One Man Is an Island: Interview with ‘Kong: Skull Island’ Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts

The beast is back. Cinema’s favorite primate returns this Friday, March 10, in Kong: Skull Island from Warner Bros., an epic production starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, and Samuel L. Jackson. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts spoke to Boxoffice about the transition to directing blockbusters after having previously worked only on independent films, the influence of video games on his filmmaking, and more.

How does Kong: Skull Island address the movie theater experience?

It’s something I’m trying to bring back in general. Even with The Kings of Summer, I wanted to make a movie that redefined what it meant to watch on the big screen. I have this trickle-down philosophy: I hope with these big movies with these giant marketing budgets, you can get people into a theater and they can be reminded of how much fun they had in the theater. Hopefully that makes them say, “You know what? That was great. We should go to the theater again.”

The bio on your official website says you began your filmmaking career by making stop-motion movies in your basement with LEGO and Batman toys. So I have to ask, how upset are you that you weren’t directing The LEGO Batman Movie?

[Laughs.] Luckily, that movie was in very good hands—talented producers like Lord and Miller, who are geniuses and far smarter than I am. I’m happy to let them take the reins on that. I would love to do an animated movie at some point. Maybe The LEGO King Kong Movie.

Kong: Skull Island is at least somewhat animated. What was your goal when making it in trying to balance the CGI and live action?

It is certainly a somewhat animated movie, in the sense that there are computer graphics. But we actually made sure to shoot as much in-camera as possible. We knew the creatures were going to be computer generated, so we wanted everything else to be as real and tangible and tactile as possible. The actors could be in the space and they could feel it. I could grab the camera and move the camera around. There’s this saying that with stop-motion things look fake but feel real; with CG things look real but feel fake. Audiences are smart—they can feel when something’s real. Our team at Industrial Light and Magic took it to the next level. The work they did is really spectacular. There’s certainly a huge animated aspect to the movie, but I strove to shoot much more in-camera than most movies you see.

Director JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures’ action adventure “KONG: SKULL ISLAND,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

Director JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures’ action adventure “KONG: SKULL ISLAND,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

What were some of your early film influences as a kid and teenager?

I always wanted to do one of those studio films, because I grew up on studio movies. I was a kid who had my brain blown open by Star Wars, Jason and the Argonauts, Die Hard, Back to the Future. Big studio films at that time also were great movies. These were studio films with fantastic characters and fantastic worlds. That early wave of late ’70s early ’80s movies really shattered my brain. Those were the things that led me to Kubrick and Kurosawa. So my influences are really varied. Right now the stuff I’m really into has come out of the last 15 years in South Korea. I’m a lover of film and pushing what the medium and genre are.

Another form of media you admire is video games. You’ve previously talked about your love for the PlayStation 3 game Journey. You called it “one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had.” Which video games have had the biggest impact on you, and have they affected your filmmaking?

I fell in love with movies, but I also fell in love with video games at a young age. I remember when I first saw the original Mario, or even the original Atari, I was in awe of what I was looking at. The language of games was fascinating to me. Early games were these simple things; then you look at later games like [1995’s] Chrono Trigger that were really advanced in storytelling. It was a mature narrative that a kid could still digest.

I find the medium to be incredibly exciting still. Yes, Journey is a piece of media that I think is profound. Two of the games that stayed with me were from almost the same month of the same year: [1998’s] Metal Gear Solid and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Never again would I feel that anticipation and desire to disappear into my basement—just vanish from the world. Games may never reach that point again.

Director JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures’ action adventure “KONG: SKULL ISLAND,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

Director JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures’ action adventure “KONG: SKULL ISLAND,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

The Kings of Summer was a coming-of-age dramedy that made about $1.3 million at the box office. Now your new film has a reported $150 million budget. What were the biggest differences or surprises from such an abrupt transition of scale?

Well, in a weird way, it actually wasn’t that different. Filmmaking is filmmaking. You still have to tell a story; you still have to move the camera. Those never change. You’ve got a lot more tools, bells and whistles. There are times when it’s an incredibly exciting thing—there are helicopters you can fly through canyons! There are times when it slows you down. You wish you only had a million dollars and a small crew, because you could be much more intimate. Ultimately, you never have enough time, you never have enough money, you never have enough daylight. So you still have to focus on getting the story told in the way you need to tell it. There are certain new aspects and new challenges, but there are some things that become easier. It is this weird give-and-take of new opportunities, new burdens, new blessings, and everything in between.

Did you look to the films of other directors who catapulted from one or two indie films to a huge blockbuster? I’m thinking of Colin Trevorrow going from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World.

