TERMINAL: Down the Rabbit Hole with Writer/Director Vaughn Stein

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Margot Robbie, Mike Myers, and Simon Pegg — simply from the cast for the upcoming film Terminal, you have to be intrigued. Filmed in Budapest with an almost cartoonish (in a good way) style and sharp, unique dialogue, Terminal is the directorial debut of Vaughn Stein, who also wrote the film.

LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa had the chance to speak with Stein about creating an intense visual style, the persistent influence of Alice in Wonderland, and crafting biting dialogue.

Angela Bourassa: How did this idea first come to you? Did you want to tell a particular type of story, or did it begin with the Margot Robbie character?

Vaughn Stein: The idea was born out of three unhealthy creative obsessions of mine: film noire, dystopian literature/cinema, and the aesthetic of graphic novels; particularly dark, urban fairytales. I wanted to create a world reminiscent of but not recognizable as our own, the crucible of a vast, anonymous city in which dark characters with darker secrets could prey upon one another. Annie, the character so astonishingly portrayed by Margot, was the linchpin of this; a mercurial, chameleonic agent of vengeance able to transform herself at will in order to better manipulate the characters around her and bend them to her will. Annie arrived in my mind almost fully formed and was the fulcrum around which I devised the other characters. I knew I wanted to write a labyrinthine, interweaving script, and the character of Annie was vital to this aim.

Angela Bourassa: This world has a very particular feel — the film feels like a graphic novel sprang to life. The setting is practically it’s own character. Would you say that’s true? 

Vaughn Stein: The setting is absolutely it’s own character. The bleak, partially dystopian environ figured largely in my mind as a means of validating and informing the characters, dialogue, and overall aesthetic of the film. In terms of visual style, I had always envisaged a lurid, neon palette for TERMINAL and juxtaposing this with a classical ‘noire’ sense to the cinematography and carefully planned anachronisms within the design elements. Period costumes and props drawn from different eras and decades, a sense of faded Americana rubbing against quintessentially ‘British’ design elements, the former grandeur of a city now populated with brutalist, utilitarian architecture; a kaleidoscopic and contradictory collage. Graphic novels often set up incredible heightened and stylized worlds in which their rich and vibrant stories can excel, and this was key to TERMINAL for me.

Angela Bourassa: What were your influences in terms of the visual style?

Vaughn Stein: The brilliance of Scott’s Blade Runner, of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, of Winding Refn’s Drive, Kar- Wai’s In The Mood For Love. Gilliam’s Brazil, and Fincher’s Fight Club were huge influences on me. I was blessed to have the most astonishing HODS who took my ideas and built upon them brilliantly to create the lurid, vibrant, neon-drenched, eccentric, and hopefully unique visual style of Terminal.

Angela Bourassa: References to the Alice in Wonderland books come up throughout the story. Was that a part of the script from the first draft, or did you find those symbols later on?

Vaughn Stein: The ‘Alice In Wonderland’ references were laced throughout the script from an early stage. I was a huge fan of the books growing up and, combined with the zany brilliance of Roald Dahl, they had a lasting influence on me. Terminal was always supposed to have the folkloric, hubristic qualities of a dark fairytale, and the iconography of Lewis Carroll is so deeply imbedded in our collective consciousness, and his characters and motifs so vividly recognizable, that it was the natural choice for me. There is also something wonderfully absurd and unsettling about ‘Alice,’ a hypnotic and surreal quality that I felt suited the tone and style of Terminal.

Angela Bourassa: What’s your process for writing dialogue? I ask because these characters all have delightfully unique voices.

Vaughn Stein: Thank you! I relish writing dialogue; it is one of my favorite parts of the process. I particularly enjoy writing it when I can ‘hear’ the characters clearly; when I have a robust and confident sense of who they are and what they sound like. For me, this is key, knowing them well enough that I feel innately what they would say in the situation. Terminal, with its vaguely British setting and anachronistic sense of time, always sounded proudly old fashioned and antiquated to me. This opened up the possibility of imbuing the dialogue with a sense of bygone eras; the quick fire cockney rat-a-tat of the Vaudevillian double act or the slick and polished cool of classic ‘noire’ for example, and my idea was to incorporate these inspirations into the dialogue and then to weave that into a darkly comic and dangerous narrative. The script was completely elevated by the astonishing ensemble cast; they took my dialogue and made it utterly their own.

Angela Bourassa: What do you wish you knew when you first started working in film?

Vaughn Stein: I love making films; it is an absolute pleasure and privilege to be part of the process. I loved it as a runner, then as an assistant director, and now as a writer and director. What I know now as a filmmaker has been earned working on film sets of all shapes, sizes, and budgets over the last eight years; experience that has been invaluable to me in making Terminal. However, Terminal was the steepest learning curve I have ever experienced!

What did I learn…

1. Make your scripts water tight. Work, hone and polish them until you know in your heart there are no holes, because having that confidence is a hugely empowering feeling.

2. Don’t be afraid to rehearse and improvise; when incredibly talented actors start making the role their own and making inspired changes to the script, it is a truly wonderful feeling.

3. Be clear and concise with your cast and crew; they are infinitely better at their job than you are and, as a director, you’re greatest creative responsibility is to harness their brilliance in pursuit of your vision… and then pass it off as your own!

4. Shoot your inserts and cutaways… because you never know when they’re going to save your bacon in the edit!

Terminal will be in theaters and On Demand / Digital HD on Friday, May 11, 2018.

~

Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

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