British director/producer/screenwriter Matthew Vaughn has been slowly building a body of films that is not just fan-friendly but clearly the work of a fan himself. Whether it’s the crime genre (Layer Cake, his directorial debut), fantasy (the underappreciated Stardust) or the superhero film (X-Men: First Class), Vaughn has brought both a fresh spin and an intuitive grasp of what each genre’s strengths are to each of the movies he’s shepherded to the screen.
Now with Kingsman: The Secret Service – based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar, from an idea that Millar and Vaughn hatched more or less together after working on Kick-Ass – Vaughn has tackled the spy genre with undeniable energy, panache and sheer appreciation for the genre. The movie stars Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson and Taron Egerton in a loving homage to the “gentleman spy” movie, with Firth as the dapper, unflappable secret agent who takes a rough-edged Egerton under his wing and attempts to transform him into an international man of intrigue.
The movie is both a thrilling adventure and a wonderful, gentle spoof (read my review here), and it’s understandable why Vaughn considers it his finest effort yet. I spoke on the phone with Vaughn about Kingsman and more, including his thoughts on X-Men, Fantastic Four, James Bond and Star Wars.
Den of Geek: I read a remark in an earlier interview where you said you felt like this was the first film that you “properly directed”. Do you want to kind of elaborate on that or what contributed to you feeling that way?
Vaughn: Well, weirdly I sort of feel like when I did Layer Cake I really had no idea what I was doing. I was like, “My God I’m having a go at directing; this could be a disaster but suck it up and see what happens.” And then I enjoyed it and was really learning — every day it was like going to school. And I think from then on — let’s call Layer Cake my high school and then I think I went into first year of college with Stardust and then the second year -– in England we have three years — second year was Kick-Ass, third year, graduating year was X-Men and then I felt this was my thesis. Everything I’ve learned I was ready to apply it and write my post graduation thesis, which was this movie. And I feel like I can now look someone in the eyes and say I’m now a film director. I took everything I’d learned from all those movies and put them into this film and now I’m going to try to do something very, very different next.
What draws you to work with Mark Millar? He did the comic the same time you were working on the script…
Yeah. Basically. I always joke saying Mark should have been in the film business in the ’80s, where it was the time of the one line pitch. You’d get a million dollars for saying, “Hey we’re going to do Jaws set in space,” and off you’d go. Mark is very much sort of the one line pitch guy. And they’re normally bloody good ideas. And there are enough for me that when he said to me, “Hey I’m doing this character Kick-Ass.” I said, “Who is he?” He said, “He’s Spider-Man but he’s got no powers.” I was like “Jesus let me think about that for a second.” And then bang, it landed on me and the movie happened. This was even more organic, where we just sat in the park lamenting about how serious spy movies had become. I mean we love Bond and Bourne and Jack Bauer, et cetera, but they’re very serious. And we said it was time to re-create the fun, stylish, crazy, witty, sort of spy movies I grew up on.
What were some of the real touchstones for you? Everyone knows who Bond is throughout the world but there’s a lot of them that people, especially younger generations now aren’t aware of, like the Avengers or Harry Palmer.
You’re naming them. I mean for me it was all of them. I was influenced by I was watching, which is obviously seeping into this movie, like (British ’60s spy series) The Avengers, the new Avengers, The Saint, The Persuaders, Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, In Like Flint, I can go on and on. Sapphire & Steel! All these things you watched as a kid and loved and they just stay in your brain and they have an impact on you. And I just was thinking, why isn’t nobody doing anything like this anymore? There’s always that moment of doubt when you’re sort of halfway through the movie thinking, “Oh I know why they’re not doing anything like this anymore.” If we got it wrong we could have so easily been Austin Powers — and I loved Austin Powers by the way — but in a sense that it’s just a full-on spoof and we didn’t have enough comic gags to get away with that. Or the worst case scenario is being the remake of The Avengers, which on paper should have been amazing. Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery, I’m in. And then I got out fucking quickly.
