If you’ve been listening to our podcast, Drinks and Discourse, you’ll know that The Kings of Summer has been our favorite film of 2013. After premiering to rave reviews at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival under the moniker Toy’s House, it was quickly acquired by CBS Films, given a catchy new title, and has been building a ton of positive buzz ever since.
We were fortunate enough to chat with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts on two occasions: once in April, just before the film screened at the 2013 Phoenix Film Festival, and again via telephone a few weeks ago as he continues preparation for the film’s official release on May 31. For audio clips from those conversations, check out Drinks and Discourse #17 – Space Doves, and keep reading below for the full interview.
This is your first feature, correct? How did you get involved with this film?
Big Beach, the guys that made Little Miss Sunshine, had bought this script from Chris Galletta and they were trying to make it, and they sent it to me and I thought it was a joke. I was like “Why are you sending this to me, this is such a great script, how do you not have a director?” I fucking fell in love.
I’d been looking to make a movie for awhile. I came out here to make movies, and I’d been doing TV stuff and doing commercials, and that’s great and fine, but I was like “I’m ready to make a movie.” And you get send a lot of stuff and you’re like “okay, I can make this good” but it’s not stuff that you’re excited about, not stuff that you viscerally care about. And I got sent this script and I was just like “holy fuck.” Not only do I want to make this movie, not only can I make this movie, I need to make this movie. It just spoke to me so hard, the things I’m interested in, about youth and masculinity and everything… it was just like “fuck yeah.”
I just hate that we’re in this phase of really disposable content in media, where you go to a movie and then you fucking forget about it. Comedies look like shit, and the movies I grew up on, like the Amblin movies and Goonies and Back to the Future and Stand By Me… we’re just in this weird-ass phase where “rom-com” is a dirty word, but Annie Hall is a rom-com, you know what I mean? That’s a fucking incredible movie and a gorgeous movie and an inventive movie.
I just knew that with Chris’s script, I could take it and do everything that I wanted to do, which was make something that was cinematic and big, and that felt like a fucking movie, first and foremost. When you watch an Amblin movie, first and foremost, it’s a movie. And then, if it happens to be funny, great, if it happens to be sad or adventurous, that’s all icing. Those movies were films, first and foremost, and I just missed that. I miss going to movies and feeling like you saw a cool story unfold.
I like that you mention the Amblin stuff and Stand By Me. I’m in my thirties, that’s the stuff I grew up on, and one thing that I really felt when watching this film is that there was a tremendous amount of Stand By Me influence going on. Was that something that was intentional?
You know, it’s funny – Chris, the writer, has never seen Stand By Me, which blows my mind.
How is that possible?
He’s from Staten Island. [laughs]
So I got send the script and I just pitched my ass off, like “I need to do this, I want to do this.” I referred to it for awhile as a post-modern Stand By Me just because, like I said, I think a lot about masculinity, and I think a lot about generations, too. The generation of kids in Stand By Me, they could go into the woods and they could do that. That’s a generation that built skyscrapers and shit like that.
I’m not going to speak for you, but I’m from a generation of wusses, we don’t know how to do anything. We’ll sit around and smoke weed and talk about building skyscrapers, you know what I mean? Those guys did it. So I was just fascinated about the idea of doing a movie like Stand By Me, but with kids from our generation who play video games, and who cheat! The kids are cheating, they’re not really living off the land until shit goes wrong, and he has to gut that rabbit. And that’s the moment that’s like “this is what it means to live in the woods.”
So yeah, Stand By Me was a huge influence, not only in terms of themes, but also – no one wanted to make this movie, because it’s about kids but it’s for adults, like who the fuck is gonna see that? There’s no movies stars in the movie. We just kept saying “look, Stand By Me, on paper, is also a movie for nobody, you know?” Like, who does that appeal to? But it’s about the execution of it – if you execute that properly, that’s a movie for everybody.
And with this, they’re like “well, who is it for?” It’s for everybody. Ideally, it’s for adults looking back and thinking of their youth and their childhood. Like a good John Hughes movie, both generations can sort of look at it.
Obviously, the kids are the centerpiece of the film, but some of the best lines are from Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally and these really talented comedians. How much of their material was in the script and how much did you just let them do their thing?
Chris wrote an incredible script. His voice is super unique, and I love him. I work with a lot of improvisors though, and I love what comes out of improv if you do it the right way, because you can just open up and find these incredible weird bits. I was super fortunate to have a great cast, and great comedians and great improvisors, but I also sent the kids through improv training – not so they’d be super quick and funny, but just so they’d feel loose enough in their own skin.
