Catching up with Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ short film SUCCESSFUL ALCOHOLICS was an official selection at AFI FEST 2010.  His feature film debut THE KINGS OF SUMMER premiered at Sundance earlier this year.  We caught up with Jordan in anticipation of his new film’s upcoming theatrical release.

You’ve had such success with your short films, and such talented casts in your short work as well, what were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered in making your first feature film?

I think filmmakers spend so much time thinking about their first feature because everyone from peers, media and executives put such incredible weight on it. So inevitably you run through the infinite possibilities of “Am I ready?”, “What if I mess this up?”, “Am I a hack?”, “What if it’s just okay and not a masterpiece?”, “Orson Welles made CITIZEN KANE in his twenties, where does that put me?”. I think it’s too easy to get caught up in those anxieties and forget that you’re there because you have a job to do. The whole prep period on this movie basically didn’t exist for me because it overlapped with the post production schedule on my TV series MASH UP for Comedy Central. That was a really crazy time and it didn’t help that we had some people involved with the movie who basically proved to be pretty incompetent which meant that you need to step up and carry extra weight. In a weird way this was a blessing because my brain couldn’t run crazy with the aforementioned anxieties because I was too busy throwing myself at it whether I was awake or asleep. It consumes you and that’s almost it’s own challenge to deal with in itself. I had a sit down with my DP, friend and frequent collaborator Ross Riege when he showed up to Ohio where I basically said “Right now, we either make every part of this movie better than anything we’ve done before…or we go home…forever”, we just sort of had this mantra of fail boldly and fail bravely. We saw it as being fortunate enough to be making a feature film, which was ultimately the entire reason we got into this business and moved to L.A., so we just felt a responsibility to ourselves to go for it at all times – I’m sure there’s a sports cliché about leaving it all on the court and that’s probably applicable. There were camera moves and set ups that we didn’t know if they would work, but dammit we wanted to try and push things for ourselves. Production is production so ideally you’ve trained yourself in the art of trusting your instincts, being a leader and executing well enough that when you show up to the first day on the set of your first feature it doesn’t feel any different from another day on set. I know that’s not a very romantic answer but that’s how it felt. The biggest new challenges were just adjusting to the length of the shoot and really keeping track of the big picture in terms of plotting and characters. Making sure the whole thing unfolds properly when you shoot it out of order. That was the new muscle so to speak.

This film is infused with such a nostalgia for childhood, specifically male adolescence; is it at all similar to your childhood?

I was always a dreamer and a troublemaker. I wasn’t a bad kid, I was just always instigating and hatching plans or schemes. I’m a really nostalgic person but I feel like even at a young age I recognized the duality of that age. Incredible freedom and incredible pain that comes from not knowing your place in the world. I remember the dichotomy of not wanting to grow up yet wanting to be taken seriously. Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes has a quote where he says “People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children” and I’ve always found it fascinating that someone who created such an incredibly earnest look at adolescence could be so jaded about it. I think myself and the movie very much reflect that idea. I think the people I find most fascinating in the world from Shel Silverstein to Shigeru Miyamoto or Steve Jobs are people who were able to keep the child inside them alive yet transition into adult life. Once that kid inside you dies I don’t think there’s any bringing it back to life.  I’m also just really obsessed with what masculinity is in 2013 considering we’re basically a generation of wusses raised on technology and video games. 

People traditionally think child actors can be difficult to work with, what do you think is more difficult, children or celebrities?

It was really important to me that the kids in the movie be actual teenagers below the age of 18 as opposed to twenty five year olds playing 15. They needed to be real and authentic as opposed to movie stars. The kids in my movie were incredible to work with and it was important to me that I wasn’t their boss but their friend. We tried to run a set where there wasn’t a separation between kids and adults, they were all actors there to do a job because they were invested in a project. 

This film has such a powerful and unusual script, you never can tell where the narrative is going to take you.  What attracted you to working with (screenwriter) Chris Galleta?

Chris is amazing and we immediately clicked. Him and I have very similar sensibilities but I knew that I could take his script and really push it to a place that was perfect for my first feature. He laid the groundwork that allowed me to create an indie comedy that had the heart of John Hughes movies mixed with the cinematic scope and technique of early Amblin films and fuse that with extremely contemporary alt comedy and add in some lyrical terrance Malick Homages. I fell in love with the script because I knew I could push all of those things and effectively shout “HEY! Comedy doesn’t have to be this boring thing we’ve turned it into over the last 20 years. Remember when films weren’t as disposable?” Chris gave me such an incredible base to build off of and really that’s all I could ever ask for.

Like a lot of other independent directors, you’ve had a lot of success working in television lately, do you see yourself returning to that or doing more features in the future?

I love all mediums of filmmaking. Commercials, TV, Web. They all of their own quirks. The internet is the wild west and super fascinating. I love commercials because it’s the rare time you actually have a budget to play with and I love the challenge of knowing your exact parameters in terms of message and length and then trying to make something awesome. I have my own TV show which we might do a second season of and I’ve done some for hire stuff but I’m really still trying to figure out what my place in TV is. Features on the other hand… that’s why i’m here. I grew up falling in love with movies and the worlds they created. That’s my priority and that’s where I want to be.  

THE KINGS OF SUMMER opens in theaters May 31.

Notes

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