Earlier this week, I had the privilege of flying to New York to see an advance screening of Kingsman and meet with the director, the awesome Matthew Vaughn!
Known for Kick-Ass, Layer Cake, Stardust and X-Men: First Class (with production credits in Snatch and Lock, Stock), there is no doubting that he is an amazing director. The question for me isn't about how great his movies are but about what he's like when he's not behind the camera. (You can read more about my trip here.)
When we sat down (along with a few other writers and nerdy types) over pancakes and coffee, he was utterly charming. Open and unpretentious, this wasn't an interview as much as it was a person passionate about his work sharing that drive. The greatest bit of this (other than the general awesomeness of sitting a foot away from such talent) was that the topics ranged from James Bond to writing and filmmaking, all the way to what is wrong with the world today.
On James Bond and Spy-Tech
As Kingsman is first and foremost a spy movie, it was inevitable that James Bond, the ultimate spy, would come up in conversation. Vaughn discussed not only the movies (displaying a quite encyclopedic knowledge) but the casting, the timelines, the history, even behind the scenes stories. It's obvious that Kingsman has its roots deep in the history of the genre.
Of course Bond is the main [influence], I call it the love letter for spy stuff. I thought about the Spy Who Loved Me…I don’t channel Roger Moore, I channel David Niven. Niven is much more of a quintessential English gentleman, so I was really channeling that, and the story with Connery. Connery was cast as Bond, and then everyone went bat-sh*t crazy, not happy about it [because Connery] was a Glaswegian body-builder, it's not right. The director of Dr No got hold of Connery, and got him a suit made and taught him how to eat, and transformed him into a gentleman, so that was in the back of my head. There’s a thing about anyone can be a gentleman, and it’s one of the themes in the movie.
Technology really has caught up with the old spy gadgets, it used to be something special. When you have to start writing gadgets, that’s f***ing hard. I really thought [going retro was] the only way to do it, I mean, if they worked then, why wouldn’t they work now? If I have a poisonous knife and I can kick you with it, that’s better than a taser.
On Writing Hate Speech
There's some definite crazy characters in Kingsman, busy justifying the means with the end, but one scene stood out for everyone watching. No spoilers (sorry!) but it's enough to say that the shot opens on a priest letting loose on fire and brimstone in a church, and that not everyone makes it to the end of the scene alive. One of the amazing things in this scene (and there are many, many amazing things in this scene) is the authenticity of the sermon, the sheer bile spewing forth from the pulpit. We had to know how Vaughn had written such an impressive speech. Turns out, he didn't!
Well the realest thing was writing that dialogue, where we had to write a hate speech. We went online, and that is literally verbatim one of these [extremist preachers] speaking. Because I said, I don’t know how to write this, and Jane [Goldman] was like “I don’t know how to write this”. It was like writing a Nazi justifying killing the Jews. [in The Debt] That was a f***ing tough speech to write. I found a Jewish philosopher who wrote an amazing speech about how Hitler was obsessed with Jews, and the philosophy of Jews, and Aryan race, and I read it and was like, "f***ing hell that’s twisted, we’ll make a Nazi say this, and then people will cheer when he gets killed". So with the hate preacher, we pressed play on one of these speeches, and it made it so enjoyable filming the sequence, it was just like…yeeah. It felt good [to kill him].
On Colin Firth as an Action Hero
Kingsman boasts an impressively star-studded cast, including Michael Caine, Mark Hamill and Samuel L Jackson, but Colin Firth as the action hero is possibly the most surprising A-list choice. It works, but don't worry if you have some reservations about this rom-com king kicking butt, you weren't the only one.
Colin Firth learned the whole thing, and we put him in there, and he was great, he worked his arse off. And he was so nervous. I was so nervous, I thought, Colin Firth, kicking arse? Is this going to be the worst comedy of all time? But at the same time, you've got to take the risks, you've got to keep pushing the boundaries, and Colin, he pulled it off. I think he’s great.
