Just like that, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has gone from making a tiny indie feature in 2013 called The Kings of Summer to helming a colossal monster thriller starring the most famous giant movie beast of all, Kong: Skull Island. Going from a $1 million movie to a reported $190 million tentpole has messed with the heads of filmmakers before, but Vogt-Roberts shows extraordinary control, a genuine eye for imagery, wit and dare we say a hint of vision in his film, which plays not just as a monster movie but a post-Vietnam war drama and an old-school pulp jungle adventure flick.
In setting the movie against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and making his characters — embodied by a sterling cast that includes Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson — realize just how small such conflicts are when placed against the awesome power of nature, Vogt-Roberts has made a smart movie that is the second building block for a cinematic monster universe that will also include Godzilla and possibly some others from film lore. We spoke with Vogt-Roberts — who told us about his hoped-for next project, Metal Gear Solid, a couple of weeks ago — about all this when we sat down recently in Los Angeles (slight spoilers for Kong: Skull Island ahead).
Den of Geek: What were the things you wanted to see in your dream King Kong movie? Did you have kind of a little list in your head?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: The first thing was just the general pitch that I wanted to see Apocalypse Now with King Kong. I want to see a Vietnam War movie with monsters. I wanted to see these crazy Planet Earth moments. When Kong fights an octopus, it’s actually more about a day in the life and what his daily struggle is. Then, the quiet moment of him chewing it after the fact and just lingering with him. I wanted to see creatures that I felt I hadn’t seen before and had a spirituality to them. I wanted to see Kong as a lonely god. What I didn’t want to see was things that I felt I had seen before. I wanted to try and work in as many sort of new and interesting or explosive or subversive ideas because I think that’s what audiences need. So much of what’s out there just feels redundant. I just wanted to see this berserker, anime-influenced god of a Kong, who moves more like a human than he does a simian ape.
Do you see these monsters, Kong, Godzilla, all of these, as sort of the successor to things like the ancient Greek monsters and gods, for example?
I don’t know if these creatures specifically are the successors to those types of myths, but what I do think they are and what’s important to me in this movie, and when you asked about what I wanted to see in this movie, I am obsessed with the idea of the loss of myth. I think we live in a time in which people have lost myth in their lives because you can go on Google and google anything and find the answer to something. As opposed to wonder. As opposed to being okay with not knowing. I think that a big part of this movie for me was about confronting people with myth, reminding them myth exists and what happens when you are put in the presence of myth. What does it do to you?
I don’t know necessarily if these creatures are exact successors, but I think they represent the importance of myth. I guess you could say that they are successors in the sense that are fulfilling the same role in that we needed those myths then and now we need these myths again. I think that these creatures have captivated our imaginations in the same way that we need them as myths in our lives because we need the unknown.
All our little wars like Vietnam or whatever, look pretty puny when faced with things like this.
Well, not just Vietnam, but I mean, the entire opening scene of my movie is about two people and two countries trying to kill each other. To the death. Then, being confronted with something greater than themselves and saying, “What are we doing right now?” You’re confronted with a myth and you’re confronted with a god. You’re absolutely right.
What were some monster movies when you were growing up that really struck a chord with you?
Discovery Channel used to play old “movie magic” things, where they would go and break down early special effects and I was so fascinated by it. My dad would let us just go to the video store and bring back these strange movies. Some of which were not great or weird. The one that really kind of melted my brain was Jason and the Argonauts.
So I went down the Harryhausen route. That stuff really, really had an impact on me. Those skeletons fighting — I couldn’t believe it when I was seeing it. That’s stuff was pretty enormous for me. That led me even more down a road, into, sort of, manga and anime and things like that, that are very heavily sort of based in kaiju ideas and things like that.
Did you know, going into this, that it was going to connect up at some point with that universe as well?
