Matthew Vaughn—Layer Cake—04/26/05

Matthew Vaughn is best known for producing the collected works of Guy Ritchie: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and Swept Away (Vaughn also co-produced Mean Machine with Ritchie). When Ritchie passed on Layer Cake, a simmering genre picture, Vaughn decided to make his directing debut (Layer Cake reunites Vaughn with Michael Gambon, the star of his first production, The Innocent Sleep). Since wrapping Layer Cake, Vaughn took meetings on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and "Bond 21," a.k.a. Casino Royale, finally signing the dotted line to direct X-Men 3 for 20th Century Fox. I spoke to Vaughn on April 26, 2005 at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

G: You produced, obviously very successfully, for a number of years. When did it first enter your head to direct?

MV: When Guy Ritchie said he didn't want to direct Layer Cake. And I just sat there and I said, "Mmmmm?". I was furious at first 'cause I thought, "God, we've done all this work getting the script right—ready," and there was a few other films that we'd worked on that he'd decided not to do and I was sort of getting frustrated on people being with a whim saying, "I don't want to do this anymore." And you're like, "Ahh. Okay. Well, that's a year's work dumped down the tubes." And I was gonna hire another director, and actually the writer was the first person who said to me, said "Look, Matthew, I've been with you working on this thing for a year, and you've talked me through the script literally shot by shot. Why don't you direct it?" And I was like—yeah, we've all got a secret ambition to want to direct, but it's only very secret, and never really ever imagined that would happen. So I was like, "Okay, I'll give that some thought." And then, it was a difficult decision because I just had so much riding on it, if I did do it. You know, the guns and knives would be out the day I announced in England I'm directing. They'd be like, "At last," you know, "Cut him down." And the other thing that was worrying is that the producer said to me, "Oh, so you realize you're jeopardizing your producing career by directing." And I was like, "Why? if it doesn't work, I'll just go back to producing. What's wrong with that?" He goes, "No, no. From that day on, no director will ever trust you." And I thought, "Why not?" Again, "They'll just think you're a failed, crappy director who is now going to try to direct through them." So I thought, "Yeah, that's a pretty good point." And I said, "Why, is that what you are?" to the producer, 'cause I was having to look to him in different eyes, thinking he obviously wants to direct, but won't admit to it. But I just felt...deep down I knew it was the right thing to do and relieved that it turned out okay.

G: As it turns out, in a way, there is no turning back from having become a director.

MV: Oh, for me, no. Definitely not. No, I loved it. I mean, people seemed to like it. I'm proud of it. And I had the time of my life making it. So I would...I'd like to carry on doing it.

G: How do you see your producing career continuing from here, as your directing career is—

MV: In a very limited manner. I think what I'm going to do is start developing things for me to direct. And every now and then, maybe on a whim—because directors do that—say, "I don't want to direct this," and then maybe I'll produce it. But do I have dreams to set up a big production company and be the producer—no. I mean, I love making movies, and I'm not one of those guys that can just produce a film just for the payday and not really be involved. I just can't do it. I tried it once, and it didn't work.

G: Would you care to say which film you did for a payday?

MV: No. (Laughs.)

G: Okay, fair enough.

MV: It's not hard to figure out, by the way.

G: (Laughs.) I have a guess. It says in the press notes, which are always a bit dodgy, but that I think you said about Daniel that his reservations about being in this film were your reservations about making the movie.

MV: Correct.

G: What was your agenda for telling this kind of story right your way?

MV: I didn't want it to be "Lock Stock 3." I didn't want it to be a sort of a small, little British movie that felt like it was shot within a square mile of some little dark area of London with a lot of funny characters all falling over each other for a mutual interest which gets them all in trouble. Didn't want to make a film like that. I wanted to make a film where London looked amazing, where it felt cinematic...[with] a lot of score music in it and beautiful lighting and proper, really good acting and a story being told in a sort of a more controlled and traditional manner.

G: Speaking of that kind of scope on perhaps a smallish budget, what's the secret to stretching that budget? You did six and a half weeks on location, which sounds to me very expensive, and about half that in studio. So how do you get the most--?

