Exclusive: Stardust Director Matthew Vaughn

The last time ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! spoke to producer/director Matthew Vaughn, it was two years ago and he was in New York City promoting his directorial debut, the Brit crime drama Layer Cake, which was playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. At the time, he had just been signed up to direct the third “X-Men” movie, but he also told us that he planned on tackling Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’ fantasy novel Stardust sometime in the future.

As these things happen, Vaughn ended up bailing on X-Men: The Last Stand–when we spoke with Neil Gaiman in San Diego, he told us that the script just wasn’t there–but it probably was a good thing, because it allowed Vaughn to avoid the possibility of a sophomore slump while giving him a chance to show he’s every bit as capable of directing a big fantasy epic as some of his peers with a movie that’s every bit as wondrous as “The Chronicles of Narnia” or “The Lord of the Rings” in terms of scope and storytelling.

It stars newcomer Charlie Cox as Tristan Thorne, an unwitting young man who is led on a merry chase through a fantasy world when he discovers the living embodiment of a fallen star, played by Claire Danes, who is being chased by a number of unsavory characters that want her for their own reasons. These include Michelle Pfeiffer’s evil witch queen who wants the heart of the star in order to revive her youth and two princes vying to become king by retrieving a ruby necklace worn by the star. It’s a terrific movie about finding one’s true potential that has laughs, romance and a cast to kill for.

Fortunately, Vaughn didn’t have to kill anyone to get the gig and fans of Neil Gaiman should enjoy how Stardust captures the tone of Gaiman’s inimitable writing. (One shouldn’t be too scared or discouraged by Vaughn’s comparisons of the novel to the buddy comedy Midnight Run either.)

Superhero Hype!: We haven’t talked to you in a while…

Matthew Vaughn: Time flies.

SHH!: True and back then, this was on the horizon, something you were just going to do in the future.

Vaughn: Now it’s a reality.

SHH!: I was very excited to finally get to see it and I thought you did an amazing job with it.

Vaughn: Thank you.

SHH!: As a producer, what did you originally see in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel that made you want to pursue it as a movie to direct?

Vaughn: I just read it and I felt like I could make my version of “The Princess Bride.” Basically, when I read it, it reminded me of “Princess Bride” and it reminded me of a movie called “Midnight Run” and I just felt I could combine the two and do something different and unique.

SHH!: Was “Midnight Run” the motivating factor to get Robert De Niro on board to play Captain Shakespeare?

Vaughn: No, the “Midnight Run” bit came from, if you think about this very quickly, the star is the Charles Grodin character and Tristan is the De Niro character sent by the bail bondsmen (which is Victoria) to go bring them back. They’re handcuffed together, and this time, it’s the silver chain, and then you got the FBI, which is the princess trying to catch them, and then you’ve got the mob who’s trying to kill them, which is the witch.

(At this point, we’re convinced that Vaughn is “taking the piss” as they say in his home country.)

SHH!: That’s what you got out of reading Neil Gaiman’s book? It’s pretty bizarre and not exactly the connection that I can imagine anyone else making.

Vaughn: Yup, I know. Most people think I’m insane when I tell them that, but I’d just thought, “I want to do ‘Princess Bride’ with a ‘Midnight Run’ overtone.”

SHH!: Was there any hesitation taking on such a big project for your second movie, knowing that it would involve a lot more effects and bigger sets than your first movie?

Vaughn: No, I’m asked this question a lot, and I was even asked this by Hollywood when I was trying to make a bigger budget movie. They’re going, “Do you think you can handle…?” And I’m like, “Guys, it’s far harder making a film for a low budget than it is with a big.” It’s this thing I don’t understand why people think bigger budget movies are more difficult to make. A film is a film, and if you’re trying to make a good film but you’ve got hardly any money, you have to really pull every resource you can think of to make it happen. When you’ve got more money, you just have to go, “Okay, let’s build the set and we want it to be like this. Great! Go off and make it!” ’cause you’ve got the money, whereas before, “God I’d love to do it like this, but we can’t afford it, so how are we going to solve the problem?” I’m a big believer that at the end of the day, a movie is a camera, film and an actor in front of it and that rule applies to all films.

SHH!: Did you always want to do this with building sets rather than creating CG backgrounds?

Vaughn: I try to use CG as little as possible. CG for me is when it’s impossible to get a shot without using CG, that’s when I use CG.

