On Location: Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts on Filming ‘Kong: Skull Island’ in Vietnam
Finding the perfect place to shoot a major motion picture is an early issue any studio must face. Will they film in a studio? Will the jungle be computer-generated? The decision sets the aesthetic for a film and can often make or break a production.
For Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of “Kong: Skull Island,” it was not a matter to be taken lightly. “I made the decision very early on that I wanted 'Skull Island' to be as real as possible,” he told Travel + Leisure. “I wanted it to feel like a tactile, tangible place.”
Vogt-Roberts and his team made many trips around the world—places like Iceland, Hawaii, Australia, Thailand—in search of the perfect spot to set their scene. “Hawaii was great, but it’s very much tied to the aesthetic of 'Jurassic Park,'” he said. “I knew I wanted to stay away from that.”
It wasn’t until the director and his team arrived in Asia that he found what he was looking for.
“We went to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam in one trip,” Vogt-Roberts said. “Cambodia was more of a research trip, and Vietnam was originally planned as a throw-away location simply because no one had really shot there before.”
The team made its way through each country, but when they finally landed in Vietnam, the landscapes and rawness of the country won Vogt-Roberts over: “It was something that I just felt didn’t exist in any other place that we traveled."
The decision to transport the entire cast and crew halfway around the world wasn’t without its obstacles. No other production of its size had ever been shot in Vietnam, and the studio went through years of negotiations with the government before getting approval to start filming. Upon arrival, they hit the ground running, and it wasn’t long before Vogt-Roberts was obsessed.
“I truly fell in love with the people, the culture, the food, and the landscapes,” he said. “It became my mission to put this country on screen and to let the world know how spectacular it is."
In preparation for the film's release on Friday, March 10, we sat down with the director to reminisce on his time working on the film.
“This is from the very first day of shooting. We were in a small village and the entire community showed up to watch us. If you zoomed out, it would go on for pages and pages to the left and right. We would never have allowed that to happen if we were shooting in the Untied States, but in Vietnam we knew how unorthodox it was for them. I really can’t stress enough how much pride the Vietnamese people had for us being there and what that meant to us.”
“Both of the locations in these shots are special to me. The photo on the right is actually the place that made me decide that we had to shoot in Vietnam. There’s such an extreme expanse to it, but also the intense shapes jutting out of the ground. The other picture is of Walter Bithell in an area where the water buffalo roam. When we arrived I just knew I had to find a way to put it in the movie. The mountain range is so spectacular.”
Dealing With Weather
“We designed the boat on the left for the characters in the movie, and we would have these camera boats that would follow it. On this particular day, it was so densely overcast that you really couldn’t see the peaks. As a director, you have these moments of panic. There’s no sunlight. It’s all fogged out, and you think to yourself, 'Oh my god, are we going to shoot one of the most beautiful places on the planet and not have it look as gorgeous as it is?’ Luckily, I’m actually very proud of how this stuff looks in the film.”
Relying on Local Skills
“This shot gives a sense of the mountain ranges that surrounded us in that marsh. You can see Vietnamese villagers in the canoes. They were the only ones who knew how to use them. They were really tricky boats, and we had Brie Larson and the whole cast in them. If it were anyone else paddling those things, they would have tipped over.”
Getting Our Hands Dirty (or Feet Wet)
“We filmed in this swamp for the final sequence of the film, and if the cast was going to be in the water, then I was going to be in the water. That’s just how I worked with the actors. The surrounding landscape was stunning, but the water was very cold. It was an easy moment for them all to say, ‘Jordan, we’re done.’ But, we all just looked around, and there was this joint effort to stick through it. Yes, we would be cold. Yes, we would have six days of this. Yes, this was going to be a pain. But, we all just looked around and realized where we were and how lucky we were to be there. It was such an inspiring moment.”
Finally, Some Sun
“This is a very popular river and tourist destination that the Vietnamese visit, especially around Tet. You can see the sun shining through. It was actually one of the days where we were getting sunlight. You can also see our entire crew packed on this boat as we were trying to shoot a scene. Normally the river would be crawling with tourist boats, so we had to shut down a section of the river.”
“These are the type of boats that you would normally go and take a tour in. Women only operate them, and each weaves through the river with ease. They’re all such bad asses.”
Anything for a Good Shot
“Okay, so this is a testament to Tom Hiddleston. I really wanted to get a shot of this view, but there are like 500 or 600 stairs to get to the lookout at the top. If you’re in America and you go to a cave or a park, you have paths to follow. In Vietnam, it’s a bit more rugged. So, to lug your camera equipment and cast up to this point is not easy, but Tom is the kind of guy who is up for a challenge. He was completely willing to do those crazy things and get physical while hiking up some broken steps to get that shot.”
Scouting With Local Guides
“We really relied on guides while we were scouting, and this man was one of the original men to help. Him and I hiked up to this lookout. You can see a river running through these rice fields. It’s such a surreal road of water that runs through these gorgeous green layers on each side of it, and all framed by those mountains that you’ll only find in Vietnam.”
Filming in Halong Bay
“This was also taken in Halong Bay, but it gives a better representation of what the area is. Normally, there wouldn’t be this haze and you would see these enormous peaks in the background. It’s just an endless ocean of these incredible vertical shapes jutting out of the water. You almost feel as though you’re on an acid trip as you go through it. I also love that you can see the scale of the boulders compared to the boat.”
“Both of these shots are examples of how captivated I was with the beauty of Vietnam. I took each of them on my iPhone. The first is from a night while scouting. The sunset was incredible and there was this motorbike passing, so I snapped this photo. It just blew me away. The other is from a canoe. The fog was rolling over the mountains and it was stunning. It’s the type of stuff we pay money for people to add in visual effects in movies.”
A Moment to Reflect
“This shot was taken right as we wrapped production. The crew was small. There were only about 20 people—typically we have hundreds—because we were in a protected site in Halong Bay. It’s typically off-limits. It was an intimate moment for me. I was just standing in the water trying to process what had just happened in my life.”