EXCLUSIVE: Deadline caught up with Matthew Vaughn this week, right after he premiered Kingsman: The Golden Circle in London and endured a numbing onslaught of repetitive junket interviews. The follow-up to an audacious spy film he and writing partner Jane Goldman adapted from the Mark Millar comic book, Kingsman: The Golden Circle ups the ante on its formula of 007-caliber action mixed with quirky characters and R-rated irreverence. Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal and Julianne Moore broaden the ensemble of Vaughn’s first directed sequel. He left follow-ups to Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class to other directors, and Vaughn seems anxiously vested in this one working at the global box office at least as well as the $414 million that Kingsman: The Secret Service grossed in 2015. Vaughn is hellbent on seeing through a trilogy of Kingsman films as writer, director and producer, as he continues to build out his directing career.
Long content in his role as producer of British-flavored gangster films like Snatch, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Vaughn didn’t contemplate the director’s chair until Guy Ritchie punted the mob drama Layer Cake and Vaughn took the reins by default. Despite the late start, Vaughn has more control than many helmers, since his MARV Films finances its productions. Here, Vaughn discusses everything from his choices to what makes a sequel worth directing, and why the movie business is lagging behind TV and what it can do to rally.
DEADLINE: How are you bearing up on junket duty?
VAUGHN: I don’t mind answering questions that put you on the spot, but my God, some of these questions… you just think there must be a more efficient way with modern technology where we could sort of say, “Look, we’ll do an hourlong interview with every generic question possible answered. And then say, ‘If anyone’s got anything else they want to ask, then come on in and ask me.'”
DEADLINE: Promoting this movie adds an extra challenge. How hard is it to do interviews when if you actually talked about all the surprises in your film, you’ll ruin it?
VAUGHN: I think the marketing department’s done a bloody good job of giving away a lot of the twists and turns. That’s been a private bugbear of mine, and I guess now a public one. They insist it is the right thing to do. I think it isn’t great for the viewing experience and the way I structured the first act. It definitely has left me feeling a bit hamstrung; the narrative thrust has been a little bit weakened. There are a few little twists and turns left that I’m definitely fighting like a crazy person right now to make sure those don’t get given away. I think that will hopefully help the word of the mouth, where people go, “You aren’t going to be believe X, Y and Z just happened.”
DEADLINE: I recall you having a problem with the way that Stardust was sold. Is…
VAUGHN: Oh, it didn’t help at all, the selling of Stardust. There was one meeting…we’ve all had some truly atrocious meetings within Hollywood, but I had the worst marketing meeting ever, on Stardust when I was told we’re going to sell it as Lord of the Rings. I’m like, “But it’s not Lord of the Rings. If you’re going to sell it like a other movie, then should we use Princess Bride?” And I was told, “No. Princess Bride tanked.” And I was like, “Yes, but it did huge on DVD. It wasn’t marketed properly. Let’s not make the same mistake.” I’m working with Andrew Cripps again at Fox, and to his credit back then at Paramount, after Stardust didn’t do well in the States, they let me take over the campaign in England. We came up with a phrase, “A fairy tale that won’t behave.” We changed the color palette, softened it all up, and it became my highest-grossing movie in England.
DEADLINE: Your company finances your films, and you must have controls most directors do not. How much of building MARV Films was based on hard lessons like Stardust?