SHH!: How about creating the witch’s magic and how did that evolve in terms of how to make it look in the movie?

Vaughn: The witch’s magic, that sort of came from… I was trying to base it on some type of reality, so I decided I liked the idea of fire. I said, “Let’s just say that magic is fire, that’s what it looks like.” I’m a big believer that even though it’s a fantasy world, I try to ground it in as much reality as possible, so all the different architecture is all based on architecture we know and then twisted, like the witches’ lair, I took Versailles in France and there’s a hall of mirrors, which is all white and gold and cream and said, “Look, let’s recreate that but where everything’s white, I want it black. Where everything’s gold, I want it silver.” I just tried to make it feel as relatable and as accessible as possible.

SHH!: How much reference did you get from Charles Vess’ original paintings? Obviously, it has a very distinctive look that greatly adds to the feel of the world in the novel.

Vaughn: We used it more for the England that we see, ’cause I think he drew it in a very Victorian whimsical way, and I just thought a whole movie looking like that could be off-putting, especially for kids, ’cause I think Victorian England wasn’t as cinematically strong visual period. I was very inspired by Charles Vess, I think he did a great job, but hopefully, the world of England looks exactly like the comic book, but Stormhold, I took his ideas and ran with them a bit further and I was very nervous when he came to visit us on set, but he loved it, thank God.

SHH!: How about updating Neil’s humor or the British tone for mainstream audiences, since not everyone has read the graphic novel, and also for American audiences?

Vaughn: The only thing I really changed about it was to keep it cinematic, and things in the book like (SPOILER!) the witch just gives up at the end and there’s a lot of Dunstan in the beginning of the book. I just cut out stuff which I felt would slow the movie down or not be cinematically satisfying enough for the audience, but I tried to stay as close to the book as I could wherever I could.

SHH!: I really thought it captured Neil’s humor well, but do you think that American audiences can get into the British tone of it and the whimsical nature of the movie or do you think they go in expecting “Lord of the Rings”?

Vaughn: So far the screenings have gone very well, so I hope so. I mean, you’re American, you tell me. I just don’t know.

SHH!: I’m a bad example because I’ve been watching “Monty Python” since I was ten years old.

Vaughn: But most America watched “Monty Python.” I thought Python was huge here, but I don’t know. I think if you chase an audience too hard, you end up making bland movies as well. I may be a little bit naïve when I say this but I still hope that good films find an audience, and I genuinely believe that with this that I didn’t want to make a too Hollywoodized movie and Neil isn’t Hollywood. As you said, Neil’s got a very unique, strong voice and I couldn’t understand why there haven’t been millions of Neil Gaiman movies made. I’d love the idea of making a good Neil film and let people hear about Neil, so they can go off and read some of his great books.

SHH!: It’s funny you should say that because the movie’s marketing doesn’t really play up the fact that it’s based on something by Neil Gaiman, which is surprising. I’m constantly seeing people reading “American God” on the train so he’s obviously known as an author. Is there a reason why they might not be mentioning him in the advertising?

Vaughn: You’d have to ask Paramount. I’m being very involved with the marketing in England, because I know how to make the film work in England. I just don’t know America well enough. I forget how big America is. I’m going from Chicago to L.A. today and I imagine it’ll be a 45-minute flight and “What? Four hours? Jesus!”

SHH!: Has the movie already been released in England?

Vaughn: No, we’re coming out in October. We want to come out in half-term where everyone in England, the kids all have a break in the middle of term. It’s the right time for England.

SHH!: Originally, “Stardust” was going to be released here in March, so was it delayed in order to work the effects or just because Paramount felt it would work better as a summer release?

Vaughn: Paramount saw a cut of the film and I think they loved it. I know they loved it. I think they were surprised by it, and I think they felt it was more commercially viable and would be better in the summer. I’m thankful we didn’t come out in March because we were going to go on the same day as “300.”

SHH!: Two very different movies obviously, but I remember there being excited talk about two comic book movies being released on the same day. I was surprised that this movie is rather kid-friendly, especially since many of us still associate Neil with his Vertigo days writing comics for grown-ups.

Vaughn: Well, I said to Neil, “Let’s make this for a wider audience.” I’m now a dad as well, so I just liked the idea of making… I thought if I’m going to do a comic book fantasy film, I might as well do one that I can share with my kids.

