After years of working on projects such as The Dark Knight and Beauty and the Beast as an AD, Vaughn Stein has moved into the role of Director with his debut film, Terminal. Starring Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg, and Mike Myers, Terminal is a stylish dystopian, film noir crime-thriller that features homage to the likes of Blade Runner and Dark City.
Lift Off had the opportunity to talk with Vaughn about his influences behind the film, the process of both writing and directing, and his helpful advice for any aspiring filmmakers.
Interview By Lauren Macaree
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?
I fell into the world of film when I was about 17 or 18. I studied a module on Spielberg in about 1998 or 99, which really dates me, as Spielberg was the most up to date filmmaker at the time (laughs), but I really loved it, and met some really passionate people. I’d always enjoyed film before that, but but I don’t think I really appreciated it until then. When I was at the university of Bristol, I did a lot of work looking at things like International Cinema, Film Noir and loads of different genres.
I got really lucky in that between my second and third year there, I applied to work on the Matthew Vaughn production, ‘Stardust’, as they were looking to take people on for work experience. So I sent my CV in, and I’m not sure how it happened, but I think somehow Matthew Vaughn saw my name and thought it was funny that my name was Vaughn (laughs). They called me to initially help on their team, and I ended up being the person who turned on the air conditioning units on one of the stages in Pinewood, in the middle of a heat wave (laughs). I got to do this for a couple of weeks and absolutely loved it, it was an amazing thing to be a part of.
I got talking to some of the runners and VFX assistants, and they asked me if I wanted to come and help on the VFX team, so I spent the next eight or 9 weeks at Pinewood, without a clue on what I was doing, running around like an idiot. But that was it, I was hooked. Going back to university after that was a real drag (laughs), I was in love with it.
One of the AD’s called me literally just as I was handing in my dissertation, and asked me if I wanted to come and help on a project. She said ‘I can’t tell you what it is but come to London for a couple of weeks to work on something called ‘Rory’s First Kiss’, to which I said sounded f***ing awful (laughs), but I said yes, why not, you know. I had two options, stay here in Bristol and pursue a career in Theatre, or go and help on a film.
So I turned up in North London, at six o’clock in the morning, and found out that ‘Rory’s First Kiss’ was the working title for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The scene they were shooting that day was the classic interrogation scene between Batman and The Joker.
I know. I loved it. I put in a lot of hard work, and apparently also make the best cup of tea.
Was/is there anything that specifically made you want to be both a writer and director?
I’d always loved it. I had always written at school and also university, but also love directing. You know, it’s something I’d always wanted to do. I think it is the most natural form of storytelling.
I think it is the most amazing thing to do, sitting at the top of that creative tree you know, just being surrounded by so many amazing people who are so much better at their jobs more then you are. Production designers, costume designers, makeup, cinematographers, all with amazing skills. I don’t have any of those key skills (laughs).
I love to make people and things come to life, you know. I really enjoy being able to cherry pick all of the decisions as well.
Do you think that there is a specific film that sparked your interest in the industry?
Oh, that’s a good question. I actually have very vivid memories of seeing Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. I remember that film just blowing my mind when I was about 13. I think that definitely inspired me at that young age. My parents also loved film. They weren’t in film or particularly had an extensive film education or anything, but they loved it also.
I love just about every genre of film, you know, i’m just as happy to sit and watch a Goddard film just as much as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (laughs).
I think on a more developed note, films like Fight Club and Se7en really inspired me. I remember the first time I ever saw Reservoir Dogs, and I just remember thinking ‘I want to do this. I want to write ridiculous gangster characters’ (laughs).
If i could make anything just 1% as good as Tarantino I’d be a happy man.
But yeah, I’ve always loved watching films, and once I started thinking about doing it seriously as a career, I just wanted to try and do everything that I could possibly do.
You wrote and directed the very recently released ‘Terminal’. Where did the idea come from?
I’ve always loved Film Noir, that genre was a real passion of mine, you know films like The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, Blade Runner, Dark City. I think it’s an amazing genre, it’s very stylish. So I knew that I wanted to play with something that had those sort of Film Noir tropes, and also something quite dystopian, I love dystopian films as well, I remember seeing Children of Men and absolutely loving it, as well as, again, Blade Runner of course.
