Jordan Vogt-Roberts interview – Kong: Skull Island, Miyazaki, videogames

The director of Kong: Skull Island talks to us about monsters, anime, videogames and lots, lots more...

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is a self-confessed nerd. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another filmmaker we’ve spoken to who, in the space of just 15 minutes or so, has managed to drop in such a varied array of pop cultural touchstones: Pokemon, Predator, the anime of Hayao Miyazaki, arthouse action videogame Shadow Of The Colossus, Ray Harryhausen and the Coen brothers.

Vogt-Roberts’ first feature was the charming coming-of-age comedy drama Kings Of Summer – one of the most pleasant indie surprises of 2013. Kong: Skull Island, meanwhile, has allowed the director to indulge in his evident passion for all things geeky: giant monster movies, obviously – this being a King Kong movie and everything – but also Vietnam war films, Japanese animation, videogames and, yes, Pokemon.

Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, Brie Larsson and John C Reilly as a large group of humans who burst noisily onto the hidden island of the same name, Kong: Skull Island offers thrills and eye-popping visuals, but also a deeper theme about humanity’s uneasy relationship with nature.

Mostly, though, Skull Island‘s a big, rip-roaring and hugely entertaining kaiju adventure – a heady stew of all the things Vogt-Roberts loved growing up.

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Here, then, is the filmmaker himself to tell us all about the ideas and influences that went into making Kong: Skull Island…

Congratulations on the movie, first of all.

Thank you. I’m very proud of it. It’s been two-and-a-half years of my life, so watching people react to it now is incredible.

I was talking to one of your producers, Alex Garcia, yesterday. He was saying that what sealed the deal with Legendary was your pitch. Could you talk me through how you convinced them?

Well, they came to me and said, “Hey, we’re making a new King Kong movie.” And I said, “Okay, awesome. I love King Kong.” And then my second response was, “Why?” Why do we need to make a new King Kong movie? We’ve done it, we’ve seen it, audiences are really smart these days, there’s a bunch of franchises out there, and people might instantly say, “Why do we need this?”

The movie originally took place in 1917 and it was, like, a very cool script, but a very different thing. We had this great meeting, and we were all on the same page about doing something new and different, and the things I’d be interested in in a King Kong movie. But fundamentally, as a take on it, I left the meeting and… it wasn’t a “Thanks but no thanks” scenario, but I didn’t think that I had an access point into it. I didn’t think there was going to be any way for me to do the film, just because I didn’t know how to make a King Kong movie relevant.

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So the cool thing about Alex and Legendary was, they said, “Okay. Go away for the weekend. Think about what you want.”

I honestly went away and I was, like, not thinking about it. There is no version of this movie that I can make. And then somehow, this idea popped into my head of choppers and napalm, and searing sunsets, and Apocalypse Now and King Kong. Like, a Vietnam movie mixed with a Ray Harryhausen film. There are so many interesting thematics associated with that, beyond the genre mash-up of Kong punching helicopters out of the sky. [In 1973] we were putting satellites into space for the first time, and looking down on the world and mapping the world, and it felt credible that we could discover something like [Skull Island]. I loved the idea that the 70s was a split between science and myth in my mind – where we were eradicating myth because we were adding numbers to everything.

I loved the idea of taking these broken people who are disillusioned because of the war, and everything happening, and how much the 70s was the perfect black mirror for all the problems happening in the world today. And so I was, like, “Cool. I’d make the fuck out of that movie!” [Laughs] Like, I’ve never seen a monster movie with Hendrix playing.

I went back, and I thought they [Legendary] were going to laugh me out of the building. I really was. But I was very proud of my pitch, because I said, “Look, real talk: this is the movie I would make. So if you don’t want to make this movie, we can both go our separate ways. The amazing thing about that studio and producers like Alex is, I pitched them this idea that I thought would make them look at me and just start laughing, but they said, “Cool. Let’s figure out how to do that.” And I was left with this moment of saying, “Oh. Crap. How am I going to figure this out?” 

So they were originally thinking of making a prequel to King Kong.

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Yeah. In theory, it was originally pitched as a pseudo origin story, like if you remember reading a lot of the original press releases, they called it an origin story. And it was designed to be somewhat of a prequel to that film. It was a cool script, but it just wasn’t for me.

I really liked the pace of the opening third; it has a real urgency. It’s partly the style of shooting, partly the editing, partly the music. It reminds me a bit of Predator.

Ha ha!

The sense that we’re rushing headlong into the unknown.

Well, I really appreciate brevity in films. Like, it’s amazing for me, all these blockbusters – there are Transformers movies out there that are, like…

Three hours long.

