Interview: KIN‘s Aussie directors Jonathan & Josh Baker talk about working with Mogwai and paying homage to James Cameron

In cinemas next week, the new film KIN will hit cinemas in Australia and the USA; continuing the trend of underdog sci-fi that has returned to popularity thanks to Stranger Things (the producers of which also produced this project). The film is the debut feature from NYC-based Aussie directors Jonathan and Josh Baker, whose short film Bag Man has been adapted for this feature.

Ahead of the film’s release, I caught up with the directors to talk about developing Bag Man into the feature, working with Mogwai on the score, and paying homage to some of their idols, like James Cameron.

When I went to your website for the short Bag Man, I found you asking the public for their feedback – did they want to see a feature film. Who got in touch that made KIN possible?

Jonathan: Firstly, you’d be surprised by how many people connected with the short. It was an unexpected piece of short filmmaking… where they assumed they knew what it was all about, and the tone of it, and then suddenly in the third act it all flipped on ‘em. We received a lot of feedback which was really positive. It was surprisingly a good amount of questions on what happens after the short film. A lot of people were basically saying, can we please have a movie version of this.

So then once the short went to SXSW, and more people started to see it, within the industry over here as well, although Bag Man wasn’t created to get a feature film off the ground. But people were going to ask, and when they did ask, we had to have an answer for them so we didn’t miss out on the opportunity.

So at that stage, had you already though about escalating the concept towards an underdog sci-fi story?

Josh: Not really man, I wish I could say that we did, we focused more on tone, everything for the short film was about nailing the right tone, that’s what people really responded to, that it didn’t feel like anything else they’d seen before. If felt like more than one thing. And if we wanted to do anything when it came to the movie version it was to transfer that tone over to the feature. And feel like people are getting more than one thing in the movie.

There’s lots of references to films we grew up with, touch stones to things like Stand By Me, road trip films but then, crime dramas, and then sci-fi, your District 9’s and things like that too. It’s all the things we love about movies, and it’s our first go at it.

Jonathan: Yeah, we selfishly stuck It all together. We wanted to mix it all up and see it could make it all sit together.

Yeah there are more than a few references throughout the film, or easter eggs if you will… James Cameron films for starters… Being able to add your vision to the sci-fi cinematic universe, is there a particular joy in being able to pay homage to the films that inspired you?

Jonathan: Of course man, we grew up in the 80s. We’re about 39 now. So when we were coming up, it was all these new 80s films coming u and inventing the blockbuster concept… wish fulfilment, kids finding crazy items and then what happens to them.

Josh: All being characters that didn’t feel belonging in their environment. Be it family, the world, or friends… and looking for something else.

Jonathan: That’s your E.T., your Last Starfighters, all that kind of stuff? Did you notice the Last Starfighter easter egg by the way? Look out for it in the scrapyard scene.

Josh: And then like you said, there’s Terminator and Aliens a bunch of things… the police station is named after the ship in Aliens… there were a bunch of things where we tipped a hat to our childhood. We obviously grew up together liking the same kind of stuff, so we made we made this movie for ourselves and for our younger selves.

You managed to pull together an incredible cast for the film as well. Myles and Jack have fantastic chemistry and James Franco really shines as a gangster, almost as if he slips back into the role from Spring Breakers but adds something even darker and more intense. What was it like working with such a reputable ensemble behind the scenes?

Jonathan: Yeah man… I would say that our 13 year old minds would be blow for starters, it was a great cast and it was an honour to collaborate with them. Zoe Kravitz was also someone who brought this authentic sense of cool to the role.

…and then you’ve got a newcomer like Myles Truitt. You manage to find great young actors, Judah was great in the original short too. Talk me through a little bit about how you found Myles and what it was like working with him.

Josh: For the short film, we went to the Broadway route, we lived in NY at the time, and we didn’t want to look at kids casting, generally. We basically went to Broadway and stole all our actors from there. For this one, we went to someone who’d done it before. We had to look for something very specific… that role of the 14 year old black kid, that’s really wise beyond his years, and has experience and is introspective is very hard to find. And so our numbers were fairly limited.

