Ever since teaming up with Matthew Vaughn a decade ago to adapt and write Stardust, Jane Goldman’s profile as a writer has been on the rise and rightly so. As has already been stated many times in our interviews for Kingsman 2 over the last week, with both Mark Strong and Vaughn himself – the films they’ve made together have been fantastic and highlights of each of the genres they’ve represented, whether fantasy (Stardust), comic book (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), or spy (Kingsman).
We sat down with Jane Goldman for a chat about her love of film and writing process and found her in fine spirits, full of laughter and happily enthusing about variety of topics close to our hearts, ingratiating herself further into the realms of geekdom, as we started proceedings with a particularly important question…
We had a reading from Stardust at our wedding, it was Yvaine’s speech about love…
So I was going to ask who wrote it, hoping it was you!
It was me, yeah! Neil Gaiman said to me he gets letters a lot from people saying they read it at their wedding and he claims he always tells people that I wrote that but I don’t know for sure! [laughs] I’m sure he does, he’s lovely. I’m so touched by that, that’s so lovely! That’s made my day, that’s so nice.
It’s funny, Stardust has come up all day. It’s lovely because Matthew Vaughn was saying that people keep talking about it today, even though it didn’t get anywhere near the recognition it deserved.
It’s funny, people always compared Stardust to The Princess Bride and it was almost a prophecy, because we’ve had a very similar experience to The Princess Bride in that it didn’t particularly make a splash on release, but has had this incredibly long afterlife just like The Princess Bride did.
It seems to be the case with a lot of good films like Blade Runner, they all sort of fall by the critics! But congratulations on the film, am I right in thinking that The Golden Circle was an entirely original concept, as opposed to the first Kingsman, which was an adaptation?
Yeah, they’d stopped doing the comic at that point so we didn’t have source material and so Matthew and I just had fun making things up!
When I was talking to him (Matthew Vaughn) earlier, he said that the idea was there for it when you were writing the first one.
Yeah, we started talking about it, but only in a really abstract way. I mean while we were making the first one we didn’t really think about doing a sequel at all. Firstly from a business perspective one never does – you can’t because you never know how the first one’s going to do! But secondly, Matthew and I have always shied away from sequels. I mean, twice we’ve both had opportunities to work on a sequel and both times we have chosen to move on and do something else instead. You know with Kick-Ass and X-Men. So, it was not a given that there would be a sequel, I think had we really thought there would be a sequel we wouldn’t have killed Colin (Firth)! [laughs]
Big spoilers ahead in this bit for both The Golden Circle and The Force Awakens!
No, that’s very true! But that’s the beauty of the universe though isn’t it, that he could come back. I had a similar to discussion with Mark Strong earlier, because I was devastated by the finale.
And he was telling me about the alternate ending.
That was a really tough call. We did you shoot both versions and we were right up to the last minute trying to figure it out. My son was like “You cannot kill Merlin!” So, I was on the save Merlin side, until I’d seen the other cut and though I hate to say it, but we had to let Merlin actually have a heroic sacrifice. You know, Colin didn’t get that, he got the senseless heartbreaking death, Merlin gets the heroic sacrifice.
I suffer from existential angst quite a lot, so I keep telling myself in The Force Awakens ‘It’s alright because George Lucas didn’t write it, so it doesn’t count!’ Seeing Han Solo shot – I mean it’s one of the things I never wanted to see.
Oh! Oh my god! I was so unhappy about that! My daughter was as well, she was in tears and she’s twenty! [laughs] We were just devastated, it was just hideous. So you’ve convinced yourself it’s non-canon? [laughs]
Yes, just to deal with the trauma!
[Laughs] No I understand that!
People were just looking at me and I was just filling up my 3D glasses with tears!
Oh god, yeah that was hideous!
That’s the thing with the first Kingsman – you’ve got this incredible ride that’s spiked with Harry being shot and the speed of it dictated they avenge him straight away. What threw me in The Golden Circle was that actually when you hit the mid-point, there is suddenly all these troubling elements with the amnesia for example. It sort of threw me through a loop a little bit, because I’m okay with action and everything else, but there is nothing quite as sad as a helpless Colin Firth. Was the intention from the outset to develop those characters to the point where people were even more invested in them?
We feel in part what kind of makes the Kingsman tone is actual, proper emotional investment, an actual emotional story, next to absurdist humour and crazy action. I think that’s a big,big ingredient for us, but also we did not want to be flippant about bringing a character back that we had killed. It’s a universe where silly things happen, but we did not want to insult the audience and go ‘Oh yeah he’s not really dead, no don’t worry about it, never mind, here’s the next adventure!’
