Last weekend I posted a Short Starts column in celebration of the early work of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a filmmaker who has done a lot of comedy sketches and short films in the past (including the popular award-winning Successful Alcoholics) and now has his debut feature, The Kings of Summer, opening in theaters. One of the pieces that I shared is a video consisting of well-known coming-of-age movie clips with the title “Toy’s House Rip-O-Matic Tone Reel” (The Kings of Summer was formerly titled Toy’s House), and I explained that I was pretty curious about its purpose in the development of the new film. Vogt-Roberts emailed me in response, and later we had a chat on the phone about that, his other works and a lot more.
It was a long phone call. We discussed improv, which is something he’s clearly passionate about (see the youth organization Detroit Creativity Project, which he mentions) and the desire for more movies, particularly comedies, to better utilize the visual medium — he’s very passionate about this also. And he expressed his interest in directing a Star Wars movie. We also, of course, talked about The Kings of Summer and how it fits in with those topics. Well, maybe not with Star Wars. But I’ll say this: he’d probably deliver a decent installment of the franchise, especially one with humor and kids and woodsy locations. Are they looking to redo The Battle for Endor? Just kidding.
Seriously, he’s one to really watch. And a lot of what he said during our conversation is evidence of why this is true. So check out the interview below, go see The Kings of Summer and watch everything on his Vimeo page.
(Vogt-Roberts begins the interview before the questions can begin with a response to my post about his shorts)
I just wanted to clarify that those tone reels are such a weird thing as a first-time director. For me, I just loved the script so much that I developed this thought process of being like, “If I lose this, I want to be able to walk away knowing I did everything,” and not be like, “Oh I should have done that.”
You asked if other directors do that. Some do, but I think it’s becoming a more common thing with people trying to win jobs. Like [Joe] Carnahan‘s Dardevil teaser. I think it’s becoming more common because it’s becoming easier to do. My Unauthorized High School Visit was also a part of that. I put together this big, basically 30-40 page PDF with storyboards and concept art, breaking everything down. And those two videos were a part of that.
What I find interesting about all those videos being online for public view is that a lot of filmmakers don’t share even their early shorts. They’re impossible to find. But you have everything up there.
That’s why I was a little sensitive. That Sub-Par thing, that was never even officially released. It’s a web pilot we shot like six years ago. I’ve even lost the final cut of it, so that’s the rough cut. At one point in time I really loved it, but it’s just so broken to me now. It is a little weird because all that stuff is up there, and even Successful Alcoholics, which most people point to, that itself is four or five years old, and there’s other stuff that I’ve done between then and now that I’m way more proud of.
With the tone reel itself, I was just sitting on it. In a weird way I’m almost glad you picked up on it because I really wasn’t sure if I wanted that to be a public thing. How much of the process I wanted to reveal. I’m glad you kinda made that decision for me, so I don’t have to worry about it.
With Sub-Par, I just love Marc Evan Jackson in that, and I love him in the Manchild short he’s in. Especially because his character in Kings of Summer and his character in that are such different kinds of fathers that I didn’t even realize it was the same guy.
I met him pretty early on when I moved to L.A. He was doing a stand-up routine with a friend of his. They were called Sky and Nancy Collins and basically pretended to be these characters from Orange County doing stand-up for the first time. It was so funny. The first time I ever worked with him was on Sub-Par, and then he kinda became my secret weapon. He’s one of those guys that just elevates everything. I honestly believe that the level of character work that he does is on par with the best people out there.
It’s always been this huge question mark to me why he isn’t more exposed. He’s a great human being and so capable and so talented and really able to understand comedy on a very deep level – what’s the game, what’s the bit. He has an extensive improv background, and I’ve just made it my mission to expose him as much as possible because he makes me look great.
He and I even started a charity, a non-profit together back in Detroit where we’re from. We are bringing improv into Detroit public schools as a free service. Improv basically just teaches you to fail boldly and bravely and go out there and try things, not even comedy. He’s a very dear friend of mine and honestly one of the most talented people on the planet.
I’ll be honest, improv has never made me feel brave. Quite the opposite. It makes me shrivel up. So I’m intrigued about that program.
