‘The Kings of Summer’ Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts on Improv, Cinematic Comedy and Wanting to Make a ‘Star Wars’ Movie Before He Dies
Last weekend I posted a Short Starts column in celebration of the early work of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a filmmaker who has done a lot of comedy sketches and short films in the past (including the popular award-winning Successful Alcoholics) and now has his debut feature, The Kings of Summer, opening in theaters. One of the pieces that I shared is a video consisting of well-known coming-of-age movie clips with the title “Toy’s House Rip-O-Matic Tone Reel” (The Kings of Summer was formerly titled Toy’s House), and I explained that I was pretty curious about its purpose in the development of the new film. Vogt-Roberts emailed me in response, and later we had a chat on the phone about that, his other works and a lot more.
It was a long phone call. We discussed improv, which is something he’s clearly passionate about (see the youth organization Detroit Creativity Project, which he mentions) and the desire for more movies, particularly comedies, to better utilize the visual medium ‐ he’s very passionate about this also. And he expressed his interest in directing a Star Wars movie. We also, of course, talked about The Kings of Summer and how it fits in with those topics. Well, maybe not with Star Wars. But I’ll say this: he’d probably deliver a decent installment of the franchise, especially one with humor and kids and woodsy locations. Are they looking to redo The Battle for Endor? Just kidding.
Seriously, he’s one to really watch. And a lot of what he said during our conversation is evidence of why this is true. So check out the interview below, go see The Kings of Summer and watch everything on his Vimeo page.
(Vogt-Roberts begins the interview before the questions can begin with a response to my post about his shorts)
I just wanted to clarify that those tone reels are such a weird thing as a first-time director. For me, I just loved the script so much that I developed this thought process of being like, “If I lose this, I want to be able to walk away knowing I did everything,” and not be like, “Oh I should have done that.”
You asked if other directors do that. Some do, but I think it’s becoming a more common thing with people trying to win jobs. Like [Joe] Carnahan’s Dardevil teaser. I think it’s becoming more common because it’s becoming easier to do. My Unauthorized High School Visit was also a part of that. I put together this big, basically 30–40 page PDF with storyboards and concept art, breaking everything down. And those two videos were a part of that.
What I find interesting about all those videos being online for public view is that a lot of filmmakers don’t share even their early shorts. They’re impossible to find. But you have everything up there.
That’s why I was a little sensitive. That Sub-Par thing, that was never even officially released. It’s a web pilot we shot like six years ago. I’ve even lost the final cut of it, so that’s the rough cut. At one point in time I really loved it, but it’s just so broken to me now. It is a little weird because all that stuff is up there, and even Successful Alcoholics, which most people point to, that itself is four or five years old, and there’s other stuff that I’ve done between then and now that I’m way more proud of.
With the tone reel itself, I was just sitting on it. In a weird way I’m almost glad you picked up on it because I really wasn’t sure if I wanted that to be a public thing. How much of the process I wanted to reveal. I’m glad you kinda made that decision for me, so I don’t have to worry about it.
With Sub-Par, I just love Marc Evan Jackson in that, and I love him in the Manchild short he’s in. Especially because his character in Kings of Summer and his character in that are such different kinds of fathers that I didn’t even realize it was the same guy.
I met him pretty early on when I moved to L.A. He was doing a stand-up routine with a friend of his. They were called Sky and Nancy Collins and basically pretended to be these characters from Orange County doing stand-up for the first time. It was so funny. The first time I ever worked with him was on Sub-Par, and then he kinda became my secret weapon. He’s one of those guys that just elevates everything. I honestly believe that the level of character work that he does is on par with the best people out there.
It’s always been this huge question mark to me why he isn’t more exposed. He’s a great human being and so capable and so talented and really able to understand comedy on a very deep level ‐ what’s the game, what’s the bit. He has an extensive improv background, and I’ve just made it my mission to expose him as much as possible because he makes me look great.
He and I even started a charity, a non-profit together back in Detroit where we’re from. We are bringing improv into Detroit public schools as a free service. Improv basically just teaches you to fail boldly and bravely and go out there and try things, not even comedy. He’s a very dear friend of mine and honestly one of the most talented people on the planet.
Marc Evan Jackson (r.) with Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally
I’ll be honest, improv has never made me feel brave. Quite the opposite. It makes me shrivel up. So I’m intrigued about that program.
