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Matthew Vaughn – Master Mash-up Movie Maker Kicks Out His Latest Wacky Comic Adventure Argylle

Matthew Vaughn

Master Mash-up Movie Maker Kicks Out His Latest Wacky Comic Adventure Argylle – Starring Bryce Dallas Howard and Alfie the Cat

by Brad Balfour

No matter what, British director Matthew Vaughn is having a good time making movies. Besides being married to former supermodel Claudia Schiffer, he’s just seen his mega-wacky, big-budget comic spy thriller, Argylle, get released. It’s appeared in theaters through Universal and soon will find its way online through Apple Original Films.

Starring Bryce Dallas Howard [the Jurassic World franchise] as author Elly Conway and Oscar-winning actor Sam Rockwell as agent Aidan, the film folds fictional characters created by the writer into a real-world scenario led by a battalion of killer arch-spies chasing them. 

The plots of Elly’s fictional books – centered on the adventures of secret agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) and his efforts to unravel a global spy syndicate – prompt a real-life spy organization to try killing Elly through deadly covert actions. That’s when the quiet life of evenings at home with her cat Alfie ends. Though the evil agency is rebuffed by Aidan, the two fall into rabbit holes of wild train rides and a global mission in order to pass on illicit secrets to a CIA underboss (Samuel L. Jackson) who can save the day. 

Now this isn't the 52-year-old creator's first rodeo. He's established quite a list of credits, some by adding to established franchises such as the X-Men or creating new ones such as Kick-Ass and Kingsman. But whatever Vaughn does, he does it with a certain flash and panache.  

This Q&A is based on a discussion held at New York Comic Con last October. On stage in the Javits Center, subtitles may be needed for this Brit.  

Meet the man who directed all these incredible movies: Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kingsman: The Golden Circle and now, Argylle. Do you think we need subtitles?

With Snatch, they wanted subtitles. I'm not joking. Seriously, the studio didn't understand that Brad Pitt was meant to not be understood at all.

Anyway, you fought the good fight and won. That was back in the days when you were a producer alongside Guy Ritchie. Were you always keeping an eye on directing? Did you always plan to direct ultimately? 

Directors can be a pain in the arse and are incredibly egotistical. As a producer, it was exhausting, and I thought it couldn't be that hard. So I gave it a go. 

Fair enough. That led you to Layer Cake. Was it always the intention that you direct it? 

Guy Ritchie was meant to direct Layer Cake and decided not to. So [J. J. Connolly], the author of the book, said, “Why don't you have a go?” Then my wife [Claudia Schiffer] – thank God for her – said, “You really should have a go.” Thank God I did because I feel like I'm playing and am going to get caught out very soon. But so far, so good.

Here's the terrifying thing. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Layer Cake.

Yeah, it's terrifying getting old.

What was that experience on Layer Cake switching from producing to directing?

Terrifying. On the first day, I made a big mistake. I looked through the camera and saw Daniel Craig and casually went, “My God, this is the first time I've ever done this, looking through a film camera.” I went back down and all I saw was horror on Daniel's face. But we got through it. It’s ultimately filmmaking. I don't want to sound like I'm belittling it, but at the end of the day it's a camera, a script and actors. If you do it and have passion about telling a story, it looks after you.

What were the films that got you into filmmaking in the first place?

I could list them – talk about getting old. But the first three films in the cinema – I was like, “Oh shit, I've got to continue watching.” They were Star Wars, Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I saw them in the cinema not knowing what any of them were going to be! 

Layer Cake is an amazing film, but it's also a bit of an outlier on your directorial CV. After that, you started moving into geek cinema, pursuing fantasy with Stardust. Before that, you made a couple of comic book movies: X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass.

I basically directed [X-Men: First Class], but the good stuff didn't make the cut. It was bizarre because I went from Layer Cake, a tiny £3 million movie and suddenly Hollywood was calling up saying, “Would you like to make an X-Men movie?” I was like, “Yes.” I thought X2 was a masterpiece. I was worried [about] stepping into Bryan Singer’s shoes. But it was a dream come true and I storyboarded the movie.

