Jordan Vogt-Roberts

On December 1st, 2015, I was lucky enough to be invited by Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures to join other journalists to observe the filming of Kong: Skull Island and interview members of the cast and crew in Hawaii. Note the interview may go into spoiler territory - just a head's up! No photos were allowed on set. A few of the interviews are rather lengthy so relax and make yourself comfortable for some fun reading. All interviews were transcribed by Noah Percival.


- Chris Mirjahangir


Reporter: I was a big fan of Kings of Summer and that's like you know a cool small movie. Can you talk about making the leap from that film to this big production? Where you daunted?

Jordan: Not daunted because I think filmmaking is filmmaking to some degree. For me when I would do short films for ten dollars and then as you slowly work up to then doing web shorts and then doing actual commercials and TV shows, I think it's like a sport, you know? You train your muscles and when I made the jump to my first movie there where different differences where you're like ok, like you need to get ready for the endurance of that long a shoot, and then you're tracking characters over a longer period of time, and so there are new things that you are learning along the way and there are new things you are going to learn along the way on this but I think the core of what you're doing is trying to tell a great story right? We have incredible effects people and incredible people surrounding me that are a dream, but I'm also a nerd about stuff like that.

The reason I got into this is because I grew up watching weird "making of" on Discovery Channel Movie Magic and I just love that stuff. So for me I love kind of learning everything about how something happens and so there are definite differences, but the core of what you're trying to do is the same and I'm in the woods again just shooting stuff. There's never enough time, there's never enough money, and you're just trying to put great stuff on screen.

Reporter: In terms of King Kong was this property always a love for you? Did you grow up watching it and idolizing it?

Jordan: The thing with Kong is I knew the iconography of Kong well before I had ever seen that 1933 movie. When you're a kid you're not watching black and white movies from the 30's. Then when I later fell in love with film history, you watch that movie today and there are shots in that movie today that are still incredible. You just can't believe what they did back then. Not just in terms of composition but even some of the effects.

So I had a sixteen inch plastic King Kong thing that my dad had bought at a garage sale that was in my room as a kid and so I knew what that was. When you're growing up before nerds took over and genre became such a big thing you know you just had Kong and you had Godzilla. You know you had those two things and even if you hadn't even seen that many of the movies you knew what exactly it was. So the iconography of Kong was always really important to me and had always sort of been seared into my brain. Then later when I saw the 1933 version I fell in love with it but there was no part of me necessarily that was like; "It's my dream to make a King Kong movie!" Because that's a huge task too right? We're playing with film history and we're really seriously trying to honor that because all of special effects all of that stuff almost stems back to that film. They were making it at a time when special effects were so revolutionary but they were still telling an amazing story that's about people and there was just a great narrative interwoven into that so yeah there's a lot that we have to sort of honor. The iconography of Kong has always been hugely important.

Reporter: In terms of composition we've heard a lot about how this film honors the films that have come before compositionally. Is there something that you wanted to continue from the previous movies into this one?

Jordan: I think to me when you watch the 1933 version there's a sense of wonder to the world and there's also a sense of beauty to it. To me I feel like there's a lot of action films out right now that aren't beautiful to look at in addition to also being great action. There's a lot of stuff out there I think that just feels kinda routine. When you look at King Kong that original movie there's frames. You could pause almost everyone of those scenes and there's a frame that you remember, there's a frame you could blow up, and there's a frame you could put on your wall. So as much as possible we are trying to. As we're framing for a giant ape and also having humans in the frame, I just remember like when I was in college just whatever the frames were from Pulp Fiction or whatever movie, those single images you would have as your desktop background, or that you would print off, or in middle school you would put in your trapper keeper binder and be like "I love that image!". We just want to have a lot of imagery in this that's the same and also I think feels unique to our movie were with the action and with the composition, things I feel like you "Know what? That could only be in this movie." I feel like there's a lot of action and composition that's completely interchangeable. Where you're like that could be in nine movies you could cut that onto that and put it in this. We want to make a lot of stuff that really could only exist within the confines of the movie we're making. This is our Skull Island, this is our Kong, and you couldn't find these sequences or this imagery in another film.

Reporter: What's your approach to the character of Kong and the personality? Obviously in the original film Willis O'Brien did the stop motion animation and put his personality into it and Andy Serkis did mo-cap on Jackson's. For this film what are you taking your cues from?

Jordan: We want to take our cues from everything that's come before. We want to use all the tools available. What Serkis did in that movie is incredible and what Willis O'Brien did is incredible, and so we want to combine mo-cap with traditional animation and with face-cap to sort of use all those tools to create something you haven't really seen before. With Kong because he's bigger than previous Kongs, because we're getting a little bit more into the sort of back story of where he came from to some degree, and what this island is and what the ecosystem is on this island and treating the island itself like a character.

