The Hendrix-fueled vision that led Jordan Vogt-Roberts to take 'Kong: Skull Island' to the Vietnam era

The first thing you notice about Jordan Vogt-Roberts when you meet him is his monster of a beard.

A jet-black carpet that rolls ZZ Top-style nearly down to his belly button, the filmmaker’s prodigious facial hair might strike you at first as some kind of hipster affectation on steroids. But in fact, Vogt-Roberts says, it’s a tangible representation of the two-plus years of nonstop work that went into his new big-budget reboot of the King Kong franchise, “Kong: Skull Island,” which stomps into theaters Friday.

“When I go into a movie — you can ask any of my ex-girlfriends — I vanish into it,” Vogt-Roberts, 32, said on a recent morning in Los Angeles. “It becomes my life. So shaving is literally too much effort.” He ran his fingers down the beard’s length and laughed. “In a weird way, this is the culmination of this film.”

Breathing new life into an iconic movie monster first introduced more than 80 years ago in the 1933 stone-cold classic “King Kong” would be a gargantuan undertaking for anyone. But for Vogt-Roberts, who had directed only one previous movie before signing on to direct “Kong: Skull Island,” and a tiny one at that — the quirky 2013 indie “The Kings of Summer” — the job was that much more formidable.

“Fortunately, I like challenges,” Vogt-Roberts said with a shrug. “My whole life has been taking on too much — for better or worse.”

“Kong: Skull Island” takes the venerable giant ape, most recently returnedto the screen in Peter Jackson’s 2005 “King Kong,” and remixes him into a fresh context with the story of a group of explorers and soldiers who venture to an uncharted jungle island in the waning days of the Vietnam War in search of new species.

With an ensemble cast led by Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, it’s like “King Kong” crossed with “Apocalypse Now” — as Vogt-Roberts puts it, “choppers, napalm, Hendrix and monsters,” with absurdist comedy thrown in for good measure.

That may sound like a potentially risky blend of ingredients for a major studio movie with an estimated $185 million price tag and a mandate to help build out a wider giant-monster cinematic universe. But Vogt-Roberts believes that is exactly what will set it apart.

“Movies have become so homogeneous — I think the only currency in film right now is voice,” Vogt-Roberts said. “That is one of the only things right now that gives people a reason to say, ‘Yes, I should see this in a theater and not watch it on my iPhone or just stay home and drink a bottle of wine and watch Netflix.’ ”

Not so long ago, Vogt-Roberts was primarily known — inasmuch as he was known at all — as a creator of darkly quirky short-form comedy. In 2010, he gained attention for “Successful Alcoholics,” a short film costarring T.J. Miller and Lizzy Caplan, which made the rounds on the festival circuit. But he didn’t exactly seem to be on a fast track to the mountaintop of tent-pole filmmaking.

“Everything I’d ever done had been a slow burn,” he said. “I was never the guy that something hit right out of the gate.”

In 2013, Vogt-Roberts brought his debut feature, “The Kings of Summer,” to the Sundance Film Festival. Made for roughly $1 million, the offbeat coming-of-age dramedy about three teenage friends who spend their summer building a house in the woods earned generally positive reviews. When it was released that May, though, the film barely made a blip, earning just $1.3 million.

But with Hollywood executives increasingly looking to filmmakers from the indie world to helm big-budget films — like Gareth Edwards, who made the leap from the little-seen “Monsters” to the behemoth “Godzilla” — “Kings of Summer” proved an effective and fortuitously timed calling card. In meetings with film executives around town, Vogt-Roberts made no bones about his ambitions to take the reins of a big, crowd-pleasing blockbuster, like the ones he had first fallen in love with growing up in Detroit.

“Before I discovered foreign cinema and film history and art-house cinema, the only thing I had access to as a kid was studio movies — it was ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Thing’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Die Hard,’ ” he said. “When you make an indie, it almost doesn’t matter how good it is — it’s next to impossible to break through the noise and to catch the zeitgeist. I was like, ‘I want to make a movie that people see.’ ”

Vogt-Roberts had always had a particular soft spot for monster movies — as a kid, he’d once shot a little movie called “Dogzilla” that featured his dog smashing through a miniature city made out of blocks. Still, when Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures first approached him with the idea of a Kong reboot — which, at the time, was to be set during World War I — he initially balked.

“They gave me a script that took place in 1917. I said to them, ‘I’m superexcited you’re doing this movie, but I don’t think this is for me,’ ” he said. “They said, ‘Well, what version of the movie would you make? Go away for the weekend and think about it.’ ”

That weekend, as Vogt-Roberts mulled over the idea, an image popped into his head. “I saw a blazing red sun, Huey helicopters flying through the jungle, [Jimi] Hendrix playing — and then this massive fist just comes out of the sky and punches a helicopter out of the sky,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘I haven’t seen that before.’ ”

Much to his surprise, Warner Bros. and Legendary went for it. “The hardest thing with these franchise characters and films is finding that fresh approach,” said Alex Garcia, executive vice president of production at Legendary. “Jordan’s idea to set this giant monster movie against the backdrop of the 1970s felt thematically interesting, having these characters who’ve gone through this horrible conflict and now go on this seemingly innocuous mission that turns out to be something much more.”

From the studio’s perspective, gambling a franchise on an untested director can end happily (Colin Trevorrow’s smash “Jurassic World”) but it can also easily go sideways (Josh Trank’s flop “Fantastic Four”). Meanwhile, from the filmmaker’s perspective, making that leap directly from a tiny movie to an enormous one can feel a bit like being Fay Wray in King Kong’s palm, buffeted by forces beyond your control.

“I think there are situations where people want to hire a younger guy so they can push that guy around — I know guys it’s happened to,” said Vogt-Roberts. “Luckily I didn’t have that experience. I’m also very stubborn. I let it be known early on that I’m not that guy.”

At the same time, being called up to Hollywood’s big leagues brings with it a whole new level of public scrutiny. Last year, Vogt-Roberts briefly went viral when he live-tweeted a confrontation over a phone cord with a fellow airline passenger whose views he described as “alt-right.” Meanwhile, he has been held up, along with a handful of other filmmakers, as an example of what Vulture called the film industry’s “white-guy problem” when it comes to hiring indie directors for tentpole movies.

As “Kong: Skull Island” gets ready to beat its chest at the box office, with projections of a domestic opening weekend in the neighborhood of $50 million, Vogt-Roberts is already looking ahead to his next move. While he hopes to make another tentpole film out of the video game “Metal Gear Solid” — which, as a hard-core gamer, he calls “my personal ‘Star Wars’ ” — he also feels tugged in the opposite direction.

“I want to go make an experimental indie probably, something very small and very quick, and then come back and make a bigger movie,” he said. “But we’ll see.”

Big or small, King Kong or “Kings of Summer” — in a way, to Vogt-Roberts it makes no real difference in the end.

“It’s like driving a car,” he explained. “Once you get your drivers’ license, whether you’re driving a tractor or a Ferrari or a true race car, the fundamentals are essentially the same.”

He paused and laughed dryly. “Granted, you might crash that race car right into a wall. But the core is the same. You still have to tell a story.”

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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