‘That is a lovely brogue’, Vaughn Stein laughs when he hears my Scottish accent. ‘I’ve been listening to a lot of American accents, and to hear that coming through is great!’ The director is in good form today as we meet to discuss his latest project Inheritance, starring Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Connie Neilsen, and a host of other wonderful actors he gathered for the role. ‘I’ve been blessed with the ensembles I’ve had the chance to work with,’ he says. ‘Lily Collins was an absolute dream – so funny, so smart, so disciplined. She’s unreal. What she did in that role was just amazing, and I can’t wait to work with her again’. Similar praise is reserved for the rest of the cast. ‘Connie Neilsen is just incredible, I mean Gladiator is one of my top three personal films of all time, it was a real honour to work with her, Chace Crawford played against type and really elevated that character – we talked about JFK and about creating this sort of slick politician. I’ve been really lucky’.
It’s also the second time Stein has worked with Simon Pegg, who starred in Terminal alongside Dexter Fletcher and Mike Myers. ‘It’s an absolute pleasure and a privilege [to work with him]. He is an absolutely amazing actor. From the first time I read [the script] I thought of him. I thought it would be so much fun to work with him in a role that’s very different to a lot of the stuff he’s done before’.
The passion in his voice when he speaks about his cast is clear. From crowd production assistant on the likes of Pirate Radio (the Richard Curtis film some might know better as The Boat That Rocked), to his work as an assistant crowd director on the likes of Noel Clarke’s Adulthood, to his work in similar roles in The Brothers Grimsby, Our Kind of Traitor and Dad’s Army, Stein has built up an impressive resume and is clearly well versed in organising big-budget ensemble movies.
A talented cast is important to him, a cast he can collaborate with, which is how he ended up working with Margot Robbie and her production company Lucky Chap to make his directorial debut with Terminal. That film impressed with its unique visual style, a sort of neon-dripped noir set with elements of graphic novel stylings and a fairy tale-esque otherworldliness to it. ‘We borrowed from all over the place [for Terminal], we borrowed from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Blade Runner, Delicatessen’ Stein says. ‘It’s all about collage building, and it was very different in the case of Inheritance; it was much more muted. We wanted to have the same effects, we wanted to build a world with a huge duality, and play with design choices to make an audience really feel that duality’.
It certainly does present itself in those terms: from gorgeous, opulent suburban mansions, to dingy, rust coloured bunkers; from dark green forests to the muted blue of the Manhattan skyline, Inheritance is a study in contrasts. Thematically it adheres to Stein‘s love of dark, fairy tale worlds. ‘On one hand, it’s a plot-driven thriller,’ he tells me, ‘but on the other, it’s a dark fairy tale, a folkloric warning of the past coming back to haunt you, the skeletons in our closet, the monsters in our basement, and I thought that was fascinating’.
Inheritance is imbued with the same strangeness of its predecessor, a feeling of not quite being in the world we know. It tells the story of Lauren Monroe, a young lawyer and daughter of the successful businessman Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton). After Archer’s sudden death, Lauren is left with a secret inheritance; a key which opens the door to a dark secret her father had buried, a secret which could ruin the lives of her family, including her budding politician brother. Lauren must make a choice while trying to get to the bottom of this secret before it’s too late.
With such an intriguing premise it’s no wonder Stein was drawn to the project, and it’s easy to see how it fit his style, although with this project the writing duties were left to Matthew Kennedy. Did this make Inheritance a different experience to Terminal? ‘It was lovely not having to come back to the hotel room and redraft the script,’ Stein laughs. ‘I come from the theatre – that’s where I learned my trade – so I’m used to directing other people’s work. I love both, though, and moving forward I’d love to balance the two’.
While they share similar themes, Inheritance utilises a much darker, grittier tone than Terminal. Set in a rainy, dull Manhattan and largely taking place in an underground bunker, it couldn’t be more different than the brilliant neon-infused world of Stein‘s debut. Was this intentional? ‘Yes and no,’ Stein says. ‘I like to carry a strong sense of direction and authorship in the films I make, [but] Terminal embraced the eccentricities and pastiche of b-movies and graphic novels, and I wanted to do something more subtle in its execution [with Inheritance]. There are a lot of crossovers though, for example, I really enjoy the use of colours and [in Inheritance] we chose a different, more muted colour palette, but the idea of duality – black and white, brown and green, balancing forests and Manhattan, underground bunkers and mansions above ground – is fascinating, and I really enjoy that side of film-making’.
I read – in my research for the interview – that Stein is a big fan of graphic novels. When I mention this to him he comes alive. ‘I love them,’ he enthuses, ‘it’s astonishing what they’re able to achieve and I’m so incredibly jealous of the illustration and the authors because I can’t draw and I can’t write dialogue the way they do. I find myself drawn to the way you can build worlds in a graphic novel and the way you can play with horizons and perspectives, and it’s an amazing way to tell a story’. So would he ever consider adapting a graphic novel? There’s a pause when I ask this, then the trademark warm laughter. ‘I have adapted one, which is a great graphic novel, but I’m not allowed to talk about it!’ Not even a little hint? ‘I can’t mate,’ he laughs again, ‘I’m not allowed!’
Twists and Turns
Fans of Stein‘s work will recognise the director’s predisposition for a twisty, psychological thriller which keeps the audience guessing throughout. ‘That comes from a deep love as an avid film watcher,’ Stein says. ‘I love twists. I remember that feeling when you’re sitting in the cinema and popcorn’s falling out of your mouth in shock when you realise Tyler Durden is a manifestation of Edward Norton‘s mind – that’s genius – and I love the sense of surprise the cinema can evoke in you and I do try to lean into that when I can’. I mention that there’s a hint of M. Night Shyamalan‘s work in Inheritance, the way the characters are built up, the creeping suspicion that there’s something going on that the audience is missing.
‘He is a big influence,’ Stein admits, ‘he’s astonishing, and I think what he’s able to do in terms of imbuing believability into crazy plots is one in a million. David Fincher‘s also a huge influence, Chris Nolan, I draw inspiration from a lot of sources and I enjoy those dark fairy-tale, folkloric elements but the next movie I’m in post on [just now] has a very different feel to it and something I like to do is pivot depending on what the narrative needs’.
Speaking of the next movie, what can he tell us about it? ‘It’s a thriller we shot in Vancouver with Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan; that’s in post now so we’re just finishing it off. After that, I’m looking to do something very, very different. Something a bit more punky and anarchic, with a bigger smile on its face’. Something the world needs right now, I venture. ‘Yeah, a bit of escapism. Brutal escapism,’ he laughs, ‘but definitely escapism’.
Our time comes to a close and there’s one thing I’m left wondering: what got him into this world? What is it that drives him forward to make more movies? ‘I’m very drawn to telling a story that takes place in an unnatural, surreal world,’ he tells me, ‘and I try to make that world feel real to the audience’.
Inheritance is now available on DirecTV and will be available On Digital and On Demand on May 22 from Vertical Entertainment.
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