The first thing Vaughn Stein did once we exchanged hellos was apologized. It had nothing to do with his debut feature Terminal, an indie thriller starring Margot Robbie as a quirky waitress/exotic dancer with a dark past, hidden agenda, and exquisite fashion sense. Moments before our call, the London-born Stein had been sitting in a quiet café, when a pack of teenagers entered the café and were laughing loudly, as teenagers do.
So Stein, who has worked in the film industry for over a decade now as an assistant director on films like The Dark Knight Rises and World War Z, had to step outside on a windy day to talk to me about his first time directing his own feature film. We spoke about what it was like working with one of the biggest movie stars in the world, how he dragged one of his comedic heroes out of semi-retirement, and how Terminal wound up touching on a major movement happening in Hollywood and other industries around the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Inoa: You’ve been working in the industry for over a decade now, but this is your first time doing a feature film, what was that first day on set like?
Vaughn Stein: The first thing we shot, literally day one, take one, was the biggest stunt in the film. We ran over this Hungarian stunt guy at about 25 miles per hour, which was quite a way to begin. It would be a total lie to say that I slept well the night before, but it was the single most incredible and nerve-racking experience of my professional and creative career. I knew I wanted to work creatively in film and I’ve been working for eight years as an assistant director working as close as I could to directors, producers, and writers so I came to an understanding of how a film set works, but to fully answer your question I was shitting it (laughter).
Besides being the director, you’re also the screenwriter, how did this story come together for you?
I sat down to write the proper screenplay in late 2013. It’s an amalgamation of three passions of mine. I’ve always loved film noir; it was the first genre of film that I really felt a real kinship with and understanding of. I love the tone and the tropes of film noir, particularly neo-noir. Then there’s dystopian literature and film like the work of George Orwell and films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and [Alfonso Cuarón’s] Children of Men. The third strand, I’ve always been a graphic novel and urban fairy tales fan, so I wanted to sew all those things together.
One thing I noticed right away is that the film has a distinct visual style, lots of color, lots of neon – was that how you always envisioned Terminal?
Yes, very much. What we wanted to do was to create this kind of “noir collage”; to modernize the classic noir approach, the light and dark and shade and shadow using neon; take those lurid colors, neon pinks, reds, and blues, and combine that with the classical feel in terms of how we framed and shot it. On top of that, we wanted to accessorize that feeling of otherworldliness, so we were very anachronistic in our costume and makeup decisions.
You have quite a cast for your first film, especially the star, one of the biggest stars in the world right now, Margot Robbie, how were you able to pull that off?
She is incredible. One of the most intelligent, passionate fans of film you will ever meet. Her husband [Tom Ackerley] is a very good friend of mine, as well as their producing partner [Josey McNamara]; we actually came up together in the British film industry as runners and AD’s and we had always desired to make films together. I met Margot socially through Tom and Josey in 2014 and we got along really well; she asked to read the script and a couple of weeks later she told me she loved it and she really wanted to do it.
Once we came on fully to start producing it she was involved with pretty much everything. We worked very closely on the script together, her notes were outstanding, she was involved in every creative and practical decision; she had such a developed and refined sense of the character, and when she wasn’t shooting, she was making tea for people on these really long night shoots, it was an absolute privilege and honor to work with someone like her.
Tell me about Mike Myers, whom we haven’t really seen much of in recent years, how did you get him for a movie like this?
It was an amazing moment for us. We knew we wanted someone unique and original for the part of the eccentric janitor with a dark secret. We were scouting in Budapest and Marg [Robbie] said, “I’m waiting for someone totally off the wall, someone we’ve never seen in a role like this,” and I don’t know whether she said it or I said it first, but we both were just like, “What about Mike Myers?” We sent the script to him and then one of the producers came up to me and told me that “Mike wants to speak to you over the phone,” and I just didn’t know what to say, he was my teenage comedy hero. We got on the phone that evening and he said, “I read probably 100 scripts a year and I say no to pretty much everything. This just got me, I love it.” I remember just standing in some hotel in Budapest, looking in the mirror and seeing all the color drain away from my face. He was just the most astonishing man. The most disciplined, hard-working actor that I’ve ever come across. He really pushed his character and the story around it in the most amazing way.
The film contains a number of twists and turns, which I will not spoil. Do you think that audiences will be able to put the pieces together?
I hope so and I hope not. I love reveals, that feeling as a movie watcher. For me, there’s nothing better than getting punched in the face with a surprise and I think that Terminal owes a lot to that. I really wanted to give the audience that feeling in their gut. We wanted to do something for the people who like to try and solve films as they go along. What we also wanted was enough foreshadowing [so] that when we showed the reveal, we would still catch people by surprise.
Since we now know what inspired the visuals of the film, could you tell me who inspired you when it came to your writing?
I’m a Tarantino nut, I just think he’s brilliant. I love listening to his characters interact with each other and that was on my mind when I was writing this film. I love the way Jonathan Nolan writes; he also has that genius touch of taking cerebral and huge concepts and turning them into wildly entertaining scripts.
What was the most unexpected thing you experienced stepping into the director’s chair for the first time?
That you have to keep a holistic idea of what the film is and what you want it to be.
As I’m sure you know, there’s a movement happening, especially in Hollywood, where decades of abuse by men to women is coming to light and your film has evil men getting their comeuppance from a woman for their past deeds. Did you ever think that your film would have this kind of political message when you started working on it?
It’s funny you say that the first time Simon [Pegg] watched the film he said something like, “I think that we made the first #metoo film.” I’ve always had this idea because if you look at noir, you see women getting used and abused by men. What was really important to me and one of the things that I think appealed to Margot as well was that I wanted Annie to be this character who would use her amazing intelligence, sexuality, and be a chameleon to wrap all these men around her fingers.
Could you tell me about the development of your next film Smoketown?
It’s a brilliant small-town crime thriller, but on another level, it’s about small-town America, about the disintegration of the American dream; I’m hugely excited about it. We’re very much in the writing phase.
Is there anything else you would like to say about the film, anything you want people to know about yourself?
Just how humble and thankful I am, to the cast, who was unbelievable, from Marg [Robbie] to Max [Irons]; they worked so hard and gave me so much. Just this astonishing crew of people who came to Budapest to shoot a low budget indie thriller: Christopher Ross, the cinematographer, Julian Day, the costume designer, so many names; to give me the time and respect and the way they improved it, it was a dream come true. I hope people like it. I hope they have a good time.