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AICN EXCLUSIVE! Moriarty's High On STARDUST! Casting And Story Details!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I finally figured it out. I’ve known the guy for five or six years at this point, talking occasionally, and it took me this long to pinpoint it.

Matthew Vaughn is Bugs Bunny.

Let me explain. The reason I love the Warner Bros. classic cartoons so much is because of the incredibly specific archetypes that each character embodied, and how I could plug every person I knew into those archetypes easily. We all wish we were Bugs Bunny, because he’s the coolest sonofabitch there is. He’s the Sinatra of the Warner Bros. world. He’s charmed. And he’s incredibly slippery. If Bugs doesn’t want to be caught, he is not caught. He does things on his own terms. And he seems to enjoy himself, even if there is a demented fat man with a speech impediment chasing him with a shotgun.

Watching Matthew Vaughn work is a lot like watching Bugs Bunny work. Vaughn’s got a confidence I don’t see in very many filmmakers. Which isn’t to say that other filmmakers lack confidence. It’s just that Vaughn’s got a particular kind of determination, a sort of fait accompli attitude. You get the sense that there’s no task you could set for him as a filmmaker that he would be unable to accomplish. It’s little wonder he was the first guy picked to direct CASINO ROYALE (before MGM folded into Sony), which may well have led directly to the casting of Daniel Craig, or that he was Marvel’s first choice to step in for Bryan Singer on X-MEN 3, with many of his choices, including Kelsey Grammer and the storyline that he worked on with Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg, still in place. He may have only made one film as a director so far, but when he walks into a room, he’s got that exact self-possessed sense of himself that makes people want to hand over billion-dollar franchises to him.

Like I said. Bugs fucking Bunny. And he’s about to step up and prove that it’s not just an act, too.

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is a really lovely novel, a fairy tale that manages to strike its own tone. It’s not classic fantasy, because there’s a bit of a wink to it, but it’s not Terry Pratchett, either. It’s not an outright comedy, but there are whimsical elements throughout. When Matthew Vaughn first mentioned to me that he had the rights to the book, it was while he was still thinking about X-MEN 3. STARDUST was this off-in-the-future possibility at that point. And then X-MEN 3 imploded (or at least Vaughn’s version of it), and the last time I saw him before he left LA, he seemed like he was sick of the entire Hollywood game. He was ready to go back to doing things independently, finding his own money and being his own boss. Part of that is the producer in him. He simply seems incapable of handing over control to someone else, and having a director who also knows how to think like a producer in terms of schedule and budget is a pretty damn handy thing. He didn’t say at that point that he was going to make STARDUST his next film, but he obviously had something on his mind.

Then, in late November or early December, a list started making the rounds in LA of the “Best Scripts Of 2005.” Along with the list, copies of many of the scripts were sent aout as well in PDF format. One of the scripts that showed up in my e-mail box was STARDUST, written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman. I read it... and then I re-read Gaiman’s novel, which I hadn’t read in a couple of years... and then I read the script again.

And what do you know? Turns out Vaughn can write as well as direct and produce. And remember... the guy’s married to Claudia Schiffer. So, yeah, it’s okay to hate him a little. Just don’t underestimate him.

The approach that Vaughn and Goldman took in adapting the novel is sort of radical. It still looks like STARDUST if you lay out the basic plot points, but there’s an attitude to the film that is all its own. And, no, it’s not THE PRINCESS BRIDE, either, although it did make me laugh out loud in several places. Vaughn and Goldman turned up the funny quite a bit, but in that impeccably dry English way that manages to balance silly and totally serious somehow. The script’s got a real weight to it, but the ways that it reinvents Gaiman’s story are quite canny, and should make for a striking film next year.

