In 2013 Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a fresh-faced and clean-shaven 29-year-old director of short comedy films, was riding high at Sundance Film Festival after his his debut feature ‘Kings of Summer’ had been nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.
Fast forward to March 2017, and the now-heavily bearded filmmaker (seriously, his facial hair puts ZZ Top to shame) is in London to launch his second film, the star-laden, mega-budgeted tentpole ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (in cinemas 9 March). It’s a gargantuan step up for the self-confessed film nerd in pretty much every conceivable way, but for Vogt-Roberts he’s exactly where he aimed to be.
“When you make an indie, it’s not about people seeing it, it’s about whether they know it exists. Because to break through the noise of the world is so difficult,” he told Yahoo Movies UK.
“So, I really wanted to make a big movie so that people would see it, because I grew up on big movies and seeing big movies is what made me fall in love with cinema.”
And what could be bigger than a movie starring Hollywood’s largest icon?
‘Kong: Skull Island’ is a new take on the King Kong myth that began with 1933’s stop-motion aided triumph. It’s been remade and restyled before, most recently in 2005 by Peter Jackson, but this new version is an origin story for Kong, set solely on the giant ape’s island home amidst the milieu of the end of the Vietnam war.
When Warner Bros. approached Vogt-Roberts with the offer of this, the biggest-of-“BIG” opportunities, the director admits he was sceptical.
“My first response was ‘great, I’m glad you’re making a King Kong movie, I love King Kong, but why are you making that? Why does it need to exist?’”
“There was a tremendous amount of fear involved, and I wasn’t going to do the movie at first. I turned down a lot, a lot lot lot lot lot, of giant, big movies because making movies is hard and this has been two and a half years of my life, and so you have to wake up every day knowing why you’re doing it.”
The first script shown to Vogt-Roberts was a very different proposition. Written by ‘Godzilla’ screenwriter Max Borenstein, the initial draft set the movie in 1917, and was more akin to ‘Jurassic Park’ with Kong surfacing periodically like the T-Rex to cause havoc.
This didn’t wash with the director who set about a page one rewrite with John Gatins, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of ‘Flight’ and ‘Reel Steel’. They hit upon the genius answer to the question of “why does it need to exist” by setting the film in the 1970s as the Vietnam war was ending, and crucially just before the launch of the Landsat program, which began photographing and mapping earth from space.
It was a world where monsters could still feasibly exist undetected.
“We had a lot of conversations and that’s what led me to pitch this very crazy idea of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘King Kong’, a Vietnam war movie with a creature feature, and suddenly that aesthetic mash-up and the thematics that happened in that time period were what allowed me to say ‘OK, I understand why this King Kong movie not only should exist, but needs to exist.’”
“My pitch of the 70s and the crazy anime-inspired monster movie, that was the part that made me say ‘I can make this movie, and I will make this movie’.”
Further script rewrites came courtesy of Dan Gilroy (‘Nightcrawler’) and Derek Connolly (‘Jurassic World’), before Vogt-Roberts was happy. The film sees a team of adventurers, led by mysterious monster-hunting government agency Monarch, exploring Skull Island where they encounter Kong, a whole bunch of other giant creatures, and Hank Marlow a marooned WW2 pilot (John C Reilly on scene-stealing form) who’s survived the island for decades.
There’s no Ann Darrow, Carl Denham, and one other crucial aspect of the classic Kong story is also missing – SPOILER ALERT – Kong never runs rampant in New York.
“That was never a part of it,” said the director.
“I think from the beginning everyone was on board that we weren’t going off the island and I was very heavily pushing to not do the “Beauty and the Beast” story. That was a big part of saying ‘if you’re telling a new King Kong movie, we have to tell a new story in the mythology.’”
Another major change the director insisted upon (possibly with pressure from Warner Bros. and Legendary as they move toward pitching Godzilla against King Kong in 2020) was to up the scale of the big guy himself.
Iconic creature designer Willis O’Brien initially pitched the giant ape at somewhere between 18 to 24 foot tall in the 1933 film. The 2017 incarnation literally towers above his predecessors standing a whopping 100-feet tall (and growing), but the director insists it was his idea all along.
“A lot of people want to say ‘he’s just big because you want him to fight Godzilla’ and it’s funny because yeah, sure there’s ultimately some truth in that to some degree, but one of my first mandates was ‘I don’t want him to be a big gorilla, I don’t want him to be anatomically correct, I want him to be a biped again.’
“I wanted to turn him back into that classic movie monster, but then I also wanted to make him bigger because I wanted you or I to be able to look at him and not just say ‘oh, that’s a big gorilla or a big ape’, but to have your first reaction, your very first one, your fundamental response, instinctually, the first synapse in your brain to fire and say ‘that’s a god. I’m looking at a god.’
“So how big do you have to make him to feel that? We settled at around 100 feet because that was the point where you would stand there and look at this thing looming over you and it just felt beyond us. It wasn’t just a piece of gigantism with a creature.”
Kong is a stunning creation on screen, with veteran ape performers Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell (‘Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’) working with ILM to bring him to life. On location (the film shot in Vietnam, Hawaii, and Australia’s Gold Coast) the actors had to make do with distant mountains for eye lines while looking up at the beast.
Sometimes a tennis ball on a stick just doesn’t cut the mustard.
With the film now wrapped and ready to meet audiences round the world, Vogt-Roberts says he’s ready for a break.
He says he’s not directly involved with Legendary Pictures burgeoning “Monstersverse” (“If they ask for my opinion, I would love to give it”), and wouldn’t be drawn on whether we can expect his Kong to be scaling the Empire State at any point in the future (“That’s a little bit above my pay grade as far as what the future holds”), but he’s excited to see what ‘Krampus’ director Michael Dougherty will do with ‘Godzilla 2’.
“I’ve seen a bunch of amazing concept art and pre-viz for the stuff they’re doing with ‘Godzilla 2’ which is really exciting. I keep joking that the movie that I’d rather be involved in would be a prequel to this with John C Reilly fighting monsters on the island with his katana and his friendship with Gunpe, the Japanese pilot, and his relationship to the villagers.
“That’s a movie, if you made the $30m version of that movie and had it be this crazy weird comedy, I would make the hell out of that.”
Whatever Jordan Vogt-Roberts does next, smaller seems unlikely.
‘Kong: Skull Island’ arrives in cinemas on 9 March. Watch a clip below.