Settling into the director's chair

 

Matthew Vaughn is following a perilous path by switching from producing to directing films. He talks to Michael Dwyer about 'Layer Cake'

It's tough switching from producing films to directing them. Irwin Winkler managed Raging Bull and Goodfellas as a producer but only the likes of The Net and De-Lovely as a director. And Ismail Merchant, having produced A Room With A View and The Remains Of The Day, directed such forgettable films as Cotton Mary and The Mystic Masseur. Undaunted, Matthew Vaughn, producer of Guy Ritchie's Snatch and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, has followed their lead, by directing Layer Cake.

"It is weird," says Vaughn. "It's a good position to be in, in a way, because everyone's expecting it to be awful, so that's been my secret weapon, the low expectations." He has taken an even bigger risk by making a gangster film. "Yeah, that's me," he says. "Stack up those odds. Every week there's a new romantic comedy or action movie or thriller, but when Bridget Jones 2 [The Edge Of Reason] comes out, is anyone going to be complaining that here is yet another romantic comedy? I believe that if it's a good movie with a good story, it doesn't matter what genre it is. As far as gangster movies are concerned, it's such a huge umbrella. We made a kind of cartoon caper movie when we did Lock, Stock and Snatch, which then spawned all these shit imitations. The gangster movies I love are The Long Good Friday, Get Carter, Heat, The Godfather and Scarface, and I wanted to make a movie that was cut from the same kind of cloth."

Did Vaughn always harbour an ambition to be a director? "We all have our secret ambitions and dreams, and some of these happen and some don't. I always wanted to direct, but I wasn't sure if I ever would. I didn't tell anyone, because as a producer that could be a nail in your coffin before you even started. Other directors would be so wary of you and reluctant to work with you. So when the opportunity arose I just decided to go for it."

The relatively inexpensive Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels became hugely profitable, as did Snatch, Vaughn's next collaboration with Ritchie, which featured Brad Pitt as a volatile Irish Traveller. Did Vaughn make money out of the two films? "I got my fair whack," he laughs. "I didn't want to be one of those producers who made hit films and got ripped off. I feel sorry for producers whose films made a fortune and they're still struggling to pay the mortgage. For me that must be the worst feeling in the world.

"There are quite a few producers whose films generated $100 million and they've made nothing from them. I don't know how the studios live with themselves when that happens. I believe that if you do well you share it, but these huge corporations are basically committing fraud and getting away with it. But I have to say that they treated me well. I've done OK."

Vaughn and Ritchie followed their two gangster hits with Swept Away, a ponderous remake of an Italian film whose leading role went to Ritchie's wife, Madonna - Vaughn had been best man at their wedding. After derisory reviews in the US it went direct to video over here. Is it the blot on his landscape as a producer? "Swept Away was the catalyst that made me want to direct," he says. "It was a very challenging film to make, technically and logistically. As a producer I've always believed that my job is to make sure that whatever the director wants happens, as long as it's not totally unreasonable."

There were rumours that Vaughn wanted Penélope Cruz rather than Madonna as its star, but Vaughn dismisses them as myths. "When Guy told me that he wanted to remake Swept Away I didn't know what he was talking about, because I'd never heard of the original. He sent me the script and said he wanted to cast his wife in it. I thought, fine, it's his wife, I'm not going to say anything rude about that.

"I asked him if he thought he could make a great film out of it, and he said yes. I thought, who am I to question that judgment? I've no regrets about making Swept Away. If you have hit after hit you probably lose your sense of perspective, and I think it keeps you on your toes to have a film that isn't a hit."

Layer Cake was to have been directed by Ritchie, but he passed on it. Although a gangster movie, it is more serious in tone and intent than the wacky Lock, Stock and Snatch. It is populated by amoral characters played by a fine ensemble cast featuring Daniel Craig, Michael Gambon and Colm Meaney.

Perhaps the main fault of the film is that it is too densely plotted. Vaughn says the first draft of the screenplay, adapted by J. J. Connolly from his own novel, ran to an epic 408 pages. "The writer was very pragmatic when it came to cutting it down. I could have made it simpler, cutting out a lot more plot, but this is a very low-budget film. I can understand it when you're making a film that costs $150 million and there's so much riding on it that you have to make it simple and formulaic, so that the audience will get it and enjoy it and you'll get your money back.

"I loved The Usual Suspects, for example, which is a film that makes you have to concentrate if you're going to keep up with it. That's what this film does, and people have said they enjoy it even more on a second viewing, when everything gels together. I worked very carefully to keep it complicated but to make sure that everything made sense. . . . I'm surprised that some critics are complaining about the plot. Should every film be made for idiots?"

In an arresting early sequence that imagines a world in which drugs are legal, the camera glides across a pharmacy full of fcuk-branded bottles of ecstasy and cocaine, ready to be bought off-the-shelf. "That's not in the novel," Vaughn says. "I wrote that because I wanted to hook the audience in at the outset. I knew it would only work if I had an established brand for the cocaine. It wouldn't have worked if I had called them XYZ drugs. I approached French Connection first of all, and they had the balls to say yes. I think Virgin is about the only other company that might have agreed to it."

There are rumours that Vaughn is under consideration to make the next Bond film, but he says he has no immediate project in mind. "I really have no idea what I'll do next. I would like to do a good spy film or a proper sci-fi film, or maybe a kids' film. I'm just looking for a good, entertaining story to tell, whatever the genre is."

In the meantime he is preoccupied with the imminent arrival of his second child with Claudia Schiffer, his wife. Before we part I ask Vaughn to clarify conflicting reports of his parentage, chiefly one stating that his father is Robert Vaughn, star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. "For the record," he says, "my real name is Matthew De Vere Drummond. My real father is George De Vere Drummond and not Robert Vaughn. And Vaughn is my professional name. It's all really complicated and beyond description. Someday my life may be made into a movie - and everyone will say what a great fantasy it is."

  • Layer Cake is on general release