VAUGHN: It’s always been a bit of a battle. I have to be…I can’t really get too much into the politics of the marketing departments. Hollywood, in general, right now, I think the way they’re marketing movies is a very old-fashioned model that has to change. It’s not just Fox. You can say that about most of the studios. It’s this sausage factory of, X amount of movies that need to be released. OK, here’s the poster, here’s the trailer, we’re going to do billboards, we’re going to do television advertising, and there is a digital department. I keep saying, guys, the marketing department should be the digital department from now on, and then have a smaller department which is the poster department. The world’s changed, and the model in general of Hollywood is still…everyone talks about the TV business and how it’s amazing while film’s dying. I think it’s not dying, but the film business needs to readjust. What they’re doing in TV is, they’re making great television. Therefore, people are going to watch it. If we make great movies, they’re going to watch it, as well. I have this whole theory that the cinemas also need to adjust their attitude and be less…so obviously commercially driven based on corporate structures.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
VAUGHN: Now, at the cinemas, you’re being herded in to watch a movie, to buy the popcorn, to buy the candy, pay to park the car, all that stuff. It’s become such a…it’s not as fun. I used to like going to the cinema when the guy selling you the ticket would say, ‘Oh, don’t see that film, it’s lousy, you’ve got to go see this film.’ I think there should be screens, now, in cinemas, where if the cinema owner or manager likes it, they keep that movie and give it a chance, an extra two or three weeks, and tell people about it. Halve the ticket price to get people in if you have to. Make cinemas like a club again that you want to belong to, so that you feel like you’re going to a live concert, surrounded by everyone who’s excited. I don’t know what it’s like in America now, but in England you buy your ticket at the same place you buy your popcorn. And you know your kids are going to make you buy everything. Which is double the price you’d pay if you bought the same candy next door. It’s all just killing the experience. Someone saw the movie last week and used an expression I loved. They told me, that movie is worth the price of a babysitter. I think going to the cinema is an incredibly important part of movies, and as a business we’ve got to encourage it by making it a better experience, make it like why people want to go see live music instead of just listening to the download. I think we could do that with cinemas. This whole argument about windows is sort of irrelevant. It should be about making the cinematic experience so great that it doesn’t matter what the window is. They’re going to go see it in a cinema.
DEADLINE: I’ve covered movies forever and you feel this existential crisis in the industry. It used to be the prestige part of the game and now it feels like TV is leaving movies in the dust. What can the movie business do to regain its mojo?
VAUGHN: It’s the simplest thing in the world. Make great films. If you have a restaurant and want it to be successful, serve good food. Clothing business? Make good clothes that are original and you can’t get anywhere else. Making great movies is not easy, but the way the system is set up right now makes it a lot harder. It’s just…television is brave, television is encouraging boundaries to be pushed. Television celebrates writers. This is the one thing I do not understand about the film business. Writers do not get treated with the respect that they should. In the TV business, they’re gods. It’s bloody hard to make a great movie without a great script. But it’s a really simple thing. Make great films.
DEADLINE: You put this movie together before the recent press narrative about the franchise fatigue that drove bad domestic summer box office results. How conscious were you to make sure you were still building out a mythology and not simply repeating yourself, which so many of the recent sequels did?
VAUGHN: A hundred percent. When I write with Jane, we have a white board where we put all our ideas, and literally, one of the first rules we wrote was, do not contract sequel-itis.
DEADLINE: How do you safeguard against that?
VAUGHN: The way I do it is…I’ve watched all the great sequels, and way too many bad sequels. I realize the sequels that worked are ones that are a continuation of the story where you’re seeing new things, where there’s a little bit of the old stuff, what I call the familiar hug, but you have to expand the characters’ journey and learn more about them. Sequels that work do so because you love the characters, and want to see more of them. It’s the characters that make your franchise unique. It isn’t the explosions and all that stuff. The kids are bored of CG. Weirdly, the more you do in-camera, the more impressive it is. You look at Mission: Impossible 5, and you have Mr. Cruise hanging off an airplane, and everyone’s like, wow.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you really analyzed this…
VAUGHN: I was very nervous, doing a sequel, and this has definitely been the hardest movie to make I’ve ever done. Because it’s a sequel, and because for me it became like ‘Second Album Syndrome.’ My god, how do I do this, because a joke isn’t funny a second time. How do I make sure it’s a movie I can be proud of, that didn’t feel like I was cashing in or chasing the buck? I looked at sequels that didn’t work, after the first film was brilliantly marketed and became a hit but people weren’t all that hot and bothered by the movie. Clash of the Titans is one of the best examples. I think no one really enjoyed that movie, even though it did a huge amount of money. And then the sequel…Snow White and the Huntsman, and well that was another, and Alice in Wonderland. Movies that did really well but they weren’t movies that people fell in love with. And if people don’t fall in love with or really enjoy the movie, then there’s no point in making a sequel, no matter how big the grosses are.
DEADLINE: What is your touchstone great sequel?
VAUGHN: There were four I thought nailed it. The Godfather II is the pinnacle, and then The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Terminator 2.
