Matthew Vaughn interview: X-Men: First Class, Thor, Hollywood, James Bond, Take That and more
Mathew Vaughn very candidly chats about making X-Men: First Class, the mechanics of Hollywood, how he could have directed Marvel's Thor, and much, much more...
What a wonderful turnaround. After the hectic production and alarmingly terrible promotional campaign, it turns out that X-Men: First Class is actually rather good. It seems that handing the X-franchise over to Kick-Ass writer-director, Matthew Vaughn, was a good idea, as his revitalised, 60s-flavoured spin on the superhero series is a real treat.
We were lucky, along with a handful of the finest film sites in the UK, to have a chat with a generous, if slightly flu-ridden Vaughn, ahead of the film's release next week. Like his films, Vaughn takes no prisoners, but his experience as writer, director and producer has given him great authority when talking about industry trends and the creative process.
Over the course of forty-five minutes, we covered X-Men: First Class from seemingly every angle, from the Cold War setting to the James Bond allusions, from the casting to the film's classic sense of style. And Vaughn was happy to go into detail about his aborted stint on X-Men: The Last Stand, his views on 3D, and his plans for potential X-Men and Kick-Ass sequels.
Read on, but beware, for there are spoilers, swearing and sledgehammer-strong opinions contained herein...
Is this a film about super-powered individuals facing off against one another, or is it a film about political-social ideas?
No idea! It is what it is. I should be able to answer that, but the making of this movie was such a crazy experience that we were just trying to get it done, trying to get it finished. It's the first time I've made a movie where I've had no time to think. So, you ask me a question like that, normally I'd be able to tell you, "When I set out to make this film, I had the following ideas...", but every day we were just making it up. So, I think it's a mixture of both.
I think primarily it's about the relationship between Magneto and X, but set against a backdrop of political espionage and the Cold War.
I always wanted to do a Cold War movie, and I've been desperate to do a Bond film, always have been. And here I got my cake and ate it, managed to do an X-Men movie, and a Bond thing, and a Frankenheimer political thriller at the same time. But this process has been nuts.
Would you be able to elaborate on that process a little? You're working as a director who's also a producer, under a producer (Bryan Singer) who's got a lot of experience directing the franchise, and you brought in Jane Goldman to write parts of it, but there were other writers who had established parts of the script.
So, it was mostly you and Jane, then?
The WGA don't think that, but they're fuckwits. No, Jane and I wrote the screenplay, threw everything out and started again. Sheldon Turner managed to get a "story by" credit. He wrote the Magneto script that none of us had even read. I didn't even know that. I was like, "Who the fuck is this guy?" Hollywood's got its own way of dealing with things.
How much input did Bryan Singer have? It very much has that undercurrent of humour and character that you and Jane brought to Stardust and Kick-Ass, but this is much more of an ensemble piece than what you've done before, and that's something Bryan's had more experience with.
You say that. Stardust had a shitload of characters. So did Kick-Ass, so did Layer Cake, Snatch, Lock Stock. I'm actually more terrified of doing a movie with one lead character, because the good thing about having lots of different characters, is that, if someone's getting boring, I can just say, "Let's cut to that plotline."
It's hard to make sure that they all come across as three-dimensional characters, but at the same time, I think it's more interesting. It's easier to con an audience that there are lots of interesting things happening if I can switch the channel whenever I need to. But the influence of Bryan- Bryan, I think- I don't know who came up with the original idea. I think it was Bryan's idea.
But once I started, we wrote the screenplay. I think we made the whole film in ten months. I had nine weeks post. I only saw the film for the first time five days ago. I got given two weeks for the director's cut. When I say it was madness, there were times where I thought, "We're not going to get the film finished, and if it is finished, god knows what it's going to be like to watch."
I was taken out of my comfort zone on this film, because I come from low-budget filmmaking, which is very much about prepping, making sure every dollar goes on screen, and here I got hardly any time to prep. I had five DPs on this film, four different ADs. It was good for me, because I'd so relied on my DP and my AD, that little triumvirate, and here I was on my own, naked, running around, and at first it scared the hell out of me, but I got used to it. So, as a director, I feel far more confident after this one.
So, how come John Mathieson gets sole credit as director of photography?
Welcome to Hollywood. How come all these people who did fuck all on the screenplay get all these credits? John did the most, that's why. And John did a great job, by the way. I'd say, forty-five percent, fifty-five percent. I don't know, I should know. He came on halfway through the shoot.
It looks coherent, though.
We got through it. It was good for me, because normally, I'd be far more collaborative with DPs, but here I became more of a megalomaniac, because someone has to take control. It was good to get out of that zone.
Right now, there's a big push for 3D, and any superhero or comic book film seems to come out in 3D. Were you asked to go for 3D by the studio?
I'm sure if we had more time, they might have brought it up. I'm not a big fan of 3D. I think Avatar worked, because they really shot and designed it. I think half these films you see, it just doesn't feel like they've designed every shot. They have something coming towards the camera every now and then.
But that's what I loved about Avatar. They made it to give it more depth, and you can tell that Cameron knows what 3D means. But when they do that post conversion shit...
And I find the glasses annoying, and my kids hate it as well. I sit with them and they take the glasses off halfway through. I'm like, "No, you've got to watch it with them on," and they don't care.
I don't know, maybe I should be more of a fan, but for me, Avatar's the only 3D movie where I became immersed in the world. I think Cameron called it 'RealD' and he's right. I think Hollywood's fucking up 3D now, because they're cheapening the process, so people aren't going to care any more.
You say you only saw the final cut five days ago. Are you happy with the finished film?
I think so. I'm just so close to it. Normally in this process, nine weeks after finishing filming, I'm nearly close to having a director's cut, and that's when I show it to friends, and I get about fifty people to see it, and I get all their input and I go off and I spend three, four months tweaking and changing.
I think I am.
I'm astonished by it. It was weird, because when I say seeing it for the first time, we only got all the visual effects finished about ten days ago. So, it was odd. I was so used to cutting it with bad pre-vises in.
I think the actors did a great job in it, and it seemed to get away with having different DPs. I think Henry Jackman did a great job with the score, because we were writing music three weeks ago, I was still sitting there at a piano with the guy.
I cannot explain how crazy the process has been. I think that's why I'm sick now, because finally it's finished and my body's just gone 'woah, fuck.'
Normally, it takes me about a year to know whether I'm proud of a film. I need to get away from it and watch it as a movie. So, I don't know.
So, would you have liked more time?
Did you know you wanted James McAvoy from the beginning?
He was top of my list. When we talked about who could play Professor X, McAvoy was perfect. He's a fucking good actor. And I think he got pretty annoyed with me, because I made him audition with every single actor that came in for Magneto. Because if we're going to try and do the Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid chemistry, I think it's really important that you have to see that chemistry beforehand.
The poor guy, I was wheeling him in every day, saying, "You've got to read with this other actor." And then Michael came in, after twenty seconds of the two of them together, I thought, "Okay, I've found them."
You did a great job juggling characters, but were there any sacrifices that had to be made?
Yeah, there was a whole love story between Moira MacTaggert and X, and we cut all that out.
Most of my movies, I normally try to shoot too many things, and it's better to be able to take it down, than not being able to build it up.
How did you go about choosing the characters for First Class?
They were already chosen. That was Bryan and Fox. In the draft they gave me, they were all in there. We cut Sunspot, because we didn't have enough time or money, because they couldn't make him work. He was a pain in the arse.
Did you have a favourite in the ensemble?
It's obvious, but Magneto. I sat down with Michael, and I said, "You know, I've always wanted to do a Bond movie. Imagine you're Bond, but you don't have to use gadgets. You can do shit that other people can't. You're the ultimate assassin in the world that no one knows about." I've always loved Magneto. It's weird, because his power's bloody odd, if you think about it. It's not that great a power. But there's something about Magneto that I've always loved.
How much pressure did you allow yourself to have from the hardcore fanbase?
You read about it, but you have to - don't take it the wrong way, but - ignore it at the same time.
I remember talking to Daniel Craig about this when he was doing Bond. These fuckwits, it doesn't matter, they've not seen what you're doing, and you're a good actor, just let your work do the talking. And I always know that when people saw him in Bond, they'd go, "He's great."
It's very odd, because you read, and you do want to hear what concerns are, and see if you can address them. But at the same time, you don't know who the hell's writing it. It could be some 8-year-old kid. And if you actually meet these people, you go, "Why am I listening to an 8-year-old about how to construct a film?"
But every now and then, there'd be some valid points. I was amazed at the negativity, though, towards the X-Men world. Not really, actually, after watching Wolverine. But it was quite scary, I was thinking, "Am I going to manage to turn fanboys around and enjoy it?" I thought, the best way of doing it was trying to make a good movie, which is respectful to the other X-Men movies, but not reverential to them.
This isn't the first time you were brought in on an X-Men project, because you were originally slated to direct X-Men 3. How would that have differed? And now, looking back, are you pleased to have not done it in the end?
X3 was a weird process, because the reason I pulled out of it was I genuinely didn't think I had enough time to make the film. And they'd given me much more time on that one than on this one. And that world was already created.
So, what was more satisfying about this one, was because of Stardust and Kick-Ass, I was far more comfortable about bigger budget, special effects, all that shit. But I loved the idea that I could recast every character, set up a new world, and do my version of an X-Men movie. Because, with X3, ultimately, you're following a trend.
And my X3 would have been- you know, I storyboarded the whole bloody film. Did the script. My X3 would have been at least forty minutes longer. I think they didn't let the emotions of those characters- I remember when I was writing the scenes when Jean Grey turns around to Wolverine and says, "Kill me," and the deaths at the end, and Professor X's death. I was writing all that shit and I just felt it didn't let the emotion and the drama play in that film. It became wall to wall noise and action.
How long was it, ninety-eight minutes? I would have let it breathe, and have far more dramatic elements to it. But they probably wouldn't have let me do that.
But Fox were great on this. Fox have got this really bad reputation, but they were true allies on this. They let me get on with it.
You say that you've created this new world. It's obviously a prequel, but is it a prequel in the way that the new Star Trek movie is a prequel, so you will be able to, if you do make a second X-Men film, or a third, continue without bothering with the continuity of the previous films?
Totally, I don't give a shit about the other ones. For me, I wanted to do my version, and the version where it's more similar to the comics at the beginning. I really enjoyed X1 and X2. I thought Bryan did a really good job. But I think X3, and then Wolverine, it sort of went off, and the whole superhero genre has been fucked up by Hollywood trying to- just, big explosions and glossy, corny costumes and outfits.
And I was very inspired by what Nolan did with Batman Begins. I'm a big Burton fan, but you see what happened. The first two Burton Batmans were great, but then Schumacher took over and you were just like, "What the fuck is going on?" And they kept making them, and they were getting camper.
And I really enjoyed Batman Begins more than I thought I would when I saw it, especially the first half more than the second half. And I just thought, "Why not try and do the same thing, of putting a realism, and making the characters and the genre of X-Men relevant to a modern-day audience?"
Because I think that superhero movies need to change. I think they're on the verge of the genre dying. Thor's done well. That was weird as well, because I was supposed to direct Thor, so it was weird watching that one. But it's doing well. And no one's seen Green Lantern? I don't know what it's going to be like.
But I love superhero films and I want more to be made, but I also get nervous. I think they need to be taken seriously as a genre. I think the difference between Iron Man and Iron Man 2 shows that, if you don't really nail it, you can suddenly go, "What is this?" I don't know if you guys loved Iron Man 2, but I was disappointed.
It's the third film we've seen where you've collaborated with Jane Goldman and you seem to work very well together. And you'll be working on Kick-Ass 2 together, as well?
Maybe. Everyone says we're doing it. But I don't know yet.
The weird thing with Kick-Ass 2 is that I'd love to do it, and I'd enjoy it so much. But I'm a big believer that if you're going to do a sequel, it's got to be as good as the first one, if not better, and I just don't know how I can.
The business brain is saying that we should shoot it, get it out there, and we'll make a lot of money. I really do love that movie. It was a very special moment to me, making that film. I'm not saying that it's as good as Pulp Fiction, but it would be weird if they did Pulp Fiction 2. And everything that made Kick-Ass original and fun, I think if you did it again, it could be crass.
So, I'm not saying it won't happen, but it'd have to have something about it which made me feel comfortable that the audience would enjoy it as much.
How do you and Jane work together? Do you sit in a room and bounce ideas around, or send off emails and drafts to each other?
I normally bang out a very rough draft on my own and then send it over to her. She then rewrites it, and when she's rewritten it, we get in a room together and we do the final coming together of the script. Then we give it to people.
She's suggested before that your speciality is very much structural, and hers might be the fine points. Is that a fair distinction?
Yeah. As I said, I build the whole universe, the characters, and all that. I'm anal about structure.
One of the really impressive things with the film is that structure, and how you build to a climax that is inevitable, yet is still powerful and unexpected. At what point in the process did you focus on these end moments? And how important was the international, period context, the Cuban missile crisis and so on?
The first scene I wrote was the Auschwitz, or the concentration camp scene with the little kid, because I thought, "What's the best way of doing a prequel?" I thought, "Let's just start it shot-for-shot with the beginning of X-Men, and then let's see what happened after he pulled the gate." And that scene, for me, is the crunch of the movie. That makes you feel sorry for Magneto. It makes you want to see him kick some fucking Nazi arse.
