Kong is the seminal big-screen badass, and continues to resonate as everything from a living tempest of nature’s fury to an avatar for our own primal selves.
First unleashed more than eight decades ago, King Kong has thundered off the big screen and into our world with a force that echoes through our collective consciousness still. Now the time has come to restore the crown of the greatest movie monster myth of all in Kong: Skull Island, re imagining the origins of one the most powerful monster myths of all.
“Kong represents all the mystery and wonder that still exists in the world,” says Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. “That’s why he will never stop being relevant.”
A compelling, original adventure from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”), the film tells the story of a diverse team of scientists, soldiers and adventurers uniting to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific, as dangerous as it is beautiful. Cut off from everything they know, the team ventures into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape a primal Eden in which humanity does not belong.
Vogt-Roberts directed the film from a screenplay by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, story by John Gatins.
The quest to re-imagine cinema’s mightiest ape would reunite the producing team behind the 2014 blockbuster “Godzilla.”
For Thomas Tull, who produced the film together with Mary Parent, Jon Jashni and Alex Garcia, it was a prospect both thrilling and incredibly daunting.
“We wanted to create a fresh, new experience for the audience,” Tull offers. “As fans ourselves, it was incredibly important to us that we honor the essential elements of this character that have connected with so many people around the world in a big, fun, epic adventure that delivers the pure entertainment and spectacle of an action-packed monster movie.”
The legend and iconography of Kong continue to strike consistently deep yet wildly varying chords with generations of fans. “A lot of things define Kong—his size, his power, his animal nature, but also his heart and huge depth of soul,” observes producer Mary Parent. “He keys into our natural affinity for other primates, and his gestures and expressions are much more humanlike than even natural primates—which is what has always set Kong apart from other monsters. Even though he’s a terrifying predator, it’s impossible not to root for him. In some ways, he’s been more like the classic romantic hero than a villain.”
Kong is the seminal big-screen badass, and continues to resonate as everything from a living tempest of nature’s fury to an avatar for our own primal selves. Actor Tom Hiddleston suggests, “Kong embodies the internal clash between our civilized selves and the place in our consciousness that still has a very real sense of something bigger than ourselves. How do you reconcile this massive creature who is both a terrifying force of nature and a sentient being with an intelligence that is different from ours but no less sophisticated?”
King Kong was originally conjured by revolutionary special effects master Willis H. O’Brien and sculptor Marcel Delgado to be the enigmatic central figure and unquestionable heart of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s groundbreaking 1933 classic “King Kong”—a dazzling mash-up of Beauty and the Beast, high adventure and giant monsters that would shock and awe millions of moviegoers across the world. It played to sold-out crowds at the height of the Great Depression and broke records through decades of re-releases and television airings. It was the original effects-driven blockbuster and monster movie milestone, and has been remade, parodied and spun-off on every sized screen. Kong has also become embedded in pop culture, inspiring everything from video games to hip hop lyrics to college dissertations, and deploying armies of action figures, models, toys and games.
Kong’s defiant end from high atop the Empire State Building is among the most iconic of all time. But for fans—and Tull counts himself among them—his provocative beginning remains the Holy Grail of origin stories. In fact, his long-held goal of a 21st century MonsterVerse wouldn’t be complete without it. The producers brought in writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly to craft the screenplay from a story by John Gatins. Tull states, “One of the most fascinating elements of the Kong lore is Skull Island—a place with the most exotic, lethal food chain you can imagine, and Kong is the alpha predator keeping the rest at bay. That’s the mythology we wanted to crack open in this film. Our characters are not taking Kong off the island. They have to survive his domain.”
Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Lt. Colonel Preston Packard, the human alpha among the film’s characters, relishes the notion. “We want to see Kong in an environment that is as big and spectacular as he is,” says the acting legend. “We know he lives in the jungle, but what else is in that jungle? What’s out there that allows him to exist? Are there others or is he an anomaly? And we find out that he was once part of a community that got wiped out by something else that’s on that island. Now he’s the guardian that keeps those things in check.”
With “Kong: Skull Island”—and “Godzilla” before it—the producing team is laying the foundation for a vast, shared universe of monsters, one grounded in our own world but heightened to allow for the existence of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, in the “MonsterVerse” vernacular). But to do it justice meant not only orchestrating the collision of two longstanding cinematic mythologies but merging two distinct timelines.
The key came in the form of a game-changing idea from Vogt-Roberts, an emerging filmmaker with just one feature under his belt—the acclaimed independent hit “The Kings of Summer.” Producer Alex Garcia reveals, “The linchpin of our Godzilla story is the notion that the 1954 nuclear tests weren’t tests; the government was actually trying to kill something. Jordan came in the door with the idea of setting the film in the 1970s, and that immediately lit up our imaginations. Not only did the `70s jibe with the MonsterVerse, it’s a rich period to explore thematically and allowed us to bring ultra-real warfare and giant monsters together within the same movie.”
For Vogt-Roberts, “King Kong” had been the entrée to a lifelong obsession with film. “‘King Kong’ is legitimately film history, and when I first saw the 1933 film, it completely shattered my brain with its endless cinematic possibilities,” he says. “It was the first movie to transport audiences to an uncharted, untamed world. Though it was on our own planet, we were confronted with things that we were told couldn’t exist here.”