Yeah, early on I knew that was the intent. Luckily, Legendary (Pictures) were very cool about letting me really say, I will future proof this for you. I will lay a road map showing the intellect of Kong and the berserker side of Kong for how he might possibly be able to fight these creatures. I will lay the groundwork for a world that makes sense for you, but my job is to first and foremost tell it like a singular Kong story. A movie that is self-contained and exists on its own merit. As opposed to something that only is trying to serve as something else, because there will be a great deal of people that go into this movie not even knowing that it connects to Godzilla and not even caring that it connects to Godzilla. My job is to also serve as those people and make sure that that stuff works.
Another interesting thing about this film is that people might think they’re going to see the “Beauty and the Beast” story again, or we’re going to take Kong to New York again, and they don’t see that.
Right. The beauty and the beast thing was sort of a constant push and pull because as you go on in development that’s the singular thing that people think the movie is. I just have to sort of constantly remind people at times, we’re not telling that story. Sometimes there is this desire to say, “Well, maybe we should … Maybe we should get it …” They would try and write in scenes that were trying to have even more of a connection between Brie Larson’s character and Kong. It’s like, “Guys, we are not playing this story. We’re not playing this game. If we half-ass it, we’re going to look like idiots.”
Peter (Jackson)’s movie retells the 1933 version and the beauty and the beast story so incredibly well. He spends the entire movie building that. Why would we half-ass that? That was the number one thing for me, not telling that story. I don’t think it fits with modern times in the same way. I think that it’s not that relevant of a story because we’ve seen it so many times, but I also just think the world is changing and the role of women in film should be changing along with it. That was just one of the things that was most uninteresting to me. Going back to New York also just didn’t really interest me.
There’s also a pulp adventure aspect to this film, in addition to its being a war movie and a monster movie.
I think the movie is definitely like a fusion, a mash-up, but one of the things that I am most proud is that we’ve been getting a lot of comments that, much like Kings of Summer felt like kind of a very contemporary old-school Amblin film, I think this is a movie that has a very real — yeah, this is a throwback to Vietnam films, it’s also a throwback to old adventure films, but it feels also contemporary at the same time. It’s not just an homage. I see no point in just making a throwback. People always say, “Oh yeah, we’ve got the new Amblin stuff.” No, no, don’t make an Amblin movie. Make Attack the Block. Make a movie that takes the essence of an Amblin movie, but makes it fresh and gives it a reason for being in the year it came out. We try to do a similar thing here.
You went from Kings of Summer, a very small picture, to doing something like this where you have hundreds of people on the crew, hundreds of millions of dollars at stake — how much changed in terms of the basics of filmmaking for you?
Look, there are fundamentals of filmmaking. You never have enough money and you never have enough daylight. Filmmaking is filmmaking though. Storytelling is storytelling. The difference in storytelling between TV show and a commercial and a movie, those are all different types of storytelling. I remember going from making short films to Kings of Summer and realizing what the differences were in terms of imagining a story, the amount of days, the endurance of it and things like that, but ultimately, the core of it is the same and you have the same job which is to shepherd the story and to be in control of everything.
It’s like driving a car. You drive a car, which means you can probably drive a truck, which means you can probably figure out a tractor, which means you can get into a race car. If you get into a race car, you might crash that race car, but it’s still in the same fundamentals of what you’re doing. There was a huge learning curve in a lot of ways and some things that I could’ve never prepared myself for. Sometimes I would look and say to people, “I’ve only made one movie and it was a million dollars, but I promise you there are better ways to make movies like this.” Just because there are so many weird, strange oddities on the way these movies get made, but there are just different types of stories. Making an indie versus making a studio film is a different experience in a lot of ways, but it’s also the same in a lot of ways.
Obviously you’re very proud of this movie. Do you feel a certain creative ownership, in the sense that you’d like to stay involved in this universe and at least help shepherd some more of these monster movies along if not direct another one yourself?
The movie I’m the most interested in doing, honestly, would be a prequel with John C. Reilly’s character. I would continuing to riff off the specific scene that starts it. I’d love to see Marlow and the other pilot’s relationship, cutting back and forth between them as the young pilots that crash and the journey they go on and the fights they have with monsters. I’d make like the $30 million version of that movie. That’s the movie I’d be most interested in.
Kong: Skull Island is out in theaters this Friday (March 10).