I think it’s precisely that, though. I’m terrible in front of the camera. Never in my life will you see me act in something, and I’m a probably a pretty bad improviser when you get down to it. But I recognize… To me, it’s about pushing through that fear. It’s a horrifying thing. Look, I’m friends with so many amazing improvisers and comedians, so hanging out becomes like a little improv session sometimes and it’s super intimidating. It’s almost about pushing past that point where you shrivel up so that you can become better. It’s that cliche of having to get broken before you can move on.
With directing I feel there has to be a lot of improv, not in terms of acting but in terms of making quick decisions. Are you better at that kind of improv behind the camera?
Improv is used in a lot of different ways, and there are very different styles of it. On set, it’s constantly improv. That’s what I love about filmmaking. I love the problem solving element of it. I love when things go wrong and you just have to make that split second decision and adapt on the fly. That’s when things are exciting to me. A lot of my crews, I prep them up front: “Look, I need you to adjust on the fly. Because if we prep something one way and then we’re on set in a location and we see something else that’s a way better situation or the sun’s coming down or we stumble upon something that we didn’t even think of, I’m going to explore that. I’m going to go after that.”
Filmmaking is a fluid process. At least for me it is. I know some people will storyboard their things out to a tee and know exactly what it is. I love getting my hands dirty and playing around.
What is your relationship as a filmmaker with improv in front of the camera?
It would be really easy to just light a scene and to do over-the-shoulder cross-coverage or something, but it’s really important for me even when we’re doing improv for it to feel cinematic and still have a sense of style. A lot of the big comedies that are really improv heavy, it’s just very flat shot reverse shot without any attempt at any technical craft. So one thing I’m really interested in is getting that looseness but still having a technical element behind it.
I do a lot of long takes, so the way I work with improv is do a long take and then get in there and I’ll literally be a few feet from the actors calling things out to them, like “take that again, try again, take it back, do this,” or we’ll find a good beat and it’ll go totally off the rails. To me it’s just this very fluid, very playful process of sussing out ideally things that are really funny but things that also feel grounded and real and expose character.
There’s this scene with Kumail Nanjiani, the Wonton delivery guy. For what it is, it’s way longer than it needs to be. But there’s a lot of stuff in the script that’s verbatim what Chris [Galletta] wrote, just word for word, and there’s a lot of improv in there, too. I’m comfortable with that scene because at the end of the day it’s still revealing something about Nick Offerman’s character. It’s revealing something about the way he’s processing what’s going on. And the way he’s taking it out on other people. It’s still about something even though it’s heavy improv.
How much do you go off the script with the improv?
Like I said, Chris wrote this incredible script with a really unique voice and I loved the idea of having stuff that was clearly heightened and stylized in terms of the writing but having the whole thing have an extreme looseness to it. The kids, I sent them through improv training, not so they would be really quick and funny and a joke-a-minute machine, but just because I’m not 14 anymore. And the writer is not 14. I wanted them to feel comfortable enough with themselves and that if I didn’t yell “cut” that they would keep going. Or if we wanted to change something on the fly they’d feel comfortable and bring in a sense of ownership and a sense of themselves to it.
There’s a lot of stuff in the movie, especially with the kids, that is really loose. I just wanted a handful of small little ticks and chemistry and mannerisms that an audience could look at and identify and say, “Oh that feels true and authentic to what being 15 is.” Chris’s script is great, but I tried to keep it loose so you could have those moments that felt raw and authentic. And then there are moments also where, like, I found out that Gabe [Basso], who plays Patrick, can play the violin. Great, let’s incorporate that. I found out that Moises [Arias], who plays Biaggio, could dance really well. Great, let’s make that a part of his character. They literally could bring traits of themselves to these characters in addition to what Chris had created.
And the story we tell all the time is that the whole sequence with them banging on the pipe, that was completely improvised, shot on an off day when me, the writer and the DP went off into the woods with the kids and basically just captured boys being boys. I loved the imagery of this beautiful nature landscape with a real man-made piece of industry running through it. It felt thematically right for the movie. I took them to the pipe and told them to start banging on it and told Moises to dance on it and that just kind of unfolded. A piece of magic we captured.
Improv comes out in ways like that, where they were really just bringing themselves into it. I think that was the day, a week after we started shooting, where the film really clicked for them. We all walked away from that and the kids felt like they brought something to the table and they were more invested in the whole thing after that.
Outside of Biaggio being pretty strange, the kids do have a realness that doesn’t come off as written as the adult stuff, which does feel more heightened. A lot of teen movies and coming of age movies do have the problem of kids sounding like their words are written by an older person.