I specifically wanted them to feel comfortable enough because I’m not 14 anymore, nor is the writer, and the movie is a failure if there aren’t just a handful of really raw moments that you look at and you’re like, “that little tick, that little mannerism, that smile, whatever – that’s what being 14 is, just that authenticity and that rawness of it.”
All three of the young leads are incredibly solid. What was the casting process like?
It was really important for me that we didn’t cast 25-year~olds. It needed to feel authentic. As much as there’s like glossy stuff in the movie, and it’s a visual movie, I didn’t want it to ever feel fake. I didn’t want it to feel like movie magic, so that initially cut out a lot of actors, and also, I wanted people to feel like they were discovering something. Their chemistry is what really makes the movie, because I think it just sort of takes people back and it feels pure and honest.
I just gave them a lot of freedom. We had a great script… I just wanted them to feel like they could contribute, to bring things that an actual teenage mind could bring to it. I just wanted the set to be fun for them, you know, and to be their friend as opposed to their boss, and I think ideally that paid off, and I think that’ s one of the things people are really responding to.
I think most people would agree that Biaggo is the breakout character of the film. Did you expect the character to resonate with audiences the way that he has?
I knew that was going to be one of the hardest roles to cast, because if that character doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work – you just have this kid who’s like, in a different universe, so we knew it was going to be a really tough role. We always wanted him to be that breakout, and we knew we had to get that, and Moises apparently…
I’m a huge dork, and I know a lot about dumb shit, but one thing I don’t know about is Hannah Montana, and he was on Hannah Montana, I guess for years, he was the comic relief on that show. So we would be shooting in Ohio, and these teenage girls would come up, like in the grocery store they would come up crying like “Are you Rico?” And that doesn’t mean shit to me, but to ten million kids, he’s like their Steve Urkel, you know what I mean? He’s their Screech, and that’s crazy.
So he sent in a tape that was definitely the closest thing to what I was thinking the character would be, and I asked how tall he was. They were like “he’s barely five-one,” and l was like “great, fucking perfect.” We took awhile to really find the character, but once we got him to where he needed to be, he was just burning white hot, and everything that he would say was just incredible. We knew at a certain point that we had definitely cracked the character, and that felt good to get there, because we knew it was really tricky. Yeah, he’s super funny, and he’s in a totally fucking different world, but audiences have to be endeared to him. You need to care for him.
One of the other things I really liked about the movie was the music. Ryan Miller, the lead singer of Guster, did the score – how did you get him involved?
He had previously scored Safety Not Guaranteed, which was another Big Beach movie, and one of the producers and a dear friend of mine, John Hodges, put me and Ryan in touch very early on. Basically, I told Ryan I wanted it to be reminiscent of Koji Kondo’s work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but basically he’s like Nintendo’s composer, so he made the melodies to Donkey Kong and Zelda and Mario.
We just worked really hard to find a balance between these sort of 8-bit synthy electronic elements and an organic score, because to me, if these kids were going to go on an adventure, because they are from the video game generation, the closest reference point they would have in their minds would be something like a video game, or like Zelda.
So I wanted the score to kind of subtlely reflect that, and as the movie went on and as the characters sort of matured and were forced to grow up, the score itself would become a little less video-gamey and more organic. But it was a really weird balance to kind of strike and it took Ryan and I a really long time to kind of find the right tone, but then once we found it he just knocked it out of the park.
Yeah, it really didn’t hit you over the head. It was subtle but neat and you could pick up on it.
Yeah, I think there are a lot of people who would definitely never even pick up on it, but to gamers I think that it’s… you’re right, it’s subtle, but I think to anyone that really played video games or grew up on video games, it’s really clear. But also, I just had a desire, because you’ve seen so many coming-of-age stories before, it was really important that this one feel its own, you know? Feel like its own sort of leap and step, so that was important, not only with the characters and the world and the visuals, but also with the music and the score.
Speaking of video games, did you choose to add in things like Street Fighter as sort of a time reference, or was it something that was in the script and you just kept it in there for story purposes?
Chris had Blanka in the script, and that was one of the things I first fell in love with, because Blanka was always my character and I was the guy who button-mashed “Y” over and over again just to electrocute people because I didn’t know any other moves. So that was one of those weird idiosyncratic things where I was like “oh man, this script speaks to me.” But it was originally written as Street Fighter 4 for the PS3 and I changed it to the Super Nintendo.
