There’s a dead body on the floor next to me with a bullet hole in between its eyes. Even though Academy Award winner Colin Firth is beating up goons with an umbrella on the monitor in front of me, I can’t help but look over at the cadaver. Though obviously a dummy, the prop will no doubt come into use fairly soon here on the set of Kingsman: The Secret Service as a hyper violent spy thriller is exactly what director Matthew Vaughn has in mind. On the other side of the sound stage, tucked inside Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden just outside London, Firth swings his umbrella around so as to catch the handle on the face of an attacker. He attempts it a number of times, sometimes landing it and sometimes failing, but Firth is clearly giving his all to a role that he has never really attempted in previous films.
“I pitched it to him and by the end of the phone call he was like ‘It sounds great,’” director Matthew Vaughn revealed about getting Firth in the role. “He doesn’t really get the chance to do things like this.”
Based on the comic series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, though Vaughn is credited with a “co-plotter” title, Firth takes on the role of Harry Hart. Code named ‘Galahad,’ Hart is a secret agent under the order of the Kingsman, a society of do-gooders that are clearly inspired by the likes of Britain’s most famous spy, James Bond.
Firth goes through his moves a few more times in the scene, which includes snagging one of the attackers by the neck with his umbrella’s handle. It doesn’t happen while I’m witnessing the scene unfold, but I get the feeling this bullet-ridden body is about to get its close-up, and Firth is going to be the one pulling the trigger on him.
“The style we’re trying to give him is very much like a demonstration rather than a brutal fight style,” fight coordinator Damien Walters told us. “Trying to give an elegance to it, sort of balletic dance routine over an aggressive style of fighting, so to make it look easier that he can handle these six guys.”
Firth set up the scene for us later on, saying: “The dialogue that proceeds it is ‘Listen boys I’ve had a very emotional day, so if you’ll let me finish this pint of Guinness.’” Which is when the fists start to fly.
Lest you think the whole film is about Firth’s character, he takes the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” role in the film, the Luke Skywalker of “Kingsman” being Taron Egerton’s “Eggsy.” Though only 22 years old, Egerton has appeared in a number of plays and television programs in his career, but “Kingsman” marks his first feature film role and it sees him at the very center of the story.
“Eggsy is a young lad from one of the poor areas of London who has kind of fallen on hard times really,” Egerton said about his character. “And although he’s made some unwise decisions, a lot of it is due to circumstance and unfortunate events. He does have drive and he does have ambition and he’s got a very good heart, but he’s just made a few little wrong moves. He’s got a some good friends, but he’s also involved with some wrong people. Harry sees an opportunity to introduce him to a world that could mean better things for him. A world of super spies and espionage, and he jumps at the chance.”
The film is often described, not only by the cast but its source material, as “My Fair Lady” meets James Bond, and it’s an apt comparison. Throughout the film, Firth’s Harry will find himself taking the street thug out of Eggsy and morphing him not only into a militarized spy but a proper world class gentleman.
“He’s not only grooming him for the profession stuff, but it’s about being a gentleman,” Firth said. “It’s the manners and the suits and how you eat. The old fashion aspects of being a gentleman.”
In another sound stage on the lot, we witness a scene being filmed with Egerton along with co-stars Sophie Cookson and Tom Prior. The trio sit inside a space akin to an interrogation room, all with solemn and somber looks. Next enters frequent Matthew Vaughn collaborator Mark Strong, sporting some sharp duds and a natural Scottish accent as the recruit training “Merlin.” The Arthurian parallels don’t end at the codenames either as the film’s title group is just as compact and concise as the collections of knights in British fiction.
“In a bit like the knights of old where they were only a certain amount of knights allowed to belong to the order,” Strong said. “The Kingsman only have a certain amount and one dies and a new one has to be inducted, and the film deals with the new induction of a new guy or girl.”
As the scene plays out, the three young actors are each given an envelope. Strong’s character reveals that their mission is inside the envelope and when they open it they find the photo of a person they’re to take to bed by the end of the night, utilizing of course the charm they’re picking up in their training. The catch, however, is that all three of them were given the photo of the same person. It would seem at the time of our visit that the right person hadn’t been cast for the role though as all three of them reveal their photos as blocks of green inside the folder. This isn’t the only near impossible task that the recruits must face in the film though, as Mark Strong would go on to explain.
“There’s a series of tasks, they have to do a parachute at one point where they’re not given one parachute, one of them doesn’t have a parachute, and Merlin gleefully watches on the screen to see how they cope. Another one is they’re encouraged to choose a puppy to be their companion through the whole of their training. Merlin has great fun when he tells them they’ve got to run over an obstacle course with their new puppies not on leashes, so there’s the one sequence with complete chaos. So there are a series of nonsensical tasks that these guys have to go through.”
Puppies stuck in obstacle courses isn’t the only place this film will differ from other spy movies of late, as Matthew Vaughn recalled the conception of the story revolving around setting it apart from the likes of Bond, Bourne, and Mission: Impossible which he and Millar saw as being interchangeable in their latest forms.
“It was Mark and I just chatting about how we both loved spy movies and I was lamenting how they’ve all become very serious….We sort of came up with the idea first of all in the pub, and then on the phone, and then Mark went off and wrote the thing and got a lot of it wrong in my opinion… So we did some big tweaks but the heart and soul is the same. It was one of those weird things where it was just two nerds talking about ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to make a film about THIS?’ and then it happened.”
The legacy of espionage cinema isn’t lost on the cast of the film either, particularly Strong and Firth who both co-starred in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of the “George Smiley” novel by John le Carré.
“There’s an immense spectrum within the spy genre,” Firth said. “It goes all the way from Austin Powers to John le Carré. Funny enough, I was looking at The Ipcress File, the Harry Palmer films, recently and even there the narrative within that series of films you can see them tweaking the convention. The first one feels like John le Carré and by the time you get to the third one, which is Ken Russell, it’s still quite a taut thriller but it goes more towards farce, and I think this is drawing a lot from all of those.”
As opposed to being a part of them, Egerton on the other hand was raised on a steady diet of spy films growing up, though he never imagined he’d be a part of one.
“I’ve always loved espionage films,” he said. “My Dad was a big film buff and he introduced me to those films when I was young, but they always seemed like a distant dream. They are so kind of other worldly and flamboyant that you think all the little gadgets in them you don’t even process that they’ve been made to be put into a film. It’s amazing and exciting and wonderful to be a part of a genre that I’ve always loved. I think everyone loves a good spy romp.”
A number of changes have been made for the film from the comic book in its journey to the big screen. For example, Eggsy and Harry are no longer related as Uncle and nephew. Vaugh recalled positing “’My Fair Lady’ wouldn’t have worked if Audrey Hepburn was Rex Harrison’s niece” regarding the change. In addition, the film’s group of “Kingsman” are no longer an offshoot of the infamous MI6, they’re their own brand of super spys.
“We’re saying they were ‘born’ in 1919,” Vaughn explained. “Where a lot of very rich and powerful guys all went to the same tailor and they all lost their children in the war. So suddenly by default they all have three things in common, they all get their suits made at this place, they’re rich, and they have no children anymore. They think ‘The war was an absolute travesty. Obviously we cannot trust government to make the right decisions, so we will be the people that will bequeath our estates, our money, our power to this new organization to be above bureaucracy, to be above corruption, to be above politicians, and try and do the right thing to save people and the world.’”
Finally, the film takes the neurotic Mark Zuckerberg-like villain of the comic and turns him into the talkative megalomaniac Valentine, as played by Samuel L. Jackson. I asked Vaughn why he made the change to the character, since the original depiction of the villain is a total 180 from Jackson’s style.
“Well, A. I’ve always wanted to work with Jackson. B. He gets this world,” Vaughn replied. “I think the reason that Nic Cage was so great as Big Daddy is that he understood what we were doing. I think no other actor would have come up with the idea of doing the Adam West voice. So I needed an actor that knew the spy films as well as we did, loved them, knew comics, knew genre, everything that he does. He really is a proper fanboy, a fan-man. It was funny, the more I was reading the speeches, he’s got a lot of speeches in this film, I saw him doing an advert for prostate cancer and he made that interesting. So I wanted someone that by the end of the film everything he says you’re slightly confused, you’re like ‘Maybe he’s got a point, maybe I want him to win.’ There’s a line in the film that Colin says to him ‘The Bond movies are only as good as the villain,’ and I’m taking that to heart.”
