EXCLUSIVE: 'Kong: Skull Island' Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts on Godzilla's Non-Cameo and the MonsterVerse

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"Please spread the word!" Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts exclaims, proving you can take the director out of Sundance, but you can't take Sundance out of the director. He may have made the jump from indie gem Kings of Summer to King Kong, but Vogt-Roberts says with a laugh, "When you make an indie, you go out and you have to be like, 'Tell everybody!' And here I am, making a giant, 100 million dollar blockbuster, still saying, 'Oh my god, you have to tell all of your friends!'"
Amid a suitably gigantic press tour -- "I've been on three continents in, like, three days. My brain is mush." -- Vogt-Roberts hopped on the phone with ET to discuss Skull Island's case of mistaken Godzilla identity, building the MonsterVerse and how he got Samuel L. Jackson to revisit his most iconic Jurassic Park quote. (Warning, while this post is light on actual movie spoilers, it does discuss Kong: Skull Island's post-credits scene.)
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ET: King Kong is iconic and we've seen a number of different versions of him in a number of different movies. How did you go about making Kong your own?
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: The first thing I did approaching [Kong] was acknowledge, exactly, he is three very important things: He is a cinematic icon, he's a piece of film history and he is pop culture. We went back to that kind of 1933, movie monster feel, where he stands on two feet again. But the thing that makes this Kong different is that we've turned him much more into this lonely god, this put-upon figure on the island who has such a thankless task, but he carries himself with a nobility and a pride and a regal sense of being. And with that comes this sort of lumbering, melancholy quality to him, where there's just this embedded beauty and sadness in his life [that] takes him away from just being a big gorilla and takes him away from just being a monster and turns him into this god-like figure. And allowing [viewers] to spend more time with him, as opposed to saving the monster all the way into the movie, we were really able to develop that character in a way that people haven't seen before.
I think that was one of the things I appreciated most about the movie -- that you get Kong right away. You don't have to wait an hour and forty-five minutes to see him. Did you ever want to hold back on the Kong reveal?
No. I thought Gareth Edwards directed the hell out of Godzilla and he played that game so well, and so for me, right away, it became this mandate. There was a version of the script where Kong was not in the movie that much and one of the very first things I wanted to do was just put him out there right away to say, "This is not the King Kong movie nor monster movie you expected," to buck the conventions and expectations of how these movies work. Also, I wanted to put him out there so the game of the movie isn't about this reveal of when you're going to see him and how you're going to see him and for how long you're going to see him. Instead, he becomes this looming character -- much like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, he looms over the whole thing. Then it's about how he affects the story and the people and their journey. It was really important to me -- to bring him out in the first scene. There was a lot of worry, like, "Oh my god, you show him this early?!" And we really stuck to our guns and said, "Yeah, let's defy monster movie expectations that have been baked into how these movies work for years and years and years." We wanted to give audiences something new.
Having worked with the Godzilla producers on this, did you learn anything else from watching that movie that affected how you approached Skull Island?
I think Gareth absolutely murdered that movie. I think that movie and this movie are very different films, though. That movie is very somber, and that's kind of what makes it great. This movie, I wanted it to be very fun. My favorite reaction is when people walk out and they're like, "I feel like a kid again!" This idea of a Vietnam War movie next to the fun of a [Ray] Harryhausen film, I'd never seen that before! So, there are a lot of amazing lessons within Godzilla and I think the degree to which that film was treated seriously and shot beautifully was a real inspiration. I wanted to make a movie that could take itself very seriously one minute and then also be aware of itself the next minute.
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With the Skull Crawlers, was there ever any concern over Kong facing off against these giant, reptilian monsters, seeing as Godzilla vs. Kong is down the pipeline?
It's funny because in early test screenings when the creatures weren't really, like, rendered, some people would walk out and be like, "Hey! That scene where Kong fights Godzilla--" and it was like, "No! It's not Godzilla!" [Laughs] They were literally looking at like a grayscale model, like a 2-D storyboard. But no, I was never concerned about that, because the way those creatures move and behave is so fundamentally different than the way Godzilla moves.
I'm actually really proud of the fact that even though that creature is somewhat reptilian, it feel like it stands on its own two feet in the library of movie monsters. And all the creatures in this, I'm proud to say. I think people will walk out and say, "I've actually never seen that before! That's a really cool design!" I think people go to these movies with creatures and it feels like you could take one creature from one movie and put it in the other movie and it's the same thing.
Skull Island does a lot of the work building out the MonsterVerse. Did you ever feel like that the universe building we've become so used to in movies these days was impeding on the story you wanted to tell?