To me what I love about this version of Kong is a loneliness to him. An emotion to him that he's the last of these things. Even in the way he walks and the way that he strides. In Peter's movie they do a great job telling the beauty and the beast story and it very much is about emoting in a very human way. We want our Kong to feel very human in ways but also very god-like in ways. You know where you stare at this thing and it towers over you. That actually ties into a lot of the human reactions in our film where we want people to be able to look at this thing, stare up at it, and see this sort of god-like figure in front of them. This old lonely god, something from prehistory, and see how it affects them. If we were standing right here and a giant hundred foot tall ape happened, what would go through your brains? How does that change you, How does it affect you, and seeing how it affects and changes our characters on their journey.

Reporter: How's it been working with that scale and the actors to achieve those reactions?

Jordan: It's great! It's always a little hilarious doing VFX stuff like that cause you're like alright there's this massive thing up there and they're staring at an orange ball. As much as that's crazy that's also just what theater is, right? Like you're just in a black box where you have nothing to interact with, and so our cast is incredible and they're so nuanced, and so textured, and so committed, that they're bringing so much to it. Really to me a lot of it is about being able to linger on these character's faces, seeing how not just this creature, but this island is affecting them. We truly want Skull Island to feel like a tangible, tactile place and that's why we're shooting so much of this practically as we go from Hawaii, to Australia, to Vietnam, is to really feel these guys within that space. So it's a huge help for the actors just to be in real jungles and real settings and things like that. That just adds to that reality when you're staring up at this completely fictional fake thing.

Reporter: Are they acting opposite anything? The way Naomi Watts had Andy Serkis on set?

Jordan: No, not really. For a lot of the Kong stuff because he is so big and so towering over them we're not really doing anything like that. It really is just getting into it with the actors and talking about what's going through their head in this moment as they're being confronted with this god. As they're being confronted with this creature from a land before time effectively. So we're not really doing anything like that.

Reporter: Regarding the interactions with Kong is it all from the human's perspective? Like do we only see him when one of the humans encounter him?

Jordan: It's a mix. As much as possible, we are trying to ground it in our humans POV. Godzilla (2014) I think did a really good job of that at the beginning and building up with that slow burn of sort of always being with people, but Kong and Godzilla are fundamentally such different characters. We need Kong to be able to emote, and we need to be able to feel something for him, and ideally we want to build empathy for him as well and so it's a mix. There's some stuff that's very grounded in POV that we're experiencing it as our characters are experiencing it, and then there's some stuff especially later in the movie that is very much sort of Kong's story.

Reporter: We've checked out some of the early concept art and we see giant spiders and giant water buffalo I believe it is. Can you describe that process, the evolution of the story, and which monsters you wanted to include?

Jordan: The living out my childhood dream thing? That was a lot of fun! We kind of came in with a little bit of a blank slate. The whole mantra with this movie was how do we elevate beyond expectation? Peter and those guys did such a good version of their movie. How do we make our movie different? That extends with everything that's the characters, that's the feel of the island, that's the feel of Kong, and the creatures are a big thing. Jurassic World obviously I think owns the dinosaur thing a little bit right now. If Kong is the god of this island, we wanted each of the creatures to feel like individual gods of their own domain.

Miyazaki and Princess Mononoke (1997) was actually a big reference in the way that the spirit creatures sort of have their own domains and fit within that. So a big thing with sort of trying to design creatures that felt realistic and could exist in an ecosystem that feels sort of wild and out there, and then also design things that simultaneously felt beautiful and horrifying at the same time. Where if you look at this giant spider or this water buffalo, you stare at it and part of you says "That's the most amazing thing I've ever seen!" and "Oh my god that's gonna kill me right now and I need to run for my life!" It's trying to find that weird balance and really just trying to think outside the box a little bit because once again we want to show audiences new things and so not having the creatures not feel derivative of Jurassic World, or of what they do in the Star Trek movies, they're too alien like, or too H.P. Lovecraft. There's so many different avenues that I think can feel like you've seen it before and my biggest qualm with a lot of movies that I watch is I feel like I've seen it before. So we just really wanted to go out of our way to, especially with the other creatures, design things that felt sort of unique to our movie and can exist on the island.

Reporter: Was there any concern or discussion about in exploring Kong's origin and back story whether or not that would kind of remove a layer of mystery and wonder that has always been associated with it?

Jordan: I think if you struggle to name me one good prequel that exists on the planet you probably can't. Because generally they're not good for a reason because you rip out the mythology. To me when I was a kid what made watching movies interesting, when you watch Predator 2 and you see that Xenomorph skull on the spaceship you're like "oh my god!" You know your brain just goes crazy with all these possibilities and my favorite thing as a kid watching movies is just having all these little things in the background that you pick up on and your brain just goes wild with. So we're trying to tiptoe a line.

You know there's a lot of stuff out there that our movie is sort of his origin story and that's not really what it is. There's a lot of background mythology peppered into it as we sort of create our own new mythology. There are not that many good prequels. As soon as you try to overexplain something it tends to lose its magic. So we're not trying to go and be like, this lead to this and this lead to this and now he's this. We still want to have a wonderful sense of mystery and use it in a way to make our island, and our creature, and Kong's character feel bigger because you understand some of it but we're not trying to pull back the curtain on everything.

Reporter: Can you talk a little bit about the decision to set the movie in the early 70's?