We felt strongly like we owed it to the audience that his death had to have had some impact, because otherwise it would have felt like we had cheated people. So his death had to have impact on the story and have consequences and we wanted to explore that. And also, yeah – we are really interested in exploring the emotional side of Eggsy’s relationship with Harry and in some way the funny thing is – for some of the audience that’s the stuff that makes them uncomfortable and we like that as well! [chuckles] Because most people are really comfortable with brutal, crazy action scenes, but a lot of people are uncomfortable with emotion and we kind of like that!
I think it’s good, because it does play with expectation, you do go in expecting one thing and to actually be thrown is not a bad thing.
Good, that’s so much what we feel Kingsman is about. It’s about confounding expectation and if there’s any fallback we have, it’s that. Whatever you are expecting we like to do the opposite.
I’m curious as to whether, when you’re writing, you have an actor in mind for the parts, or do you just write the characters and then cast?
Usually not, it varies, but generally as a writer I think I try to avoid that, because I think one never knows if they will get the actor. So as a policy I tend to avoid it, but on occasion Matthew and I will talk about somebody we are thinking of. I think in the case of this movie I don’t we were writing with any particular actor in mind – I don’t think we could have dreamt that we would have wound up with such an incredible cast! Even if you were fantasy casting it, I don’t think you would have been that ambitious!
I always find that though, with the films that you have done together, that the casting always seems like an absolute joy. It blows my mind, even just the cast for Golden Circle…
Same, I could not believe it! The whole cast of this, so many wonderful people and still the excitement of that has not worn off.
It must be then quite a nice surprise if you’re not planning it.
Oh God, yeah!
Here’s the cast you’ve got to read what you’ve written.
It’s amazing! But even from day one we’ve been so lucky. I mean when Matthew offered that part to Robert De Niro (Stardust) I was like “Yeah, like that’s going to happen!” So, when he said yes it was just [wow] we’ve always been so fortunate.
And Michelle Pfeiffer!
Yeah! My god, completely! Absolutely.
That was early days as well.
We couldn’t believe we got both of them on Stardust. We’ve always been fortunate. But I think the projects that Matthew and I do are sort of a bit weird, but maybe I guess actors find it refreshing. They are getting stuff that’s a bit odd and not necessarily like other stuff they get offered, but I remain amazed that such great people say yes!
The films you’ve made with Matthew Vaughn have all been a lot of fun, and I remember seeing a test screening for Kick-Ass and it was pretty much done, but had a temporary audio score, but I remember being absolutely blown away. The importance of comic books and a certain type of genre film are often dismissed, there is still an elitist attitude towards them that you pick up on, especially when you overhear people talking and I find it really frustrating. There shouldn’t really be boundaries between genres, so for example I’m a big fan of action movies having grown up in the eighties, and those films are important to me, so why should be one genre be more important than the other?
Oh I couldn’t agree more.
Is it a love of genre cinema that motivates you?
Yeah, I adore genre cinema and that’s absolutely my first love. I think probably when choosing to see movies, horror is my absolute favourite genre, I will go and see any horror film even if it’s only got two percent on Rotten Tomatoes, I’ll still go and see it! [laughs] Then sci-fi, thrillers – I am an absolute genre fan first. So yeah, I guess the films I make and work on have always got an element of is this a film I want to go and see? Often when I get offered projects my criteria and the way I figure out if can’t make my mind up, or I can’t quite figure out if I’m going to do it is – if I saw the trailer for this movie would I put the release date in my diary? Because when I’m really excited about a movie, I’ll put the release date in my diary! [laughs]
Oh really? That’s awesome!
Yeah, If a trailer comes out and I’m so psyched for it, then ‘Okay that’s going in my diary!’ So that’s my question if I’m picking project, would I be so keen to see this, would I not want to forget the opening weekend. So in a way I’m always trying to make the stories I’d want to see and sometimes they’re crazy and there’s action and sometimes they are more serious. But, yeah it’s all genre for me.
Horror is another thing that I love, but I had a strange period where I had watched so much and I had dipped for too long into anything and everything that was coming out, that I actually had to quit for a while.
I had just reached saturation point and thought I just can’t do this to myself anymore!
[Laughs] I sometimes feel like that after FrightFest, when you’ve just sat through one too many that’s not great!
