The Lost City Directors Want To Bring Back That Amblin Feeling [SXSW]

Aaron and Adam Nee like movies. That much is clear when you speak with them. Like so many moviemakers (and film writers) of a certain generation, they grew up with Spielberg and Zemeckis, and still see that special Amblin magic as the kind of high watermark worth pursuing. 

The brother filmmaking duo have made the leap to big studio movies with "The Lost City," an adventure comedy starring a bunch of movie stars (Sandra Bullock! Channing Tatum! Daniel Radcliffe!), and despite their indie roots, they make it clear this was part of the plan all along.

"We wanted to make stuff that's for the audience," Aaron told me the day after their film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. Sadly, I was not in that audience — I had been shut out of the theater due to film festival scheduling shenanigans. But the Nee brothers took that in stride. If I couldn't ask about specifics, we could still talk about the movies they love, and the movies that inspired "The Lost City," right?

So we did.

'We wanted to make the kind of movies that we loved growing up'

The obvious comparison for "The Lost City" is '80s adventure movies like "Romancing the Stone" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." I feel like this was once a very popular genre, the romantic adventure movie. What happened it? Why do you want to bring it back?

Aaron: I wish I knew what happened to it, but I...

Adam: We miss it.

Aaron: Yeah, but we love it. And we wanted to make the kind of movies that we loved growing up, and still love, but bring something different to it. In this case, we're taking those adventure stories we love and throwing characters in it who absolutely do not belong in that story, and just seeing what kind of fun ensues.

Adam: Yeah. It's like taking those sort of classic genre things that we love so much and then subverting them, like coming, "What is this subversion?" You think they're going to be cool, and then of course they can't be cool because you can't change that quickly in the course of the story.

Isn't that the key to any truly great action hero? I go back to rewatch "Raiders of the Lost Ark" all the time, and Indiana Jones constantly has the hell beaten out of him. He's always being knocked down. I think people like imperfect heroes, the ones who shouldn't be there, or barely scrape by.

Adam: Well, I think it's like that thing of the "Die Hard" rules where you just kind of strip your characters more and more and more throughout the movie, make it more and more and more difficult before they actually triumph. And then, you actually enjoy, and actually worry that something bad could happen because they're barefoot stepping on glass.

What kind of imperfections did you want to include with your leads here? To make sure they felt like characters who would fall down and get back up?

Adam: Just at the heart of this story, I mean just having Loretta Sage played by Sandy, who is this novelist who believes she has no more stories to write. She's totally cocooned in her house, getting ripped away into this adventure. We not only take that person who has no business going on a jungle adventure. We also put her in an outfit that has no business being on a jungle adventure, where she's in this sequin jumpsuit that prohibits her from being able to do normal human thing.

Aaron: Yeah. And whereas you would expect, "Okay, she's going to go on this adventure." And then she's going to meet the Michael Douglas. Who's the super capable, knows the jungle. Instead we have her meet up with her cover model, who knows the jungle even less than she does.

Adam: He's brought face masks and body oil, and a scented candle into the jungle.

Isn't that the appeal of Channing Tatum? When he first started blowing up, I remember thinking "Okay, he's a pretty good action star." I feel like once people figured out, "Oh, this guy is funny," I think that's when people started unlocking the secret to him.

Adam: He really is one of those rare talents that is this incredibly beautiful man, a total action star, does his own stunts, is like a better athlete and stuntman than the average athlete or stuntman. And then he just happens to be so funny and winning. And it really is what makes, I think this character work is having is Channing inside of it, because you can see him as the vain cover model guy, but then also start to get to know him as this super sweet, selfless character and then becoming somewhat of an action star.

'We want to pull out of their homes and have them go on an adventure together'

I've loved watching Sandra Bullock stretch her acting legs over the past decade, but I'll admit — I missed seeing her doing movie star stuff, and I'm glad to see her back.

Aaron: It was such an honor and pleasure to get to do it. And one of those things too, where we'd be doing a take and then just both of us will stop and look at each other like, "Oh my God, Sandra Bullock is in our movie."

Adam: We grew up on her movies. I mean, I fell in love with her in "Speed." I fell in love with her again, "While You Were Sleeping." Like I went and saw "The Net" in the theaters. I was a huge Sandra Bullock fan. And so, we wanted to make a Sandra Bullock movie that can stand up with her best movies. Like, we want it to be a part that she's remembered for, because I think it's just such an amazing opportunity to do something with her that we didn't take it for granted. We wanted this to be a special one.