And I also thought it was a very good way of showing the whole thing with Nazism and their obsession with genetic mutation and the whole blue-eyed, blonde-haired shit and experiments that they did. I thought it was a very natural way of starting, and then flipping to Professor X.
You've got Magneto in a concentration camp, and you've got Professor X wandering around this huge mansion. I just thought, "What a great way of starting off."
So, they were the first things I wrote, and then you have to figure out how do they become friends, and how do they fall out, and how does he get crippled, and how does Magneto become Magneto?
And it was hard, because Fox kept saying, "This movie is all about the friendship between them." And I was like, "Guys, they only get to see each other for three fucking weeks." So, I have to somehow make it believable, so that you care.
And Bryan came up with the Cuban Missile Crisis. I didn't know much about it. I'm English. We didn't really learn much about it at school. So, when I read about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I thought our version made more sense in history than the real one. It's the idea that we nearly went to nuclear war. I cannot believe that happened. Where, if there was a bad super-villain making all that shit happen, it makes far more sense.
It was Magneto that I was obsessed with. He puts on the helmet. And Shaw was the villain, but now you're seeing all those elements of Shaw going into Magneto. That was, for me, the far more interesting arc.
But with Professor X, he's a bit of a pious, sanctimonious boring character. And he's got too much fucking power. It's very hard writing when you've got some guy who can freeze people and read everyone's mind. How do you handle this guy? So, I did like the idea of making him more of a rogue. More fun. And then how he slowly starts realising that there are other mutants out there, and he gets more responsible. And we were trying to show that transition. It's just not as fun.
You see Magneto becoming a villain. That's more fun than watching a guy, sadly, becoming a cripple, and becoming a teacher. Ultimately, it's not quite the arc that you want to see as much. But I think James did a fabulous job, because it's the hardest character to make interesting.
You also had to juggle 60s period detail with the comic book style. That particularly comes through in how leggy the girls are, in a very 60s way.
Well, we tried to capture that 60s misogynist vibe. We were doing nods to all those 60s films, but we tried to make them feel a bit more real, in a sense. But, at the same time, it's a movie.
We even saw the CIA agent, Moira MacTaggert, wearing a miniscule skirt.
That's the whole misogynist thing, and we thought, "Let's dial it up." And it's actually quite weird, because she has the line, "That's why there's no place for women in the CIA," and Lauren Shuler Donner went, "You've got to get rid of that line. I hate that line." And I was like, "Lauren, I don't believe that, but that's what it was like back then." And Lauren's very sensitive about her age, and she's from that period, and she then opened up saying that's what it was like. And I said, "That's the whole point." If we're going to recreate the 60s, we recreate the 60s, and that's how the attitude was, and that's why they dress like that.
I was trying to put as much reality into some pretty silly moments. I'm a big believer that, if you ground it in a way that you can relate to it, then you can get away with blue murder.
The film discusses a lot of gender issues, but it's also set at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement. Did you consider looking more closely at race issues when planning the film?
We talked about it, because, you know, they say X-Men was based on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. But, I think I had enough political subplot in this movie.
We've already discussed in the next one, does the Civil Rights movement become part of it, if we do a sequel? That's a real hot potato, as well, still. But you can only put so much in a film. As I said, the sequel could happen. I don't know yet. I don't even like talking about sequels, because the film could tank and that's that.
There's a tendency with comic book films to just apply more style and scale to it as you go along. But yours is a little bit more subtle. Were you concerned with this ‘comic book blockbuster' style as you were making the film?
It's funny, because people are always asking me what my style is as a filmmaker. It's very simple: I just want to tell a story. And I'm always about every shot keeping that narrative drive moving on. And I don't like throwing the camera around.
I see these movies where I have no idea who the fuck is doing what to who, and what characters I'm meant to relate to.
Because this is set in the 60s, I tried not to shoot it in a very modern style. I tried to go back. Very traditional framing, and camera movement when it needs to move, not just throwing it around and whizz-bang. So, I just tried to make it as classic as possible. And tell a story.
The thing I like about this movie is that it has a good story and good characters, and that's what's been traditionally missing in a lot of the superhero films. It's just people blowing up buildings and flying around.
Sebastian Shaw's very much reminiscent of a Bond villain. Was that deliberate on your part?
Totally. You Only Live Twice. It was all about trying to create a nuclear war. So, You Only Live Twice was very influential on that.
Was Kevin Bacon your first choice for the role?
There were two actors. I was thinking of either Colin Firth or Bacon. And they're best friends, which I didn't fucking realise. Really good mates. So, they knew about it as well, because I was talking to both of them at the same time.
But Fox were very nervous about having another Brit, because I thought it would be really interesting to see Colin Firth playing a villain. This was way before The King's Speech and getting Oscars and shit. I just think he's a great actor, and it would have been interesting to see what he could have done with it.
Also, I've been a fan of Kevin's for a long, long time. And Kevin had that bravado that Shaw needed. Because Shaw's a difficult character. The whole thing about absorbing energy - how do you do that? And then you see him with the ponytail and the dressing up in the cravats. If you get it wrong, I don't want to be like Stormbreaker, where you get these villains where you can't take them seriously.
So, I just sat down with Kevin and we said, "Look, let's make him like a Bond villain, where he's suave, debonair, charming."
Getting his power right was very tough. And then, how do you kill someone when he absorbs energy? Shaw was the hardest character to get right.
Speaking of Bond, in the Argentinian bar scene, Erik has a gunshot to the camera.
Oh, yeah. I sort of want the Broccolis to regret never hiring me. I love the Bond movies. And my son now, we're watching them all again with him. And he loves them. So, I couldn't help but put a few nods in there.
You keep bringing Bond up, so you must be really keen to direct one.
I was very keen to direct Bond. I don't know if I am any more, now that I've done this. I really like Daniel. You know, it might be interesting if one day they decide to cast Fassbender as Bond.
Also in the cast, you've got Jason Flemyng.
My lucky talisman!
And people like Oliver Platt and Michael Ironside are in it. What made you choose those guys, that are well known older character actors?
I think people with one line are just as important as someone with a thousand lines. It takes one bad delivery to remind the audience that they're watching a film. So, if I can get away with casting great actors in smaller roles, I'll take it. And they all said yes.
I remember with Flemyng, he read the script, and I said, "Come on. Play Azazel." And I had to bullshit him that in the sequel he'd have a much bigger role. And because he hated it on Clash Of The Titans, all the prosthetics, I was like, "No, it'll be fine."
Then he signed up, and said, "Fuck me, I'm red!"
But Azazel, even though he hardly speaks, he's still a character, and you've got to believe the moves that he does, or the looks. Casting good actors makes movies better, and I shock my casting directors, because I say names for people with two lines and they're going, "You're never going to get that." And I was like, "Well, there's no harm in asking."
Have you got a role for Dexter Fletcher in the next one?
Actually, we were thinking of Dexter playing the Oliver Platt role. It was funny. He came and auditioned for it. But again, Fox were nervous, saying, "You can't have all these Brits."
But I like working with my friends. It's so much easier to turn up with your mates on set. You have a laugh. And I don't have to pussyfoot around. If I could cast my mates in every movie-well, I do, and I will.
Speaking of collaborators from previous films, Take That do the credits song on this one, like on Stardust. What's the deal with that? I wouldn't have thought they were an obvious choice for soundtracking superhero or fantasy movies.
What I wanted to do, because I think this one movie out of all the X-Men movies, I think there's a lot for women to enjoy in this film. And remember Armageddon, with the Aerosmith song? That got girls, who probably wouldn't have traditionally gone to see Armageddon, to see maybe there was something in the film.
I bumped into Gary Barlow in LA. We were just talking, and said, "Do you want to come and see a rough cut of it?" And he came and wrote the song. I listened to it, and I said, "I think it'll be a hit, and if we can do a video that gets girls more interested...'"
And they were going on tour, so they're playing to one and a half million people that might not traditionally be interested in an X-Men film, then we might get them to come and watch it. So, it's pure commerce, to be blunt. But I want women to see this film.
Mark Millar's been talking about this spy project that you're working on with him and Dave Gibbons. How's that going?
I co-created it with him. We're writing it at the moment. The weird thing is, we came up with a great plot and great characters. And I'm telling it to my kids every night as a story. What I do is I tell the stories to my kids and see how they react.
It's the tone I haven't figured out yet. I rang up Mark and said,"Look, I've got this idea. You know what we did for Kick-Ass. Let's do that for spy movies." And we both came up with these characters, which are cool.
But the problem is, I cannot decide which way to take it. Because I could make it like a really great kids' film, but I don't want to be Spy Kids. Or I could make it really hardcore.
You know how Kick-Ass did fall between being a kids' movie or an adults' film, and it was neither? That's the problem I'm having with the super-spy thing. But we are working on it.
Is that next?
I just want a holiday!
Matthew Vaughn, thank you for your time!