The movie ended up not being what I was going to make. I was naive and used to working in the way I produce films. “Here's a budget, here's a schedule, stick to it.” Hollywood doesn't work that way at all. They go, “Here's a budget, here's the schedule.” We pretend we're going to do it and then we make it all up as we go along. I didn't know that back then. I was naïve. I was given the speech, “You'll never work in this town again.” Yeah, and I sort of believed in that. If that’s not how Hollywood works, then I didn’t want Stardust to go that way. I read the book and met Neil Gaiman [its author]. I’d rather do it [my way] so I did that; [I didn’t want to disappoint Neil]. 

You ended up making a very successful X-Men movie. But what’s amazing is that, by and large, you've worked independently. You finance your movies yourself, as well. Is that something that developed over time?

Well, no, it was a habit that half came out of [producing] Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, this little movie that we made here. We knew nothing and were sort of naive, but in a good way of not realizing anything that should scare us. We made it with £900,000 which we begged, borrowed and literally stole to get the film made, but it made money. Then you get a reputation that you can make people money.What I learned is that when you raise money, if somebody says, “Well, if it's so good, why are you not putting in?” I was like, “Yeah, fair enough.” With Kick-Ass, I literally bet the house. When we broke [out] Kick-Ass, nobody in Hollywood wanted to make it so I took out a mortgage on the house and financed the movie. It was scary because we couldn't get any distribution. Then, when it was finished my agent at the time said, “It's not really intelligent.” If everybody in Hollywood says, “No, don't make it,” it doesn't mean they're not going to buy it – and he was right. 

They all said no. Well, they [were then] showed clips of the movie after Avatar. I really thought I was screwed but the fans went so crazy, Hollywood decided that maybe there was something in there that the fans might like. Then they went for it.

Was Kick-Ass a reaction, in a way, to the trend of comic book movies? 

It was Mark Millar [the graphic story creator of Kick-Ass.] He came to the premiere of Stardust, and he pitched Kick-Ass to me over a martini. I’ll never forget it. He said, I've written a comic about a superhero with no powers. I thought, "Oh wow, that sounds cool." Then, off we went and did it. I like the story.  

It was the first time that you properly harnessed your action leanings. There are some great action sequences. Everything that Hit Girl [Chloë Grace Moretz] does was pretty amazing. Was that a great opportunity for you to prove what you could do, as well?

I had no idea, but I was a big Jackie Chan fan. I was thinking action would be very gritty and thought, "No, let's do something a little bit more fun." It's not easy but it's rewarding.

That movie has got this really glorious, punky, rebellious attitude. Was that something that was a part of you that wanted to express?

That wasn't in the script to be very clear.  It wasn't in the comic. But it wasn't an ad-lib either. Then little Chloe read the comic at the time, and her mother came up and said, "Can we do one more take? She wants to try something?" Oh, no, but it happened. Thank God And it was in focus, one take.

One take. Amazing. With Chloe Moretz, and Aaron Taylor Johnson in that film, as well. Daniel Craig and Sienna Miller are in Layer Cake; Charlie Cox is in Stardust and Taron Egerton is in pretty much everything you've done. You have this incredible eye for talent, for responding to someone just as they're about to go into the stratosphere. Tom Hardy's in X-Men: First Class. Where does that come from?

I just use my eyes when an actor comes in and starts reading the lines. You forget that they're auditioning, you just watch. Then I cast, simple as that. There's a lot of actors that can’t act. They come in and then you say, "Next" and then someone brilliant comes in and you say, "You got the job."

Sometimes that happens and sometimes it takes a while for them to come around again. Take Bryce Dallas Howard. We’ll talk about Argylle, but Bryce Dallas Howard is in Argylle, and she was nearly in Stardust. Is that right? 

Bryce was the first actress to audition for Stardust. She did the best audition. I wanted to cast her immediately, but the studio said "No, she's not famous enough. She's never going to pop." Then a month later, she was cast in Spider-Man 3. But Bryce is a statement! When an actor is great, I appreciate the art, [though] I have no interest in being an acting coach. I just like to watch great actors do their stuff and just tweak it a little bit.

Moving on from Kick-Ass to X-Men: First Class. How did that come about?

