CS discovers an uncharted world and new adventures on the Kong: Skull Island set
There’s a sort of wonderment that fills you when you begin to see Hawaii coming into sight from the airplane window even for a movie fan who didn’t quite get the attraction of the island’s recreational mystique. You know, when you’re of the sort to prefer the inside of a movie theater more than toasting outside in the sun. So you could imagine my surprise when all of a sudden the Jurassic Park theme started playing in my head upon arrival to visit the set of Kong: Skull Island.
It really makes you think about how we look at iconic locations as movie fans.
Here is this place that, like many, I first gazed upon in a movie theater experience with Jurassic Park and continued to watch over and over again on a quickly-fading VHS growing up in urban Inglewood, CA. The sort of place where going to Hawaii didn’t quite appeal, perhaps because it’s not as accessible.
And yeah, arriving there you do get compelled to take part in some of the island’s offerings, like walking out into the beach in a swimsuit, because you know if you don’t try to do “Hawaii things” people back home, who would if they were in your shoes, would be sorely disappointed. Just don’t Hawaii so hard that you fall off some rocks into a shallow section of the ocean, and have a minor brush with genuine coral while face-timing loved ones. Already, this visit was off to an adventurous start.
The next day as the press group was driven out of touristy Waikiki through the island mountains to the north side of the island of Oahu, the John Williams score started mentally playing again. Okay, it’s hard to avoid bringing JP, but everyone in the van also thought it and I’m pretty sure we hummed along to the tune at some point in the long drive.
The Kong set itself was nestled in Kualoa Ranch, where – yes JP was shot. What? We totally saw the Indominus Rex enclosure RIGHT THERE! And drove by locations with O.G. JP signs STILL THERE!
Okay, geeking out aside, it makes perfect sense. A different side of the Island’s mystique starts to creep up on you. Away from the city in the middle of the jungle of Kualoa, you’re transported to another world. That’s when it hits you: The realization that the only human things there are the people on set, equipment, and transportation, but that there’s so much more of everything else made by nature that’s bigger than you. So, it’s no wonder that this place is so often used as a backdrop for a fictional fantastic violent landscapes where predators have the upper hand over prey and prey must scramble to find ways to survive.
Making the choice to keep the focus on man meeting Kong in the wild post-Vietnam war appealed to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts as something that’s never been explored. Standing on a beach — much like the one his film starts on — he explained, “You’ve seen Kong in the ’30s before, you’ve never seen him against modern-issue weaponry.” He painted a scene as it would unfold on Skull Island. “Just the aesthetics of choppers, and napalm, and Hendrix playing while you’ve got Kong punching down helicopters is something that I’ve never seen and I think something that could only exist in our movie. Because obviously choppers, napalm, and everything that is ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Platoon’ mixed with ‘King Kong’ is awesome – just from like a genre mash up perspective.”
Already the colors and palette he was drawing inspiration from attracted our interest. Kong plus lots of explosions? Awesome. In between his break and before the lot of us were to be taken to a hot set, leading man Tom Hiddleston sat down on the beach to affirm the choices that were being made. “I think we were all talking the other day about the size of these movies and the fact that you can contain incredible spectacle, human drama, jaw dropping visuals, and really deliver something entertaining”. he echoed Vogt-Roberts. However, Hiddleston did remark that this interpretation is much more than just action and war. “You’re also retelling a story that we keep telling ourselves. Which is that man is small in the universe. There’s something really powerful about that. I think that Jordan’s master stroke in his conception of the story was post Vietnam 1972.”
Back on the other side of the beach Jordan shared, “Specifically what got me really interested in it was thinking about taking characters and taking the thematics of the time period in which the world was kind of in chaos and we were sort of one foot in the old guard and one foot in the new guard and people were trying to find their place in the world.”
With that, we were already beginning to see a departure from the original 33’s gentle giant tale and Peter Jackson’s beauty and the beast take on the icon we’re familiar with. Even with touches of the action in the Toho universe, Vogt-Roberts aims to re-imagine Kong’s mythology for a new generation that looks back on a time gone by while mirroring things happening today.
