Why The King's Man 'Had To Be Different,' According To Director Matthew Vaughn [Interview]

The "Kingsman" series of action-comedy-spy films are known for their stunning action sequences, sometimes flippant humor, and intriguing villains (among other things), all drenched with comic-book-esque visual flair. Based on Mark Millar's comic book series of the same, the film franchise highlight the exploits of the Kingsman organization, an independent British spy agency that protects the world from a variety of deadly threats. The first two films follow the exploits of new Kingsman recruit Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton) as he joins the independent British Kingsman spy organization under the tutelage of an agent named Harry (Colin Firth), but the new entry mixes things up a bit.

"The King's Man," coming to theaters this week, takes the series back in time for a prequel of a slightly different stripe than the prior films. We're taken back to the origins of the Kingsman organization and its WWI-era founding, complete with a host of new characters and major experimentations in tone. I sat down with franchise director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass," "X-Men: First Class") to talk about the film series' villains, the uniqueness of the new entry, the state of British film, and more.

"You have to start at an origin, otherwise there's no journey."

Like the other "Kingsman" films, "The King's Man" still has high-octane action sequences. It's also novel in the series for pivoting to far more serious emotional subject matter, and I wanted to ask you about the choice to focus on World War I, and on loss. 

Matthew Vaughn: Well, it all started when I re-watched "The Man Who Would Be King." It reminded me when I fell in love with... I don't know if you've seen it, but it's an older film which, if you haven't seen it, for anyone who's reading this go watch it. It was a movie that had everything in it... epic adventure, unbelievable acting. I think one of Sean Connery's finest performances. [It had] Michael Caine, the original Kingsman. It had pathos — important messaging, comedy, fantasy. Had everything. And I was like, 'Wow, why don't we...' and I jokingly said, "'We should make 'The Man Who Would Be Kingsman.'" And then it just stayed in my head. I was like, 'Oh God, now I'm getting this itch. I'm going to have to scratch it,' and then I remembered the scene between Eggsy and Harry, and Eggsy explained why the Kingsman was founded, when it was founded. Everything about where Kingsman came from. And then I went off and I read about World War I, and these characters were popping off the page to me. The history, I couldn't believe... actually I wasn't any good at school, so I didn't really listen to any of this stuff. Then, when I was reading about it, I was like, 'Oh, this is really cool.' And I thought, 'God, I'm going to have to do this! I'm going to try and have my cake and eat it, like a Bakewell tart, dare I say.' I just had this sort of idea in my head, how to make a movie like I grew up on and loved, but also [one that] develops into other movies I love [of] the more modern style.

I thought with this movie... when you go to a destination, you don't start at the destination. You have to start somewhere. You have start at an origin, otherwise there's no journey. And that's what excites me, saying, 'You know what? How did the Kingsman come about? Who would the original King's Man be?' And then I got more and more excited. Yeah the film is different, but also I think that's a good thing. I think there's a little bit of formulaic formulas, you could say, creeping into films. I thought, look, we're going to do "Kingsman 3" next year and it's going to be Eggsy and Harry together, which is really the heart and soul of the Kingsman films up to this point. This will be my way of playing in the past.

But [for] now I think we gave birth. There's going to be a few moments that some "Kingsman" fans might be going, 'Am I watching the wrong channel?' But you're not. You're going to go there. If you liked "Deer Hunter," there was an hour in a f**king wedding, man, that after a while [you're like], 'What the f**k is that? I got told it was some great war movie[...] but without the wedding, all the Vietnam stuff is... It would've been powerful, but nowhere near as powerful without the wedding. So that's this. We're starting somewhere, it had to be different, had to be part of the period. But for the last 25 minutes, it's a "Kingsman" movie.

"Britain's become... the sweatshop for the American film industry"

Absolutely. And talking about the segment in the war with Conrad and No Man's Land, it definitely had some "1917" vibes. Was any sort of connection there?

Oh f**k no, we shot this before "1917," so ask them! I haven't even seen "1917." I'm worried about seeing "1917."

So they stole from you?

Well, they took some of my stunt people... so I don't know, there you go. They were with me in the trenches and I said, 'Where are you going next?' 'Oh, we're going to do another World War I movie.' I was like, 'Ah, really?' So we shot that before them. I know their production designer was trying to figure out how we built the trenches because it was a lot harder to build trenches... I'm like, I don't know how these soldiers were doing it with a little spade when we had everything and we were finding it hard.

But probably a similarity between us and "1917" [was] we were both probably trying to be respectful to the truth. That was the birth of Kingsman, the trenches, if you think about it, the trenches gave birth to the Kingsman. So that is an area where I didn't want to make jokes. I'm one for pushing boundaries, and I will try and make a joke about anything but not at the expense of truly brave soldiers sacrificing themselves for the greater good. But also, that was designed in a way that you have Rasputin, some fun stuff before it, so everyone's like, 'Oh ho! We're off.' And then wallop, wallop, wallop, hang on for dear life! Then, 'Don't worry, they're going to come back and have some fun.'

I can appreciate that! I caught this earlier interview with you around 2015 where you said that there isn't really a British film industry, and you talked about some of those challenges. I wanted to ask you, now that it's years later, do you think the state of homegrown British film has improved at all? Or has it become harder to get funding?

Matthew Vaughn: ... What do you think? What's the last British movie you loved?

It's a little hard to say, off the top of my head. I mean, I love... I know Bond and the Kingsman movies are British, but not small ones.

Matthew Vaughn: Yeah. But Bond's American. Harry Potter is American. But you know, Britain's become, I dare to say it, but we've become like the sweatshop for the American film industry where we are all making... Well, I'm not, because I don't want to go down that route. But we're just making the content for the big Americans. 

*looks to someone by the camera* 

Disney is great, probably. But we're not building a film industry. We're building a service industry.

"Villains are most interesting when they have a point of view you can agree with"

Interesting, thank you for following up on that. For my final question, one thing that really interests me about some of the Kingsman films is the villains have very atypical political stances, like how the first one has a very rogue environmentalist billionaire. I wanted to ask you your thoughts on shaping the villains of the films and their politics.

Matthew Vaughn: I always think villains are more interesting when they have a point of view that you can agree with. You go, 'Huh, he's got a point,' or, 'She has a point.' But what you can't agree with is their solution to their point, it has to be bad. B you got to have some empathy with what they're trying to do. And then it kind of gets scarier because a bit of you is like, 'Well, I want the villain to succeed... but not the way they're doing it.' Because then I think the villain, they're more memorable and they're more relatable than if it's just, 'Hey, I'm going to blow up the world.' You go, 'Well, why? What's the point of that?' Or, 'I'm going to steal all the money in the world and be the richest man alive.' You're like, 'Eh, be the richest man alive. There's a lot of them already. Who gives a s**t?'

As you said, environment, the first one, legalizing drugs, the second one. And this one, the only thing I would say is what the villain is saying in this film is, 'One must choose your leaders carefully.' Because if you don't, things can happen which aren't good very, very quickly. One of the themes of this is we are lucky enough now that we are voting, at least, for our leaders. I'm not sure how well we are voting, but we are voting. And our villain in this film is saying, 'Well why should people, just because of when they were born and who to, tell us what to do?'

"The King's Man" arrives in theaters starting on December 22, 2021.