I thought I’d be clever. I thought I’d travel on the cheap. I thought I’d dash in and dash out and it would be a quick kick.
Yeah. That’s what I thought.
I spent some time working in New York City during the ‘90s. I had a blast, but I never spent enough time there to stop feeling like a tourist. Since then, I’ve been back twice. Both times were frustratingly quick trips. I always like to think I can get around in New York, that I’ve mastered it. Then I put that to the test, and I remember that New York can just plain wear you down when it wants to. I was a smartass on this trip. I spent an hour or so on Friday night looking up MTA routes and subway routes, plotting out exactly how to get to my hotel, to the screening, to the after-party, and then back to the hotel. I like walking in New York. I was looking forward to it, frankly.
I flew out of LA at 6:00 on Saturday morning. That put me into JFK Airport at about 3:00. A little before. I had four hours to get to the hotel and check in and unwind and get a little food before the 7:00 screening of STARDUST, which was the entire reason I was in town. However, thanks to some “necessary construction,” a shuttle bus transfer, and a slight kerfuffle at hotel registration, I didn’t get into my room until 6:15. No food. No unwinding. Just a quick shower and then I was out the door, in a cab, and stressing all the way to the Tribeca Grand Hotel. More static at the door to the Grand Screen downstairs, and then finally, I was inside. I pushed through the crowded bar outside the screening room, just wanting to take a seat and decompress for five minutes. I ran into Zak Penn and Matthew Vaughn right at the door to the screening room, spoke to them for a quick moment, but I was still flustered from all the agitas of getting to the screening.
As I sat in the second row, catching my breath, I relaxed. I looked around, realized how small the room was. It was probably 50 seats. No more than that. And a pretty recognizable crowd shuffling in. Robert De Niro. Claire Danes. LAW & ORDER’S Mariska Hargitay. Charlie Vess. Harvey Weinstein. Andy Garcia. Avi Arad. People chatting, a few working the room.
Matthew Vaughn got up before the film and introduced it in a suitably self-effacing manner. He’s tested the film a number of times now, but this screening was obviously the film’s industry debut. I’m guessing it was a special Tribeca screening because of De Niro’s involvement, but it’s canny timing by Paramount because now I’m going to have a yardstick to use when measuring up the other summer films of 2007. STARDUST sets the bar good and high, delivering as an original. Burn-out is certainly a consideration in a summer of sequels, and what is so nice about STARDUST is how it tells a story that doesn’t seem to have a franchise in mind... it’s just a damn good story. It’s a good tale, a ripping yarn. I know the term makes some people close to the picture nervous, but, yes, it’s a fairy tale. And it’s a lovely one.
The film’s opening is brisk, and it sets its various plot mechanics in motion in quick order in the first few scenes. These scenes are important because they start to establish the tone of what Vaughn, his co-writer Jane Goldman, and Neil Gaiman are all up to. I find that the more heavy lifting a fantasy film has to do to explain itself, the less entertained I am by it. Here, STARDUST hits the ground running, and there’s a focus on quiet humor, character, and the magic of the world at large that draws you in effectively. We’re introduced to the Village of Wall and the mysteries that lie just on the other side of the gap. We meet young Dunstan Thorne on the eve of his greatest adventure, a delicious indiscretion that results in the birth of his son, Tristan, nine months later. And then we flash forward in time immediately to Tristan all grown up.
Played as an adult by Charlie Cox, Tristan is the lead in the film, and Cox pulls it off with aplomb. He seems to genuinely age and mature over the course of the film, in small ways that add up to something convincing rather than in broad strokes that would make it all seem easy. He’s also got really sweet chemistry with Claire Danes, who plays Yvaine, a fallen star. She’s the object he has promised to retrieve to prove his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller), and watching the two of them together, watching the way their relationship evolves, it’s obvious what Matthew Vaughn meant when he first told me that MIDNIGHT RUN was a major source of inspiration for his take on this material. Although this eventually becomes a romance, it starts as anything but.
It’s more of a funny freaky adventure movie for a while, and the way it builds a head of steam with each of the major storylines, the romance is sneaky. It sort of creeps up on you. And make no mistake... STARDUST is busy. It’s busy the way some of the big summer blockbusters are busy. But it’s quick about it. I’m not sure the cut I saw was even two full hours long.
