One of the best movies in theaters right now, and one of our favorites of 2013 so far, is “The Kings Of Summer.” Premiering at Sundance under its original title of “Toy’s House,” the comedy became one of the popular hits of the festival, and rightly so; it’s a hilarious, smart and touching film helmed with considerable flair by debut feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, someone who’s been on Playlist radars for a while thanks to his Sundance short “Successful Alcoholics,” and his Comedy Central series “Mash Up.”
With the film doing good business in limited release and making its way across the country, we got on the phone with Vogt-Roberts as his “whirlwind” press tour eased up, with the idea of running down a few of his favorite coming-of-age movies, which provided some of the inspiration behind “The Kings Of Summer.” We did that, but our conversation took in much, much more beyond that. Take a look below, and let us know your own favorite coming-of-age movies in the comments section.
The Playlist: Seeing as we’re talking about coming-of-age movies, I wanted to start by going back into your own past, and ask at what point you fell in love with movies?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: One: make no mistake, whatever philosophical or highbrow reasons I have for being a filmmaker, at the end of the day, I was one of those kids who saw “Star Wars” and a world suddenly existed in front of me, and that blew my mind open. It just felt limitless, and that led to me a lot of stop-motion movies in my basement with a bunch of action figures, But growing up in Detroit, Hollywood just felt forever away, it felt inconceivable.
But also, my Dad used to show me movies as a kid, like Ralph Bakshi animated movies, the appropriate ones and the inappropriate ones. And it wasn’t always necessarily the good versions of things, it was like “Explorers” as opposed to “The Goonies.” So I partially just fell in love with the discovery process. And as soon as I was old enough to go to the video store – and I think this is gonna be something that’s going to be interesting as we move on in our society, because there was that joy in going to a video store and walking down the aisles and going “This looks interesting, I’m going to pull this out.” I don’t know if you get the same thing from Netflix. It’s certainly much easier to get it, but I used to love walking to the video store with my buddies and working out what the hell we were going to watch that night.
Plus I loved going there, and trying to rent something, and it being gone, so your whole plan was fucked, and you had to think on your feet. And as you get older, finding the more obscure video stores that carry more foreign titles and artsier stuff. I just loved that exploration process, so the combination of seeing these worlds built in front of me, for lack of a less cheesy term, being transported to these places, and that coupled with the discovery process left a huge impression of me.
Ok, so let’s kick off your favorite coming-of-age movies.
I did something slightly unorthodox, ideally they’re all coming of age films, but they’re also things that influenced my movie, but I also kind of paired them. So the first and most obvious pair is “Stand By Me” and “Goonies.”
“Stand By Me”/”The Goonies”
Those are movies to me that were obviously huge reference points when I was making this, and the fact that we’re being compared to them in any capacity is not something I take lightly at all, and I’m not comfortable talking about that at all, because they’re incredible, timeless films. We just did a double feature at the New Beverley, where one night we paired the movie with “Goonies,” and the other with “Stand By Me,” and that was just a cool life moment, being the reason those movies were back in theaters and people were watching them.
But both of those movies are just full to the brim with chemistry, the chemistry between those kids is just out of control. Making “Kings Of Summer,” it wasn’t good enough if one of the kids was great, they all had to be fantastic. In those movies, there isn’t a blank at all. From the initial stages of me being involved in the movie, I always described it as a post-modern “Stand By Me.” That was a generation of kids who could do that stuff, our generation can’t, we’re incapable wusses who’d never survive out there.
But the reason I bring those up is that they have the Amblin quality that a lot of people are comparing our movie to, but the main reason I love them is that they don’t just nail the chemistry, and nail the world and the tone, but that era has a technical craft to it that I think is missing these days. They’re shot like films and they feel like films, because first and foremost they’re investing you in characters and stories, and everything else is icing. You’re invested in this world, and whether it’s adventurous or heartbreaking or heartwarming or whatever, that’s all bonus.
They’re both from a different era. Working in Hollywood, people are always like, “We want to find the next Goonies,” but I don’t think you could make “Goonies” anymore. I don’t think you could get away with that Sloth relationship, I don’t think studios would be comfortable with the fact that, at the end of the day, the Fratellis are trying to kill those kids. People sometimes tag us on our movie for our tone, which was something that was very intentional, and something I tried with “Successful Alcoholics,” which was slaloming tone. But I think people would be surprised if they went back and looked at those movies, because they make some pretty sharp shifts, and I think for whatever reason, people are less likely to go with that.