Along with everybody else.
But that shows how it can go wrong and I watched that movie before I made this film. I really studied it and I was trying to figure out why is this not working. ‘Cause so much of it should have worked but it’s a tonal thing. If you get it one degree off you’re dead. And then that’s terrifying because when we were making Kingsman I was like, “Jesus we’re on a thin wire on this one.”
Is there a noticeable difference between the British spy films and American ones?
Yeah. I mean I think there’s a difference between James Coburn and Roger Moore. They’re both fabulous but they’re very, very different. And that’s the American and British culture: I always say we share a language and sometimes that’s debatable as well. We are very, very different and there so many sides of American — I mean if God forbid this film is a hit a lot of Kingsman 2 will be set in America where we sort of celebrate Americana because there are so many fun types of Americans and American folklore and American icons, which I’d love to bring back sort of like we do with the British stuff.
So you do have an idea already potentially for a sequel?
We’ve got a lot of ideas for the sequel but that’s up to the public if they like the film. Then I’ll happily go off and make another one. But if they don’t then it will just be in my mind forever.
A lot of people thought Colin Firth was an odd choice for this role, but I totally saw him doing this.
The basis of this was that Ian Fleming’s main number one choice for Bond was going to be David Niven and I’m obsessed with David Niven, always have been. He’s one of my favorite actors. So when I was doing this I thought I would love to get the modern day David Niven to play this role and that’s Colin Firth. The big question was could he do the action, but to his credit we did six months training beforehand and he worked his ass off and pulled it off. So I’m very grateful to him and proud of him and grateful for what he did.
I wanted to ask you about the quote that got so much press about the Christopher Nolan movies...
Misquoted. What I said is I think Nolan’s — I’m a huge fan of Nolan and I think Batman Begins and everything he’s done, he hasn’t put a foot wrong. It wasn’t an attack on Chris at all. I was saying though is what he did was at the right time. His was a knee-jerk reaction to the Joel Schumacher Batman, for Christ’s sake. So what he did made sense. It was a time where Casino Royale, Bond became serious, Bourne became serious and Nolan did a great serious superhero film. But what I’m saying is the world right now is really not a nice place. We’re seeing a tough time and I think people are wanting escapism. There’s a reason why Marvel movies have done so well, like Guardians, because people are just enjoying it and just respecting what comic books were. Because a lot of these comic books when they came out was written in recessions and tough times as well.
Kids and adults were reading them to escape and I just think right now the dark superhero films aren’t what people want…Avengers was fun. Guardians of the Galaxy is fun. Captain America is fun. They’re good quality movies but I tell you a lot of people were disappointed in Man of Steel. I think Man of Steel should have been lighter and more Dick Donner-ish. That’s how I would have done it. People are taking me like a) I attacked Nolan, which I didn’t, and b) saying it’s the only way to do it. I was just saying in my theory, people want escapism right now. That’s all. But it’s just an opinion, which seemed to explode. You’ve got to be careful what you say sometimes but I’m generally not that careful.
If you had an opportunity to actually direct a Bond film, what would your approach be?
Never say never. I don’t think — am I itching to do a Bond movie right now? No. In a couple of years if they’re thinking they want to change Bond up and reinvent it and do something different with it and they’re looking for a take, yeah I would be interested. It’s the Broccolis’ business, not mine. If they rang me up I’d take the call. That’s for sure.
Are you involved with X-Men Apocalypse still as a producer? Are you working on that in any capacity?
Officially no. I mean Days of Future Past was my last legacy of X-Men. I think I’ve ended my association on a high note. (Producer/writer Simon) Kinberg rings me up every now and then and says, “We’re doing this, what do you think?” and I’ll happily give him my point of view. And I bumped into Brian and it was lovely to see him again and I think Brian did a brilliant job on Days of Future Past. Brian doesn’t need my help. It’s his franchise and he knows what he’s doing. They don’t need me anymore. They needed be after X3, they didn’t need me after Days of Future Past.