So how does this film manage to be so succinct and yet enjoyable while something like SPIDER-MAN 3 couldn’t quite get its ducks in a row in a full 150 minutes? There are a number of storylines in play here, but it manages to juggle different ideas without ever giving in to bloat. When Yvaine falls from the sky, there are three different groups of people interested in her. There’s Tristan, of course, but there are also three witches, played with relish by Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Alexander, and Joanna Scanlon, who want the star because it will revitalize them and recharge their magical powers if they eat the star’s heart. In addition, the princes of Stormhold, the magical country where the star lands, are all chasing a gemstone, the reason Yvaine fell to earth in the first place, each of them hoping to become the heir to the throne of their father, played in one brief memorable scene by Peter O’Toole. There’s also the mystery of the identity of Tristan’s mother to be sorted out, and all of this taken as a whole could easily become overcomplicated or confusing, but Vaughn manages to keep it all clear.
The film unfolds at a gallop, and like I said... that works in its favor... but if there’s any place where it moves too quickly, it’s in the first act. If it was given just a little bit more room to breathe, it might help with the audience’s investment in Tristan and his quest. As it is, everything feels like it’s stripped to the bare minimum until Tristan’s on the road, at which point the film finally starts to enjoy itself.
Even having said that, it’s a minor gripe. There’s a lot to like in this film, and it’s amazing how much stuff seems to have been somehow squeezed into the picture. Take the storyline about the princes, for example. The way it works is that the King of Stormhold (O’Toole) had a total of 7 sons, and whoever is the last one living is set to inherit the kingdom. However, with O’Toole dying and several sons still alive, everyone gets more aggressive.
You’ve got Mark Strong plays Septimus, the most frightening of the brothers, while Jason Flemyng plays Primus, his best competition. When a brother dies, they end up hanging around as ghosts, and they retain whatever physical properties they had at the moment of death. So you have some great British comic performers like Rupert Everett as Secondus, Adam Buxton as Sextus, LITTLE BRITAIN’s David Walliams as Quintus, and in a GREEN WING double-header, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Mark Heap as Quartus and Tertius. All of them playing creepy dead guys with burnt faces or frost-bite or a smashed head, all hanging around until the matter of who will be king is settled. Just this one family’s lunacy could make for a whole film, but Vaughn uses them just right, adding creepy laughs in a few places and turning up the tension in others.
Same thing with Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia, the witch. It would be easy to make her such a big bad guy that she overpowered the film, and Pfeiffer’s more than up for the challenge. She is funny and sexy and scary in equal measure, and she makes the most of every second she has onscreen. But wisely, Vaughn doesn’t focus on her, doesn’t let her unbalance the film. His screenplay (adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel with Jane Goldman as a co-writer) is interested in all of its characters, and it finds room for people to just behave.
I think most audiences are going to find themselves wanting more of Robert De Niro’s Captain Shakespeare and his crew, and I think if there’s any talk of a sequel, Neil Gaiman and Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn should all write it together. It would be like going and doing a Han Solo spin-off film. Which, by the way, I am starting to think would have been the coolest thing that could have happened in 1986. Ahhhh... if only. Captain Shakespeare is a lightning pirate, a ferocious marauder of the air... who is actually a screaming nancy behind closed doors. There’s nothing subtle about De Niro’s work in the movie, and it’s one of those performances that walks a tightrope. It’s camp. It’s GIANT camp. And, yet... it’s not. De Niro manages to invest Shakespeare with a touch of the self-aware. Does even Jack Sparrow have that? He knows he’s camp. It’s a choice. It’s the way he deals with who he is and how he lives and what he does, and it’s sort of sad and hilarious and real. And this is, keep in mind, a supporting character in a “big summer movie.”