We worked with Rori Bergman out of New York, she’s worked recently on Baz Lurhman’s The Get Down, so she’d already cast a bunch of people who were very similar, and we got to go through that pool and go further. So we cast out of LA, New York, Atlanta, Toronto and Chicago and the very last kid to rock up by himself, was Myles… We already thought we knew who we were going to cast for the role by that point, and then suddenly watching this kid and we thought he had it.

They saved the best for last!

Jonathan: Coming from 15 years of advertising, we feel like we have a really good perception of what it takes to be a child actor and truly subtle in front of the camera. We pride ourselves on our casting, and yeah on that last link, we just knew he was the one.

Bringing that cast together, I think what works so beautifully about it is that this is just as effective and emotional as a road drama even without the sci-fi elements. How important was it to reflect those layers of the film and not bring out the full sci-fi elements until the end?

Josh: We talked a lot in development about how this film needed to stand on its own, without the sci-fi or the gun in it… if you changed it to a bag of diamonds you needed it to work, and the film couldn’t fall apart like a house of cards. While we loved pushing those sci-fi elements, we held back quite a lot to be honest. We wanted to set up a slower, character driven first act. You’re walking in his shoes, that’s really the parallel with the short comes into play the most. Him exploring the factories and walking around, picking up this dynamic with his father, with school, with his brother coming out of prison.

Jonathan: There were references back to Mud, Stand By Me, George Washington… exploring with these kids and walking in their shoes. And I think it was important from day one to make that beginning as quiet as possible, so you could be next to him and experience it as he does. You’ll notice we didn’t fire the gun into the second act in the strip club, and that was always the intention. We wanted to wind that up, so by the time you let of a huge plasma round, hopefully the audience is with you.

Mogwai’s incredible score really brings this balance out too. There’s this real scintillating, pulsating sci-fi tone but also something a bit more ethereal. You worked with them for this film, Bird Courage for Bag Man. What attracted you to working with artists rather than traditional composers for the film?

Josh: With Bag Man, we talked early on about contrasting tones, we were playing with elements that felt like Dictrict 9 means The Wire. Didn’t want anything that felt overly hip hop or black culture or anything like that. So we met Bird Courage busking on a train platform in NYC… I just approached them, you’re bringing tears to my eyes and it’s minorly embarrassing… but I asked them if they’d like to score a movie. They were blown away and came in and looked at our edit and were like, “we’d love to do this”. So just the process of working with real musicians, real bands and going that unexpected route, was something we wanted to bring into Kin too. But with Mogwai, that was a giant step up – and we did not meet them in a subway!

Jonathan: There was a playlist of music that summed up with this movie was. We started it during Bag Man and it carried over to Kin, and we found that Mogwai had a shit tonne of music on it. When we explained the movie to someone, we ended up playing a Mogwai song, so we asked if we could speak to them, and we did, and they told us straight up, we get offered a lot of movies, but we turn them all down… this one we really emotionally connected with and we want to do it with you guys. It really shows if you want something, just ask!

Of course the design of all this alien tech is fun to watch unfold. I particularly like the tracking triangle device that the cleaners use in the strip club, and of course the gun itself. How did these concepts develop from what we first saw in Bag Man?

Jonathan: It’s obviously something we explored with Bag Man, but you often don’t get two shots with something. You don’t often sit back and see how people respond to something you’ve done, and go, how can we make that better, how can we learn from our experiences. So collecting a similar team, the designers were the same, Super Vixen from Sydney… very small group of guys. Concept artists came in and designed the cleaners uniforms, the helmets, the sphere that’s thrown around, the portals… very small team when you look at the amount of people in the credits of an Avengers… that’s why we felt this was one of the biggest passion projects, because it felt very similar to the experience of making the short.

Without giving anything away, you’ve left it open for a sequel… is this on the cards?

Josh: I hope so man. If people are interested, and they want something else. We’ll figure out where to take the story from here.

KIN hits cinemas on Thursday 30th August in Australia and Friday 31st August in the USA.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor of the AU review. You can find him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.