Director, producer, writer, sporter of baseball caps and owner of large tracts of Suffolk, Matthew Vaughn has always done things his own way. His latest, Kingsman: The Secret Service, is no exception – a trailblazing Bond-meets-Danger: Diabolik spy caper that he funded in large part with his own money. With UK box-office success behind him and a US theatrical release ahead, he discussed his outsized film in a revelation-packed Empire Podcast special. But not only that. There were also reveals, surprises and gems galore during a conversation covering everything from the near-drowning of Kingsman’s cast to what his version of X-Men: Days Of Future Past’s White House break-in would have looked like. Spoilers, needless to say, abound.
After X-Men: First Class, the idea for Days Of Future Past came quickly to Vaughn. "I said [to the studio], ‘Guys, I’ve got this really crazy idea: let’s do The Godfather II of the X-Men world’,” recalls the director. “Bring all of them together. There’s this comic called ‘Days Of Future Past’ and I know how to make it work.” With a 12-page treatment written and screenwriter Simon Kinberg hard at work, the storyline of a thrillingly nutsoid caper came tumbling out, leaving him with a quandry made marginally less fiddly by the revelation that Bryan Singer already had first dibs on Future Past. “Bryan, being a gentlemen, said, ‘Okay Matthew, you can do it.’," recalls Vaughn, "but I was like, ‘Really guys? First option?’ No-one explained that to me when I did First Class; no-one said I had to sit there while Bryan yay or nay’ed it. But at the same time, it is Bryan’s franchise: he was meant to do First Class but Warners wouldn’t let him out of doing Jack [The Giant Slayer]. I even said to Fox, ‘Can I do Kingsman and then Days Of Future Past?’" Alas, it was an either/or with 20th Century Fox unsurprisingly reluctant to hold back its lucrative franchise by two years. “Bryan deserves it,” stresses Vaughn. “First Class was his idea, and he did a great job with it.”
Kingsman’s big bad, Samuel L. Jackson’s tech genius Valentine (left), has an issue with violence that’s hilariously problematic in a movie replete with the stuff. That the very sight of claret sets off a vomitous reaction was entirely Vaughn’s idea, another cheeky subversion of the usual cat-stroking sangfroid of standard villains. “I just loved the idea of subverting things. Colin (Firth) pointed out in an interview that I’d taken Robert De Niro and put him in a dress (in Stardust). Everyone knows that Sam Jackson is cool and can kill the look,” he points out, “I just thought it’d be fun to show Sam not liking violence. It goes against everything you can think of. He’s such a great actor and a lot of people just want him to ‘do Sam’, but I said, ‘Look, be the brilliant actor you are and let’s push the boundaries of this character,’ and he said he was on for it. ‘Most people just say “be cool”, he told me.”
Arguably the moment of the film’s terrific trailer sees the new Kingsman recruits having their first night’s sleep interrupted by a deluge of water pouring into their dorm. On set, life got perilously close to imitating art, as Vaughn recalls. “I shouted ‘Action!’, the computer got it wrong and, vrrrrrssshhh… [everyone was] 20 feet down. Cameras, sound guys… guys were in waders full of water, panic, everyone diving in, pulling people out.” The set-up, painstakingly planned and rehearsed using height markers and computer-programmed water tanks, washed away in a near-biblical flood when said computers went rogue. “Those actors were not acting, they were absolutely terrified,” shudders Vaughn. “It was awful, the first day of filming. Very, very tough.”
In Kingsman: The Secret Service each new recruit is issued with a puppy during training. Ultimately, the dark purpose of these fluffy love bundles is revealed when each wannabe agent is commanded to dispatch their waggly charges to the big kennel in the sky. It’s a test of their ruthlessness and ability to follow even the most heinous-sounding orders. It was also a test of Vaughn’s instincts for how far he could push things. In this case, a little too far. His co-writer Jane Goldman pointed out that an outbreak of widespread puppycide risked losing the audience. "Jane said, ‘It’s not a good idea,’ and I said it was a great idea. ‘No, we can’t shot the dogs. Let me work on it.’ So she sent me the script and I read it and they didn’t shoot the dogs anymore. She said, ‘They can’t shoot the dogs.’ Of course they can shoot the dogs! ‘No, THEY CANNOT SHOOT THE DOGS. If they shoot the dogs, the audience won’t like them anymore.’ So she came up with the solution of having them use blanks."