Well, the man who said you’ll never work in this town again, watched Kick-Ass and, to his credit, rang me up and said, “You know what, I didn't mean it when I said that. What I meant was that you will work in this town again.” Yeah, but one of the main reasons that I actually quit X-Men 3 – this is a true story, and I don't care if I'm not meant to say it – [is that] Hollywood is really political and odd. I went into one of the executive's offices and saw an X-3 script and I immediately knew it was a lot fatter. I was like, “What the hell is this draft?” "Don't worry about it." I was like, "No, I'm the director and I’m worrying about this draft. Tell me what it is, please." I grabbed the script. It was a crazy moment, but I opened the first page and it said, “Africa. Storm. Kids dying of no water. She creates a thunderstorm and saves all these children.”

That's a pretty cool idea. What is this? They went, "Oh, it's the Halle Berry script." I went, "OK. She hasn't signed up yet." But this is what she wants it to be and once she signs up, we'll throw it in the bin. I was like, "Wow, are you going to do that to an Oscar-winning actress who plays Storm? I'm out of here.” I quit at that point. I thought, minced meat. That stayed with me and made me think Hollywood does some stuff well, but not in my style. But First Class was interesting because Singer wasn’t involved at first. He rang me up, "Well, Fox isn't going to work with me," and he went, "Don't worry about that. They've changed their minds." I knew that they threw money at problems, so I thought maybe it would be nice to make a movie where I can think of some stuff, and it can actually happen. We only had 10 months and there was no script. Singer had come up with the idea of the '60s and the Cuban missile crisis. I thought, "This is pretty cool. I always wanted to do a Bond." Another story didn't do it; it nearly got fucked. So I thought, "I'll do it." It was fun, it was good. It was a challenge. I like challenges.

You had this amazing cast and got Michael Fassbender as Magneto. You had the sense that you were making your own Bond movie essentially with him.

Yeah. He thought so as well.

Precisely. What about your memories of shooting X-Men: First Class that stands out to you?

I think making blue people feel real and giving that emotion. It's not easy. You're on set and it's dripping, and you are definitely taking fantasy and trying to make it a story that you believe and relate to. That's the thing I think about for all superheroes or fantasy: it's got to still have humanity in it. Then you can enjoy it. That's why I think sometimes people get it wrong because it goes so out there that you just can't relate to it.

Weren't you going to direct X-Men: Days of Future Past, which was going to be a follow-up to your prequel?” 

I was but Hollywood forgot to tell me after I wrote the damn thing that legally Bryan had directed it first. So I wasn’t mucking around Hollywood anymore. [I decided that] I’m going to go and do Kingsman.

Was Kingsman always bubbling away in the background? Where did it come from?

Kingsman literally came with Mark Millar and I in a pub and – I love you, Daniel Craig – but we were just thinking. Bond’s gotten a bit too serious. Literally, over a few pints of Guinness in a pub called the Windsor Castle, we just came up with it and plotted the whole thing out.We were talking about how Ian Fleming didn't want to cast Sean Connery. So the director of Doctor No was like, "Fleming, give me two weeks and I will transform the Scottish big bloke into an English gentleman." He took him to Saville Road and converted Connery into Bond. And we thought, "Well, let's take that idea and do our own version.” So that was the kernel of the idea.

You mounted your own search for your Connery equivalent. You had Colin Firth? Did you always see Colin Firth as an action hero? He didn't.

Then you didn’t see Bridget Jones? I thought, "He rocks that sweater and that fight with Hugh." I've always really liked Colin Firth. He's one of the sweetest men and I needed someone to play that character with warmth and a non-snobbery attitude, which I knew he could do. You could turn to the wrong actor; then you’d think Kingsman was out of touch. But I think Colin was pitch perfect.

How did you discover Taron Egerton? That was his first film?

He just walked through the door. Two other actors that I wanted to cast were Daniel Kaluuya and John Wade, they were both unknown as well. They did incredible auditions but then Taron came in and I knew he had it. All three of them actually did. But Taron was amazing and that's why I keep working with him. He'd never been on a movie set before. It was a pretty big risk. Literally, his first day on a movie set was his first day in Kingsman. I had to explain to him what a boom was. But his audition was so good; he's an effortless actor, intelligent as well. 

With the insanity of Kick-Ass and then Kingsman you go for broke. You don't hold back. You want exploding heads; you have exploding heads. You want a church massacre; you have a church massacre. Was that something that you wanted to pursue?

Obviously. Yes! I don't know how my mind got the idea, but I remember ringing up Jane Goldman, my writing partner. We were writing the third act. So I said, “I’ve got a crazy idea. It would be really amazing if their heads exploded, but not in a Scanners style. I'll make it look like a beautiful sort of fireworks." She said, "I don't know about this." But then I got it pre-visualized and showed it to her. She's like, "OK, let's go!"