The movie got a little closer to reality this past week, according to a friend over at CAA, where it seems like every member of the cast is represented. He tells me that an announcement will be made in the next week or so regarding the major roles that have been filled so far. The star of the piece is whoever plays Yvaine, the fallen star who drives the entire piece. I know that Vaughn was in town recently working on screen tests for the role because I had breakfast with him when he was here (and we’ll talk more about that below) and it sounded like he was going to be seeing every actress of a certain age, English or American or whoever else might possibly work.

The result of that search is that Claire Danes is going to play Yvaine. Great choice. I can only imagine how she chose to play the character as written. It’s tricky stuff. She’s much wiser than she should be, with a huge attitude, but she’s a star. She’s a beautiful, remarkable thing in the script and in the book. She’s playful, she’s angry, she’s very tough at times, but she’s also unbelievably fragile when you get down to the core of who and what she is. It’s one of the big jobs for any actress next year, and Danes has been warming up to it for a long time. Recently, I thought she did sterling supporting work in THE FAMILY STONE, and she’s ready for a starring role of significance. If she works, it’ll be magic. You’ll have to fall in love with her. You’ll have no choice.

Say it with me now... who the fuck is Charlie Cox? Well, evidently, he’s the lead. He’s Tristan. This is his journey. This is his story. He’s the one who is trying to win the love of Victoria, who is going to be played by Sienna Miller. Tristan’s origin is explained in the film’s first ten minutes, and it’s sort of like it is in the book. About ten pages in, we make a jump forward by twenty years. That’s when we meet him. So Charlie Cox, who was evidently in CASANOVA (which I didn’t see) and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (which, also, I didn’t see) and DOT THE I (ditto), needs to be young. He’s 24. Playing 20. Playing a guy just on the edge of getting his shit together. His dad, Dunstan, knows that Tristan’s special in ways that he doesn’t even dare tell him. Tristan doesn’t know. Tristan feels like he can’t compete with any of the other guys in his village. He wants to prove himself to Victoria. He wants to deserve her.

Tristan confesses his feelings to Victoria one night over a bottle of illicit champagne, and it’s a pretty great version of the scene from the book. It’s seductive... it’s funny... and it sets the film in motion perfectly. When they see a shooting star, Tristan turns to her and says, “For your hand in marriage, I’d go to Stormhold and bring you back that fallen star.” She considers it and responds, “Hmmm. My very own star. It seems that we have ourselves an agreement.”

But the thing is, you don’t go into Stormhold. And you don’t pick up fallen stars. Or at least, you have to realize that you’re not the only one who will be looking. See... stars have all sorts of power. They have literal power, like the power that Lamia, Empusa, and Mormo will be able to extract from it if they get their hands on it. These three witches see this fallen star as an opportunity... a vital part of their own survival. Stars also have symbolic power, like that bestowed upon the star by the dying King Of Stormhold, who sends his murderous sons out to retrieve a sapphire that is linked to the fallen star, each of them desperate to kill the others while chasing the stone. The witches pick Lamia to go forth, transforming her into a beautiful woman. If I understood correctly, this is the witch that Michelle Pfeiffer is playing. She spends the movie trying to track that star down, and she’s willing to do anything to get it. It’s a genuinely scary role as written.

Tristan can’t just leave to go get the star, because of The Wall. There’s a wall that you just don’t cross, guarded by one person. It’s not a particularly high wall, but any attempt to get over it doesn’t work. Magically, you’re unable to do it without permission, which he doesn’t have. It’s only when his father reveals the truth of Tristan’s lineage to him that Tristan is able to follow the star in rather dramatic fashion.

When Tristan and Yvaine meet, it’s not cute. It’s sort of painful and antagonistic, and then Tristan does something that connects the two of them whether she likes it or not. Tristan has no idea that all the sons of Stormhold are descending on him, nor that he’s got to look out for Lamia as she moves in on behalf of her sisters. All he knows is that the star has a broken leg, they’re a long way from home, and he’s not really sure how he’s going to get her back to his village to give to Victoria.

