Exclusive Interview: Jordan Vogt-Roberts, DIrector of The Kings of Summer

        In the mid-1990s there was suddenly a shift in the style of filmmaking, and many purists laid blame at the feet of MTV and the music video generation. This was not unfounded, especially once MTV began to list the name of the director along with the song information in November of 1992. Visually prolific directors had long been created from the world of marketing and commercial advertisements, but the new medium added an avenue to success. There was a sudden influx of directors who had honed their craft as an entirely visual medium, which created filmmakers with a distinct style and newfound celebrity. Lasse Hallström built a career upon his work with Abba, Michel Gondry with Björk, Spike Jonze with Weezer and The Beastie Boys, and Gore Verbinski started out making punk music videos for Bad Religion and NOFX.

        Eventually these filmmakers were absorbed into Hollywood and it was business as usual, but twenty years later we are witnessing a new generation of filmmakers with all-new avenues of work experience brought by online media. It was less than ten years ago that the video sharing website Vimeo was created, the name itself being an anagram for movie. Four months later, YouTube followed suit, and by October of 2007 Vimeo became the first to offer support for the playback of high definition quality video. This laid the groundwork for filmmakers to begin sharing their content online, both amateur and professional. Suddenly there was a format to suitable for the previously dismissed short film, and now we are seeing filmmakers emerge from this medium.

Vogt-Roberts and Nick Offerman at Sundance

        Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is one of these up-and-coming filmmakers. Although The Kings of Summer is Vogt-Roberts’ first feature, he approached it with years of experience and a collection of valuable professional connections. Vogt-Roberts created a website with an assortment of comedian friends to showcase videos he had produced and directed, which led to direction of web content for FOX, Sony, and Warner Bros. He then created an hour-long special for Comedy Central and directed episodes of HBO’s “Funny of Die.” While the music video directors of the 1990s built their careers upon the success of the musicians they were known to work with, Vogt-Roberts utilized the comedians he has built relationships with throughout his many online projects (and the offline television off-shoots of and online video sharing site) in order to create an impressive ensemble debut.

I sat down for an exclusive conversation with Vogt-Roberts a week before the home video release of The Kings of Summer, in order to pick his brain about the film’s influences, improvisation, and the difficulties shooting in the woods. 

Ryan Izay: So, I watched the film two times last night, back-to-back. I think I’m ready to write a dissertation on this thing.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts: I feel like I have to apologize for you having to watch it twice.

Izay: The second time was actually with the commentary track. The first thing I want to know is what kind of dynamic is going on with you and Gabe (Gabriel Basso)? You rip him a new one in the commentary track.

Vogt-Roberts: (laughs) I actually haven’t listened to that commentary. We all just developed that dynamic on set. We’re all really close and Gabe was just kind of a bully to everyone, and he just took over that role of telling everyone they were doing a terrible job. And so now we’ve all flipped it on him and we just give him a lot of shit.

Izay: It made for a very entertaining commentary. I can tell you all have a real friendship by the way you talk.

Vogt-Roberts: Yeah, we had a lot of fun. Those kids are great.

Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson (left to right)

Izay: I would love to hear how this film came together. I know that Chris’ screenplay was on The Black List in 2009. How did it come to be something you were attached to direct?

Vogt-Roberts: It was on the black list and the company that bought it, Big Beach, they were trying to figure out if they were going to make it. It’s an interesting script. It’s not a film people were in the business of making, the way it’s about kids but sort of for adults. I’d been looking to make my first feature. I’d been making shorts and TV commercials for awhile. I have a couple short films with characters that approach the material in a similar way; dark but funny, sad but in an uplifting way. They came to me and I fell in love with the script immediately.

Izay: You’ve got a lot of great bit parts filled with extremely talented actors; Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”), Craig Cackowski (“Weeds”), Megan Mullaly (“Will & Grace”), Mary Lynn Rajskub (“24”), Kumail Nanjiani, and even a very brief appearance from Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”).  How did you get all these great people involved?

Vogt-Roberts: The whole idea to me, to some degree, was that I wanted to make an ensemble. I wanted to create a world where everything is slightly left of center, and in order to do that I felt like every small part needed someone who could elevate the role a little bit. A lot of those actors I had worked with in the past on different projects: Tony Hale, a lot of the comedians like Hannibal Buress, friends of mine I called up and said “Hey, would you fly into Ohio for a day and shoot this small little scene.”

Alison Brie, Vogt-Roberts, Chris Galletta, Robinson, Megan Mullally, Arias and Basso  

Izay: How much was improvised on set with so many small roles filled with such talented comedians?

Vogt-Roberts: It was a mixture of both. Chris’ script was really great and there is stuff that is verbatim on screen as it is in the script, and I also encouraged a lot of improv. I encouraged a lot of riffing and playing around if we wanted to loosen it up, but that’s only because I’m not fourteen and the writer isn’t fourteen. I wanted the film to feel a little softer, and to have the kids speaking like a fourteen or fifteen would speak like.

