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10 Things We Learned on the Set of KONG: SKULL ISLAND

10 Things We Learned on the Set of KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Even in a world of Avengers, the Justice League, and the unending Star Wars saga, there’s something undeniably epic about King Kong. America’s most enduring oversized movie monster has survived over 80 years of cultural, political, and technological change, all the while providing a steady understated commentary on the primal power of myth and nature. I was lucky enough to get a firsthand look at Legendary’s reboot of the Kong mythos when I trekked through a muddy jungle along the coast of Oahu to chat with Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his stars, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, and Tom Hiddleston. In the wake of 2014’s Godzilla, and with Godzilla Vs. Kong waiting in the wings, one might be tempted to consider the latest Kong film a mere stepping stone on the path of the studio’s shared “Monsterverse.” But the vision behind Skull Island is as enormous as the land on which it was lensed…

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Kong’s a Lonely God

In previous versions of the King Kong story, like the original 1933 film, the 1970s Jessica Lange starrer, or Peter Jackson’s CG-laden remake, Kong’s affection for a human woman has often been his defining characteristic. But Skull Island takes an even broader, more universal approach to the character, keying in on the loneliness that informs him, even as his size dwarfs that of previous Kongs…

“What I love about this version of Kong is [there’s] a loneliness to him,” says director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. “An emotion to him that he’s the last of these things. Even in the way he walks and the way that he strides. In Peter’s movie they do a great job telling the beauty and the beast story and it very much is about emoting in a very human way. We want our Kong to feel very human in ways but also very godlike in ways. You know, where you stare at this thing and it towers over you. That actually ties into a lot of the human reactions in our film, where we want people to be able to look at this thing, stare up at it, and see this sort of godlike figure in front of them—this old lonely god, something from prehistory—and seeing how it affects and changes our characters on their journey. If we were standing right here and a giant hundred-foot tall ape happened, what would go through your brains? How does that change you, How does it affect you?”

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Kong’s Home Is Better Defined Than Ever Before

Prior King Kong movies were set on an island of pure fantasy, shrouded in mystery. But Skull Island, for which locations in Australia and Vietnam were used, as well as Hawaii, takes pains to explore the history of the life forms that inhabit it.

“With Kong, because he’s bigger than previous Kongs, we’re getting a little bit more into the sort of backstory of where he came from to some degree, and what this island is and what the ecosystem is on this island, and treating the island itself like a character,” Vogt-Roberts says. “We truly want Skull Island to feel like a tangible, tactile place and that’s why we’re shooting so much of this practically as we go from Hawaii, to Australia, to Vietnam, is to really feel these guys within that space. So it’s a huge help for the actors just to be in real jungles and real settings and things like that. That just adds to that reality when you’re staring up at this completely fictional fake thing.”

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Miyazaki Was an Influence on the Film’s Creatures

Anime legend Hayao Miyazaki is known for employing Japanese folklore and legend in his fantasy tales, focusing on the spirit of all living creatures. It’s a philosophy that Vogt-Roberts embraced in populating his jungle kingdom, even as he avoided such staples critters as dinosaurs.

“If Kong is the god of this island, we wanted each of the creatures to feel like individual gods of their own domain,” Vogt-Roberts says. “Miyazaki[‘s] Princess Mononoke was actually a big reference in the way that the spirit creatures sort of have their own domains and fit within that. So a big thing [was] trying to design creatures that felt realistic and could exist in an ecosystem that feels sort of wild and out there, and then also design things that simultaneously felt beautiful and horrifying at the same time. Where if you look at this giant spider or this water buffalo, you stare at it and part of you says, ‘That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!’ and [another part says], ’Oh my God that’s gonna kill me right now and I need to run for my life!’”

He continues, “It’s trying to find that weird balance and really just trying to think outside the box a little bit. Because we want to show audiences new things, and so not have the creatures feel derivative of Jurassic World, or of what they do in the Star Trek movies. They’re too Alien-like, or too H.P. Lovecraft… My biggest qualm with a lot of movies that I watch is I feel like I’ve seen it before. So we just really wanted to go out of our way to, especially with the other creatures, design things that felt sort of unique to our movie and can exist on the island.”