The film marks the second feature directed by Vaughn that is based on a comic from scribe Mark Millar (2010′s Kick-Ass being the first). Not only do those two films share a comic book basis, but their on-screen tone, as conceived by Vaughn, is both playful and respectful of their genres. What Kick-Ass was for superheroes, Kingsman: The Secret Service is aiming to do for James Bond spy films.
“The tone is 100% Kick-Ass in the sense that one minute you’ll be laughing and the next, I mean we’ve shot stuff where I think the press is going to kill me,” Vaughn confided in us. “We’ve got an action sequence in a church which is just going to cause a huge reaction. I might have a Christian fatwa on me. If you liked Kick-Ass you’re going to like this, it’s adventure, action, heart, comedy, it’s all in there. It’s fun. I’m convinced ‘The Avengers’ did so well because you had a laugh and I think people are having a miserable time at the moment and they want escapism. The only way I think we could compete with Bond and all these big franchises was to do really full on violent choreographed action, which they can’t do because they’re PG-13, so let’s do something people haven’t seen before. A spy movie where once it kicks off it really does kick off.”
“I think he’s a very skilled entertainer,” Firth said about Vaughn. “He uses a lot of very familiar genres and satisfies one’s appetite for those but he plays games with them and subverts them as he goes along. Subverts your expectations, not the least with casting choices. He’s got me as a killing machine and Robert De Niro in woman’s underwear (2007′s ‘Stardust’). He plays games with them. They’re not only satire, he clearly adores the genres that he’s playing with.”
Even though Vaughn is Egerton’s first experience working with a film director, he’s already fallen in love with his style and attention to details. Egerton revealed to us that he think’s Vaughn has an amazing gift in that he is hyper aware of “what’s cool.”
“Matthew just knows what works aesthetically,” he said. “He knows what looks cool, and he knows what makes people feel excited. He knows how to build something throughout the film and tie in little themes. He has a great eye for detail, an eye for detail that as an actor is incredibly satisfying.”
The final shot for the day sees Eggsy inside his dormitory with the rest of the Kingsman recruits. He sits on top of his bed and the camera tracks in on his face. His fellow spies-in-training stand around playing charades while their dog companions lounge about. As the camera continues to creep on Egerton’s face, you can see why Vaughn chose him for the role, he might be barely out of drama school but he’s got the chops to pull off the strange concoction that is the street-kid-turned-spy of Eggsy.
“I think what makes him special is he comes from a place where he didn’t have anything handed to him,” Egerton says of the character. “He’s from a rough area from a family that started out nurturing and warm but lost its way with the passing of his father, and with a little bit of coercion from Harry he manages to excel and become quite amazing. I mean really quite amazing, I can’t believe it’s me bringing that character to life. I think what makes Eggsy special is his ability to triumph in the face of great adversity.”
Egerton isn’t the only one that’s wide eyed on the set of “Kingsman.” Though it marks his fifth film, Vaughn is clearly just as eager and excited to tell this story as any of his previous works. He’s crafting an experience that is both loyal to the films of his youth, but has enough of a modern flair that it won’t seem too old fashioned. The convention and tropes of spy films will be apparent on the surface of “Kingsman,” but Vaughn is aiming for a fresh take on the genre despite the likes of James Bond and Ethan Hunt being more popular than ever.
“It’s sort of like what Spielberg did with ‘Raiders’ where he took movies he grew up on and then made it in a more modern, fresh, accessible way, I’m sort of doing the same thing with the spy movies I grew up on.”
He would later add with quite a smile on his face, “I’m getting paid to play. I love it. It’s everything I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a boy’s dream come true.”
Kingsman: The Secret Service will debut in theaters on October 24.