/Film Interview: Jordan Vogt-Roberts on ‘The Kings of Summer’ and Making “The Dumbest Terrence Malick Movie Ever”
Posted on Friday, June 28th, 2013 by Russ Fischer
When I sat down with The Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts to discuss his movie I expected to have the typical fifteen to twenty-minute block of time. We ended up talking for far longer than that. As a result, our Q&A turned into more of a talk than an interview.
I’m not going to present the whole thing, but what follows is a lightly edited transcript of the bulk of our conversation. The director goes into great detail about his ambitions for the film, which follows three high school kids as they run away from home and spend a summer building their own home in the woods.
We talked about his view of where the film industry stands now, and quite a lot about the use of music in the movie, and why the soundtrack ranges from classic rock to modern hip-hop to the influence of 8-bit video game sounds. And Vogt-Roberts explained just how he designed the house these kids build as something people could conceivably construct in real life.
Vogt-Roberts also detailed some of the happy accidents that ended up being defining moments for the film. The great “playing on the pipe” sequence released as the teaser trailer, for example, was something they just fell into shooting on a day off. As a filmmaker, Jordan appears to be organized and able to plan, but also able to seize a moment and properly work it into the film. Sounds easy, but it’s something that people don’t always do well. Our talk about some of those instances gives a good insight into the birth of this film.
The Kings of Summer is in theaters now, and it’s a great feature debut. Check out the long-read interview below.
/Film: I think for anybody who knows the Amblin film personality in general, it would be impossible to watch this film and not think of Amblin to a certain extent. Was that what you set out to do?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Chris [Galletta], the writer, and I are both really big fans of that era of filmmaking as a whole. One of the things about the Amblin films I particularly respond to and I think a lot of films of that era… I feel like over the last twenty years we have just diluted what a lot of films are. The things we grew up on, like if you go back and watch Stand By Me or The Goonies or Back to the Future, any of that shit, first and foremost those are films. They are complete stories about characters and worlds that you invest yourself in, and you go on a journey.
When they are funny, they’re funny. When they are adventurous, they are adventurous. When they are heartbreaking, they are heartbreaking. That’s all bonus, because first and foremost that are films. They are these complete nuggets, these capsules; now movies are like just one of those things. Now we make movies where “it’s just a comedy,”or “it’s just this” as opposed to being this full spectrum that those movies exhibited.
One thing that also appealed to me about the Amblin stuff was those movies were made with technical craft, like there’s real filmmaking behind them. That’s really absent from a lot of comedy, too. Oddly enough, Chris had never seen Stand By Me when he wrote this. We just did a double feature at The New Beverly in LA one night with Goonies and one night with Stand By Me, so that was literally his first time seeing it. So yeah, those were huge reference points to us and the fact that in reviews we are even compared to Stand By Me is not something that I take lightly at all.
But what you said [ed: earlier, before tape was rolling] about not aping the Amblin feel was really important for me. Because on one hand I wanted to tap into what I think made those Amblin films great and the heart of John Hughes movies… The movie certainly is a mash up of a lot of different things and I wanted to give it a really contemporary comedic sensibility. But if it was just throwback, then it would be like “Well, why didn’t you make this movie twenty years ago?” Then if it was just really modern, then it’s like “Well it’s not going to be relevant in three years.” So the idea was to mash all of this stuff where it’s a love letter to a lot of things, but it’s not just a throwback. I would like to think that it stands on its own as its own thing and sort of carves out its own place.
There’s a sense of uncertainty, and there’s a sense of risk, in coming of age films from years past. It’s classic storytelling; you don’t know how it’s going to end. But uncertainty seems to be something that companies that are spending $200m to make and market a movie aren’t willing to risk.
I think that that risk is a big part of it, and I think my movie sort of starts and ends as different movies. Honestly, my favorite reactions are from people who went in literally knowing nothing about it. The movie starts as this somewhat broad movie where you think it’s maybe a teen comedy and then you just go on it. Ideally, you go on the same journey as these characters do and as long as you are grounded in it, you slowly start pulling away that sense of certainty where as it goes on, like when the heartbreak happens, you can feel the audience go “Oh, crap. This is going to get real.”
