In the new film The Kings of Summer, three high school boys, fed up with their respective home lives, find a clearing in the woods and decide to build a house there and live off the land. It’s a touching and funny film from first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. “Being a first-time director is this really weird process of basically trying to convince people to trust you with their money,” he told us, “and that you’re not going to fall flat on your face and embarrass everyone.” Despite having never directed a feature, Vogt-Roberts is a veteran of short films and television. He’s done quite a lot of work with Funny Or Die and is one of the executive producers on Comedy Central’s Mash-Up, hosted by TJ Miller. It was with Miller that he co-wrote the short film Successful Alcoholics in 2010, the film which helped solidify him as a director of story and not just comedy. “The point of me making it was to say, ‘Hey, I can invest people in characters for more than two minutes at a time.’”
The Kings of Summer script was written by first-time screenwriter Chris Galletta and its tone and freshness led the director to fight to make it. “I read it and my immediate response was just how I couldn’t believe somebody else wasn’t attached to it,” Vogt-Roberts remembers, “I honestly thought it was a joke, because the scripts I’d been reading, I just wasn’t very impressed with. And this was so unique and special and perfectly aligned with my sensibilities, not only comedically, but in terms of storytelling, and I made it my mission to win this movie.” Luckily, all the years of work he’d been putting in began to bear fruit at the exact time it needed to. “It was at a time when things were sort of hitting at the same time. My TV show had just been picked up and I’d made enough content that, I think, I started making all those lists of like ‘Okay, who are the next directors? Who do we want to entertain potentially talking to?’ It’s such a leap, it’s such a hurdle. And then, to [production company] Big Beach’s credit, they pulled the trigger on me, the unknown.”
What separates Vogt-Roberts’ directing style from that of many directors of studio comedies is his commitment to the inherent cinematic quality of film. “There’s no reason,” he says at a Q&A following a recent screening of the film, “comedy can’t also be beautiful to look at.” Citing films like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall as examples, Vogt-Roberts said that he was committed to getting the most out of the look of the movie, despite its modest budget. “I’m very interested,” he told us later, “in fusing style with comedy and using that to create a tone and a world and a visual aesthetic that does nothing but prop up and support the script and what’s working there and the characters and the acting.”
The movie does have a very distinct visual style, shooting the woods with a reverence reminiscent of Terrence Malick. “I just wanted everything about this to feel really fresh and different.” He knew he had the freedom to try this new and more visual style of filmmaking because he had the strong spine of the script to hang it on. “If you’ve got a plot and characters that really invest in people, that gives you the freedom to play around with whatever different tools you want and whatever devices you want.”
The movie’s trio of friends is played by young actors Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, and Moises Arias. All three are quite near the age in which they characters are supposed to be (15-ish) and it was because of this that casting became all the more difficult. “Initially I even wanted to try to cast younger, but then I realized once you started getting younger than that they look like… little kids,” Vogt-Roberts said of the process, “In any other movie, the instinct would be to cast a 22-year-old. It was important to me that the audience be able to look at these kids and tell that they’re developing, they’re going through that awkward phase, they’ve got pimples. We had a rule that, unless it was distracting, we weren’t going to cover up any pimples. We wanted it to feel real.”
This put the pressure on them to find the right young actors from what is ultimately a much smaller pool. “As soon as you cut out that 18+ category, it really limits you. Like, there’s not a lot of movie stars necessarily in that younger category, which is great because I wanted these kids to feel like a discovery. I wanted people to walk in and fall in love with this trio of friends. And I think they all knocked it out of the park.”
The adults in the film are all well-established figures in the comedy world, many of whom had worked with Vogt-Roberts on other projects. Nick Offerman plays Frank, the sarcastic single father of Robinson’s Joe. The part needed just the right balance of likability and bitterness or there would be the risk of the audience not taking to him. “The Frank role was such a tough role. It could just be really funny. It’d be really easy for that character to dip into being unlikable at certain points because he is so sarcastic.” Frank’s daughter is played by Alison Brie, and Vogt-Roberts says that casting her in something had been in the works for a while. “Alison Brie was an acquaintance that we had been trying to find something for for awhile. Her role is not the biggest role in the movie, but when we sat down and talked about it, I felt like it was an important one. She sort of played the missing link in that family.”
The rest of the cast is like a who’s who of comedy talent that might not be as well known now, but Vogt-Roberts is confident they will be soon. “The adult actors are, in my opinion, not just the cream of the crop of comedic actors right now, but are also a bunch of people, like Thomas Middleditch and Eugene Cordero and Marc Evan Jackson and Kumail Nanjiani and Hannibal Buress and, just, like, down the line, people who I think are going to be running things comedically over the next 20 years.” It hasn’t escaped the director that the people he got were unlikely for a movie at the scale of The Kings of Summer, but it started, he said, with having a strong material. “I was really lucky that someone like Offerman or Megan Mullally would want to be in a project like this. Chris’s great script attracted them and the way we talked about making it which was not having it feel just like a comedy, but having that sort of timeless Amblin quality to it.”
So, ultimately, how did it feel to be a director on a feature film? According to Jordan Vogt-Roberts, it was pretty close to how it felt to do any of the other thing’s he’s done. “Production is production,” he says with a chuckle. “As a first time director, you spend so much of your life thinking about making that feature and doing it on a studio level, not on an indie level where you scrape together $100,000 through Kickstarter. You spend so much time thinking about it, if it’ll be bad, if it’ll be great, and literally you put so much pressure on it and one day I was on set and it was a wrap for the day and I thought, ‘Oh, I just shot the first day on my feature film.’” If The Kings of Summer is any indication, he’s definitely someone we’ll want to be making movies for a very long time.
The Kings of Summer is in theaters in select cities today.