He may be a filmmaker closely associated with some of the more hard-boiled movies to emerge from British cinema in recent years, but Matthew Vaughn is about to show us his true colours with a magical adventure called Stardust.
Based on author Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name, Stardust is an action adventure romance and a magical fairytale – with plenty of humour too – all rolled into one engaging story which, he says, will appeal to all ages.
“It’s such an original concept and I wanted to do a film that was far more me,” he says. “And this is far more reflective of what I’m about than all the other movies that I’ve made. When I go to the cinema I go to escape and I see this as the ultimate chance to just lose yourself and have a good time. “
Vaughn has recruited an impressive star studded cast – including Claire Danes, Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sienna Miller – to work alongside relative newcomer Charlie Cox, who plays, Tristran Thorn a love struck young man who ventures from the English village where he has lived all of his life into the mysterious land beyond The Wall to try and find a fallen star and bring it back to the young woman he believes he’s in love with (played by Sienna Miller).
What he finds is that the Star is embodied in the earthly shape of a beautiful woman – played by Claire Danes – and that he’s on a journey where he will encounter both good and evil and one that will change him forever. And, ultimately, it will lead him to discover real, true love where he least expected to find it.
Featuring fantastic characters, including Michelle Pfeiffer as a very wicked witch, Robert De Niro as a sky pirate and Ricky Gervais (The Office) as a hilarious wheeler dealer and an array of exotic creatures, Stardust, is set in an English village in Victorian England and the extraordinary world that lies beyond The Wall. But most importantly, at the heart of it all, says Vaughn, is a coming of age love story and the performances by a talented cast.
“You look at most big movies and they rely on the action sequences, the stars, the special effects to make sure that people don’t hate the film,” says the director. “And I’ve got the reverse attitude, I want the story and the acting to be good enough that they don’t need the special effects to save them.”
Vaughn first optioned Gaiman’s novel as a producer but when his plans to direct X-Men 3 fell apart, he concentrated on developing Stardust as a director and worked closely in adapting the screenplay with Jane Goldman, a successful English author.
Goldman, who is married to the British broadcaster and chat show host Jonathan Ross, was a frequent visitor to the set at Pinewood and on locations around England, Scotland and Iceland.
“Jane is sometimes better at the communication skills than I am,” Vaughn confesses. “It’s been different for me dealing with actresses, I’ve never had an actress in any one movie, so they definitely need a little bit more care and attention and Jane is good at providing that.
“There are moments in movie making that don’t exactly go according to plan and sometimes you have to re write a scene on the spot and I wanted to make sure that if I’m re-writing I’ve got people with me who came up with the original concept. It’s more of a safety net and it’s worked really well. She has been fantastic.”
Vaughn knows that a lot of the responsibility for the success of the film rests on the slender shoulder of 23 year old Londoner Charlie Cox, who plays the innocent abroad, Tristran Thorn. But Vaughn is absolutely convinced that Cox is a superstar waiting to happen.
“I’ve got a pretty good track record with picking unknowns – Daniel (Craig), Sienna (Miller), (Jason) Statham,” says Vaughn. “And I think Charlie will be the biggest of them all. In fact I know it.
“He is a raw natural talent and if you think about the younger actors at the moment there are not many who can really act, You know so many people just want to be famous nowadays they are not learning their profession but Charlie, as long as he picks the right thing to do next, is going to be great.”
Vaughn, 35, and his close friend, Guy Ritchie announced their presence on the British and international movie scene with the explosive Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Ritche directed and Vaughn produced a partnership which was repeated again with another British gangster movie, ‘Snatch’ and in the romantic drama ‘Swept Away’.
With six major films to his credit as a producer, Vaughn decided to direct his first film, Layer Cake, in 2004 with Daniel Craig as a London gangster planning one last lucrative job before getting out of crime for good. The film proved both a critical and box office hit. Stardust is Vaughn’s second film as a director.
Vaughn lives in England with his wife, the model Claudia Schiffer, and their two young children.
Q: How did you find this project?
A: I read the book two and a half years ago and it was a project that I intended to produce. I read it at the same time I was writing Layer Cake and after pulling out of X-Men I was pretty disillusioned with the American film industry and how it works. They were trying to force me into making a film I didn’t want to make so I decided to go off and write (Stardust) and do it in my own way and raise the money in a manner that I could make a film that, whether it’s good or bad, is the film that I want to make. And that’s what Stardust is so far.
Q: How did you get Jane Goldman involved with the script?
A: I wrote the first draft literally in two or three weeks in Spain and then I thought about what the movie was. And I’m not a good writer at all. I said ‘I’ve got to find a writer who won’t take my ideas and make them theirs, but rather take my ideas and make them a lot better..’ Jane actually did that and managed to come up with some brilliant ideas of her own as well and it was a brilliant combination, she was fantastic.
Q: What is the biggest challenge with a film like ‘Stardust’?
A: There are many challenges. For me, I’m trying to make a non-fantasy film, if that makes any sense. I want this film to work without the special effects. You look at most big movies and they rely on the action sequences, the stars, the special effects to make sure that people don’t hate the film. And I’ve got the reverse attitude; I want the story and the acting to be good enough that they don’t need the special effects to save them. So that’s one challenge.
Q: You are working with a bigger budget than on ‘Layer Cake’. Does that give you more freedom?
