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How Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts Went From You’re the Worst to King Kong

John C. Reilly and Jordan Vogt-Roberts on the set of Kong: Skull Island. Photo: Vince Valitutti

Jordan Vogt-Roberts had a nice thing going. After cutting his teeth in Chicago directing the likes of Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, and T.J. Miller in short films, Vogt-Roberts’s first feature film, The Kings of Summer, became a Sundance darling in 2013. The next year, he directed four episodes of You’re the Worst’s acclaimed first season, including the pilot. With solid footing in both the television and indie-film worlds, Vogt-Roberts could’ve continued on in that vein for a while, returning to Sundance and shoring up his second feature with TV work.

Instead, he directed the new King Kong movie.

That transition from tiny indie to super-big studio tentpole is hardly unheard of at this point: Colin Trevorrow and Gareth Edwards did it successfully with Jurassic World and Godzilla, and Josh Trank less so with Fantastic Four. But strange as that path might seem from the outside, for Vogt-Roberts, it was very much the plan.

“After Kings of Summer, I came to realize that when you make an indie, it almost doesn’t matter how good it is. My friends had movies far better than mine, things like Fruitvale Station and Short Term 12, that were coming out the same year — you watch this thing that you love enter into the world, and it’s almost impossible to break through the clutter and the noise of pop culture,” Vogt-Roberts told Vulture recently. “So I was like, I want to make a big movie, because I want people to see the movie I make.

Vogt-Roberts laughs as he says this, but it’s a serious point. Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed made $4 million worldwide; Jurassic World made $1.7 billion. Edwards’s Monsters made $4 million; Godzilla made $529 million, and his next film, Rogue One, made a billion. Despite competing at Sundance and being acquired by CBS Films, The Kings of Summer made just over a million during its theatrical release. Kong: Skull Island might make that in its first hour.

But more than that, Vogt-Roberts identifies as a big-movie guy. He cites Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, Blade Runner, Alien, and the Star Wars franchise as the films he grew up on, one of the Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott acolytes now coming of age as filmmakers. While those films also functioned as a gateway into other types of cinema, like the art house and comedy, for a generation of fans they also retained a certain value as the apex of a collective moviegoing experience.

“I believe that big movies can be good, and I think that we live in a world — and it’s only getting worse — where people care more about Snapchat and Instagram and things like that than they do the power of watching a film, which is like church to me,” Vogt-Roberts says. “That scares me, and it makes me sad. Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, but I wanted to make something that reminded people that movies are fun, that made young kids want to become filmmakers.”

It’s a motivation that would be right at home in Spielberg’s own filmography — the childhood love becomes a driving motivation of the adult. And that ambition found a home with his chance to make a new King Kong movie, a possibility Vogt-Roberts initially reacted to the same way many others did when they heard about the project: Why?

This will be the fourth time King Kong receives the onscreen treatment. The first came in 1933 with the legendary origin of the monster, directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and featuring Fay Wray as the famous beauty who killed the beast. King Kong was remade under the same name in 1976 by John Guillermin, starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and newcomer Jessica Lange; and then again in 2005, by Peter Jackson, as a hyperambitious, 187-minute long epic. The giant ape also appeared in other films, including sequels to the first two outings (Son of Kong in 1933 and King Kong Lives in 1986) and Japanese crossovers with Godzilla, highlighted by King Kong vs. Godzilla, in 1962 — a concept that will be revisited by Warner Bros. and Legendary in 2020.

In short, this is hardly Kong’s first go-round, and Vogt-Roberts went into discussions with Legendary and Warner Bros. believing that audiences would suss out a clear cash-grab or lazy attempt at the character. After thinking about the concept, though, he found what he believed was a way in. In the 1970s, satellites were being launched into space, a concept that Vogt-Roberts saw as the last possible chance to discover a new or previously undiscovered part of the world.

“As soon as I started thinking about the ’70s, then suddenly, choppers and napalm and sunsets and the sweat of the jungle popped into my head, and this fundamental idea of Apocalypse Now and King Kong, a Vietnam War movie mixed with a monster movie — Platoon meets a [Ray] Harryhausen film,” Vogt-Roberts says. “And that idea was so exciting to me. I was like, That’s a movie that I would want to see.

The film certainly bears out those influences. Kong: Skull Island tells the story of a group of soldiers and scientists who venture to the newly discovered Skull Island, ostensibly to map one of the world’s last unexplored places. But in a reality unknown to most of the group, they’re actually there in search of creatures like Kong, remnants of an isolated world. The film draws from Oliver Stone’s Platoon in its boots-in-the-jungle aesthetic and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in its riff on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — there are characters named Conrad and Marlow, after the book’s narrator — and combines those elements with the creature-feature grandiosity of the films of Ray Harryhausen. Throw in a little Jurassic Park meddling-of-man subtext, and you have a Kong that’s less Beauty and more Beast.

Vogt-Roberts’s Kong differs in other fundamental ways from its predecessors. First of all, his Kong walks upright; while the ’33 Kong also was bipedal, Vogt-Roberts wanted his to be even less simian. Second, Kong’s there from the first scene, a noted contrast to Edwards’s Godzilla, which keeps its monster in the wings until well into the film — a decision that Vogt-Roberts made partly because Edwards had done the opposite to such great effect so recently. And third, while he may have moved from the independent world into the studio system, he still wanted, at least in certain ways, to make an indie.

“I was very upfront about the fact that I don’t think there’s a part of me that can ever fully conform to the studio system, nor do I think the studio system can ever fully conform to me and what I was interested in,” Vogt-Roberts says. “Hopefully, people who see the movie, the things that they will truly respond to are the ideas that came from taking the ethos and some of the process and the way that an indie gets made and bring that into a big studio film.”

That included extensive improvisation by the film’s impressive cast, which is toplined by stars like Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, and, best of all, John C. Reilly, but also features up-and-coming actors likes Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, and Jason Mitchell. Over the course of the six-month shoot, Vogt-Roberts placed a premium on finding the characters and story with his actors, or at least the parts that weren’t reliant on what must’ve been a massive special-effects budget.

And while the VFX were the aspect of the film that he had the least experience with, Vogt-Roberts says he tried to take as hands-on an approach to the filmmaking as he could, including the special effects. As for graduating from a tiny Sundance indie to a nine-figure budget, he has a metaphor ready.

“If you get a license to drive a car, you can also drive a tractor, you can figure that out; you can drive a truck; you can drive a race car, and you might crash that race car, but it’s your same basic principles,” he says. “I think that’s true with filmmaking. It’s a totally different ball game, there are things I could’ve never prepared myself for, and it was a huge jump in a lot of ways, but the core fundamentals of what you have to do are there.”

With the ongoing demise of the mid-budget film, or at least one that plays on the big screen, it’s a logical place for a director with Vogt-Roberts’s intentions to live — and it appears he’ll continue to do so, having been attached to an adaptation of the popular video game Metal Gear Solid. In other words, he’s come a long way since Sunday Funday.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts Went From You’re the Worst to King Kong