SHH!: Can you talk about the casting of Charlie Cox as Tristan? You have a bunch of names in the movie like De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter O’Toole… and then you have a virtual unknown in the main role. Was it just a matter of wanting to find the best person for the part or as a producer do you want to look for a bankable star in the main role?

Vaughn: I insisted on having an unknown. That was one character I knew should be an unknown actor, ’cause I just that for the journey of Tristan, to really buy him as a geeky guy becoming a hero, you had to have an actor who is not know, so when you meet him first of all, you cannot imagine him (SPOILER!) looking like a king at the end of the film. I also thought you go on the journey of going from a boy to man and even the journey of him encountering all this stuff, I remember as a kid, I had no idea who Luke Skywalker was in the sense of Mark Hammill, and I didn’t even know who Han Solo was. All these characters, Han Solo was Han Solo and Luke Skywalker was Luke, and I really believe that if you can get away with making movies without movie stars, films would always be better, because you always know it’s a movie star playing the role once you become famous.

SHH!: I agree completely, but then you have Robert De Niro, who’s very well known. I don’t want to give away some of what makes his character so fun, but his character doesn’t play a big part in the book, so when he came onboard, did you write more for him to do?

Vaughn: I think he was about four lines in the book. In the book, it’s one of those moments. The line in the book says, “And their time on the boat was the happiest and most fun they’d ever had” and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to have to expand that line.” And also, I was trying to find an area where the transition from boy-to-man began, the catalyst of it, and the De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, that was me doing the exact opposite of what I just said where I wanted to take someone that was famous at being the macho tough guy and do something with him that people haven’t seen before. It’s because De Niro is playing the role, I think that people go “Oh My God!” compared to if Joe Blow was playing it.

SHH!: I thought it would just be De Niro showing up, doing a bit and then being gone, a bit like the guest stars in Terry Gilliam’s “Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” So what’s next for you? After seeing this, I was kind of bummed you didn’t get to do “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

Vaughn: I’m bummed as well, but it was the right decision.

SHH!: I know there was talk of you maybe directing “Thor,” so are you going to continue doing comic book type stuff?

Vaughn: Yeah, I’d love to do a big, big comic book movie. It’s just finding it. I have been talking to Marvel about “Thor” but it’s nothing set in stone at the moment. I know Warners is about to make “Justice League”… hey, that can be pretty cool. It’s just finding it. I think Hollywood needs to see “Stardust” as well, so they can see I can handle a bigger palette.

SHH!: If you did a movie like that, would you want to develop it from scratch like you did with “Stardust” or would you be fine directing a script you get.

Vaughn: If the script is good, I’d be a very happy man right now if someone gave me a script that I could just go off and shoot, but there are not many of them out there.

SHH!: Just to clarify, this “Thor” thing isn’t something that’s confirmed but something that’s possible?

Vaughn: Not confirmed at all. I’ll be seeing Marvel (Studios) next week and I really like the Marvel guys. I think that Kevin Feige is a fantastic bloke and I’ve always got on with him. I think if we can make it work, we will, but it’s just making it work. It’s also Marvel’s decision whether they want me to do it as well. We’re discussing it.

SHH!: They’ve been doing a good job making the movies themselves rather than doling them out to the studios, so it’s interesting to see what they have coming up.

Vaughn: “Iron Man” will be interesting, won’t it?

SHH!: It’s going to be one of the highlights of Comic-Con this year. (This interview was done before the Con obviously.) You never go down there, do you?

Vaughn: I’m bummed ’cause I’m doing all this press here. I’d love to go to Comic-Con. I’ve never been and I really want to go. I might go next year, just as a punter.

SHH!: I was surprised you didn’t make it there last year for “Stardust.”

Vaughn: No, I was filming last year, so I couldn’t make it, and I’m now on a press tour. Neil’s going and doing a big signing and presentation on Thursday.

SHH!: Are you still very active in producing as far as finding other directors and developing their projects?

Vaughn: Yeah, we’ve signed a deal with Sony and I have a new partner and we’re off producing. We want to break some new director and carry on making some smaller budget, interesting films, while I go off and commercially whore myself as a director.

Stardust opens everywhere on August 10. Check back next week for our exclusive interview with the man himself, Mr. Neil Gaiman.

Source: Edward Douglas