'Kin' Directors On Expanding Their Short Film And Making Personal Science Fiction [Interview]

Kin is a crime drama about two brothers on the run from a dangerous man, an intimate story of how family transcends blood. But there's also a sci-fi gun in the mix.

Summing up the feature debut of directors Jonathan Baker and Josh Baker is a bit tough. It's a science fiction movie where the genre elements sit at a distance, a movie featuring a powerful (Alien? Experimental? From the future?) laser gun that isn't actually about the laser gun. It's just something one of those brothers happened to find. A massive sci-fi world sits adjacent to Kin, even as the film focuses on those two brothers (Jack Reynor and Myles Truitt) and their relationship above all else.

I recently sat down with the Baker brothers, as well as screenwriter Dan Casey, to talk about this wild new movie, how they expanded their original short film, injecting genre elements into a more realistic world, and how Vimeo is the place to be for young filmmakers.


I really like the movie. It feels like the kind of movie that's custom-made for our readers. A sci-fi tinged, '80s-influenced – is that accurate to say? '80s influenced?

Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. There's a nostalgia quality to it, for sure.

So what were the inspirations for this? I know it was based on a short, but I detected maybe a little bit of Amblin in there, a nod to some Stranger Things qualities, but what else was behind the original short and the feature?

Jonathan: I think what has always turned us on about that nostalgia of films we grew up with is a kid that's a bit of an outsider stumbling across something –

Josh: Crazy and fantastic, yeah.

Jonathan: – that changes his whole world. We talked a lot about the classic fable of the sword in the stone, and what is the modern retelling of that? So a kid that can only wield this otherworldly weapon was really exciting, and doing the 2018 version of that.

Josh: Also with the short – I'm sure you've seen Bag Man?

No, I missed it at SXSW!

Josh: Oh, you should check it out. It's online. You'll definitely see the beginnings of it all there. It's mostly tone. We've called it a tone slice of pie. So really, when we showed it around town, you could show the short and people understood the tone of the feature. I don't know where I was going with that.

Jonathan: It's okay. He won't use that bit anyway. [laughs]

[To Dan Casey] How did you become involved as the screenwriter? What steps did you take, not only to adapt the short, but where did you go when you realized, okay, we need to expand this? What was the process there?

Dan: I was sent the short by the producers. There had been a competitive situation in terms of producing the short and turning it into a feature from a producing prospective, and they went with a company called 21 Laps, which is Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen's company, and Dan is a very talented producer. He's also a very intense guy. He calls me up one day and says, "What are you doing right now?"

Jonathan: "I'm eating a sandwich!" [laughs]

Dan: "Lunch!" Yeah, exactly. He goes, "I'm sending you a short. Watch it right now!" I was like, "OK!" I remember watching the short, and you kind of have a true cinematic experience seeing not just this wonderful little world that they created with the short, but immediately the potential for what it could be, I felt like I was able to dial into it. I called Dan Cohen back, and I said, "It was really great, man. What's going on with it?" You try to play casual, even though you know you love it. And he goes, "The directors are in the Valley right now. Can you get in your car and drive to the Valley?" So I did. I drove out and met these guys, and to tell you the truth, it was the conversation about what they wanted to do. They had quite a few elements of what the feature wound up becoming in place. They knew that there was going to be an older brother, Jimmy, we talked about the death of the father at the end of the first act. The rest of it's foggy, but I just remember having a great conversation.

Jonathan: More than anything, it was the tone and the combination of multiple genres in the same piece, which worked successfully in the short. It was about, "Let's create this Sundance film where people think they know what they're getting, and then let's flip it on them." If they stuck around long enough – this kid doesn't say a word for twelve minutes – if they stick around, they get rewarded with this slap in the face of sci-fi that just comes out of left field. We definitely wanted to do that for Kin.

Josh: It was about combining multiple tones, maybe multiple genres, and we love a lot of things about film. We love indie fare, and we love big sci-fi blockbusters. Why can't those things live in the same movie? In our opinion, we think they can, and there's a bunch of movies out there that have done it. Looper, I think, had a decent whack at the same thing. And District 9 was definitely more than one thing. I think those are the interesting ones that people really crave, especially when everything's a reboot or a Marvel movie. The aim from our side was, let's tell a sci-fi film where you can take the sci-fi out and the movie still stands. It still works. All the characters, everything plays well. But once you put this silly plasma rifle into the middle of the whole thing, you can't pull it out, and it just becomes the Macguffin of the film and we'll try to treat that sophisticated in 2018.

That's actually what I want to ask about next. What makes the movie really special to me and why I enjoyed it so much is that it is this really personal family crime drama, but it's adjacent to this sci-fi epic and we see the outline of it, and we don't get the big picture. It's intentionally vague. What was the process of designing that sci-fi world?

Jonathan: The good thing is we had a template with the short film, certainly of the weapon. And we had a second shot at it, which is rare. We were able to break it down, see what worked, what didn't, what we would like to improve. And so we worked with the same team, a group of guys called Super Vixen over in Australia, and they're super talented. And we made the weapon a little bit slicker and a little bit cooler. We loved the idea of it being a hidden box, a mystery box, that he finds and he has to explore to reveal its full identity throughout the film. We treat it like a character.

Josh: When it comes to the whole film, the sci-fi, I feel like we knew what we wanted to do with it. We wanted it to feel tech-y and mysterious and threatening, and then maybe play with that once you've set that up. Play with that in the third act. In the edit, it was a lot about trying to figure out what stages of the movie do you need to reintroduce the sci-fi because people may have forgotten? We didn't want it to be sci-fi the entire time, obviously, that's not what the movie is. But it was a lot of trying to figure out, "Okay, at this point in the film, do we need another reminder of this and remember that these two figures are following them?" Constantly revisiting that in a way to keep the tension going.

Jonathan: But we never wanted the audience to feel like that's what the movie's about. We all know it's a brother film and it's about these two broken characters coming together and what makes them family.

Let's talk about the brothers. There was a window where they tried to make Jack Reynor into a dashing leading man, and I think he's so much better as a character actor and a screw-up.

Josh: Absolutely. He would agree with you, as well.

And Myles Truitt is such a discovery. He's so good in this.

Josh: That's awesome.

Can you talk about creating them on the page and creating them on the screen?

Dan: I never write for actors. I try not to. Because I feel like you can wind up accidentally impersonating someone you have in mind if you try to write for them, so there was never a clear picture in my head. I left it up to these guys in terms of casting who they would pick.

Jonathan: But we always talked about the Eli character being very introverted and quiet, but yet incredibly powerful in the silence. We're seeing the movie through his eyes in a lot of scenes, like the dinner table you wrote just these three males in this family, and Eli's just watching how his father and brother are relating and getting to know his brother for the first time in six or seven years. So a lot of that as an audience we look through Eli's eyes as well. That needs a really strong, subtle actor, which is a hard thing for a 14-year-old.

Josh: It's difficult to find. We looked at about 250, 300 kids, and there was a little bit of concerned as we were going through it, because not everyone plays it that way. Not everyone is subtle enough. But we felt like we knew who we wanted, top five, top three, and then one last link came in with one kid on it, and it turned out to be Myles Truitt. He was the very last kid who came to our casting session.

Jonathan: He messed us all up.

Josh: Suddenly, there were e-mails going out to every producer, and everybody e-mailing each other like, "Is this the kid? I think this is the kid. Does everyone feel good about this kid? I feel like this is the kid!" So he nabbed it. He stole it from everyone else at the last second. We then went to Boston and did a chemistry read with Jack Reynor, who was shooting Detroit at the time with Kathryn Bigelow. We brought three kids and we read them with Jack and we tried some of the more improv scenes and some of the emotional scenes, trying to get a range out of each of the kids. I remember we huddled up with Jack afterwards and were like, "Who do we all feel?" And everyone said Myles, so that was a good find. Jack was coming from that character in Detroit, which was literally the opposite of Jimmy which he was about to dive into. He's spending 24 hours a day beating young black kids, and now we're asking him to be the brother of one. It was a very different headspace for him.

Jonathan: Which worked in a very interesting way. Myles and him didn't know each other, so they're growing into a relationship, which is what we're doing in the film, and he's also coming out of prison, and he's a little standoffish with his brother, which he was because he's just come from Detroit. So that organically moved into the relationship as well. We were in a really good spot. By the end of the film, they'd grown so tight that they were just messing around the whole time.


Was there ever any pressure to make the younger brother white?

Jonathan: That is a great question.

Josh: You're the first person to ask that.

Jonathan: Yes and no.

Josh: When we were exploring actors that could play Jimmy, some of those actors were African-American. The question quickly came up, let's just make the kid white. Because we always knew we wanted them to be polar opposites in every way.

Jonathan: Visually, morally...

Josh: As brothers and personalities. Everything. To be completely on the other sides of the table. So we were never going to do the short film about a young African-American kid and get the Hollywood movie going and make him white.

Jonathan: Never going to happen.

Josh: It's just not an option. More important than anyone that could play Jimmy is having a diverse cast in our lead.

Jonathan: Yeah, someone up front that is different to what you would normally expect in a movie like this. I think it's the time for a 14-year-old black kid to lead a Hollywood film. Especially one like we're doing where it's got massive sci-fi elements. It's fresh and it feels different, and today's the day for that.

This is a question that ran through my head while watching the first act of the movie. When did Dennis Quaid become the quintessential craggy American dad? I don't know when it happened, but it just seems to have happened and I'm there for it.

Josh: Let's think about that. It might have been around Day After Tomorrow. Somewhere in there. He played that role in that, he played it in Frequency.

Jonathan: Somewhere in the early 2000s.

Josh: Somewhere, there was a transition.

Dan: I wasn't too involved in the casting process, so I'd just get the updates from these two about who had been brought in.

Jonathan: Which was a great barometer for us. "We're on Dennis Quaid right now. How does that feel for you?" "That sounds amazing!"

Dan: I remember the Dennis Quaid call and I was like, "Oh yeah, that'd be great. That just works!"

Jonathan: There was something very specific about Dennis that we were after. We wanted a history with the audience. We wanted somebody who already has your heart. You grew up watching him and know everything he does on screen.

Josh: Yeah, you have a prior relationship with this man. Yes, we're doing some different things with him. We're making him a lot harder than you've probably seen him. We're making him a bit of a broken man after he's lost his wife. There are certain tones that we're playing with Dennis that you might not have actually seen him play before, but due to some of the things that you know – you've seen the movie – we wanted you to have a relationship with this character.

Jonathan: And an emotional connection to that.

Shawn Levy, your producer, has a film directing career, but I feel like in recent years, I keep hearing him in connection with discovering new filmmakers and bolstering new talent. What is your relationship like with him? What has he taught you guys as first-time feature filmmakers?

Josh: Firstly, Shawn is like our older brother. He fits in really well with us, we have a great relationship, he is part coach, part –

Jonathan: Energetic Tom Cruise.

Josh: He has an energy. Have you interviewed him before? He's a ball of energy, and he's the guy you want in a boardroom meeting, because he's going to bring it all to life. I think there's something about his experience that we really learned from. Any time we had a question about the process itself, since this is our first film, any time we were like, "So, what happens at this point?" he would be like, "OK, here's what happens." He'd sit you down and give you the full outline.

Jonathan: He did it just the other day. "I just realized I haven't schooled you on reviews coming out and how you should approach that. Some directors do this, and you guys need to figure that out." He's the voice of reason.

Josh: He's kind of the older brother, the other twin. But we're very different filmmakers, and we even like different movies. But that's what's great about him: he embraces the voice of the filmmakers who are directing his movie, he's not trying to get his aesthetic on it. They've fallen into this position, 21 Laps, as a company, where it's all about – especially when they're producing material and not directing it for Shawn, and he does other movies and I think he's making an evolution in his own career –

Jonathan: Some of his episodes in Stranger Things are some of my favorites.

Josh: Absolutely. He's done certain things in the past and I think in the future we'll see that change, because the more he produces other stuff, I think his tastes open up and he realizes he's interested in different things. Some of the stuff he's looking at as a director, I'm super excited for. He's going to have some good films coming out in the future.

Jonathan: We better get a set visit. That's all I'm saying.

Josh: Totally. But yet, Dan Cohen prides himself on being a guy that knows what's out there. He saw Bag Man before it was sent to him. He knows the material being done on Vimeo by young filmmakers. He does more...what do you guys call it? Generals. Than anyone I've ever met. Especially writers – he's a big writer guy.

Dan: Dan Cohen's talent is in finding young filmmakers and new voices before anybody else does. It's kind of weird.

We have a lot of young filmmakers who read the site, so for you guys, is Vimeo and YouTube and social media the best way to get your voice out there nowadays? Or are film festivals still the way to go?

Josh: I'm a little less on film festivals. I think there's some that play really well and you can eat off that very well. But it's too small, man. There's not a lot of people watching. Vimeo, we've had a lot of success with.

Jonathan: I think it's about the perfect combination of both. Selecting a reputable film festival to premiere at, perhaps. We did South By Southwest and love Austin, so we came down and really experienced that. But at the same time, it was finding a life in the community of Vimeo and getting the right kind of eyes seeing it. YouTube is YouTube, and everyone is watching it, but Vimeo is a creative community and you get that Staff Pick, and suddenly you're off.

Josh: So we just linked up through Lionsgate with the guys at DUST, the online portal for sci-fi shorts. That's another great one. I'd say Vimeo and DUST, if you're interested in sci-fi shorts. Short of the Week is another great one, they really get some good material out there. I think if you're part of that online community, you're probably getting more eyes on your work than ten film festivals. So it's a good place to start. We're big believers in the short film. Only now that we've had really good success with getting a short film made into a film do we really understand the power of it. If we didn't start off with a proof of concept – Bag Man was just done because we wanted to play with something on the side.

Jonathan: You know what? I think that's the best thing that could have happened. Because if we set out to make a movie and do a short first, I think you would have just approached it differently. We made a film that's 15 minutes long and that's what it was meant to be. It wasn't meant to be anything else.

Josh: Then it organically moved to the film. Naturally inspired something greater. But yeah, I think making short film content for people who want to become a director, it's an absolute valid option, and I think my main piece of advice is, Hollywood is watching. If you really want to put something quality out there, someone will see it.

Dan: I would just say I appreciate the work that sites like you guys are doing. Another director I had a chance to work with is a dude named Dan Trachtenberg, and he received a lot of support in the space that these guys got support. I like the festival route, I went through the festival route with a feature a long time ago, but the support community that's cropped up around elevated sci-fi, sci-fi shorts, off-brand stuff that's not necessarily your typical fare, that's really cool to see, too.


Kin is in theaters now.