DEADLINE: Can you verbalize the connective tissue between those sequels?
VAUGHN: You see these characters on a new journey in a world expanded, with enough of what you loved from the first film. The character arcs continue, the quality of the filmmaking goes up. They really were masterpieces, in my mind. The Godfather II is one of my favorite movies of all time. Rocky II should be in there. I love them all and remember going to the movies as a kid, and feeling nervous. I liked the first one so much, and you just go in thinking you’re going to be disappointed. When you’re not, that’s a really great feeling, the excitement of continuing the journey with characters you love. I had this argument with Fox, and I’m still convinced I am right. I think getting people to see a sequel who haven’t seen the first film is a near impossible waste of time. You have to make a sequel for people that loved the first film, and you have to respect that they loved it. And you have to thank them for buying a ticket and being willing to buy a ticket again.
DEADLINE: You launched Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, and didn’t direct the sequels. Why was this different?
VAUGHN: For me as a director, Kick-Ass, to be totally honest, that was a commercial move. It was one of a few times I really made a bread head decision. I learned a lot, and I felt sorry for Jeff Wadlow, because in the end, I did ask him to retread my style. I can’t say my tonal style is one of textbook sanity, and so I sort of threw Jeff a hostile pass on that, that I apologize for. After doing First Class, I really felt that I was playing in a sandpit that wasn’t my sandpit. It was Bryan Singer’s. Bryan wanted to direct First Class, and then we worked on the Days of Future Past screenplay.
DEADLINE: Wait, you didn’t direct that one…
VAUGHN: When we finished it, I remember saying to Simon Kinberg and Emma Watts; guys, this feels like it should be the third of the trilogy. It’s such a big concept. Why don’t we do another, one set in the ’70s, because of Young Wolverine, and then the third one is Days of Future Past, where you’re seeing the Young Wolverine with, let’s say it’s Tom Hardy and Hugh Jackman and all the other characters were together. For me, that’s the end of a trilogy. How do you beat that? And I got told no, and when I’m in my sandpit, I don’t like hearing no if I think it’s a good idea. I adore Bryan, and I thought, you know what, I’m going to hand the baton to him. Bryan was nice enough to give me the baton to run with. And I ran with it, and didn’t fall over, and I handed it back.
Why did I do the sequel to Kingsman? I had so much fun making the movie, and I became really good friends with the actors. It reminded me when I made Lock, Stock, where it was a bunch of guys and women coming together and having a very collaborative experience, watching each other’s back, trying to make a great film. I enjoyed that here, and I could see a universe expanding. I had all these ideas for these characters to continue, and that’s the only reason I think you should make a movie. When I get to the moment I commit to a film as a director, it is the moment where the idea of not making the movie makes me feel sick, because I’m so excited just to go and tell that story. It takes a hell of a lot for me to get there, like turning on a heavy switch that is a thousand pounds. The moment I engage it, nothing will stop me making the movie.
DEADLINE: Is it too early to imagine you will turn on that switch a final time and complete a Kingsman trilogy?
VAUGHN: It’s not too early. I pray to god, I have fingers crossed right now, I am clutching onto a piece of wood that the film is a hit. Because there are a lot of Easter eggs and ideas that we’ve already put into this. If you look at the ending of this movie, all the main characters, they’re on the cusp of a new and very different adventure. It’s what I loved about the ending of Empire Strikes Back. I remember sitting in the cinema and going, what do you mean it’s over? Whoa, I need some answers. I was looking at the calendar going, when is Return of the Jedi coming out? I don’t think our cliffhangers are as good as Empire Strikes Back, but that really stayed with me, the serialization, always leaving a little bit of wanting more with some resolution needed.
DEADLINE: Kingsman has broadened beyond a movie, into fashion and liquor lines. How did that happen?
VAUGHN: After every Disney movie, I get dragged to the Disney Store and end up buying X, Y, and Z. I was very impressed by Disney, and heard Bob Iger once say, my movies are advertising for my merchandise, and that’s all that matters. I thought wow, that’s a weird and uncool thing to say, but then I thought about it and, my god, the guy is a genius. And he’s correct. I was looking at everything we were designing for Kingsman, and I thought, this stuff’s beautiful, why don’t we do some high-end merchandising for adults? I’ve realized the whole brand of MARV is, I make movies for adults that haven’t grown up. That’s who I am and what a lot of my friends are.
