Jordan Vogt-Roberts on The Kings of Summer

Oliver Lunn

“A really dumb Terrence Malick movie” – is how first-time director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, along with writer Chris Galletta, initially described his coming-of age indie The Kings of Summer. Here Jordan gives us his top 3 coming-of-age movies and tells us how he'd like to hear the film described as The Goonies directed by Terrence Malick.

GFW: The film feels rooted in personal experience. How did you go about filming a teenage story as an older man?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: That’s actually an interesting question because so much of the movie, to me, was about really making sure that there was a handful of moments that an audience looked at and just said: that right there – that quirk or smile or whatever – that’s exactly what it was to be fifteen. To me if there wasn’t a handful of moments that felt really sincere and raw then I think the movie would’ve been a failure.

I’m not fifteen anymore [laughs] and the writer isn’t fifteen anymore, so it’s tricky. Part of capturing a teenage story was about giving actual teenagers [the actors] enough freedom to really bring their point of view to things. And a lot of my favourite moments in the movie are completely improvised things that the kids did.

It seems like the fantasy of every teenage boy. Did you draw on your own memories and fantasies?
I guess I’ll put it this way. When I watch a Terrence Malick movie like The Tree of Life – there are moments in a movie like that that whether or not he was intending for me to connect these shots, there a certain shots where my brain immediately goes back to a certain place and says, I know exactly what that was. It can be something super-abstract but my brain still goes there. And so there’s a bunch of stuff in the movie that’s based on my own experience, my own perception and the writer’s perception of what youth is.

So Terrence Malick was a big influence?
I referenced Terrence Malick because overall we – Chris the writer and I – kind of wanted to make what we called a really dumb Terrence Malick movie. We wanted to make something that was very impressionistic and ethereal; lyrical yet also very funny.

The film’s been described as a mix between Superbad and Stand By Me. What other films inspired you?
To me the movie is very much a throwback to The Goonies and Back to the Future and movies of that era; those movies first and foremost are films that follow the kind of characters and story that you’re just completely invested in. I love movies like that. I was also inspired by the way John Hughes’ movies can speak to two different generations at once. I was inspired by the comedies of Robert Altman; Terrence Malick and the ethereal qualities in his films. So I was interested in mashing all those elements up. 

The shack that the boys build is really impressive. Did you have specific ideas for that? Like the slide feature?
We walked the line of creating something that felt real enough that if you and your friends went out one summer and tried to build a house you could maybe do that; yet also having to feel iconic enough where it felt memorable without veering too far into movie magic. We were like, OK, what could you build with $200 dollars, hammers and nails, a saw, and a lot of found material. And I went to an architect and said to him: how would an architect in the simplest terms build this house? And then how would a bunch of kids who weren’t paying attention screw this up?

The film oscillates between comedy and drama– how did you approach that?
One thing that I think people really shy away from is playing with tone. At the beginning people would ask me, What’s the tone of this movie? Is it a dramedy? Is it a drama? And I always said we could have these big, laugh out loud moments as funny as any mainstream comedy, but we could have way more heart than you would expect a movie like that to have. That’s what being a teenager is: that age is high highs and low lows.

Biaggio is particularly funny. Did you have to work much on his character quirks while filming?
That was a character that we knew was gonna be tough because if it felt flat it was gonna take everyone out of it. You kind of have to fall in love with this guy, and Biaggio is a very specific voice that Chris wrote, and we knew it was going to be really difficult to cast the role and luckily we found this kid Moises Arias who nailed it and was acting through and through; that is a character he created. Everything that he would say was like, gold.

How would you sell this movie to someone on the street? Why should people go out and see it?
Well, look what came out this summer. It was a bunch of repetitive, big action movies that didn’t emotionally resonate with people and weren’t inventive. To me, this movie adds something to the conversation of what a coming-of-age movie can be, you know, what a movie that straddles the line between arthouse and multiplex can be.  But hey, I would sell it on the Terrence Malick idea to my friends [laughs] but it’s obviously a lot of things.

So would you say it’s like The Goonies directed by Terrence Malick?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say that but if someone else said it I would be honoured!

Could you give us your top 3 coming-of-age films?
Well the movie was inspired by Goonies and Badlands but they’re not my favourites. Hmm, another movie that was an inspiration was Over the Edge [1979]…

I don’t know if this necessarily counts but I would say Annie Hall [1977], because he’s an adult who’s very much attempting to come of age in that movie. I would also say Up [2009], and then I would say Leon: The Professional [1994] – as unorthodox coming-of-age movies I would say those three are my personal favourites.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, showing his, um, love of lego?

'The Kings of Summer' is out this Friday in the UK. The film is out now in Canada and the U.S.

All images via StudioCanal

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