Quickies: Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Kong, and Problematic Sundance Breakouts
In the early part of the decade, a talented director with a Spielberg-like flair emerged from the frigid tundra of Sundance, bathed in praise by critics and festival-goers and capturing the attention of the Hollywood machine. He was given the reins to a popular intellectual property, with hopes of revitalizing the concept for new generations. His indie feature debut went on to have a not particularly successful wide release, but the director took hold of the opportunity and cashed in to set his name amongst the top blockbuster making directors in the game right now.
And his name was Gareth Edwards*.
And then, like a year later, Colin Trevorrow essentially did the same thing.
And another year later, Jordan Vogt-Roberts did it too. But Sundance wasn’t too bad that year, almost unreasonably warm, in fact.
Unlike Edwards and Trevorrow, Vogt-Roberts took an especially notable route to feature films, dabbling in online comedy shorts that lead him to a network of talented friends. These friends lead to his calling card short, Successful Alcoholics, and a series of unusual TV shows. Vogt-Roberts' seminal work, in my opinion, is his direction of the pilot of FXX’s You’re The Worst, setting the visual palette of the show and the tone of some of it’s most successful episodes.
Let me take you through some of his standout early work, and stick around to the end where I discuss the ramifications of Edwards, Trevorrow, and Vogt-Roberts' seemingly overnight success.
In the changing media environment of the aughts, Jordan Vogt-Roberts got his start in … comedy sketch videos. Working with Chicago based comics at the onset of the Obama administration, Vogt-Roberts helped visualize the more outlandish concepts and visuals of these ideas. He worked with T.J. Miller and Kumail Nanjiani, amongst others. His relationship is a long running and fruitful one to his career. Their early VIral PSA’s, a little rough around the edges shorts about manners in the digital edge, would be the blueprint for their collaboration on the stand-up driven sketch show, Mash Up.
Where Vogt-Roberts earlier work in sketch comedy was based on straightforward realizations of concepts, Mash Up allowed for a mix of narrative storytelling, non-sequitur interstitials, and avant garde effects driven punch lines. The growing fame of Miller and his comedy friends, and the growing visual panache of Vogt-Roberts style lead to breakthroughs that would become standout sequences in The Kings of Summer and Kong: Skull Island.
Prior to Mash Up, Miller and Vogt-Roberts had their signature moment with the short film Successful Alcoholics, the dark and poignant story of a couple in a relationship that has a hard time growing up. Featuring Miller and Lizzy Caplan, the film highlights an outstanding Caplan and a surprisingly well rounded Miller, in work that would become the roadmap for his later work in Silicon Valley. Vogt-Roberts doesn’t rely on visual tricks here, just straight forward storytelling, mostly in natural lighting and real world locations that add heft to the realizations the characters make at the heart of the comedy.
Despite his feature film and the upcoming Kong, I believe that Vogt-Roberts signature work is in the pilot and the first season of the FXX series You’re The Worst. Setting the visual palette for the show with a mix of Los Feliz dreamscape neons, soft lights, and choreographing impossibly funny sex scenes, Vogt-Roberts brought to life Stephen Falk’s world of self centered assholes. Between the pilot and the recurring theme of the ‘Sunday Funday’ episode, Vogt-Roberts made the often cartoony language of sit-com rom-com characters into a plausible experience, and becomes especially important to the later seasons as the show explordered more serious material.
Edwards, Trevorrow and Vogt-Roberts have emerged as divisive figures in the studio filmmaking system. Gifted first features have opened quick paths for success and acceptance from the Hollywood hierarchy, while other directors, women and people of color, have a hard time cracking through to equal levels of success. The circumstances of their success, a combination of Hollywood’s inflated dependance on the high ‘Q Scores’ of known properties and the assembly line nature that many of these films have, is notable for how it continues a kind of "Good Ol' Boys Club" aesthetic at the top end of modern filmmaking. These opportunities come from their ability to ape the work of directors who have become shorthand for big budget extravaganzas - such as Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, and Cameron in their prime.
These young directors become emblematic of the closed door Hollywood system. Framing their stories like this isn’t about bashing their accomplishments; lots of directors steal from their favorites, lots of directors make movies that they probably didn’t deserve to make. But in a modern, socially ‘woke’ era, and when other notable directors of different backgrounds, such Justin Siemen, Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen seem to still be closed off from major Hollywood opportunities after achieving heights of greater or equal success, directors like Vogt-Roberts become the poster boys of the problem. Add in notable gossip from set-based drama between Vogt-Roberts and older stars Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman, and the seemingly doomed version of Edwards' Rogue One that we may never suss out the truth of; the relative inexperience of these directors taking on high profile projects becomes a symbol of preferential treatment.
I don’t say this final commentary to diminish the works present so far of these directors; nor am I suggesting any solutions to one of Hollywood’s more broken systems. I do believe that some artists, like Siemen and McQueen, are more interested in directing art that remains their vision, while others, like DuVernay, are looking to prove their worth at all levels of filmmaking. Hollywood has to thread a thin line between success and failure financially, where keeping their eyes towards the social ramifications of their work may take the backseat to all but the most socially conscious studio head.
When I finally see Kong, I will see it with this narrative in mind. While I find Vogt-Roberts highly skilled and am looking forward to what the production team as a whole is offering, I’m also hopeful for Hollywood opening the doors of opportunities to many more directors. Big budget film making is a machine, with the directors of these extended universe films spending less time there than the crew members. It’s in those little moments between a producer's expectations and a director's vision that memorable movie magic is made; and we’ll never know who’s vision may be the next one to push Hollywood forward as the premier style for the next 20 years.
*I would like the record to state that Edwards feature debut Monsters was actually premiered at SXSW, but "The cool but muggy, crowded and bar lined streets of Austin" doesn’t have the same evocative storytelling beats.