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(June 14, 2013)

The Kings of Summer

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terrencetodd – I saw your film yesterday morning, so I just want to dive right in. I hope this doesn’t end up like a conventional interview, I’d rather this just be a conversation. I was initially excited about the story, the idea of it. It feels like with your background making shorts, you’ve made a seamless transition into feature filmmaking. So could you just start off talking about that process?

Jordan Vogt-Roberts – Look, I’m glad you feel that way, obviously. I wanted to make movies. I grew up loving movies. Making shorts is great, making commercials is great and a lot of fun, but I got into this business because I fell in love with movies, first and foremost. I always knew that was the direction and the ultimate goal I was headed for and I think that there’s a really interesting thing that happens when you’re making your first feature. Granted it has gotten easier with technology and everything, but making your first feature in the studio system, to some degree, is still just an enormous leap.

I think that when you start out making a movie – there’s no right path in this industry, there’s no right way to do this – you’re just making a movie and everyone figures it out for themselves. From my perspective, I feel like directors put so much thought and pressure into what that is. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane in his twenties. You’ve got guys like PT Anderson knocking it out of the park from their first feature. Inevitably, you put so much pressure on yourself – well this has to be amazing – there are limitless possibilities in terms of what it’s going to be and you spend so much time thinking about it.

What was really interesting for me was that at a certain point, your craft is your craft. You train yourself in the in’s and out’s of production and how you do what you do. And because this was such a crazy movie to make with so many parts and so much that needed to be done, there was a unique situation where, looking back, I didn’t have time to be stressing out about all of those things I normally would been stressing out about. There was nothing but making sure everything was to my liking and to my standards. Soon I just realized that I had completed my first day shooting my movie. As opposed to every moment thinking, “Well, this is what it’s like making a movie,” I was just making the movie. I think that’s the inevitable thing where your dream becomes your reality as opposed to thinking about doing it. I would like to think that in the professional sports environment, as opposed to being like, “I’m in the NBA Finals right now,” you’re more concerned with doing what you do, which is playing basketball. And so for me, it was more about making a great movie rather than thinking about being a filmmaker.

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terrencetodd – That’s an interesting way to put all that (and timely too, since we’re in the midst of the NBA Finals). I took a few notes yesterday during the screening to help prep for this interview and one of the things that popped up for me, which you started addressing, is in looking at the industry as a whole, we’ve had Steven Soderbergh’s address about the state of the industry and even Spielberg and Lucas giving their take on what’s going to happen in the future. You’re a filmmaker now; you’re in the game. So, you wanted to make films and you’re doing it, but as someone who is there and doing it, are you concerned about the state of the industry or do you just not care?

JVR – Sure…it’s funny you would bring this up. I was just talking about the Soderbergh and the Lucas/Spielberg thing the other day. Look, I do think there’s a problem that we (filmmakers) have broken our contract with the audience and we started making bad (movies) and audiences started checking out. My parents don’t go to the movies anymore. I know so many people who feel it’s such a…commitment for them to go out to the movies, whereas before it was a no-brainer. “Oh yeah, we love going to the movies.” It takes a lot to get people out and part of that is it’s the only situation in modern life where you’re told, “don’t look at your phone for two hours.” And I think part of it is we make really disposable content that doesn’t engage people and doesn’t remind people what the power of cinema is – getting a bunch of strangers together in a dark room, looking at a giant screen and having this collective shared experience.

That was the important thing with this movie. I wanted to make something that felt like a film, like a complete story. I mean the fact that people are comparing us to Stand By Me and Goonies is not to be taken lightly. The reason people are doing this is because those movies were first and foremost films. Look at what a rom-com is today versus Annie Hall. Annie Hall is a complete living breathing inventive textured movie and rom-coms these days are shitty Katherine Heigl movies that are super-misogynistic. They’re just a different thing.

I do think that there’s a big problem and to me, the solution is making content that reminds people what cinema is and why there’s no other experience like it, why its not the same as watching something on Netflix and making things that can be commercial but also mean something. You know, I think Soderbergh has a lot of good points, but one that is particularly frustrating that I can speak from experience on is that there are a lot of executives in this industry who have no love or passion for cinema, no knowledge of film history, no love of where this came from and that’s a big problem because then you just have people who stumbled into this industry and making movies which is bizarre.

I actually think what Spielberg and Lucas were talking about is kinda bullshit. Lucas and Spielberg saying, “Oh, it was so hard for us to make Lincoln and Red Tails” is like, no shit. Look I love George Lucas, but I’m sorry, Red Tails is not a no-brainer. Its not like an exceptional movie came out of that, so I don’t have much sympathy for that idea. And for Spielberg to say that Lincoln almost ended up as an HBO movie, well, yeah…television is taking over what drama is and I just don’t find their argument all that compelling. I think what Soderbergh is talking about is much more on point when it comes to the actual problems we’re facing in cinema.

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terrencetodd – I would tend to agree with you. I had this conversation a few weeks ago (before the Spielberg/Lucas comments at USC) with Greta Gerwig over Frances Ha, and she said the funniest thing about the state of the industry right now. You made the sports analogy earlier and she went with a comparison to bookstores, you know, when we went through the phase with Barnes & Noble and Borders squeezing out the independent bookstores, but she said if you look at the scene now, we’ve got those independent bookstores that have hung in there who are doing better and are basically “the cockroach of their industry.”

JVR – I think it’s almost the same with Starbucks too. Look, Starbucks initially came in and squeezed so many people out, but then what it ultimately did – look you can’t compete with Starbucks. A little Mom & Pop coffee shop can’t compete, but what it can do is make much more specialized things that Starbucks can’t and what it eventually, hopefully does is it gets people into the product. Most people may have their first cup of coffee at Starbucks and if they realize they love coffee, then they are going to realize that they should find these little boutique places where they specialize in the stuff. Ideally, Starbucks is just the access point into something that they love. You might stumble into a Barnes & Noble, but if you really love books, then explore that little Mom & Pops shop, that specialty shop, you know.

terrencetodd – And this is the same thing that can happen with film.

