Exclusive: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Talks KONG: SKULL ISLAND
A few weeks ago I had the chance to talk to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts about his upcoming film Kong: Skull Island, which opens nationwide March 10th.
The film follows a diverse team of scientists, soldiers and adventurers who unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific, as dangerous as it is beautiful. Cut off from everything they know, the team ventures into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape a primal Eden in which humanity does not belong.
Here is what Vogt-Roberts had to say about his upcoming project, which by the way is awesome.
I mean, come on, I grew up in the ’80s, late ’80s, early ’90s . Back in my days Thanksgiving here in New York was, they had those monster marathons here on Channel 9, you know like Godzilla, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young. You know, so I grew up in this whole monster-verse, how they call it nowadays.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: [Laughing] Yeah that’s super near and dear to me. Before I even discovered that stuff my dad was always playing Harry Hug and stuff, when I was a kid. I remember Jason and the Argonauts, and all those kinds of creatures, just kind of blowing my brain open.
You know, I’m as much of a Kong fan as I am, just old school creature feature, movie magic. I think that’s one of the things that I love most about this movie is that yeah, it’s a Kong story and hopefully I think it’s a successful Kong story, but it’s also more of a creature feature and Kaiju film that I think most people are expecting.
I mean, I know you had said before, that the inspiration came from the ’33 Kong, but while I was watching it I couldn’t think of anything, because I grew up on the ’76 Kong. I saw a lot of similarities to it, like the island, the wall, you know the beach scenery when they ran on the beach, stuff like that. The movie’s set in the ’70s. Was there any role that the ’70s played for the tone and mood that you wanted for this film?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Yeah, I mean honestly, I think, all Kong movies to some degree, there are a lot of elements that I took from it including Son of Kong, you know. I just really, really loved Son of Kong. A lot of people kind of write that movie off as being a little goofy. To me, I really wanted to find ways to honor elements that had come before it, and update and modernize things that I liked from different movies. There’s a lot from Kong Vs. Godzilla in this movie too. Look at the octopus fight and things like that. For me, I just wanted to find what those colors of Kong lore, and Kong filmography were, and try our best to honor certain imagery, like him in chains and things like that, without doing it the same way. You know, trying to sort of update it in a way that made sense in 2017.
Yeah, was it important for you to set the story against a backdrop of the Vietnam War?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Yeah, completely. The first script that I read took place in 1917, and I was super excited that Legendary and Warner Bros. were doing a Kong movie, but I didn’t quite see the purpose at that point for how it was different enough for audiences. Audiences are so savvy and smart now that I think it’s reasonable. Up until recently when we started dropping threads, some people’s reactions were, like: “Wait. Why do we need this movie? Why should this movie exist?”.
Stumbling upon the fact that in the early ’70s they were launching satellites into space, they were legitimately looking down at Earth the first time and it was reasonable that we could actually find an undiscovered place. And then, using that to launch into these images that were just seared into my brain, sort of Kong silhouetted against a bright red sky, and choppers, and napalm, and sort of like “Apocalypse Now” all with Kong and the Vietnam War movie with monsters.
I just felt like I’d never… as soon the idea just came to me I said: “Well I’ve never seen that movie. I feel like I would watch the shit out of that movie.”.
And so it became such a huge aesthetic jumping off point and genre mash-up, but then there were a ton of schematic ideas that I wanted to explore with the disillusionment of these characters, sending them to this uncharted place, and the mirrors of what the early ’70s, late ’60s was to right now, and everything we’re going through in terms of riots, and revolution, and distrust for the government, and everything.
So, for me, to say it was important is a huge understatement in the sense of that’s what made me want to do the movie.
Also, what I enjoyed, what I found interesting is it’s a little different than the other monster movies that I’ve seen before where it takes a little while for you actually see the creature. This one is, like, no holds-bar, you see him right away. You don’t’ mess around, you see his presence right away, you’re like “Oh, snap.” Was that something that you wanted to go by? Is that something you planned to do instead of waiting 30 minutes?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: One of the very first things for me was saying, like: “You know what, Gareth Edwards directed the shit out of Godzilla and I loved it. I loved the way they teased it, and built it up.”
But, I didn’t want to play that game. Why play that game twice? I just wanted Kong to move over everything and everyone, like a God, and it’s called Kong. I just reject the idea that in these movies like this you have to do that. I don’t think you do and I was really inspired by Bong Joon-ho of The Host, that shows that creature really early on. And it’s about how the creature affects the people, as opposed to the game of just slowly, slowly, slowly, revealing this beast.
Kong needs to be a character in this, and I was just so sick of the idea that you have to do this slow burn. Let’s just go for it, let’s just put it out there as opposed to following this weird trope in monster movies and horror films, and superhero origin stories that you have to wait until they’re done playing the second act to really get into that.
Tell a little bit about the cast. You have a vast array from comic book movie veterans to award winning actors. What were you going for and how did you come about it?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: I just wanted a diverse cast that felt credible and in name lended credibility to why this movie existed. These are actors that could Shakespeare the part. These are guys that are on Broadway, so I wanted every piece of the movie to send a message that this is not the Kong movie that you’re expecting. That’s part of the hurtle we were overcoming, how we convey this, how we let people know this is not just another Kong movie, not just another franchise movie, not just another monster movie.
And then from there it’s casting the best people for the job and trying to really make it feel fresh, where it’s like: “Oh yeah, you’ve seen that person in that role a billion times.” I’m so proud of… you know John C. Reilly in the movie is like a revelation, but like taking amazing character actors like John Ortiz and Shea Whigham, really putting them in a spotlight.
