X-men: First Class Interview with Matthew Vaughn

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25 May 11

GeekTown interviews X-Men : First Class Director - Matthew Vaughn

On Sunday afternoon, GeekTown sat down at the Dorchester with a gin and tonic and a select group of film critics to pick Matthew Vaughn’s brains about X-men: First Class. Sadly the director was feeling fairly run down with a nasty bout of flu but he brazened it out and enlightened and regaled us for the best part of an hour with an assortment of fascinating opinions and stories on the movie and beyond…

On what the movie is about:

The movie is about super powered individuals facing off against one another as well as political and social ideas but which are you presenting first and foremost?

Matthew Vaughn: No idea. It is what it is. I should be able to answer that, but the making of it was such a crazy experience, we were just trying to get it done and get it finished on time! It’s the first time I’ve made a movie with no time to think. You ask me a question like that normally, I would be able to tell you… “When I set out to make this film I had the following ideas”, but every single day we were just making it up. I think it’s a mixture of both. Primarily it’s about the relationship between Magneto and X, but set in a backdrop of political espionage and the Cold War. I’ve always wanted to do a Cold War movie and I’m desperate to do a Bond film, always have been. So I got my cake and ate it, I managed to do an X-Men movie, sort of a Bond thing and a Frankenheimer political thriller at the same time!

On production:

How much input did Bryan Singer have? Singer is experienced in ensemble pieces but this really felt like more of an ensemble film than your previous work but with the same undercurrent of humour that you and Goldman brought to Stardust and to Kick-Ass.

Matthew Vaughn: You say that but Stardust had a shitload of characters! So did Kick-Ass and so did Layer Cake, in a weird way, and Snatch and Lock Stock. I am actually more terrified of doing a movie with one lead character because the good thing about having lots of characters is if one gets boring I can just say, “let’s cut to another plot line.” It’s hard to make sure they come across as three-dimensional characters, but at the same time I think it’s a lot more interesting. It’s easier to con an audience that lots of interesting things are happening if I can switch the channel whenever I need to.

As for the influence of Bryan…I don’t even know who came up with the original idea, I think it was Bryan’s idea. Once I started, I think we made the film in 10 months. We had 9 weeks in post. I only saw the film for the first time 5 days ago and I hadn’t ever seen it working on all these different sections. Then I got given 2 weeks for the director’s cut. So when I say it was madness… there were times when I thought we wouldn’t get the film finished! And then if it is finished, God knows what it’s going to be like to watch. I was really taken out of my comfort zone on this film. I come from low budget filmmaking, which is very much about preparation and making sure every dollar goes on screen. Here I hardly got any time to prep, and with 5 DPs on this film and 4 different ADs. Every day I didn’t know who my crew were, I was like, “hey, err, what do you do again?” It was good for me, because I had always relied on my AD and DPs, and that little triumvirate when you make a film. But here I was, on my own naked and running around. At first it scared the hell out of me, but I got used to it. So as a director I feel much more confident after this one.

How come John Mathieson gets the DP credit, and we don’t see any other names?

Matthew Vaughn: Welcome to Hollywood. How come all these people who did f@%k all on the screenplay get these credits?

What sort of proportion is his work?

Matthew Vaughn: I think John probably did. He did the most, that’s why. John did a great job by the way. I’d say 45%, 55%. I don’t know. I should know. He came on half way through the shoot. But we got through it. It was good for me. Normally I’m far more collaborative with DPs, here I became a bit more of a megalomaniac, ‘cause in the end I was just like, ‘look, someone has to take control, and the scene’s about the camera being there now’. Normally I’d ask the DP, ‘what do you think?’ So it was good for me to get out of that zone.

How hard was it to get the physical makeup effects right?

Matthew Vaughn: F@%king hard. I felt sorry for the actors as well, because they’d sometimes spend eight hours in makeup, and we’d all turn up going, ‘God I’m knackered, let’s start filming’, and they’re looking at you going, ‘I’ve spent eight hours getting ready for this’. And then, [Jennifer Lawrence] had some real problems. It kept breaking during filming, or she’d get rashes, and – I don’t normally have any pity for actors, but I did feel sorry for – the prosthetic work is pretty horrible, really horrible. And also very hard to act; for a performance to come through when you’re under all this rubber, it’s very difficult for emotions to come through under all that. I remember when I was on set looking at Beast and Mystique talking, I was panicking because you’ve got two blue people. Trying to get that emotion to believe it. There were moments I was panicking going ‘Christ, I’m going to get laughed at’. You show a movie to someone and people start laughing when they’re not meant to laugh, it’s the worst feeling in the world. It was tough, it was a challenge.

On X-men movies past, present and future:

You were originally meant to direct X-Men: The Last Stand…

Matthew Vaughn: X-Men was a weird process. The reason I pulled out of it was because, I genuinely didn’t think I had enough time to make the film – and they were giving me much more time on that than on X-men: First Class – and that world was already created. What was far more satisfying about this film was, since Stardust and Kick-Ass, I was far more comfortable about bigger-budget special FX and all that shit. I loved the idea I could re-cast every character, set up a new world, and do my own version of an X-Men movie. You’re following a trend and for X3… well you know I storyboarded the whole bloody film, I did the script. I think my X3 would have been at least 40 minutes longer… I think they didn’t let the emotions of those characters and the drama play in that film. I can remember when I was writing those scenes, when Jean Grey turns round to Wolverine and asks him to kill her, and the deaths at the end, and Professor X’s death. I was writing that shit with them, but it became just wall-to-wall noise and action. How long was it, like 98 minutes or something not even that, 89 it might have been? I would have let it breathe and given it far more dramatic elements. But then they probably wouldn’t have let me do that. Fox were great on this film, they have got this really bad reputation, but they were true allies on X-men: First Class. They really let me get on with it.

You’ve created a world and the movie is clearly a prequel, but is it a prequel in the sense that Star Trek is a prequel? If it comes to a point where it’s going to clash with the continuity of the other films are you just going to say, ‘bugger it, let’s just make a good movie’?

Matthew Vaughn: Totally. Why would I give a shit about the other ones? We’ve started a whole new thing. For me I wanted to do a version where it was more similar to the comics at the beginning when they came out in the 60s. I really enjoyed X1 and X2, I think Bryan did a great job, but I think X3 and then Wolverine, they went off the mark and the whole superhero genre has been f@%ked up by a lot of Hollywood aiming for the big explosions and lots of glossy and corny costumes and outfits. I was very inspired by what Christopher Nolan did with Batman Begins. I’m a big Tim Burton fan, and the first two Burton Batmans were great, and then Schumacher took over, and you were just like, “what the f@%k is going on?” and they got worse and worse, and they kept making them! They were getting camper too! I really enjoyed Batman Begins a lot more than I thought I would when I first saw it, especially the first half and I just thought why not try to do the same thing? Putting in that realism and making the characters and genre of X-Men relevant to a modern day audience. I think superhero films need to change. And I’ve said this before, I think superhero films are on the verge of a genre dying anyway in Hollywood. Although Thor’s done well, but that was weird too, I was meant to direct Thor, but it’s doing well. I love superhero films and I want more to be made, but I get nervous. I think they need to be taken seriously as a genre.

On Writing and Working with Jane Goldman:

Was it just you and Jane Goldman who were involved in writing the film?

Matthew Vaughn: WGA don’t think so but they’re f@%kwits. (laughs) Jane and I wrote the screenplay, we threw everything out and started again. Sheldon Turner managed to get a ‘Story By’ credit because he wrote the Magneto script that nobody has ever read. I didn’t even know that. I was like, “who the f@%k is this guy?” But Hollywood’s got its own way of dealing with things.

How do you and Jane usually work together?

Matthew Vaughn: I normally bang out a rough draft on my own and send it over to her. She normally rewrites it, and then when she’s rewritten it, we get in a room together and do the final coming together of the script. And then we give it to people.

One of the most impressive things about this film was that the structure leads us to something that was inevitable, but it happens in an unexpected way…

Matthew Vaughn: The first scene I wrote was the Auschwitz, or concentration camp scene with the little kid. I thought what’s the best way of doing a prequel? And I had the idea to start it, shot-for-shot with the beginning of the X-Men world, and then, let’s see what happened after he pulled the gate. That scene, for me, is the crux of the movie. It makes you feel sorry for Magneto, it makes you want to see him kick some f@%king Nazi arse, and I also thought –the whole Nazism thing, they were obsessed with genetic mutation and the whole blue eye, blonde hair shit, and all the experiments they did – I just thought it was a very natural way of starting, and then flipping to Professor X, you’ve got Magneto in a f@%king concentration camp, and you’ve got Professor X wandering around this huge mansion, and I thought what a great way of starting it off! So they were the first things I wrote, and then you have to figure out: how do they become friends? How do they then fall out? How does Professor X become paralysed? And how does Magneto become Magneto? Was the end goal, but it was hard, because Fox kept saying, “this movies all about the friendship between them,” and I was like, “guys, they only get to see each other for 3 f@%king weeks!” I had to somehow make it believable that you care and Bryan came up with the Cuban Missile Crisis because I didn’t know much about it. I’m English and we didn’t really learn about that in school, and so when I read about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I thought our version made more sense in history than the real version! The idea that we nearly went to nuclear war… ultimately, if there’s a super villain making all that shit happen it makes far more sense. It was Magneto I was obsessed with, Shaw is the villain, but you’re now seeing all those elements of Shaw going into Magneto, for me, that was the far more interesting arc. With Professor X, he’s a bit of a pious, sanctimonious and boring character, in that he’s got too much f@%king power. It’s very hard writing when you’ve got some guy who can just freeze people or read everyone’s mind, you’re just going, “how do you handle this guy?” So I did like the idea of James and I going, “let’s make him more of a rogue, let’s make him fun,” and then how he slowly starts realizing there are other mutants out there, and gets gradually more responsible. But for me Magneto is the driving force and his was the character I most related to.

On the characters:

When Xavier is at university, at the beginning of the film, he’s quite cocky. Does his relationship with Erik start to mellow him?

Matthew Vaughn: Yep. When he realises there are other mutants out there, and others like Shaw, it’s that realization that the worst thing that can happen is mutants being hated because Shaw’s trying to kill everyone.

How did you direct McAvoy, were you referential to Patrick Stewart in the other films?

Matthew Vaughn: No we weren’t, in fact it was the opposite. I said, “Don’t worry about Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, I think they did a great job, but you’ve got to make these characters your own.” I think, the way I said it to James was, lets’ make the character more fun, so that you slowly see him becoming Professor X. When we first meet him he’s not a professor at all and we were trying to show that transition. It’s just not as fun as seeing Magneto growing into a villain, which is far more interesting than seeing a guy sadly becoming a cripple and then ultimately a teacher. It’s not quite the arc you want to see as much as Erik’s but I think James did a fabulous job, because Xavier is the hardest character to make interesting.

On Casting and Characters:

Did you know you wanted James McAvoy to play the role from the beginning?

Matthew Vaughn: He was top of my list. When we talked about who could play Professor X, I thought McAvoy was perfect. So I sat with him. Then I think he got pretty annoyed at me, because I made him audition with every single actor who came in for Magneto, because if we were going to do the Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid thing of chemistry, I think it’s really, really important that you see that chemistry beforehand. The poor guy! I was wheeling him in every day saying, “you’ve got to read with this actor, or this other actor,” and then when Michael came in, after twenty seconds of the two of them together I was like, “OK, I’ve found Magneto.”

Kevin Bacon was fascinating, but he was very much a Bond villain, was that deliberate? Was he your choice?

