'This is something that is its own species,' director Jordan Vogt-Roberts says of the new beast
It’s on like King Kong.
The gargantuan ape returns in Kong: Skull Island, which arrives in theaters March 10 and stars Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Goodman. And while fans have been eager to catch a glimpse of the reimagined Kong, he hasn’t been too eager to be seen. After all, just look at the welcome he gives the explorers in the 1970s-set film, led by Hiddleston as a British Special Forces vet and Larson as a war photographer who unwittingly stumble into his home turf.
Here, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) unpacks that momentous scene as well as the look of the imposing figure, addressing his artistic vision, similarities and differences with previous versions, conveying emotion through eyes and facial expressions, playing with scale and the ultimate reveal, and much more. The beast, certainly, roars again in this upcoming monster-movie reboot, so all hail the new king of the jungle…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your artistic vision with this beast going into the film, and what was the process like of bringing him to life?
JORDAN VOGT-ROBERTS: With Kong, there’s been obviously so many different versions of him in the past and ours needed to feel unique to our film. I had a mandate that I wanted a kid to be able to doodle him on the back of a piece of homework and for his shapes to be simple and hopefully iconic enough that, like, a third grader could draw that shape and you would know what it is. A big part of our Kong was I wanted to make something that gave the impression that he was a lonely God, he was a morose figure, lumbering around this island.
We sort of went back to the 1933 version in the sense that he’s a bipedal creature that walks in an upright position, as opposed to the anthropomorphic, anatomically correct silverback gorilla that walks on all fours. Our Kong was intended to say, like, this isn’t just a big gorilla or a big monkey. This is something that is its own species. It has its own set of rules, so we can do what we want and we really wanted to pay homage to what came before…and yet do something completely different.
There’s subtle nods. [The ’33 film] was black and white, so it’s really easy to assume that the fur on the monkey is black, but there’s actually a lot of forums and things that you read and there’s some real poster artwork where Kong’s fur skews more brownish, so we actually pushed his fur in more of a brown as opposed to the traditional black. It really was trying to create this feeling so that when these humans look up at him, they hopefully have a visceral response, saying to themselves, ‘That’s a God, I’m looking at a God.’
Can you expand on the loneliness about him, how you made him this isolated figure through his appearance?
Kong’s always been a little bit tragic. You can’t tell exactly from the still, but the way that he walks on the island, the way that he goes from place to place, I wanted to communicate something about his headspace and about the way that, in certain ways, he’s the protector of this island and then in other ways he’s killing time. The way he lumbers, the way that he drags himself from place to place, there’s an exhaustion to him. There’s obviously a huge power to him, but there’s a sadness contained within his animation. The way that he walks and his facial capture fused with this very energetic, young Kong at the same time.
You mentioned the color of the fur and this Kong is one of the biggest to appear on screen. Can you speak to the similarities and differences beyond those, in terms of the look of your Kong compared to previous versions?
If anything, our Kong is meant to be a throwback to the ’33 version. I don’t think there’s much similarity at all between our version and Peter [Jackson]’s Kong. That version is very much a scaled-up silverback gorilla, and ours is something that is slightly more exaggerated. A big mandate for us was, How do we make this feel like a classic movie monster?
[Kong] was a movie monster, so we worked really hard to take some of the elements of the ’33 version, some of those exaggerated features, some of those cartoonish and iconic qualities, and then make them their own…We created something that to some degree served as a throwback to the inspiration for what started all of this, but then also [had] it be a fully unique and different creature that — I would like to think — is fully contained and identifiable as the 2017 version of King Kong. I think there are very modern elements to him, yet hopefully he feels very timeless at the same time.
How did you convey emotion through Kong’s facial expressions and eyes, in particular?
The eyes are hugely important, not just with a creature, but with a human. The eyes are obviously the window to the soul. When you watch any actor, half the time…you’re watching their eyes as opposed to anything else, so that was incredibly important and also we’re playing a tricky game with Kong where you have a tragic hero and you have to slowly pull the rug out in terms of who this person is.
The other thing with our Kong is, much like the ’33 version, right away he is not necessarily seen as a protector. He’s got a job on this island and at first he might be perceived as a negative or villainous force, and then you need those eyes to guide the audience and take them on a journey where you slowly pull the rug out and develop empathy for this being, for the plight and the day-to-day struggle of what it is to be this [thing]. We actually have a lot of extreme close ups in this movie of Kong and his eyes to sort of plant the audience in his headspace.
Speaking of, what’s going on in this first-look image? Is that people perceiving him to not be this protector, like you were just saying?
That sequence comes from a point in the movie where you’re not quite sure who Kong is, what his purpose is, how people should be perceiving him. Through the folly of man, where our initial instinct is to attack anything that is not a known quantity, both sides jump the gun, Kong and the humans, and it kicks off a relatively messy engagement. At first, of course you’re going to perceive something like that as a terrible threat and monster — the physicality of him alone.