What did you want to do with the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle? 

Well, for some people, it's an acquired taste. For Golden Circle, I wanted to dial up the fun, which I did. I think my teenage son may have influenced me a bit too much. But I was watching movies again, getting too serious and I really enjoyed working with Colin and Taron. I've always loved America and Americana. I grew up with '70s culture, which was coming from America, whether it was Magnum, A-Team, Dukes of Hazzard or Miami Vice.I thought I'd love to do a Kingsman version of that and that's where “The Statesman” came from – just to have a bit of fun. I don't like boring, serious films. I like entertaining escapism, so I only make what I want to watch. Sadly, I'm making big home videos in a weird way. Home movies are probably a better way of saying it now.

There's a lot of ongoing debate about the greatest shots in cinema history. To nominate a possible contender, it’s that scene with Elton John kicking someone in the face in slow motion in the Kingsman 2 [Kingsman: The Golden Circle] film. How the hell did that come about?

If you eat sausages and your guys like hot dogs, do you continue enjoying them and not know how they're actually made?

That's why you're saying Elton John didn't actually kick someone in the face?

I think Elton's kicked many people in the face…

Which led to Rocketman [the film based on Elton John’s life starring Taron Edgerton] of course.

Rocketman was surreal because it was literally one of the greatest days of my life, with Elton playing a piano in between takes. He didn't need any of me, or of everyone [but he asked], "What do you want to hear?" It was like having an Elton John jukebox and he was so sweet to the crew; it was pretty surreal. I mean, my whole life has been surreal, but that was one of those moments. At the end of the day, he said to me, "I have a screenplay about my life and my music, but nobody wants to make it. Would you read it?" I was like, "Oh fuck, this has to be the world's worst if nobody wants to make an Elton John film with his music and he's been trying to make it for 15 years. Yeah, this is going to be a dogshit of a script." Welcome to Hollywood, by the way. That sums up Hollywood in all its glory, not universally of course. Everyone said “no” to it and then I read the script – literally going from the set to back home and couldn't put it down. I was like, "What am I missing?" Then I did some digging and [found out that] no one in Hollywood wanted to make it because they thought there was too much homosexuality and I'm like, "Whatever." Too much drugs, and it should be a PG-13? I was like, "You can't make an Elton John PG-13 movie." But we did it.

You made it, but you didn't direct it because you were going to direct Kingman 3 at one point?

I actually will be doing a musical next year. I can't talk about it. It's taking me so long to find a musical to do because, a musical.... It's like an action movie is only as good as the action. Or a comedy is only as good as the humor. A musical is only as good as the music. And Elton John's catalog is pretty hard to beat. So I'm trying to mash it, at least. I think we've nearly got that.

A Matthew Vaughn musical might be one hell of a thing! You were going to direct Kingsman 3 as well. But then you ended up directing The King's Man, which of course is the prequel. Why the switch? 

I think The King’s Man was meant to be a TV series with the anniversary of World War One and what was going on in the world. We found what The Kingsman was about – the sort of aristocratic, rich people losing their children and then founding The Kingsman and giving the money to an agency to make sure war would never happen again.I always thought that was fascinating. I think history is really important. I wanted to do something where historical events go back to the masses, making people look up characters and learn that we've made mistakes in the past. Let's try and learn from them and not repeat them.

There was a change of tone as well.

It's kind of a World War I action comedy. But the whole thing is, if you do a prequel, like you're going to do a prequel to Bond or Superman, you don't start with Bond being 007 or Superman flying with a cape on. They have to start somewhere different for the journey to begin. As I said, the death of Conrad is the birth of Kingsman. That's why the first half was a bit more serious. 

Is the Kingsman journey done?

No, we’ve got to get on it. We are working on that [Kingsman: The Blue Blood] at the moment but it's a weird time to be in the movie business; we're not making movies. Well, we are, and I am, but that's another story. It's a tough time but next year we will be rebooting Kick-Ass.

You can't just drop something like that and expect you not to follow it up.

The clues are the words "reboot" and "Kick-Ass." Imagine those two terms. Kick-Ass changed people's perceptions of what a superhero film was at that time. So we're doing it again. It's none of the characters from the other Kick-Ass. We’re going off on a tangent, but I can't really talk about that.