By the time some of the more intense things happen, like the hunting, ideally the audiences go with that. Also, I think there’s just a likeness. It’s almost a sad thing that I think part of the reason people are comparing it to those movies and this is kind of fucked up to say, but I think it just speaks to the state of cinema in general… Part of the reason people compare it to Stand By Me and Goonies is because those are movies that felt really real and authentic about adolescents and maybe we’ve just gotten so far away from our ability to properly portray adolescence, but I think that’s why people are really comparing them.
Adolescence has always been commoditized in a certain way, but it seems like it has become increasingly rigid over the years. There was a point where there was a varied spectrum to it; there was rebellion, and there was fidelity to your family, and exploring what you want. A movie like Stand By Me folds together a bunch of those things through a set of characters, but today the approach has become very focused.
Exactly. It’s become very cookie-cutter. I think it also is becoming very pandering and patronizing, which I think is a really big problem. I think that we are in a generation now where everyone has so many options that as soon as you pander or patronize to them they are out. I think that that’s why going to the movies has become such a risk for people in general, because you can stay home and watch your Netflix. People have these big TVs and if you don’t like it, you change it or you pause it or whatever. How often in life now do you go… This is sort of a tangent, but how often do you go in life now where you’re not on your phone a couple of times an hour? Movies are this rare experience now where you have to keep it in your pocket. Ideally it’s not and I think hopefully the authenticity of the boys in this movie is what hooks you in and maybe makes people go and see it in the theaters, I don’t know.
You obviously responded well to the script, because you shot it. Did you rewrite?
Yeah, the first thing I did at the time was a pass with Chris about changing Kelly’s character a little bit, like fleshing her out in a way that made her more the idea of what a crush is. There were a lot of little things to rework here and there, but Chris in general wrote this really spectacular script with a really great voice. I just fell in love with it. I just had… I had been looking to make my first movie for a while and I just have this visceral reaction to “I need to make this movie.” Not like “I want to” or “I could,” but “I need to.
Not only did Chris have a great base in terms of the characters and the world that already had that throwback vibe to it, but I also knew that it would serve as just a great jumping off point for the things I was also really interested in doing. That aspiration was to make it feel visually big and to combine impressionistic ethereal Terrence Malick elements with really dumb comedy back to back. Chris and I would always joke that we were trying to make the dumbest Terrence Malick movie ever. We were curious if that would even work, you know?
He and I would have a lot of conversations about how we’ve seen variations on a movie like this before. We’ve all seen so many coming of age movies now and like you said, there are so many that are so hyper focused now that they are not feeling authentic. So for us a big thing was just figuring out how we could tell a somewhat traditional story in a very non-traditional way, so it felt like its own thing.
The reason I ask is because I think you do a good job with managing tonal shifts across the story, and I was curious if that is inherent to the script.
Well I think part of the reason that this job came to me in the first place is because my short, Successful Alcoholics, does a really similar thing tonally where it invests you in a fun world and then slowly you start realizing “Oh, things are fucked up.”But it’s still able to be funny while it’s dark. I love movies like Up. I think Up is a perfect movie because of the way it slaloms between tones. I think in general studios are really afraid to play with tone. I had so many meetings after Successful Alcoholics with executives saying“We love the way you play with tone. We love how dark you get. We would never want to do something like that, but we love it.” There were so many weird meetings like that.
I would have these conversations, even when I won this script, where people asked what I thought the tone was. They were like “is it more a comedy or drama?” I’d say “I think there are laughs in this movie that are going to be as big as Superbad, and then there’s going to be stuff that’s as heartbreaking or real as a John Hughes movie or worse, things that are really emotionally taxing.” It should feel as heartbreaking and unsafe as being a teen is, when you don’t have the world figured out. As I would make that argument of “I think it’s the whole spectrum,” they’d be like “well you can’t do that.” I’d say “Well, Up does it.” Their answer: “that’s animated!” I’m like “It doesn’t matter! It’s just storytelling.”
So that’s something that I’m particularly interested in, just because I think life is a spectrum of highs and lows. It’s absurd and hilarious and dark and fucked up and funny all at the same time. So the script had that element. I think that I was naturally a little bit more interested in pushing both ends of the spectrum even further. The script definitely had heart to it, and it had humor, but I was definitely interested in pushing that darkness even further and pushing the laughs even further. Really having stuff going from really brutal, Cronenberg-esque, visual violence of, like, gutting a rabbit, to crazy slapstick. I was definitely interested in pushing what that tone was.
In the script, was Biaggio (the strangest kid of the trio, played by Moises Arias) as much this lynchpin of comedy as he became or is that the three kids all working together and how things shook out?
Well all the kids are incredibly talented. I keep saying, you don’t walk out of Stand By Me and think “One of those kids is good.” They’re all great.
And they work well together.
They work well together and it’s about… It’s not just about one of them being real, it’s about that chemistry. I just remember being on a playground as a kid and after you would see a movie that you and your friends loved, like having that conversation of deciding who you were most like, who got to be who. “Who is the leader? Who is the weird one?” I love that and I just knew from the beginning that yeah, we were going to have incredible comedians in this movie and incredible adult actors.
Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly and Allison Brie… like every little bit part was a comedian that I think people know, or will know in the next couple of years. But it was just really apparent that the movie was going to live and die by those kids, so a lot of it was about finding that balance. I let the kids bring a lot of themselves to it. Moises is an incredible talent, and that kid is acting. A lot of people must be like “He must be a weirdo, right?” It’s like “Yeah, everyone’s a weirdo, but he is acting.”
It’s not like he’s new to it.
Yeah, he’s been in a lot of stuff. I always knew that that was going to be a particularly hard role, because his world was so stylized and that’s so Chris’s voice. There is stuff that’s improvised and there is stuff that Moises brought to the table. I just knew, with casting Biaggio in particular, it was going to be such a difficult thing. If he didn’t work, we would have jokes falling flat every couple of minutes. More importantly, by the end of it, you really do need this Sam-Frodo relationship [with he and Nick Robinson's character], because it becomes this emotional core and he’s one of those weird characters.
I think a handful of reviews are going to write him off as being underdeveloped when it was sort of like an intentional choice for us at least to say “We want to tell you nothing about this character, yet also have you know everything you need to know.” You understand how important this friendship is to him, because for some reason he’s latched on to it. By the end he’s just like this loyal dog and people should feel for him in that way. So yeah, that character was always crazy and Chris wrote an insane character. It definitely got crazier as the shoot went on, but yeah.
Can you think of anything specifically that was notably different as you went on?
I think the biggest thing is… I sent the kids through improv training, because I wanted them to, like I said, be able to bring themselves to it. Not to be quick and witty necessarily, but to be comfortable enough in their own skin that if we wanted to change something on the fly they could adjust. The example that I always give is I found out Gabe, who plays Patrick, could play violin, so we incorporated that. Then I found out Moises could dance, so I’m like “I’m going to make this part of his character,” so that they could really bring in an element of themselves and they can ground them in things that they naturally care about, but then be acting on top of it.
That whole sequence with the pipe was shot on our first day off, after a week of shooting. I found that pipe in pre-production and it just didn’t make sense to shoot anything else around there, but I just loved this idea of this luscious natural landscape with this manmade pipe going straight through it. It felt like a thematically representative visual for this movie. So I was like, “Let’s go here. Let’s shoot something here.” Me, the DP, and the writer took the three kids on an off day to the woods and for a couple of hours we just captured them breaking logs and throwing sticks, just boys being boys.
Then I took them to that pipe and I told them to start banging on it and I told Moises to start dancing on it. We are going to release this as an extended clip on the DVD, because you can literally watch the progression of me putting them there and watching these kids find a rhythm of themselves. I was just guiding them a little bit, giving them like “All right, Moises Dance. Gabe, give the back beat to this whole thing” and watching the whole thing develop. I honestly think that was the moment where it clicked for the kids, when they realized how much they could bring of themselves to this thing. There really was this moment where… You know, rarely on set do you have something where you really feel… You capture good stuff. Some times you capture things you think will be funny, but it’s rare to find things like “this is special.” As soon as we shot that, I just started rethinking the whole movie. “This is going to be the backbone. This is going to be how we open the whole thing.” So things definitely got crazier as things went on, as I just gave them more and more freedom to bring themselves to it.
So a lot of the film’s structure or a certain amount of structure came out of that moment?
It definitely came out of that, but also like I said we did want to explore this idea of telling a story like this through Malick-esque impressionism. So we were capturing all sorts of B-roll and all sorts of stuff with just the kids dicking around. All sorts of luscious great landscapes and things like that, but that really is something you can’t find until the edit. So we were capturing this stuff and I had ideas of how I thought it could work, but a lot of it is really finding it in the edit.
The pipe scene is one of the things, in part I guess because of the kids getting to really live through it, that felt very familiar to me. That was my childhood, you know? Just going out into the woods and finding something.
And just making something of it.
Yeah. So where did you grow up?
I grew up just outside of Detroit, and there’s a lot of woods around there. To me, because there wasn’t an epicenter of culture and me and my friends were just really big dorks, we would just walk around at night and look for adventures. We would just want to walk around at night and have something weird happen that we could joke around about. You’re creating your own adventures at this point and that’s just something that’s so seared into my adolescence.
Times like that, there’s a point where friends can mutually agree that certain things are adventures, thought to anyone else they’re completely mundane. But to you it’s like “Okay, we need something here.” It’s not necessarily expressed that way, but kids can find an empty cardboard roll, and do something with it, and that becomes a lynchpin for everything.
I think that just also goes back to having a child-like wonder. That anything can be “something,” and not losing that sense. So that was important for us in the movie, too.
Look, I’m sure another thing I’m going to get faulted for is the use of slow motion, or the use of montage, and that’s fine. That’s one of those notes that I came to terms with a long time ago. That was the type of story that I wanted to tell, because I was interested in at least trying to use those moments to elicit a certain feeling or moment of when you are doing those things, like the cardboard tube that you were talking about, “How did it feel in that moment? How cool did you think it looked?” or “How cool do you think that nature actually looked like when you were there?” It’s that sense of wonder that it would bring out of you and that feeling how it felt to you, not necessarily how it looked. So that’s why I wanted to use montage and slow motion, for stuff like that.
And the house gets to that too. I think they see something different than what we see. They see their achievement. They see this aura around this thing that they’ve built; because they’ve built it, it looks different through their eyes that it does to us.
I think the perspective of the whole movie in my mind is slightly skewed. Like the world of the adults as a whole as well; they are all crazy, but I suspect if there was a version of this movie that followed the adults first and foremost, you could tell this same story and it would be a little less crazy. I think a lot of it very much is how these kids perceive the world and everything around it. There’s even stuff like one of our first reviews called our movie a “full-on fairytale” and I’m totally cool with that. There are things to me where I really was more interested in how… like riding this line between having it feel real and authentic, but then also in the same way like the best John Hughes movies or those Amblin movies did, having it feel like something that you can ground yourself in and relate to, but have it be idealized enough that there’s still something to aspire to.
So like the way they view the house or the way that their facial hair looks, like all these things in my mind if you were to actually capture what they are looking at, it’s probably slightly different, but I was more interested in this idea of cranking this thing up enough without it turning into movie magic. With the house especially that was really tough, because we did want to ride this line of “Okay, let’s make this out of found materials and if you and your friends didn’t slack off… It you actually did it instead of talking about doing it.”
How do you ride that line?
I was legitimately interested in how you would do it. I designed the house when I was pitching. I worked with an illustrator friend and we just tried to take a bunch of found materials, a Porta-potty door and things like that. Those were things with our initial concept art and then I took that concept art to an architect and said “All right, if you had three hundred dollars that were stolen and you just had a saw, hammers, and nails, what is the actual barebones way that technically you would build this house and have it be structurally sound?” Then reverse-engineer it from there to be like “Okay, how would a bunch of shitty fifteen year olds screw this up?” So there was a method to the madness. “Okay, what’s achievable? What’s not? Could they even do this?” Like everything in that house is really basic support beams, like there’s nothing too complex about what they are doing. They, in theory could have built that thing. It’s certainly ambitious, but we were riding that line. We wanted it to feel iconic, but not overly art directed.
I kept thinking of the “Greased Lightning” sequence in Grease, the whole fantasy production of seeing how badass this car becomes in their minds, and then coming back to reality. The house here is in-between those things. It’s kind of badass, because it’s weird, it feels like a place kids could hang out in on the weekend or something.
