a Karaoke-Loving Boy Meets World Writer
After Trank’s parents divorced, his father married the comedienne Judy Toll. At that point, Josh was only around 14-years-old meaning he was probably just starting or about to start his tenure at KBEV. Even though his dad made documentaries, meeting Judy Toll was really the first time Josh felt like he started to understand Hollywood because Toll wrote for a TV show he knew about: Boy Meets World. She had previously written for other sitcoms, and traced her career back to being a relatively early member of the Groundlings improv group, coming in at the same time as Phil Hartman, Paul Rueben and Jon Lovitz. Sadly, she didn’t quite make the cut when she auditioned for Saturday Night Live.
Toll was friends with Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho, and they all loved to go to karaoke. To that point in his life, Trank had been a very shy, quiet kid, but when he did a particularly funny impersonation of Louis Armstrong for Judy she insisted that they get up on stage together at the karaoke club. He did his Armstrong impression, she did Ella Fitzgerald, and they sang “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” It went over so well with the audience that Trank started coming out of his social shell from that point forward, gaining way more confidence and even losing over 100 pounds of fat by the time he turned 18. Sadly, a year after Josh first met Judy she was diagnosed with skin cancer, and shortly after he turned 18 she finally lost that battle, dying at the age of 44 in 2002.
-He Got a Front-Row Seat To The Horrors of Hollywood Through His Step-Mom’s Failed Sitcom
While Judy was battling cancer for the last three years of her life, the autobiographical Seinfeld-esque sitcom she’d been developing for so many years was finally produced as a pilot. Mad TV’s Nicole Sullivan was cast in the main role, essentially playing a version of Judy who was a comedienne living with her successful sister who just happened to be a lesbian with a loving girlfriend. Think of it as “Grace & Grace’s Lesbian Sister” instead of Will & Grace. ABC loved it, but they forced them to turn it into a workplace sitcom since that was the trend of the moment. After they shot the pilot, ABC sought to re-negotiate everyone’s contract, particularly Judy’s. As Trank remembers it, Judy was pretty much on her deathbed at this point, and ABC was trying to squeeze her on money. Nicole Sullivan was so disgusted she walked off the project, and the pilot never made it to air. Trank’s hard lesson from watching this from afar was, “You could see that this is a cutthroat industry. They don’t give a shit about you. They really don’t.”
-Amy Heckerling Let Him Tag Along With Her to Studio Meetings and Screenings
You know how normal high schoolers hang out at each other’s houses after school? Well, when Josh would do that with his friend Molly he’d just happen to be hanging out in the home of the woman who made Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Look Who’s Talking and Clueless because Molly’s mom was Amy Heckerling. Better yet, Heckerling was the coolest mom possible. She used to let Josh and Molly tag along with her to studio meetings, and they’d go to various screenings around town, particularly foreign movies and retrospectives on old Billy Wilder comedies. Trank even got to read all the scripts Heckerling’s agent would send to her as potential new projects, and he met Rogert Siegel, The Onion’s Editor-in-Chief who was trying to put something together with Heckerling. Trank now refers to Heckerling as his “unofficial film professor.”
-A YouTube Video Launched His Career
After graduating high school and attending a photography/film school for a year, Trank dropped out, and was cut off by his parents, forcing him to sleep on friends’ couches. For the next three years, he primarily worked 18-hour days as a runner (e.g., someone who drives dailies to studios) and assistant in post-production, where he learned the “etiquette of shutting the fuck up in front of your bosses because you’re young and you have all these ideas and they don’t care.”
On the eve of his 22nd birthday in 2007, he hadn’t actually shot anything of his own in three years, failing to convince anyone to even loan him any money to make a short movie. He had an idea to parody all the online videos of people getting into fights at college parties, except “when the camera finds the fight they’re fighting with lightsabers.” Logically, when the cops show up they’d be storm troopers.
Trank decided to just make it with whatever money he had, calling everyone he knew and only getting 6 people to agree to take part in exchange for free beer. It was filmed on a Saturday night at a friend’s house. They used wigs, sound design, kinetic editing and old-fashioned DIY ingenuity to get it done and make it seem as if there were far more than 6 people at the party:
Trank made it for under $100, uploaded it to YouTube with a title designed to grab attention (“Stabbing at Leia’s 22nd Birthday”), and leaned on friends to spread the link throughout message boards. It was viewed 2 million times in its first day, 7 million after its first week. Since Trank put his email address at the end of the video, his inbox with flooded with thousands of emails, most notably ones from people at Paramount, Spike TV and MTV. In his first conversation with the head of content at Spike TV, he was offered the chance to write and direct seven 5-minute web-episodes filling in the blanks with the secondary characters from their upcoming mini-series The Kill Point, a “modern day Dog Day Afternoon” starring John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg.
-That Connection With Amy Heckerling Led to Working on Big Fan Ever since the two first met through Amy Heckerling, Robert Siegel served as a friend and screenwriting mentor to Trank. So, when Siegel decided to self-finance his own script about a sports fan played by Patton Oswalt and direct it himself in New York he recruited Trank to help edit and serve as the second unit director. That worked out nicely since Trank’s job with SpikeTV had already taken him to New York. They shot Big Fan over 19 days in Staten Island for less than $100,000, and it ended up playing in the Sundance Film Festival.
–Chronicle Started Out as an Idea for a Series of Viral Videos
Before Trank got his job with SpikeTV or ever ended up in New York, he took a meeting with a Paramount rep. who wanted to pick his brain about how exactly he filmed “Stabbing at Leia’s 22nd Birthday.” It was essentially a brain drain meeting in which Paramount wanted to learn how Trank did his little found footage video because at that moment they were in the planning stages on J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield, aka, the found footage version of Godzilla. When they told Trank the basics of how they were going to make Cloverfield he walked away with a nagging idea he just couldn’t shake: What if you did a series of Jackass-like videos about a couple of teens who have telekinesis and are using it to fuck with people? After all, if Paramount was going to do a found footage Godzilla why couldn’t he do something similar but in a different genre, maybe score another viral hit like “Stabbing at Leia’s 22nd Birthday”?
He jotted down ideas for specific scenes, but was understandably preoccupied with working on The Kill Point and then Big Fan. Once work dried up in New York and he ran out of money, he returned to Los Angeles and slept on his mom’s couch. At that point, he was 25, and despite his experience in New York he couldn’t find any work. He couldn’t even crack the bar mitzvah video racket! However, he realized his idea of doing a series of viral videos about kids with telekinesis actually worked better as a movie. He thought back to his own high school experience and decided that if he had somehow gained telekinesis and had a video camera he would have filmed himself doing pranks before eventually going too far. That turned a funny idea into something closer to a three-act structure, and he jotted down a title and slugline in an email to himself:
“Chronicle – A POV film about teenage boys in a small town who inherit superhuman powers. Filmed from a gritty, ultra-realistic documentary-like perspective, the tone is serious as if grounded in real life. We follow three characters, an arrogant high school football star, his straight-A cousin and their quiet, socially alienated friend. They receive telekinetic powers after finding a radiating meteor buried deep inside of a cave. They keep their powers a secret and we watch as the consequences unfold.”
Interestingly, in his original plot around halfway through the football star would use his powers to save a drowning kid and end up profiled on the local news as a real life hero, no one suspecting that they were actually dealing with a genuine super hero.
