It’s been quite a busy few years for Jordan Vogt-Roberts. After his breakthrough indie directorial debut “The Kings of Summer” debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Vogt-Roberts segued to Legendary and Warner Bros.‘ mammoth “Kong: Skull Island” which was quite an undertaking.
The ’70s set action adventure reimagines the origin of cinema icon King Kong and features an impressive cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann and Toby Kebbell. It’s also meant to take place in the same cinematic world as Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” (more on that later) and become the second installment of a franchise focused on classic movie monsters.
Vogt-Roberts jumped on the phone last month to talk about the film and seemed relieved his long journey is finally coming to an end.
[Spoiler alert: There are some minor details discussed about Kong’s battles in the movie in the context of the interview.]
The Playlist: Congratulations on the movie. I just want to ask, you spent about two and a half years working on this right?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Two and a half years of my life.
How does it feel now that it’s almost “the end”?
You know what, making this at many times has been such a crazy sort of black hole where you go off to war and forget about your life and reality and you just become so focused on making this thing so you sort of just disappear. Now I’m coming out the other end like, “Who did I hang out with?” and “What were my hobbies?” and “What did I do?” You really try and remember what the fuck your life was. But honestly, my favorite part of making films and making things in general is the moment that it ceases being my thing and starts to become other people’s thing. Like with “Kings of Summer” just watching the way people started adopting that movie and it meant something to them was amazing. Now, being in this part of the process, seeing people slowly start to see this film, experience it, like it, enjoy it, that’s the dream. That makes all all of that worthwhile. That makes the black hole you go into worthwhile it makes all the pain and joy and tumult and suffering and elation. It makes the whole spectrum of emotions that you go through on the movie, for me, worthwhile. It’s kind of like an abusive relationship. You get slapped around and then you come out the other end like, “I love you so much, I love you so much, I love you so much.” Then you just forget about the terrible times.
So, your first movie, “Kings of Summer” was what, a million dollar movie?
Yeah, like $1.5 million.
Comparatively then what was the toughest part of this experience? Was it the logistics of shooting in three countries? Was it waiting for visual effects to come in hoping they be what you want them to be? What was the most nerve wracking part of making a movie on a scale like this?
Look, I think filmmaking is filmmaking to some degree. I think you never have enough time, you never have enough money, you never have enough daylight. The fundamentals are the same. If you get a driver’s license you can learn how to drive a car, you can figure out how to drive a tractor. You can get in a race car. You very well might crash that race car into a wall but you can get in it. Though they’re slightly different variations of the same thing, there were many times on set that I would turn to people on set, and my friends and my family, and say look, “I’ve only made one movie before and it was a million dollar movie, but I promise you there’s a better way to do it than what we’re doing right now.” Just cause sometimes there are things in a movie this big that are so backwards. How things run or how long it takes to do something. I’m such like a run-and-gun, guerrilla person in terms of being able to want to capture that Malick moment when the sun is breaking through the trees. Sometimes it can be hard to wrangle a crew that big, but you trade that for so many other wonderful things. You get to work with so many other wonderful, talented, amazing people. But, yes, it’s an enormous amount of pressure and it’s an enormous amount of weight on your shoulders and with Kong you’re getting film history, like actually an icon. I feel very fortunate with the studio and producers that I was with, but I think for me the biggest thing is figuring out how to navigate it where coming out the other end feeling like my voice is in it. My style is in it. There’s a point of view in it. I think that the reason most of these movies don’t work and don’t engage audiences is because they don’t have a point of view and they don’t have a voice and they don’t have a sense of style. So, putting your blinders on and really sticking to your gut, listening to yourself in the face of the world around you saying “Eh, don’t do it that way” or “That’s not how we do it.” Really trusting your own instincts. Then also listening to people and hearing them out. Finding a way to shepherd and protect yourself and like I said I was very fortunate with the producers and studio I was with. If you’ve seen “Kings of Summer” I feel like my voice and my tone sense of absurdity is in this film. I’m very proud of that. It almost killed me, but I’m very proud of that.
Do you feel like when you watch the movie now, and obviously you’ve watched it hundreds maybe thousands of times, when you watch it is there one particular scene where you’re like, “Oh, that’s me. I can see me right there”?
