Since it’s release, Stand By Me has functioned as a filmmaker’s guiding light to dream the impossible dream and make the pitch perfect piece of childhood nostalgia. Every generation hopes to serve up an equal. Now, with the premiere of Sundance favorite Kings of Summer, we’re about to get that movie. Maybe you’ve seen the trailer, in which cranky dad Nick Offerman alienates his son, Nick Robinson, causing him to dip out of society and build a house in the woods with his bff Patrick, Gabriel Basso, and a bugged-out tag along Biaggio, played by Moises Arias, noted Justin Bieber homeboy. We chatted with the film’s maker, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, of Mash Up and Bad Boyz II Men in Black fame, in the moments before his departure for the film’s New York premiere. The 28 year-old was chipper, if worn thin after months of promotion and editing, talking animatedly about the worth of casting teens for teen parts, making his first feature film, and dreaming of making a comedy masterpiece.
There’s a pretty legendary shot of you and the three leads of Kings’ decked out in fur coats at Sundance. What’s the story behind that?
The story is my family business was a fur business back in the day. And I don’t know if you know this, but the fur business is not doing so hot these days. I’m a vegetarian, but I’ve always had this weird affinity for fur because of that. So going to Sundance I was like, I should wear a fur coat. So I called some family members and got them to send me a fur coat. I planned on wearing it for one day, just as a joke, so I told the kids, I’m going to wear a fur coat. You guys should get into it just kind of as a joke. And at that point I was planning on shaving and cutting my hair too, but instead I ended up literally working on a movie every day up until I got on the plane for Sundance. So I thought, this is what you get, you’re going to get a fur coat and you’re going to get a crazy looking dude with a beard. And I wore the fur coat on the first day, and immediately on the next day all of the kids showed up with variations. So I’m not sure if they had them the first day and they were afraid to wear them, but I think it worked pretty perfectly.
How did you get involved in the film and what about the script hooked you?
Everything about the script hooked me. I came out here to make movies, and I’ve been sent a lot of stuff and nothing that I was really freaking out over. When this script came to me, I thought someone was playing a prank on me, because I didn’t understand how somebody wasn’t already attached to a script this good. Chris Galletta just had such a unique voice and his voice so perfectly aligned with my sensibilities and what I was looking to do with my first feature. He laid a groundwork that I knew I could push even further to make it feel big and cinematic and to push the spectrum of emotions in comedy and drama that he laid out.
When I talked to the film’s screenwriter Chris Galletta pre-Sundance, I asked how well the film transformed from script to screen. What was the greatest challenge for you adapting the words to screen?
In many ways, the movie is the script in its final form. There are sections that are verbatim what Chris said, but on the other hand, it’s very different from the script at the end of the day, too. There’s a big element of the movie that’s more ethereal and lyrical and kind of impressionistic, that’s more stuff I knew I wanted to capture, because I was very interested in the idea of fusing Terrence Malick’s imagery and vibe with really weird comedy.
Tell me about casting the leads.
It was long and grueling. We have incredible adult comedians, great actors: Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Megan Mullally—just incredible, incredible comedians. It was so important that the leads feel real and have a great chemistry ,and were able to elicit a very real sense of nostalgia from the audience. Hollywood’s first instinct would be to cast 22 year-olds in these parts and the very first thing we did was just say, no, we can’t do this. We need to find kids who are close to the characters ages, not only so they still physically look like kids, and you can tell their bodies are developing in the same way their character’s bodies are developing, but also because there’s a huge difference between the mind of a 15 year-old and the mind of a 20 year-old.
True or false: Is it impossible to do an interview about this film without discussing Ron Swanson?
[Laughs] You know, yes it is possible. Does it happen frequently? No. He’s the man. Nick Offerman is one of the greatest human beings on the planet. He would walk around set playing a guitar and singing to our crew. He had every single one of our crew members names memorized, from the DP to the caterer. And it’s just so funny to me because so much of this movie is about the idea of masculinity in 2013, and the Internet era and the video game generation. And that’s something Chris and I are trying to reconcile and figure out. And then you just put it in close proximity with Nick Offerman and you just can’t help but feel completely insignificant as a man.
Did you go to film school?
I did go to film school, but I didn’t necessarily have the greatest time there.
What film school?
I went to Columbia in Chicago.
You seem unenthused.
It’s not about the school itself, I just don’t think any film school could prepare you for the real world. Hollywood is such a nebulous crazy business. When I was in school, I very early on got this sense of realizing that my classwork wasn’t going to matter—the short films I was making there and the scripts I was making there weren’t going to matter. So when I was there, I just tried to work and tried to learn everything that I could about the craft of filmmaking. I didn’t take any directing classes or things like that. I just took technical classes in sound, editing, things like that, because I knew that I was going to be my own crew for a long time. So it was a fine experience. It’s just what you make of it. I don’t think any film school can really truly prepare you for this crazy weird business we have.
A part of entertainment business today means digital fluency, and you seemed to have embraced that. Your website, for example, is pretty inspired. Who made that?
The idea behind it is just that I’m a big dork. There’s a lot of video game inspired stuff in the movie, and I’ve just always been a real nerd. I just have such vivid memories of oaring up DOS on my computer when I was a kid and all of those blue screens and color schemes. Me and the guy who designed the house with me, a dear friend of mine, an illustrator named Jonathan Wilco—we designed the website together. I love 8-bit stuff, but there’s a big revival of retro 8-bit stuff going on right now, so I loved the idea of trying of getting more into the DOS, early floppy disk era for the site.
What’s coming up next?
I’m going to sleep for a year. [Laughs] We might do a second season of my TV show, Mash Up, on Comedy Central. We’re figuring that out. A lot of things are being sent to me which is really, really exciting, but the main thing is I just want to find another script that I so viscerally responded to like this one. My reaction to this script was, I need to make this movie. And I want to find a similar piece of material. I honestly am looking to make a big jump. I love genre. I love action, I love sci-fi. My favorite comedies are things like Boogie Nights and Three Kings and Ghostbusters, things that are films first and foremost, or even Annie Hall. Those are all movies individually, and they happen to be really funny. So I just want whatever I do next to keep pushing the elements that people really responded to in this–playing with tone and playing cinematically and visually and saying that comedy can be beautiful and heartbreaking and all of these things all at once. It doesn’t have to be boring an in a box.
Kings of Summer premieres Friday May 31. See the film’s trailer below.