A: It’s much harder making the first film we did (Lock, Stock) for a few thousand pounds, that’s for sure. I’d like to have more time to shoot this (Stardust) but you cut the cloth accordingly. Time is always nice and we are shooting this in 65 days which is fast for a film of this scale. Troy I think was 130. And yes, it’s quick but it also keeps you on your toes. That’s the only thing, if I could have had anything I wanted I would have had two more weeks – that would have been nice.
Q: You’ve got an impressive cast with some huge stars – Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer – is it a normal day on set when you are working with the likes of actors like that?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s normal but I have as much respect for them as I do for the other actors. And you direct them in the same way you direct anyone. I think if you treat someone as a legend then you are not doing the job properly. I think you come to work and you treat them the same as you treat anybody else.
Q: What was it you liked about Stardust the book?
A: I liked the whole thing. It’s such an original concept and as a filmmaker I wanted to do a film that was far more me. And this is far more reflective of what I’m about than all the other movies that I’ve made. When I go to the cinema I go to escape and I see this as the ultimate chance to just lose yourself and have a good time.
Q: Humour is an integral part of the story, too, which is presumably why you’ve cast Ricky Gervais…
A: Yeah, he’s a talented man, very funny. As I said, for me movies are about entertainment and laughter is the key to losing yourself. There’s a lot of scary stuff in it, there’s a lot of magical stuff and romantic stuff but underlying it I will always have humour. If it ever gets too serious I’ll let you off hook with some laughter.
Q: People have associated you with gangster films so far in your career. This is a big departure for you…
A: Films I loved as a kid were Scarface, Goodfellas, Godfather, so we did Lock, Stock, purely because we saw a hole in the market for a British gangster movie and we wanted to have a go and believed that if we got it right, it would take off.
I did gangster films because we could. And the hardest thing about making movies is finding material worth making. We were looking and looking and couldn’t find anything and when I read Stardust I thought ‘at last!’
Q: You mentioned that being involved in ‘X-Men 3’ wasn’t exactly a positive experience. Why is it different this time?
A: I provided half the money; it’s as simple as that. And I own the material and if you own the material and provide half the money, it becomes a partnership instead of a dictatorship.
Q: Would you adapt any of Neil Gaiman’s other stories for the screen? There’s talk of adapting Sandman the comic…
A: Warner Bros own the project and the little I know about Sandman is that it was an original comic and Warners will be trying to make it into a huge franchise which will go against the flavour of what it is. But if Neil writes something that the studios don’t own, then yeah. It’s been great fun working with Neil and we get on, we are like minded in many ways, so it helps.
Q: You have some remarkable sets. How did you approach the look of the film?
A: Building the sets? Most of it was done by drawings. The witches’ lair is the one that I’m most proud of. I just had the idea of taking the Palace of Versailles and inverting all the colours, from gold to silver, black to white. And it was fun. X-Men was like a training ground for me because it demystified the idea that making big movies is any different from making small movies; you still have to design it, talk about it and I learnt so much about the foundations of making a big film and it equipped me to handle this. Up until this one I’d never done anything on this scale and it’s quite a jump.
Q: You’ve been filming in England so presumably you’ve been able to go home each night to your family?
A: Yes, I’ve got young kids and I want to spend as much time with them as possible. All I ever hear from people with older children is how they regret not spending more time with their kids and how quickly they grow up. The truth of the matter is that I wanted to find a film that I could shoot in England.
Q: If people mention Princess Bride as a reference point to Stardust – in terms of the tone and the way that both stories feature a lot of humour – does that bother you?
A: I love The Princess Bride. I’ve always pitched this movie as Princess Bride meets Midnight Run, those two films put together what is it is. Half Princess Bride and half a very different film. And the end result will be unique which is a good or a bad thing, we’ll see.
Q: If it’s a success there will inevitably be talk of sequels. How do you feel about making a follow-up?
A: For me it’s about making the movie and I’m not interested in anything else. Franchises come from making a good film and that’s why franchises often collapse with the second one because they are often chasing the money and they are not thinking about the film. I want to make a good film and I personally believe that gave me the freedom to piss off a hundred thousand people who say ‘oh you’ve changed this from the book..’ but to be frank I’m more interested in the potential millions who may be more interested in seeing a fine movie.
Q: Have you changed much from the book then?
A: I think we’ve really changed bits of the third act because in the book bits of it fizzled out which I don’t think would have been satisfying cinematically. The other change I made was to tone it down a bit. I couldn’t have elves having sex with guys in such a graphic way and unicorns having their heads chopped off. So there are certain elements, which I did like in the book that had to go.
Q: Neil Gaiman didn’t write the script for this but he has been a frequent visitor to the set and obviously approves of your film. How does it work with him?
A: You have to respect that the story came from him and therefore he will know the story better than anybody else. We’ve been eye to eye on everything – we’ve probably had an argument but I can’t remember when. It’s been a very good partnership.
Q: You’ve produced films in the past. How does that affect you when you are directing?
A: I can never turn off the producer in me. Deep down I’m a producer and always will be.
Q: Was it a big change to direct?
A: Yes, it was a big step because the two jobs couldn’t be more opposite. But making the step was much harder than the actual transition. I made the decision and after two days of directing I realised that it was much more fun being a director.
Q: What about your future plans after Stardust?
A: I’ve raised a lot of money to make movies but it’s just about material. I’ve got three projects in development. There’s a spy project that John Hodge and I have been writing, which is at Warners. It’s a pretty dark, twisted thing and it’s called The Untitled Spy Project (laughs). And the hardest thing is to figure out a title for it, especially with spy films. And then I’ve got a movie about cricket which we are developing at the moment, a sort of Chariots of Fire set in the cricket world. And a World War Two film.