Then you get that moment where he throws that chair at it and a wall falls down, you know? With sound design we also tried to make it a bit of a character where when they walk around you hear that motherfucker creak a lot. That’s why I wanted to have that scene where it was raining and they are in the house. When it was written, it wasn’t written to be raining, but I was like “We need to see the fact that this roof can’t even protect them from the elements.” So yeah, there were a lot of small things we tried to incorporate to make it feel real.
We’ve talked over Twitter briefly about the use of ‘Cowboy Song’ by Thin Lizzy. How does the music play into making a film that is modern but with a classic feel?
I’m really happy that people are responding so well to the music. God man… that Thin Lizzy song, like I said… I have like a handful of songs in my brain that I’ve just forever been saying “As soon as I have a budget, I’m putting this into a movie.”
I’m going to ask you those other ones, but off the record, because I don’t want you to inspire people to use them before you get to it.
(Laughs) Thank you, I appreciate it. That was one of the songs and we didn’t even have that much money and we went to Sundance. All the music we took to Sundance we had a festival license for, but not a full license. Luckily through the grace of God, when CBS bought us, they recognized the music was important and they stepped up and did it. But even then we were told “No fucking way about Thin Lizzy.” I was like “Well, last ditch effort” I wrote them a letter and talked about how I grew up on it and the song reminded me of hanging out with my dad when I was a kid. Then when they said yes, it was like “This is going to be in our movie?”
Honestly, I can’t imagine that opening sequence set to anything else. It’s just such a great song, but for the music I really wanted… It was important to me that there was hip hop in the movie. I think a lot of natural instincts with a movie like this, boys in the woods and this indie heartfelt thing, would be like to put some sensitive acoustic music in there. We’ve seen that before. The way these kids would perceive things, like when Joe is getting ready for Kelly to come over, it would be through hip hop. That’s how these kids think.
That’s what they hear all the time.
And so it’s funny sometimes when we do screenings with older audiences, like when the hip hop comes on, it’s like “Okay, these people will think this is a good time to go to the bathroom.” I wanted the music to be as much of a mash up as the rest of the film, which is to take things like Thin Lizzy, which to me is really timeless, and then to take something that falls in that indie music sensibility of MGMT and then newer things like Youth Lagoon, but then have stuff in there that is hip hop.
We’ve got this great remix of some Lee Scratch Perry stuff and so it’s a lot of different types of music all mashed up together. I wanted the whole thing to feel ageless and timeless and I thought one of the best ways to do that [was the music].
I also felt like the movie needed to be able to speak to different audiences and in different ways. John Hughes movies can be viewed by younger generations and older generations for different reasons. I wanted this to ideally exhibit that same quality. With the score, particularly, Ryan Miller, the singer-songwriter of Guster — he also did the score for Safety Not Guaranteed — when we first started talking, the very first thing I did was send him an orchestral sound track to The Legend of Zelda. He was like “Why are you sending me this? Are you crazy?” I was just talking about how for a long time I’ve been really interested in… I grew up a dork, just playing videogames and those simple eight bit melodies are just so ingrained into my brain and I love…
That sound means “summer” to certain people.
I love how evocative those [songs] can be with so little. I also loved the idea that the kids in Stand By Me or the kids in Goonies, those are generations of kids who could in theory have do those adventures. They could go and survive… Obviously Goonies is crazy, but that’s a generation that… Like when I was growing up it was totally normal to play outside. Now parents don’t let their kids play outside anymore. We are a generation of coddled wusses. We are! We are a generation that would sit around and talk about how it would be cool to build the house or run away as opposed to actually doing it.
The closest thing to adventure I think that we have is in video games. Like if they are going to go on this quest, I wanted to use… like I said, the same way I wanted to use hip hop because I thought that’s how they would perceive it, I wanted to use these eight-bit melodies and this electronic score to reflect how I thought they would be perceiving it. So the movie starts with this very eight-bit aesthetic mixed in with some organic elements. Then as it progresses and as they start growing up, the eight-bit stuff starts becoming more a background piece and the orchestral stuff really starts taking over. Ryan Miller just totally killed it. It took us a while to find that sonic world and for a second we just weren’t even sure if it was going to work. We were like “This might be crazy,” but then as soon as we made a couple breakthroughs and I started geeking out, like “Cool, this feels like a movie score, but it also feels very evocative of the videogames that I grew up with.”
Here’s the best of the trailers (a red-band version) for The Kings of Summer.