“Kids” & “Over The Edge”
Those are both movies that feel dangerous. “Over The Edge” is definitely a flawed movie, but there is a real tangible sense of chaos and anarchy. And “Kids” as well, when people watch it, there’s a sense of “Oh my god, this is going on?” Not to say the kids in my movie are nearly as rambunctious or out-of-control, but both these movies ooze authenticity in a way that represents teenage anarchy. And it was important than “Kings of Summer” had an element, not nearly to that degree, but an element where people watched those movies and felt it was like a wake-up call. Like, “Oh, this is going on right now, this is this generation.” I wanted to approach something like that in a less shocking way, and in a more heartfelt way. Like “look at this disconnect.” But still getting at that rawness and rebellion. Both those films are very exposed in different ways.
With “Kids” in mind, I wanted to ask if there was any talk at any point of aging the roles up or down. Any older, and sex becomes a much bigger part of the equation, any younger and girls don’t really factor in.
Initially, I actually envisioned them as being slightly younger. But what you don’t realize is that there’s almost no middle ground between the types of kids who are in the movie, and the kids who are, like, nine. That age, they grow up so rapidly. When we shot, they were between 16 and 17, playing 15. And when you look at kids who are like 14, they look like 7. When [screenwriter] Chris [Galletta] was first writing the script, he kept getting these notes like, “age the kids up, age the kids up, it’ll make it more accessible.” And, we always joke about how creepy it would be if those kids were like twenty and running away to the woods. So my first blanket rule was that I didn’t want to see anyone who’s over 18. And even then, we’re trying to get younger. And that creates all kinds of union issues, when you go that young. But there’s a huge difference between the mind of a 13-year-old, a 15-year-old, an 18-year-old and a 20-year-old. Those are all such different points in your life, not just mentally, but physically. I think we caught these kids when they were going through their growth spurts, and their bodies were changing, and I think they were pretty close to what those kids were going through. Sexuality is a sort of looming threat. It’s the first time a woman has come into play. The snake has come into the Garden of Eden. I don’t think that you could age it too far either direction without it getting creepy.
The kids in the movie have previous credits, but they’re not really names, as such. Was that always the plan?
Yeah, I wanted it to feel like a discovery. First of all, there aren’t really movie stars who are that age. The movie lives and dies by these kids and their dynamics, that’s what guides you through the whole thing. The plot is relatively thin, and I’ll be the first to admit that, but ideally it doesn’t take away from the movie, because you feel like you’re existing with the kids in these moments. They all had worked, but it was less like if they were famous or unknowns, and more about if they were right for it. Once I found kids, it was about putting them together to see if they had chemistry together, and then the next stage was putting them through improv training. Not so they could be quick and witty and funny, but so I could enlist them to try and bring their teenage brains to the project. The script was great, and we had a lot of awesome components coming together, but I needed them to be able to bring little tics and mannerisms and ad libs and things like that, not for the sake of being funny, but for the sake of being ‘what a dumb teenager.’ And I think those are my favorite moments, and the moments where when the audience reacts, that’s the most exciting thing for me.
“Badlands”/”Tree Of Life”
Both Malick movies, obviously, both sort of coming of age movies in entirely different ways, and yet there’s almost a universal similarity to all Malick movies, a purity to them. They were not only very important movies to me, but also to me prepping for this production. Because as soon as I got this script, I was really fundamentally interested in this idea of, and I describe it in a sort of joking way, but this idea of, “Can I make a really dumb Terrence Malick movie? A funny Terrence Malick movie?” Taking these elements that are impressionistic and ethereal and lyrical, and that elicit feelings, because I wanted to use the visuals of the movie to elicit the feelings of freedom in the woods, and have that feel very palpable to the audience, but also mash that directly against comedic beats. I was genuinely curious if you could do that.