The old filmmaking adage about not working with animals goes triple if you’re planning on trying to coax them over obstacles and across Crufts-like barriers on camera. The plan was to show the Kingsman recruits shepherding their 12 canines around an assault course as part of their training. “I was an idiot for writing [that scene],” sighs Vaughns, recalling some of the least fulfilling moments of his directorial career to date. “I tried filming it but halfway through, I gave up. ‘It’s not going to be in the film, move on.’”
One of Matthew Vaughn’s favourite films of 2014, Guardians Of The Galaxy, he raves, “made me care about a tree and a raccoon – and the tree doesn’t even speak!” But one minor Vaughn bugbear came during an opening that he feels somewhat stole the Dire-Straits-on-the-ghettoblaster-blaring thunder of Kingsman’s own pre-credits sequence. “I was spitting bullets,” half-laughs Vaughn. “I actually called up my old director of photography (Ben Davis) and told him he was an epic dick. He said, ‘What have I done now?’ because he’d read Kingsman before I’d read the Kingsman script before he did Guardians Of The Galaxy and both start with a cassette deck. He said, ‘I promise you, I forgot…’. I’m sure he’s not lying. Besides, ours is better.”
“Well, the best scene in the movie, Quicksilver, I wouldn’t have done that,” admits Vaughn of the differences between the version of Days Of Future Past he was lining up and Bryan Singer’s version. His solution to rescuing Michael Fassbender’s Magneto from solitary confinement had a young Juggernaut assuming the role Quicksilver ultimately filled. “I had Juggernaut being thrown out of a plane at 20,000 feet and using his head to go down a hole to get to the bottom of [The White House],” he explains. Juggernaut and Nicholas Hoult’s Beast confer before the furry blue-tant delivers a high-altitude pay-off line. “I had Beast saying, ‘I have a plan,’ and him replying, “What’s the plan? What’s the plan?’ and they go higher and higher and Beast was going to go, ‘This is it!’ and chuck him out the window. Then he goes smashing through [The White House] and Magneto goes, ‘Who the fuck are you?’” Juggernaut, of course, was jettisoned from the movie, a decision Vaughn applauds. “The Quicksilver one was better,” he concedes. “I would have made the movie worse!”
Yesssh, it’s true. Lord Connery of Highlandershire nearly played the hardcase cockney who never saw a pair of fackin’ Jacobs he didn’t want to cut off and feed to the nearest pigs. Explains Vaughn: “My phone rings one day and this voice goes, ‘Is this Matthew Vaughn?’ Er, yes. ‘It’s Sean here.’ I was like, ‘Sean who?’ ‘Connery. Interesting script. Set up a screening of Lock, Stock.’ When do you want to do it? “Three hours time. Here’s my number.’” Sparking a helter-skelter quest to find a Chelsea screening room at extreme short notice, the producer settled on a King’s Road hardware shop. Connery duly turned up and watched the film, remembers Vaughn, before emerging with his judgment: “’That is a good film’, he said, ‘and (in a stage whisper) you’re not going to be able to afford me.” Cue Alan Ford.
Vaughn’s next project as producer teams up with director Dexter Fletcher and his old X-Men pal Hugh Jackman for a ski-jump sports movie that’s set to get underway on March 9 in Germany. “It’s not an Eddie the Eagle as a clown silly film,” he stresses. “I said to Dexter, ‘I want to do the modern Breaking Away meets Slap Shot’.” Eddie Edwards – the film’s soaring (then occasionally falling) hero – once suggested Robert Redford take on his life story, but he’ll have to contend himself with a younger, more nimble portrayer in Taron Egerton. Expect the actor Vaughn threw out of a plane in Kingsman to get more of the same in this one. “When you do ski-jumping, you start with15 metres; then at 40 metres, you start getting bruises; 70 metres is break-your-bones stuff; 90 metres you break your neck,” grins Vaughn. “It’s the most cinematic thing I’ve ever seen."
“I have a really fun idea for a sequel to Kingsman that I’d love to do,” says Vaughn, “but you don’t know until the public go see it.” So far, a none-too-shabby £8 million in UK box-office takings suggests he might need to get busy scribbling. With the US opening still to come, he’s not shy about his ambitions for the movie. “I don’t buy it when directors say, ‘Oh, I don’t mind if no-one likes my film. I made the movie for art’ and all that shit. I make a movie for for an audience and I want them to go and see it, number one, and enjoy it. This is a movie that should be seen on the big screen.”