Huge Action Scenes, Fight Scenes and Digital vs Film
There are a lot of visually stunning action scenes in Kingsman (obviously), and it's clear that Vaughn has the art of the fight scene down pat. He spoke about some of the practicalities of filming (rehearsals, films and takes) but also the core of what makes a fight scene.
What you do nowadays, is that you shoot the action on a Red, a Red is like four thousand lines and you can do digital zooms in. It captures the image, then we can just come in and all that [editing] you do afterwards as opposed to in the olden days when you had to zoom up and down while filming. Digital film is just….so much easier. I know a lot of [other directors who say] “I only shoot on film” but I can’t tell the difference, and as a filmmaker it’s a lot, lot easier.
We rehearsed it for three months. We spent three months getting it perfect. That’s how we did the action, on video, so we could learn it, then shooting it’s not as hard. It’s just going through the motions of what we’ve trained to do.
The way to make the fight scenes look good is first rule: it’s got to look good if I just get a camera, and I plonk it here, and they do it. Then you know that you have a good fight, then you can do some camera work to enhance it, but if it doesn’t look good on a wide shot…. And that’s how to do it. It’s like shooting drama, if you can’t hold a wide and it’s still interesting, then the scene sucks.
On The Inspiration Behind Kingsman
Don't let the veneer of action/thriller fool you, this is a movie with some real heart and a much deeper message. Vaughn was obviously extremely passionate about the global events that led him to create first the comics (with Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons) and then the film. This is the part of the session that was the hardest to cut down, and I'm sure that he could have talked for hours on the subject. True to form, Vaughn even cut himself short, and apologized for getting into such a "heavy" conversation. Such manners!
A lot of my political views are in a lot of the movie... when I’m writing about it, it just came out how I feel about politicians, entitlement, etc. For example, a few years ago, all the kids literally torched a bit of London [during the London riots], and everyone was just saying “these f***ing kids, who are they” and I’m like, why isn't anyone asking “why are you doing it”? They’re not doing it for the fun of it, they’re doing it because they've got nothing. And yeah, there are some bad eggs, but there are good eggs. And that’s where it all came from, why I wanted to make the film.
It’s a theme, I grew up in a very privileged way, so I was lucky, so I was born with a silver spoon, and I saw it from the inside, and I ran away from it, and movies were my escape. And I do think that my number one job as a director is to entertain, and have fun, like people have two hours of escapism, but underneath it all you've got to have something that you relate to and that you really feel. I think that the world is f***ed right now, really f***ed, and needs everybody to wake up, and everyone needs a refresher in “Manners maketh man”.
I was watching the news and I saw this funeral that was on TV, sadly a soldier from Iraq, and there were a bunch of guys with "god hates fags" on a big placard, and I just thought, “who the f**k would actually…” I couldn't believe somebody would do that, and they said that the guy, that he deserved to die, and they were heckling, they were protesting a funeral, and I couldn't believe it. Even if you did believe those views, have some respect for the poor parents, burying their dead. There’s freedom of speech, but I think that if they were just polite, and if they had manners and were cordial, then maybe they would have that point of view, but express it not at the funeral. Maybe they could sit down with somebody else who has manners and they have a cordial conversation and they can all wake up.
His Final Word
As much as I felt that I could just sit and shoot the breeze with Matthew Vaughn for the rest of the day, all good things must come to an end. Just to top it all off, he didn't leave with a plug for the movie (maybe because we were all raving about it!), or even a simple thank you. He left with advice to an aspiring filmmaker in our midst, encouraging him with the same words that inspired him twenty years ago.
Twenty years ago, Ridley Scott says to me “all filmmaking is, is a camera. One person standing behind it and one person standing in front of it. It’s as simple as that.” Don’t get intimidated, just make sure that whatever is in front of the camera is interesting, and go ahead. Just do it, eventually it will pay off. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter, just try!
Kingsman is out February 13th, 2015.