I’m glad you feel that way. The adult’s world is pretty crazy. It’s borderline slapstick. In my mind it should be through the lens of how these kids perceive them, all absurd and crazy. So the whole world of the adults is a little left of center. Biaggio, as ridiculous as his stuff is, he’s a character that we wanted you to simultaneously know nothing about yet everything you need to know. You understand that somehow this and loyalty and friendship are the most important things to him. He’s like a loyal dog. He does become a sort of emotional through-line for this movie and this very Sam/Frodo relationship develops at a certain point. You need the audience to be invested in who he is and realize how important it is.
But with Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick, particularly, the most important thing there was just getting that chemistry right. To me the movie would have been a failure if the audience didn’t look at the chemistry of all the boys and have a very pure sense of nostalgia elicited. Either nostalgia for what they went through or a nostalgia for things they didn’t necessarily experience. The truths of what growing up is are pretty universal. We just needed to be grounded in that. You don’t walk out of Stand By Me or Goonies and think to yourself, “One of those kids is good.” They’re all great. They’re all awesome.
Remember when we were kids and you’d get back from a movie and you and your friends would decide who was who and play as them? That’s important. It’s important for an audience to be able to choose who they want to identify with and see who they see themselves in. I just knew from the beginning that it was important that all the kids be great. Not just one of them.
I want to go back and talk about the look of the movie and the cinematography and how you wanted this to be cinematic. I’ve seen people mention obvious coming of age movie influences and then I’ve seen it referred to as “Malick-like.”
My DP and I have been working together for a long time. We have a pretty serious shorthand. I just don’t think that comedy needs to be mutually exclusive from being beautiful. It’s sad to me. When was the last time you walked out of a comedy and thought, “Wow, that was beautiful,” or, “That was visually stunning.”? That doesn’t happen, and that sucks. There’s no reason for that. For some reason we’ve just played in this really boring box. One thing that was really important to me with this was, look, we’ve seen a lot of coming-of-age stories before. We’ve seen variations on this, variations on these themes. How do I tell this story in a nontraditional way? How do I make it seem like it’s a new addition to the canon?”
Those old Amblin movies are really technically well-crafted. I love the idea of taking that technical craft and merging that with really contemporary alt comedy and ultimately trying to make the dumbest Terence Malick movie ever. Basically seeing if we can combine really lyrical, ethereal, beautiful imagery that is impressionistic and helps elicit the feeling of how beautiful the woods are and how the kids are perceiving it and how those moments feel. And then smashing that right up with really ridiculous absurd comedy.
I’m so glad that the look of this is being called out. I hope we can get out of this phase. Comedy and movies in general don’t look that great anymore. You look at a rom-com, which is a dirty word these days, and then you look at Annie Hall, and it’s a beautiful movie, really tonally weird, really inventive. I just want to get back to an era of filmmaking when we don’t have all these rules of what things are supposed to look like.
I don’t want knock anyone in particular with you, but that makes me think of David Gordon Green, one of the most Malick-like young directors aesthetically. He’s turned to comedy, but his comedies don’t look as great as his early stuff.
There are a lot of mumblecore movies that I love, and I have a lot of friends who are mumblecore movie directors, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a visual medium and to not exploit that part of it is missing part of what makes film great. I think there’s a larger issue at play here, which is that people rarely go to the movies anymore, and they barely walk out and say, “I’m glad I saw that.” I didn’t want to make a movie that went to Sundance and then people saw on VOD. I wanted to make a movie that people walked out of the theater from and said, “Wow, that was beautiful. I’m glad I saw that on the big screen.” We didn’t want to make a dinky little indie even though we had no money. We wanted to make an indie that felt cinematic and had scope and ideally reminded people why going to the theater to see something is worthwhile.
You said that you had to fight for the job to direct this script. How did you come across it in the first place? What made this the script you wanted for your feature debut as opposed to something you or someone you know wrote?
I came out here because I want to make movies. I’ve been looking for a long time for a script that I wanted to make as my first feature. I’ve been making shorts and I sold my TV show and we were gearing up to do a full season of that, Successful Alcoholics played at Sundance… So in general I was showing up on lists at studios. All the executives keep these tracking lists of who they think the next young first-time directors are. I’d been meeting on stuff and people were talking about stuff and there were projects that would come along where I was like I could do this or I’m excited about this, but this is the first thing that came along that I read and just fell in love with.