Argylle started off as your little lockdown movie and then grew so much.

It was a combination of things. There was the lock down. I was with my daughters and showed them Romancing The Stone. They loved it. I was like, "Oh God, I really enjoyed it again, I forgot how much I liked it." Then I also remembered my first successful date as a teenager was because of Romancing the Stone. I wanted to make a movie where that might spawn many more successful dates for an audience which, I hope, this will do. I wish you all luck when you see it. It was an odd time because when the book of Argylle arrived in manuscript, all this weird shit was going online saying it's not real but underneath, it's a real book. I couldn't get book number one breaking as new Intellectual Property but there aren't many people bothering to do it at the studios. They're learning now. This has taught me that maybe the audience does want original films. 

Anyway, I asked them to only do a trailer for the first 28 minutes of the footage in the film and they did. You'll see that even what you saw in the film isn't quite the same as in the trailer. But we wanted to do something sort of very meta, because you can't just remake Romancing the Stone. You've got to do things differently. I just so love the idea of what would happen if a wizard went to JK Rowling after book number three and said, "You know what? Wizards are real. Hogwarts is real. I'm real and I’ll show you what it's really like going on an adventure." We thought we'd do that with spies. Elly Conway, in real life, will become the JK Rowling of spy novels. But in the film, we sort of fast-forwarded into the future. 

In the film, you have Henry Cavill who plays Argylle with an amazing hairdo. But then there's a real-world component as well with Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Elly Conway.

I haven't met Elly Conway. I would be emailed by her because she actually doesn't know what to say. I love that. She speaks for herself, but she actually doesn't like traveling and she's playing an Elly Conway that won't fly. She's having to go on a train. We took her love of cats just a little bit further.

She takes a cat wherever she goes. So for a very eventful train journey, indeed. 

That's just the beginning. That's the tip of the iceberg. A real spy comes into her world and she's trying to understand why, how she thinks spies are. Sam Rockwell is not what she can imagine as what spies are. So she has to go and learn the hard way what real life spies do, compared to the cliche spies I was guilty of making up. 

Was it tricky to shoot, matching up the action sequences – cutting between say, Cavill as the super-agent and Rockwell, the "real" agent? 

We actually did the whole thing twice. There are a lot of scenes where we had to shoot everything twice and make sure it all matched, so you just have to have patience.

There's more mad, insane stuff. Where does that come from?

Well, yeah, as I said, when you see the trailer, we don't show that the whole movie is about switching off. You're going to go on a roller coaster ride. Hang on and by the end of what you went through, you'll actually feel good.

Talk about the cat. Matthew, who is the cat?

We had a cat on the first day of filming, but I fired the cat because it was very expensive. A pain in the arse. I went into my daughter's bedroom and said I'm borrowing your cat. I didn't quite think it through. I'd have to drive to work with the cat every day. With this film, I'm now a director and a cat handler. I didn't like cats to be very clear. I'm a dog person. but I'm a cat person for a while. The cat won me over. Chip is the real name of the cat, but he plays Alfie in the film.

He was a natural, he took to it immediately.

He was a good cat. He behaved and, maybe, that's the trick – to put your own animals in because they're relaxed and know you. They say don't work with kids and animals. If they're your own kid or animal, that might be the way to do it.

Is it true that Bryce Dallas Howard now has a cat just like Chip?

He's got Chip's color. As a wrap gift, I got Chip's cousin who was just born, and I gave it to her. I think the cat's called Moose. And yeah, maybe Moose and Chip will be in the sequel.

We have this real book, Argylle, by Elly Conway not being read by anyone apart from the crew. We haven't even scratched the surface. This film has the cat. But also, you've got an amazing cast. You've got Bryan Cranston. Who else is in there?

Catherine O'Hara. We touched upon Henry Carvill and Dua Lipa as well. Then there's Jon Cena, Ariana Dubose. They're all in there. Sam Jackson. I was like, who's on, who's off? Where's the great cast? And they all did bring it to me. They're all different. And yes, indeed. Chip is in Argylle. The cat steals the show!

Copyright ©2024 All rights reserved. Posted: February 5, 2024.

Photos #1 & 2 © 2024 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Photos #3 – 6 © 2024. Courtesy of AppleTV+. All rights reserved.

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