Making a King Kong movie is a big job. A big, big job – especially when the new take on Kong has him living large at a whole new scale.
And speaking of increases in scale: after catching Hollywood’s attention with his 2013 Sundance sensation “Kings of Summer,” indie filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts was tapped by Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures to helm “Kong: Skull Island,” an all-star new entry in a big to create an interconnected giant monster film franchise kicked off by 2014’s “Godzilla.”
Before the two towering titans come together on the big screen, the giant ape takes center stage for a star turn in “Skull Island,” a story that veers further afield from the more definitive screen takes – the groundbreaking 1933 original that introduced the character, the 1976 remake, and Peter Jackson’s three-hour 2005 epic – and introduces audiences to an even bigger Kong. At 100 feet, he's nearly four times the size of the original and serves as a godlike guardian of the lost island world he inhabits. Add to that the film being set during conclusion of the 1970s Vietnam War era, which allowed Vogt-Roberts to layer an “Apocalypse Now” feel into Kong’s familiar jungle environs, and you have a wholly original take on the legendary monster.
Vogt-Roberts joined CBR to explore the ideas, imagery and cinematic influences that helped shape his fresh, eclectic take on the movies’ most enduring giant monster.
CBR: You took the pop culture version of King Kong and moved it in the direction of this even larger and more godlike being. When did the notion to evolve him in that direction go off in your head, and how did you set about doing it?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: I think part of it stemmed from, honestly, just the human perspective of wanting to tell a story about what happens when people are confronted with a god, and the idea of how you make this Kong different. Even if you just made him walk upright, then it’s kind of just like the ’33 film, or the 70s version. It’s not that different.
So it really was the decision to make him this godlike entity, this protector, this sort of beacon of the island, and I just became so obsessed with seeing this thing lumber around, and watching him walk with a nobility and yet sadness at the same time. So fascinating to me.
What were some of your reference points, as you put together your visual take on Kong? You’ve mentioned that anime was a pretty serious influence on you, and I’m also wondering if you looked at some of the classic imagery of Kong by artists like Frank Frazetta, or anybody else that might have interpreted the character over all these decades?
Yeah – Frazetta less so because, one thing that was really important to me in the movie was to not have it feel like a Frazetta fantasy land, because I think Peter [Jackson’s] version actually did that very well. So instead, I was actually more interested in not just the ’33 Kong, but a lot of the artwork that came out around then, and looking at the model itself, looking at that puppet.
So I was really curious about when you look at the old posters, when you look at the original marketing materials for it, there’s a lot of original art that I think is gorgeous, that really taps into that version of Kong, and those things became as much of a jumping off point as the original armature did.
The 70s period gave you a good sense of freedom as far as establishing a believable lost world. When did that idea solidify? The idea to do this in a time period where we can still believably accept a world where a creature like this could exist, but also kept it fresh enough for a modern audience.
I think part of it was just that initial [moment] after I had told Legendary that I was uncertain why the version that they were pitching was fresh or relevant, and when the 70s kind of popped in my head, beyond the genre mesh, and the excitement of choppers and napalm and all of that – a big part of that was actually the technology of the time, which is in the early 70s, they were launching the Landsat satellites, which was a program by NASA that put real satellites in the sky, with cameras, and we were looking down at the Earth for the first time. It just seemed like an incredible, sort of believable thing where we could actually discover a place that we hadn’t seen, and yet it’s modern enough, but we’re mapping the world, we’re uncovering the world.
You certainly put Kong in a very cinematic landscape. Tell me about the influences that drove you as you figured out where Kong and this world were going to fit in a very cinematic interpretation.
I think a lot of movies look like shit these days. I think that there’s a lot of big blockbusters that have no cinematic wit, or no flare to them, no life to them. I think there’s a lot of comedies where, if you compare a modern comedy, which is a lot of like TV coverage, to fucking something like “Annie Hall,” it’s night and day. If you compare a lot of modern blockbusters to a lot of old masters, it’s night and day. I am interested in the fusion of absurdity and comedic wit and improv, with very cinematic storytelling, and also – with Terrence Malick being one of my biggest influences – beauty.
I really wanted this to be a movie that was beautiful, and not just for the sake of being gorgeous, but for the sake of feeling you soak up the heat and the sweat and the vibe of this island. To have it be something that stopped you in your tracks because it’s so gorgeous and so terrifying at the same time. So a lot of my cinematic references are, you go back and there’s obviously a lot of “Raiders,” or “Aliens,” or “Apocalypse Now,” and “Platoon,” and things like that in the movie, and trying to understand the style of how a lot of Vietnam war films are shot, which was in a lot of close-ups in certain situations.
But to having that surrealist beauty of something like “Apocalypse Now,” and then yeah, a lot of my influences are very anime and video game and manga-inspired in terms of frames and action. Even just in the way Kong moves: he is much more to do with the way a creature in an anime would move than I think the way that a giant beast would traditionally be animated.
Amid all the spectacle, how quickly and easily were you able to zero in on what the beating heart of the movie was going to be? What the human equation, and the emotions, and the empathy that the audience was going to feel. Was that an easy discovery, or did it hit you right away?
Every movie, I think, is a journey of discovering the movie as you’re making the movie. I think you can set out with a specific vision, and something that you want people to feel, but I think that there is an intangible quality that can only be understood as you make the movie. I think that the making of a movie informs the movie itself as much as your intent does, so it’s sort of a mix.
I think there were certain thematic ideas about man’s relationship with nature, and the loss of myth in the world, and the arrogance of man, that were sort of natural, and things that in terms of Kong’s empathy, and where we were going to find that empathy were defined from the get-go. But then a lot of it, things like the pathos and the heart that come from Marlow and his journey, that stuff you sort of find along the way, and you realize how compelling and simple this character is, where audiences just completely invest themselves in him.
Tell me what was creatively exciting, and maybe also pretty challenging, about being part of a planned cinematic universe, and figuring out where your film fit in that, but also stood on its own legs.
It’s exciting, but luckily, Legendary and Warner Bros. were very cool about me being very firm about saying, “Most contemporary movies that try and build franchises derail themselves for ten minutes with scenes that don’t belong in a movie, and we need to make the best version of this, because it’s unclear whether people going to see this movie will have seen ‘Godzilla,’ or whether they even know it connects to ‘Godzilla.’ And Kong is an icon and deserves to have his own self-contained movie.
So we have our own self-contained movie that I am very proud of the fact that it doesn’t derail itself at all times to set up this world. It lays groundwork, and it lays a lot of groundwork, and it sets the tone for a lot of things that’ll come. So it’s exciting, and you need to tread carefully. You need to make sure you’re future-proofing. My job was to tell this story.
Debuting in theaters on March 10, “Kong: Skull Island” is a production of Legendary Pictures directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell and John Ortiz.