After years of working as assistant director on numerous big budget films, director Vaughn Stein (Adulthood, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Danish Girl) finally managed to realise his life-long ambition of writing and directing his own feature film. Earlier this summer, and during the Edinburgh International Film Festival, HeyUGuys spoke to Stein about his experiences of working alongside Margot Robbie and her production company Lucky Chap on his film noir inspired debut Terminal and about the difference between assisting and being a director in his own right.
HEYUGUYS: First of all, thank you for talking to us about this film which has some rather striking aesthetics. Could you tell us what were your influences when you started thinking about making it?
VAUGHN STEIN: In my mind it was a sort of a hybrid of three things that I really loved and I wanted to embrace. So I’d always loved film noir and I really wanted to embrace the tropes and palette of noir. I also love dystopian cinema and dystopian literature and that’s what gave rise to the world in the story…this vast anonymous city which is reminiscent, but not recognisable as London. And then I was really interested in imbuing the whole thing with a sense of a dark fairytale, like that sort of graphic novel heightened reality…so in terms of the tone and some of the palette, they were a big influence for me. We really wanted to be bold and eccentric and unique in the way we created this world.
You’ve been assistant director on some big productions in the past, how does that differ from directing your own film where most big decisions fall back onto you?
For me, there is a world of difference definitely, but having worked a runner and as an AD, I felt hugely empowered and confident, and having worked on sets from tiny shorts to Harry Potter and Bond, I felt really confident in my experience. I’ve had the privilege of working with unbelievable filmmakers, working with them first hand and just to see the way directors interact with the cast, that was a really big confidence boost for me when it came to directing.
Having written as well as directed this, were you still working on the script whilst the film was being shot.
Yes very much, because we were very location-led. We came to Budapest [where the film was shot] late, we had about 6 weeks prep out there and I’d always imagined a world of faded grandeur where this beautiful architecture is slightly falling apart, and Budapest is just beautiful and had it in spades. I think more than anything, we wanted to adapt the script to fit the location so that it would be very cohesive, and on the more practical level, when we were executing the script, we had to know that the location and narrative had both worked. I worked on the script with Margot (Robbie) who produced it as well. We were extremely lucky in that we were able to hone and polish the script together with her production company Lucky Chap over the course of about a year, so that was a huge benefit.
How did you go about pitching this idea to Margot, first to her production company and then convince her to be in the film?
I knew Tom Ackerley and Josey McNamara, who are Margot’s producing partners — we were runners and assistant directors together — and we came up through British films and always used to joke about making films together while we were running around with teas and coffees, setting crowds… I initially wrote what I’d considered to be a good first draft in 2013, and I’d showed it to them in early 2014, and at the time they were living with Margot at a house-share in Clapham. I’d already met her socially and we were kinda buds by that point…..and she literally found the script on the kitchen table one morning while she was having coffee, so she read it and really liked it.
We sat down a few weeks later and I pitched the world, I had a really strong idea of the aesthetic in my mind already, I knew what it was going to feel like. Then we honed and polished the script for over a year before thinking about finance. I think you have to have a strong vision, but you also need to be malleable enough to take on the ideas of these incredible designers who can actually take your words and make something practical.
How was it working with Dexter Fletcher with him being a director as well, was it useful having him around?
Awful, he’s difficult, he’s abrasive [laughs], no but seriously it was a pleasure and an honour to work with him…he really helped. I mean being able to lean on an old head and a world-class filmmaker…every so often he would drop these pearls of wisdom. We would talk about shots, about getting out of scenes when we were struggling for time, there were just so many tricks that he was able to impart to me as a veteran filmmaker.
Can we talk about Mike Myers whom you practically brought out of semi retirement to embody this character. How did you approach him?
He took no convincing at all, it was mad. We were brainstorming in Budapest, because we knew we wanted someone really special for this part and we thought this is a really interesting character, there’s a mercurial character-driven element to him that we want an amazing character actor for.…so someone said what about Mike, and so we wrote to him and sent him the script. Two days later, he’d read it and I got a call from the producers saying Mike would like to speak to you and I nearly fell of my chair. I spoke to him that evening in the hotel and we spoke for 4 hours, I mean he had read the script, he’d broken it down, he came with these incredible ideas that totally elevated the character from what I’d written. He came to Budapest at relatively late notice, and he just worked and worked and honed and polished his character, he’s also one of the funniest people you could ever meet, he has got the best war stories.
Finally, can you tell us what’s next for you?
Yeah, I’m currently adapting a series of graphic novels called Smoke Town by Scout Comics, which is an amazing small town crime drama set in the Rust Belt in the States. It’s a really interesting and politically prescient script. I’m also working on something called Infamous which is a film about the music industry in the early 90s and the emergence of manufactured boy-bands. I also have a few other things, but I’m just delighted to be in this position and just want to make another film really.
Terminal is released on DVD, Blu-ray, Digital & On-Demand on Monday 6th of August.