I think it’s precisely that, though. I’m terrible in front of the camera. Never in my life will you see me act in something, and I’m a probably a pretty bad improviser when you get down to it. But I recognize… To me, it’s about pushing through that fear. It’s a horrifying thing. Look, I’m friends with so many amazing improvisers and comedians, so hanging out becomes like a little improv session sometimes and it’s super intimidating. It’s almost about pushing past that point where you shrivel up so that you can become better. It’s that cliche of having to get broken before you can move on.
With directing I feel there has to be a lot of improv, not in terms of acting but in terms of making quick decisions. Are you better at that kind of improv behind the camera?
Improv is used in a lot of different ways, and there are very different styles of it. On set, it’s constantly improv. That’s what I love about filmmaking. I love the problem solving element of it. I love when things go wrong and you just have to make that split second decision and adapt on the fly. That’s when things are exciting to me. A lot of my crews, I prep them up front: “Look, I need you to adjust on the fly. Because if we prep something one way and then we’re on set in a location and we see something else that’s a way better situation or the sun’s coming down or we stumble upon something that we didn’t even think of, I’m going to explore that. I’m going to go after that.”
Filmmaking is a fluid process. At least for me it is. I know some people will storyboard their things out to a tee and know exactly what it is. I love getting my hands dirty and playing around.
What is your relationship as a filmmaker with improv in front of the camera?
It would be really easy to just light a scene and to do over-the-shoulder cross-coverage or something, but it’s really important for me even when we’re doing improv for it to feel cinematic and still have a sense of style. A lot of the big comedies that are really improv heavy, it’s just very flat shot reverse shot without any attempt at any technical craft. So one thing I’m really interested in is getting that looseness but still having a technical element behind it.
I do a lot of long takes, so the way I work with improv is do a long take and then get in there and I’ll literally be a few feet from the actors calling things out to them, like “take that again, try again, take it back, do this,” or we’ll find a good beat and it’ll go totally off the rails. To me it’s just this very fluid, very playful process of sussing out ideally things that are really funny but things that also feel grounded and real and expose character.
There’s this scene with Kumail Nanjiani, the Wonton delivery guy. For what it is, it’s way longer than it needs to be. But there’s a lot of stuff in the script that’s verbatim what Chris [Galletta] wrote, just word for word, and there’s a lot of improv in there, too. I’m comfortable with that scene because at the end of the day it’s still revealing something about Nick Offerman‘s character. It’s revealing something about the way he’s processing what’s going on. And the way he’s taking it out on other people. It’s still about something even though it’s heavy improv.
How much do you go off the script with the improv?
Like I said, Chris wrote this incredible script with a really unique voice and I loved the idea of having stuff that was clearly heightened and stylized in terms of the writing but having the whole thing have an extreme looseness to it. The kids, I sent them through improv training, not so they would be really quick and funny and a joke-a-minute machine, but just because I’m not 14 anymore. And the writer is not 14. I wanted them to feel comfortable enough with themselves and that if I didn’t yell “cut” that they would keep going. Or if we wanted to change something on the fly they’d feel comfortable and bring in a sense of ownership and a sense of themselves to it.
There’s a lot of stuff in the movie, especially with the kids, that is really loose. I just wanted a handful of small little ticks and chemistry and mannerisms that an audience could look at and identify and say, “Oh that feels true and authentic to what being 15 is.” Chris’s script is great, but I tried to keep it loose so you could have those moments that felt raw and authentic. And then there are moments also where, like, I found out that Gabe [Basso], who plays Patrick, can play the violin. Great, let’s incorporate that. I found out that Moises [Arias], who plays Biaggio, could dance really well. Great, let’s make that a part of his character. They literally could bring traits of themselves to these characters in addition to what Chris had created.
And the story we tell all the time is that the whole sequence with them banging on the pipe, that was completely improvised, shot on an off day when me, the writer and the DP went off into the woods with the kids and basically just captured boys being boys. I loved the imagery of this beautiful nature landscape with a real man-made piece of industry running through it. It felt thematically right for the movie. I took them to the pipe and told them to start banging on it and told Moises to dance on it and that just kind of unfolded. A piece of magic we captured.
Improv comes out in ways like that, where they were really just bringing themselves into it. I think that was the day, a week after we started shooting, where the film really clicked for them. We all walked away from that and the kids felt like they brought something to the table and they were more invested in the whole thing after that.