In a cinematic culture that’s become oversaturated with inauthentic emotion and the use of technology over human connection, we often forget what the joy of movies is all about. You look back on what made you first fall in love with film, on the pictures that truly excited you, and it wasn’t about cheap thrills or blockbuster blasts. It was the simple idea of good storytelling—films that felt rich and alive and took you on an adventure and made you feel as though you experienced something great. It’s the memory of those cinematic moments that stay whole in our minds and inspire what we will go on to create. And in recent years, as a new wave of filmmakers emerges, we’ve begun to see a harkening back to that kind of storytelling through the new voices of independent cinema—revitalizing a generation and telling stories teeming with life and excitement, being made to please their artistic sensibility rather than a grand ideal of what a successful film in Hollywood should be.
And with Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ directorial debut The Kings of Summer, he recalls a certain kind of coming-of-age story that feels both anachronistic yet with a fresh take on the genre. Telling the story of Joe (played by Nick Robinson), the film is about "what the hell it means to be a man in the video game era," about teenage boys struggling to understand their own ascent into manhood and independence while clashing with parental authority, and the newfound hells of love. Joe lives with his father (played by Nick Offerman) whose tight leash is beginning to cut a little too close to Joe’s skin. In his own act of true rebellion, Joe decides to run away for the summer to build a huge fort in a secluded part of the woods. He enlists his two friends—played by Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias—to come along for the adventure, and what ensues is both a hilarious delight and a heartfelt look at self-discovery and the confusion of youth’s no man’s land.
With a successful short film, various television projects, and comedy chops to his name Vogt-Roberts’ debut feature shows the handsome promise of someone who truly knows what they’re doing and where they’re going. Here he’s crafted a classic teen tale but infused it with the cinematic beauty of something slightly more mature, elevating the overall feature to a likeness of its own. And last week, I got the chance to chat with him about what attracted him to the script for the film—written by Chris Galleta—adding his own touch of wonder, and letting his actors breathe their own life into the work.
How did you come across the script and why was this what you wanted to make as your first feature?
I’ve been out in LA for while making shorts and commercials and doing TV, but I came out here because I love movies and wanted to make movies. I’ve been looking for my first feature for a while and there were a couple things I was interested in, and then this script came my way and I just fell in love. I had such a visceral reaction and wasn’t even thinking I want to do this movie or I could do this movie, but just having this really deep-rooted feeling of I needing to do this movie. The script spoke to me so much, but I just knew what I could push in it. I knew with Chris’ base, I could make a movie that was funny but real and was cinematically grand and felt like a theatrical experience. And I wanted to push his tone even further and add in elements that weren’t in the script like all of this lyrical, impressionisitc stuff.
So those more wistful cinematic moments were your input?
Oh yeah, none of that stuff’s in the script. The script definitely plays with tone but that was something that I loved exploring. None of the ethereal stuff is in the script but when I first started talking to Chris, one of the first things we both geeked out on was: how do we combine Terrence Malick with the Coen Brothers? Like how do we make a really stupid Terrence Malick movie that’s really funny and bizarre but also beautiful and lyrical? I had never seen that before and I felt this really intense responsibility to say, we’ve seen so many coming of age stories, there has to be something unique in every element—in the characters, in the way it looks, in the way it unfolds, in the sense that it’s a mash-up, in the music. I wanted it to feel like its own thing, as opposed to derivative of another coming of age movie you’ve seen before. I saw what I could with this script and fought my ass off to win it and miraculously they gave me the movie.
The element of playing with tone was one of the things that made the film so good because although a lot of these situations can be pretty fantastical or outlandish, you believe it and are invested because the emotion is real.
I think you have to make it that way—or at least I felt you had to—because there are things that I pushed in the script even further, like when Biagio is staring at the cop. There’s stuff in the movie that’s legitimately crazy but because you bought into the world you go with it. The movie starts more fun and games and slowly the rug starts getting pulled out and you’re like, oh shit just got real. But when you ground something like that, it affords you the ability to say hey, we’re going to break this character’s heat one moment and then we’re going to have some crazy slapstick stuff and ideally fuse them together where they don’t break tone.
And that made it so that you want to keep watching because you don’t know where it’s going to turn next.
