An interview with the director of The Kings of Summer

Gary Wolcott, atomictown.comJuly 26, 2013 

Jordan Vogt-Roberts is the director of one of this summer's most highly-acclaimed films, The Kings of Summer. Critics everywhere -- including Tri-City Herald critic Gary Wolcott -- have loved it. But like most small-budget independent movies, it has been slow to get out to smaller markets like Tri-Cities and really only gets here because Carmike Cinemas is dedicated to bringing in movies of this type.

Vogt-Roberts did some TV comedy projects that got the attention of millions of viewers. That success led to his first movie.

Wolcott calls The Kings of Summer one of the best films he's seen this year. He recently talked with Vogt-Roberts about the project.

Gary Wolcott: What drew you to this concept?

Jordan Vogt-Roberts: It was just a perfect storm of things. I was waiting to do my first feature and find a script to fall in love with. This script came to me and it just spoke to me so much. Chris [Galletta] has such a wonderful voice and it laid the groundwork for everything I wanted to do with my first movie. And that was to make something a little more complicated that could be really, really funny, yet heartbreaking at the same time.

In the end my goal was to tell a story you've seen before but told in a new way. I also wanted to push things visually and make a comedy that doesn't look flat and boring.

GW: All through the movie, I kept trying to figure out which of the three boys was me at that age. Which one were you?

JVR: It's interesting you'd say that. No one walked out of Stand by Me or Goonies and said just one character was fantastic. All of them are fantastic. But eventually we ask, "who was I?" I knew the actor kids in The Kings of Summer had to be phenomenal for that reason.

I am a bit of all three for differing reasons, but I'm definitely a Joe. I'm always scheming and getting my friends into trouble and sort of acting without thinking.

GW: What fascinates me is that the film's target is young people. It's a kind of coming-of-age thing. At the same time, it reaches out to the kid in all of us. I'm in my 60s and that movie just spoke to me. You literally transported me back to what it was like to be a teenage boy.

JVR: I love hearing that. I wanted to make a movie that could be approached by different generations for different reasons. I do feel this movie relates to the younger generation and that it is very contemporary. At the same time that it's about kids, it's also relatable for adults.

There are things in this movie -- and because so much of it is about that moment when the rug gets pulled out from under you and when you don't know anything about your place in the world -- that can only be addressed from looking back and with hindsight. I think that's why people -- and especially older audiences -- have responded so well to the movie. It does take them back. When the pain is less fresh, you have a better perspective on that type of heartbreak and on that sort of awkward place in your life.

Watching different generations react to it in different ways is really gratifying.

GW: It was just fascinating being more than 40 years removed from that age group and yet relating so well to the characters and their quest. I'm always impressed when a director and the writer of a movie can make me feel something like that.

JVC: For the most part, Chris [Galletta] and I were on the same page. We wanted to make something that was different and to push the boundaries a little bit from what you expect from a movie like this.

We treated these kid characters with respect but did not pander to an audience like a movie about teenagers tends to do.

GW: Your casting was exceptional. The three boys are perfect. So are the adults.

JVR: One of the first things I told our casting director was that I didn't want to see anyone over the age of 18. I didn't want to cast a 25-year-old as a 15-year-old, which is what Hollywood will normally do. We did a long and exhausting search to find these kids and to make sure they had the right chemistry.

And the movie lives and dies on that chemistry.

GW: I laughed all the way through. When you were a kid doing your own, real-life version of The Kings of Summer, did you envision yourself as a movie director?

JVR: I loved the movies growing up and grew up with Star Wars. I had my brain shattered open by the universe created by the movie. In high school, I started exploring classic films. I loved the process of movies, I loved talking about movies. I made stop-motion movies of my own with action figures.

But making real movies just seemed like such an impossible idea and so far off.

To be here now is great. It's a bit surreal. This is what I'm here for. I wanted to make movies. Now it's been released, and I can't wait to see how people react to it.

GW: So far the critics have been kind. It's one of my favorites of the year. Your movie proves what I have said for years, and what I tell a lot of the independent filmmakers that I meet. You don't need a gazillion dollars to make a good movie.

JVR: It was an incredibly hard movie to make. We had very little money and very little time. The movie I wanted felt big and not like a little Indie darling. The movies I grew up with were films first and foremost. Stand by Me and Robert Altman's movies felt like film, not a rom-com.

I wanted to create something that felt that way and that was timeless.

It was a labor of love; draining because of the time constraints, but still a labor of love. The movie looks great because that's what I wanted. When we started the movie the philosophy was that every element would look better than anything we'd done before.

GW: Who inspired you?

JVR: It's very much early Amblen mixed with Stand by Me and John Hughes and we mashed all that up with contemporary comedy like the Coen brothers in characters and set-up. That's the movie.

My influences are all over the place. I love Kubrick, I love Kurosawa, anyone that makes a movie that makes it feel personal.

What's tough about this movie is that it is a word of mouth movie. And we wanted a theatrical release and not a VOD [view on demand].

My favorite thing is going to a theater and experiencing something. We wanted The Kings of Summer to be a film experience.

GW: The three boys did seem to like each other and they had excellent chemistry. I recognized my dad in Nick Offerman's character. Are any of these parents yours?

JVR: He was my dad too. With my dad, I knew we could get along but there was something, much like the characters in the movie, that just prevents it.

GW: You're 28, and not that far removed from your characters.

JVR: It was something I tried to impart to the kids. I'm not just your boss. I can help you get some of these performances out. I'm removed from that age, yes, but it's still fresh. Movies like this are about creating dynamics and developing scenes where boys can just be boys.

We did just that -- made a movie where boys could just be boys.

GW: Have you seen any movies lately that impressed you? I ask this question of movie makers, actors and actresses a lot and am amazed at how few movies you see. Most in the industry seem to be more impressed by what's being done on television than in the movies.

JVR: I haven't seen that many lately and didn't see any while we were doing this project. I caught and liked Jack Reacher. I saw Hitchcock on a plane. The other day I saw the new Star Trek. I haven't seen it yet but look forward to seeing Terrence Malick's To the Wonder.

TV is now telling the kinds of stories that movies used to do. Hollywood and filmmakers now need to start telling the kinds of stories that TV can't tell. Studios and filmmakers need to adjust and create content that is compelling and original. Otherwise we're going to be put out of business by YouTube and TV.

There is no TV experience that can compare with your best theater experience. You can't get the "God, that was amazing. I'm so glad I experienced it on a huge screen with an audience. I was totally immersed," on television.

Nothing can compete with that. To me, that's the power of our medium.

That's what I tried to do with this movie. I wanted to make something that didn't feel disposable. I wanted something that feels cinematic. That's why I got into this. I don't just point a camera, shoot and walk away. I love the technicality of it.

Filmmakers need to start making movies that engage people on a level where they feel the need to see it in a theater. And maybe that's IMAX or 3D, who knows? But if you don't do it in a very intelligent way, it won't matter. A person can only take so many dumb popcorn action flicks.

GW: A last thought on your movie.

JVR: This is an original story that will make you walk out of the theater remembering how amazing and horrible being a teenager was, yet it was the time of life that makes you who you are.

And if you don't support a movie like this, we'll end up with a summer full of dumb blockbusters that you don't want to see.

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