Starring Margot Robbie, the new noir 'Terminal' takes place in a train station where things are not as they seem.
One of the many accomplishments of Terminal, Vaughn Stein's debut film, is its creation of a convincing and enmeshing dark subworld in which characters thrash around wildly, all wrestling with their own demons. Another of its accomplishments is that the characters never lose their verbal dexterity in the midst of these struggles.
The story of the film is both old and new, something of a rewriting of Alice in Wonderland as an urban noir fantasy, but also a tale about dishonesty and revenge: a political allegory also serving as a human story.
The film takes place in a vast train station and, more specifically, a seedy diner within that train station. Margot Robbie plays Bunny, a stripper, and Annie, a waitress, who are (basically) the same person. Two of Annie's regulars at the diner where she works are hitmen, hired by a mysterious gentleman to do a hit, the details of which will be revealed to them at the restaurant.
For the film, Stein has assembled a remarkable cast, including Simon Pegg, who plays a mortally ill English teacher, also a regular at the diner; and Mike Myers, the station's janitor. Each of the actors push their characters' quirks to their hilt. Indeed, this is what is required, and it works.
As the film opens today, No Film School spoke with Stein, who has worked on numerous similar films, including Sherlock Holmes and World War Z, about how he built up the world of this film.
No Film School: The film talks a lot about the pathetic fallacy, in which the environment mirrors or in some cases shapes the emotions of a character. The reference made me wonder which came first for you: creating the environment or the story?
Vaughn Stein: I think it was a little of both. I do think that the world came first. It was inspired by three things, really. I love film noir and the evolution of film noir, dystopian literature and dystopian cinema, which I've always really enjoyed.
1984 was one of my favorite books when I was a kid, and I remember the first time I saw the film at a theater, the first time I saw Children of Men, and other films. I've always had a real interest in that as a backdrop to tell stories again.
I was really inspired by the palette and the aesthetic of graphic novels and dark fantasy, as in, dark fairy tales. And of course, the pathetic fallacy plays a huge part in the dark fairy tale. You know, Terminal is hopefully enjoyably self-referential. We were very self-aware. It was a film made by movie lovers, by people who are inspired by brilliant filmmakers, and we wanted to wear it all on our sleeve in that respect, to be very conscious of that.
"A lot of the films I’ve loved recently have had the sense of a graphic novel within them."
NFS: Which graphic novels did you find most influential?
Stein: I love the aesthetic of graphic novels and their visual storytelling. I particularly like things Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore have done. I’m not by any means a fanboy of graphic novels. I’m a bit of an outsider. A lot of the films I’ve loved recently have had the sense of a graphic novel within them.
Atomic Blonde, for example, obviously itself inspired by a graphic novel, was stunning. For me, that kind of palette, and that sense of heightened and distorted reality that you get from it, really figured largely into my mind forTerminal.
NFS: What fairy tales influenced you or are your favorites?
Stein: Alice in Wonderland plays a huge narrative role in Terminal; it’s woven into the DNA of the film. I chose it because it’s so universally known. Of course, it’s not strictly a fairy tale, but it has all of those elements. There was something about the idea of a lost girl being haunted by a perverse world that I wanted to invert, and have a perverse world be haunted by this girl.
The iconography of Alice is very much in the collective consciousness. Everyone knows the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts; it’s brilliantly understandable, and I wanted to be able to imbue Terminal with a sense of that dark fairy tale. Alice was a perfect fit.
"Filmmakers I love, like Quentin Tarantino, embrace that idea of the slick, suave gangsters who are also kind of nibbling at each other."
NFS: Many of the actors in the film seem to be really reveling in their roles. How did they get into character?
Stein: I was very blessed and fortunate in terms of the world class crew attached to the film. Margot is a one-in-a-billion actress, an incredibly talented actress, and a remarkable producer as well. When she first read the script, she was really seduced by the character of this mercurial woman who can be all things to all men, who can utilize her wiles and her charms, who can reinvent herself in whatever way she needs to. That chameleonic quality was something she really nailed in her performance.
When we collaborated on the script, Margot really brought that to the forefront. We used to talk about Annie having a children’s dress-up box in the corner of her room that she could pull these costumes out of, so she could just take these different looks out when she needed them.
And Mike Myers is a legend. We first sent him the script on a bit of a wing and a prayer; he gave it a quick read and said he wanted to speak to me on the phone, and we talked for four hours, the first time we spoke. He got into such depth about the history and the backstory of the character. I’d always had this idea for this sort of eccentric, shuffling janitor, and he just elevated it beyond anything I could have possibly imagined.
