The creators of KIN talk making a grounded, personal sci-fi film
“Everything needed to have a level of sophistication that was credible,” says Josh Baker, co-director of the upcoming gritty sci-fi movie Kin. “That was, above anything else, commercial success, casting, that was at the forefront of our minds.”
Kin, the feature film starring James Franco (The Deuce), Carrie Coon (Fargo), and Jack Reynor (Detroit), started off as a short film, Bag Man, which he co-wrote and directed with his brother, Jonathan Baker, in 2014. The story follows Eli (Myles Truitt), a young boy living in Detroit who happens upon a mysterious, otherworldly weapon in an abandoned building. After his brother, Jimmy (Reynor), comes home from a stint in prison, the two find themselves on an unexpected road-trip, with this mysterious weapon along for the ride.
Even before Bag Man started to gain traction on the festival circuit in 2015, both Josh and Jonathan were preparing for the chance to make a feature. “When we were in the edit process with the short, we said to each other ‘Look, we probably should have a longer version of what this turns into because we’re probably going to be asked,'” recalls Jonathan. “That’s the climate we live in right now. There’s obviously producers out there buying up material.”
Working together, the Jonathan and Josh started fleshing out a story big enough for a feature film. “We came up with the themes and the characters that we were interested in telling, and quite quickly it moved into a brother story, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. We worked it out on a beach in Costa Rica in 2014, so we kinda put it on the shelf and just said ‘We’ll wait until we get asked.’ And we started to get asked.” Jonathan explains.
Once Bag Man started making the rounds, Jonathan explains that the two started “getting a little bit of heat. We were getting those emails and calls from producers saying ‘Guys, loved the short, what’s the movie version? We should talk!'”
Before long, the Baker brothers were taking pitch meetings all around Hollywood. “We did 30 meetings in one week,” says Jonathan. “By the end of 30, you’ve got it right down to a science.”
They opted to work with 21 Laps, who Jonathan describes as “similar filmmakers.”
“They liked the same stuff, they wanted to do something different, they had a good range of stuff that they worked on, all the way from The Spectacular Now to Arrival, with comedy in the middle. They do a lot of different stuff, so it felt like a good home. Dan Cohen and Shawn Levy understood what the short was, but didn’t really get where we were gonna go with a movie until we came in and pitched it to them and they were like ‘Okay, sounds like you know exactly what you’re doing.'”
“They’re great, supportive producers,” says Josh. “Shawn is a great director in his own right, but doesn’t force his aesthetic on the filmmakers he works with. I think he prides himself on developing great talent and getting those stories out there. We certainly knew the tone of the film we wanted to create. Tone was pretty much everything. We wanted to mashup maybe three or four different styles of movies, from road-trip to family drama, there’s a crime aspect in there, there’s sci-fi. Big concepts, but it’s all treated very grounded and very gritty and very relatable.”
When it came to drawing influences from other works, Jonathan explains that Mud came up often, mostly as an example of it being an adult-oriented movie with a child as the lead character. “That’s something we were very adamant about. This is not gonna be a kids film, this is gonna be an adult film, made for us. This was the film we wanted to watch. Big, solid wish-fulfillment films from the 80s.”
With their ideas in place, the brothers reached out to screenwriter Dan Casey to help round out their feature-length script. “We specifically wanted more of his crime drama and family drama work, not his sci-fi work,” says Jonathan. “We didn’t want to get too glossy and get some giant blockbuster script that he’d written before. We wanted to make it a lot more intimate than that.”
“They knew, for the most part, how they were going to turn the short into a feature,” explains Dan. “When I went in there, it was really just about trying to have a conversation and vibe a little bit. They were at a crossroads with something, that just had the right kind of story piece to fit in there. Personality-wise, we just sort of clicked.”
Jonathan cited Dan’s knack for character-driven stories as to why they were drawn to work with him. “I think it was about perfecting arcs and landing an end; a third act that pays off in the way you want it to. If you’ve seen Bag Man, it’s all about starting one way, and then flipping it on its head and doing something completely different that you don’t see coming. And we did want to do that on Kin as well, a third act that blows your mind a little bit and goes into a different place.”