DEADLINE: What’s that mean?
VAUGHN: Like, we get more excited about Star Wars coming out than kids do. A friend of mine who founded Mr. Porter, I rang her up and said, look, I’ve got this idea, should we do it? And she said yes. It was an experiment because the stuff is not cheap. Really high-quality clothing. And it sold out, everywhere. That was the first collection, and it worked. We’re now on our eighth collection. The movie isn’t out yet and we’ve got the record for the most amount of clothing sold in a week, and the film hasn’t come out. And then we did whiskey. We made 5000 cases, figuring if we sold them in the first year, we’d be high-fiving. We sold it in a week. We’re just launching the aftershave. That sold out. The stuff’s not cheap, as well, so it’s a really interesting dynamic. The whiskey, the Scotch we’ve launched is $1000 a bottle. We’ve sold out of that.
DEADLINE: What does all this tell you?
VAUGHN: It was an experiment that could have gone horribly wrong, but it’s really working. I think it works because it’s authentic in the films and not product placement. It’s like, these are tailors and they’re going to wear the most beautiful suits, and these guys are in the alcohol business and they’re going to drink the best alcohol. So we weren’t just going to putting the name Kingsman as a brand on anything. It had to be organic and authentic to the film and the story. I remember as a kid, watching Risky Business, and going, oh, god, mom, could I have a pair of Wayfarers? I got my pair of Wayfarers and I wore them with pride until I saw Top Gun. Then I was like, my god, mom, can I have a pair of Aviators, please? I remember being so influenced by what I’m seeing on the screen, and I just thought, why don’t we make it easy? If you see a jacket you like, a pair of glasses you like, you can just go onto Kingsman.com or mrporter.com and just buy it and not have to spend a week online, trying to find a piece of clothing that looks similar.
DEADLINE: You went from producing those Guy Ritchie gangster films to the directing chair on Layer Cake, a film that showed Daniel Craig’s potential before he got James Bond. What pushed you toward directing and what did it give you that producing lacked?
VAUGHN: We developed Layer Cake for Guy to direct, and Guy decided he wasn’t going to direct it. I wasn’t sure who to get, and Guy couldn’t think of anyone right for it. JJ Connolly, who wrote the book, said, you’ve been living and breathing this, why don’t you have a go? I thought he was nuts. I had no aspirations in directing, no experience, no idea how to deal with actors. I’d been around a lot for prep and for editing, but the shooting part? You’re there for when there’s a problem. I wasn’t one of those producers whispering ideas and interference. I’ve always thought a producer’s job is to enable the director’s vision and not interfere and be a backseat director.
DEADLINE: What’s most challenging about making the leap?
VAUGHN: I thought maybe I’d do a short film, and wrote one quickly and started putting it together and found I was enjoying it enough that I thought, forget the short. If this movie is awful, it’s awful. My only fear was, the moment you direct a movie, you’re over as a producer, to any other director. Because those directors are going to look at you as a frustrated, terrible director from that point on.
I was really lucky. I really enjoyed making Layer Cake and learned a lot, from the first day of filming, when Daniel Craig put me to one side and said, “Listen, you shouldn’t be giving line readings to Michael Gambon.” And I say, “What’s a line reading?” He says, “It’s when you’re acting out how you want him to do it. That’s called a line reading. Directors don’t do that.” I was like, oh, OK, fine. I had no idea what the difference was between an anamorphic and a spherical lens. I learned on the job, but also learned how much I was enjoying it. It felt like I was playing. Producing is hard work, and the problem about producing is, all you ever hear is no. You are only interesting to people when there’s a problem to be blamed for. When it’s a success and everything goes well, you just disappear. So I enjoyed it, and people seemed to like Layer Cake, and then I got more gigs. Every movie I make, I feel like I’m at film school, learning so much. And I’m still convinced, one day, I’m going to be called out for being the producer who pretended to be a director. It forces me to work hard, and directing is not my natural environment.
DEADLINE: When do you think of yourself as a director?
