Talking to Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts About His New Movie ‘The Kings of Summer’

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Chances are, at some point while you were in high school, you wished you could run away from home. And chances are, your escape fantasy was just that: something you spent your time planning and never carrying out. But…what if you did? The Kings of Summer – a uniquely comedic coming of age story that’s become one of the season’s most anticipated indie releases – imagines exactly that.

The film’s director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is well-known for his collaborations with comic T.J. Miller. Most recently, the pair teamed up on Comedy Central’s sketch/stand-up experiment Mash Up, and their 2010 short, Successful Alcoholics, showcased the director’s ability to blend dark comedy with sincere drama. His first full-length film is a tonally similar yet much more complex masterpiece. Set in rural Ohio, The Kings of Summer follows three teens attempting to expedite the onset of adulthood: best friends Joe and Patrick (Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso), high schoolers whose families are preventing them from finding their own voices, and quirky interloper Biaggio, an enigmatic and endearing weirdo (former Hannah Montana star Moises Arias).

The story begins when Joe, who’s unable to handle his overbearing, widowed father (Nick Offerman), discovers a clearing in the woods near his home and concocts a plan to build a new life for himself - literally, by piecing together a clubhouse-style home and learning to live off the land. Patrick, seeing an opportunity to escape his hilariously overprotective parents (Megan Mullally and Mark Evan Jackson), can’t resist the promise of a perfect summer, while Biaggio, thrilled to have found some kindred misfit spirits, tags along for the ride. In finding the fortitude to leave the comfort of their lives behind and learning to depend on their own wits and strength, the trio discover the depths of their own friendship, and the result is a truly moving tale that shines far brighter than other recent, formulaic high school comedies.

It’s not just the plot that sets Kings of Summer apart. Vogt-Roberts’ artful cinematography, inspired equally by Terrence Malick and cult 80s classics, provides the perfect backdrop for screenwriter Chris Galletta’s apt dialogue, which the film’s young stars truly bring to life (particularly Arias, who manages to capture a difficult character with career-defining depth). Plus, the film features an amazing supporting cast that includes Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Alison Brie, Thomas Middleditch, Eugene Cordero, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and more.

As the film hits theaters (check here to see where it’s screening near you), we caught up with Vogt-Roberts to get some behind-the-scenes stories.

How did you discover the script for The Kings of Summer?

I came out to Los Angeles because I love movies and because I wanted to make movies. I made a short called Successful Alcoholics that played Sundance, and it was a 25-minute thing that was sort of like my statement: “Hey, I like to invest in characters and stories.” No one ever wants to trust a first-time director. They say they do, but it’s such a leap. It’s such a risk for executives. But there’s this company called Big Beach. They made Little Miss Sunshine and a lot of other great stuff, and they have a pretty great track record of taking those risks. They had acquired Chris Galletta’s script back when it was called Toy’s House, and it was this thing that people fell in love with but I think it scared people. It had this quirky tone. It was like, ‘Who is this for? Is it for kids, is it for adults?’… It was a thing that people loved but nobody would pull the trigger on.

So it was sent to me because it had a tricky tone and my short film had a really tricky tone as well, and I read it and just fell in love. Instantly, I was really taken by Chris’s voice and the world he created. It reminded me so much of movies that I grew up on – Amblin movies like Stand By Me and things like that – and I saw this amazing opportunity to take something like that and make a contemporary riff on it. He really laid the groundwork for me to do stuff that I was interested in doing for my first feature – push things cinematically, have it feel like a film instead of like you’re watching a 90-minute TV show, have it feel technically impressive and really ride the spectrum of tone, of highs and lows. It just was exactly what I wanted to do with my first feature.

How did the two of you work together throughout the production?

Chris and I have become very very close. I think part of the reason I responded so well to the script is because he and I really do have similar sensibilities, not just comedically but in terms of cinema and storytelling. There were a lot of days on set where Chris would be right there, and we could change lines on the spot and try new things, stuff like that. This whole production was a labor of love; there were a handful of people that this really meant a lot to, and I think for him, because he had lived with the script years longer than I did, it was just this totally surreal thing, sitting there watching someone make your movie.

What was the casting process like?

Casting was really tricky. Almost every single adult role is played by someone who’s well-known comedically, from people like Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally to Tony Hale, Hannibal Buress and Kumail Nanjiani showing up for cameos. A lot of those people are friends of mine or people I’ve been working with for years, and I sort of called in favors, saying “Hey, you’ve got to come to Ohio.” A lot of friends flew themselves in. They wanted me to cast locals for a lot of those parts, but I wanted to build a world, so it was important to me that every little role would make a difference. I was lucky to have Offerman and Mullally really respond to the material and really understand what I wanted to do with it. And then with, for example, Alison Brie – her role’s not the biggest one, but I think it’s an important one, and we wanted to create an ensemble. We wanted to make it feel like a big movie where everybody meant something.

So with the adults, we were super fortunate to have such an amazing comedic cast, but at the end of the day, the movie lives and dies by those kids. It lives and dies by their chemistry, and so that was a long, exhausting process of finding the right kids with the right chemistry and reworking the script a little bit to play to their strengths. We didn’t want to cast kids over 18, we wanted them to feel as awkward physically as their characters; there’s a huge difference between a 15-year-old and a 22-year-old, and I wanted them all more on the boy side of things than the man side of things. I wanted the audience to be able to look at them and be like, “Oh right, being that age sucked.” And once they all signed on, I sent them all to improv training. Craig Cackowski, one of the actors in the movie, has worked out of Second City and iO, so I had him do a crash source with them on the basic tenets of improv – not so they’d be super quick and witty, but so they’d be comfortable enough with themselves that they could have a sort of sense of authorship to it.

The original cut of the film was over three and a half hours long. What kind of sacrifices did you make in cutting it down?

I do a lot of improv, and we shot a lot of B-roll because we wanted the sort of ethereal, lyrical, Terrence Malick element to the movie. So yes, the first cut was three and a half hours, but there’s not a single thing that I would put back. It’s really tricky to find the right comedic tone when you’re doing improv, because those scenes run so long, but it’s also really tricky to find the right tone lyrically when you’re searching for that more visual poetry. There was a lot of meandering in that first cut. There’s definitely stuff on the script level that we pulled out, but that’s the natural progression from script to screen, figuring out that what works on paper doesn’t necessarily work in the movie.

The film seems to take place in a very intentionally timeless era; were you taking care to keep it from being too of-the-moment?

We really did want to make something that felt very much like a throwback, and elicited the feelings of something like Stand By Me, that Amblin stuff, and John Hughes, and then mash that up with contemporary alt-comedy. But I didn’t want to date it too far in either direction; I didn’t want to just make a throwback, and I didn’t want to make something that, in ten years, stands out as a very specifically early 2000s movie. It takes place now, but the kids are playing Super Nintendo; one of them has an iPhone, but one of them has a flip phone, and one of them has a pager. My favorite movies are ones that do feel timeless and aren’t super dated, so that’s definitely something we were trying to do.

You’ve mentioned that there are some tributes to other works (like Taxi Driver) in the film. What other hidden references should we look out for?

There’s a lot of really subtle stuff. There are definitely a lot of tricks. Biaggio is in the background of some scenes, and we do some weird things with flares. At one point, Patrick’s parents are standing in a doorway and the light above them softly and subtly creates a halo around them. There are a lot of things like that, and there are a lot of references. In the first four minutes alone there are very specific references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Terrence Malick. I feel like this whole movie is a mash up, and so the influences are very clearly worn on its sleeve.

The house that the kids build is really incredible. What was the planning and execution of building it like?

As a kid, I used to read about how no parts of Jabba the Hutt existed anymore except for his eyes, and I was like, “How could that be?! Why would they get rid of Jabba the Hutt, what’s wrong with them?” After this production, I get it. That house was such a pain in the ass. It was perfectly built to be shitty, so when it rained, it got muggy and moldy. By the time we tore it down, it was like, ‘Good riddance, get out of my life.’ Though, now I wish I’d kept the Port-a-Potty door. Chris wrote this amazing script with incredible dialogue, but sometimes he wouldn’t give me a lot of description. Like, the house had a loft, there was an air hockey table, there was a water slide, but other than that there was no description whatsoever.

So when I was first pitching the movie, one of the first things I did was put together a lot of concept art specifically designing the house. I worked with a childhood friend of mine who’s an illustrator now, and we just sort of kicked around a lot of ideas about what the house should look like. It needed to be iconic. It needed to be something that’s instantly recognizable, but at the same time, it couldn’t cross over into overly-art-directed movie magic. It needed to be made largely from found materials. I went to an architect friend of mine – my cousin, actually – and said, “Okay, if I had just $300 and just a hammer, some nails, and a saw, how would we build this sketch? And then how would a bunch of shitty kids screw it up?” The idea was, if you and your friends didn’t slack off, if you and your friends really put in the time, and really put in the effort, in theory you could make it. It was tricky to design it to have all of those elements, and to make it a character in itself and to feel lived in.

The clearing we built it in was actually one of our producer’s cousin’s backyards or something like that. It was this weird man-made clearing that nobody could do anything with, so nature had kind of grown over it - I’m pretty sure someone cut it down to grow weed in it back in the day but never followed through on it. We put it up in 10 days, and the montage where they’re building the house is actually the kids tearing it apart and taking it down because we shot in reverse order. We wanted to sleep there, but we never did just because we were always so busy, which is a big regret.

With such a small cast of friends, there must have been a summer camp vibe to the set. Any crazy stories from behind the scenes?

This was a hard shoot because we were trying to be very ambitious with not a lot of money and not a lot of time, so it definitely was very work-centric and focused… but a few of our crew got arrested for lighting off fireworks and we were staying in this small town so we were sort of the troublemakers when we showed up. The night before production started we went and jumped off these waterfalls, and we had no idea where we were supposed to jump. It was like a 40-foot drop, so I went down to the water to feel around and dive down and see where the rocks were, and then my DP went down and did the same thing, and my production designer just took off. He was like, “Well, my director and my DP cleared it!” You still had to jump like six feet out, but he made it. And then I jumped and my DP jumped. Nick Rutherford jumped and a couple of other people jumped.

Then one of our cast members, who will remain nameless, was up there and was like, “I don’t know if I can do it…” and she went and jumped and we were immediately like, ‘No, you did not make it.’ There was a really terrifying moment where we were waiting for her to come up. She bruised the bottom of her feet real bad and had to be carried out. The first time you see her in the movie, she’s sitting down, and it’s because she actually couldn’t walk. So there was a lot of chaos, but it really was pretty focused. But then Offerman would walk around the set playing guitar and singing songs to people, it was just a great atmosphere. Everyone was there because they really cared about this thing.

How would you describe your approach to blending genres, from Mash Up to this film and beyond?

I generally don’t do pure sketch comedy, I feel like I’m going for darker, more character-driven stuff that ideally has style to it. That’s particularly what the whole point of Mash Up on Comedy Central was. We were really closely collaborating with them to say, “How can we redefine how stand-up looks on your network? How can we redefine how sketch comedy works on your network?” I think that’s one of the reasons why they’ve had such success with [director Peter] Atencio and the guys over at Key and Peele, because they’re really giving a visually stylish aesthetic to sketch comedy.

I love comedy and I think it’s a part of everything, and that’s definitely the world I work in to some degree, but I don’t consider myself a comedy director. In fact, the next movie that I make is probably going to be explicitly not a comedy at all. [The Kings of Summer] is first and foremost a movie, and it just happens to be funny, and I think the best movies are like that. Look at Boogie Nights or Three Kings or Ghostbusters. These other movies that are really fantastically funny, but they all have that quality to them where first and foremost, they’re films. Those are the movies that I want to make: movies that happen to make you laugh because they’re real.

Samantha Pitchel lives in Los Angeles.