Jordan: When Legendary first approached me they said "What do you think about doing a new King Kong movie?" and my first response was "Awesome!" Then we got to talking and it was like ok why? Peter's movie I think is still very much in people's heads and it's a great re-telling of the 1933 version so how do we make this movie feel different? I started thinking about a couple of things and talking with Legendary about it and they were so great and supportive about what I thought were kind of crazy ideas and I started talking about the 70's. Because obviously choppers, napalm, and everything that is Apocalypse Now and Platoon and those movies mixed with King Kong is awesome just from like a genre mash up perspective, but what more specifically what got me really interested in it was thinking about taking characters and taking the thematics of the time period in which the world was kind of in chaos, and we were sort of one foot in the old guard and one foot in the new guard and people where trying to find their place in the world. The world was spiraling right? We were losing wars for the first time, we were in sexual revolutions, and racial riots, and political scandals and things were crumbling and then presenting people with an island that's untouched by man. Something pure in a very impure time, being able to give them a sense of catharsis with this island were "Oh my gosh what a wonderful place this is!" and then realizing that we should have never come here.

I'm really obsessed with the idea of the food chain which is one of the most incredible accomplishments that we don't talk about as people is that we don't get eaten by things anymore. We used to get eaten all the time and now we don't. Swim out in that ocean and you'll get back in the food chain but while they go to this island and they are first presented with this beautiful catharsis, then very quickly they're back in the food chain and that ties back into what happens when you see a god, what happens when you're back in the food chain how does that make you react? I'm also just really obsessed with the idea of sort of knowledge, and technology, and mythology. I think that magic is one of the most important things in our lives, and the unknown is one of the most important things in our lives, and that wonder that stems from it. When we were all growing up we all had that. Now if we had kids our kids could pull out our cell phones right now and type into Google does Santa Claus exist? Done! When we were on the playground there was like an unspoken rule that you keep that little secret to yourself. You keep that secret to kids. Now because everything's completely accessible to us I think some of that wonder and some of that magic has vanished. The 70's was a time that was right at the start of that rift. That's right when technology was really sort of forming into what it was that was starting to take away that mythology.

One of the big sort of conceits with our movie is in the early 70's we launched a satellite into space for the first time which was a Landsat satellite, which is a joint venture between NASA and the US Geological Survey. We were legitimately looking down at the earth for the first time and we were finding places that we had never seen before. Still to this day like ten years ago they found a tribe in Vietnam that had never had contact with the outside world. We think these things aren't possible.

Beyond the horrific tragedy that it was I think one of the reasons the Malaysian airlines flight was such a huge deal was because people in their minds think that can't happen. That can't happen anymore we know everything. So when suddenly something goes missing it really starts to bump up against our very educated technologically savvy brains and so the 70's was just a great opportunity to give us something new, have a great thematic avenue to take characters that are a little off kilter and present them with this unknown, and also without making it modern day. You've seen Kong in the 30's before, you've never seen him against modern issue weaponry. To me just the aesthetics of choppers, and napalm, and Hendrix playing while you've got Kong punching down helicopters is something that I've never seen as an audience member and I think something that could only exist in our movie. So beyond the what I think are the very cool and original aesthetic ideas, to me it really sort of stemmed from what we can do with the characters in that time period and show us something new.

Reporter: How close are you on getting near the final design of Kong?

Jordan: I think we'll probably be designing Kong until we lock the picture. I just think it's such an important thing and we want to make our Kong our own. Where somebody can point to it and say that is that Kong but it's also really important for me to honor what Willis O'Brien and those guys did. The difference between Willis O'Brien's design and Peter's design you know Peter's a very anthropomorphic real sort of silverback gorilla that feels very real and that 1933 design is very sort of exaggerated and beautifully expressive and cartoony at times. We want to find something that feels real but that sort of pays homage to the fact that Kong is not just a big monkey to us. He's not just a big gorilla. He's his own thing and therefore we have liberties with what we do with that.

I think the Godzilla design was really, really, well received because it paid homage to what came before but also felt like something fresh. So we've just been doing everything to really get that to a place where you can look at it and you feel like it could be standing there with those people but have it feel like Kong.

Reporter: Do you visually in your head know where Kong would be?

Jordan: When you get up in a helicopter you're like "Oh we're probably what a 100 feet off the ground?" and they're like "No we're 700 feet off the ground." Have you ever seen a traffic light when it's on the ground when it's not up in the sky? You only see it from so far away and then it's on the ground and it's as tall as you are! We're not trained to sort of understand scale sometimes and that's actually been one of the crazier things on this project is just really being like "Oh really? That's 25, that's 85 feet." Then you start thinking about Godzilla when it's like that's 450 feet or whatever he is? Like it's crazy! So yeah, a little mental math!

Reporter: Thank you!

Jordan: Thank you!


Interview: Jordan Vogt-Roberts (2015)


Jordan Vogt-Roberts is an American film/television director and screenwriter, and director of the 2017 movie Kong: Skull Island. He helped co-write and direct the 2012 TV series Mash Up, and made his directoral debut with the 2013 film The Kings of Summer.

Date: 12/2/2015
Interviewer: Toho Kingdom/Roundtable reporters


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