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It’s Not an Origin Story

Despite what fans may have heard, director Vogt-Roberts is quick to point out that Skull Island won’t reveal everything about cinema’s most famous monkey.

“When you watch Predator 2 and you see that Xenomorph skull on the spaceship you’re like, ‘Oh my God!'” he says. “Your brain just goes crazy with all these possibilities. And my favorite thing as a kid watching movies [was] just having all these little things in the background that you pick up on and your brain just goes wild with. So we’re trying to tiptoe a line. There’s a lot of stuff out there that our movie is sort of his origin story, and that’s not really what it is. There’s a lot of background mythology peppered into it as we create our own new mythology… There are not that many good prequels. As soon as you try to over-explain something it tends to lose its magic. We still want to have a wonderful sense of mystery and use it in a way to make our island, and our creature, and Kong’s character feel bigger because you understand some of it, but we’re not trying to pull back the curtain on everything.”

(L-r) JOHN GOODMAN, JOHN C. REILLY and BRIE LARSON on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “KONG: SKULL ISLAND,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick

There’s a Good Reason It’s Set in the ‘70s

Wondering why King Kong is heading back to the era of mood rings, moon landings, and Watergate, beyond the obvious appeal of a giant ape swatting away at machine-gun-equipped helicopters?

“What got me really interested in it was thinking about taking characters and the time period in which the world was kind of in chaos, [when] we were sort of one foot in the old guard and one foot in the new guard and people were trying to find their place in the world,” Vogt-Roberts says. “The world was spiraling, right? We were losing wars for the first time, we were in sexual revolutions and racial riots and political scandals. Things were crumbling. Then presenting people with an island that’s untouched by man, something pure in a very impure time, being able to give them a sense of catharsis with this island. And then realizing that we should have never come here.”

He continues, “Magic is one of the most important things in our lives, and the unknown is one of the most important things in our lives, and that wonder that stems from it. Now because everything’s completely accessible to us some of that wonder and some of that magic has vanished. The ’70s was a time that was right at the start of that rift. One of the big sort of conceits with our movie is in the early ’70s we launched a satellite into space for the first time, which was a Landsat satellite, which is a joint venture between NASA and the US Geological Survey. We were legitimately looking down at the Earth for the first time and we were finding places that we had never seen before. So it really sort of stemmed from what we can do with the characters in that time period and showing us something new.”

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Samuel L. Jackson Plays Captain Ahab to Kong’s Moby Dick

A world-weary veteran of the Vietnam War returning home after a long tour of duty, Sam Jackson’s U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard has little patience or tolerance for the creatures he encounters when he tasked with escorting a team of explorers across Skull Island.

“My character is that standard for people seeing something that they don’t understand and identifying it as the enemy and not realizing their part in antagonizing that particular thing, and that you’re responsible for making that thing do what it does,” Jackson says. “The thing was doing nothing until you got here, and here you are, and now the thing’s doing something, so what do you think you did to annoy it? Other than show up in its house and decide to disturb everything.”

On his character’s relationship with the Eighth Wonder of the World, Jackson says, “It’s very akin to Ahab and the Whale. At a certain point you got to stand up to this thing that has done so much destruction to you and your people, and he has this idea that this thing is not what’s going to save humanity cause that’s what everybody else’s idea is. This is the thing that’s standing between us and these other things that are a threat to humanity… If us in our infinite, advanced technology, and mental state can’t stop a mindless gigantic ape then our evolution has been for naught. And he does have to exact some measure of revenge for the people he’s lost. That’s just the nature of how we operate—eye for an eye!”

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Brie Larson’s Character Is the First to Connect with Kong

Oscar winner Brie Larson portrays photojournalist Mason Weaver, whose recording of the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War is by no means welcomed by Samuel L. Jackson’s army colonel. Fortunately, she has an ally in the great ape.