STARDUST feels subversive every time it treats you like a grown-up. I can see kids of about 10 and up really falling for this movie and loving it, but I can also see adults rewatching this compulsively. It’s a movie with a lot of little subtle pleasures that will pay off upon seeing them again. When I visited the set in England last year, the primary set they were working on was an inn that was created by Lamia. Now that I’ve seen that sequence on film, I’m pretty amazed by what Vaughn made of it. And the witches’ palace that I saw was also pretty damn great on film. It’s a fun world. Gavin Boucquet’s production design and ‘s cinematography are a lovely match for Vaughn’s imagination. He’s definitely drawn some inspiration from the work of Charles Vess, but he’s also brought a lot of his own ideas to the table. If you consider LAYER CAKE and then this film, the leap he’s made as a director from one movie to the next is impressive. LAYER CAKE was a very accomplished, controlled, good first film. STARDUST is a film that people are going to get passionate about. How many people? I think that depends on how well Paramount does at getting the word out. It’s going to be a big summer. Paramount’s going to be making much of the noise out there with their sure-to-open-enormous TRANSFORMERS. STARDUST is a movie that they’re going to have to pay a lot of attention to. And it deserves it.
It seemed at the after party that everyone who saw the film that night got it. I drifted around the party and heard part of lots of conversations about it. I had a few myself with Avi Arad and Eric Watson (producer of THE FOUNTAIN) and Andy Garcia and, yes, De Niro himself. I had a particularly long and spirited conversation with Lorenzo De Bonaventura. In his day as a Warner studio executive, I wrote some pretty outrageous opinionated material about him. I’ve never met him until this party in New York. And when we do meet, the way we’re introduced, we’re already talking by the time we are actually introduced and identified to each other. And y’know what? Meeting him face to face, talking with him about STARDUST and about some of the projects we’ve written about over the years, I liked him. I was surprised by things about him. In college, he wrote his thesis on LORD OF THE RINGS. Yes, Lorenzo appears to be a genuine full-fledged fantasy nerd. And when I told him how nice it was to meet him at a premiere for a Neil Gaiman adaptation that he produced and to actually LOVE the film, he laughed.
“Believe me, I never thought that would happen.” We talked a little bit about his involvement in THE BOOKS OF MAGIC, and we talked about how he almost made DEATH: THE HIGH COST OF LIVING (“Did you know Neil’s going to direct that himself?”), and we talked about... yes... SANDMAN, a film that I wrote a scathing piece about at one point. Lorenzo was frank with me, talking about why those films didn’t happen. “Thank God this one did.” We also talked a bit about TRANSFORMERS. That test screening in Arizona certainly did happen, and whenever the subject came up on Saturday, everyone involved with TRANSFORMERS just smiled from ear to ear. Now that they’re seeing the final rendered shots, they feel like they’ve really got something. Right or wrong, they seem to feel like they’ve made something big. Something gigantic. And they seem genuinely pleased with what it is.
Right now, the film’s closing credits use David Bowie’s “Starman,” which would actually be a great song for them to cut one last kick-ass trailer to. It won’t be in the final film, though. One of the last people I met at the party was a short, affable chap introduced to me as Gary. Turns out, he’s a member of Take That, and the songwriter for the band, and he wrote the closing credits song and recorded it a few weeks ago, right after his own first viewing of the film. The score is still be put in place right now, so much of what we saw was still temp tracked in places. Even so, the hints of original score we heard were lovely, and I think that’s the final puzzle piece that has to be locked down to make sure the film works as well as it can.
After the party, walking back to the hotel at 1:30 in the morning, I was struck by two things: first, despite all the angst of getting to the screening, it was totally worth it. STARDUST is a film I’m sure I’ll see several times this year, but this first viewing proved to me that it’s something special. For any film to have played well for me in the mood I was in... that’s a great sign. Second, when I’m not frantic to get somewhere and can just enjoy a stroll, I really do love being in New York. Too bad I basically had time to shower again, change, unwind for an hour with a little food, and then head back to JFK for my incredibly-early Sunday morning flight.
By 10:30, I was back in LA, and the whole thing seemed sort of like a dream. Appropriate enough for this wistful, blissful little movie that deserves to find an audience in the midst of what will no doubt be a bloody summer movie season. Hopefully I’ll be able to screen the film for you guys here in LA this summer, before it comes out, so you can see for yourselves.
In the meantime, I’m off to put the final touches on another first look for you, as I discuss just what it was that Jerry Bruckheimer showed me in the PIRATES 3 editing room. I’ll have that for you this afternoon.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles