Terminal director Vaughn Stein: “we knew that it was going to be marmite, we didn’t wan’t to make vanilla”

Earlier this year, I sat down with Terminal director Vaughn Stein at EIFF to discuss the making of his debut feature film, it’s idiosyncratic design, and impeccable casting. 

This was your first feature film as a director, how was the experience of making it?

It was an absolute dream come true: professionally and creatively the best experience of my life. It’s amazing to write a film in your time off from AD-ing, then see it realised by this world-class cast and an astonishing crew who have all come to Budapest to shoot 27 nights in a row. I’m very humbled and very proud.  

Terminal is a film that has a very distinctive, confident direction. Where did the idea for it originate?

It was a distillation of three real passions of mine that I thought would be very interesting to see blended. I love film noir, I love the evolution of noir, and the way it’s branched out into subgenres. I really wanted to combine that with the sense of urban dystopia – a world reminiscent of, but not recognisable as our own. And then the third thing that I really thought would be interesting to play with was the idea of a dark fairy-tale: a tale of hubris that utilized the palette of graphic novels. Something like Alice in Wonderland with an odd, otherworldly sense of uniqueness. It was that blend really, and I was so lucky to have these amazing HoD’s. Chris, the cinematographer, and Richard Buller, the designer, were able to take those ideas and execute them practically, because, well, that’s kind of the point!

Terminal focuses less on its narrative, and more on its setting and characters. Which came first?

That’s a really good question…. You see, the world definitely came first. I tore a muscle in my back when I was working on a film – I was working on In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s film about the Essex, and I was off-work for like 4 weeks. I had to lay on my girlfriend, now wife’s floor at the time, starting at the ceiling and hating the world. And I had been playing with this idea of this sprawling urban wasteland that was sort of drenched in neon, and I had always thought there was something interesting about creating this crucible that we could then impregnate with these noir-esque, heightened characters.

And what I really wanted to do was have this central female protagonist who could be all things to all men, who could utilise all of these different tools in her arsenal to manipulate the men around her into doing her bidding and running the show. So it was definitely the world first, but it was very closely followed by this idea of this mercurial central female protagonist who would take her vengeance in this very elegant and very schizophrenic way, shall we say.

Did you always want the setting to be so mysterious and outside of time and space?

Very much so. I wanted to be able to utilise different periods and different eras – blend different genres and different fashions. Julian Day who did the costumes and Sallie Jaye who did the makeup were so brave and dramatic in the choices that they made and I wanted them to have that freedom. I loved the idea of creating this purposefully anachronistic void for the city – this sort of weird timeless vacuum that we could pick all the things we loved from different genres and different eras and blend them together. We wanted to choose in the same way as Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner and Wong Kar Wei does. To have that freedom and limitless palette is really exciting.

How did you manage to get the impressive cast involved as a first-time director?

It was pure dumb luck, as all the best stories are. Tom Ackley and Josie MacNamara, who are two thirds of Lucky Chap, along with Margot; we were runners and assistant directors together. We went from making tea and locking up to settling crowds, and we always employed each other – we were really good buds. And we always joked about making films – I knew they wanted to produce and they knew I wanted to direct, and I showed them the script in 2014, and at the time they were living in a house share with Margs, in Clapham, who was over shooting Tarzan. And I’d met Margot by this time, and we were buds, but I never thought it would materialise in this way. She picked up the script from the kitchen table, and read it, and was like ‘this is fucking weird, I like that, let’s do it’.

And we met two weeks later, and I pitched them the world and the idea and they just kind of bought-in wholesale, and I will be forever grateful to them for giving it that critical mass – the momentum that got it started. To have someone like Margs at the centre of it – she’s an incredible producer, from financing conversations, VFX breakdowns, running around making tea and coffee at four o’clock in the morning when she’s not on set – she’s an incredible producer as well as a world-class actress. To have someone on the project of that calibre gave it the kudos and confidence to go out to these other world-class actors.

It’s a true ensemble – and I’m grateful to all these world-class actors for giving these fantastic performances because it is an interweaving narrative: it’s centred around Margot’s character but at the same time it’s totally reliant on these amazing heightened performances. Someone like Simon, as well, he’s so selfless – he wants to give back to British film. And we caught him at a good time, as well – he was between Mission Impossible and Ready Player One – and he really wanted to get his hands dirty. Mike, we went to on a prayer, and he came back to us two days later and said ‘I’m in.’.

Terminal previewed well over a year ago in Toronto, what’s been happening in the meantime?

So we shot in 2016, and we did previews at the AFM in 2016. Then we took it to Toronto and it sold incredibly well – sold out internationally apart from the US which was being retained. We finished the edit December 2016, moved to Dublin to post in 2017, and we did sound and VFX etc. with Windmill Lane who are an incredible company. Then we finished in July and previewed it in Toronto to sell in the US to RLJ who did an amazing job. Then we just waited – we have to see when they want to place it in the market. I, Tonya, the most unbelievably brilliant film, came out earlier in the year and we wanted to give it the space it needed. So all in its been just over two years from the day we turned over until now.

A bit of a touchy question this, but Terminal has proved divisive with critics – why do you think this is?

One cannot set out to make a film for anyone – and I really believe that. And it is a divisive film, we knew that it was going to be marmite and we didn’t want to make vanilla. We had really strong beliefs and an idea of what we wanted to do, and we wanted to see it through, and you can’t have it both ways. People have every right not to like it, but I hope that some people also really like it.

I think there is an element of fun and eccentricity to Terminal, and we want the audience to have a good time with it. We wear our hearts on our sleeves, and we’re very genre referential – we play with noir, and we play with dystopia, and we play with plot reveals and craziness. We had our tongue firmly in our cheeks, and I do feel that was missed by certain critics.

To be brutally honest, my wife wouldn’t let me read anything because she said you can’t just read good stuff and you cant just read bad stuff, so if you’re not going to read everything you can’t read anything. So I’ve read one really good review, one really horrible review which gave me the giggles, and one review in the middle – so that’s it, that’s all I know. I feel really proud of it, and everyone who made the film also does; and it’s really okay if people don’t like it, the point of art is response, and you’ve got to say something and not everyone wants to hear what you’ve got to say. If you can’t accept that then be a banker.

People have every right not to like it, but fuck em *laughs*. I love divisive films, and there are films that I really don’t like that other people love, but I like having responded to that. And if I was to stand on the soapbox about anything, it’d be to make the film you really want to make because you’ve only got one shot. It’s your movie.

What would you like audience members to think after seeing your film?

Fuck. I really, just, want them to have a good time, and I want people to be talking about it. It’s a ride, we wanted it to be trippy and distorting, and a lot of our touchpoints like Holy Motors or Delicatessen were things that figured largely in our mind, we wanted to make something that people would enjoy in a crazy way and hopefully people have a good time, and there’s some thrills and spills and laughs along the way and they enjoy it.

Terminal is on VoD and DVD/Blu-Ray now. 

James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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