As with any fantasy film, you’re going to have your favorite characters or scenes, and for me, it’s Captain Shakespeare, leader of the Air Pirates, who I can’t get enough of. Vaughn’s apparently signed Robert De Niro to play the Captain, which has got to be sweet for the director. He recently commented to me that the film that he feels most indebted to when thinking about how he’s going to be approaching STARDUST is... MIDNIGHT RUN?! Yes, actually. Martin Brest’s anti-buddy film is an underappreciated classic that I think got a lot better with age. Watch it now and you’ll see just how perfectly built it is. The back and forth between De Niro and Grodin as they stay one step ahead of their troubles in that movie is great. Perfectly played. And that’s what Vaughn’s going to be expecting from Claire Danes and Charley Cox as they make their way through this grand adventure.

The film starts shooting next month in England, which makes that the hippest place to visit in the world right now for a film freak between this project and HOT FUZZ. The draft of the script I read is out of date at this point, but not radically so. It’s just that Neil Gaiman’s become involved with the film, working to take Vaughn and Goldman’s ideas and then play with them and finesse them and make sure that the voice of the book is in there, loud and clear. I found that out last month, when I got an invite to meet Vaughn for breakfast at the Four Seasons. It was insanely early for me, since I work all night, but he promised he’d have some cool STARDUST stuff to show me. When I arrived, I saw that he was sitting with Tarquin, his omnipresent and always cool right hand man, and with someone else. It wasn’t until I got closer to the table that I realized it was Neil himself. I haven’t seen Neil since he was out on the press circuit for PRINCESS MONONOKE. We chat via e-mail occasionally, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to really talk. Great surprise, and it set a nice tone for the morning. Neil talked a bit about BEOWULF, and I’ll tell you the truth... he didn’t sound like any less of a gushing fan than Quint did a few weeks ago. It’s nice to see a guy as experienced and as gifted as Neil pumped up about something he’s involved in. He also talked about how intrigued he is with the notion of adapting BLACK HOLE by Charles Burns into a film for Alexandre Aja to direct, co-writing the script with Roger Avary.

And then, once we’d ordered and the waiter was gone, we talked about STARDUST. Vaughn had a portfolio full of the film’s production art with him, most of it stuff he had paid for himself before Paramount even got involved. What struck me right away is how the visual palette he’s going for is N O T H I N G like I expected. It’s bold, and if he pulls it off, it’s going to be unique. It’s certainly not a case of someone aping LORD OF THE RINGS or NARNIA, which we’re going to see a lot of in the next few years. He’s using a lot of practical locations in the UK that I’ve never seen on film before, and he’s building as much of the movie practical as he can, including the flying ship that Captain Shakespeare and his crew command, which should be spectacular. Same thing with the Witches’ Castle, or the Castle of Stormhold. These are big sets, and it looks like he’s really pushing for a fairy tale look that’s all his own. STARDUST has its adult moments, so it’s fine that he’s pushing this, making something that isn’t obviously family-oriented. Instead, this is a sort of ageless fable, and only very little kids are going to be unable to watch it. This plays rough in places, but only in the way that the real fairy tales do. We talked about the film for about an hour, and then the two of them had to run off to start the screen tests for Yvaine for the day. They couldn't tell me any of the names of anyone testing, no matter how much I needled them, so I have no idea if that was when they found Claire, or if it was later.

There are a lot more roles to be cast, and I think both Alfred Molina and Mark Strong (the dude who beat the shit out of Clooney in SYRIANA) are joining the cast as well, although I’m not sure exactly what they’ll be doing. Right now, my guess is that Vaughn’s back in England, working his ass off to get everything ready, working to finalize the cast, working with his design teams and his visual collaborators and his costumers and every other department head and he’s probably loving every second of the chaos, thriving on it, slip sliding his way along and revving up for what I’m hoping really delivers the goods, and I’ll bet he never breaks a sweat, no matter what.

’Cause like I said... Bugs fucking Bunny.

"Moriarty" out.

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