There are very few second chances in Hollywood, but for director Matthew Vaughn, not only was he given a second chance to direct an "X-Men" movie, but he ran with it to create what may end up being not only the savior of the franchise, but also change comic fans' opinions on 20th Century Fox's ability to make a great comic book movie on par with what Marvel Studios has been doing.
Vaughn was originally going to direct the third "X-Men" movie, but for various reasons, he bailed, allowing Brett Ratner to step in… and probably the less said about that the better. Vaughn went on to first direct first Stardust, based on the Neil Gaiman/Charles Vess book, and then last year's adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s Kick-Ass. (The latter followed months of developing a Thor movie, as well.) Clearly, the guy knows comic books and how to adapt them for the screen, something he does with his writing and producing partner Jane Goldman.
As most will already know, X-Men: First Class is a prequel that takes place in 1962 when Professor Charles Xavier, here played by Wanted star James McAvoy, and Erik Lenscherr, the future Magneto (Michael Fassbender), first meet and put together the first training camp for young mutants. Disrupting their plans is the ambitious criminal Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his partner Emma Frost (January Jones) who use their mutant powers to create chaos in a world already in the midst of a Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Vaughn thrives in this environment to create a movie that takes both liberally from the comics and previous movies as well as other references like early James Bond movies to create what may be considered the definitive X-Men origin story.
Days before the junket was going to take place in New York City, Vaughn remained back in England, feeling under the weather possibly from pushing himself so hard to finish the movie with far less time than some might feel is humanly possible. Because of that, we didn't get to talk to him as much as we would have liked but what follows is a brief but quick-paced interview about how he did it and what he would like to do next.
SuperHeroHype: When you were in New York six years ago for "Layer Cake," you were already well into development on the third "X-Men" movie and you had a lot of great ideas that sounded cool, then you left that. And now you're back, so what was the biggest factor in convincing you to do another movie? Was it the story or Bryan Singer's involvement?
Matthew Vaughn: Unfinished business, that's what inspired me. I was totally excited about doing "X3" and basically co-wrote the script with (Simon) Kinberg and Zak Penn. We did that in six days together, and then storyboarded the whole movie, prevised all the big sequences, and then like an idiot, thought that I didn't have enough time to make the film I wanted, so I had to leave. I sort of regretted that ever since, and when Fox rang me up and said, "Do you want a chance to reboot X-Men and put your stamp all over it?" When they told me that, I thought they were joking at first, and then they told me it would happen in the '60s against the Cuban missile crisis as the backdrop, I thought, "God, this sounds cool. Why not? Let's do it."
SHH: And then you probably had less time to make this movie than you would have had to make the third one…
Vaughn: That is the irony, and then they said, "But the bad news is that the best case scenario you have ten or eleven months until we release it." I was like, "Oh, f*ck," then I went, "Guys, I've now made two movies since then. I feel confident enough that we can get on with it."
SHH: You certainly have a good handle on the '60s stuff and also the X-Men characters. I know there was a story, but was there any sort of screenplay already in place?
Vaughn: There was a very rough screenplay which had loads of the characters in and then Jane and I went off and put our stamp all over it, came up with a whole new way of structuring the first act and the third act and then we had to get the second act to work. The problem about this movie is that it's a four-act structure, which I always find tough to pull off 'cause the third act in this film is sort of them training, which really should be the beginning of the second act not the third act, so it was quite hard to get that structure right, but once we did it, it just felt good and we went off and shot the thing.
SHH: Obviously, you'd have to have Charles and Erik and Raven in this as well, but they had already pre-decided all of the side characters and that Sebastian Shaw would be the villain?
Vaughn: All the characters were already decided, and I didn't have enough time to then think, "Well, let's change the characters." Back then, we had eleven months, so I just thought, "I gotta get on with it, let's get on with it. I like the story, I like the characters, let me just get the script right and let's start prepping it."
SHH: I have to admit when I first heard this movie was happening and the timeframe, I assumed it was going to be a lot of Erik and Charles sitting in a room talking about mutants and it's nothing like that at all. It probably has more locations and set pieces than the other three movies, which is crazy. How did you approach having to do all these different locations even the club in which they find Angel, which is only one scene.
Vaughn: What you do is you put your blinkers on, you're jumping off a cliff, there's a parachute on your back and you've got no safety nets, and you gotta go for it. We all sort of looked at each other in the eye and said, "This is going to be madness, this is going to be impossible." There's never any whining or moaning from anyone, it was just like, "Let's just go for it" and we did.
SHH: You have John Dykstra who did the FX for "Star Wars" doing your FX, which is huge. Did you have him doing a lot of the FX beforehand or did you just shoot the big FX sequences early?
Vaughn: No, no, no, we just got on with it. Working with Dykstra was an absolute honor first of all. He's one of the nicest men I ever met and obviously talented beyond… actually, without John I don't think the film would have been finished. He invented the light saber, that's all I can say. He gave me a wrap gift – I can't say what it is, but if you're a "Star Wars" fan, you would cry, and I couldn't believe what he gave me, and he's a genius and I was very, very lucky to have worked with him.
