‘Kin’ Producer Shawn Levy on Making an Amblin-esque Movie with a Sci-Fi Twist

     April 24, 2018

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A movie that’s probably not on your radar but will be soon is directors Jonathan and Josh Baker’s debut film, Kin. Produced by 21 Laps (they’ve previously brought to the screen ArrivalKodachrome, and The Spectacular Now along with Stranger Things on Netflix), the film is a crime thriller with a sci-fi twist that stars Jack Reynor, Zoë KravitzCarrie CoonDennis QuaidJames Franco, and Myles Truitt. Here’s the one-liner:

“Chased by a vengeful criminal (Franco) and a gang of otherworldly soldiers,​ a recently released ex-con (Reynor) and his adopted teenage brother (Truitt) are forced to go on the run with a weapon of mysterious origin as their only protection.”

With the movie hitting theaters August 31st, I recently got on the phone with producer Shawn Levy to talk about how the project came about and why 21 Laps wanted to produce the film. One of the things you probably know from 21 Laps’ resume is they’ve made a few projects that blend interesting characters with cool sci-fi. I’ve seen the soon to be released trailer so trust me when I say, Kin looks to continue that trend.

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Image via Lionsgate

During the interview Levy touched on this by saying:

“I was going to say that like Stranger Things, like Arrival, and for that matter, like our upcoming Fox movie The Darkest Minds, this is another 21 Laps project that enjoys the intersection of sci-fi and character. It seems to have become a sweet spot, certainly for our taste, and hopefully in our abilities for crafting an elevated genre character piece, and so this movie is Terminator meets No Country For Old Men, District 9 by way of True Romance.

In addition to the sci-fi angle, Levy talked about how Kin is in the vein of Amblin movies from the 80s:

“I think that to the extent that this is about a boy who is both damaged and innocent, there are shades of many Spielberg protagonists. Elliot in E.T. certainly comes to mind. The way that E.T. is about a young kid who ends up being healed by something not of this world, Eli in our movie, Kin, ends up being healed in some ways by this object that is not of this world. And frankly, even more so by the journey that he takes with Zoe Kravitz and Jack Reynor, who plays his brother. Zoe Kravitz plays a young woman who he meets along the way and joins her quest of sorts. It’s both a getaway and a quest, I guess.

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And it’s about the kind of repair of a young kid who’s a little more bruised than one should be at a young age, and so I think it’s more the feeling of Amblin, that it’s both dark and filled with aspiration.”

In addition, Levy talked about Jack Reynor and his love of Sing Street, how Jonathan & Josh Baker are twin brothers like Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers, how Hollywood has become a franchise industry, and so much more.

kin-movie-posterIn addition to landing the exclusive interview with Levy, Lionsgate is also letting us premiere the first poster for Kin. Look for the trailer to be online Thursday. Until then check out what Shawn Levy had to say below.

Collider: Are you playing with fire trying to work with another pair of brother directors?

LEVY: You need a short answer? Yeah, for sure, but it’s even weirder than this, my pathology is even deeper than you might’ve realized, because it’s not just another pair of brothers, it’s another set of fucking twin brothers.

That doesn’t make sense.

LEVY: Yeah, so literally it’s a weird coincidence, and the universe is giving me a crash course in twin director psychology, because it is really and nearly unique, and even though the Bakers and the Duffers are wildly different, there are certain similarities.

But the short backstory is, once again, you’ve heard this name before, Dan Cohen, my ace of a partner at 21 Laps, came across a short film a couple years ago, called Bag Man, and just as he did with the script on Stranger Things, he walked into my office, made me stop whatever I was doing, and promise I was going to love this next thing he showed me. And, in that case, it was the short film by these hot shot commercial directors, known as the Baker brothers, Josh and Jonathan Baker. I loved the short, and met with the Bakers. They had a vision for how it might be developed into a bigger world and full feature, and we linked arms and jumped into that process together.

How long ago was this?

LEVY: I think that between us watching the short film and us being on set starting principal photography of the feature was maybe a year, at most. And again, it was because the Bakers had this vision for the longer form narrative. We paired up with this amazing writer who’s now written a couple of 21 Laps movies, named Dan Casey. And much like a rival, we developed this, and wrote this script, and packaged the cast all before we had the studio, and so there’s an efficiency to that model that we really enjoyed on Arrival, and enjoyed similarly on Kin.

For people that don’t know anything about this project, what’s the story about, and what brought you to this? What made you say, “I want to produce this?”

LEVY: The story of the short, and to a large extent the feature, is this teenage African-American boy who comes from really modest means, and one day comes across this device. It might be an artifact, it might be a weapon, but it is not of our world, and it is not of our time. And it turns out that it is indeed a weapon, and in the hands of this boy it does astounding things. It has a weaponized power beyond anything we’ve made here on planet earth by human hands. And so the short film is literally about that. And so it’s part wish fulfillment, it’s got a strange kind of Amblin fantastical aspect, but what struck me about the Bakers is that their aesthetics, and their sense of tone and character were way more nuanced than most new filmmakers.

There was a command of pacing, and performance and style that felt really confident, and I just knew they were worth betting on. Once they told us the bigger story of the feature version it just confirmed that confidence, and I can tell you a bit about the premise of the feature film if you’d like, Steve?

Yeah, definitely.

kin-movie-imageLEVY: The premise is the thing, except in the feature film our lead, Eli, which is E-L-I, he is the adopted son of Dennis Quaid, who’s a working-class single father, who lost his wife some years ago. And Eli has a brother, his older brother, played by Jack Reynor. Jimmy has been in prison for the last several years, and when our movie opens, it still opens with Eli finding this weapon, but it becomes this family drama, this brother’s redemption story as this weapon gets Jimmy and Eli into some hot water that they did not anticipate, and they end up being on the run and on the road from some really scary dudes, both of our world and perhaps beyond.

Yeah, it’s interesting-

LEVY: It’s really this kind of-

No, go on, I interrupted you.

LEVY: I was going to say that like Stranger Things, like Arrival, and for that matter, like our upcoming Fox movie The Darkest Minds, this is another 21 Laps project that enjoys the intersection of sci-fi and character. It seems to have become a sweet spot, certainly for our taste, and hopefully in our abilities for crafting an elevated genre character piece, and so this movie is Terminator meets No Country For Old Men, District 9 by way of True Romance.

When you are developing something like this, because you mentioned that you were developing this before you had a studio, how much at this point are you always thinking about the bigger universe? Because it seems like every studio is looking for franchises? How much is it we just need to make a good movie, where’s that line?

LEVY: Well I have to tell you we really, and this is informed by my own experience, obviously I’ve had experience with my mega-museum movies and more recently Stranger Things, I can sincerely tell you I don’t set out to launch a franchise. I just try to make one thing really well, and if the reward is more installments and the birth of a franchise, that’s awesome. And you are right, we live in a franchise-to-death industry currently, but this was as simple as a new voice and a new vision in the Baker brothers, and we wanted to back them. It was very much the same kind of uncalculated, let’s be involved with talented people, the mentality that got us involved with the Duffer’s, and with Ted Chiang’s short story on Arrival, and most of the things that have worked out well in my career, comes from a non-mercenary non-calculated place.

So the irony here, Steve, is that if we are lucky enough to capture the attention of audiences, there is a next chapter to this story. It is just bluntly awesome and huge but we just set out to tell this story, and to adapt this short film into a feature, in a really sophisticated and hopefully provocative way.

You mentioned Amblin, obviously I grew up with these Amblin classics and the Amblin logo means a lot to mean, talk a little bit about … are they’re any Amblin movies that even like resemble what you guys set out to make, or it’s just Amblin-esque?

kin-movie-imageLEVY: I think it’s Amblin-esque, I think that to the extent that this is about a boy who is both damaged and innocent, there are shades of many Spielberg protagonists. Elliot in E.T. certainly comes to mind. The way that E.T. is about a young kid who ends up being healed by something not of this world, Eli in our movie, Kin, ends up being healed in some ways by this object that is not of this world. And frankly, even more so by the journey that he takes with Zoe Kravitz and Jack Reynor, who plays his brother. Zoe Kravitz plays a young woman who he meets along the way and joins her quest of sorts. It’s both a getaway and a quest, I guess.

And it’s about the kind of repair of a young kid who’s a little more bruised than one should be at a young age, and so I think it’s more the feeling of Amblin, that it’s both dark and filled with aspiration.

So when you guys were getting ready to make the movie, talk a little bit about the story with the budget, because no matter who you are, you always have a certain budget. Can you sort of talk about trying to make the movie with whatever budget you had, and if there were any limitations, or if this is one of those movies that it all worked out in terms of financials?

LEVY: Well that’s a good question. The truth is, in general, we try to keep our movies from costing a penny more than they need to, because I take seriously the faith that someone invests when they give us money to tell our story. So I want our investors, whether it’s a network or studio, to make their money back, and then some. That’s really important to me.

We had a sense that this was going to be not a tiny budget, just because it is a science fiction movie with some pretty substantial visual effects and action. This was never going to be a five million dollar movie, but it also never needed to be a 40 million dollar movie. We got lucky and when we took the package out to the market, we had a bidding war among several studios who wanted to make and release the movie. It ended up at Lionsgate, with a healthy budget. I wouldn’t say it was fat, by any means, but it was definitely healthy, and enough to tell this story really well.

21 Laps has been producing a lot more movies. What have you learned in the last few years producing that sort of helps us get as much of that budget on the screen?

kin-movie-imageLEVY: Well for one thing we always want to bet on ourselves, and so we’re not trying to rake anyone over the coals with any upfront fees. I’d rather bet on ourselves than bet on the future. The other thing is that, honestly, one thing I’ve learned is that in an industry that makes fewer and fewer original films, we’re proud that we are devoting ourselves to making original film. Obviously everyone loves franchises, they can be lucrative, and they can be long lasting, but whether it’s Arrival, or whether it’s Stranger Things, or whether Kin, we’re proud of the risks that we’ve taken on original material, without the security blanket of branded IP, and very often with writers or directors or both who require a leap of faith. But we’re willing to take that leap, if it’s someone we believe in, and that was our level of certainty and trust in the Bakers.

I am a big fan of Jack Reynor. I’ve liked his work for a while, but Sing Street was just phenomenal. What was it that got him in the movie?

LEVY: Well, funny you should ask, and the only reason I’m doing this single interview before I get on this flight back to LA with you, is because once again we seem to be simpatico. Sing Street is possibly the favorite 21 Laps movie that we didn’t make in the year it came out. We flipped Dan, Dan and I flipped for Sing Street, and Jack Reynor in that movie is such a mixture of bravado and heartbreak, and we just fell in love with that actor, with that performance, with that movie overall.

kin-movie-imageAnd the first time we sat down with him for coffee, Dan Cohen and I basically nerded out for 45 minutes on Sing Street. So that was a big part of it, we’re huge fans. And you’ll see his performance and his character in Kin is nothing like anything you’ve seen him do before. And the chemistry between Jack and Miles, who plays Eli, and Zoe Kravitz, this trio on the road, kind of outside the norm, thinking strangers, regular society. It’s really dynamic, and it’s really special, and it’s very touching. But, yeah, Sing Street was the thing that was a desire for us on Reynor.

Yeah, and also Free Fire. He’s really good in that as well.

LEVY: Yeah, I mean the truth is, I’ve never seen a false note from him, or a weak performance, and Kin is no exception. And what’s really cool, just in case I don’t get a chance to say it, Steve, because I will have to go in five minutes for this flight, the movie it’s unusual, it’s not a cookie cutter road drama by any stretch. And it’s also not at all a generic science fiction, action piece; it’s legitimately both of those things in equal measure. And, I think the trailer, which I think this is article is penned, I’m really happy to say that, and this is not always the case, our Kin new trailer is a really good and truthful portrait of the kind of dual nature of our movie.

For more on Kin:

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