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6 Filmmaking Tips from Matthew Vaughn

Kickass advice from a first class filmmaker. 
Matthew Vaughn
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By  · Published on September 20th, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Matthew Vaughn.

If you want to make movies like Matthew Vaughn‘s — or at least direct action the way he does — there are YouTube videos instructing you on his apparent style. If you want to make your own kinds of movies, there’s some advice to follow from the man himself.

Vaughn, who grew up with a link to Hollywood (his surname comes from actor Robert Vaughn, whom he thought was his biological father for years), didn’t have it totally easy starting out. He dropped out of to school and headed to California hoping to be a big success but soon enough returned to the UK in search of better opportunities.

He met Guy Ritchie while they were taking courses through the Raindance Film Festival. Vaughn started producing Ritchie’s movies, and eventually he ventured into directing his own projects, most of them of the superhero and comic book adaptation variety. He’s now one of those names you constantly see on wish lists for big blockbusters. But he still prefers to work like he’s an indie filmmaker.

He also recommends staying that way. That and five more tips from the director of Kick-AssX-Men: First Class, and both Kingsman movies can be found below.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Matthew Vaughn

1. Watch good and bad movies

So many young film students and talents study the classics, wishing to emulate them, but they don’t look at enough of the opposite to know what not to do. In a 2015 interview for Hombre promoting Kingsman: The Secret Service, Vaughn answered a call for advice for aspiring filmmakers with four short tips. With the last of them, he gave slightly more of an explanation:

“I would say number one, to tell a good story. Number two, is not difficult, just get on with it. Number three, if you don’t love and you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. And number four, to watch a lot of movies even bad ones. You can learn as much from a bad  movie, as you can from a good one.”

Likewise, Vaughn hopes to learn something about bad movies from negative reviews, even of his own work. He explained this and more of why he watches bad movies to JoBlo in an interview the same year:

I tend to read my bad reviews as well. My friend will say, ‘Boy, you got a stinker here!’ I’m genuinely interested. It’s lovely when you get a good review, it’s fantastic, but you don’t learn anything from it. The bad reviews, there might be something of note in there for me to remember and fix next time.

But people are also shocked when I tell them what movies I watch. I’ll list three films, and they’ll go, ‘You watched POMPEII? Why are you watching that?’ And it’s because everyone says it’s terrible and I want to learn why; you learn from bad movies. You go, what did they do wrong, and why did that not work?”

2. Get lucky

Vaughn doesn’t seem to have used his paternal connections to get ahead easily. Instead, he’s worked hard to become a big deal on his own through the British indie film world, even if he might have effortlessly been a small fish in Hollywood through nepotism.

In a 2005 interview with Anne Thompson for The Hollywood Reporter, done as Vaughn was promoting his feature directorial debut, Layer Cake, he acknowledges that his talent is “in the genes,” referring to the film producing background of biological dad George De Vere Drummond. But he then also hints that he wasn’t handed anything and achieved his success through luck and labor:

“Luck is a huge factor in my career. Most people are given opportunities. Lucky people recognize them and take them.”

3. Respect the source material

Some wise words from a man who primarily works with adaptations so far, and interesting words from a man who might be doing the Man of Steel sequel, from a 2015 Hey U Guys interview:

4. Don’t bore your audience

Obviously, no filmmaker wants to create boring movies, and yet so many do just that. How do you keep the audience interested? In the interview with Thompson for THR, Vaughn explained that you need to give them something new and unexpected:

“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.”

Around the same time, Vaughn discussed his distaste for familiar and boring movies in an interview for MovieWeb:

“I always used to argue with directors that make a film no one goes to see. I don’t get it. I think you should make a movie that has an audience. Or a potential audience. I just want to make films that are entertaining. I like the idea of making big budget films with a heart. I’m writing a thing with John Hodge, of ‘Trainspotting,’ we’re doing a spy movie – the guy is genius. It’s a spy movie and I’m reading his stuff and he puts in this dark, twisted cliché and he turns it on its head. That’s the sort of thing I want to do…”

How does being heavily stylized fit in? Carefully. Vaughn, known for having a lot of style over substance, said this in the same MovieWeb interview:

“Style over content has been a mantra of mine when working with directors, so I figured I better adhere to it. I think the camera, you’ve got to try to do things in an interesting way, but if you notice the camerawork too much, you’ve gone too far.”

5. It’s really quite simple

Going back to his advice to aspiring filmmakers, the first two points about finding a good story and getting on with it go with his belief that all the style and coverage in the world isn’t going to save a bad script or bad action set pieces. Your foundation needs to be able to strong on its own before you can add on the decor, as he recognizes in this quote from a 2014 Movie Pilot interview:

“I try to imagine any action scene I film as one single wide shot with no cuts. If it’s still good from that point of view, I’ll do it and expand upon it, adding effects and cuts, etc… If it’s not interesting enough from the wide shot, it’s rarely worth doing.”

Where might he have learned this important lesson? He gives credit where it’s due in the same interview:

“This is something Ridley Scott told me years ago. All filmmaking is a guy standing behind the camera and the guy standing in front of the camera. If you have at least that, there’s a movie in there somewhere.”

Vaughn brings up the point again when asked for advice for aspiring filmmakers in a 2015 Apple Store Q&A with Jonathan Ross:

6. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do

Don’t let them make you cast Claire Danes if you don’t want to. Don’t do a franchise sequel if you’ll just be a cog in the system. Don’t direct a movie that’s ultimately made by a committee anyway. Don’t be gambled on. You’ll be much more in control if you fund something yourself, and once you’re a big enough success there you can also find control within the studio system, as well. [Vaughn touched on all these points in a BBC Radio interview with Richard Bacon that is, unfortunately, no longer available online to share here.]

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

You don’t need to be a superhero to make movies, neither the wealthy kind nor the special-powered kind. Just seize opportunities and deliver an entertaining story with those opportunities. According to Vaughn, the best movies are those done by someone who shows passion and knowledge for what makes a great movie combined with the fortune to get that great movie completed without any interference or compromise. Is this in fact as impossible as the actions of most of his onscreen characters? Not if you believe that Vaughn is a living example of his own tips.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.