I feel like there's a real Americana about her, she's pure Hollywood fabric.

Aaron: Yeah. She's the movie star who feels like she could be your friend and your neighbor, like both above, and belongs on the big screen and yet feels like a real person that you can connect to.

Adam: Because she is. I mean, she is such a kind relatable, loving, supportive person that somehow feels like she's managed to stay very normal despite the craziest life and career.

I'm curious about the journey between your previous feature [2015's "Band of Robbers"] and this one. What happened? What brought you from there to here?

Adam: You know, I think it was a very wild journey, and sort of started with taking some meetings on some bigger things. Aaron and I, we grew on Amblin movies and Zemeckis movies, and we've always wanted to make those types of movies. And we had an opportunity to pitch on the "Bumblebee" movie, and it felt like a rare opportunity for us to go here. We can do bigger stuff. And so Aaron, who's an animator and can do visual effects, created the CG Bumblebee. And we shot a short film with his daughter and Bumblebee. And that short film, I feel like we did not end up getting the movie, of course, but it got passed around so much that it got us into the conversation for a lot of bigger movies because it felt like, "Oh, okay, these guys can do more than just like a small film."

Adam: And so really, that just kind of put us on the circuitous route that led to this movie, really. I mean, it's one of those things that you don't see in Hollywood, where there's so many movies that you develop on, and they don't end up going, or you do this, or you write that and they're all leading, they're all building. And that's kind of how we got to this place.

Aaron Nee: Even with our film "Band of Robbers" that we did before this, we were just trying to make as big of an adventure as we could with a small budget, micro budget film. And with this, we just had more resources to do that. Same kind of, let's take the audience on an adventure and have fun and find sort of weird, subversive things to bring into it that just keeps it a little bit different. Keeps it funny, keeps unexpected things popping up in there.

Adam: Yeah. We're always excited by fish out of water stories, taking people that don't belong in a situation, throwing them into a heightened situation and see how that person handles it. It's just such an attractive story element to us.

You said you grew up on this kind of '80s and '90s adventure movie, and I did too. "Jurassic Park" was fundamental for me when I was a kid.

Adam: Same, yeah.

Can you talk about why those movies are special to you? What about them resonates?

Aaron: We wanted to make stuff that's for the audience, and that's one of the really exciting things about coming in watching this movie with the audience here in SXSW, because it's such an enthusiastic audience and you just get to experience what all that work was for, like what we were doing was, we just wanted people to have a communal theatrical experience where they're laughing together, and they're shouting at the screen and there's screams and cheers and those things, like it's a special thing that you kind of only do with movies. And we wanted to fully embrace that aspect of cinema, that it's for people to enjoy together.

Adam: And I think with those Amblin movies, and those films that we grew up on, the thing that you don't see as much these days is how much heart, and un-cynical heart and feeling is put into those stories. Like even "Jurassic Park," just the story of Sam Neill and the kids. You're like, it's such an emotional story. And it's just very simple and so relatable. And I think he does just such an amazing job of telling stories about regular people, but in extraordinary circumstances. And I think those are just very, very appealing stories.

'They're going to laugh, and then go through this emotional catharsis as well throughout the film.'

The big ongoing discussion right now is what movies go to streaming, which movies go to theaters. And I think that one of the big misconceptions for me is "Oh, people only want to see the biggest of the big blockbusters," like "Star Wars," Marvel, superhero stuff. But those movies demand the big screen because they're expensive and expansive. It sounds like you want the big screen because the audience is a key part of the experience.

Aaron: Yeah.

Adam: Yeah. I think that's the whole thing with this movie is, we wanted to make a movie that you have to see in theaters. Like, that is a group experience that people are going to shout at the screen. They're going to scream. They're going to laugh, and then go through this emotional catharsis as well throughout the film.

Aaron: It just, I was going to add that getting this movie is very much about getting out of your home. It's a story about a person who's cloistered away in her home and gets pulled out onto this wild adventure, and thrown back into the world, and is rediscovering life through these crazy circumstances. But that's the journey that we wanted to go in on because October 2020, when we first learned about this project, we were shut up in our homes, just really appreciating what we had lost, of not being able to go out and have those communal experiences, and then knew that there's this wider world also, that we want to pull out of their homes and have them go on an adventure together.