I think what you just said -- impeding -- is absolutely correct about a lot of these movies. I think a lot of these movies sacrifice their own self-contained narrative and beginning, middle and end to shoehorn in a franchise advertisement for a movie that won't come out for another four years. But we're playing with King Kong! We're playing with film history! We're playing with the reason that, to some degree, franchises exist! Like, we're playing with the reason that genre and special effects and all these things sort of inspired people the way it did. So, we owe it to ourselves! We have world building to do and there is this MonsterVerse and, yes, this movie takes place in the continuity of Godzilla, but how do we make a movie simultaneously for those people and then also people that have never seen Godzilla and have no interest in seeing Godzilla and will never see another movie in that world?
Because it's a King Kong film. So, it has to be able to live, die and breathe on its own merit. The power of film is that they have a beginning, middle and ending, and so many of these movies get sidetracked these days and people get ahead of themselves wanting to think about their, like, seven-part franchise instead of individual movies. So, there was a lot of discussions about how much and where we can be overt and where we need to be subtle [and] what's an Easter egg? And I'm really happy with where we landed, because I never feel like the movie diverts itself talking about something that is unnecessary to this film.
Do you have a favorite Easter egg?
Oh, there's so many! I mean, there are Apocalypse Now references. There's a Taxi Driver reference. There's a Metal Gear Solid reference, a Legend of Zelda reference, an Alien reference. There's an Old Boy reference. There are things that are very overt references, and there are things that maybe super fans will pick up on and maybe those people will find them over time. But I'm telling you, this movie is packed with references.
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I'm not sure if it's technically considered an Easter egg, but as a massive Jurassic Park fan, my favorite is that you got Samuel L. Jackson to say, "Hold on to your butts" again.
Yeah! I was surprised with that, too. It's funny because I had one of the writers put it in the script, and I thought, for sure, there's no way Sam is saying it. There's no way. We showed up on set that day and I didn't really say anything about it and he didn’t say anything about it, and we just kept doing it and every time we did it, it made me so happy. But it also made me really upset, because I really wanted to get John Goodman to say, like, a Big Lebowski line and I just never worked it in the script. [Laughs] So, now I'm really upset at myself over it.
Thomas Middleditch's name is in the credits as the "Voice of Jerry" and when I saw that, I was like, "What? When? Who?" Tell me about that. Was that from working on Kings of Summer together?
[Laughs] Jerry's just the guy who calls Brie Larson when she's in her photography dark room. It's a very, like, nothing role. Thomas Middleditch is one of my best friends! He's someone that I've known for a decade -- we kind of came up together in the Chicago comedy scene -- and we've just been working together forever and ever and ever. I kept trying to get him in the movie and the schedule just kept conflicting with Silicon Valley, so, by the end of it, I was like, "I'm getting you in this movie one way or another!"
Actually, we had a text chain at one point, me and all the cast, where Thomas Middleditch accidentally got on it instead of Thomas Mann, because I entered the wrong phone number. So, he ended up having this weird connection to the rest of the cast, and it just kept popping up. Kind of like Kramer in Seinfeld. Like, John C. Reilly would go out to dinner in L.A. and suddenly Thomas Middleditch would be there too and we'd get pictures of the two of them. He really was like the Kramer of this movie, just breaking down the door and going, "HEY!" And he's such an incredible talent and one of my best friends, so I just said, "Hey, would you do this role that you have no business doing because it's super tiny?" The best thing about him is when he walked out of the room, he texted me going, "Dude, if you need to, like, cut me out of the movie, it's totally fine. I feel like I totally blew that." That's a testament to how good he is as an actor and performer, because that's how much he cares. Even like a dumb, small, little like cameo over the phone, he just cares so much.
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Based on the post-credits scene, it seems like the MonsterVerse could continue on in the '70s with Brie and Tom Hiddleston and this iteration of Monarch. Do you know if that's the plan? Or if Legendary and Warner Bros. are going to bounce between time periods with the individual films?
I know Godzilla 2 does not take place in the '70s and that's the next one in the franchise. [But] I don't really know those answers. I've been joking, I want to make a prequel that's young John C. Reilly fighting monsters with a katana and explore the relationship between [Reilly's character] Marlow and the Japanese pilot, set somewhere between the '40s and the '70s. But, I mean, it's an embarrassment of riches to have people like Corey Hawkins and Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston, so I think, honestly, a lot of it probably depends on what audiences say and how much they like this world.
That tag also teases future appearances by kaiju like Mothra and Rodan and King Ghidorah. Hypothetically speaking, if you could direct a solo movie for one of those monsters, who would you pick?
A solo movie for one of Godzilla's villains...you know, I love Rodan! Everyone kind of sh*ts on Rodan for some reason. And maybe it's just because his name is so similar to my name, but I have this pity for him! [Laughs] I'm a sucker for Rodan.