Izay: I think I heard you mention something about improv lessons in the commentary.

Vogt-Roberts: Yeah, I put them through improv training, not so that they would be super quick and witty but because I wanted them to feel comfortable enough to bring themselves to the roles. I wanted them to feel invested and I wanted them to be able to show up and elevate each of the roles. And they did. A lot of my favorite stuff was improvised.

Izay: I’d love to hear what it was like filming in the woods. It may have just been the way it was shot, but we really do feel immersed in wilderness for much of the film. What was that like on set? Was it a pain in the ass?

Vogt-Roberts: (laughs) Yeah, it was kind of madness, but it was pretty great. A lot of those are cheats, where there’s a busy road or a house right behind camera that you can’t see. But a lot of that stuff is pretty deep into the woods, and… (laughs) It was a little maddening. It really was out there, it’s sweaty and hot, and you’re getting eaten by bugs. I think there was a whole period of the movie where I don’t think I went to the bathroom once because I was sweating out all the water I was taking in. It was kind of horrible and then also kind of great, just thinking, “I can’t remember the last time I was in the woods for a month at a time.” It just forced you to bond, which was nice. Everyone was going through the same shit together, so it was definitely a good exercise in team building.

Izay: Any nightmare days that stood out in the shoot? Anything you would go back and do over differently, if you could?

Vogt-Roberts: I wouldn’t change much. There are a few scenes that I would change coverage on, but nothing major. The movie is the movie. We had a couple difficult days. On the one day we blew up that truck we were shooting in this dried lakebed and a tree collapsed. It crushed one of our trucks, and then half of our crew got stung by bees all in the same day. We had some pretty insane, biblically hard days. I wouldn’t change too much. It was a sort of rite of passage.

Izay: What about preparation for this film? Did you watch any other films for inspiration? I know a lot of critics have been comparing it to Stand By Me, Son of Rambow, and I definitely saw a little Wes Anderson in there.

Vogt-Roberts: Before we started making it, I didn’t watch a lot of films. Before I started pitching on it, that’s when I watched a lot of stuff. It was sort of a post-modern Stand by Me, to some degree. The kids of that generation were capable. Our generation, we’re kind of wusses. We couldn’t survive the way they could. A lot of it was about the differences between those generations of kids. Stand by Me was obviously a reference; John Hughes was also a huge influence. In the first two minutes of the movie, there are references to John Hughes, Kubrick and Terrence Malick. The movie as a whole is a variation on a mash-up, but I think it wears its influences very clearly on its sleeve. And it’s really influenced by Malick, just because I was obsessed with seeing if I could make a really dumb Terrence Malick movie; can we combine really ethereal images, and then make jokes effectively? I also wanted to make a throwback to old Amblin movies, but that still felt fresh, original, and contemporary.

Izay: I absolutely got the Malick as I was watching it. I’m glad you said it though, because I thought it was just in my head. So, when did you first realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Vogt-Roberts: I was the type of kid who would make stop-motion movies with my action figures. I always loved watching behind-the-scenes specials and I just loved movies. I was one of those kids. Star Wars blew my mind. I didn’t really think it was possible until much later. It wasn’t until I was going to college that I was like, “maybe I should give this thing a shot.” I just kind of went ahead, and said “let’s see what happens.” Since I was a kid I was pretty obsessed with the world of movies. I loved going to the movie theater, making little shorts, and just building things. I just loved the world creation of it all.

Izay: What are some of your favorite comedies? Desert Island picks.  

Vogt-Roberts: My favorite comedies are Ghostbusters, Annie Hall, Boogie Nights, Three Kings. Some of them aren’t even necessarily comedies but they’re the things that I laugh the hardest at.       

Izay: And what’s next for you, Jordan? Are there more feature films lined up or are you planning to go back to making more shorts?

Vogt-Roberts: I’m making some TV stuff right now; a couple different pilots. But I’m in the process of setting up a few features at different places. It varies, but I just want to work in all different mediums. I love making shorts, and I love commercials because they are a lot of fun to film. I love all of them.

Izay: Thanks for talking with me, Jordan. I really did enjoy the film. Two times was not as difficult as I imagined when I started the commentary track. You’ve got a good movie.

Vogt-Roberts: I haven’t even heard that commentary, so I have no idea how it holds up.

Izay: You guys run a little silent towards the end, but it is solid track before you run out of things to say. And then you get a second wind when the credits start to roll, almost like you’re ready to start the film over again and keep going. Especially Moises Arias.

Vogt-Roberts: (laughs) Well, we had recorded two commentary tracks that day. So Chris and I had just recorded it once and the kids showed up, and I think I do remember us running out of steam a little bit at the end. We might release the other commentary track as a bonus for people online. That one’s a little more straight and informative, whereas this one with the kids was definitely a little goofier and weirder.

        The Kings of Summer is available on DVD and Blu-ray today, September 24th.


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