Pretty much anything with John C. Reilly to some degree. A lot of that is stuff is him and I improvising and finding those moments. You know the scene with him and John Ortiz in the loft? Where he’s joking around about stabbing him? That was a moment where we were just riffing and going down this weird spiral like, “Why aren’t the producers stopping us right now? Why are they just letting us riff?” And I love that. To me a real life moment is that scene where they’re working on the boat and they’re talking about tigers and cubs and all that stuff. The moment of being the first movie to shoot in the most amazing country of Vietnam and being on this boat that we built that I designed with an incredible team and then improvising with Thomas Mann and John Ortiz and John C, Reilly and Tom Hiddleston. Literally improvising most of that scene was just such an amazing moment. It’s things like that or the subversive stuff where you think, “Oh I’ve seen this show before I know what’s going to happen” and it completely goes a different way. Its just those moments and the small amount of montage-y ethereal imagery. Those are the things that I really love.
What was it like in terms of planning out the big fights that Kong gets involved with. What was it like working with visual effects and mapping those out? What was that process like for you?
It was a lot of fun. That was obviously the newest part for me in a lot of ways. Working with visual effects of that scale. I had an incredible team of people at Industrial Light and Magic who, when I walked in there and met Dennis Muren, I shook his hand and I said, “I know you designed my childhood.” That stuff was so much fun. I’m really proud of that stuff. I also feel like those fights are the things I generally hate most in these movies. That’s when I zone out in these movies. That’s when it becomes noise. I think my DNA being re-wired at a young age on anime and video games, things like that, really sort of led to some scenes that I really love. And to plan those, I treated them the way I would shooting anything. A lot of revision and my team at ILM was really great at understanding the fact that I treated it like if we were doing takes with an actor where it’s like you’re twelve takes down the road and then an idea comes out from somewhere. It’s like, “Oh, that. Let’s chase that. Let’s go after that.” And so it really was an organic process where we were building that. For me the big thing with a lot of those fights is if I don’t feel like I’ve see a handful of moments that I’ve never seen in movies then I’ve failed. I think there’s a bunch of stuff where there’s Kong stripping that tree and using it as a baseball bat or ripping out the creatures’ guts his hand. Those are just things that I haven’t seen before in film. When I go to a movie like this I just wanna see things that I haven’t seen.
Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” was released only 10 years before the time you started working on this. How cognizant were you to make your Kong look or seem different? Or were you trying to not to even pay attention.
Yeah, of course, but I think you run into a pitfall if you’re making something for the sake of being different as opposed to different for a reason. Nothing was intentionally designed to be different from anything else. It was designed to be fresh and to be my version of these things. My Kong I wanted to be a throwback to the 1933 version but even the ’33 version had very simian qualities in just the way he moves. I wanted to stand him even further upright. Have him be closer to a god than an ape. Somewhere between a fusion between a beast and a man and to use his intellect. You want to make sure you’re not treading on anything that came before it, but you can’t just be different for different’s sake. That’s just a lateral move. We tried as much as possible as we reinvented stuff or tried to re-imagine stuff to really have it have meaning within our world. Whether that’s the creature designs or the paint on the villagers serving as decoration and language and camouflage being this anachronistic 8-bit pixelated video game thing or circuit board feel. Things like that. You want it to feel fresh and [contain] new imagery, new storytelling but you can’t just be different for different’s sake.
I want to avoid as many spoilers as possible, but this movie takes place in the ’70s and the last “Godzilla” movie was contemporary and there might be a tie in to them. I don’t know if you’re committed to making another ‘Skull Island’ movie or another ‘Kong’ movie or how that would even go forward. Were there continuity talks about what happens next?
Yes, there were talks about that. And obviously I have a job of future proofing this Kong as he goes forward, future proofing this world and laying the groundwork to connect these worlds, but I think audiences are really jaded with a lot of this franchise stuff right now. Luckily, Warner Brothers and Legendary were really cool with hearing me when I said we can’t, in the middle of our movie, waste ten minutes on a scene that’s totally unrelated to our plot trying to set something else up. Trying to set up a different movie that’s not this movie. Kong is film history. He’s an icon. He’s pop culture. We owe it to ourselves to have a singular cell contained Kong film that subtly builds this world and that culminates in the end credit scene. They were actively figuring out where they wanted to take this as we were doing it. So to some degree that’s above my pay grade and I don’t know where they would go with it. I keep joking that I would make a prequel with John C. Reilly fighting monsters on the island with the Japanese pilot. Things like that. I’d make a $30 million dollar version of that. But I don’t really know where they’d take it from there.
“Kong: Skull Island” opens nationwide on Friday.