JVR – That’s why when Spielberg is talking about Lincoln, I just don’t think that Lincoln is the kind of film that’s going to re-invigorate the system right now. It’s a good movie, but it is more in line with what TV is able to do, so fantastically right now, which is tell these in-depth stories over long periods of time. And, you know, those are the two guys who more or less started this whole problem. Jaws, Raiders, Star Wars. Those are the turning points in the industry from a historical standpoint. So for them to talk about that and not address their own contribution to this problem is really interesting. I believe that we can make content that is big and crowd-pleasing and can make hundreds of millions of dollars, but also mean something. You saw that with so many movies from the 1970s and 1980s. Those initial blockbusters were like that. Look at something like Blade Runner, holy shit, what a huge movie that was also a great movie. Granted it didn’t do well at the box office at the time but it obviously went on to become its own thing. I don’t know, for Spielberg and Lucas to be using Lincoln and Red Tails as their primary examples for what’s wrong with the industry, I think they’re missing the point.

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terrencetodd – I’m so glad to hear this from you. That’s great. [Both laughing] That’s classic. Moving on, you mentioned a couple of films that have been brought up in comparison with (Kings of Summer). Besides Stand By Me and Goonies, what were you thinking about, what films were floating around in the ether as you were working on Kings?

JVR – I think this movie is certainly a mash-up of a lot of things. I think it wears its influences on its sleeve clearly. But I did have the desire to make something that felt like a throwback to those (Amblin) movies. Those were films that had a technical craft to them that felt like films, so whether it’s Goonies or Back to the Future or Stand By Me or John Hughes movies, they were all self-contained films. Whether adventurous or funny or heartfelt or heartbreaking that’s all I saw. That was all-bonus because what you were really invested in were the characters, the story, and the world. So I wanted to make something that got back to that ideal. This is a comedy and a coming of age story, but I would like to think it’s more than that. It’s a story about a set of characters. But I also wanted to see if I could make the dumbest Terrence Malick movie ever, in a weird way. You know? You’ve seen so many coming of age stories, so I felt this responsibility to, with my first feature, add something to the mix or this idea of what these movies are. So I wanted to say we can have some broad comedy and we can have some dark stuff, and we can combine it with some ethereal tone poem elements. Combining Malick’s visual sensibilities with pure comedy. That was really interesting to me. The way Robert Altman would use comedy or taking these classic tropes and ideas and merging them with contemporary alt-comedy and much weirder stuff. So that while the movie is a mash-up of all these elements, it also has its own voice.

terrencetodd – It totally does and I feel like I led down this path right where I wanted you to go because as I was watching the film, I wrote down three recent films that popped up into my mind. I love all the earlier stuff that you’re bringing up. For me, I had Moonrise Kingdom mixed with Tree of Life with a dash of Mud. But it was the Tree of Life stuff that tripped me up because I thought it was great that you figured out a way to do this in a coming of age story.

JVR – I had to fight really hard for that. It was something that wasn’t really in the script, but I was interested in seeing if we could do it. I had shot a bunch of that stuff, but part of it was finding the rhythm of it in the editing so that audiences wouldn’t feel like it was meandering or trying to be artful for the sake of being artful. To have the cutaways elicit feeling and emotion as opposed to just being artistic. That was interesting. To take a coming of age story and break it down and play with tone by having something broad and accessible and crowd-pleasing as Superbad, but stuff that was as dark as you could possibly get in a movie like this where you have a kid hitting rock bottom and alone with something more impressionistic. But that was a tough battle. There were people who didn’t think that had any place in a movie like this. What’s gratifying to me is to see that one of the things audiences are really responding to is that element. When was the last time you walked out of a comedy and thought, “Man, that was really beautiful?” It’s so rare, but I don’t feel like that has to be the case.

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terrencetodd – It doesn’t and what you’ve done, which for me works even better, is – besides being a critic, I teach a journalism class at the University of Cincinnati that focuses on film and I conduct a couple of afterschool film clubs where I bring movies in to teens as the text – made it so that I can’t wait for your film to come out on DVD. I’m looking forward to the experience of bringing it in to these students, these teens and showing them this story with them knowing to certain extent that I’m tricking them because I’m giving them the coming of age story, but I’m also giving them some film history and some technique that they wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to. And they’re going to walk away really engaged without feeling like they just watched an art film and that’s beautiful.

JVR – Part of that is just leading people in. You start with the world and the characters. The first 15-20 minutes of the movie is pretty straightforward. It’s slowly that the rug gets pulled out from under you. Look, I think you can change an audience once you’ve got them. No one goes into this thinking they want to see a kid gut a rabbit, but by the time you get there, it is warranted and you go with it because you’re invested in the story and characters of this world. It’s great to hear that and I think part of it too is just taking risks. If you’re willing to go there, I think the general audience can handle and wants stuff like that. It’s all about the access point to it. That’s why I really believe you can make a $200 million blockbuster with elements like that and not even have audiences think about it because it just feels organic.

We’ve been talking about the problems of the industry, one of the biggest is that I don’t think audiences realize the power/urgency that they have. People are like, “oh, yeah, I’m going to see that eventually.” I’m like no; it doesn’t even matter about my movie. I’m talking about Frances Ha or Before Midnight or any of these movies, it makes such a difference to be an early adopter because that’s how these movies live or die. Audiences don’t realize the power in that. Instead of waiting three weeks to go see that, I should go this weekend. That makes a huge difference.