SHH: This has some interesting connections to "Thor" because the two guys who wrote that also wrote this and at one point, you were developing "Thor" to direct. Was that a complete coincidence?
Vaughn: Yeah, total coincidence. They rewrote the draft that I did with Mark Protosevich, but I thought that draft was better and they shouldn't have rewritten it, and we rewrote their draft (of "X-Men") and made it a lot better.
SHH: So you basically swapped projects in a way.
Vaughn: Swapped projects and one was for the best and one wasn't, so yeah, we did a major page one rewrite and Jane and I had to do it bloody quickly.
SHH: I've always been impressed by Jane as a writer and I noticed it both on "Stardust" and "Kick-Ass" that she really finds the voice of the people who write the original material whether it's Neil Gaiman or Mark Millar. There have been so many different writers on the X-Men comics and other than Chris Claremont who has written the most, what was your biggest influence from the comics in terms of the characters' dialogue?
Vaughn: What I did was interesting. We read all the ones from the '60s 'cause the X-Men were crazy in the '60s and we just took the vibe of it more than anything, and then went off and made the movie.
SHH: It's interesting that you included historic elements like the Cuban missile crisis, because setting it in a time period is fairly risky because you then need to tie it together with the other movies and inevitably you'll have people saying, "Well, this person can't be there during this time." Was that ever a concern when you signed up to do this or did you already know how to make it work?
Vaughn: No, that was I think Bryan Singer's idea, and that's what drew me to the project, that's what got me so excited, so I was doing that. It's funny because we found… I don't know if you're an X-fan, but they were originally called "The Merry Mutants." We were going to call them the Merry Mutants, we did a scene which was really funny where they call themselves the "Merry Mutants," but I suddenly thought, "Crap, that's such a bad name" so I didn't do it, and unless you're a comic book fan, you're never going to actually understand that.
SHH: I always refer to them as the "not-so-merry mutants" because they're always so full of angst, that the nickname feels too ironic.
Vaughn: Exactly. "The Merry Mutants" is the worst bloody name, so thank God someone persuaded Stan Lee not to call them that.
SHH: What's Bryan Singer like as a producer and how involved was he as far as the casting at least for the main characters?
Vaughn: Bryan is in a way my idea of a perfect producer. We sat down and he told me what all his ideas were, I went off and wrote the screenplay, he read it and he just went, "Good luck," and he just backed me and said, "Look, you're a director, I'm a director. If anyone tells me what to do I get annoyed. If anyone starts telling you what to do, call me and I'll tell them to stop telling you what to do."
SHH: Did you feel that you guys got a lot more leeway from Fox this time around or did Bryan act as an interim so you didn't have to deal with them so much?
Vaughn: I have to say, Fox were the best partners you could imagine and I speak my mind, and if they had screwed me around, I would be shouting it from the rooftops right now. It was such a creatively-rewarding experience working with them and they were so supportive of everything. We had nine weeks of post basically to finish this movie from when we finally wrapped and I was like, "We're never going to do this," and they just rallied around me, gave me every tool imaginable, and just kept me feeling like we could do it. (Tom) Rothman and Emma Watts were true allies. They gave me brilliant notes and never tried to interfere, just tried to make the film better. I have no idea why Tom has the reputation he has now, because I would let the guy be my ally on any film I made whether he was a head of the studio or not.
SHH: That's great to hear.
Vaughn: And I really mean that. I actually think Mr. Rothman's worked with too many bad directors that he's had to tell them that their work is bad and try and save their movie even though they had too big of an ego to listen to someone who actually knows what they're talking about.
SHH: Since you had such a great experience with this one, would you want to do another "X-Men" movie? Obviously, the set-up in this is fairly brilliant because you now have forty years of stories you could tell in theory.
Vaughn: If the film's a hit, I definitely want to work with Fox again, and there's a lot of fun things that can be done with this world.
SHH: I know you've been developing other comic book movies over the years and looking at other things. If you didn't do another X-men movie, is one of those what you might tackle next?
Vaughn: Yeah, if the film's a hit, I'd be very interested in doing a sequel. I really, really enjoyed… the team I had on it were great, and the hard thing is creating a new franchise, so if it works, it would be fun. My ideas are much bigger for the next one. I've got some really big … I'm surprised everyone is calling this a really big epic movie, and I'm thinking, "Wait until you view the next one if you think this is epic, the next one you won't believe what happens."
SHH: What about these other things? Was adapting Valiant's "Bloodshot" something you were really considering at one point.
Vaughn: I'm getting a new draft of it next week. Yeah, there are not many things. I'm so exhausted I'm going to take at least a couple months off now and then… it's very weird but if I have to make a movie, it's 'cause I see the whole thing in my head and I know it's going to be effortless in a sense of engaging my mind. That hasn't happened yet on what my next project is going to be.