“Nothing will make you feel older in your life than spending a summer with a bunch of eighteen-year old kids,” Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the director of “The Kings of Summer,” remarked during a recent Dallas interview. “At one point I handed them—you know, they’re playing ‘Super Nintendo’ in the movie, they’re playing ‘Street Fighter,’ which is probably the most influential thing in my childhood, period. And I handed them the controllers and their response was, legitimately, ‘How do I do this?’”
“Kings” is about three Ohio teens, played by Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias, who run away from home and build a house for themselves in a nearby woods. Shot on location on a modest budget, it won plaudits at Sundance and was picked up for distribution by CBS Films.
“There was a family environment, and we were all in it because we loved it,” Vogt-Roberts continued. “And on projects like this, there are two things that happen. When you’re trying to make it bigger beyond your means, it splits people—there are a percentage of people who are on board and say ‘I love this thing, and will break my back for it,’ and there are some who’ll bitch and moan and say ‘Really, we’re still shooting?’ That’s how it happens. So yes, we had a family environment, but it was a hard shoot, because we constantly wanted to make it bigger, we didn’t want to make it easy. We wanted to make a movie that was a throwback to ‘Stand By Me,’ and the early Amblin movies—films that felt like films.
“The shoot started with everyone there—all the adults, all the kids. And they were all sort of meshing. And then one by one the adults went home. And then it’s just me and a bunch of kids, and they took over. We had no idea what that transition was going to be like. And they all stepped up and manned up. And at a certain point you forgot what it was like with the adults.”
It helped that Vogt-Roberts set up an impromptu improve camp for the boys before shooting began. “Not so they’d be super-quick and funny and witty,” he said, “but just because I’m not fourteen and Chris isn’t fourteen, and I wanted them to be comfortable enough in their own skin so I could trust them and pit them in environments with these incredible improvisers and they’d just be natural and themselves. Improv, as far as I’m concerned, is just a life skill that teaches you to fail boldly and to fail bravely. I don’t know how much those classes really helped at the end of the day, but I think it gave them a good base.
“By the end of the shoot they just all took over the characters. The things they were doing naturally were just on point. It was giving them the freedom to bring actual childlike wonder to it, but still making sure that you’re still always serving the story or the characters. You’re no longer watching a movie about kids, you’re watching a movie about people. You’re just watching these characters talk.”
The house the boys build is like another character in the movie, and Vogt-Roberts took pains over its construction, working with illustrator John Wilcox. “It was very important to me that the house never felt like movie magic—it never felt totally out of reach, but idealized enough that it could still be iconic and impressive, without just being like the house from a Mumblecore movie,” he said. “And so we wanted to ride that line. The mandate that I gave—and I later went to an architect and said, ‘How would you do this properly? How, if you had three hundred dollars and hammers and nails, construct this thing? And then how would a bunch of kids mess it up?’ And so we reverse engineered it and wanted it to be this hodgepodge and give it little pieces of texture that were also practical—like a porta-potty door.”
Vogt-Roberts was also anxious to give the film a special look—something that led to a signature scene that opens the movie and recurs later, of the boys drumming on a pipe line. “I really wanted to give it scope and scale, and to maximize the beautiful Ohio locations,” he said. “And so we blocked a lot of locations together—if we went to a wheat field, I’d try to find something majestic nearby. And there was this pipe that I found during scouting, that just didn’t make any sense for us to go to. And on one of our off days—this was a real family environment, and so on our off day me, the DP, the writer [Chris Galletta] and these two [Basso and Arias, who accompanied him to Dallas] and Nick Robinson, I stole them away from their families against all labor laws and we just went out in the woods, and I just recorded them—that entire montage of them banging on the pipe and just being boys, peeing off logs and throwing rocks and things like that—that was all shot with just the three of us. All the audio for that was shot on my i-phone.
“And it was just the most pure, wonderful day, giving them the freedom to be boys and to mess around. I took them to that pipe, and we had no idea what was going to happen. I just thought of it as a cool visual. I knew that I could frame that up right down the center frame. And they did a walk on it, maybe a little dance on it, and because these guys are just incredibly talented, they started drumming, he started dancing. And it was just one of those rare moments on set that you witness—very, very rarely do you have a moment on set where you’re like, ‘This is special.’ And honestly, as soon as we shot that, I started rethinking the movie. I knew that was how the movie was going to open at that point, too. It was just one of those rare moments.”
Arias interjected, “Every time we’re asked what was our favorite part about shooting…we just say that in Ohio there wasn’t much to do on our off days, and our director would call us to shoot again and we’d go shoot on our off days, because we trusted him, we were very excited for the project and we wanted it to be the best it could be, to make it look as high-scale as possible. I think that particular scene is now the core of the film. It starts it off and I think that’s one of the scenes you most remember, and it was honestly all improvised, majestically choreographed in my mind. It was definitely one of the greatest times I’ve had just shooting, because they was no school, there was no crafting, we were starving. It was just fun.”
Basso added, “I think it was Chris [Galletta] was like, ‘Just screwing around on the pipes,’ so we started tapping away, and then Moises was like, ‘Okay seriously, if we’re going to do this, let’s play music.’ It was a very organic process.”
But making the film wasn’t all fun and games. “It was honestly one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done,” Arias said. “I’d just turned eighteen, it was the first time I was on a set by myself, we stayed in a retirement house because we wanted to be in the woods and it was cheap. At the beginning it was very difficult getting to know everybody. Then it started to change hanging out on set. The first week it was difficult getting into character, not overdoing it and making it a gimmick. I think working with Jordan—Jordan is really talented at improvisation, in letting us go at it—and by the end, it was just a bunch of stuff that Chris and Jordan pitched and me and I’d throw something in there. But long hours, and I have an obsession with coffee now because I had to drink four or five cups. My character is wide-eyed all the time because that’s how I was.”
Basso agreed. “It was a lot of work,” he said, “but at the same time you’re forced to make a decision whether you’re there for the love of the craft or whether you’re not. And those days when we didn’t want to shoot B rolls, we loved the film and we saw how much passion was going into it and we forced ourselves—at least I did—to go out there and give it everything I had, and rely on these guys. They were amazing to work with—everyone was amazing. It was just an all-around extraordinary experience for me, and I was blessed to be a part of it.”
Originally the movie was titled “Toy’s House,” Joe Toy being the name of the character played by Robinson—and it was shown as such at Sundance. But it was decided to change that before release. “There’s a movie that nobody’s ever heard of, just a small little thing called ‘Toy Story,’” Vogt-Roberts explained, laughing. “Honestly, people would confuse it in reviews. People would start writing it as ‘Toy’s House,’ and then three paragraphs in start they’d start calling it ‘Toy Story.’ ‘Toy’s House’ was always a weird title—I love it, because it’s near and dear to me. And as far as I’m concerned, when you watch the movie—I think ‘Kings of Summer’ is a great title, coming in it’s a good title—but when you’re done watching the movie, and I think we’re all on the same page here, you’re not saying ‘I just watched “The Kings of Summer.”’ It’s ‘Toy’s House.’ It’s just marketing and things like that.
“But it broke our writer’s heart.”