Following the release of The Kings of Summer on Blu-ray and DVD last month, FLUX Magazine had the privilege of speaking with the film’s director Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
In a conversation full of humorous and honest reflections, Vogt-Roberts shared with us his thoughts on swinging for the fences on his feature debut, being dazzled by Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, and his general disappointment with modern cinema.
But that was only the beginning. Following his admission of belonging to the Star Wars generation, our conversation departed this distant fictional galaxy to take in the explosion of a child’s mind, opinions on the Coming of Age sub-genre, aspiring to make a dumb Terrence Malick film, and answering the all-important question of what would happen if the video game generation actually went out into the woods?
So cue the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, and without further ado, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
FLUX: Why a career as a filmmaker? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: I have a lot of fan favourite reasons for why I love film as an art form. At the end of the day it comes down to a very simple fact: I am one of those people who saw Star Wars when I was a kid. I just loved going to the movies and my child mind would explode when I would watch things like Blade Runner. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and so I was super obsessed with making behind the scenes documentaries and such things. I loved seeing special effects. The process of filmmaking just seemed so extremely intimate, and obsessed with cinema at a young age, I started making these stop motion movies with my action figures.
It never seemed like a career that was actually achievable, and so I didn’t really think about it seriously, but it was always a fun hobby, and I always thought about things in terms of cinematic images. It was when I went to university that I said to myself maybe I should give this a chance [laughs], and I just sort of went after it.
FLUX: An entire generation and I know for a fact Samuel L. Jackson found himself either inspired or stunned by that opening moment which Lucas has since used to open all five instalments of the franchise since.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Going into a dark room with a bunch of strangers, and seeing these images that were actually creating new worlds was the most powerful thing. It’s just such a bummer to me now that with all these tools, and with all these special effects it is so rare that we see something that is really transformative, that feels like it’s creating a living, breathing world.
I just saw Gravity the other day. You should see it as soon as it comes out over there because it is incredible. It’s childlike wonder on the screen. I was excited going in, and I couldn’t have been more blown away. To me it’s the type of experience where I walk out and I’m incredibly inspired. It’s one of those stories that you couldn’t tell as a comic book or a video game. It just wouldn’t be as expressive or as emotive. It could only exist as cinema. I also left it thinking I should just give up as I’m never going to make something that good. I should just stop. It’s great!
FLUX: A sub-genre in its own right, the Coming of Age” story is comprised of a diverse set of films from Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) to Stand by Me and The Goonies. How do you step into this sub-genre and avoid allowing yourself to be too influenced, to run the risk of imitation rather than creation?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: The movie pretty clearly wears its influences on its sleeve. There’s definitely some John Hughes and some Amblin in there. Stand by Me is clearly an influence, but there are lesser known movies like Over the Edge or Leon: The Professional, which is an incredible Coming of Age movie. To me the biggest thing was that I loved the script so much, and it is my job as a filmmaker to try and tell stories in a fresh way. I just feel that everything feels really derivative right now. The big thing for me going into and approaching this was saying that if I’m going to tackle something in the Coming of Age genre, then it needs to be able to not just lovingly pay homage to its influences, but it needs to be its own voice. It ultimately needs to add something new in the dialogue and conversation of what a Coming of Age drama movie can be. So that’s when I started thinking about what new things we could bring to this? What different elements we could mash up into one? One thing I was particularly obsessed with was the idea of whether it was possible to fuse, or to make a really dumb Terence Malick movie? Was it possible to combine ethereal, lyrical and impressionistic images with broad comedy? I’ve never seen that balance struck before in a Coming of Age movie.
When you approach anything it is about understanding the genre and the tropes that it works within, but I also think it’s important to subvert expectations and to play with them when necessary.
The whole thing for me with this movie was the idea of simultaneously walking out of the theatre and saying God dam being fourteen was the best, and then thank God I’m done with that. That was the most painful, awkward, horrible time of my life, but it’s what makes me who I am.
