Filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts has made that giant leap that many directors are taking these days. His first feature was the charming indie “Kings Of Summer” and his follow-up is a massive blockbuster. “It’s been crazy,” Vogt-Roberts told The Playlist, about the graduation from indie to four quadrant tentpole – adding, “I’ve spent the last two and half years of my life on this.”
Vogt-Roberts, who directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in a charity promo and got behind the camera of several tech heavy commercials in the lead up to “Kong: Skull Island” (our review), has made an unconventional ape creature feature. Gone is the heroic adventurer and the damsel in distress. Instead, we get an idiosyncratic monster mash of a movie set in the 1970’s, just as the Vietnam war is ending. While Tom Hiddelston and Brie Larson tip their cap to the previously mentioned archetypes, they’re distinct characters in a bigger ensemble. In the case of Larson, she has agency and isn’t in need of rescuing. It’s Kong’s movie, but the movie also features a cast of diverse and quirky characters – the most obvious being John C. Reilly, who plays a kooky WWII pilot stranded on Skull Island.
“I always joke that the movie’s the story of a pilot who crashes on a beach, disappears for 40 minutes of the movie, and it’s the journey to get him home,” Vogt-Roberts said. ”Tonally he should break the movie. He’s saying things that are way too out there and way too insane, but like Biaggio in ‘Kings Of Summer, he actually becomes the heart, pathos and soul of the whole film.”
Tone is the key word. “Kong: Skull Island” plays with tone going from serious drama to comedy to poignant moments, while playing with the strange and goofy too. It’s a pot-pourri of eclectic influences that you might not expect, so we caught up with the filmmaker to discuss the inspirations behind his Kaiju-inflected movie and the stimuli beyond just films. Here’s the many influences that Vogt name checked as important touchstones for “Kong: Skull Island.”
“Look, ‘Apocalypse Now’ was everything,” he explained. “It was the entry point for me for the entire film. When they came to me about the movie, my first response was ‘Cool, I love King Kong, and I’m psyched that you’re making another one, but why does this movie need to exist? How is it special? How is it different?’ I think audiences are very smart and they have franchise fatigue, so there has to be a reason for existing. And beyond the schematics of the 1970’s being super interesting to me… when I went home that weekend and thought about it — I mean, their script took place in 1917, it was a completely different movie. And I thought, choppers and napalm and [Jimi] Hendrix playing, bright orange sunsets that kind of popped in my head. And this idea of ‘Apocalypse Now’ with Kong or this idea of a Vietnam war movie with a Ray Harryhausen creature feature, that became the, ‘Oh fuck! I’ve never seen that movie’ [moment]. I felt like I would want to watch that movie and I feel like my friends would want to watch that movie. And when I pitched them the idea, I thought they were going to laugh me out of the room and they really went for it ,which was a testament to them as a company that would take risks.”
For Vogt-Roberts, the chance to blend and play with aesthetics he hadn’t touched before was a big appeal. ” ‘Apocalypse Now’ is like a transcendent film that washes over you,” he continued. “And so for me to able to play with that era, that was enormous. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time and the idea of being able to dip my brush into that palette was a dream come true.
You can see the influence of Francis Ford Coppola‘s epic in the posters and trailers, and the monster movie is unapologetically in debt to the film, but the studios were hesitant for the filmmakers to market it as such.
“I feel comfortable saying this now, but when we went to Comic Con [we went through] media training. And they were uncomfortable with me saying the words ‘Apocalypse Now’ out loud,” he admitted. “The studio wasn’t sure if it was going to be a selling point. We’re not only playing with ‘Kong,’ but ‘Apocalypse Now’ which is also film history so that’s a double whammy if things go poorly. I was like, ‘Guys, they’re going to watch the trailer and get it right away.’ And to the credit of Warner Bros. and Legendary, not only did they get it, but they really embraced it to the point that we have that amazing IMAX poster that is an homage to the ‘Apocalypse Now’ poster. The movie became the overall force in tone and I can’t understate the inspiration the whole way through. I mean, Dennis Hopper was the inspiration for John C . Reilly and John shows up and is a force of nature in a similar way. The way Kurtz looms over the movie even as you don’t see him, is the same way Kong looms over the island.
But there’s a litany of nods along the way. A scene where Kong eats lunch is dedicated to the “Planet Earth” documentaries and South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook. “There’s an ‘Oldboy‘ homage in there when Kong is chewing the squid,” the director added.
“Jason & The Argonauts” & Ray Harryhausen movies
“I could mention ‘Platoon‘ and ‘Full Metal Jacket‘ as influences too, but again, I love the idea of those aesthetics and crossbreeding them with a Harryhausen movie like ‘Mysterious Island,’ he said enthusiastically. “That was my shit growing up before I experienced the amazing 1933 ‘Kong’ movie — it’s an absolute masterclass in film-making actually. It’s like the origin of VFX. It’s like if you don’t have that movie, you don’t have CGI. But to me the big one was ‘Jason And The Argonauts.’ I love the variety of the beast and the creatures and that was a movie that really blew my brain open when I was a kid. So melding the war film with the adventure of Harryhausen movies was a huge, huge inspiration. There’s that old adage that ‘CGI looks real, but feels fake and stop motion looks fake, but feels real’ and so many times I feel like that’s true. There’s an intangible quality to stop-motion that has so much life to it. And even ‘Clash Of The Titans.’ What I love about those movies is they do weird shit. Tonally those movies really play around. ‘Clash Of The Titans’ is goofy and weird, but you fall in love with it.”