The trend I'm noticing at SXSW this year are movies that feel spiritually connected by a sense of people feeling trapped and people feeling upset and people feeling angry. And all these very different movies are about letting that pressure valve off in very different ways.

Aaron: I think there are different ways that we're all responding to it. And some of it is that there's like an anger or a cynicism that comes out of it. I know for us, the response that we wanted was to have, to use it as a moment to remember the joy that you can have, and to sort of be this champion of, life can be fun. Let's not forget that. And there's no better tool, I think, instead to remind people that we can have fun together.

You premiered "The Lost City" at the Paramount theater, which seats well over a thousand people. When that crowd reacts, you can feel it in the bones of the building. Was there a moment last night where you realized "Oh, our movie works"?

Adam: Definitely. This movie has about four or five, very big audience moments. And watching those happen with 1,400 people shouting or clapping is something that I will never take for granted. It's an experience you get so few times in life as a filmmaker, to watch your movie in that kind of an audience. And it's something I'll never forget.

'It's a wild, crazy property, and we wanted to keep it wild and crazy'

I've got to ask about the "Masters of the Universe" movie you're making for Netflix. Knowing that you're Amblin guys has me especially intrigued about your approach. Can you talk about it at all?

Aaron: It's a wild, crazy property, and we wanted to keep it wild and crazy. Like, you had just wacky characters, but what we also wanted to keep is that, what it was to experience those toys and those cartoons as kids. Whereas kids, we took it completely seriously, and trying to tap into, what was it that it was making us feel then? That empowerment that made us feel, and that sort of wide-eyed wonder of the incredible things that can happen, and the incredible worlds that you can encounter. And so we want that wildness, but also the sort of reverence and love of it, that we saw it with through the filter of our child eyes.

I interviewed one of the head writers for the "Transformers" animated series some time back, and he told me they didn't know they had built something that mattered to people until they killed Optimus Prime. They realized, "Oh no, what have we done? We actually made something that people love!" I feel like "Masters of the Universe" falls into similar situation, where it snuck up on people. If someone is going to make it, it should come from someone who grew up with it and understands why it matters to so many.

Aaron: Yeah. I mean, what you're saying is spot on. Those things weren't just huge successes because of clever marketing or something like that. It was tapping into something primal, something fundamental about us as kids. Whether the creators did it accidentally or out of brilliance doesn't matter. It was tapping into something. And that's what we are trying to hold onto is, what was that sparking inside of us, as kids? And so, we want that, at its core, that very basic human connection that we were feeling while not going, "Well, we're grownups now. So we can't really have a character named Ram-Man, we can't really have Fisto." Instead it's like, "No, we're going to have that." How do you pull in like all of the kind of just wildness and craziness, but do it with love and affection?

Adam: Yeah. Like starting with heart, but having the irreverence and silliness and wild nature of the property.

The number of movies I've seen where clearly the people making it were embarrassed by the source material ... you can feel it. I feel like you just need to embrace it.

Adam: I think so. But I think there's also the side of it, it's like being able to poke fun at the property as well. Like what [Taika Waititi] did in ["Thor: Ragnarok"]. I feel like you can love Thor, but also make fun of Thor at the same time and feel a joy in that. I think that we're somewhere in the middle there, where there is reverence for it, but also you have to be able to make, you can't take yourself too seriously.

Aaron: Or I would say maybe not even so much poke fun, but have fun.

Adam: Have fun with it.

Aaron: Like, just have fun with the fact that some of this stuff is wild and fun and not try to hide it. Not be embarrassed about it, like you were saying.

Aaron: But just go, "Yeah. That's part of the reason we love it."

You mentioning "Ragnarok" makes my ears turn up. That's one of my comfort movies.

Adam: Yeah, totally. That's definitely the zone that we're headed in. It's more "Ragnarok" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" than "Lord of the Rings," I would say.

I'm out of time, but since I missed your movie and still feel bad about it, I'd love to let you use this last moment to explain why everyone reading this should go see "The Lost City."

Adam: Well, excuse me, let me clear my throat for this very important pitch. This is a movie that you have to see in theaters, for all of the reasons we've been talking about. It is just a fun escape from this moment. You know, obviously life is hard for a lot of people right now, and we wanted to do something that brings joy. And I think that this, as a community experience in a theater, is a magical one.

"The Lost City" hits theaters on March 19, 2022.