“We wanted to go further with it by imbuing our world with a sense of danger” — Director Vaughn Stein of Terminal
Film noir is really more of an aesthetic than a genre of film. Its profound shadows and contrasts, expressionist angles (quite literally, film noir takes quite a few compositional elements from German Expressionism) and color palette, all lend themselves well to highly atmospheric cinema.
I caught up with director and writer Vaughn Stein to talk about these elements of noir, film-making, writing the femme fatale and place as character in his debut feature film Terminal, in theaters Friday May 11. Stay tuned for my chat with a star of Terminal, Dexter Fletcher (director of the up-coming Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury and also the man who played Soap in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), coming this week as well.
In the dark heart of a sprawling, anonymous city, Terminal follows the twisting tales of two assassins carrying out a sinister mission (Fletcher and Max Irons), a teacher battling a fatal illness (Simon Pegg), an enigmatic janitor (Mike Myers) and a curious waitress (Margot Robbie) leading a dangerous double life. Murderous consequences unravel in the dead of night as their lives all intertwine at the hands of a mysterious criminal mastermind hell-bent on revenge.
Terminal is a slick, sexy homage to film noir that takes its cues from more than a few varied flicks, but retains its own vibe and atmosphere skillfully woven by Stein and his all-star cast. Its neon-drenched visual language is the perfect dialect for its conniving story of the seedy underbelly of a city and the specters of revenge that breed within it. I recommend it heartily.
Hello Vaughn! I wanted to start with a question I ask everyone: what makes a great film?
That’s a great question Wess. I’ve prepared answers and you’ve knocked one out of the park you’ve got me…
For me it’s all about writing … whatever it is. Whatever genre, whatever style. If it’s a great story, if it’s great writing, you’ve got me. Story is first for me. That’s what I look for, I look for something that grabs me and carries me all the way through.
Absolutely. One other one that I like to ask most everyone: favorite films and directors? Which would you consider most influential on you as an artist?
Another brilliant question, I am a huge, unabashed Tarantino fan. I think he is absolutely magic. He was probably the first, when I was at that really influential point as I grew up — I fell in love with film at sort of 15 or 16 I think. One of the first films where I truly thought “I want to do this” was Reservoir Dogs. I just think his dialogue is unparalleled and his attention to detail is just incredible.
I’m a huge Chris Nolan fan. I love what he does in terms of fusing the high-end, cerebral ideas with the brilliant commercial films. I think he’s absolutely astonishing.
I loved and watched a lot of Hitchcock when I was in film school. I think the trail that he blazed was a huge influence on so many films that I love.
[Laughs] me too. Especially with Se7en.
I think they’re absolutely amazing.
I love Spielberg, I think he’s absolutely wonderful. I love his range, I love the way he can turn his hand to any type of story — it’s an incredible thing. I love seeing his films.
Lastly, I’d have to say Martin McDonagh, who I followed as a playwright before he became a huge filmmaker and I think he is absolutely astonishing and so brave in what he does. And so funny.
Definitely. Well-deserved with Three Billboards. It’ll be interesting to see his future output.
Yeah. [Laughs] I could keep listing people…
[Laughs] certainly, it’s an expansive question.
But I’ll stop…
I’ve also realized the obsession I’ve had with Wong Kar-Wai for the past 15 years, and how much Terminal owes to it. I just think he’s the most wonderful visual filmmaker and so elegant in his composition. I think he’s brilliant.
That’s interesting you bring up the visual language Vaughn. What immediately struck me as a viewer on Terminal (and a fan of great film noir as a visual style) is the sea of the hypnotically sexy neon that does so much to aid atmosphere to the film and really in many ways help frame the narrative, along with the more traditional classic noir uses of the Dutch angle, close-ups, low wide angles and the like. I’d love if you could give us a look at your creative decision making in achieving the visual language you did in Terminal.
A great question [Laughs]
From an early stage, Christopher Ross, the cinematographer, and Rich Bullock, the designer, we talked about and I always had the idea of embracing that sense of neon and utilizing the composition of noir: shadow and light, pools of light, and sort of inky darkness, and trying to do something unique and special with it. Sort of building on inspirations like Blade Runner, like Winding Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives — which Larry Smith, the cinematographer, did such a beautiful job with.
Visually we were inspired by a medley of different films and eras. We wanted to create a collage. We were very genre-reverential in the way that we made the film. It was made by people who love movies, and we wanted to show that we wore our inspirations on our sleeve.
We looked for films as varied as Blade Runner, M, 1984, all the way down to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Brazil and Delicatessen, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. We just wanted to draw on this amazing, rich vein of brilliant filmmakers making these exciting, vibrant, dark stories. Terminal was its own thing — it was very unique and eccentric in its own way but it was also a love letter to a lot of those films that inspired us as filmmakers.