You’re also listed as a producer on Fantastic Four. Obviously there’s been so much fascination and curiosity and a lot of not so great speculation online about that film. What can you say about it? Have you seen any of it or what’s your thought on the sort of controversy around it?
I mean when they approached me to produce it I was like all right, maybe, what’s the plan? Because I loved the comic. As a kid I loved Fantastic Four. It’s just the ultimate story you could relate to because it’s about a dysfunctional family; it’s a brilliant concept. And I said, “What are you guys going to do with it?” And they said, “Well, would you produce it? We’re going to hire Josh Trank.” I had just literally seen Chronicle and I thought Chronicle was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I liked the idea of working with younger directors because I can learn from them and I think it’s really important to pass on the baton to help people. I just said to Fox, “Look we got to empower the guy.” It’s interesting that in the last two years Fox has really adopted the ethos of backing directors and their visions. So that’s what Fantastic Four is going to be. It’s Josh Trank’s vision and I can’t wait for the world to see it and see what they think.
There was another rumor at one point about you directing one of the Star Wars movies.
Sadly not true. I wish it was.
What do you want to see when you sit down in that theater next December and Star Wars VII comes on the screen?
What do I want to see? Well I know what I want to hear; I want to hear the theme. I can tell you that. I don’t know, I’m going to see my buddy Luke Skywalker with a light saber again. Fuck, what more can one ask for? I’m going to be like everyone else. I’m trying not to have too much high expectations ’cause I went down that route once with Episode I. You know I mean? It didn’t deliver what I was hoping to see, so this time I’m trying not to hope to see too much. I’m hearing some pretty juicy rumors about what it’s all about and I keep saying I don’t want to know. I’ve got friends involved in the movie and I’m probably the only person saying, “Don’t tell me anything” because I would rather just go watch it as a viewer.
What I’m really hoping for that I can see it with my kids and they have the same reaction as I did when I first saw Star Wars. That would be the ultimate reward for me. My poor son has two Star Wars posters on his bedroom wall — the original ones from the ’70s. They’re these big things and I framed them and put them in his bedroom. And he’s like, “Why have I got these posters?” I said, “One day you’re going to appreciate them. And when you do appreciate them I’ll put them in my office.” I loved the original films. They’re very important to movies for me. You know what would be weird though, I was just thinking as I’m saying this that not hearing the Fox fanfare at the beginning of Star Wars is going to be very weird.
It is. So if your next film is not a Kingsman sequel, any ideas on what it might be?
I’d love to do a Kingsman sequel but then I’ve got to do something else. I don’t know. The weird thing is something just clicks in my head and once that switch comes on, nothing in the world will stop me from making that movie. And that’s what happened with Kingsman. Fox was shocked when I rang up saying, “You know what, I’m not going to do Days of Future Past, I’m going to do this.” And they’re like, “Whoa, whoa what the hell is this? Where does this come from?” And I was like, “It was in my head and if I don’t shoot it now then everybody else will start doing fun spy movies and then it won’t look original. I’ve got to do it now.” It’s something that will happen to me where I’ll either read a book, comic or watch a movie, I’ll wake up and have an idea or doodle something, but it hasn’t happened yet so I have no idea.
Are you still an avid comics reader? Do you go down to the shops on Wednesday and pull out a few new titles or do you tend to kind of read things that are sent to you?
Well, I have three friends who are massive comic book experts who have collections that if you’re a comic book fan you’d drool. Just like drool. Any comic you can think of they’ve got original pristine copies and they let you read them as well. And so I go around there and I call them my dons of the comic book world where they teach me about things. For example, I’m reading Saga at the moment. It’s pretty daunting and it’s pretty out there. Someone said you should read this; this will make a great movie. And I’m reading it, thinking if it wasn’t for the budget, ’cause it’s a big budget and some scenes are pretty out there… But it’s very cool, very cool. So I’m reading that at the moment.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is out in theaters this Friday (Feb. 13).