And part of that was my feeling of, “Right, we’ve seen a billion coming-of-age movies before, so how do we try and add something new to the equation here? How can I add something to the conversation about what these types of movies can be?” I mean, “Tree of Life” has singular shots in it that, whether it was the intent or not… Malick’s so good at creating one shot that you look at, and you’re like, “I know exactly what that is.” There’s like a shot of a dog in that movie that’s diseased or something, you see it for ten seconds, and it just filled me with that feeling of when you’re a kid and you’re around something that you’re not supposed to be around. I loved the idea of accessing moments like that in this movie. Using the visuals to help tell the story, using slow-motion to relish in them in the same way that, when you’re a kid, you think things feel. And “Badlands,” obviously there’s a lot of stuff when they’re out in the woods, but it’s just a perfect movie. And I just love the coming-of-age lessons you can take from the two films, because of Malick’s universal access points, are almost the same, but they’re entirely different. Because they’re about life.
You were talking about tone there, and something that impressed me was going back and watching the pitch reel you made (watch below), and seeing how closely it mirrors the finished movie. Did it take a while to get back to the tone when you were the cutting room.
That pitch reel I put together because that was part of the process of me winning this thing as a first-time director, so I spent a month of my life putting together that, and a packet, because I just didn’t want to lose the movie. And if I lost it, I wanted to be able to say that I did everything I could, and that someone else beat me because they were better for it, not because I didn’t do something. But yeah, that took a ton of refining, because it wasn’t really something that was in the script. I was constantly shooting B-roll, and constantly rolling on the kids, and in between set-ups, I’d just take the kids out and be shooting with them, and messing around in the woods, just capturing and capturing and capturing. And also getting a ton of nature B-roll, so you never really had a down moment on set, because you’d always be looking out for something, you’d be like, “Holy shit, there’s a cicada hatching over there, Gabe, come over here, we’re gonna shoot you playing with this freshly hatched cicada,” which happens like once a year. So that took a lot of refining in the edit.
Playing with the tone in general, which took a long time, and which I learned on “Successful Alcoholics,” getting the tone right, and getting the audience to ride that roller coaster with you, of funny, then not, then funny, then not, and not having the funny parts detract from the situation, you can only find that via testing. You can have a really funny joke, but if the audience isn’t ready for that. it’s just going to break the whole world apart. And then you add on that third layer of having an ethereal element, and then it’s a whole different ballgame. So you have to gauge people’s ability not only to stomach and digest the tonal shifts, but also what could be viewed as a meandering quality, using a tone poem element to elicit a feeling. And that was something I had to really fight for in the edit, and one of the producers wasn’t on board with it at all, and literally until the last week was trying to get me to cut, like, the montage of them banging on the pipe, and I was trying to explain how crucial that was. But to me that’s also the thing, it took a long time in the edit, and a lot of experimenting, but it’s also the most rewarding thing.
I talk about both of these a lot, because… “Up” is a perfect movie. The way that it slaloms between loss, aging, loneliness and family-friendly, broad, colorful moments, and weaves the two together to make the two more poignant is so incredible. And that was my constant battle on this movie, was telling people that we could do that with a live-action movie, and they were like ‘no, you can’t do that, that’s for animated movie. And I was like ‘Why?’ So many people are so afraid of tone.
“Annie Hall” is a great example of that, because rom-com is a dirty word these days, and yet “Annie Hall”‘s a rom-com. And it’s so inventive; it has animated sequences, it has sequences that breaks the fourth wall, it’s so funny, and so touching, and it most importantly, it’s so fresh and inventive. It’s so rare I walk out of a movie these days… I mean, “Argo” is a great movie, but I didn’t go, when I walked out, “That was fresh.” I’m just getting to the point where I’d rather watch something that’s flawed, and maybe greatly flawed, but does something new, than something that’s perfectly executed, but that it feels like I’ve seen before. “Annie Hall” feels like a film, that is a film. The way that Woody Allen eventually comes of age in that movie is so hilarious, and so heartbreaking, and they’re both movies that simultaneously crush you and lift you up at the same time.
“Leon: The Professional”
The final film is less of a reference point on the movie, although slightly, but it’s more just a movie that I love, which is “Leon: The Professional.” I just re-watched it the other day, after all of this craziness of distribution and everything, and it just rejuvenated me. I think it was the first movie that cracked the code in terms of feeling like an anime, in the amount of style it had, yet it’s just grounded by these incredibly touching performances, and a relationship you can completely invest yourself in. I think it’s just such an incredible peak of filmmaking. Talk about a stylish movie that has inventive, great action, incredible villains, Gary Oldman is literally out of control, and most importantly, you care about those two character. And it commits to its genre elements, it doesn’t use them as a joke, or a gag, you’re just watching these two people, of two different ages, come of age, under the guise of this great action film. It’s just a wonderful relationship drama. People don’t make movies like that at all, it’s practically perfect.
