Exclusive Interview: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Talks Kong: Skull Island

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Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) takes his indie sensibilities and translates it into blockbuster movie magic with this week’s Kong: Skull Island.

Set in the 1970s, just after the Vietnam War, the action adventure flick follows a group of scientists (John Goodman, Corey Hawkins), a war photographer (Brie Larson), a British SAS tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a military squadron (lead by Samuel L. Jackson) who set out to discover an uncharted island and all the mysteries it holds. Little do they realize, though, that those mysteries include the mythical Kong, a giant ape who rules over his dominion with a heavy hand.

In his glowing review of the film, our very own Matt Donato had this to say:

This is a grand cinematic adventure powered by furry fury, as the horrors of war blend with chest-beating creature confidence.

At the recent press day for Kong: Skull Island, we had the chance to sit down with Vogt-Roberts for an exclusive interview, where he spoke about his vision for this iteration of Kong, how he got his amazing cast, which movies and directors influenced him and how he set up Kong to fight Godzilla.

Check it out below, and enjoy!

What is it about the King Kong story that just gets one so emotional?

JVR: It’s super tragic. There’s something so tragic about conveying certain emotions through a beast or an animal. Which I also think is why any animated film with talking animals resonates with people.

Maybe it’s also because Kong isn’t truly a monster in the classic sense.

JVR: But that’s what I love about the 1933 film. In that movie, he eats people. There is that moment [in Kong: Skull Island] where the guy falls out of the helicopter and Kong accidentally eats him, but [in the 1933 movie] he eats people. He’s a monster for a minute, and then you pull back the layers and humanize him. I think it does come down to the core element of beyond the tragedy, beyond the beauty and the beast story, beyond all that, there’s just something so basic about how every single person feels misunderstood. Whether it’s by family, co-workers, love ones – everybody has that very basic element and can relate to that.

Having cut your teeth in the indie film environment, did you want to bring some of those elements to this bigger movie?

JVR: My pitch to the cast is I wanted to sneak an indie into a blockbuster. And a big part of that was the camaraderie and family. I think I primarily get my performances out of trust. And trust in my mind is intimately tied to friendship and love and camaraderie. Making an indie is one of the more difficult things because you are all bound together, and it’s about who huddles together as a team as everything tries to stop me. Nature, money, everything. What’s going to come your way and how are you going to defend yourself in order to bring this element. A lot of our cast had this bond. We were with each other every night, at each other’s houses and we would go on adventures on the weekend. There was the larger group and then there were sub-sections and factions of the group.

I pride myself on that relationship. At one point, it was like, “You guys have to stop hanging out.” And we all collectively said, “No!” This is why this movie is going to be good. I promise you, you aren’t going to recognize which of those moments are and are not scripted. There’s so much improv in the movie.

It came from those experiences and the trust and the rapport we had. A lot of the stuff with John C. Reilly is what he and I rifted on the day. Most of the stuff when they are working on the boat, the Cubs vs. Tigers, the ants – all that was improvised. John’s a genius, first of all, but that’s also about trust. He’s just one of those rare human beings. He can excel at dramatic acting, excel at comedy and weave them together, and then he has third most rare qualities – he’s the best human being on the planet.

Your cast was pretty amazing. How did you manage to corral them all? What is mostly just saying “Kong”?

JVR: It was not that easy. It was a long process because there were questions like “Why Kong? Why this and that?” A lot of it was me talking to them about what I wanted to do with this movie, the approach I wanted to take. For me, so much of making this movie was about a) to take a lot of indie sensibilities and put them in a blockbuster and b) focus just as much on the quiet moments as it did the big ones. Telling them, “Yeah, we are going to have these giant scenes with Kong and spectacle but I want to be able to linger on your faces. I want to be able to get in here on your eyes.” And I also just wanted to be able to play, to be loose. I wanted to be able to bring that indie freedom to this where we could find moments. To find the time to just create. I think it was a fusion of all those things. But I promise you, not all of them said yes upon the word “Kong.”

Kong: Skull Island seems to set up the Godzilla vs. Kong scenario. Was that your intent, especially with the possibility of that being one of your next projects?

JVR: I don’t know if I will be doing that next, but yes, that’s the plan. That Kong and Godzilla, at some point, will be fighting each other. My job was to tell the best King Kong story possible, and also to make it credible that when these creatures fight, how they could possibly fight. Because there is a big size difference, and that’s why there’s so much in this movie about Kong using tools, and his intellect. To use his human side of his brain, as opposed to using his raging, beserker monster side of his brain. The side of his brain that can reason. And let that be the advantage he has over Godzilla.

The villagers on the island, too, were different, more intelligent and not so scary.

JVR: There are a few pieces of Kong lore that you really have to have. The villagers, the wall, the elements of the island, etc. So you have to pay homage to those but also sort of reinvent them. That’s why I was so obsessed with the paint that they wore. I saw it not just as a decoration but as a language. Also as a form of hierarchy and camouflage. I liked giving a right-angled pixilated approach that felt almost anachronistic, a modern circuit board or video game. All the other Kong movies showed the villagers as savages, but I wanted them to be enlightened, smarter than us. More in tune with themselves and nature. I love the idea that they aren’t this antagonistic force but they understand things better than we do.

Who are some of the directors that have influenced you and this film?

JVR: As a filmmakers, those that influenced me are like the John Fords, Stanley Kubricks and Kurosawas of the world. But in this specific film, I would say Apocalypse Now, obviously, and Princess Mononoke. Also Aliens, taking that more aggressive, military squad base. Our plot is similar to Aliens, the simple survival story. [The video game] Shadow of the Colossus was also a huge influence on Kong.

I’m also super influenced by South Korean cinema. The wave that started in the late ’90s with Oldboy and stuff like that. Specifically there’s a movie called The Host by Bong Joon-ho, a monster movie that throws out all the tropes of what a monster movie is. There’s also a movie called The Good, the Bad and the Weird that’s phenomenal. Also, another one that people might not like me saying is The Thin Red Line. I love Malik. My last movie was like a dumb Terrence Malik movie. Lyrical, beautiful and impressionistic, but also Nick Offerman telling dick jokes.

One of my favorite reviews that came out of test screenings [for Kong] was someone saying, “It’s like Jurassic Park had a baby with Aliens but then that baby was adopted by Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” There’s actually a lot of John Hughes in me, and I thought that was pretty accurate. I think Kong has the essence of Jurassic Park with the edge of Aliens. So my influence as far as directors on this are like spread out.

That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Jordan very much for his time. Be sure to check out Kong: Skull Island when it hits theaters this Friday!