Exactly because you’re invested in the characters at that point. How did you go about finding the cast, who are all pretty incredible. Look, we have incredible comedians, incredible adult actors who are funny and have incredible dramatic chops, but at the end of the day, the movie lives and dies by the kids. That was always so clear to me and for one of them to be good wasn’t enough. No one walks out of Stand By Me or The Goonies and is like, man, one of those kids was great. All those kids are great and then the audience gets to decide who their favorite is and they get to argue about which character they liked more and which character was cool. I love movies like that. So I knew all of them had to be top notch, so it was a really long casting process and the first thing I had to say was: no one over the age of 18, no 25 year olds playing 18. Their bodies need to be going through the same thing that their character’s bodies are going through. And I found them through improv training, not so they’d be really quick and funny and witty but so they’d be comfortable enough in their own skin to where if I yelled cut or didn’t stop rolling, they could bring their teenage brain to it ands provide me with insight as to what a teenager thinks these days. At a certain point I have my own experiences and my own memories but to me—I always said to the writer and producer—if this movie doesn’t have at least ten moments where you look at it and be like, that right there, that little tick or that little mannerism, or that expression, that reminds me so clearly of what it meant to be that age. The movie would have been a failure. So it was immense pressure to find the right kids and I was fortunate enough to find a group of kids that we could build chemistry with and I wanted it to be fun for them, I didn’t want it to feel like they were showing up for work, I wanted them to feel like they were showing up to hang out with their friends and I feel like that made a big difference.
All the characters were so idiosyncratic. Did you give them a lot of room to play and freedom to see where their character could go?
Oh, so much. There’s so much in the movie they didn’t even know I was shooting, that I was just capturing them being boys. I’m the type of director that at a certain point , my job is to make sure the actors know where they are in the story and to make sure things make sense—but I like to hire people that I can give a lot of freedom to and say, I want you to understand this character better than I do, because that’s who they are. I don’t want to hire someone to just show up and read lines. And so I gave them a lot of room to play and doing improv is a very organic process. There’s a lot of stuff in this movie that is very raw.
Did you bring in a lot of inspiration from your own teenage years?
Totally. When I 17 I left my home and went and lived in my grandma’s attic for an entire year. I grew up in Detroit and got moved to Phoenix and at one point I left and went back to Michigan and lived in my grandma’s attic and went to school there. So a lot of it is very much based on my experience, but also the universal experience—the simultaneous joy and pain that it is to be that age, like the incredible freedom mixed with incredible uncertainty. You’ll never be that carefree again in your life and in that moment when you think you have everything figured out and then the rug just gets pulled out from underneath you and you’re like oh, I do’t know anything about anything. I think that’s a universal thing that everyone goes through and that ideally sort of informs who everyone becomes. It’s amazing and horrifying at the same time.
How has it been taking your first feature around to Sundance and South By and other festivals and seeing people react for the first time?
I mean, look, it’s crazy. I’m still processing it and seeing what it all means. To see people responds like this and championing the movie, and like, Stand By Me and Goonies and Malick and John Hughes were all reference points for me when I was making it, but to see people like compare us in a positive way in print is insane. My feeble brain can’t process that yet.
After I saw the film I described it as Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols teaming up to make a teen comedy.
I appreciate that very much. Honestly, I was convinced going into Sundance that people ware going to hate it and I was going to go kill myself in the snow. You’re just in this crazy bubble, so to see people respond to it in this way is amazing. This movie is going to live or die by word of mouth and from my perspective at least so far, it’s great to see it striking a chord with people. I did want to make a throw back of old meets new in this mash up of movies I grew up on with things I feel are very relevant now. So to see people respond to that is incredibly gratifying and really speaks volumes to the fact that people want good content—especially with summer movie season. People are getting sick of the same shit over and over again and we’ll see how it goes, but without being cheesy about it: it’s incredible.
This felt different from other teen movies because it wasn’t people partying or rebelling for the sake of it, these kids were trying to discover something about themselves.
Absolutely. I just think the wave is coming back to the moves I grew up. And the thing I wanted to get back to—like old John Hughes movies and Stand By Me—those are films first and foremost, and if they’re funny or adventurous or heartfelt or whatever, you feel like you watched a movie that invested you in a set of characters and a story and then anything beyond that is just bonus. Now a lot of movies just feel really disposable and are just comedy or just a forgettable drama or whatever, and I wanted to make something that felt like what I grew up on. I feel like that whole wave and that whole generation is now sort of coming back and people are making things based on what got them into the business to begin with. Hopefully that’s a trend that continues, but not only continues—if it’s going to continue it needs to learn how to evolve as well.
I have to mention how perfect Nick Offerman was for that role as well.
He’s an incredible man and a fucking man through and through. It’s funny because so much of this movie is about struggling with what the hell masculinity is in a video game era and so Nick is just an incredible man, and I can’t think of anyone that would have been better for the role. He is able to be so funny but also play the dramatic side of it and it also makes it more poignant because of that. He’s a great guy. He’d walk around on set and play songs, and he’s the kind of guy who knows everyone’s name on set and it was just a great collaboration. I loved working with him.
[Related: Actor Nick Robinson on Searching for Independence in the Kings of Summer; More by Hillary Weston; Follow Hillary on Twitter and Tumblr]