Yeah, Colin’s a buddy of mine. He and I ultimately were in very different situations. He’s a good friend. We talked a lot about how to survive the process and what it meant to him. I want somebody to look at this movie and say, “I see the connective tissue of this guy as a filmmaker.” Audiences don’t even realize how generic a lot of big blockbusters have become. If you go back and look at a Tony Scott film, oh my God! [Scott directed Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, and Déjà Vu.] I think that’s why Nolan’s The Dark Knight was such a big deal. It was a massive film that still had a point of view and a distinctive style. I wanted to preserve that. I wanted to preserve myself in this movie. Talking to people like Colin and Ryan Coogler [the formerly indie director who directed Creed and the upcoming Black Panther], friends of mine who have gone through this before—you find your people to support you and survive this crazy process.

Director JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures’ action adventure “KONG: SKULL ISLAND,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

Director JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures’ action adventure “KONG: SKULL ISLAND,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

The film is set in 1971. Why? How much of that decision was yours, and how much was the screenwriters’?

One hundred percent of that decision was mine. The screenwriters wrote a really cool script. When they came to me and asked if I wanted to do a King Kong movie, my first response was, “Awesome, I love King Kong.” My second response was, “Wait, why should that exist?” Audiences need new things. What is it about this that’s going to make them want to see it? The original script was set in 1917 and was more of an adventure movie. That’s when I came to them with this idea. In the 1970s we launched satellites into the sky and were looking down at the Earth for the first time. They had cameras and were mapping Earth. I loved the idea of that time in history—modern but not too modern. This idea just burned itself in my brain, like Apocalypse Now and King Kong with a military-squad edge to it. I’d never seen that before. So I pitched Legendary that idea. The cool thing about that company is, instead of laughing me out of the room like I thought they would, they were like, “Cool. Let’s make that movie.” There are a lot of thematic reasons I was interested in that time period as well, but that was the initial jumping-off point.

In making this film, how closely did you try to emulate 2014’s Godzilla, knowing this mash-up would happen?  [2020 will see the release of Godzilla vs. Kong, featuring the monster from 2014’s Godzilla battling Skull Island’s King Kong.] Did you try to stylistically match what had been done before?

I never try to emulate anything! [Laughs.] In fact, this movie is 100 percent different than that film. Gareth Edwards directed the hell out of that movie, a master class in the game that it’s playing, the build and the slow reveal. I love how Gareth shot that movie. But this is a completely different film with a very different tone, a very different treatment of how we approached the monster. Taking those conceits of what people expect from a monster movie and flipping them on their head: showing Kong right away, showing him a lot, not feeling like we needed to hide him.

My job was to make the best version of this movie. Yes, it’s tied into the larger universe. But my job was to tell this story and use my voice to tell it. This Kong has more to do with an anime or video game character than a traditional monster movie. Yes, there are franchise things you have to take into consideration, connecting to that movie going forward. But we are a completely different film.

How did you try to differentiate yourself from Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong? For one, I read that you wanted to make this Kong a more hyperbolized creature like the 1933 original, unlike Jackson’s version, which was more like a real-life gorilla.

I wasn’t really thinking about that version. That version is a masterful retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story and a remake of the 1933 film. I liked it as a filmmaker. But we are not telling the Beauty and the Beast story; we are not remaking the [original] film. We’re doing some things completely differently. There are some exceptional things in that film, but once you go off on a course to make something unlike any Kong film people have seen before, I was never really thinking about that film. I was thinking how do we make Kong fresh? How do we make this meaningful for an audience, so that they need to go see this movie? That this can sit on the mantle with other Kong films?

(Center L-R) JOHN C. REILLY, JOHN ORTIZ and director JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures’ action adventure “KONG: SKULL ISLAND,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

(Center L-R) JOHN C. REILLY, JOHN ORTIZ and director JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures and Tencent Pictures’ action adventure “KONG: SKULL ISLAND,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

You recently wrote on Twitter, “My generation is the ‘old guard’ before we even had a chance to be the ‘new guard’ because of the way the Internet disrupted our generation.” How did that sort of thinking influence your film? Was your intention to appeal to the millennial generation, or did you want to project a classic aura that might attract a middle-aged or older audience as well?

I think if you watch this movie, you’ll see that, much like my last film, it’s a throwback and yet very modern at the same time. I’m interested in making films that feel timeless, that defy generations. The Internet has been so disruptive that traditional mechanisms, business structures, and power structures, that were in place are crumbling. As everyone is figuring out what the hell is going on, how we move these mediums forward, how we get people to the movie theater, whether theaters matter when everyone’s streaming content—you just have to make things that register with people. The only thing that has value right now is to have a voice and a point of view, be original enough that you resonate with people and you inspire people, so some kid somewhere says, “That movie is what made me fall in love with movies.” The only thing we have is our ability is to have a point of view and a voice.

FAVORITE MOVIE MEMORY

Honestly, probably nothing for me would beat—even though the movie itself is what it is—the level of excitement and fever-pitch nerd intensity my friends and I had when The Phantom Menace came out. We saw it for the first time at midnight, after camping out for tickets. I just remember the entire theater was full of like-minded nerdy individuals. The intensity in that screening and leading up to that screening, the process of camping out all night for those tickets, was pretty special.

 

Jesse Rifkin

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