[Interview] Filmmakers Jonathan & Josh Baker deliver the unexpected in ‘KIN’

Jonathan and Josh Baker on the set of KIN. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

KIN is a family affair in more ways than just its story about brotherhood. It’s directed by Australian twin brothers, Jonathan and Josh Baker, who’ve taken their original extraordinary fifteen minute short, BAG MAN, and spun it into a gripping, intense, and entertaining feature length film.

In the sci-fi tinged dramatic adventure, adopted teen Elijah (Myles Truitt) and his recently paroled brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) are forced to go on the run from a vengeful criminal Taylor (James Franco). If that’s not enough, a duo of other-worldly soldiers (called “the cleaners”) are also after the brothers – specifically the majorly badass ray-gun Elijah found in an abandoned neighborhood building.

I spoke with the fabulous Baker boys about how they creatively innovated their pre-existing idea and gave it a whole new identity.

Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the idea for BAG MAN come from?

Josh Baker: We’d been making ads in 2007 in New York. It was our film school. It’s where we learned our trade. After doing that for fifteen years, we found ourselves wanting to tell a longer story and did some short films on the side for the fun of it.

Jonathan Baker: We call BAG MAN… you know those little coffee beans you see in Sephora?

Josh: …the palate cleanse, to reset your nose. We looked at each other one day and said, “Let’s put it all in on one project that we can have fun with, have a little more duration, and use all the favors we gathered for nine years in New York.” It wasn’t necessarily to get a movie and wasn’t to get people to transparently call a proof-of-concept. But we realized it is that. It’s going to beg the question, “What’s the longer version of this short?”

While we were in post, we sat down and said, “What story do we want to tell with this?” And we figured out pretty quickly – shocker – that we wanted to tell a story about brothers.

I would think that turning a short into a feature is Herculean effort, especially narratively.

Jonathan: It was a challenge. We had to step back and say, “They’re different things.”

Josh: Let’s not be slaves to the short.

Jonathan: Whatever KIN becomes, it can be entirely different. It can be inspired by it and what are the elements that can inspire it? Obviously, on face value, you’ve got a young, African-American lead, a mystery bag, an other-worldly, sci-fi weapon, but let’s treat this all very serious.

Josh: You’re right. It is daunting to try to say, “What is the story of this?” By the time we worked it out, it was about, “Let’s tell a family story. Let’s tell a story about two brothers that couldn’t be further apart from each other. And how do we bring them together by the end of the film.”

Jonathan: … “And what does family mean? What makes brothers? Is it blood? Is it love? Is it experience? Is it trauma?” Villains having brothers! It was family in every aspect.

Now that you had the feature in your heads, did you go off and make it on your own? How did financing come about?

Josh: Our agents at WME helped get the structure down. There really needs to be a path to these things. You’ve got this IP and people are interested in it, what’s next? Your first big question is, “Who’s going to write it” and second big question is, “Where’s the money coming from?” We knew we needed to hook up with a really smart collaborator at a [development] production company, who had done it before and things like this.

We hooked up with the guys at 21 Laps, Dan Cohen and Shawn Levy. Dan knew we existed before we rocked up in his building. We had a Friday morning meeting for two hours. He said, “I never do Friday morning meetings that are as good as this. Count yourselves lucky.” We were all on the same page and wanted to make the same movie – something that isn’t one thing.  We didn’t want to make a sci-fi movie that went along the same path. We wanted to make it complicated and felt like it captured our taste in cinema. We love big movies, but also really get off on small, smart contained films.

Jonathan: One of the most important things, from the beginning, was tone. We set up a very Sundance-y tone in the short that flipped and became a genre film. The movie has to do something like that as well. In order to do that, we had to keep it independent and the budget low. Do this smart. There needs to be just as much HELL OR HIGH WATER, or MUD in this – not just a HALO movie.

Josh: …and then sprinkle the fun genre, over-the-top elements over the film. It can be both things.

Speaking to that, the pursuits of the thugs and cleaners reminded me a lot of the pursuit of TERMINATOR 2. You’ve also got the arcade game in there too.

Jonathan: That was a much bigger scene we cut down to one shot. At the end of the day, we don’t need to beat people over the head with it. Just a tip of the hat is all it needs.

Josh: We’re not the first people to do this, but your first movie is about taking your influences and your passions growing up and saying, “This is who we are as filmmakers and what we love.” We didn’t want to lean into it too heavily, but TERMINATOR 2 was a massive one. Other than maybe ALIENS, TERMINATOR 2 was the most influential film on us. We were BACK TO THE FUTURE kids when we were really young, but then ‘91/ ’92 comes around and we got slapped by TERMINATOR 2. Those tones are all over this film. When it came to putting a video game in the film – specifically one with a weapon – all we could think of was the TERMINATOR 2 arcade game. I think it’s really interesting that the kid is getting the chance to rock out this giant alien space weapon, but he’ll also just play with the gun on the TERMINATOR 2 video game. Those parallels are crazy.

Jonathan: Same with him in his bedroom with the mirror. It’s in every kid’s head where they have this wish fulfillment even though we’re talking about extreme violence and extreme power in the hands of an innocent. There’s a lot of fun and complicated things to look at there.

Was there a trick to modulating those tones?