Later, while we were tucked in a tent away from set, actress Brie Larson came over to share her excitement about the film. “That’s the interesting thing about this movie. It’s a group of misfits that are all coming from different angles looking at the same thing,” she observed in agreement with Jordan’s vision. “You get to see many different views in regards to nature and how we should handle it and how it’s dealt with from many different perspectives.”
Offering the film’s antagonistic perspective, as his character represents man’s militaristic ambition to sit atop the food chain, is star Samuel L. Jackson, who described the clash in the film as, “The misunderstanding of what one beast’s purpose is in nature as opposed to another.”
Coolly sitting in military regalia of the film’s era, Jackson gave us insight about how his character functions to illustrate the timelessness of civilization’s pursuit of power in the story. “We live in a world that we control a little too much” he elaborated. “ When we get rid of one thing it allows another thing to proliferate. We put things out of balance. Hopefully this will speak to that and people will understand how we do that and what the consequences of us doing those things are.”
Unconsciously prescient, as we visited this set over a year ago, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts pointed out how his film speaks to a time where the country pushed against forces bigger than it. “We were losing wars for the first time, we were in sexual revolutions, and racial riots, and political scandals and things were crumbling and then presenting people with an island that’s untouched by man,” he explained.
To Jordan the film’s conflict is represented by man finding an island that seemed ripe for the imperialistic agenda of the time but would prove to be not as easily overpowered because its nature is, “Something pure in a very impure time” that the characters find. To him, it’s a way in for the audience that gives both the people in a theater and the on-screen ensemble, “…a sense of catharsis with this island. ‘Oh my gosh what a wonderful place this is!’“, he exclaimed. “One of the most incredible accomplishments that we don’t talk about as people is that we don’t get eaten by things anymore. We used to get eaten all the time and now we don’t. Swim out in that ocean and you’ll get back in the food chain, but while they go to this island and they’re presented with this beautiful catharsis – very quickly they’re back in the food chain and that ties back into what happens when you see a god. What happens when you’re back in the food chain how does that make you react? And then realizing that, ‘We should have never come here.’”
The World Building of Skull Island
Not yet having seen much of the set, the scope was still a little bit just in the words being pitched to us, a group of slightly-jaded film nerds who have had to put up with CG landscapes that promised immersion but haven’t been able to meet the level of films we grew up on – films like Jurassic Park where we knew the characters were actually there.
Sure enough, that changed when we visited the Boneyard set, which was testament to the dedication behind the film. Utilizing the rugged terrain, a heap of giant gorilla bones lay littered across a huge field. There were giant rib pieces sticking out of the dirt, leg bones you could walk around of an incredible 80-foot beast and majestic skull nestled nearby that you could stand right in front of.
Okay, now we were in the world, now we were in Skull Island.
Because he’s awesome and decided to hop in our van to set, Tom Hiddleston shared on the ride over that he had the reaction we were about to have and he was right. He described the moment as he hung over the passenger seat enthusiastically, “There was a day about two weeks ago when the entire troop of about 15 of us were trekking across over these ridges and we stop at the top of the ridge and look down into a boneyard. I was at the front of the line and we all stopped and fanned out and I was next to Brie Larson, Thomas Mann, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins,Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Eugene Cordero, Shea Whigham – it was like this is a gang!” he praised, “I’ve made big movies like this on sound stages surrounded by a green screen where you supply everything with your own imagination and the other day we were in that crater in the valley of the volcano and there’s beautiful mountains on every side. Blue sky and nothing left to imagine – you’re just there. Sam and I were saying if you can’t get excited for this, you can’t get excited by anything! This is as good as it gets in terms of big movie making.”
When you’re used to the small-screen version, being planted in the actual landscape was bonkers. Just to give you an idea of my size walking among the artistry, I was as small as Simba in the Elephant Boneyard scene from The Lion King and laughing-in-the-face-of-danger small. Vogt-Roberts wasn’t kidding back on the beach earlier. “We’re framing for a giant ape and also having humans in the frame. I just want to have a lot of imagery in this that’s the same and also feels unique to our movie with the action and with the composition. We want to make a lot of stuff that really could only exist within the confines of the movie we’re making. This is our Skull Island, this is our Kong, and you couldn’t find these sequences or this imagery in another film.”