A huge part of the movie was designing him and creating the creature so that when you did see him it sort of short circuited your brain and was divisive to people, where certain people immediately say ‘That’s a threat,’ certain people immediately say, ‘That’s a God,’ certain people immediately say, ‘That’s a savior.’ Visually and instantly, what happens when you see this thing towering over you and what is your sort of emotional and intellectual response?
With this Kong being one of the biggest, how did you play with scale and the reveal of his impressive size?
Well, the reveal you can wait for in the film itself, but you’ll see, I shot this on anamorphic lenses, which a lot of people said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re taking away more space to show how big he is!’…It seemed like a bigger challenge to communicate scale in that way. We’re also fundamentally not playing the same game that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla did and most monster movies do, which I’m sort of sick of the notion that a monster movie needs to wait an hour or 40 minutes until the creature shows up. Kong traditionally does not show up in these movies until very, very late, and the monster traditionally does not show up until very, very late in a monster movie, so a lot of these movies tend to have this structure that’s a bit of a slow burn. Something about this movie made me want to reject that and play a very, very different game.
It was honestly a great and interesting challenge, trying to find scale cues for something that big. How do you frame him in the sun? How do you frame him in mountains? How do you find low enough angles that communicate the scale next to these people without just shooting into a blank sky? It was important that you understood the dichotomy between the scale of him and the majesty of him, and yet the horror and fear associated with something that big. That fine line between looking up and saying, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I might be looking at a God’ and also ‘I’m absolutely terrified right now, I may have pissed my pants, and I think that thing’s going to kill me.’ What is that threshold and that fine line? So finding ways to shoot him and the island and all the creatures in a way where it’s slightly more reflective and the scale makes you hopefully think everything in between those two ideas.
Kong has remained a huge presence in pop culture. Why do you think this is a story that continues to be told and continues to resonate, and why is this something that you personally wanted to pursue?
Kong is a very tragic and relatable figure, like Kong just goes to A) The idea of being misunderstood, which everyone can relate to, and B) That humans have a fascination with apes and where we came from and things that we don’t understand. The reason that I was particularly interested in taking on this story is not only those elements of Kong and the fact that he is film history, but in particular in this instance, in our time period which is 1973, I was really interested in exploring the idea of the need for myths — why we need myths, why myths exist in our life. Right now, in our modern society, we are destroying myths through all of our technology and we have access to everything with our cell phones, which is amazing and it’s also taken away some of the wonder of the world.
I wanted to tell a movie about what happens when people are re-confronted with myths and put back into the food chain and how that makes them react and behave and I think that Kong is a myth that we have been telling now, so if you’re going to re-engage with that myth I think it’s important on a larger scale, but also on a franchise scale that you make it [a new myth]. Every other Kong movie for the most part has essentially been — yeah, there’s been Son of Kong and King Kong Lives and things like that — but the main sort of Kong stories throughout time have been remakes of the same beauty and the beast story, and this movie is not the beauty and the beast story. It’s sort of fundamentally a new telling within some of the mythos of this world and some of the imagery and ideas within this world.
In the same way, I think that we as people need new stories throughout time. If you’re going to engage with Kong, you need to do the same thing — you can’t keep telling the same story. As someone who grew up loving early creature features and movie monsters and things like that, one of the things that attracted me to it beyond telling a story that’s also about people and how a place makes them react to the otherworldly and around God-like creatures it’s, What happens when they’re presented with things that should not exist? What does that do to people? How does it make them behave? Who breaks? Who becomes stronger because of it? Who rallies together? What individual journeys do each people go on?
Is there anything else about the look of Kong that we didn’t talk about that you want to mention, either about your process or the final results?
It was a very, very long design process. Before we had a script, before we had a production designer or a visual effects team or much of anyone, we immediately dove into the look of Kong, which we knew was going to take a long, long, long time to finalize. I liked the idea of, you get the sense that he’s simultaneously very young, yet very old. Like I said, there is a lumbering quality to him and I wanted to find that threshold of having him feel aspirational, like ‘Ah man, wouldn’t it be great to be him?’ and also really tap into the underlying plight and sadness that his life contains.
From a design perspective…you go in one direction and end up with the Hulk and you go in another direction and you end up with Planet of the Apes, and then Peter obviously did such a good job with his version, so you’re left with a very narrow target of how you create something that pays homage to what came before it. With the 1933 film, which was important to me because I love that design, I love the fact that he feels like a movie monster and not just a big gorilla. So how do you make something that feels real, yet also is a throwback to movie monsters, and then takes on that very larger-than-life, God-like quality, and then be able to pull back the layers from it and peel the onion to throughout the film find out more and more and more about him and his backstory, and hopefully kind of lock you into his emotional state and invest you with him?
It was a really great process and a fun process, but it was a long process, finding ways to show the daily life and struggle that he goes through. I think there’s a lot in the movie that hopefully almost feels a bit Planet Earth at times in terms of…this is the struggle that this guy goes through, this is what his daily life is, and some of it’s great and exciting and some of it’s bad and hard and this is what he is and who he is.