This summer, moviegoers have been amenable to mainstream comedies and superhero flicks, but sometimes it’s the smaller films that deserve our attention.
The Kings of Summer, a film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January under the title Toy’s House and went on to clinch a theatrical distribution deal with CBS Films, has held its director’s life hostage.
“For about a year and half — literally — I lived, breathed, slept, ate this movie,” first-time feature filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts says. “It just completely was everything on my mind and so it made it difficult to do normal life things or to step away mentally for a second. I’m excited to be able to start getting my life back.”
During a recent phone interview, Vogt-Roberts was at court paying off an expired car ticket — something he hadn’t gotten around to doing in the past 18 months.
The Los Angeles-based director grew up in Michigan and attended college at Columbia College in Chicago, where he cut his teeth in the city’s comedy scene. He says he moved to L.A. a few years ago because he wanted to make movies that felt fresh — stories people hadn’t necessarily seen before.
Kings is one of those movies. Filmed on location last summer in Cleveland and Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the movie features a rather beatific part of the Midwest that people don’t usually see on celluloid. The premise focuses on three teenage friends (Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias) escaping from their strict parents (played by TV royalty Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally) to build a hermitage in the woods.
The movie conjures comparisons to coming-of-age ’80s films like Stand by Me, anything in John Hughes’ oeuvre and The Goonies — movies that still endure today.
“There is a technical craft to those films. … I just think we make very disposable content these days and those movies felt more like complete whole films,” Vogt-Roberts says. “They were inventive and they tried things and they had characters that you could root yourself in. It was a different era of filmmaking.”
Akin to those aforementioned films, Kings is a comedy, but it also touches upon the tenebrous realities of adolescence.
The film, which has been slowly rolling out in theaters since May 31, has received positive buzz, but like a lot of indie films, it needs an audience.
“I don’t think the average American really understands the dire situation the independent film world is in, where they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll go out, I’ll see that eventually or maybe I’ll catch it on DVD.’ They don’t understand it actually makes a difference to go out and support something the first weekend,” he says. “In fact, it actually could be like life and death — not only for a movie like mine but for any indie film in general. So it’s kind of been interesting to help educate people on that issue and that process.”
Through Vogt-Roberts’ schooling and word of mouth, the film has generated a growing cadre of fans.
“Even via Twitter and the web, you can see that the movie has struck a chord with people and it is resonating,” he says, “and it’s forcing them to sort of champion it and people seem to be adopting it — which is great — but whether it can find an audience theatrically, that’s a whole different story.”
It remains to be seen if Kings of Summer will be a hit, but in the meantime Vogt-Roberts considers his future.
“The next thing I do I explicitly do not want to be a comedy,” he says. “My favorite directors are guys who jump genres and always keep you guessing. I feel like, if anything, I’ve been sort of slowly moving away from pure comedy and getting into darker, more character-based comedy and into storytelling that happens to have comedic elements to it, so I don’t really view myself as a comedy director.”
Many filmmakers who start out in independent cinema inevitably make the leap to studio films, but Vogt-Roberts realizes he doesn’t have to compromise his indie sensibility to work in the system.
“I firmly believe that making a movie that’s accessible and commercial is not mutually exclusive to also having it be something that can emotionally resonate and have dramatic consequence and feel fresh,” he says. “I’m actually most interested in trying to make big movies that do all of those things.” (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre.)
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