This month, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a 2003 graduate of Dondero High School in Royal Oak, is seeing his dreams come true.
His film Toy's House was selected for the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT. It's the culmination of lots of tenacity and ambition for the young director.
Toy's House depicts three unhappy teenage boys who flee to the wilderness where they build a makeshift house and live off the land as masters of their own destiny, something of which Jordan Vogt-Roberts can relate.
Master of his destiny
Vogt-Roberts lived in a Royal Oak neighborhood near Normandy and Woodward until he was 14. He attended Jane Addams and would have gone to Kimball High School but for his parents upping and moving to Arizona.
The move didn't sit well with the then teenager, who didn't want to leave his friends.
"When we moved, I said as soon as I turned 18 I would move back to Michigan," Vogt-Roberts said. "By the time I was a senior, I had made friends in Arizona, but I wanted to keep the promise I made to myself so I drove from Arizona to Royal Oak with my friend Tony Fader. It was pretty nutty."
Upon arriving in Michigan he enrolled himself into Dondero, (which became Royal Oak Middle School in 2006) and lived with his grandmother, Jeanne Vogt, in Oak Park.
"I lived in my grandma's attic," he said. "She was more active at her age than I was at my age."
Grandmother and grandson kept different schedules, with Vogt getting up early to start her busy day.
"We rarely saw each each," Vogt-Roberts said. "That year I learned how to cook, change the oil on a car, do laundry—I learned how to take care of myself. It was a very formative time."
Looking for adventure
With no one to answer to, no curfew and a car, Vogt-Roberts was free to spend time with his friends looking for adventure. A favorite hangout was Athens Coney Island or the now closed Delmar Family Restaurant.
"My friends in Michigan are still my best friends to this day," Vogt-Roberts said.
The teens liked to occasionally sneak around old buildings in Detroit, but for the most part Vogt-Roberts and friends just walked around Royal Oak telling jokes, being funny, creative and admittedly, at times, a little mischievious. Once he purchased a giant fishing net at Meijer and spent the night trying to trap friends who were on duty at the Main Art Theatre—good times.
At Dondero, Vogt-Roberts and friends were always trying to hijack his AP classes with jokes. The teachers generally tolerated it because they knew at the end of the day they knew the material were good students. Favorite teachers were Alec Snyder and Steve Chisnell, who are both still in the school district, teaching at Royal Oak High School. Chisnell also blogs for Royal Oak Patch.
Vogt-Roberts believes Metro-Detroiters are witty and creative. A friend from Roeper, Phred Brown, is Bruno Mars' musical director, he said.
The young director gets back to Royal Oak when he can.
"When I go to Royal Oak at night now, I am amazed at all the people," said Vogt-Roberts. "I would move back if it were easy to make films there. One of my dearest friends and collaborators is illustrator Jon Wilcox. I've known since seventh grade. His stamp is all over Toy's Story."
Vogt-Roberts even has a tattoo of an oak tree on his arm to remind him of his Royal Oak roots. Fellow Oak and valedictorian Matt West was apprenticing at a tattoo shop at the time and needed people to practice on so he volunteered his arm.
Using all the tools
Upon graduation, Vogt-Roberts moved back to Arizona for a while before heading to Chicago to attend Columbia College.
He always loved filmmaking—he created stop-motion movies using Lego as a kid— but Hollywood seems like a million miles away when you live in Michigan, he said.
In Chicago, he wasn't sure if he wanted to study philosophy, sociology, history or statistics so he ended up in filmmaking because he could combine everything he loved.
"Filmmakers get to use all the tools," he said.
In Chicago, he wound up shooting shorts with comedians, which led to creating a website called Blerds.com that led to a deal with Tribal DDB, a digital advertising agency. Those same shorts spawned the show Mash U on Comedy Central, which is a show he directs, created and executive produces.
Before long he moved to Hollywood and branched into television, directing shows at HBO, FOX, MTV and Adult Swim, and commercials for RSA, Ridley Scott's production company.
In 2010, his short film Successful Alcoholics premiered at Sundance. The New York Times called it “hilarious.”
Comedy can be beautiful
When the producers of the comedy-drama Little Miss Sunshine first approached Vogt-Roberts with the script to Toy's House, the young director thought they were joking. They weren't.
The coming-of-age film reflects on what it's like to be the funny age of 14—with its painful awkwardness. It's a time when you learn the hardest battles you must fight are not against someone else, but against yourself, Vogt-Roberts said.
Wanting to make a comedy that had beauty and scope, he accepted the offer to direct Toy's House.
"You can't put comedy in a box," he said. "It can be real and dark, but comedy can also be beautiful and heartfelt."
Of the approximately 7,000 submissions to the Sundance Film Festival only 16 narrative features are picked for the Dramatic Competition honor.
"It's exciting. Amazing," Vogt-Roberts said.
The film stars Nick Offerman of NBC's Parks and Recreation, Megan Mullally also of Parks and Recreation, Alison Brie of AMC's Mad Men and former Trentonite and actress Mary Lynn Rajskub who starred in Fox's hit television show 24.
CBS Films acquired domestic rights to Toy’s House at the Sundance Film Festival so Royal Oakers will be able to see the movie this summer, Vogt-Roberts said.