How Jordan Vogt-Roberts Rejected Legendary's Original 'King Kong' Pitch So He Could Make His Own

While talking to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts about his new film Kong: Skull Island, I learned that the filmmaker was hired for the gig only after he rejected the job and script that Legendary initially pitched to him. Below, read part two of my interview to find out how Jordan went from a first-time director of the Sundance film festival movie The Kings of Summer to this mega-blockbuster (but only after you've read part one).

jordan vogt-roberts shooting kong: skull island

Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Hey, what's up? Good to see you.

Good to see you too.

How are things? Did you watch it?

Good. Everything's good. Yeah, I liked it a lot.  

Good.

jordan vogt-roberts

I love your first film, but seeing that I wouldn't necessarily be like "Oh, he's the guy that we need to make the King Kong movie." And I heard when you went in there they weren't going to make this film, like it was a different pitch. So how did you go in there and what was your pitch?  What happened?

Part of it stems from the reason I [just] wanted to do a big movie after Kings of Summer. Much like you, before we discovered foreign cinema, art house cinema, film history, all of that, the things we had access to were Star Wars and Die Hard and Raiders and these studio movies that were great. And they didn't talk down to you. Before studio movies had such a negative connotation. So I was very vocal about wanting to do a big studio movie. I did not think it was gonna be a King Kong movie. You know, there were other things, like Metal Gear Solid, that I was chasing.  But I never in a million years would I have thought it was a monster movie.

So they brought me a script and they called me on a Sunday. It was the craziest thing. It took me a year to win Metal Gear Solid. And it took me six months to win Kings of Summer, probably. I got a call on a Sunday to say we want you to come and meet on this project tomorrow. I was like okay. It was Skull Island. We're making a new King Kong movie. My first response was "Awesome." I love King Kong. My secondary response was "Why?" Why does this movie need to exist? It hasn't been that long since Peter [Jackson's] film. Peter's movie was great. What's fresh about this for audiences?  So I read the script. It took place in 1917. It was an entirely different movie than this. And it was a good script. It just wasn't for me. So I said, thanks but no thanks. This was like Monday.

You actually went in and said that or...?

Yeah.  So I went in and said that. I loved all the ideas they were talking about. And I kicked around ideas of what I thought was interesting and whatever. And they sort of said okay, well what version of the movie would you make? And I thought... I don't know if there is a version of this film I would make.  Like, I don't know if I'm your guy for this. So I went away that weekend and started thinking about what that was. And I didn't know if it was gonna be anything. And then suddenly, my brain just started popping the images of Kong as like a black silhouette and like an orange sky and choppers approaching him. And actually, the screen saver of my phone, the background is the very first piece of concept art that we ever generated.

[Jordan shows me his iPhone background wallpaper]

Kong Skull Island Poster

And it's funny that it looks almost exactly like the final theatrical poster.

Yeah, it's pretty similar to it. And then the idea of like Hendrix is playing and choppers are flying around and a fist is coming out of the sky and smashing these things down. And then suddenly, I was like, wait a second, I've seen plenty of monster movies. I haven't seen a Vietnam War movie with monsters. And I haven't seen something that is riffing off of Apocalypse Now with monsters. And that had a bunch of thematic reasons, beyond it being like an incredible genre mash-up of me thinking like I would wanna see this movie. I feel like people would, like you, would wanna see the film.

But then there were these elements of... You look at what was happening in the '70s and the late '60s, political riots and racial revolutions and distrust of the government and it's like a complete mirror of what's happening right now. And it was like there were so many things where it felt like right now, our entire generation is people with one foot in the old guard and one foot in the new guard, uncertain of how to move forward. As it was then, too. So I love the idea of taking these like disillusioned, confused people and thrusting them into like the unknown and confronting them with gods and myths. So I went to the studio and pitched them that idea. And I thought they were gonna laugh me out of the room. I figured they were gonna say thanks but no thanks. And instead, they said, cool, let's do that movie. And my response was me sort of blank face, staring saying, "What?"

They actually said that in the room?

They said we would love to do that movie. Let's think about it. The next day I got a phone call. They said we're doing this movie. So all said and done, the time that I got my first phone call to when I was doing the movie was a week.

Wow.

Yeah. And then we were just off to the races. So we we completely reworked the script and kind of went from there.

Kong Skull Island

I like that it's a big monster movie that actually delivers on big monsters.  No offense to any other movie from the last few years, but...

No, but that would be... That's like the fundamental thing we have to get right.

But I do feel like there's a lot of young directors that are getting hired for these big films... Maybe it's a nod back to Jaws or maybe it's the worry that if they commit to  showing too much of the monsters, doing too much CG work, it will be overwhelming. But you jump headfirst into not just Kong but a ton of Skull Island monster action.

Well, I think for me my love of Kong is as much a part of my love of creature features and Harryhausen and monsters and that type of cinema. As much as it is the 1933 film itself. Because Kong's a difficult thing to separate, because you and I probably knew who Kong was an icon and a piece of pop culture well before we ever saw the 1933 film. And when you watch that 1933 film, you're like holy fuck, this is still incredible. You know, it's genre filmmaking at its finest. The special effects are still like out of control incredible. It's like it's just every piece about that film is still captivating.  But there's this other element of Kong as this piece of pop culture and as one of the pillars and titans of monster movies.

So I find it difficult to just think about it as a Kong story and what was interesting to me was this idea of being like okay, this is more of a Kaiju film and more like a creature feature. And to me, if you're gonna do that, you gotta go balls out. Every time one of these big movies comes out these days, they say, a week later... They're like "There's only 10 minutes of Batman in this movie." Or here's five minutes of this thing.  Beyond me initially wanting to like put Kong in scene one, I just wanted to send a message that like this is not the movie that's gonna string you along and hide it from you. As a nerd like you, I'm sure you wouldn't be unreasonable for you to agree that generally less is more, with monsters, with villains, things like that.

But this was something where it was in your face. Here we go, this is the world. We're not gonna be afraid of showing this thing. And the cat's out of the bag in scene one. So we take our time and do our crazy stuff with our reveals and make sure those are cinematic and have weight and things like that.  But like I think people wanna see these things fight.

This is big budget CG movie.  I was wondering if there's anything in this film that viewers might be surprised were created practically or lo-fi in some way?

Well, we tried as much as possible to shoot on locations in real places.

skull island Vietnam

It looks great by the way, the Vietnam stuff.

Thank you. The Vietnam is... I hope more people look at this movie and say, oh my God, where was that shot? And they go and discover Vietnam. It's just one of the most special places on the planet. In terms of like effects like that, like we built part of that stick creature for a shot. You know, [the monster] that throws Toby Kebbell off of him. But no, you know, [much of it] was all practical stuff.

And for me, I think the biggest surprises in the movie beyond practical stuff is that I would like to think that people... Online right now there's a lot of chatter of "I don't know about this tone." Is it serious or is it not serious? I think people are gonna be surprised at how much they fall in love with John C. Reilly and how much he's like sort of like subversive human element to the film.

skull island john c reilly

He's awesome.  He's the heart of the movie.

He's like Biaggio in Kings of Summer, where he should totally break the film. He should be saying things that like are completely out of control.  But I think he actually grounds it more. And he is the human beating heart of the movie.

I like that too. Anyways, thank you.

Dude, thank you so much. Great to see you as always.

Good to see you as well.