It’s a pleasure to laugh at Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Well, it’s definitely a pleasure to laugh at his videos, which are an extension of his well-honed sense of humor. With two Staff Picks under his belt and a whole bunch of other smartly-shot shorts, he always brings a cinematic twist to comedy. Since joining the Vimeo community in 2009, he’s shared everything from wild genre mashups to Arnold Schwarzenegger PSAs and more. In 2013, he premiered his first feature film, Kings of Summer, at Sundance Film Festival and continues to direct television and commercial work. Oh and he just directed Kong: Skull Island (!!).
We’ve loved watching Jordan’s work grow in the Vimeo community, so we were so excited to talk to him about his filmmaking beginnings, and making the jump from being his own one-man crew to directing a huge Hollywood movie. Read on for delightful inspiration and A+ car/film metaphors.
You started working with comedians while you were in film school in Chicago—why make short-form comedy videos?
I kind of fell into it. I mean, humor has always been such a big part of my life. In high school my friends and I were the class clowns, but I never in a million years considered it to be something that could be related to my career. In Chicago, I made a short film for a MySpace contest for the Beastie Boys. A local comedy venue saw the video and they called me to come play that video and more of my work. I lied through my teeth and said, “Of course I have ten more minutes of videos.” So I went out that weekend and shot other sketch videos. I took them to the venue and met so many other comedians that night. In Chicago, it’s a lot of people cutting their teeth for the sake of art — the people I met that night ended up being comedians like Hannibal Buress, Thomas Middleditch, Kyle Kinane, and Matt Boehner. Guys like that who were nobodies back then. And so we just started making videos together.
I became really obsessed with this idea of doing things that were really cinematic or a play on tone. No one cared about quality or craft in the comedy community then.
Why did you join the Vimeo community originally?
People have it so good now. In the early days of the internet, the quality was terrible. I was posting all my videos in QuickTime. Vimeo was the one place that actually cared about the artistry and the craft and the quality. It was like a beacon when the rest of the world was horrible, depressed, pixelated, artifacted videos.
It was an enormous badge of honor. There were months and years that would go by that I would see all these cool artists from around the world have their videos chosen. So it was sort of validating, because I was making videos that people viewed as comedy, but I was trying to do stuff that was comedy with a soul and comedy with artistic bearings — comedy with a cinematic flair to it. I knew that Vimeo didn’t just pick stuff for being viral or funny; they pick stuff that has some kind of craft or merit or vision behind it.
I think a lot of people for a long time thought I was crazy. They’d say things like, “You don’t need to make it beautiful, just make it funny.” Comedy people rely on the joke being the most important thing. The joke is just as important because of the craft and filmmaking around it. Staff Picks recognized that.
Talk about the path from indie shorts to feature filmmaking.
With shorts, I was just going out there and doing it. No one wanted to give me money. All the stuff that Vimeo supported me on, like fusing genres, was what everyone thought was kind of crazy.
At first I was just on the street by myself, trying to make shorts with no money and no budget, as a one-man wrecking crew: shooting, editing, lighting, recording sound, mixing, coloring. I slowly turned those shorts into a TV show. Then I had to fight tooth and nail to convince people to let me do a movie. It was an uphill battle to say, “Hey. I want to make a really dumb Terrence Malick movie.” People looked at me like I was crazy. They didn’t know what that meant. I wanted to make this ethereal and lyrical and beautiful tone poem that’s also really funny.
It’s been a weird path because you have to find your own voice and then trust your own voice. Really just learn to trust in yourself.
What about making the jump to a big budget blockbuster like Kong: Skull Island?
That was equally crazy. One thing I’m really proud of: anyone who watches my early Vimeo shorts, or has seen Kings of Summer, when they see Kong, they’ll say, “Oh that’s a Jordan movie.” Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I guess we’ll let the audience decide. It’s easy in these big movies for the director to go missing. But you can see the direct connection between the shorts I was making on Vimeo and the style and tone of them and what is in this film (Kong: Skull Island).
If I didn’t have to learn how to do it all myself as a filmmaker, I wouldn’t have nearly as much confidence. And I wouldn’t have nearly as much understanding and ability to communicate with all departments and all people. Making the jump is a really crazy thing, but on the other hand, filmmaking is filmmaking. Yeah, the politics change. Yeah, it’s kind of like driving a Ferrari as opposed to a Ford Probe. But sometimes driving the Ford Probe is great because you’re not worried about scratching it. You trade things off when you make indies — sometimes you have incredible freedom and can work really quickly. On a big movie, sometimes you can’t do that, but you can do all these things that you could never do on a small movie.
And there are days on set where I would think, “God I wish I was making a small movie again.” Because there’s stuff that ironically would be more easy to do with no money. And then there are time that you’re like, “Oh my God. I’m flying a helicopter around a bunch of explosions. We’d never be able to do that before.”
What’s the advice you’d give to filmmakers just starting out?
Just keep making shit. Go and fail boldly and fail bravely. All great art and every great everything is built around vulnerability and putting yourself out there. You can’t make something great if you don’t try, and most people never try. They talk about doing the thing and they never do it. You just have to get out there and make stuff.
It takes a long time before the stuff that you’re making is on par with the level of taste that you have. You have to keep making shit over and over and over, because it’s going to be bad. You and your friends are going to have to be very honest. You have to have people around you that will tell you things suck. Just get out there and do it.
Sounds like it’s time to go make stuff. Thanks so much Jordan!