Leon is a good example of a film that fuses a lot of genres together. It has darkness to it, but to me that is what that age is. That age is about the explosion of the highs and lows. It is when you are figuring out who you are, and your place in the world. Kings of Summer is about that very specific moment where you think you have the world figured out; you think you understand it better than everyone, and the only way to realise that you don’t is to fall flat on your face. The average person doesn’t go and build a house in the woods, but the fundamental experiences of realising you don’t know anything about anything is a shared experience. It is about trying to ride that spectrum, because I think we are in this phase where we want to make movies that have a certain tone, and people don’t want to break it. My favourite movies really play with tone and to me that’s more authentic. We’ve trained people to say if it’s goofy or funny in this moment then the movie feels weird. I just don’t buy that because life is a scary spectrum of events, and that’s authentic to what coming of age is.
FLUX: Stepping outside of the Coming of Age drama, that’s what happened with Insidious. James Wan created a thrilling and suspenseful roller coaster of a first act, and then he changed gears to a fantastical second half. What this creative choice has achieved is to divide the audience between those who embrace the tonal shift, and those who will not.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: I appreciate movies that change genres. Kings of Summer plays with genre a lot and I like movies that become different genres. There is a very weird and disturbing French movie called Martyrs, which is really intense, and really gruesome, but I think is just incredible. It starts where any other movie would end and after twenty to thirty minutes it becomes a different movie, and I love films that do that. I love that each act can change, that the final act can become something different, and if you’re doing it for the right reasons, and it serves the character and the story, then that is incredibly exciting.
FLUX: A film is made to be a living breathing organism, existing in its own way. You put your film out there in the world to be judged, and of course everybody is going to react differently. To try and control it just seems pointless. You have to make it so that it can go out there and live and breathe independent of you, and therein allow it to find its own identity.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: It’s interesting because I think of voice and specific creative decisions that stem from having a voice, and stem from having a point of view as effectively the rough edges on a film. A lot of film especially the space involves the rough edges. You can put something out into the world generally, and some people might like it; some people might not like it. Very rarely do they talk about those rough edges, because rarely does it have a point of view or something to say. As soon as you put something out in the world that still has those rough edges, people start reacting. With my movie some people love it, and some people hate it because it doesn’t honour the tone that they think it’s going to be, and they think that the characters are underdeveloped. To me putting something out that has rough edges because it has a point of view is much more interesting. It’s fun watching people either embrace it or get caught on those things, but I’d rather it have a point of view than be this completely politically correct, perfectly rounded thing that’s out there.
FLUX: In my review I say, “The adage “Art imitating life” suitably describes this latest addition to the sub-genre. The collaboration between Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta – his first screenwriting credit – illuminates the habitual nature of art to imitate life, the film and the house in the urban wilderness one in the same.”
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Totally! It was a real labour of love. It was my first feature, the writer’s first feature and there is a lot of the two of us in the lead characters. It’s was a coming of age process for us, as well as the characters. We both regularly talked about how we had that experience as different people, and it shows. I would like to think that in the same way that the movie wears its influences very clearly, there is a lot of us in this movie. I highly doubt anything else I make will be nearly as personal; neither will the next thing that he makes. I would like to get back to something like that; this is something where you’re definitely seeing growth onscreen in a lot of ways.
FLUX: When I interviewed Sophie Lellouche for her debut feature film Paris-Manhattan, she remarked, “First movies are very different, they are dreams. They are what you expect cinema to be.” Kings of Summer being your debut feature, how would you describe your first film?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: As a filmmaker and as a first time filmmaker, you can’t help but let your brain run wild with these ideas of thinking about how Orson Welles made his first film in his twenties. You can’t help but look at the first movies from P.T. Anderson or whoever, and look at the trajectory of other people and wonder where you are going to fall on that spectrum; to put so much pressure on yourself. It’s so hard to get a movie made that by the time you get there it feels like this enormous accomplishment, and you can’t help but let your brain run wild with this stuff. Luckily for me our production was so crazy, and we had so few resources I was wearing a thousand different hats, and I was super hands on in every department. I was putting out problems left and right, and at a certain point I didn’t have time to worry about this; I just had to do my job. Luckily after years of doing commercials, TV and shorts, to some degree filmmaking is filmmaking. You show up on set and your job is to execute. Granted there are uniquely different things with a feature where you have to track the arc of these characters over a longer period of time, and yeah you have to deal with the endurance of being on set that long, but at one point I was so caught up in making the damn thing that I realised I was no longer stressing about making it. I just remember it being the end of the first day, and just thinking to myself holy shit, I just shot the first day on my first feature. It just flew by and you just train yourself so well that you are just too busy executing to get caught up in all of that stuff. I sat down with my DP, and had this conversation with him where I said, “Ideally we have trained ourselves well enough in our craft that if we started shooting tomorrow it would be good enough. Right now we don’t know if we are ever going to get another movie made, and so either we swing for the fences so that every element of this is better than every element of everything we have ever done before, or we go home. We just pack it up and that’s it.”