I wanted the movie to have this weird sort of timeless quality, where one of the characters has an iPhone, the other has a flip phone and the other has a pager. I was just interested in combining classic themes and very modern ones, so having a throwback to Amblin movies and Stand By Me with very contemporary themes and comedy, but not having it feel particularly dated, not being like “well, that’s a 2013 movie.” I liked the idea of having it feel a little timeless, so then it’s putting in these weird anachronistic things like a Super Nintendo as opposed to a PS3 or something.
Are you a gamer, too?
I’m a huge nerd. [laughs]
My sense of humor was developed having sleepovers, eating Doritos and drinking Dr. Pepper, and playing a lot of N64 and PlayStation. If you see my TV show, Mash-Up, it’s very video game-inspired. Those are just memories and experiences seared into my brain, so I think it sort of affects everything that I do. I think video game are just a really interesting art form that we’re kind of watching unfold.
Do you have any other projects in the works? Or is it all about Kings of Summer right now?
There’s a bunch of weird stuff that I’m trying to get off the ground. Some cool scripts are coming my way, things that I’m interested in, but I just wanna find something that I care about and something that I love. I don’t want to go invest two years of my life on something unless I fucking love it. I just want to make movies that people fucking care about. It’s hard to get someone to a movie theater these days, and it’s hard to find something that you love. Have you seen Attack the Block?
When I watched Attack the Block, I was like “fuck yeah.” This is something that gets me excited because it feels fresh. It’s drawing from a lot of old ideas, but it’s fresh in its own way. People don’t go to the theater anymore, and the power of cinema and our medium is getting a bunch of strangers into a black box to see something, and that’s amazing.
I think you just need to give audiences reasons, and I’m not going to be able to give audiences reasons to see something unless it’s something that I’m also super passionate about, like I was this. Like I said, I’m like a really nerdy kid, I just play video games all the time, and I’m kind of chasing a video game movie right now.
Are you allowed to say which one?
No, not at all. [laughs]
This is totally unrelated, but I want to make a great fucking video game movie. The reason video game movies don’t work is because they don’t fucking treat it with respect. It’s like, you play Metroid because it elicits the feeling of isolationism on a planet. You play Metal Gear because of “x,” you play Zelda because of this. You can’t make Zelda into Lord of the Rings, because it’s not that. It has its own world and its own quirks, and no one in Hollywood… I don’t feel like there’s actually been a gamer… I’m going on a weird rant right now. [laughs]
Go right ahead, I’m with you.
I don’t feel like there’s ever been a real gamer who has made a movie and has simultaneously been like “okay, here’s how you make this digestible in terms of a movie, but here’s why the game worked.” Every game has like 30 seconds of gameplay that’s why you replay it. Halo has like a really fun 30 seconds, and that’s why you replay it, and I just feel like there’s a way you need to tap into that for a movie, and then you can make a good fucking video game movie for once. Eventually, there will be a Dark Knight of video game [movies], but it’s gonna take awhile, in the same way that it took fucking ten years of making shitty superhero movies before they were like “okay, now we sort of know how to do it.”
But still, now people are like “oh, well let’s fucking make Superman super dark and edgy.” Great, that might work, I’m excited about it, but you can’t just be like “well, Iron Man worked and The Dark Knight worked so let’s base everything off that.”
That’s why fucking fantasy movies, that’s why everything outside of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter has failed. You can’t make The Golden Compass into Harry Potter, you know? You can’t make Chronicles of Narnia into Lord of the Rings, they’re different things, they’re unique. And it’s so fucking stupid that people aren’t like “hey, let’s find out why people liked these books and tap into that” instead of being like “let’s make it into Lord of the Rings.”
So that’s a weird rant at the end of this interview. [laughs]
When you took the film to Sundance, it was called Toy’s House, and now it’s The Kings of Summer. Why the title change?
Well, there’s a little movie that no one’s ever heard of called Toy Story, which people will confuse it with. [laughs]
Look, I love the title Toy’s House, it’s very near and dear to my heart, but CBS did some testing and it didn’t test well. It’s one of those things where they would just ask people randomly “which one of these movies do you wanna see, Kings of Summer or Toy’s House?” and [Kings of Summer] just tested better.
The stance that I always take on it is, I think going into the movie, Kings of Summer is a great title. Coming out of the movie, I don’t feel like you just watched Kings of Summer, I feel like you watched Toy’s House. In general, I think the movie sort of takes you on a journey and starts and ends as different things.
The Kings of Summer opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 31, 2013, and expands to other markets on June 7. For more information, check out thekingsofsummermovie.com.