MV: Well, it cost, I think, just under seven million dollars to make. And I'm a producer. So I know how to do that. I think you have to spend the money on the movie—just don't let, you know—you go to some films and someone's driving around in a new Porsche, another person got a Ferrari, and it's like big lunches, and it's like, "Oh, I've done eight-hours today. I'm tired—let's go home," and "Isn't this pretty?" and swimming pools being.... None of that happens ever—and especially on this movie. Every penny went up on the screen.

G: Let's talk about the visual style of the film a bit. I noticed there were a number of Steadicam shots, as maybe one visual element of the film. Was hiring Ben Davis as your D.P. part of a conscious strategy to distinguish the style of this film from the Ritchie films?

MV: Hiring Ben was—sounds crazy—I hired Ben mainly because I liked him. And we became partners in crime because the other D.P.s were much more experienced and older than him. I just sat there, and they were lecturing me—I've met them for ten minutes—"Oh, you ought to do it like this, you know, "Arhh!" And I was like, "There's no energy here. There's no enthusiasm." Ben came in, he's like, "I love the script. We can do this. We can do that." And we were bouncing off each other. And I knew...we could together—we're gonna make a film that just doesn't look like a British movie. And it came from we just busted our balls and made it work. And he's a lovely bloke.

G: From your career producing, what directing "dos" and "don'ts" stuck in your head?

MV: (Long pause.) Wow. Okay. That's a good ques—I mean, I hate when people (in a goofy voice) "That's a good question," meaning they don't know how to answer it. What "dos" and—can you ask me again?

G: What directing "dos" and "don'ts" have you picked up over the years on your sets?

MV: Don't fuck around—in the sense of: if you got it in the can, you got it. You know, some directors'll go—you know, third take'll be good—"Okay, let's do it again. Let's do it again." It was good, but it's never gonna get better than the third. And, if it does, you're missing another set up, because he's taking twenty takes to get there, so keep the energy up. Make your actors feel secure so that they'll do anything you ask. And just always remember that your job is to tell a story. 'Cause too many directors get too excited about "Let's spin the camera—let's do this, whatever." And its like, if it's not helping the story, don't do it.

G: When you said give the actors the confidence, the trust to do what they need to do, it made me think about the casting process. I know you've talked about wanting not to do any kind of stunt casting but find the best actors for the best roles. Do you concern yourself at all in casting about the personality of the individual that you'll be working with as opposed to best for the role?

MV: Yeah. I don't want to work with a pain in the ass. There's some actors I wouldn't work with, I don't care how famous they are. You know, life's too short to be sitting in a—just imagine I'm the biggest dick you've ever met. Okay, right. We're now going to spend eight weeks in this sort of thing, and I'm going to make your life hell. You're thinking, "Shit. Is it worth it?" And that's, yeah, no, I mean they've got to be right for the role, but if I had a choice between someone who's one-hundred-percent right for the role, but a hundred-percent asshole, and someone who's ninety-percent right for the role, I'll just take the guy who's ninety percent and work hard to get him up to a hundred percent, if I think he's a good guy.

G: The story of how you found yourself with this particular property sounds like a tall tale.

MV: It's ridiculous but it's true—like all the things—life is stranger than fiction half the times.

G: So it's true that you found yourself sitting next to J.J. Connolly on a train—is it that simple?

MV: No, it's even more strange. Two hours before I got on the train, I got a phone call from Steven Marks, who's the financier of Lock, Stock, saying, "I just read this book called Layer Cake—you're going to love it!" I went, "I can't talk now. I'm late to get on the train. Send it to me." He goes, "Okay, I'll send it to you." And I said, "I'll be back in England Monday." I put the phone down, literally run to the train station, sit down, and this guy who I'm sitting—I go, "What's your name?" He goes, "John Connolly." "What do you do?" "I make movies. What do you do?" "I write books." "Ahh, what have you written?" "Well, I've just done this book. It's just come out. Not many people know it. It's called Layer Cake." "Are you being serious?" And he's like, "Why? Have you heard of it?" And I went, "No, but yes. Someone just rang me up saying I should read it." An hour and a half goes by. "Oh bullshit." I go, "No, deadly serious." And then I like read it and liked it. It was even better. So it was pretty—yeah, serendipity. Now it's here. It's great. Sometimes things are meant to be. I'm convinced of it.