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It’s like, woah, what the hell! I mean, look at Fargo. Do you know how long Fargo is? Ninety-five minutes. Or you look at Escape From New York. It’s like, “Here’s what’s happening”, then – boom – you’re in it. The Thing – boom, you’re in it. I just miss those clean, simple set-ups that just thrust you into that world. Predator’s so great because you’re just sort of in it, and you think about Long Tall Sally playing in the helicopter, and you’re there. So I appreciate that.

Why do you think that is, in your opinion? Why are blockbusters getting so long? How does a 10-year-old sit through a three-hour Transformers movie?

I don’t know either. I think part of it is a lack of cinematic storytelling. When was the last time you watched Sorcerer

Not for a long time.

Friedkin’s Sorcerer starts with, like, these three independent little vignettes. Different people, and they all have different vibes to them, and it’s all about how they end up in this place together. You’re just thrust into it. Now I think there’s a need to over-explain everything, and make sure people understand everything, as opposed to really taking cinematic licence.

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I think people have forgotten the craft of learning to love characters along the way. Die Hard is a perfect example. Really clean, perfect set-up where you have small character details that let you know who this guy is. Then it’s along the way [that you learn more], so by the end of the movie, you have a perfect understanding of him and his journey and everything. But they’re not spending an hour before things go crazy. I don’t know, I think people just feel the need to over-explain everything. I think a lot of movies have become very TV-driven in their narratives. They’ve forgotten how movies can work, and do work.

And I think people are following the traditional three-act structure, and how structure works. That ‘save the cat’ idea. It’s really sad, because if you look at most movies from the 70s and 80s, and like, most of your favourite movies don’t have a three-act structure. Now people are so obsessed with, like, “How does this character change?” There are all these buzz-words about how a movie gets made, and how a studio wants to make a movie that falls into a three-act structure. An inciting incident, and blah-de-blah-de-blah. I just think that’s all bullshit!

I was watching the film, and I hadn’t read much about it beforehand. But I saw certain things and I thought, “This reminds me of Princess Mononoke.” Then afterwards I read something where you cited it as one of your influences.

I’m glad you picked up on that. Miyazaki was an enormous influence. Speaking of non-traditional films, and films that are paced and structured differently, Princess Monoke is an incredibly complex film.

That’s what I was going to say, yeah.

You know what I mean? There’s an enormous grey area in that film in terms of who the heroes and the villains are and what’s happening. I think that a lot of the themes of the movie are like Princess Mononoke. The spirituality of Miyazaki’s work, and his ability to tap into these things that are beautiful and terrifying at the same time, that was the breaking point of the creatures [in Skull Island], because initially I didn’t want to do dinosaurs at all. We went through thousands of designs, and it wasn’t until we designed that water buffalo, and a piece of art came in, and it had this beautiful, mythic, anime quality. That to me became, “Kong’s the god of the island, the other creatures are the gods of their own domain.” 

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I wanted them to have that mythical, beautiful, legend quality to them. Mononoke became the breaking point not only for the vibe of the creatures but to me, the themes of the film. Ironically, as an Easter egg that I’ll spoil for you, that no one will ever pick up on: there’s two triangles on the bottom of Marlow’s sword – the character played by John C Reilly. Those two triangles are the same as the two triangles that are on her blade in Princess Mononoke.

That’s amazing. I got the environmental angle, where the Americans are riding in roughshod and destroying this beautiful place. Not having respect for the environment. I thought it was interesting to have a blockbuster that’s critical of the humans’ actions.

That was the goal. Also, I didn’t feel comfortable playing with the imagery of Vietnam films and Apocalypse Now and not have something to say. Like, that imagery is too charged in my mind to just make something that’s “Fun! Cool!” It’s got to be saying something about our relationship with nature, war, and the way we live in the world. I think the parallels to something like Mononoke – the modern town in that film, the reliance on technology and things like that – I think are very similar to those in this film.

I also picked this up – I’m such a nerd – that the reptile monsters, the two-legged creatures [called Skull Crawlers], are partly based on Cubone out of Pokemon.

[Laughs and gives your humble writer a high-five] My man! Yeah, that creature was the funniest thing.

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I was like, “If I’m putting a monster on screen, this has to be my movie monster”. The little kid in me, the nerd in me who had his brain rewired by Harryhausen films and kaiju films and anime and videogames – I get to make my monster! So initially, it was a rip-off… in the 1933 film, there’s one creature that’s not a dinosaur. In the log scene, when they’re hiding, this creature starts climbing up the side of a wall. And it has these two big forearms, and it’s cut off at the bottom so it gives the impression that it has two forearms and no hind legs. You never really see it, so you have no way of truly knowing what it does. But I thought that was really interesting, and it reminded me of Bong Joon-ho’s creature in The Host, which had such an oddness to the way it moved. I liked the way that creature had an inelegance, as though it had somehow evolved poorly. Because it was a mistake.