Matthew Vaughn: You Only Live Twice, I don’t know if you guys remember that, was all about trying to create a nuclear war, so You Only Live Twice was very influential on that .There were two actors I was thinking of, either Colin Firth, or Bacon, and they’re best friends, which I didn’t realise, really f@%king close, so they knew about it as well, because I was talking to both at the same time! But Fox were very nervous about having another Brit in there, because I thought it would be very interesting to see Firth playing a villain, this was way before King’s Speech and getting Oscars and shit, but I think he’s a great actor, and it would be interesting to see what he could have done with it, but also I’ve been a fan of Kevin’s for a long, long time. Kevin had that bravado that Shaw needed. Shaw is a difficult character, with his power to absorb energy. I thought, “how do you do that?” and then when you see him, with the pony tail, and dressed up in the cravats and all that shit, I thought I don’t want it to be like Stormbreaker, where you can’t take the villains seriously. So I sat down with Kevin, and said let’s make him like a Bond villain, where he’s suave, debonair and charming and you sort of just buy him, but getting his power right was very tough. How do you kill someone who absorbs energy? I think Shaw was the hardest character to get right.

Talking of Bond, the scene in the Argentinian bar, you’ve got Eric’s gunshot to camera…

Matthew Vaughn: I want the Broccoli’s to regret never hiring me. I loved the Bond movies, and my son and I are watching them all again, and he loves them, so I couldn’t help but put a few nods in there.

In your supporting cast you’ve got Flemyng and Oliver Platt. What made you choose such well known character actors rather than someone who’s not so big?

Matthew Vaughn: I think every character in the movie is important – people with one line are just as important as someone with 1000 lines. It takes one bad delivery to remind an audience that they’re watching a film, and it just takes you out of the moment, 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, when he read the script, I said, “come on, play Azazel.” I had to bullshit him that in the sequel he’d have a much bigger role, because he hated it on Clash of the Titans with all the prosthetics he had on, and I said, “no, it’ll be fine,” and then he signed up, and was like, “Oh f@%k me, I’m red!” Azazel, although he hardly speaks, is still a character, and you’ve got to believe the moves that he does, or the looks in the background. Casting good actors makes movies better and I believe every role – I shock my casting directors because I say names for people with two lines, and they say, “you’re not going to get them,” well, I think there’s no harm in asking them.

Have you got a role for Dexter Fletcher in the sequel?

Matthew Vaughn: Actually we were thinking of Dexter to play the Oliver Platt role. He came in and auditioned for it, and again, I get why 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 my mates on set, you have a laugh. I don’t have to pussy foot around, I can just say, do this, do that, and they get on with it. If I can cast my mates in every movie then I will.

On 3D and Comic Books:

Almost about every superhero or comic-based film is coming out in 3D now. Were you asked to make it in 3D?

Matthew Vaughn: I’m sure if we’d had more time they might have brought it up. I’m not a big fan of 3D. I think Avatar works for 3D, because they really shot and designed it. Half these films I see, it’s sort of…tacked on. It just doesn’t feel like they’ve designed every shot to be3D. Yeah, they have something coming towards the camera now and again, but what I love about Avatar is the way they made it to give it more depth, and you can just tell that Cameron knows what 3D means, but the rest of these directors. – You know when they do this post-conversion shit, and then it cut’s too quick. They’ve cut it in 2D, and in 3D and you’ve got to slow it down. I find the glasses really annoying, and my kids hate it as well, 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. Maybe I should be more of a fan but for me Avatar’s the only 3D movie where I became immersed in a world. Doesn’t Cameron call it Real-D or something? He’s right. I think Hollywood’s f@%king up 3D now as well. They’re cheapening the process so that people don’t care anymore.

Did you apply a comic book style to the movie?

Matthew Vaughn: It’s funny, because people are always asking, “what’s your style as a filmmaker?” and it’s very simple. I just want to tell a story, and every shot, keep 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 f@%k is doing what to who, and what characters are 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 to the Frankenheimer, very traditional framing, camera movement when it needs to move, not just throwing it around and whizz-bang. I tried to keep it as classic as possible, and tell a story. The thing I like about this movie is there’s a good story and good characters, and that’s what traditionally has been missing in a lot of the superhero films; it’s just like people blowing up buildings and flying around.

It looked like a lot of energy had to be spent making some of the tropes of the comic book work though, from the suits they were wearing, to the reason Emma Frost is dressed as she is, did you ever get fed up of it?