G: From what I've read of what he said, J.J. Connolly seems to have a special insight and, perhaps, access to the criminal underworld. Dare I ask where he got that insight?

MV: I'm going to tell you a story about John. I wind him up all the time. I always ring him up with some dodgy accent, going, "John, it's P.J. here. I've got a bit of a problem. I need—." And he's like, "Who? Who is this?" and I try and catch him out. There was an interview in the Sunday Times with John, and I've never laughed so much 'cause he was asked that question. And they go, "How do you know so much about it?" and he goes, "Ohh, I just make most of it up." And they go, "No, no, no. This is just too real. How do you know...? What have you done for the last twenty years?" And he goes, "I've been running a flower store and dealing in flowers." So the interviewer has a huge bouquet of—bunch of flowers on the table, and he says, "Really? So what are these?" And he looks at the flowers, and he can't answer it, and they were carnations. So I'm convinced it's autobiographical. But he denies it. Probably because it will end up in the nick.

G: Let's talk about a couple of the specific actors you worked with on this film. I think probably the quality of Daniel Craig is evident watching the film, but for you, what was the best thing about working with him?

MV: He's a collaborator. We could really talk. He'd listen to what I wanted him to do, and I listened to what he wanted. And he wanted the best for the movie. And it wasn't just about him. He wasn't looking at the film about—or scene—going, "How do I look?" and "What do I want?" It was about what makes the scene work well. He was a joy. I'd love to work—I'm sure I'll work with Daniel again. He's fantastic.

G: And you had a couple of veteran actors on the project—like Michael Gambon, who you'd worked with before.

MV: Yeah.

G: What do you think is the secret of—maybe its not a secret—the longevity of Michael Gambon? What is it that makes him so enduring?

MV: Talent helps. He's a unique actor. He's brilliant, but he doesn't take it that seriously. You know, at all. But at the same time, he just—I just think he's great. I mean, we only had—we only shot with him for five days. And look at the impact we got from five days of filming...He's a genius actor. He's a good guy. I can't say anything but amazing things about him. I think he'll be around for a long time.

G: I heard that he improvised a lot of his material on the film. Is that true?

MV: Swearing. I think is the one line which he improvised, which—. He was trying to—he winds people up. And he said this line, and I went, "I love that—I'm going to use it in the movie." And then I think I freaked him out, because I think he's used to most directors going, "No, no, no. Don't do this. Take it more—." And he couldn't shock me, although he tried. But I think the line which made me laugh was "They're nothing but a bunch of under-endowed aging fuck-pigs." That wasn't in the script. "Excuse me, Michael? What was that?" And he says, "They're a bunch of under-endowed aging fuck-pigs. I like that." I was like, "Yeah. You say it in a way that sounds eloquent. Say it again." And so he was shocked when he saw it in the film. We kept it for the hell of it.

G: Let's talk about some of the other projects that have bounced around in your short life as a director. True that Casino Royale was yours for the taking at one point?

MV: Casino Royale is a very extremely strange scenario. I spent a lot of time with the Broccolis, talking about it. I wanted to do it. I would have loved to have done it. And then I spent time with the studio. Then the studio offered the film to me. Then I met up again with the Broccolis, who didn't offer it to me, asked me a lot of questions still about it. And they got a lot of script notes from me. And then we talked about the logistics of how to make the film, and it looked pretty unlikely 'cause they wanted to be shooting it last January and it coming out this November. And that was like, tight. And then, I think they decided to push it back a year. And then they hired Martin Campbell, which could be the right or the wrong thing to have done. But I'm not going to say. What do you think about Martin Campbell doing it?

G: Well, they've been there, haven't they?

MV: Yeah. I mean, they're meant to be reinventing it some. They're going to reinvent it with someone who's done it before. Could happen. Might not.

G: I'm curious what your pitch was like for Harry Potter?

MV: Hmmm. It's funny, I did a lot of work on that pitch 'cause, as I said, the producers...David Hayman is a great guy, the producer of it. And he's like, "Do you want to come in and pitch for doing Potter?" and I'm like, "Yeah!" 'cause I like Harry Potter. That stuff's cool. And I think Alfonso did a really good job on it. So I—yeah, it was strange because I read the book and I wrote a treatment and gave it a lot of thought. But I wanted to make it a little bit darker. I wanted to make Voldemort scary...There's a scene in the end where the kids start fighting Voldemort. And I was like, "Well, then they should get the shit kicked out of them! They're kids, for Christ's sake—taking on these big guys. You know I like the idea that one goes, and they just punch—can you imagine a big guy just socks Neville, you know, and just smashes—breaks his nose, and then he kicks him, and he goes flying across the room? You know that's how it'd be. These are hardcore bad-asses." And there was an open-jaw silence in the room, going, "We've got a franchise here—it's for kids." "Yeah, I know. But the kids are getting older, so let's go with them." But they're right. I mean, I think they picked a good director, and they really know what they're doing. Warner Brothers is a really seriously good studio. The people there are smart, and they're true gentlemen at Warner Brothers. They're good people. Really good people.

G: And speaking of serendipity, I suppose these errant projects opened the door to do X3?

MV: No, actually. They just—X3 came about—I heard that they were looking for a director. So I said to my agent, "Can you get them a print of the movie?" And they did, and they got them to watch it, and they liked the movie. Actually, they were blown away by the movie. And they went, "Do you want to do it?" And we're now talking about doing it still. It hasn't quite—it's a weird thing 'cause—this is the producer's side of me—I find it very hard to let go of logistics of making a movie. So I'm just trying to make sure—I can't blindly commit to doing a movie. I just can't do it. I know too much about the technical side of filmmaking to sort of just have a blind faith going, "La, la, la. It's okay. It's okay." I can't do that. So we're just going through—I mean, I really want to do it. I've been working on the script. I've met the actors. It'd be an honor to make this film. And I know I can do it well. But I'd have to make sure there's enough time to do it. So I've got meetings about it this evening.

G: There's a lot of ducks to line up in a row before a project like that launches.

MV: Yeah. Exactly. There's a lot of ducks to line up and not a lot of time to get them in line.

G: What do you have on your schedule that you have a committed start date on? Are you doing the Neil Gaiman film?

MV: At the moment, well, yeah—X-Men is August the 1st start date. That's why—if it was October, I'd be def—I'd be signing in blood right now knowing there's enough time to get ready. The Stardust Neil Gaiman project—we're just working on the script at the moment. And I'm working on a script with John Hodge. But, you know, I'm not gonna—I'm fortunate enough that I've done okay on my other movies. I don't have to rush off and make a film for the hell of it. This thing worked out well. I've got the benefit of grace when you make your first movie 'cause people go, "Oh, this is the first time: well-done him. We thought it was gonna be shit, but it's actually not bad, so well-done." The second one has gotta be good. The third one has to be very good. So I'd rather bide my time and get everything right and make a good movie 'cause I don't want to be sitting here meeting you in May next year, and you going, "You know, X-3? What a piece of shit! You do Layer Cake. I thought it was all right. And then you go off and make X-3." "What did he do? Why did he screw up?" And I can't go, "Well, I didn't have enough time," 'cause everyone would say, "Well, why did he say yes?" So that's how I feel at the moment.

G: Well, before I let you go, I have to ask about—you mentioned John Hodge. He's writing a Man from U.N.C.L.E. script for you—is that right?

MV: No. We're doing an original spy movie. Everyone wants to put us in this Man from U.N.C.L.E. thing. We're not, no. We're doing an original spy—a really cool original spy film. A new character, a new agency...a real John Hodge spin on it. He's a smart guy—smart. Just looks at things slightly askew.... Good man—very good man.

G: Well, best of luck with all of these projects. It sounds like you've got a bright future ahead as a director.

MV: I hope so. It'd be nice.

G: It's a pleasure talking to you.

MV: Nice to meet you.

[For Groucho's interview with star Daniel Craig, click here.]