Josh: There were definitely themes that we went all in on that type of stuff. At the end of the day, we’re trying to tell our version of THE SWORD AND THE STONE. It’s an old fable. It’s the sophisticated, modern version of that story of a kid finding something out-of-this-world crazy and what happens.

Jonathan: There’s even an owl that appears like the original film.

Zoe Kravitz, Jack Reynor and Myles Truitt in KIN. Courtesy of Summit/ Lionsgate.

Oooh, yes. Let’s talk about the owl. He’s also in the short too. Did you use the same one?

Josh: No. One is a New York owl and the other is a Canadian owl. Both great performers. The New York owl was a bit of a diva on the short – gave us a few takes and went up into the tree and wouldn’t come down. 

Jonathan: We were shocked we had enough to cut the scene.

Josh: We raced through that because we knew if that owl flies away and it doesn’t come back, we’re done. So we got our wide shots and close-ups and then he went up into a tree and basically gave us an owl finger.

Jonathan: …A middle feather.

You also worked with cows and there’s ammunition going off.

Josh: The cows were very sensitive.

Jonathan: They were also very expensive. And dairy farmers don’t like loud noises and things happening around their prized possessions. That was a challenge.

Josh: It was very specific what we could do around the cows. We could run around the cows, but couldn’t do any loud noises. So the explosion, we had to be careful. When he fires the gun, we did that all in post. It was definitely two guys running among stampeding cows, so there was a danger level there, but not for the cows.

Jonathan: We wanted to clash imagery of things we’d never seen before. We wanted a heist in a farm. It was fun to us to see our characters walk down an alleyway of cows.

The ray gun design is fun. It looks like the same one from the short.

Jonathan: Designed by the same people – a group of guys, evolving that look. Supervixen in Sydney. We were really happy with it.

Josh: We made the lines a little curvier. We wanted it to feel heavy – that was something for both the short and the feature. It needed to feel like it was bulky and hard to hold – and only the kid could and he’s small. It was a very specific concept to not have a barrel – to not make it Earth-like. The design of having a big, block nose end was a big thing from day one for the short and we carried over to the feature.

The setting is now Detroit instead of Harlem. I’m guessing this was also a way to differentiate the short from the feature.

Josh: One of the themes for the film was about the idea of ruins and the idea of decay and things being torn down.

Jonathan: Decay of a family structure. Decay of a city. Decay of society.

Josh: Decay of morals – of our lead boy. Is he going to be bad or good? All that stuff plays into it so we wanted that to play into the environment starting in a cliche ruin, which is Detroit, unfortunately, made a lot of sense. We didn’t want to shoot it the way we’d seen others shoot it. We set it in a place called Hamtramck, which is an ethnically-mixed cultures living there. It’s also close to more of the classic ruined areas of Detroit and feels like somewhere you can get on your bike and, within ten minutes, be messing around in places you probably shouldn’t be. We knew early on we wanted this kid to be kind of a loner and outsider, but be street-smart enough to hold his own.

Jonathan: There’s a personal touch to us. We grew up exploring abandoned spaces. That was a big part of our childhood. We’d get ourselves into so much trespassing – never do it in a [destructive way]. It was always about, “Let’s make our way in and explore.” Detroit felt like ground zero for urban exploration.

Josh: When we were searching for a writer, halfway through our meeting with Daniel Casey, he said, “You guys know I grew up in Detroit, right?” We were like, “No, but you just got the gig!” He brought a lot of authentic stuff to it.

Myles Truitt in KIN. Courtesy of Summit/ Lionsgate.

This cast is incredible, but Myles is a revelation.

Josh: It’s his movie. We knew this movie would live or die off who we cast as Elijah. It’s a real tough one. You’ve got to find a kid that’s mature enough, that gets what he’s doing in these scenes and can hang with the big boys and Zoe [Kravitz]. The character is fourteen-years-old and I think Myles was fourteen when he shot it. He had this maturity that could be quiet – that’s something we were looking for. It was about being very internal. He was found in Atlanta and was the very last person to come in which is incredibly nuts.

Jonathan: Zoe was our number one on the list. We didn’t go out to anyone else for that role. We waited a really long time to get her. It was important to us that Milly was effortlessly cool and authentic.

Josh: We never wanted to do a sex scene between her and Jimmy and play into a love thing. It’s not about that. It’s about family being the focus. She was this mother figure that came in. One thing I heard her say recently was that she treated the boy like the adult and Jimmy like the kid. It makes perfect sense.

And Jack Reynor is always amazing…

Jonathan: Jack summed up the indie aesthetic we wanted all over this film. He became like a little brother to us. So passionate about filmmaking and angles and character.

Josh: He was a really great collaborator. When we were rewriting lines on set, he was a good tonal base to know this is right because Jack was with us and nodding his head.

Jonathan: It also helped he had a photographic memory for dialogue.

Josh: Dennis Quaid we wanted someone that’s already imprinted on all of us. We all know who he is. He has a certain amount of warmth that comes immediately into the movie, but then character is very different from any of that warm Dennis we’ve seen before. He’s salt of the earth, middle class kind of guy. He pulled it off really nice, but also came with a certain amount of baggage that helped the way his character went.

Jonathan: James Franco brought both levels of charisma and darkness. He was pretty terrifying at times, funny at others and weirdly touching at others.

KIN opens on August 31.

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