Matthew Vaughn: I love the X-Men world, so for me that was fun. It was fun to look at the comics, and see how the characters dressed, and give them to the costume designer and say, ‘take that blue and yellow thing and’ – The blue and yellow outfits, no offence to Fox, but they kept looking like Fantastic-f@%king-4, and we were like, ‘we can’t have that’. There’s a lot of great stuff in the early 60s X-Men comics., we had that everywhere, all the panels of how they looked, how they dressed. Sammy Sheldon is a brilliant costume designer, and she just managed to make it fit into the real world.

You even had the CIA agent wearing a miniscule skirt…

Matthew Vaughn: But that whole misogynist thing, we thought we’d dial it up. It’s actually quite weird as a director… if you remember the line “there’s no place for women in the CIA”? Well when we did it, Lauren Shuler-Donner was going, “you’ve got to get rid of that line. I hate that line.”I was like, “Lauren, I don’t believe that, but that was what it was like back then. Why do you hate that line?” Lauren’s very sensitive about her age and she’s from that period, and she told us, “that’s what it was like”, and I said, “we’ll that’s the whole point. If we’re going to recreate the 60s, we should recreate the 60s, and that’s how the attitude was, and that’s why they dressed like they did, so let’s keep that.” I was trying to put as much reality into some pretty silly moments, but 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.

You say that you only saw the finished film five days ago. Are you happy with it?

Matthew Vaughn: 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. That’s when I show it to friends, and get about 50 people to see it. Then I get all their input, and then I go off and spend three or four months tweaking and changing. I think I am. I don’t know. I’m astonished by it. It’s weird. When I say ‘seeing it for the first time’, we only got all the visual effects finished about ten days ago. It was odd. I was so used to cutting it with all these bad pre-vizes in it, and I was scared that the movie felt too small, because of all that big stuff I hadn’t seen. Watching it suddenly give birth, I think the actors did a great job on it, and we seemed to get away with having different DPs, and I think Henry Jackman did a great job with the score, because we were writing music three weeks ago. I was still sitting there on a piano with the guy going, “what’s Magneto’s theme?” It’s been so, – I cannot explain how crazy the process has been right now, I think that’s why I’m sick now, because it’s finally finished and my body’s just gone, “what the f@%k?” But ask me in a year, it normally takes me about a year to know whether I’m proud of a film as well. You need to get away from the film and watch it – not that I made the film, try to watch it as a movie.

So would you like more time?

Matthew Vaughn: F@%k yeah.

Talking about your collaborators from previous films, Take That do the end theme. I was surprised when they did it for Stardust, and again for this film. How did it come about?

Matthew Vaughn: I think this movie, out of all the X-Men movies, and correct me if I’m wrong females in the room, I think there’s a lot for women to enjoy in this film, and we had the Armageddon philosophy. The Aerosmith song, that got girls going! Girls who probably wouldn’t have originally gone to see Armageddon heard there was a love song, and were like “oh, maybe there is something in the film I’ll like.” I bumped into Gary Barlow in LA, and we were just talking, and I said, “do you want to come and see a rough cut of it?” and they came, and they wrote the song, and I listened to it, and I said, “I think it’ll be a hit”, and asked if we could do a video which gets girls more interested. They’re going on tour, so they’re playing to one and a half million people who traditionally might not be interested in X-Men, and we might get them to come and watch it. So it is pure commerce, to be blunt, I want women to see this film.

On what’s next:

So this is the fourth film you’ve co-written with Jane Goldman are you working on Kickass 2 together as well?

Matthew Vaughn: Maybe. Everyone says we’re doing that, but I don’t know yet. The weird thing about Kick-Ass 2 is, I enjoyed 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. The business frame of mind is to just do Kick-Ass 2, just shoot it and get it out there and it’ll make a lot of money… but I really do love that movie. It was a very special moment for me making that film. I’m not saying it was as good as Pulp Fiction, but I think if Tarantino made Pulp Fiction 2, you would be like, “Umm, Ok, let’s see what you come up with.” Everything that made Kick-Ass original and fun, I’m worried if you do it again it could be crass. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but it would have to have something about it which made me feel comfortable that the audience would enjoy it as well.

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