“I end up with this cast of characters and I have my own sort of motive as to why I’m here,” Larson says. “That’s the interesting thing about this movie. It’s a group of misfits that are all coming from different angles looking at the same thing. You get to see how many different views in regards to nature and how we should handle it are dealt with from many different perspectives. I come in as kind of a background person, one who’s just here to take photos, and as it progresses I have to get a little bit more hands on. Although she’s a war photographer, she’s not really gung-ho about the war, and so she has a point of view that’s different from a lot of the people that she’s surrounded by, and goes into it assuming she could be the only one that has that perspective.”

She continues, “There is so much myth in this, and part of myth is masculine and feminine, anima and animus. So because of her feminine energy I feel like she is a little further ahead in having an interest and respect for nature, and immediately clocks that this is not about man overcoming this creature but working with it and really begins to appreciate it. Through that she has a closer, more loving, and intimate relationship with Kong than with those that are just kind of bulldozing into it.”

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Tom Hiddleston Plays a Different Kind of Action Hero

A Vietnam War vet turned tracker for hire, Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad signs on for the mission to Skull Island with a perspective as unique as his skill set. One more akin to Last of the Mohicans’ Hawkeye than most contemporary action heroes…

“I loved the idea that there’s basically a man who has no political allegiance in the conflict, but he understands conflict,” Hiddleston says. “He’s a former soldier who has been formed by an understanding of war, but his specific skill set is something that’s attached to the power of nature; and I think that’s something people haven’t seen in a long time… [Jordan and I] talked about Conrad having this extraordinary understanding of the natural world, talking about the food chain, the cycle of life, the basic and essential necessity of predators. We started talking about David Attenborough and Planet Earth and suddenly there was this character forming who was very hard, someone who is isolated and mysterious. Isolated by his former experience and deeply charismatic, but when you put him face to face with the fantastical world of King Kong suddenly you have an amazing outline for a hero. It’s the combination of the two, it’s the fact that he has this unique skill set within the group as someone who is indispensable in terms of their survival within the jungle; [and] distinct from the group because he’s British, and therefore he doesn’t have the same spiritual shadow of the Vietnam conflict. And also someone’s whose awe and wonder will be awakened by everything he sees.”

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It Brings Kong Back to His Roots

While King Kong may be the cinema’s greatest original myth outside of Star Wars, the roots of Skull Island tap into the same primal elements that informed the original 1933 Kong. Which firmly places it within Tom Hiddleston’s wheelhouse…

“The spine of the film, as many of these huge films are, is really about myth and the power of myth,” Hiddleston says. “That’s what the Jurassic films are about. Whether it’s going back to The Odyssey or The Life of Pi, where basically human beings need to be reminded of how small they are. In the face and scale of the world and the universe. King Kong is one of the biggest movie stars of a hundred years of cinema and he’s always served to remind people in the story and audiences that there are things about our world that are bigger than us that we don’t understand. Conrad comes to embody that humility. Which really appealed to me.”

He continues, “I’ve always been drawn to myth. It’s funny, I don’t mean to make it sound like its more intellectual than it is, but I read classics in university, and the reason I did that was because I found the scale of those Greek and Roman gods and monsters appealing. They appealed to my imagination. Some people prefer stories about human beings in a very human space. I’ve always been very moved and inspired by myth. I love The Odyssey, and I think that’s why I was drawn to play Loki for the first time. It’s about very human feelings on a massive scale. The Thor film is about the breakdown of a household in a city where the gods live. It’s about the size of these stories, and so I’ve never shied away from that in a way.”

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Film Audiences Could One Day Return to Skull Island

Even though 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong is set decades after Kong: Skull Island, and is not expected to take place in the same locale, producer Alex Garcia (who also produced 2014’s Godzilla) tells us that this film isn’t necessarily the final chapter in the remote island’s history…

“It could be, sure!” he says of the possibility of revisiting Kong’s home. “If we pull off this island feeling like a really distinct and unique place, absolutely, it could be revisited later in the timeline for sure.”

Are you looking forward to Kong: Skull Island? Let us know below!

[Editor’s Note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Pictures]

Images: Warner Bros.


Check out our Kong: Skull Island trailer breakdown

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