“Explorers”/”Bad Boys II”/”Son Of Rambow”
I have two quick honorable mentions too. One is “Explorers,” because that almost has a clunky quality to it, which was similar to how I conceived “The Kings of Summer,” and that was a real reference point. Just being like, “how long can they get away with saying it’ll take to build this spaceship.” But the thing with that movie is that goes completely off the rails as soon as they go off into space. It just never recovers, and becomes a totally different movie, but it’s worthy of a honorable mention, because I have an intense nostalgia for it, and it’s one of the reference points that no one brings up when talking about “Kings of Summer.”
And the other is one that I’ve joked about before, but I like including it in interviews, partially just cos it pisses my writer off: “Bad Boys II.” I always reference it because it’s like twelve different movies, twelve at once. And I buy it, I appreciate it for that. It’s not a coming of age story at all, though I guess you could argue that Will Smith and Martin Lawrence… [laughs] I just love the fetishism that is Michael Bay, and the purity of it; of like guns, cars, girls, sex, explosions, guns, cars, girls, sex. It’s just so pure and raw. But beyond that, the tone of that movie is just insane. There’s straight up improv comedy, there’s necrophilia jokes, they’re destroying shanty towns in Cuba, people’s heads are blowing up in bullet time, there’s KKK jokes, it’s so out of control tonally, and I just really appreciate that, so I always like to bring that up.
One other I wanted to ask about, because it was in the pitch reel, and I love it, is “Son Of Rambow.” Like your movie, it seems to exist in a world that’s heightened, but still grounded in a kind of reality.
“Son of Rambow” is a really interesting movie in the context of “Kings of Summer,” because it was a dangerous reference point for me to ever use, because it had so much buzz coming out of Sundance, and was bought for so much money, and just did not perform. So it always made people really uncomfortable discussing that movie in relation to ours. It’s a fantastic movie, the kids are so great, the direction’s really good. There’s a purity and an earnestness to it, but also a tangible sense of freedom, and you get why these kids are getting away. But it was always a tricky movie to bring up in relation to this, because of the way it performed, and if anything, it probably made our lives a little more difficult, because we were trying to say, “no, there’s an audience for movies about kids for adults,” they would always point to “Son Of Rambow,” and it was frustrating, because a) it’s a great movie, b) it has found an audience. Yeah, someone overpaid for it at Sundance, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a good movie. I always said it needed to be R, because it needs to be authentic, and if you rip away the way kids speak to each other, it’s not gonna feel real. But yeah, adults generally don’t go see movies about kids, and if it’s PG-13, that’s just going to communicate even more to them that it’s a movie for kids. Whereas we were trying to say that it’s a movie about looking back, and about nostalgia.
And any plans for the next movie starting to crystalize?
I’m gonna jump back into the commercials world, just because making an indie movie for a year and a half is not the most lucrative thing in the world, so I need to get my finances in order. But, look, this movie took two and a half years of my life, and that’s fine, because I love it, and I loved what it was, and what I thought it could be. So when things were crazy and insane, it was always fine, because I loved it. I’m about to take out a pitch in the next couple of weeks with two writers, who are great, and it’s kind of a Detroit story. I’m from Michigan, and I want to take something back there that’s not only about those characters, but about the broader context of Detroit in some capacity.
My mandate is that I don’t think I’m going to do a studio comedy next. I’m more interested in keeping pushing the things people responded to here, that comedy can be beautiful, and movies can be cinematic, and you can play with tone, and have these stylized elements in there. So I’d rather go and keep pushing that, rather than make the same thing over and over again. I’m looking to make a leap to much bigger things, but it needs to be something that I love, and something that can feel fresh and inventive. It’s an interesting time, it’s interesting and super exciting. I just can’t imagine going and taking a $20 million studio comedy. I’d rather go and try and make an action movie that has heart like “Leon” and fail, that go and make a studio comedy that doesn’t mean anything, but performs well at the box office.
“The Kings Of Summer” is in theaters now.