Boys to Men
‘The Kings of Summer’ Stars on Survival Skills, Girls, Becoming Men, and More
Anna Klassen talks to the ‘Kings of Summer’ director and stars about nostalgia, the wild, and adulthood.
Three young actors—none of whom are old enough to legally drink—are thrust into a forest film set for 23 days that includes snakes, swords, open flames, and cliff dives. As the three adolescent characters venture into the great outdoors in the hopes of emerging as men, they attempt to answer the question, why live when you can rule?
This is The Kings of Summer, a coming-of-age comedy about three teenage boys who seek freedom from their constricting family lives in an unconventional way. Directed by newcomer Jordan Vogt-Roberts and written by former Late Show With David Letterman production staffer Chris Galletta, The Kings of Summer is a film that is equal parts hilarious and heartfelt. Thanks in huge part to Galletta’s timeless and quirky script, this boys’ club crystallizes the awkwardness and carefree mentality of male adolescence, reminiscent of similarly veined now classic films like Stand by Me and The Goonies.
The film stars Nick Robinson (Melissa & Joey) as 15-year-old Joe Toy, who is increasingly perturbed with his single father, Frank (played to perfection by Parks and Recreaction’s Nick Offerman), and his no-nonsense attempts at managing his life—including his teenage love interests. To remedy his parental problems, Joe, his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and an oddball tagalong named Biaggo (Moises Arias) escape into the woods to build a home and new lives of their own. But as seminaive novices of the woods, these kings might not rule for long, as their ultimate act of rebellion comes with life-threatening consequences.
Much of the film’s comic relief is delivered by Arias’s Biaggio, a “deer in headlights” character who has been compared to Superbad’s iconic breakout, McLovin. In most scenes Arias wears tight turtlenecks and ill-fitting shorts (“those were women’s shorts cut off,” Arias said), while whacking weeds with a machete in the hot summer heat. He doesn’t know the difference between being gay and having cystic fibrosis, and his attempts at helping the group are, as Robinson’s character puts it, “savagely racist.” Arias described his character as someone “you never want to know too much about. You don’t know what the species is.” Known for his work on Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, Arias signed on to Kings because “the character on paper was just so hilarious, and trying to make him real and not a gimmick was going to be a great challenge.”
Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) and Marc Evan Jackson (Suit Up) offer alternatively cringe-worthy and hilarious moments as Patrick’s parents. Playing overbearing guardians of their only child, these characters love their son so much that it gives him stress-induced hives. But for Basso (Super 8), keeping a straight face during these scenes was easier said then done. “They’re hilarious,” he said of his veteran co-stars at the Los Angeles premiere for the film. “Jordan would say, ‘Keep a straight face, be mad at them,’ but these are two of the funniest people!”
Jackson admits that he and Mullally would rarely stick to the script, instead often riffing improvised dialogue for 30 minutes at a time. “We ruined the film by adding to it,” Jackson joked. “I don’t think Megan or I can stand to do a take twice—do the same thing the same way more than once.”
But the film’s director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, didn’t seem to mind the changes in script, encouraging an open set and improvisation with all his actors, especially the film’s younger leads, whom he calls “wise beyond their years.”
The film’s opening sequence, a brilliantly crafted song-and-dance number performed on an industrial pipe, was entirely spontaneous and came from the minds of its youngest stars. “Jordan became one of our friends instead of our boss,” said Arias. “He really encouraged improvisation. That’s why the pipe scene turned out the way it did. It was the backbone of the film.”
Vogt-Roberts said the script was altered once he discovered the actors had particular and unique talents. “There is a lot of stuff in this movie that is purely from their brains, that I could have never directed, and the writer couldn’t ever have written,” he said. “I found out that Gabe Basso plays the violin, so we put that in. I found out Moises Arias is a great dancer, so we incorporated that into the character. It needed to feel like kids being kids.”
That is true off screen as well. Speaking with The Daily Beast a few weeks before the film’s release, the three young men have an apparent maturity and professionalism, but also a youthful positivity and eagerness to joke around. The threesome make sarcastic comments back and forth, have inside jokes, and even finish each other’s sentences. When asked whether females—who don’t seem to fit into Joe’s treehouse home—have a place in the woods, Robinson responded, “I think girls have just as much of a place in the woods as boys.” But Arias disagreed: “It depends on the girl, if she’s the ‘Oh, my God’ kind of girl ... It just depends on how down she is to get in it. You gotta get dirty.” Nick tried to hold back a smile. “You gotta get in it,” he said. “In it to win it,” Gabe concluded, before the three erupted with laughter.
But shooting 12-hour days for nearly a month wasn’t all fun and games ... Or maybe it was.
One day the crew had rented a slow-motion camera to shoot some of the many stylized outdoor sequences, a piece of equipment that was “super expensive,” according to Robinson. To get the most bang from their buck, the boys got creative with what to do on camera and passed the time by slicing watermelons with swords and playing “dead arm”—an activity where the boys took turns hitting each other as hard as they could until one of them said to stop, a game that Robinson admits left him “black and blue.” Basso added, “It gets dangerous when we play.” Arias said that even the director joined in their physical game: “He came down to our level and let us punch him after he yelled cut.”
But boyish games weren’t the only thing that left these actors with injuries. The actual nature in which their scenes were filmed—i.e., the great outdoors—left them and the crew constantly exposed to the dangers of the elements.
According to Robinson, Basso, and Arias, here is a list of a few of the injuries to the cast and crew: Arias got poison ivy, Basso hit Robinson in the arm with a pellet gun (“I ended up getting the best of him,” Basso said), Arias cut his finger “down to the bone” sharpening sticks, Basso coughed up blood for eight minutes after landing on his stomach during a cliff dive into water, a tree fell on the crew’s water cooler (destroying their beverage supply for the day), and on that same day, “four or five people went to the hospital because someone stepped in a wasp or bee nest. And there were four or five people on our crew that were like deathly allergic to bees,” Basso said.
Luckily, the film’s most climactic sequence (mild spoiler alert), which involves an agitated snake, didn’t cause any injuries. “It’s a gopher snake, which looks like a rattlesnake, but is nonvenomous, so it’s basically just like a garter snake,” Robinson said of his scaly co-star. “But that snake was an asshole. I’m good with snakes; snakes are good. That snake, though, he was a dick. He would slither away. He didn’t like the camera. He wouldn’t bite the food we put in front of him. It was a whole thing. But when he finally got his shit together, it was cool, ’cause he would slither right up to my face.”
Facing the monsters of the wilderness, catching their own food (or trying to), growing unruly facial hair (“I’m a fraud. I can’t grow anything as impressive as what’s in the film,” Robinson admitted of his too-good-to-be-true stubble), drinking beer, and courting women are all adventures these princes hope will turn them into Kings. And while most 15-year-old boys don’t run away from home in such dramatic fashion, Vogt-Roberts stressed the belief that most adolescents had considered it, either in reality or simply in their daydreams. But when asked what tips the boys could offer for those who wanted to try, they all agreed: “Don’t do it.”
“The movie is a good representation of what could happen,” Arias said. “Ultimately, the moral of the story is to come back. Family is the most important thing.”
Robinson jumped in. “Or maybe just get some actual survival skills before living off the land.”