VAUGHN: I know something’s changing in me because I used to say the problem about being a producer and a director is you’re Jekyll and Hyde. First couple of my movies, the producer side of me always won the argument in my head. I’d stay on budget, I’d say on schedule. Now, the director side of me is beginning to win, where I’m going, “Oh, I don’t give a f*ck about the budget.” I’ve never felt that in my life, and I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, where did that come from?” I fear I’m becoming the sort of director that, as a producer, I used to hate. So that’s a weird journey. But I do love it, and I feel honored to have that as a job. I can’t believe it, really, and hope it can continue for as long as possible.
DEADLINE: Something I’ve always wondered since I saw that scene in the first Kingsman, when Eggsy peers into a locked cell and sees the beautiful kidnapped princess, who makes a rather specific sexual invitation to the young spy, if he’s successful in saving the world. My question: can you recreate the first conversation with Emma Watts and the Fox brass when you showed that scene on film or in the script?
VAUGHN: Yeah, I can, actually. Emma smiled. I remember Emma just looks at me like I am a deranged child that loves to press the studio executives’ buttons. So, therefore, to get a reaction out of her, I have to think long and hard which button to press. The rest of the studio folks there just about fell off their chairs, and they all looked at Emma to try and figure it out. To be blunt, when I showed them the first cut, I had an even more graphic moment, which I knew would never make it. I wasn’t even going to fight for it. It was just to try and get Emma wound up. To Emma’s credit, she knew my game, because it was as pornographic as can be, this shot, and it didn’t bother her. Emma is a force of nature, and battle-hardened. She has gone through so much, I think, being at Fox for a long time now. I don’t think anything fazes her anymore. She’s a much calmer, calmer executive to when we first met, but then again, I’m probably a calmer director as well.
DEADLINE: You’ve made perceptive and not obvious actor choices, from Daniel Craig on down. Give me a quick observation on the following people, starting with Taron Egerton.
VAUGHN: We don’t have to go through a list, because it’s the same quality in all the actors I cast, especially when they’re unknown, but also Daniel Craig, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender…I mean the list is a pretty big one now. What happens is, they walk in the room, and before they even open their mouth, they’ve 90 percent got the job. I’m crossing my fingers, and going, OK, I just need to hear two lines come out of their mouth. Please, please, please, please be what I think you’re going to be. When it is like it was with Aaron Taylor-Johnson on Kick-Ass, I know right away. People say, how do you do it? Well, it’s sort of obvious to me, when it’s right and they come in and I see the character and think, all I need to do is get them in focus. That’s all it has ever been. I try to not be impressed by fame or hotness; just because someone’s famous or hot does not mean they’re right for a role. They just have to be that character, or close to it. Even if they’re like Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who totally conned me when he came through the door on Kick-Ass. He was blabbing away as an American, and when he got the role, he went, “Hey, mate, I’m from England,” and I fell off my chair.
I remember Fassbender coming in and he was just Magneto. He blew me away in the audition. I had a few arguments with some people at Fox, who couldn’t see past his mustache at the time, because he was playing Jung or someone. There’s just a moment when I know that person’s right, and I don’t care whether they’re extremely famous or have never done a movie before, like Taron. I just knew. I follow my instinct, ears, and eyes.
DEADLINE: In Kingsman 2, it’s easy to imagine Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum and Pedro Pascal as prototypical Marlboro Men-types who fit the Kingsmen’s American counterparts, The Statesmen. But Julianne Moore as a morally reprehensible and ruthless, murderous drug kingpin? Where did that come from?
VAUGHN: Boogie Nights, where she captured something in a fantastic film. I remembered her performance, as she went from being a drug-addicted coke-head porno queen to also a loving mother. The way she was with the two kids, Mark Wahlberg and Rollergirl Heather Graham. She was tough, warm, cold, weak, she did it all. She has never done a bad performance, and I also remember being really impressed with her in Hannibal. How do you step into Clarice Starling after Jodie Foster’s performance in Silence of the Lambs? She did it her way, and it was just as good as Jodie’s way. They’re both brilliant. I needed an actress that could do the fluffy, weird stuff on the outside, but still be unbelievably scary and cold and clinical, inside. I’m blessed with this cast. Their brilliance shines and makes people think I’m pretty good, but it’s them that does most of the job for me.