Hit Boy: Matthew Vaughn on His Violent, Foulmouthed, Stylish (and Popular) Movies and His Magnum Opus, ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’20th Century Fox
“Someone asked me, ‘What is this film?’ I said, ‘This is my postgraduate thesis.’”
The film that 43-year-old English writer-director Matthew Vaughn is referring to is Kingsman: The Secret Service, which opens Friday. Kingsman is Vaughn’s magnum opus, a Pinterest board of everything he has ever found to be awesome, his greatest hits collected all in one place. While Vaughn has filled his cast with movie stars and Oscar winners — including Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Caine — the star of Kingsman is undeniably its author, who has fully indulged his love of suave action heroes, their larger-than-life adversaries, and all the cool toys they wind up firing at each other.
Vaughn might not have the name recognition of Christopher Nolan or Michael Bay, but he has staked out similar territory as a popcorn-movie auteur. The five films he’s directed — 2004’s Layer Cake, 2007’s Stardust, 2010’s Kick-Ass, 2011’s X-Men: First Class, and now Kingsman — are all different in terms of tone and genre. Upon closer examination, however, the things that make a Matthew Vaughn film a Matthew Vaughn film become apparent.
There’s the post-Tarantino treatment of violence, which can vary from comic to harrowing in the space of a single scene. There’s the worshipful attitude toward old-world masculinity, deriving from the ’70s British crime thrillers and ’80s action movies that Vaughn was raised on and still draws inspiration from. Above all, there’s Vaughn’s irreverent streak — he’s unrepentant about serving up red meat for mainstream, action-hungry audiences, and bristles at what he sees as the pretensions of prestige filmmaking. “Most of the movies nominated for Oscars put me to sleep” isn’t just a provocative quote from Vaughn’s current press tour, it’s practically a mission statement.
Murray Close/Getty Images
“If it’s scary, it’s supposed to be scary. If it’s funny, it’s supposed to be funny. That’s all I try to do,” Vaughn says when I ask if there’s a through line for his films. “Hopefully when people watch a movie I make and come out after two hours, they think (a) it was worth buying the ticket, and (b) it was worth two hours of their life.”
If you liked Vaughn’s other films, get ready for the 200-proof version. Reduced to an elevator pitch, Kingsman is basically Kick-Ass meets First Class. Like Kick-Ass, Kingsman is based on a comic written by Mark Millar — this one concerns an enigmatic paramilitary organization tasked with saving the world without any meddlesome government interference, and the young, blue-collar malcontent (Taron Egerton) who infiltrates its ranks and emerges as an unlikely hero.
While it doesn’t quite approach the discomfiting gonzo overkill of Kick-Ass, Millar’s penchant for hyperkinetic video-game bloodbaths once again aligns with Vaughn’s adolescence-preserved-in-amber aesthetic in Kingsman. Skulls explode like Roman candles and limbs defy gravity to collide in midair with bullets, fists, and prosthetic legs that have been sharpened into walking machetes. It’s the epitome of crowd-pleasing cinema, assuming the crowd in question is composed of middle schoolers drunk on Mountain Dew (and adults who still feel connected to that version of themselves).
Vaughn’s inner child is as overcaffeinated as they come, though he has other, more pragmatic reasons for working with Millar. He characterizes the writer’s work as “unabashedly commercial,” which for Vaughn is the highest of compliments.
“High-concept one-liners were huge when I got my start in the film industry,” Vaughn says, referring to his roots as a producer trying to scrape together funding for Guy Ritchie’s landmark debut, 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, amid the lower rungs of London’s low-budget film scene.
“Studios used to pay a million dollars for a good idea, [like] ‘Jaws set in space,’” he says. “I think Mark Millar applies that to his comics. You can always sum up his comics in one line and I think that’s cool. He looks at things in a way that grabs your attention.”
“Attention-grabbing” was an understatement as it applied to Kick-Ass, which provoked scores of polarized reactions. (Roger Ebert called it “morally reprehensible”; Harry Knowles thought it was “just a really cool movie.”) Time will tell whether Kick-Ass is Vaughn’s most prescient film or his crassest, least defensible one — I still can’t decide if it’s a daring, Wild Bunch–style reimagining of the superhero film or a miscalculated satire of Natural Born Killers proportions.
Kingsman is an “easier” film in comparison. Children aren’t butchering bad guys indiscriminately in this movie. You won’t see Nicolas Cage get burned alive, either. Vaughn has instead leavened Millar’s toxic worldview with the breezy, breathless Bond worship found in First Class, arguably the most enjoyable of all the X-Men films. The elegantly lethal English antihero type (played like a dry martini laced with arsenic and razor blade–stuffed olives by Firth) at the film’s center may slaughter an entire church full of Christian extremists in as much time as it takes for “Free Bird” to wheedle-wheedle its climactic guitar solo, but at least he’s not a full-on sociopath about it. The humor is broader and less dark in Kingsman: Before Egerton’s character heads off to fight Jackson’s maniacally lisping Dr. Evil figure, an actual princess promises the boyish protagonist to let him “do it in the butthole” once he rescues her.