The scenes with Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell are some of my favorite scenes in the movie. I just wanted it to be… Vietnam was such an odd time and I just wanted it to be this diverse group of “dented cans” of people who you don’t really know where they fit in the world anymore as they’re thrust into this crazy thing. I’m incredibly fortunate to have had the cast that I had.
What sources did you look at for the lizard beasts?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: It was a really long process. I knew that I wanted to throw Kong back to the ’33 version, and turn him into a proper movie monster again and stand him up right. I knew that I wanted my Kong to kind of be this version of a lonely god. But it took a really long time to get the vibe of the other creatures, because right off the gate I just didn’t want to do dinosaurs. I didn’t want to do… Peter did that so well and Jurassic World kind of owns that right now.
So, we went through thousands of designs trying to find the vibe of what these creatures need to be. Initially it was sort of the water buffalo that keyed me into this idea, saying that: “Oh if Kong’s the god of the island, these other creatures should have a spirituality where they’re the gods of their individual domains, kind of in Kiazki sense where they’re beautiful and terrifying at the same time. But the villain creatures, the skull crawler, is sort of a crazy fusion of my childhood subconscious exploding on the screen.
The creature in the 1933 film, during the log scene, when they’re trying to cross the log and Kong’s shaking it and they’re hiding below on the canyon. At one point this creature starts crawling up the wall and it’s sort of the only creature in the film that’s not traditionally a regular dinosaur. It feels like it has these two forearms, and then a tail. There’s a debate about whether the actual model had hind legs or not, but when you watch it, it feels like it’s very explicitly not a dinosaur and it feels like it’s got two front legs and no rear legs.
I’m like, “Oh that’s cool. That’s, like, the only non-dinosaur in this movie. What if I rip off of that, try and go with the modern version of what the Hell that thing is.” And then it became this fusion of, you look at Bong Joon-ho of The Host and I love the inelegance to the way that creature moves, where it sort of stumbles and feels like it had evolved wrong. But then design-wise, it really was like I loved the idea how it moves through these vents, like it’s got this sort of calcified burned-off skin in areas. And the skull on it’s face is a weird combination that’s very inspired by no-face in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
And then, I don’t know if you watched the anime Evangelian, but one of the first things they battle in that, one of the first angels, it has this black skin and this white face. And oddly enough, and this is sort of out there, but there’s a Pokemon called Q-Bone that wears it’s mother’s skull on it’s head.
And I always thought that was so horrifying and sad. So, it really was this weird fusion of a bunch of childhood influences and Dorkian influences, and sort of a reference to a creature in the ’33 version. But, I sort of took it as my mandate for… it’s like this childhood dream coming true. Like: “Okay, I get to make my creatures, right?”. And an incredible design team and incredible people at I.O.M. who helped me bring it to life, this is my chance to put my creatures on screen.
I just wanted to make sure each of them felt like they weren’t redundant, so we didn’t go to these movies and feel like: “I’ve seen that thing before. I’ve seen that thing, it feels like that thing is in that movie.” I would like to think, hopefully, that people walk out of this movie and are like: “I haven’t seen those creatures before.” You know?
Where would you like to see this franchise go, or the Universe go in the future, and what role will you want to play in it?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: That’s kind of above my pay grade. I really try to focus on telling the best version of this. I keep joking that the movie I’m actually most interested in is, like, a prequel following John C. Reilly on the island, and his relationship with the Japanese pilot and his relationship with the villagers. That’s the movie I’m most interested in, which they haven’t approached me about in an advisory role or anything like that.
So, I think the ball’s in their court on that one. I just want to make sure that… We worked really hard to make sure the action and the battle in this never became noise. And we worked really hard with a lot of characters to really give you memorable humans. So I just hope that moving forward, they have just a bunch of emphasis on telling human characters that you care about. And, that the action and CGI just never amounts to noise, and that they continue to honor all of the monster movies that have come before it, without turning into a self-parody. And luckily the Warner and Legendary people are smart, so we’ll see where they take it.
What can you tell us about how were you going to connect this story, obviously, to Godzilla?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: I mean, luckily my thing with… I was very vocal with Legendary and Warner Bros. that people love franchises, people love when these things interconnect, however, people are also very savvy to that stuff, and I think that a lot of audiences feel overwhelmed with it where, if they feel like it’s being shoved down their throat where the movie’s taken, like, a ten minute detour about something unrelated to what’s going on in the film, I think it turns people off now.
So, there’s a lot of ground work being laid in our film, there’s a lot of Easter Eggs, there’s a lot of overt things and subtle things, and there’s a lot of future proofing that I was doing to make sure that this Kong could go forward and fight Godzilla, and, you know, stand a chance with the way that he reasons and thinks and is agile and turning him into a creature that has more to do…
He moves more similarly to like a Mecha in Evangelian than he does a big monster, and sort of creating that version of Kong that can go forward was important but the Legendary and Warner Bros. people listen to me and we sort of said: “Let’s focus on telling the best version of this story, so that people give a shit. Let’s invest people in this Kong, and this movie, and this stand-alone movie, so that people care as opposed to feeling like this movie only exists out of this or that.”
Kong is film history in high-times pop culture, so how are you going to do him like that?
You can’t, like: “Like that sort of sequel to Godzilla, setting up this other thing,” It’s, like, no Kong is film history, this movie needs to stand on it’s own, and luckily they kind of let me do that while still creating that ground work and that path, and that future proofing for where these things go.
Kong: Skull Island hits theaters March 10, 2017.