So we used the creature from the 1933 film as a jumping-off point, just for pure anatomy. Then I want to have it feel like an evolved version of the creature in The Host. And move with inelegance. And as we were designing it, I kind of gave a handful of references to people, and my best friend in the world came and did some concept work with me – this was my friend where we’d have LAN parties as a kid and, like, didn’t know how to talk to girls and spent our time in a basement playing videogames, drinking pop and eating junk food.

And we’re looking at this creature, and we’re like, “What does this remind us of?” Because I was, like, “I want it to have this white face – this weird, bone-white face, and this black, scaly skin.” Both he and I were staring at it, and we had this weird moment where we were like, “Oh my God.” We realised that we’d created this unintentional fusion of all of our nerdy childhood influences.

Because I love Cubone. Cubone has the saddest story of him wearing his dead mother’s skull on his face. 

Oh god, yeah!

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That’s so incredible to me. So I loved that idea. But then it also reminded me of the first angel in Evangelion – it has this these giant shoulders and black skin, and this weird white face. But it’s also a rip-off of No-Face in Spirited Away. So we had this funny moment where we said, “This is just our childhood throwing up on the screen as a creature.” I’m really proud of this creature, and ripping off other influences, and hopefully it feels like something people haven’t seen – like, a generic monster.

Yeah, definitely. It fascinates me how anime has become so infused in western filmmaking language. Akira was a huge influence…

And Akira is also one of those movies that’s been so ripped-off. I actually think Josh Trank got unnecessarily tarred and feathered on Fantastic Four, because he’s a great director. But, you know, people would be remiss to not understand how heavily Chronicle was influenced by Akira.

The lead character’s very Tetsuo, isn’t he?

Yeah, absolutely. But look, I love that that influence is seeping in. And for me, it’s not just anime – I’m one of those guys that grew up on videogames, too. The way Kong moves has way more to do with some videogame kinetics and anime kinetics than a traditional monster. And it’s very influenced by Evangelion. But we were really careful. There are movies out there, big movies out there, that I think are not inspired by [anime], but have stolen. I think there’s a big difference. I was with Shinji Higuchi in Japan recently, who was a huge part of Evangelion, and directed Shin Godzilla. We were having a big conversation about stuff… the line between “This inspired me and I’m going to riff off of it”, where it’s something in your DNA, versus just lifting. There’s one movie that I can think of out there that has very unfairly lifted from one of my favourite franchises, so that now they can’t make that movie. And I think that sucks. 

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Shadow Of The Colossus. There’s a hint of that in Skull Island.

Shadow Of The Colossus was a huge influence on me on this movie. It’s such a beautiful thing to have a boss fight where you feel sad after you’ve killed the boss. And the way those creatures lumber around was such a huge, huge part for me… the colossi in those games have such a slow, melancholy, morose quality to them. And the sense of scale. Honestly, Shadow Of The Colossus was one of the biggest influences on this film. Just the vibe the creatures have. I think and I hope that Kong has a similar vibe in the film.

Well, I’ve got to go now. But I will just ask you very quickly: have you found the experience of making this rewarding, and do you think you’ll be making more films of this scale in the future?

I want to make all types of films. I do want to go and make an experimental indie, and get that out of my system. Just abscond off and half improvise a film. I want to make big films and small films, and I think this experience has solidified for me that if I’m going to do this again, it’s got to be something I’m willing to fight for. To make it different. I’m a giant nerd, and I want my nerd friends to be proud of it, you know? I don’t want it to be a blemish on me as a filmmaker, but me as someone in otaku culture. So yes, it was rewarding. It was the hardest thing I ever did, by far, for sure. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I went through every possible emotion through the course of making this movie. But I’m so proud of it. I’m so proud of the crazy stuff.

I think we’re one of the first movies along, with Dan Trachtenberg’s work, and a lot of guys – associating the word videogames with a film is becoming a positive thing as opposed to a negative thing. And so, you know, I’d make the hell out of a Metal Gear movie if we get that script right, but I know how intense this process is. So I’ll never take one of these jobs as a job. Making a movie like this is too big, and too much of my life, and so to do it, it’s got to be something that you love, and that you can do something new with. Because I don’t think that people are being given new experiences at the theatre anymore.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, thanks very much.

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Kong: Skull Island is out in UK cinemas on the 10th March.