“There’s something fun as a director to use the pre-conception of an audience against them,” adds Josh. “They think they know where it’s going, and then you flip it. That was the real pleasure with Bag Man, where everyone almost got to the point of boredom and then it’s like ‘BAM!’ We love rewarding an audience with stuff like that.”
With the script in place, next came the task of casting the film. “It’s a daunting task,” says Josh, “but I think we always approach our stuff with the highest bar we can, and we get to a point where we just accept we’re making a movie right now, and yes that’s stupid and nuts and who would have ever thought we’d get there? But, we’re here and we’re doing it so we may as well go hard and aim at the top of the top.”
“It’s kind of two sides of a coin,” says Jonathan. “You’ve got, on one side, ‘We need the biggest actor possible to sell the movie. Then on the other side is, ‘You may not get a big actor.’ That came up a lot. So, for every role, we’re balancing this level of how big should we go, how big can we go. With someone like James Franco for our bad guy, his name came up fairly quickly, and it’s a fine line that character, Taylor, is dancing in the film. There are not many actors that can dance that line, and James Franco, once his name got brought up, was like ‘Wow, he might be able to pull this off.'”
“One that we were attracted to is Spring Breakers and his role as Alien. That’s probably the far-out whacky version of some of the stuff he’s done there, but we wanted to do something that was iconic for James Franco, and fingers crossed we did that. By putting a mullet on him,” says Jonathan, laughing. “We photoshopped an image of him early on with an English football haircut and sent it to him and he’s like ‘Hey man, I’m down. Whatever you want to do to me.'”
Of course, filmmaking is known for its curveballs, and Kin was no exception.
“Day one, shot one, the Taylor character swept a table with cigarette trays and weapons with his arm and tossed it across the room,” says Josh. “It’s a scene that didn’t even make it in the movie. But he had a gash on his arm about an inch and a half wide.”
“A piece of ceramic hit the wall, shattered, came back, and cut a decent sized cut in James Franco’s arm,” adds Jonathan.
“So, he’s bleeding everywhere,” resumes Josh, “and we’re looking at each other like ‘Oh, my goodness, we just broke James Franco!’ Then, six days later, we’re like ‘How’s the arm?’ and he’s like ‘Aw, I forgot about that thing.'”
With its late-summer release date, Kin will not only be facing the usual competition at the box office, but as a stand-alone, mid-budget film with a sci-fi element, it’s facing a world of mega-budget franchise movies and an endless stream of sequels, spinoffs, and reboots. To make Kin stand apart, Jonathan says the conversation was more about restricting things than embellishing them.
“[It’s] not about how far can we go. In a way, you want there to be big ideas, you want there to be exciting scenes, but we didn’t wanna go just so ham with this thing that it ended up just feeling like every other blockbuster out there. But at the same time, you have these giant ideas, and that was the balance, man. That was the dance on this movie. Balancing those two tones together. There’s a duality to this film that comes up a lot, with characters and with the weapon being all shiny and clean, but we had these gritty locations. It’s always about putting those two contrasting things together, and hopefully having something that feels fresh.”
“We live in a world where there’s a new Star Wars movie every single year, sometimes two,” says Dan. “We’re competing against all these massive branded entities, and they’re always going to outspend us no matter what. It was the brothers’ aim to make sure that we’re telling a human story that could essentially exist without the sci-fi weapon. That was a big priority for them.”
“There’s a hunger for other things,” says Jonathan, “and we’re big fans of projects that aren’t sitting in just one box. There’s a time and a place for films that are doing a little more than just one thing.”
“There needed to be a level of intimacy to these characters, to this world,” adds Josh. “Obviously, it’s a personal film for us, but when someone comes up and says I love nostalgic sci-fi, I love grounded crime films, you’ve got all this in there, it’s like you made it for me.”
Audiences seem to be reaping what the brothers have worked to sow. Ahead of Kin’s theatrical release, the two have been traveling to advance screenings around the country to gauge audience reactions to their feature film debut. “It’s an audible gasp in the theater,” says Josh about the handful of audience reactions, particularly after their big third-act reveal. “It’s fuckin’ delicious.”
Kin is in theaters everywhere Friday, August 31.