It’s interesting describing it like a dream because it really was; it was all-consuming. I don’t think that I’ve ever put myself as much into anything in my life as this. It just sort of became me and consumed me. So yeah it definitely is a bit of a fevered dream where you are just trying to put so much into it; you have so much riding on it. It’s interesting [laughs] I’ll be curious moving forward with my second feature, which I’m currently trying to set-up. On the one hand you’ve done it, you have made the first one, but right now I’m in this weird situation where I simultaneously feel this incredible amount of pressure because you don’t want to then fuck it up on your second one; you don’t want to have that sophomore slump [laughs]. But you should have confidence from having pulled off the first one. It’s an interesting thing that I’m going through right now. I would describe it as a dream certainly, but I would describe it more as a fevered dream.
FLUX: Kings of Summer taps into a youthful fantasy, but this it is where a line is drawn between reality and fantasy. It captures a childhood dream to escape the parental home, the restraints of the world we have been put in, to liberate ourselves. The characters in your film do just that for a brief spell, but it is amidst the dreams and the fantasy of cinema.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: It’s funny to me because the movie very much in my mind, or the way I phrased it when I came to direct it was that the movie is a postmodern Stand By Me; in the sense that the kids in Stand By Me are from a generation, or the kids in The Goonies, those are from generations of kids who were men. They were effectively being raised to become men, and they could actually go out into the wild and do things. I’m explicitly from a generation of wusses. The kids in Stand By Me could go out into the woods; me and my friends couldn’t. Instead we would just talk about it, and so to me the idea was what happens when the video game generation actually does it. They cheat, they don’t survive. They are buying food, and in my mind the whole town has like a video game aesthetic to it, because that is to me the closest thing to an adventure these kids have probably ever been on. It’s very much about how I feel that we are a coddled generation right now. It’s something everyone talks about doing, but what happens if the coddled generation actually goes out and does it?
FLUX: In a sense it is a comparison of the generations of American youth?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: The generation of kids and their parents in Stand By Me are a generation that fought wars and built skyscrapers. Our generation use Twitter. It’s a completely different situation; a completely different set of rules. I do think that it is about the evolutionary process of different generations.
Flux: It is difficult to define the Coming of Age comedy-drama as either optimistic or cynical. Rather it is a blend of the two, depicting the hardships of youth and the challenges they represent. How would you characterise the darker versus the lighter elements of Kings of Summer?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: The darkness was really important to me. In fact we had a lot of conversations before making it and people would ask what the tone of the movie is? I would always say it’s a spectrum. There are funny moments, but when Joe hits rock bottom when he guts that rabbit, I want that to be gruesome, I want that to be intense because that’s what the kids going through. No one is ever going to say, oh man when I go that movie, you know what I want to see, and you know what I want this movie to show me; a kid gutting a rabbit. Nobody wants that, but if you earn it, if you earn that characters journey there then they’ll go with you. So to me the movie doesn’t have any reason to exist if it doesn’t explore the darkness and the pain of what that age is. I think the joy and the nostalgia of that age is one thing, and it is certainly a nostalgic piece, if it is not sort of eliciting memories that you have never had. That’s only one side of what that age is. The other side of that age is intense darkness. You don’t know who you are yet, and you are struggling to find who you are in the world and how you fit into it. That’s a very real, raw and emotionally hard place.
FLUX: The film is about the journey towards understanding their emotions in a more rational context. It is a reflection on human connections whether or not forged by free will that captures the angst and claustrophobic feelings of youth, and depicts the inevitable confrontation with emotions innate to the coming of age journey.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Yeah, I think that is totally on point. It’s a tough age and there are so many movies coming out right now that are about coming of age, about late twenty something’s, these sort of man-child movies. That’s great and that’s a very real part of our generation right now, but there’s nothing like that first heartbreak. There’s nothing like that first pain that you feel from your first step out into the world. It’s a very tricky age and a very tricky time.
