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Schizophrenic “Downstairs” and “Upstairs”: Filmmaker Vaughn Stein on Inheritance

By Ali Moosavi.

British writer-director Vaughn Stein’s feature film debut was Terminal (2018), starring Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg, Mike Myers and Dexter Fletcher. Getting such a cast for your first feature may seem to be very lucky and quite unusual. However, when you delve in Vaughn Stein’s filmography, it becomes plainly apparent that this was no fluke and he has served a full apprenticeship in the film industry to reach this point. This apprenticeship has included working in various capacities ranging from floor runner, production assistant, third assistant director, second assistant director, on big budget Hollywood blockbusters such as the Harry Potter and Pirates of Caribbean series, Beauty and the Beast, World War Z, Sherlock Holmes, etc to assistant director in lower budget films. His prize-winning short film, Yussef is Complicated (2015), gave him further exposure. Though Terminal was not critically well received, it did display a director with visual flair and an ability to capture eye-catching performances from his cast.

Stein’s new film Inheritance is a political thriller, with a dash of psychological horror. When the patriarch of a wealthy, influential family dies, his daughter Lauren (Lily Collins) inherits a dark secret that involves someone called Morgan Warner (Simon Pegg). Lauren is a district attorney and her brother is running for political office. Therefore, any unwelcome secret could have considerable repercussions for their careers.

Film International talked to Vaughn Stein about his new film.   

I felt that this film defied a specific genre, borrowing elements from horror, thriller, etc.

Yes, that’s what we were going for. We intentionally wanted to play with genre, leaning into elements from multiple genres and borrowing motifs from each of them. I think it’s also folkloric, like a dark fairy tale, and a satire on the nature of legacy and privilege. So, for me it’s a psychological thriller with a satirical twist.

By the end of the film there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding some of the characters. Did you ever consider perhaps approaching this as a miniseries to explore these with further depth?

No, I felt that with our amazing ensemble cast they could give the audience a sense of the characters quickly without having to resort to heavy exposition. I wanted to keep the film lean and mean, almost having an “explosive” quality.

Simon Pegg, normally known for comedic roles, is cast against type in Inheritance. I know you worked with him before on Terminal, did you have him in mind when you read the script?

Yes, Simon is a fantastic comedic actor but as soon as I read the script and having seen him deliver a relatively straight man role in Terminal, I knew what he was capable of and we worked together to bring this creator to life. He’s already a trim guy but he lost twelve kilos for the role; we wanted the character to have a prison workout”body, a figure that is the result of press-ups, pull-ups etc. I found it extremely exciting to turn the preconceived notions that an audience may have of Simon Pegg on their head. I love working with him, we’re good friends, and it was amazing to see him flex his acting muscles on another role.

You make interesting use of colour in both Inheritance and Terminal, such as in the latter there is the contrast between the colours in the terminal and in Dexter Fletcher’s flat.

Yes, thank you for noticing that. We wanted a sense of contrast and duality in Inheritance, an almost schizophrenic distance between “downstairs” and “upstairs.” The washed-out colour palette of the bunker had the atmosphere of a horror film, the diametric opposite of not only the mansion upstairs but also the verdant forests outside. But even though the mansion is the “light side”to the bunker’s “dark side”, it still feels quite haunted as we did a lot of bleach bypass on the windows. As a filmmaker and someone who loves world-building, I love working with colour as it’s a way to communicate ideas, emotions, and motivations with the audience non-verbally.

I gathered that from watching not only Terminal and Inheritance but also your 2015 short Yussef is Complicated. In Yussef, some of the most interesting scenes feature the protagonist as silent, with the camera and the visuals telling the story more than dialogue and exposition.

I agree and disagree. Someone once told me at film school that the best way to understand a film is to turn the sound off and watch what the camera does. I used to do that a lot while at university; without sounding too pretentious, I would see if I could understand what was going on by what the camera was bringing into the frame, the choices being made in colour, costume, all of that.

At the same time, I come from theatre, I have a huge respect for what the actors can bring to help the audience understand the story. That combination of visual language and performance is where I want my films to live.

In Terminal, you were working with much of your crew from Yussef.  With Inheritance, not only were you working with a lot of the crew for the first time, but unlike Terminal and Yussef, you did not write the screenplay. Was there an adjustment process?

Yes, is the short answer. I was very lucky because Matt Kennedy is not only a brilliant writer but also incredibly collaborative. He has a practical filmmaking background as well, having worked as an assistant director like I did, so we both understood the importance of making a script within the parameters of what was available with regards to location, actors, etc. I enjoyed the process a lot; in my time in theatre, many of the plays I directed were written by other people, so I was used to it in that respect, and hope to do it again in the future.

Given the current situation, what is the distribution plan for Inheritance?

We were due to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, but as that didn’t happen it was released by DirecTV who I believe had a partnership with them. It comes out on the May 22nd on the premium VOD services. I love cinema and going to the movies, but I realise that [outside of the coronavirus situation] there’s also a change in how audiences choose to watch films, especially independent ones, and I hope this gives people a welcome escape.

Can you shed some light on your next film, Every Breath You Take?

It’s a psychological thriller that is centred around a psychiatrist who is in the midst of bereaving over a terrible loss in the family. At that moment, a stranger calls and that’s when things really start to fall apart for the family…

It was shot in Vancouver last year and at the beginning of this year, and stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, along with Sam Claflin, India Eisley, Veronica Ferres, and Emily Lynd.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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