NFS: Was there a discussion regarding the backstories for each of the smaller characters as well, such as the two hitmen?
Stein: They’re so pivotal to the story and I loved writing them. I loved the idea of the bickering gangster. Filmmakers I love, like Quentin Tarantino, embrace that idea of the slick, suave gangsters who are also kind of nibbling at each other. I really wanted to take inspiration from that.
The idea of the vaudevillian double-act performance also figured really largely in my mind when I was writing those two. Max and Dexter themselves had great ideas too. Dexter, who’s a world-class director in his own right, invented this idea of the fading teddy-boy, a kind of 1950s dandy who was slightly over the hill and was jealous of this young Bowie Berliner-inspired pretender to his throne. Max came up with a lot of that look himself.
NFS: Their relationship, and the dialogue they had, reminded me of scenes written by playwrights Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. They’re sitting in one location, waiting for someone who they don’t quite trust or aren’t quite sure of.
Stein:. When I came through the theater, Pinter and Beckett were huge influences on me. Also, if you look at the evolution of that kind of theatricality, I think of Martin McDonagh, and The Pillowman. I loved that play and I absolutely love him as a director now. It’s that attention to detail and language, that use of language as a weapon, which I really enjoy. I love that everything has a subtext. I really wanted to get it into Terminal as well.
"We wanted to collide the world of the old diner with the egg-and chips café of working-class London."
NFS: I found the production design really remarkable. The diner, in particular, was one spot I was very curious about.
Stein: I’m glad you picked that one, because it’s one of my absolute favorites. There’s the fact that the film is called Terminal, and it’s set around the train terminal, which is the hub, and the café is the absolute center of the film. Richard Bullock, the wonderful production designer, and I wanted to find something that was part Workman’s caf in the East Part of London and part faded diner full of Americana. We wanted to collide the world of the old diner with the egg-and chips café of working-class London.
The set was full of Easter Eggs for us; we used a lot of Blade Runner in there. When I first came to the set, Richard was grinning ear to ear because he had put in the kind of black and white tiling that Rutger Hauer’s head crashes through in Blade Runner. Another influence was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The café that’s above the double-decker streetcar in that film was a real touchpoint for us.
We found this incredible building in Budapest at the terminal, and it had these Port-a-Cabins raised up on stilts. Gustav Eiffel had basically designed this trainshed as a gift to the Hungarian Empire. They had these 1920s-style Port-a-Cabins on stilts, and so we built the set in that building, and we used the Port-a-Cabins for exteriors.
NFS: Who would you say is the emotional center of the story? And how does this film comment on the present day?
Stein: To me, the emotional center is Annie. The idea had always been that amongst all the style and swagger and charm and neon-drenched atmosphere of the terminal, there was a genuinely thrilling and gripping story centering around this young woman, wreaking her vengeance on deserving men around her (not to be too spoiler-ish). That had always been at the center of what I wanted Terminal to be about.
And the film does feel very current at the moment, I guess. Most of our producers were women; on the set, women were in many department head positions. That’s hugely important to Margot, and that’s what Margot’s company is about. I come from practical filmmaking, and the film set is this very collaborative environment, where all different colors, creeds, races, sexes, and sexual orientations all come together in this amazing melting pot.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have permutated all the way to the top, but hopefully, that’s changing. People are standing up. It's amazing what’s going on in Hollywood, and it is about time.
"In gangster movies (which this definitely riffs off of) characters are disposable, and in this case, I’m hoping for these characters to be very much deserving of their disposal."
NFS: Another thing that is striking about the film is its relaxed, casual attitude toward death. This dates back to a lot of gangster films, where people are dispatched quite easily and without much thought. Could you say a little about how that developed and how you saw it working in your film?
Stein: I really like the idea of earned deaths, of Annie’s vengeance being valid and righteous. You’re right, in gangster movies (which this definitely riffs off of) characters are disposable, and in this case, I’m hoping for these characters to be very much deserving of their disposal. In their own way, they’ve all very much wronged Annie, and in some awful ways, I wanted that to be a real emotional heart for the film.
Admittedly, it goes to some dark places, and that was something I wanted to do, because within the gangster genre, there is a disregard for the crimes. Terminal is about real crimes, about people behaving awfully toward this woman, and her reacting accordingly. She is a product of her environment, and they have made and shaped her through their crimes.