Interview with Jordan Vogt-Roberts Director of “The Kings of Summer”
By Lisa Minzey of The Reel Critic.com
PHOENIX – It’s hard to believe that it’s been two months since the Phoenix Film Festival where Jordan Vogt-Roberts sat down with us to talk films, being on the festival circuit and the importance of making good films. Vogt-Roberts is one to watch, not just for his colorful linguistic articulation for the art of film making, but for this power house of film-making talent that is yet to be fully tapped into with feature films. Vogt- Roberts is a former resident to the Valley of the Sun, which makes it even more enjoyable to see a local filmmaker getting a nationwide theatrical release of their first feature film.
PFF: Have you been enjoying the festival circuit so far? [The Kings of Summer premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival]
JVR: It’s been amazing; Premiering at Sundance is a fucking dream. It’s been incredible. I was legitimately in a place where I thought people were going to hate the movie. The fact that people are responding so well to it; it’s amazing. Everything that has happened with the film, it’s surreal. I’m still sort of processing it. I wanted to make a move that did new things, or tried. I didn’t know that some of the different things in the movie if they were going to work because that’s experimenting. The fact that those elements are the points that people are responding to, is incredibly gratifying.
PFF: This is your first feature, correct?
JVR: Yes, correct; it’s the first feature film.
PFF: Being that this was your first feature, what was easy/ challenging about the process that you didn’t expect?
JVR: At the end of the day you train yourself in a craft long enough, that ideally, when a curveball comes you can handle it; you stay cool under pressure. I’ve done a lot of TV and commercials projects; at a certain point a set is a set, you know what I mean? Being on a set whether it’s TV or Film it’s the same thing. Films, obviously take a much longer time and you’re telling a much longer story, so you’re always keeping track of where things are. Honestly, my favorite things on set are when things go wrong. I love it. I love it when shit hits the fan, because you’re forced to figure out the most creative solution. Nine times out of ten, that creative solution is better than what you could have scripted or planned for because it’s so raw and in the moment and it shows. There’s a lot of stuff in the movie that comes out of nowhere because something wasn’t working or we got rained out. Those are the moments that really feel raw and effective because everyone is scrambling, like “Lets fucking figure this out!”. The biggest thing to me is that you have to go for it. You have to fail boldly and fail bravely. I feel this weird responsibility for my first feature that I’m not have it be something new. You know? Like I want to give audiences a reason to go , “This is really cool. You should go check it out.” It’s like something you’ve seen before. It has a lot of things you’ve seen before but it stands on it own. It’s borrowing a lot of influences from a lot of different places. It’s just one of things like where you think about for so long doing a feature and you bid it up as this massive, massive thing and then you’re there and it’s like no big deal. Your dreams just become your reality at a certain point and then there’s something new to aspire to. When that happens I think it shows that you’re doing things right; that you’re trusting your instincts enough.
I had a conversation with Ross [Director of Photography] because the visuals were a large part of the story. We wanted it to be cinematic; we wanted it to be beautiful and look good, where we said, “Look, ideally we trained ourselves well enough, that if we started shooting tomorrow that our base level of execution would be acceptable, but that’s not acceptable to us. Right now we both need to step our game up in every area. Every part of this need to be better than the best part we’ve done before. We just threw down the gauntlet to ourselves; we pushed ourselves really hard.
PFF: How did you come across this script?
JVR: A couple of executive friends sent me the script and told me that I would love this writer and I would love the script. At first, I pushed it aside and was like “Nah.” [makes pushing motions] I didn’t read it. Then I had two more people send it to me to read it. Still didn’t read it. Finally, it was sent to me again by the company that bought the script because they saw a short film I had made, “Successful Workaholics”, which was at Sundance a few years ago, which balances a really tricky tone which “Kings of Summer” does. I thought it was a joke at first. I was unconvinced that a director was not already attached to the script. I fell in love so hard with the movie. I then had to do the movie. I needed to do the movie. If I was to lose the film, I wanted to lose it on merit. I wanted to know that they beat me because they were better for it than I was. So I put together this giant material, shot videos and put together this book. I loved it so much not only was the script great, [screenwriter] Chris Galletta’s voice was really unique, but I knew that I can do everything what I wanted to do with it. Let’s make it a comedy but also have it be real, be heartbreaking, be beautiful and cinematic, you know all those things that movies aren’t these days. There’s a lot of disposable content out there that viewers quickly forget about, they don’t care about. Comedies are put into a box; its like “Keep it flat. Keep it boring. Have it just be comedic. Don’t try to emotionally invest somebody.” I just knew that this script was like a perfect jumping off point, because I could try to combine Terrence Malick with John Hughes.
PFF: That’s a great comparison. Wow. (laughs)
JVR: I just knew that was what I wanted to do and I was passionate about it.
PFF: The characters in this film are brilliant. I absolutely loved the Biaggio character. How did you find these kids?
JVR: It was a long process. A really long, involved process because the first thing I said was “No one over the age of 18”. Normally on a film like this you end up with 21 year olds and 25 year olds paying high school kids. It was really important to me that these kids feel like kids. They feel young and you look at their bodies and they’re underdeveloped because they’re still in puberty. I wanted people to look at them and be like “That’s a kid”. Obviously they’re all good looking kids, but they’re not model-esq. You know what I mean. It’s not like that kid’s a movie star that looks perfect in every shot. In fact, we had a rule, that if a kid had pimples, we wanted to see them. Unless it hurts the scene or the moment, let’s see these kids as kids. So it turned out to be a really, really long process. Saw a lot of kids until we found the ones who were right. Nick [Robinson], Gabe [Basso] and Moises [Arias] were the absolute right people for the parts.
PFF: Nick Robinson resembles a young Joseph Gordon Levitt, in my opinion.
JVR: I get that a lot actually.
PFF: The chemistry between the three boys and the father Frank (Nick Offerman) was so brilliant, was there a lot of improve on the set or was that all scripted?
JVR: I actually did a lot of improv on the film. I sent the kids to improv training because I wanted them to be comfortable in their skin. I didn’t want them to spout out one-liners but I wanted them to be comfortable enough in the role, that if I didn’t yell cut and the script ran out, they would keep going in character. I’m not 14 anymore, and the writer is not 14 anymore and to me the movie needed a handful of moments that would be like “That. Right there that could have only come from the brain of a 14 year-old.” You know what I mean? Those real, authentic things. But it was also helping create a family. I wasn’t like, “Oh, the kids are on set. No. It’s the actors are here. There are adults, kids, we all in Ohio; it was a little family. It would be sad when someone would leave. It was an interesting dynamic because we shot the adults and the kids on the first half of the shoot. The halfway through filming, all the adults left and then it was just me and all kids. Then it enters a new kind of phase. It was just a friendly environment where we all became like a family.
PFF: Now that you have your first feature under your bet, which do you prefer: TV, Features or Shorts?
JVR: I love all mediums. I want to work in all mediums, but I’m here to make films. I have my own TV show on Comedy Central called “Matchup”, which is great and a lot of fun. Hopefully we’ll do a Season 2 of that, but I came out to L.A. because I love movies. There’s a lot of stuff I would like to do in TV; there’s a lot of stuff I would like to try. I love doing commercials because it’s a lot of fun, the budgets are nice and you get paid well. I’m here because I grew up on movies like “Stand By Me”, early Amblin stuff (Spielberg’s Production Company) and “Star Wars”; films that were fucking memorable, that made an impact on me. I don’t know what those types of movies are for kids these days. Not even just for kids; for people in general. But yeah, I want to make movies.
PFF: Change the direction of the genre?
JVR: I feel like there’s a responsibility to try new things, to reinvent things. Take a genre that’s dead and find a new access point to it. Just find a way to make good shit. Find a reason to -
PFF: Can I quote that? “Make Good Shit?” (laughs)
JVR: (Laughs) Yeah, make good shit! Absolutely quote that. Make good shit because it’s like there’s a lot of distractions out there. There’s Netflix; people have large TVs, there’s not a lot of reasons to go to theater anymore when you have it in your home, you know?
You got to give people a reason to go to the theater and not only to like the movie but have them want to tell all their friends to go see that movie; have them take an ownership or sense of pride in their film selections instead of saying, “Yeah, it’s OK”.
PFF: What one piece of advice hat you would give to a fellow filmmaker who’s just getting to make that jump from short film to features?
JVR: Make good shit? Uh, no, just keep fucking doing it. Just keep hustling and take risks. Fail boldly and fail big. Not everything you’re going to make is going to be good right away, but that’s not the point. The point is, if you want it; this is a hard business. It’s a really nebulous one. There is no right path. You just have to make your own path and that’s a weird thing. Find what you love. Find out how to get paid for what you love and just keep doing it over and over and over again. There’s this famous interview with Ira Glass where he talks about how creative people are ultimately people with good taste and how if you have good taste, it takes a long fucking time before what you’re making is on par with your taste. Then there’s that book, “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell, that says to be a professional, you need like 10,000 hours of experience at something. I think that’s legit. It takes a while and you have to keep growing, keep pushing yourself. If you get stagnant, you just –
PFF: Creatively die?
JVR: Yeah, just fuck it.
PFF: So just make good shit then?
JVR: (laughs) Yeah. Make good shit.
PFF: What would you tell that indie filmmaker how to get of over that fear of failure that halts their creativity?
JVR: Just the basic knowledge that everybody in the world is a scared person? That we’re all children pretending to be something. We’re all faking it.
PFF: Fake it until you make it?
JVR: You never feel like you make it, you know what I mean? So it’s like when you meet a big celebrity and you cross that point when you’re talking and realize, “You’re just like a normal person”. You get these ideas of how you should be. I think it’s totally normal and you’re not scared that’s the bigger problem; you should be scared. You’re going head first into this business and into life, totally undefined and it’s scary. It’s also rewards and that’s what makes it so great.
Be sure to catch “The Kings of Summer” when it opens in theaters starting June 7, 2013.