Whatever philosophical point Nolan was trying to make in Interstellar, Vaughn has devised its polar opposite. Very little of what happens in Kingsman is meant to be taken seriously or even viewed as plausible. Not that realism was ever Vaughn’s forte, but he really flouts humdrum verisimilitude this time around. Kingsman’s stated goal is to be “entertaining but not silly,” and Vaughn mostly succeeds at staying on the right side of that divide, though not without considerable trial and error.
“I tested Kingsman a lot,” he says. “I had to. It was such a multi-tonal vibe I was going for. I needed barometers out there. I use the audience test [to see] if it’s gone too long, is it confusing in areas, where is it boring, is it too funny or too silly or too dramatic. That’s the stuff I’m interested in. Are there too many characters? Is the plot too complicated? I can’t answer that, and an audience can. Once I’ve got that in place, then I go off and finish the film.
“I think some studios rely on that too much,” Vaughn says. “I’ve had studios [say], ‘Oh, look, one kid thinks we should change the ending,’ and I’m like, ‘Why don’t you get him to fucking direct the movie? Since when is this total stranger the oracle of how the film should end?’ That’s a subjective point of view that I’m not interested in. But the collective point of view, the pacing and clarity, I am interested in.”
Before Vaughn made kick-ass movies, he was a loyal consumer of them. Born in Beverly Hills and raised in London, Vaughn grew up believing that his father was the actor Robert Vaughn, star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Superman III, though he eventually learned that his real father was George de Vere Drummond, an aristocrat whose godfather was King George VI. The elder Vaughn wasn’t around for much of Matthew’s childhood anyway, and a paternity test later confirmed that Robert wasn’t his dad. (Vaughn goes by the surname de Vere Drummond in his personal life.)
Vaughn’s taste in film was typical for a boy growing up in the ’70s and ’80s: It started with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, continued with Scarface and The Deer Hunter, and then moved on to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction before he started making his own self-consciously hip, postmodern crime films with Ritchie. Vaughn’s teens coincided with the ’80s heyday of VHS tapes — he recalls gorging on three or four films a day. His favorites tended to feature unflappable tough guys who always had the wherewithal to utter the perfect one-liner while perpetrating mass carnage. Vaughn’s Sight and Sound list of his favorite movies dwells primarily on this period, and inevitably leans toward the lowbrow, though even philistines might question the inclusion of Rocky III. For Vaughn, the Rocky franchise’s Clubber Lang installment remains an influence to this day.
“I tried to [pick] movies that go through my mind when I’m writing scripts,” he says. “They’re the ones that had the most impact on me. Rocky III and Rocky IV had it, but Rocky IV hadn’t aged as well as Rocky III. III just hits such a sweet spot in being a good movie and unbelievably commercial. There was so much in the structure of it that I loved about filmmaking. Your hero has to have a fall and he has to come back. You have to have a bad guy that’s a really bad guy but that you sort of respect.”
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and the star-studded follow-up, 2001’s Snatch, transformed Ritchie and Vaughn from scrappy underdogs to wealthy kingpins. Each man’s fantasies become reality: Ritchie married Madonna, and Vaughn wedded supermodel Claudia Schiffer, with whom he subsequently had three children. Then the Ritchie-Vaughn partnership came to a sudden end with their third feature, 2002’s disastrous Swept Away. The old friends clashed over a sensitive subject: Vaughn wanted to cast Penélope Cruz instead of Ritchie’s new wife. Cruz was a better draw for investors, Vaughn reasoned, leaving the other reasons to not put Madonna in your movie unspoken.
Vaughn became a director only after Ritchie dropped out of Layer Cake and Vaughn declined to pass along a project he had already spent four years developing to another filmmaker. The first scene Vaughn ever storyboarded proved to be the most memorable sequence in all of his films: Morty’s stunning first-person beatdown of Freddie Hurst set to Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.”
“I drew it up and the DP said, ‘How the fuck are we going to shoot that?’” Vaughn says. “We had this great grip, and he made this huge polystyrene ball with a hole in it where you could put the camera and just throw it around the room. So I literally just said to [actor George Harris], ‘Look, mate, you just have to get this ball and kick it and punch it and just explode on it. I’m not going to be happy until it’s broken.’ He broke it five times in the end.
“When I was looking at it with no music on it, I said, ‘Fuck, let’s put something that’s playing over the radio that you wouldn’t expect to soften it up,’” he says. “I was like, ‘Put ‘Ordinary World’ on it and see what that’s like.’ Then you go back and work on another scene and come back to it and you start getting used to it. And that’s how it happened. It was an experiment.”
Layer Cake is obviously in the same wheelhouse as Vaughn’s films with Ritchie, though it’s a more menacing and overall more effective iteration of their stylish gangster flick formula. By Vaughn’s subsequent standards, Layer Cake is practically an art film, a Long Good Friday for a new generation. His next project, the Neil Gaiman adaptation Stardust, is the Matthew Vaughn film that’s least like Vaughn’s other work, a gently romantic fairy tale in which Robert De Niro (winningly) plays a gay pirate.