– Max Landis Joined Chronicle Thanks Mostly to Facebook
Separate from Chronicle, Trank put together a video pitch for a potential TV show about an out-of-control cop, and he wanted someone to give him some notes. His friend, screenwriter Jeremy Slater, was too busy. So, he looked up his old Beverly Hills High School classmates on Facebook, and saw that Max Landis was working as a screenwriter. Landis was at Trank’s place mere minutes after being asked to stop by and offer some notes. Once reunited, they quickly moved through the video pitch and discussed other things. When Chronicle came up, Landis immediately suggested changing the characters’ names (they were originally going to be called Ted, Chester and Mark), and instead of having the football star character killed by an airplane halfway through they should have the airplane knock all three of them off-balance thus sending the camera twirling to the ground, just barely capturing the superhero moment of one of the friends saving the unconscious football star. Plus, there should be a moment of the kid who eventually becomes the villain filming himself splitting a spider in half.
Trank was so blown away he offered Landis the chance to write the script with him. Landis would get screenplay credit, and Trank would get co-story credit. Their first draft was done after three months, and their second draft was sold to 20th Century Fox.
-Trank Promised His Parents He’d Give Up on Directing If He Hadn’t Landed His First Job By His 27th Birthday
It was the type of promise you make to get your parents off your back, as they were both constantly hounding him to look for a day-to-day job as a film editor. Fox officially hired Trank to direct Chronicle two weeks before his 27th birthday, and the contract included an option to work with him on whatever his next film would be.
The producers who came on board changed the film’s setting from Portland to Seattle because the space needle would make for great iconography during the third-act battle. Plus, to minimize costs they had to shoot in South Africa, with a week and a half of additional photography in Vancouver to capture shots doubling for Seattle. Dane DeHaan was the first one they cast (based off of his work in HBO’s In Treatment) followed by Michael B. Jordan (based off of Friday Night Lights and The Wire), and the final role came down to Miles Teller and Alex Russell. Teller lost out because he already had Project X coming out, and Fox wasn’t comfortable with putting him in their found footage movie after he had just done one for Warner Bros. Beyond that, Fox largely let the producers and Trank do their thing because with a budget of $12 million it was the least of the studio’s concerns at that moment, and when it came out it grossed $126 million worldwide.
-Fantastic Four Came from a Cold Call From Fox’s President of Production
Emma Watts called Trank when he was still in post-production on Chronicle to ask what he had in mind for his next project. When he mentioned maybe doing something with the X-Men franchise she countered by asking him if he’d consider rebooting The Fantastic Four instead. Blown away, Trank immediately jumped at the idea, setting up a meeting to pitch a body horror-leaning take on the property. She gave him the job, and he went to work on it before Chronicle even came out, hitting up his friend and Fantastic Four superfan Jeremy Slater to co-write the script. After Chronicle came out, he met up with Stan Lee to get his blessing, especially on his idea to make Johnny Storm an African-American.
When Trank and Slater handed in their script, Fox put super-producer/writer Simon Kinberg on the project, and as best I can tell from the growing number of anonymous insider reports that’s when everything started going south. That’s not to place any blame on Kinberg. It’s more that the moment Trank was forced to work with Kinberg was the moment the studio started indicating its unease with trusting such a big project to a young director. Adding an experienced producer/writer like Kinberg is a clear insurance policy, one that makes complete sense, especially since he so beautifully stepped up to represent Days of Future Past when Bryan Singer was on media blackout due to his sex abuse scandal. Plus, Kinberg’s been around troubled productions before with X-Men: The Last Stand and First Class. Surely he could keep Fantastic Four from derailing even though he also had to keep an eye on X-Men: Apocalypse.
Something went seriously wrong, though. Some sources blame Trank, others blame Emma Watts and the Fox suits for mico-managing and ultimately not really knowing what they wanted. Finding out the truth will have to wait until everyone can speak freely without fear of burning bridges. Past precedent indicates we shouldn’t hold our breath for that to happen anytime soon. Still, we already have one documentary about that unfortunate Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie. Maybe we’ll get one about Josh Trank’s movie some day. In the meantime, hopefully this article has helped you better understand where Josh Trank came from. The irony is that for a kid who grew up with some helpful Hollywood connections his big break came from a short YouTube video which any one of us could have made.