I honestly thought it was a joke. I thought somebody was playing a prank on me by giving me this script, like, “Why are you doing this? Somebody is clearly attached to a movie this good.” “No, it’s an open directing job right now.” Chris and I didn’t know each other. We had a lot of mutual friends. In fact, we had a lot of friends saying, “Oh you two would love each other; you should meet.” And in fact a couple friends sent me the script months and years before. And I never read it for some reason. Then when I finally did read it I fell in love. It wasn’t that I wanted to the movie or could do the movie or was excited about it. I felt this visceral need to do it. This is a story I have to tell.
John Hodges at Big Beach had seen Successful Alcoholics and they knew Toy’s House, as it was called at the time, was going to require a really tricky tone of balancing comedy and drama and heart. They also were interested in what I really wanted to do with it, which was to balance it that way and to say you don’t have to cut the tonal spectrum off. I firmly believe you can have laughs as big as Superbad but emotional beats as heartfelt as the best John Hughes movie or as earnest as Stand By Me. Overall I sold them on how it should feel cinematic and how there should be visual wit to it and it should feel as technically crafted as old Amblin films did.
There are a lot of places out there that say they want to trust first-time directors and everyone says they want to break new talent, but you wonder why there are so many directors out there where you’re like, “This guy hasn’t made a good movie in a long time.” Honestly, for a lot of executives I know it’s a safer bet to hire someone who they know can at least execute and make something and deliver on time and on budget over someone who might be a really exciting option that hasn’t done it before. What I came to learn in pitching on a movie and winning it is the process of convincing a set of producers that not only are you the best person for the job and can pull it off but you understand the material better than they do at that point and your vision is the correct vision of the movie.
Back to the idea of that tracking list. A lot of young filmmakers get put on these shortlists we hear about more and more, lists for stuff like Star Wars and remakes of family classics. Is that something you will probably end up doing or are interested in doing, something nostalgia based that’s not an original?
There are some projects that I’m talking to people about that are not necessarily remakes but properties that have been made in some capacity before. For me it’s about access point. I legitimately believe that you can make a good… If you want to shit on remakes as a general idea, I think that’s misguided. People forget that The Thing is technically a remake. Scarface is technically a remake. I think if you have the right access point you can make anything great.
What movie would you remake in a second if asked?
Oh boy. That’s a good question. [literally 15 seconds of silence pass.] I’m trying to think of something that… It’s tricky. You read Soderbergh’s whole thing on the state of the industry, right? One part is about how we shouldn’t be looking to remake movies that were good before but movies that had cool ideas but didn’t necessarily work. I think that’s relatively warranted. What do I love enough but wouldn’t feel like I was just screwing up? Most movies I love I wouldn’t want to touch.
‘Memoirs of a Manchild: Mint in Box’
Well, one thing I thought about while watching the Mint in a Box short about Star Wars toys was that producers probably see that and think, “Oh he knows what Star Wars is, so maybe he should make a Star Wars movie.”
Oh look, I would love to. At this point, now that that’s like a possibility, if I die and I haven’t directed a Star Wars movie, I will be very upset. Those are all my actual Star Wars figures in that short. That was a weird cathartic thing for me because I’d collected all the Power of the Force series of the action figures when I was a kid, and they’re not worth a large amount of money but I just had a ton of them and they were sitting in these boxes. I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. I don’t want to sell these or the little kid in me will get real upset. The only thing that made sense at one point was that if I had a kid, just pening this room and saying, “Here, do whatever you want with them. Open them, do whatever you want. I don’t care.”
But the thing that made the most sense was to use them as a set piece for a short, as a piece of production design. Robert Rodriguez used to talk about how you should use what you have access to when you’re a young filmmaker. He had access to a bus so he put that in his film. It’s production value. I had access to Star Wars figures so I designed a set piece around it.
And did you guys really destroy all of them?
Yeaaaaah. There were some that I said, “These are off limits. Try not to bust these up.” Surprisingly not that many of them got screwed up. That was a really interesting moment, because it was one of the few times on set when more people were watching how I was reacting than the actor. But it was really cathartic.
It’s not really a remake, but at some point depending on what they do with the Star Wars franchise, I would love to. I’m in this business because I’m one of those kids who watched Star Wars and found there was a world presented in front of him. I just fell in love with movies.
The Kings of Summer is now playing in limited release. See it on the big screen.