A self-described “nerd,” the Detroit-born filmmaker came of age on a steady diet of monster movies, summer blockbusters and video games. His discovery of ‘70s cinema would be the flashing neon sign guiding him forward into making movies of his own. Though that generation’s bold, brash, socially conscious films had been produced long before Vogt-Roberts was even born, they spoke directly to his own contemporary experience and sensibility. “The ‘70s are like a weird black mirror of our modern world,” he notes. “Everything that was happening then—political scandals, civil unrest, divisive wars, distrust of the government—reflects exactly what’s happening right now. At the same time, the `70s was kind of the last time when science and myth could co-exist. Since then, we’ve been on a slow quest to destroy the unknown.”
By colliding Cooper and Schoedsack’s lost world of monsters into a chaotic era of choppers, napalm and rock n’ roll, then dropping the audience directly into the fray, Vogt-Roberts hoped to bring all the power and relevance of Kong to today’s moviegoers. “I want this film to take people out of their comfort zone and thrust them into a balls-to-the-wall adventure that is visceral, intense and like nothing they’ve ever seen before. I’m pretty sure you won’t find a gigantic ape-like creature punching a Huey helicopter in another movie,” he smiles, “but that was the movie I wanted to see.”
Moving the story from the 1930s to a more modern, but not modern-day, setting folded seamlessly into the themes the filmmakers were already exploring. Hiddleston, who had signed on to play the film’s disillusioned SAS vet Captain James Conrad prior to the director coming aboard, states, “It’s a world before the tyranny of global satellites, near total surveillance and information overload. We didn’t have the illusion—as we do today with the internet and cell phones and GPS—that we knew everything about the world we live in. The period setting also gave us an extraordinary prism to explore what Kong might represent in a conversation about war, and the tendency of mankind to destroy what he doesn’t understand.”
For Brie Larson, who plays wartime photojournalist Mason Weaver, this dynamic gave the cast rich thematic territory to explore in their search for monsters. “To me, this story feels like an allegory for the animal nature that’s within us all,” she remarks. “We’re so far removed now from that part of ourselves; we seem to feel the need to overcome it in so many ways. It also taps into the ways we deal with the world around us—how we treat nature and how we value it, and how we value other human beings as well.”
The year 1973 not only marked the end of the Vietnam War but the dawn of the Landsat program, when NASA began mapping the globe from space, which gave the filmmakers a credible hook for Kong’s exotic home to be discovered. “But,” producer Jon Jashni comments, “Skull Island is a place where human arrogance can perhaps be your undoing, if you don’t look before you leap.”
Though Kong is the alpha on the island, he’s not the most vicious or terrifying thing in that order…by far. “Skull Island has been completely closed off from the rest of the world, and followed its own unique and bizarre evolutionary path,” Garcia says. “It’s extraordinarily beautiful but also the most dangerous place on Earth, with creatures unlike any we’ve encountered. This is no place for human beings, and their very presence, in fact, will have a profound effect on this delicate ecosystem.”
Vogt-Roberts plunged into mapping the island’s dramatic shifts in feel and temperament and the effect each wonder and terror has on the characters and their choices. “One of the most amazing things we’ve done as human beings is to remove ourselves from the food chain,” he notes. “These characters come to Skull Island with all the presumptions of our place in the outside world and suddenly none of that matters…because they’re back in the food chain. I wanted to explore what that would do to people: Who breaks? Who becomes stronger because of it? Who rallies together?”
Those questions, the director adds, are the fulcrum upon which “Kong: Skull Island” spins. “I love the idea of taking a handful of characters that have come out of the Vietnam War not believing in anything or quite knowing where they belong and thrusting them into this mystical place. Kong is not just a giant animal in our film. This isn’t a man versus nature story. That’s why our Kong will be the biggest in Hollywood history—I want audiences to feel what it’s like to look up and see something conscious and ferocious and 100-feet tall looming over you.”
“Kong: Skull Island” will bring moviegoers face-to-face with a living mountain of majesty and sheer force. But his mammoth stature is not the only thing the filmmakers are changing up. Parent explains, “Kong is an adolescent when we meet him in the film; he’s still growing into his role as alpha. And this is an island teeming with far more vicious creatures, including the Skullcrawlers, which killed his ancestors and made him last of his kind. That’s what’s so exciting about exploring this piece of the mythology. Kong is such a compelling figure anyway, but he’s facing the defining battle of his life in this film—the fight to claim his rightful place as King of Skull Island.”
The quest to immerse today’s audiences in Skull Island would hurl cast and crew across the globe to some of the most intoxicatingly beautiful and exotic locales ever put on film. Vogt-Roberts offers, “When you’re bringing a myth to the screen not as a symbol but in the flesh, it’s critical to place him in an environment that feels tactile, real and absolutely alive. So it was incredibly important to shoot the film practically in environments the actors can interact with, as opposed to putting them on a green screen stage. I want people to look up at the screen and say, ‘I believe that could exist.’”
The production of “Kong: Skull Island” spanned three continents—with locations in Australia, Hawaii and Vietnam—to capture footage that would later be seamlessly fused together to create a never-before-seen world. The first major feature film to shoot extensively in Vietnam, it entailed a complex logistical operation to open up the pristine environments in northern Vietnam for filming and to safeguard the ecology before, during and after principal photography.
To bring the film’s seminal title character thundering back to the screen, Vogt-Roberts drew together an A-team of behind-the-scenes collaborators, who would push the envelope on design and effects, and raise the bar on digital character creation.
“Kong: Skull Island” marked only the second film—and by far the biggest—that Vogt-Roberts has made, but he was undaunted. He reflects, “What guided me through this epic journey was to create an experience for the audience that will feel so real that it will open up a space for myth and mystery in their lives. Even though we’re making a completely new movie with, with a very different narrative…this is King Kong.”