Vaughn bristles when I bring up Stardust, but quickly softens when I mention how much I liked the film. (“Every time someone brings it up, I’m thinking, Here we go, I’m gonna get kicked in the balls again,” he confesses.) It was another hit in the U.K., but Vaughn blames bad marketing for Stardust tanking in the States.
“I had more arguments with the studio because they kept trying to [sell] it as Lord of the Rings and I was like, ‘This isn’t Lord of the Rings, this is The Princess Bride,” he says. “And they would say, ‘But The Princess Bride was a flop.’ Yeah, probably because they badly marketed it. In England, I said, ‘Look, we’re changing this campaign. We’re going to call it, “A fairy tale that won’t behave.”’ We put that on the poster and bang, we grossed better in England than in America.”
Vaughn still produces other people’s films, including Josh Trank’s upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, but he’s just now starting to think more like a director and less like the moneyman on his own movies.
“I used to be very much Jekyll-and-Hyde, where the Jekyll in me would say Keep to the budget, be responsible and Hyde would be like Ah, we can do an extra shot or an extra day,” he says. “Now, Hyde is winning.”
But Vaughn can’t completely rejigger the producer’s pragmatism that’s hardwired into his DNA. In a way, he’s still the upstart he was back in the ’90s, scrapping for every opportunity. For instance, Vaughn came close to directing his Layer Cake star Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, though he now seems resigned to having missed his window at making a proper Bond film.
“I never say never,” he says. “You have to excuse the pun, but I don’t know. I think if they said now’s the time they want to reinvent Bond again, which they do, [I’d be interested]. Moonraker was sort of a reaction to Star Wars, and Casino Royale was definitely a reaction to Bourne. If they said, ‘We want to do something new with Bond, are you interested?’ it would definitely get my attention.”
20th Century Fox
For Kingsman, Vaughn knew he wouldn’t have the sort of budget that he’d get for a Bond picture, or what guys like Nolan and Bay are afforded for their passion projects. So, to compete, he opted to make the R-rated version of the story. Let Nolan and Bay have all the special effects. Vaughn is content to occupy the “sex jokes and exploded heads” lane.
“For me, you have to give the audience a reason to go see the film,” he says. “A lot of the audience still loves the idea of a spectacle, to see something they haven’t seen before, to be wowed by the process. Now, if I haven’t got a $45 million special effects budget, I’ve got to wow and amaze people by having great cinematography and doing things that these big movies — Bond, Mission: Impossible, 24 — can’t do. People are seeing stuff in this movie that they probably haven’t seen before, so that’s why I’m doing it. I’m giving people a reason to buy a ticket.”
The promotional hook for Kingsman heading into the year’s biggest date-night movie weekend is that it’s counterprogramming for Fifty Shades of Grey — couples who aren’t into S&M or rubbernecking on prospective Hollywood disasters are being encouraged to put their dollars on Vaughn. Considered more broadly, Vaughn’s last three movies have gone against the grain of brooding, revisionist superhero movies. Vaughn makes comic-book films that aren’t embarrassed about acting like comic books.
In an interview with SFX magazine, Vaughn appeared to blame Nolan for “kick-start(ing) a very dark, bleak style of superhero escapism, and I think people have had enough of it.” Vaughn later claimed he was misquoted and praised The Dark Knight, but Vaughn’s films speak louder as a statement against taking our precious, closely curated comic-book worlds too seriously. Kingsman truly is Vaughn’s defining statement in that regard, the movie he exited X-Men: Days of Future Past in order to make because X-Men was only ever going to belong to another popcorn-movie auteur, Bryan Singer. Kingsman is all Matthew Vaughn.
“I think what’s happening with movies is sort of veering back to the ’70s where — this may sound egotistical — directors have become more important,” he says. “Good movies are making money now. The studios can’t bullshit people anymore, which I think is very exciting. In the old days you could buy the box office, basically, and con people into going to see it for a bit before word-of-mouth kicked in and eventually killed it off. The studios have to start respecting the process where good films get made, and I think that’s bloody brilliant for everyone.”
If Kingsman fails to slay Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps Vaughn’s optimism will dim a bit. But I doubt it. Films like Kingsman aren’t likely in any danger of extinction, particularly when the people who make them view cinema as a zero-sum game, where you either please the audience or you don’t.
The most telling scene in Kingsman occurs near the midpoint, when Jackson invites Firth over for dinner at his opulent mansion. Anyone schooled in Bond will recognize what’s going on: The bad guy always wines and dines 007 shortly before attempting to saw him in half with a laser.
After Jackson’s servants bring out the food under stainless steel dome plate covers, the villain reveals what’s for dinner: McDonald’s Happy Meals. It’s a good joke: tasty with zero nutritional value. Kind of like Vaughn’s movies.