Hiddleston supported the sentiment. “When Jordan and I met we talked about aspiring to make something that was like the best adventure stories, ’cause he and I are the same age, we talked about Raiders and we talked about Jurassic Park and those films take you to a place, put you into a context, and give you a great time. You just follow the story,” he described as we drove into the familiar wild of Isla Nublar and further away from civilization. The legacy of which, Hiddleston bears in mind as they prepared to unleash Kong into the world. “I think of that first Jurassic Park and it really is about man coming face to face with what he doesn’t understand. All that stuff that Jeff Goldblum says you know it’s a simple idea, but it’s a big idea. We can only hope to make a film as good as that and we’re trying,” he said.
Samuel L. Jackson, who happened to be in the first Jurassic Park, did share an interesting tidbit of info about the Spielberg shoot while we hung out in Hawaii with him. “I never got here,” he laughed, “never got to come here, because the set that I was supposed to work on got destroyed in the hurricane that season. Hence my arm hanging in some anonymous place.”
And he’s finally here for Kong, no less! But yeah – whether it’s Sam Jackson versus Dinos or versus Shark or snakes on a plane, the cult hero actor chalks up his resume of taking on the animal world to a love of adventure stories. “I’ve always liked King Kong movies. I like big things that roar and scare people. Running from things and shooting back at them,” he explained.
As Jackson prepares to be the character aiming to go toe-to-toe with Kong, Jordan Vogt-Roberts imagines the visuals of the war between them as one of bad-ass motherf*cker proportions. He revealed, “When you look at King Kong, that original movie there’s frames you could pause. Almost every one of those scenes – there’s a frame that you remember, there’s a frame you could blow up, and there’s a frame you could put on your wall. As we’re framing for a giant ape and also having humans in the frame. I just remember like when I was in college whatever the frames were from Pulp Fiction – those single images you would have as your desktop background, or that you would print out in middle school to put in your trapper keeper binder and be like, “I love that image!” he said of bringing two cinematic icons together.
Totally game, Jackson looks forward to bringing that to life, “The fact that we’re on location and not in a studio is totally different. It’s out in the elements. It’s happening and you can actually see that and I think the difference will be very palpable to an audience.”
Back in the press tent with Larson, the future Captain Marvel praised the production, “Every time I look in the monitor I’m so excited by, and in awe of, and it’s so much bigger in scope and in scale than anything else that I’ve done. I’m doing things I’ve never done before, like working with CGI and doing things that are very physical. Everything I’ve done before is more visceral and more emotional and more subtle. There’s such a huge group of us and everyone is just like at the top of their game, and I’m learning so many new skills.” After our conversation with her, we saw her work in action when we watched a scene where her character would not stop snapping pictures in awe of Kong, though she should probably run away.
And while yes, Kong is the only star not on set (He’ll be CGI of course), Vogt-Roberts assures that everyone is on the same page to create real reactions to the mighty God of the Island, “Really to me a lot of it is about being able to linger on these characters’ faces, seeing how not just this creature, but this island is affecting them. We truly want Skull Island to feel like a tangible, tactile place and that’s why we’re shooting so much of this practically as we go from Hawaii, to Australia, to Vietnam, it’s to really feel these guys within that space. So it’s a huge help for the actors just to be in real jungles and real settings and things like that. That just adds to that reality when you’re staring up at this completely fictional fake thing.”
And being there on the Hawaii set, I couldn’t agree more, because it does transform and transport you. I totally felt like the kid who’d look at ripples from shaking water cups as a sign that a T-Rex was near. No really, you divert into that mentality when you’re standing deep in the dark jungle legitimately anticipating a great beast whenever the wind would rustle leaves around you.
“We’ve never seen King Kong in that arena,” Hiddleston summed up, “it gives every character somewhere to come from.”
And as I looked down at the Island on my way home, I was filled with great excitement for the movie and to see Kong charging through where I stood. And yes, also with a newfound appreciation for Hawaii as a movie nerd.