Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a confession: “I wanted to sneak an indie film into a big blockbuster”. The director’s speaking about Kong: Skull Island, a monster movie with a monster-sized cast including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson. It boasts an off-kilter sense of humour and a dirty rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack - in other words, the King is back. Kong: Skull Island is also truly bizarre. For starters, it’s a Vietnam War movie set in 1973. Skull Island, we’re told, is a place where myth and science meet. Among the crew visiting this unexplored land is cocky Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston), anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Larson – not playing a damsel in distress) and Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson). Of course, there’s a gigantic ape there, too. It’s Vogt-Roberts’ second feature, following The Kings of Summer, and for directing gigs, they don’t get much bigger, taller or louder than a Kong movie. We spoke to Vogt-Roberts about the symbolism of Kong, subverting genre expectations, and the unlikely influence of Japanese anime.
London Calling: Why the 70s? Why Vietnam?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Because it’s awesome! Honestly, when they came to me, the movie did not take place in the 70s. It was a very different movie. I was like, “Audiences are smart and sceptical. Why do we need another King Kong film?”
I went away for the weekend and thought about it. Then the idea of choppers and napalm and Hendrix playing and searing sunsets and Apocalypse Now and a Vietnam War movie with a Harryhausen creature feature popped into my head. I was like, “Oh, I’ve never seen that movie.”
LC: Why does Kong get represented – or misrepresented – as a monster? And how did you want to represent him?
JVR: I wanted to, first and foremost, turn him back into a movie monster. Not an anatomically correct gorilla, but a movie monster. The reason that Kong has endured for so long is because he’s misrepresented. Everybody in their life struggles with the fact that we’re all misunderstood by somebody.
So I love the idea of taking this monster who takes out an entire squad of people, and then slowly pulling back layers and empathising with him. For me, the new take on that was seeing him as a god – a lonely god, a lonely protector, and someone who carries himself with nobility and has this thankless job.
LC: We see Kong very early on. It’s not like the recent Godzilla which saves the reveal for the final act.
JVR: I wanted to reject the fundamental idea that that’s how a monster movie has to go. I was sick of the idea that you have to withhold the creature. Bong Joon-ho made a South Korean movie called The Host that shows the creature right away. Then it’s not about waiting to see this creature. It’s about how this creature affects the people and the story.
Godzilla brilliantly played the game of withholding, so we fundamentally had to play a different game. When people approach genre, they’re so set in their ways. I was kicking and screaming, wanting to subvert it and make not just a monster movie, but a blockbuster that felt unlike other blockbusters.
LC: Can you tell me about the influence of Japanese anime, particularly the films of Miyazaki?
JVR: I’m just a dork. At a very young age, my brain was rewired by video games and anime. There’s a very heavy influence of both of those in this film. Not just Miyazaki, but things like Evangelion. Normally, associating videogames with movies is a negative thing, but there’s a generation of directors, like myself, coming up now that were raised on games and anime.
Miyazaki and Mononoke were such heavy influences, not just thematically with the dichotomy of the beauty and the horror, but it became the guiding light for the creatures – because I wanted the creatures to have that spirituality. If Kong is the god of the island, these creatures are the gods of their own domains.
LC: What can Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson do that no one else can do?
JVR: Brie and Tom are such textured actors and individuals. They’re so good at selling these things that aren’t real, and their natural charisma carries you through the smaller moments. I went to them and pitched, “I want this movie to be as much about the big movements of Kong smashing a helicopter out of the sky as much as it is about the small moments where I’m lingering on your face and eyes.” Tom and Brie both really give a shit. They want things to be great.
LC: On a small indie like The Kings of Summer, you probably spent it wishing you had more money. What were the unexpected challenges of having a Kong-sized budget?
JVR: Ironically, you think you’ll have all the time and money in the world on a movie like this, but you end up never having enough money or enough time. There’s so many things you can never predict. I’m super-proud this film has a voice and soul, and it’s my voice – especially if people have seen The Kings of Summer.
LC: What does your Kong represent?
JVR: I’m obsessed with the idea of myth. With technology, we have all the answers. You can Google whatever you want and get the answer. In the 70s, technology and science started to override our need for myth, because we had hard facts and answers. Myth is how we’ve told stories and made sense of things for thousands of years. A kid can find out straight away on Google that Santa doesn’t exist. That’s so sad to me. There was an unknown quality to the world when we were growing up. To me, this Kong represents myth. He represents being OK with things in the world we can’t understand and don’t understand. Technology can’t provide all the answers. There are things greater than us. There’s a beauty in letting go of wanting to know everything.
Kong: Skull Island opens in UK cinemas on March 9.