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NOVICE VAUGHN HAS ‘CAKE,’ EATS IT TOO--SO NOW HE'S GUNNING HIS WAY TO THE TOP

By ANNE THOMPSON
The Hollwood Reporter,
Risky Business Column, 5/6/05

 

What makes a hot director?

Ask Matthew Vaughn. Overnight, it seems, the 34-year-old Brit has leapt from rookie director of the upcoming $7 million gangster flick "Layer Cake" to A-list director of the latest $100 million "X-Men" sequel. His "Layer Cake" star Daniel Craig is being talked up as the next James Bond, and Vaughn himself is giving the "X-Men" characters played by Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry "more heart."

But there's more to this rapid career climb than meets the eye.
First, the guy is talented. "Layer Cake" wowed critics with its well-crafted suspense at January's Sundance Film Festival. And the movie boasts boxoffice cred: "Layer Cake" scored big in the U.K.

And Vaughn is hardly an industry neophyte. Raised in London, he's been working his Hollywood connections since he was a teenager thanks to his godfather and mentor, restaurateur Peter Morton, who helped him get jobs at the Hard Rock Cafe and with music video producer Simon Fields. "People look at me like I'm a first-time director," Vaughn says. "It drives me insane. I've produced six movies."

Vaughn is the hands-on, creative producer behind Guy Ritchie's sleeper hits "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch" as well as flop remake "Swept Away," starring Ritchie's celebrity wife, Madonna. And Vaughn has grabbed plenty of tabloid attention of his own, both as the long-rumored bastard son of American "Man from U.N.C.L.E." star Robert Vaughn (hence his surname) and as the three-year husband of German supermodel Claudia Schiffer (with whom he has two children, shown above).

In fact, over scrambled eggs with catsup at the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge (where Paramount chairman Brad Grey comes over to say hello), Vaughn admits that it was only at age 30 that he learned by reading in the London Evening Standard that Robert Vaughn was not his biological father -- his DNA was not a match. Vaughn has since gotten to know his true father, British blue blood George De Vere Drummond, who had a two-week affair with his mum and even dabbled in film producing. "It's in the genes," Vaughn says.

Truth is, "Luck is a huge factor in my career," Vaughn says. "Most people are given opportunities. Lucky people recognize them and take them."

And then there's "Star Wars."

Never much of a student, young musician Vaughn was "blown away" by the 1977 George Lucas movie and started watching every movie he could. Bitten by the movie bug, Vaughn dropped out of university after a few weeks and dabbled in short films and scripts until a camera assistant asked him to produce his first movie, "The Innocent Sleep." Vaughn was 23. "I applied logic," he says. "So many people mystify the process to justify their jobs. I learned more doing that than anything in my life. It was the blind leading the blind."

Vaughn was proud of his first effort, but when he showed it to star Annabella Sciorra's agent at CAA, "he said it was the worst thing he'd ever seen," Vaughn recalls. "I put my poker face on, but it was like a knife going through my heart. I learnt never to make a movie again unless I was passionate about it."

The film business was so brutal, Vaughn decided, that the best route to a stable career was to become an agent. So he applied to WMA for a job. When they passed, "it was a blessing."

Back in London, Vaughn finally stumbled on "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." There was one problem. Its screenwriter, music video director Ritchie, wanted to direct. It took two years to get it made -- with the help of executive producer Morton, who helped raise a total $1.6 million by bringing in producer Steve Tisch ("Forrest Gump" and "Risky Business") and Trudie Styler (whose husband Sting had a cameo) as investors. They finally got the scabrous gangster flick made with menacing soccer player-turned-actor Vinnie Jones but then couldn't find a distributor. Everyone passed.

Finally, PolyGram Records, which had advanced money to clear music rights, muscled PolyGram Films into sampling the film. As soon as that company's Michael Kuhn saw it, he grabbed the global film rights. The movie grossed more than $25 million worldwide.

Sony backed the team's next project, "Snatch," which starred Brad Pitt and grossed $70 million worldwide. After Paramount Pictures' "Mean Machine," which was directed by Barry Skolnick, proved a dud, Vaughn learned not to stint on casting or rush into production. "Prep properly," he says, "and you make a great movie."

Vaughn will not soon forget the experience of shooting the remake "Swept Away." He recommended Penelope Cruz, but Ritchie insisted on Madonna. The final result did not deserve the venom heaped upon it, Vaughn insists. "I learned what it's like to get the shit kicked out of you before the movie left the box," he says. "I wasn't prepared for the onslaught. I felt sorry for both of them. It's a Catch-22: If you have everything in life, people try to take it away from you."

Now it's Vaughn's turn in the spotlight. On "Mean Machine," he directed some scenes, did some back-seat directing and started visualizing shots in his head. He found himself reading scripts as a director and not a producer. Although he bought the rights to "Layer Cake" for Ritchie, when the director opted to do "Revolver" instead, Vaughn "felt sick at the idea of handing it to someone else."

"Making the movie was the time of my life," Vaughn says. "It's like I was drinking out of a box wine, and here's a 1988 Latour with a great piece of steak and foie gras and cheese -- pure delight and amazement."

Making a smart thriller is about "keeping the audience on the edge of their seat," Vaughn says. "If you give the audience what they expect, they'll be bored. There are no rules: You do what you want while respecting the boundaries. You don't poke people in the eye; you do things they haven't seen before and make it accessible, funny and clever."

You also make it look good: Vaughn used an anamorphic lens to make "Layer Cake" look like a Hollywood movie. "Subconsciously, you feel like you're watching 'Star Wars.' "

Hollywood took note. Vaughn even met with the Broccolis about directing the next Bond, possibly with "Layer Cake" star Daniel Craig. "They loved him more than me," he says ruefully. "I would have nailed Bond."

He recently dumped WMA agent David Wirtschafter for Endeavor's Ari Emanuel and John Lesher (and not because Wirtschafter slammed Ritchie in the New Yorker story, he insists). He scored "X-Men 3" by doing an intense six-day rewrite with writers Zak Penn and Simon Kimberg. "I'm giving it a bit more conflict, more gravitas, making it a bit more real."

Now all he has to do is get the film ready in time for a May 2006 release -- a tall order that only a seasoned producer could pull off.