Out of curiosity, are you a fan of The Walking Dead?
Oh a huge fan, an absolutely rabid fan!
I tell people I’m off horror, but I put all of my horror love and need for a fix into The Walking Dead!
Oh I love Walking Dead, it’s amazing! Having said that, I mean it’s such a brilliant character drama as well as having the horror element and it’s so compelling anyway. Some weeks you even forget there are zombies in it!
I always think – and the theme that has come up from today – is that intimacy is key. It’s interesting I hadn’t quite pinpointed it, but Mark Strong was saying if you look at the end fights that he’s done, because I was talking about the Septimus undead sword fight. He was saying that there is always that intimacy and it’s important in the current climate because people are reaching saturation point with big CGI spectacle.
Oh yeah I mean I love CGI when it’s done well and used in the right context, but I also think I have definitely, personally experienced watching movies where there’s just some odd thing, where your brain knows you are watching one CGI thing fighting another CGI thing and there is a little subconscious part of your brain that tells you it doesn’t matter. That you are not invested in the same way you are, when you’re seeing something that’s done on camera instead and I am by no means a snob about it, I’m all for CGI for enhancing things, but yeah, I do think you do need some form of human or character connection.
I find it upsetting now, because it’s often quite difficult to tell if it’s CGI or not and assume it’s probably just green screened, and you can miss that sets were built for example.
I’ve seen people level accusations about CGI, where I know they haven’t used CGI, which I always get outraged about on behalf of the filmmaker. I can think of a couple of ones like that, where I was like “That’s not CGI!”, but then I always do the same thing when people accuse TV shows of having canned laughter and I’ve worked on shows that have been accused of that and I know it’s not canned, it’s an audience! I think sometimes people are very quick to judge if there’s something that bugs them.
You can’t win at the moment though, everyone can be quick to judge and even when you publish something positive, like an interview, someone still feels the need to respond by saying they don’t like that show, or film.
Yeah, I kind of feel fortunate that the time in my life when I was in journalism, there was no online feedback, or forum! [laughs] I don’t feel like I would have handled it well at all!
It’s strangely disconcerting. You want to say “Don’t ruin my day with your brash comment!” I also wanted to ask, do you ever write with music in your head?
No, I don’t tend to. Well actually in The Limehouse Golem I did because the music was integral to it because it was set in a music hall, but no. But I know Matthew does, he’s very musically inclined and obviously as the director, music accompanying sequences will often be in his head. So, he’ll say let’s put that in the script, let’s mention it, but often that’ll change! But he definitely listens to music while he’s thinking about how he’s going to block stuff out and he’s very musically minded. I am less musically minded!
When you’re writing the more action based scenes do you write them in detail?
No, but it varies it’s usually more… you always put in the story, or emotional beats in a car chase, or a fight sequence, absolutely, but sometimes we’ll get really specific and it’s totally, totally blocked out and other times it’ll be more like let’s leave a marker in here and then let’s go and speak to the stunt co-ordinator and talk about some ideas and what we can achieve, fun ideas we can have, let’s look at the set and think about what to build.
Because one of the things that really worked for me about The Golden Circle was the return of Charlie (Edward Holcroft).
As much as it came up with the quick bit in the beginning that says ‘this is Charlie from the first film’ which I’d only watched the night before, but didn’t recognize him as his look is so drastically different.
You actually needed that.
We realised that from when we had test screenings! [laughs]
I thought that was great because I always think, particularly in the spy genre, you need an equal for your protagonist. Even in Bond, for example, you had (in Tomorrow Never Dies) Pierce Brosnan against Jonathan Pryce which isn’t exactly a fair fight!
[Laughs] I see what you mean!
Whereas, in Goldeneye you had Sean Bean who was his equal in every way, including the physical. What was your thought process behind bringing Charlie back?
I don’t know if it came from anything that concrete. I think it was just a thought that came back organically, it was a link to the previous story. I think it was because initially we were going to have the shadow of Valentine slightly more over this story and then actually that shifted and it was actually a reason it was Charlie, who had the connection with Valentine. But actually, as Matthew and I reworked the story again and again that element went completely, but we liked having Charlie there were too many emotional things to say ‘oh it could be anyone’ and at that point from a storytelling point of view it could have been anyone one, but actually he had brought so much more into it that we didn’t even consider changing to someone else.
A personal vendetta always gives it that extra edge!
Jane Goldman, thank you very much!
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in UK cinemas now.