I really wanted to use those two devices of storytelling and came up with the idea of creating a dystopian noir, as well as the sort of characters you see in those types of film. You know the familiar characters, gangsters, thieves and femme fatale’s. I’d always wanted to tell a story that was quite dark and sultry as well as sexy.
Do you think having written the film, the process of directing was any easier then it typically may be?
For me, yes. Definitely. I knew my idea and vision, and just wanted to also know that I was completely confident in everything, from working with the actors, working with the AD’s, just working with everyone really. I think also having all of that creative control was also extremely helpful.
Also getting to know the crew was especially important. We had such an amazing group of people. We brought on an incredible cinematographer, Christopher Ross, he was just astonishing, Richard Bullock our production designer was amazing, Julian Day our costume designer, Zoltán Frank our set decorator, everyone was just incredible. They all really embraced the palette of Film Noir and what we were after.
I think the most amazing directors are the ones who listen to all the people around them, and even go with some of their ideas. That’s something that I wanted to do, cherry pick some of the great ideas around me. I had a clear and precise image of the product that I wanted, but I also had these people around me who’s ideas were sometimes better than mine….and then I just pretended they were my own (laughs).
The vision definitely translates, the visuals look brilliant.
Thanks very much. Yeah, we’re all very happy with it, very proud. You know, we didn’t have a lot of time or money, but I think we did a good job.
Going back to some of your previous experience in the industry, what would you say were some of your most challenging and enjoyable projects that you worked on?
Working on Beauty and the Beast was absolutely amazing. It was just this huge, sprawling musical, and to be able to do a Disney musical was incredible. The production design and value was just astonishing. That was a really complex film to do, you know, a huge amount of VFX, and just all of these massive elements that had to be brought together in order to create a really rich and lavish film. It was hard, but I loved it.
I worked on a film when I was a runner called Never Let Me Go, written by Alex Garland, that was also an amazing experience. He actually read a short that I wrote at the time, and said that it was surprisingly f***ing good (laughs). So that really gave me some confidence (laughs).
Working on Sherlock Holmes was also a really memorable one, I loved that as well. I’m drawing a blank on anything else…(laughs).
Is there anything that you think would surprise an outsider about the role of a writer, and in this case, a director as well?
Err, not really. (laughs). No, I think its amazing that you sort of plan as the director, you know, you prepare everything you can, and rehearse as much as you possibly can, then you get to set and however much preparation or rehearsing you’ve done, you have to be able to leave time for the creation to happen. You have to leave room for those amazing moments, such as when the actors do or say something differently, or a camera operator moves the camera slightly more than rehearsed, and you get these new creations out of it.
You have to be open to letting things grow and happen organically.
If someone wanted to pursue a career as a director, or writer, how would you recommend they go about it?
Get on to as many film or Tv sets as you possibly can. Of any size, or any genre, just start learning your trade. Start understanding how everything around you works. It is so obvious when you work with people who haven’t been on a set before, you know, they don’t understand what different people and departments do, they don’t understand the clarity of communication, especially being able to get the most out of a shoot day.
Get your hands dirty. Work for directors, go and work as a runner, get the experience. It really makes an incredible difference.
And also, you make relationships and friendships.
I think the other stuff that is really important, is to make stuff. Make whatever every you can. Technology is there now you know. We can all, if not most of us, access a camera, or have a camera on our phone, that we can use to create things. Look at Steven Soderbergh, one of the worlds most recognised directors, he just made ‘Unsane’ on a phone.
Make shorts, music videos, trailers, just anything you can. Work collaboratively as well as on your own.
Finally, just a light question, if there was one thing that you personally think would make the film industry better today, what would that be?
Ooh. Good question. Err. Craft service everywhere (laughs).
No. That is actually a really good question. You know what, film sets are so multicultural, theres so many people all from different backgrounds, and from so many different paths. I think there needs to be more attention on stories from all of these different places you know, all of these different journeys. I feel as though they are underrepresented.
Thank you so much for all of your time and advice.
That is more than alright. I hope it has been of some help to you (laughs).
Absolutely. Congratulations of all of your work and success with Terminal.
Thank you so much, that is very kind. Thank you.