FLUX: To some Biaggio is seen to be undeveloped, yet he is the catalyst for a lot of the comedy. There is also this wonderful mysterious quality about him, in that he represents the mysterious individual, the enigma within society. I wouldn’t say he’s underdeveloped but rather that Moises’ incarnation of Biggio is as he’s intended to be.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Thank you. It’s funny, because that is the idea. It’s a tough thing to ride, and there are some people who don’t take that character seriously or they get taken out of it. I don’t know how to respond to that because to me he’s simultaneously the type of character who you know nothing about, yet you know everything you need to know. What you know is that for some reason this friendship is really important to him; loyalty and this adventure are really important to him. Why it’s important you don’t really know. He’s like a dog, and he wants to follow his master. He does become this sort of emotional core of the movie at a certain point, and some people just think he’s this underdeveloped quirkfest. I just think that is missing the point on who he is and why he exists. The other thing is, whether it is him or the parents, every kid knows someone who had insane parents. Everyone went to school with that one kid in the playground who was out of his mind, and so I also wanted to tap into that. Everyone’s just so obsessed these days with thoroughly explaining everything, and I just think some things can be left a little mysterious.
FLUX: The appreciation for David Lynch’s cinema derives from the fact that he confounds you, but in spite of this you feel satisfied with being left in the dark; lost in ambiguity and uncertainty as to how to contextualise the experience. That’s part of the fun of watching his films, they are puzzle boxes. There is nothing wrong with a puzzle box or ambiguity. It is something that maybe we should embrace more, but there are those individuals who are looking at the figures that are terrified of ambiguity, which of course stems from a fear that it is something the audience cannot handle.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: We are just being trained out of it. We started making content that was coddled in the same way that our generation is being coddled. I feel that movies pander and patronise as opposed to letting people really think, which is just reinforcing bad habits. There are a lot of movies that have ambiguous endings these days. Part of it is that people aren’t doing these endings exactly right, but people get upset at these things now. For some reason ambiguity doesn’t sit well with people. So it really is a tough needle to thread these days.
FLUX: You have assembled an impressive cast of actors who you have allowed to make it their film, and in so doing you shoot dead the auteur theory. Well directed, written and performed, this Coming of Age story is fundamentally a product of collaboration.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Having the kids take ownership over it was a really important part. I sent them through improv training, not so that they would be really quick and a joke a minute machine, but that they would feel comfortable enough in their own skin. It really was a huge collaboration. It was collaboration between me and the writer, me and the DP, and so many people. So many people brought so much to it. I’m not fourteen anymore, and the writer is not fourteen anymore. So I really needed those kids to step up and feel comfortable enough in their own skin so that they felt they had a sense of ownership over these roles, where they could fundamentally take something from being good or great to memorable and honest. It really was about creating an atmosphere where they could be themselves at times, and there is stuff that is super scripted, and there is stuff that is improvised. One of my favourite moments is the small little takes with the kids just being themselves; being great actors.
The auteur theory is definitely still kicking and there are definitely people still doing that. Ultimately all of it gets filtered through me at the end of the day, but it would be lying to take away anyone else’s contribution. Filmmaking is this huge collaboration, but you need a director steering the whole ship.
FLUX: What’s next for you?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: I’m about to do a pilot for FX, which I’m excited about. It’s a great script with complicated characters, but then I’m sort of in the process of following the release of this through and setting up the next couple of movies. I’m super thankful for how people have responded to the show, and I couldn’t be happier about that. I’m just weighing up all the different projects. Making movies is tough; it’s very difficult. I really want to make sure the next couple of things that I do are not only huge steps forward where I can keep pushing the cinematic boundaries that I feel that I’ve started playing with, but also telling stories that I care about and which feel fresh. This takes years of your life and you have to love it. So I’m flirting with some pretty big things and budgets that are much, much bigger than what I’ve dealt with here, and I’m excited for that. I want it to be things that I love and care about so that when those days inevitably get long and gruelling, it’s something that I care for.
The Kings of Summer is available to own now on Blu-Ray & DVD courtesy of Studio Canal.
Interview with Jordan Vogt-Roberts by Paul Risker