How Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts Went From You’re the Worst to King Kong

John C. Reilly and Jordan Vogt-Roberts on the set of Kong: Skull Island. Photo: Vince Valitutti

Jordan Vogt-Roberts had a nice thing going. After cutting his teeth in Chicago directing the likes of Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, and T.J. Miller in short films, Vogt-Roberts’s first feature film, The Kings of Summer, became a Sundance darling in 2013. The next year, he directed four episodes of You’re the Worst’s acclaimed first season, including the pilot. With solid footing in both the television and indie-film worlds, Vogt-Roberts could’ve continued on in that vein for a while, returning to Sundance and shoring up his second feature with TV work.

That transition from tiny indie to super-big studio tentpole is hardly unheard of at this point: Colin Trevorrow and Gareth Edwards did it successfully with Jurassic World and Godzilla, and Josh Trank less so with Fantastic Four. But strange as that path might seem from the outside, for Vogt-Roberts, it was very much the plan.

“After Kings of Summer, I came to realize that when you make an indie, it almost doesn’t matter how good it is. My friends had movies far better than mine, things like Fruitvale Station and Short Term 12, that were coming out the same year — you watch this thing that you love enter into the world, and it’s almost impossible to break through the clutter and the noise of pop culture,” Vogt-Roberts told Vulture recently. “So I was like, I want to make a big movie, because I want people to see the movie I make.

Vogt-Roberts laughs as he says this, but it’s a serious point. Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed made $4 million worldwide; Jurassic World made $1.7 billion. Edwards’s Monsters made $4 million; Godzilla made $529 million, and his next film, Rogue One, made a billion. Despite competing at Sundance and being acquired by CBS Films, The Kings of Summer made just over a million during its theatrical release. Kong: Skull Island might make that in its first hour.

But more than that, Vogt-Roberts identifies as a big-movie guy. He cites Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, Blade Runner, Alien, and the Star Wars franchise as the films he grew up on, one of the Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott acolytes now coming of age as filmmakers. While those films also functioned as a gateway into other types of cinema, like the art house and comedy, for a generation of fans they also retained a certain value as the apex of a collective moviegoing experience.

“I believe that big movies can be good, and I think that we live in a world — and it’s only getting worse — where people care more about Snapchat and Instagram and things like that than they do the power of watching a film, which is like church to me,” Vogt-Roberts says. “That scares me, and it makes me sad. Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, but I wanted to make something that reminded people that movies are fun, that made young kids want to become filmmakers.”

It’s a motivation that would be right at home in Spielberg’s own filmography — the childhood love becomes a driving motivation of the adult. And that ambition found a home with his chance to make a new King Kong movie, a possibility Vogt-Roberts initially reacted to the same way many others did when they heard about the project: Why?

This will be the fourth time King Kong receives the onscreen treatment….