What we wanted to do was sort of use neon, that neon-drenched feel, to bind all these stories together so we had very different palettes and styles for the different stories and different locations, but they were all pulled together by this sense of the neon-lit twilight.
I think that served our purpose really well.
I agree. You guys nailed it — with the neon holding the dark stories together in an incredible way visually. My next question goes off of that with another element I found fascinating. Like Fritz Lang when he did M in 1931 — with the child murderer (Peter Lorre) causing all sorts of bedlam, where the cops and the gangsters band together to restore order in their anonymous city by catching the murderer — you took great pains to make the city and terminal almost characters in themselves. How essential is this treatment of the setting to striking the right atmospheric tones and the right amount of mystery and tension?
M is a great reference. What Lang did was pioneering — it’s what everyone else built on from that moment on.
Very well said.
The beautiful thing about dystopian sci-fi is that you have this amazing freedom as a story-teller to increase the stage, to create this heightened, vibrant, dangerous world around the characters. By making the world a character in itself, you have this incredible asset in changing the nature of your characters by making them (for example in Terminal) more sensationalist, more heightened, more dangerous, more sexy, more dynamic…
Noir uses it in terms of style and tone. We just wanted to go further with it by imbuing our world with that sense of danger.
You succeeded there. Terminal is more though as well, being exceptionally clever and funny in parts — I especially enjoyed the banter between Simon Pegg and the other characters, like when he manages to basically talk himself out of a mugging. I honestly couldn’t see anyone else but him in that part.
For me, when I think of films that I love, just to go back to Tarantino and McDonagh, those brilliant dialogue technicians, I love that sense of jet black comedy that the characters have and I really wanted Terminal to have that feel — this world that was conniving, and back-stabbing, and treacherous but at the same time populated by these really funny, interesting characters that we want to spend time with. I think that’s so important. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Absolutely it is.
I think for me, that was this phrase that Margs [Robbie] and I used to use a lot, “smiles on their faces and murder in their eyes.”
That was kind of what we wanted to play with, the idea that you never know if someone was going to pat you on the back or stab you in it.
It was a lot of fun to sort of create those characters.
I bet. Great fun to watch them too. Another element I really dug about the film was the ultimate twist on Robbie’s character ala Vertigo or Mulholland Dr. (a dynamic I’ve written a lot about here at The 405). What was the process like for writing her femme fatale character? Also, how much of the character was developed after the script was actually penned?
I really wanted to do something material with her, where she could utilize any tool in her toolbox to manipulate the men around her. She was all things to all men.
The model of the femme fatale we wanted to be essential to her through-linebut also one of her personas, one of her faces that she shows to the world. She is all things to all men.
The twists and turns of her journey Margs and I worked on extremely hard in scripting because we wanted her to feel totally different scene to scene but at the same time you have that sense of her character through-line. Having a world-class actress like Margot to do it, made it possible because through all the different parts — be it kooky waitress, femme fatale, damsel in distress, sexy stripper, whatever she pulls out of her costume box to out on to lure the men she needs to — it’s always Annie, it’s always got that splash of Annie in it.
It was incredibly fun to write. It’s great to write a character who is as schizophrenic and kaleidoscopic as she was.
“Kaleidoscopic” is a great way of putting it — she certainly was that. What were some of the challenges like on the film?
We had huge aspirations — you know, lofty ambitions — and a very finite budget. We had to be as precise and as careful in the way that we shot as we could be. I was so lucky to have such an amazing crew who prepped so well, and a cast who were world-class. For a first-time to filmmaker to have a cast like this was just an absolute honor and privilege.
They were so disciplined in everything. Their performances were so on-point that we didn’t have to do too many takes or they would be very patient when they were being lined up on in terms of changing lighting or changing camera angles.
We had this sort of convivial, independent feel to the film. Everyone was in it together and in the trenches with their sleeves rolled up.
I hope the joy we had making it comes through in the final product because there were a lot of challenges. We didn’t have a lot of time. We didn’t have aloft of money. But everyone just kept smiling. Everyone just kept going. It was amazing.
I’d say that did come through. Will we be seeing more work from you in the vein of Terminal?
Yeah. I love the world. I have other characters and ideas I would love to put into the world. So, yeah definitely watch this space.
They’re very much ideas, things that I’m playing with. Things that I’d love to look at in the near future, but nothing concrete.
What is next for you?
Uh. Some sleep and some food [Laughs]
[Laughs] the life of a director.
It’s been a whirl-wind few months. No, I’m working on a fascinating adaptation of a graphic novel called “SmokeTown” which is all about this fictitious rustbelt town that’s kind of crumbling as rustbelt towns do. It’s a small-town crime thriller set around a murder. It’s a fantastic graphic novel, I’m loving adapting it.
I’m working on a script about the music industry in the late ’90s with some brilliant collaborators that’s about the rise and fall of the manufactured boy band.
Lots of things bubbling up at the moment, which has me pretty excited.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators.