For his second movie, American director Jordan Vogt-Roberts made the jump most filmmakers only dream about, leaping from an indie Sundance sensation (coming-of-age dramedy The Kings of Summer) to reimagining one of the most storied characters in cinematic history, King Kong.
Kong: Skull Island (out March 10) found the fast-rising filmmaker working with a way bigger budget ($190 million U.S. — 125 times what his first film cost) and cast (including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman, as well as up-and-comers like Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell), but as the Detroit-bred director tells it, there wasn't that big of a difference between directing three teenagers in a forest and an award-winning ensemble in the jungles of Vietnam. Well, sort of.
"Filmmaking is filmmaking," he tells Exclaim! "There are things that are exactly the same: you never have enough time, you never have enough money, you never have enough daylight… and then there are times where you say, 'Oh my god, this is so amazing. I can't believe we get to fly around in this helicopter, do whatever, explode this thing.' That's incredible and that's a dream come true."
As Kong: Skull Island hits theatres across Canada, read about Vogt-Roberts' experiences bringing King Kong back to the big screen.
1. He used as little green screen and as few soundstages as possible.
"I had a big mandate that I wanted to have as little green screen as possible because fundamentally Kong was always going to be CG, and the creatures were always going to be CG. So out of the gate, you had these two very important elements that you knew were going to be fake," Vogt-Roberts says. "So for the sake of the actors and the sake of the audience, I wanted everything else to be as tactile and as real as possible, so it felt tangible, so it felt like they were in a real place."
To accomplish that, Vogt-Roberts took the cast and crew half way around the world, filming in Australia, Hawaii and Vietnam, to make Skull Island seem like a real place, even when a 100-foot tall CG ape was looming over it.
"Even though it's heightened at times, even though it's stylish at times, even though the colours are crazy, it's a real, living, breathing place," he says. "Audiences can feel that."
2. Panavision created unique lenses for the film.
Kong: Skull Island doesn't look like any other King Kong film that's come before it. Part of that has to do with some specially designed anamorphic lenses, which basically enhance a film's resolution, increase the depth of field and reduce grain, that were created specifically for the film.
"I'm a camera geek and I'm a lens geek and I love anamorphic lenses," Vogt-Roberts admits. "We were hanging out at Panavision one day, and I just sort of casually brought up this idea to the guys. They sort of looked at me and said, 'No one's ever really thought about that.'"
With cinematographer Larry Fong's (Lost, Superman v Batman) assistance, they brought them to life.
"Panavision thinks that they're the finest lenses they've ever made," Vogt-Roberts adds.
3. Kong: Skull Island is partly about coming to terms with not knowing everything in the information age.
Set in the early 1970s, the movie kicks off with the Landsat program mapping uncharted areas of Earth. It's when researchers, along with the military, start investigating one such area, Skull Island, that Kong and his fellow creatures are discovered and things get dangerous for the crew.
"I think the arrogance of man and our assumption that we run this planet and control this planet is incredibly relevant. We don't have all the answers, even though we want to think that we do," Vogt-Roberts says. "I think that a big part of the movie, for me, is about becoming okay with the unknown and becoming okay with the fact that there are forces greater than us."
4. It's definitely the most politically conscious King Kong movie.
Kong: Skull Island starts with John Goodman pulling up in a cab outside a government building at the height of the Vietnam War and saying, "Mark my words, there'll never be a more screwed up time in Washington."
"Obviously his first line in the movie is incredibly relevant to what's going on right now," Vogt-Roberts says, "but we shot that in September, so I don't think we could have ever truly known how relevant it was."
"I chose the '70s, because you look at the black mirror that the '70s represents right now, in terms of environmental issues, in terms of racial riots, political scandals, distrust of the government, sexual revolution, gender inequality, losing wars, the military industrial complex — it's this crazy mirror of things that are more relevant now that were still happening back then," he says.
Ultimately, Vogt-Roberts hopes Kong: Skull Island allows viewers to step away from reality for a little bit.
"I hope that first line sort of gets a laugh. I felt that it's almost a commentary on what's happening right now, but then also saying, 'Alright, let's talk about this, but also have some fun,"' he says. "Right now, more than ever, we need to have fun and have an escape and relax, while also being loud about the things that upset us."