Vince Vaughn, Now a Grindhouse Hero with Brawl In Cell Block 99, Can Still Deliver a Knockout Wedding Toast

An interview with the actor and his director S. Craig Zahler from Fantastic Fest in Austin.

Caitlin Cronenberg

If the tone of a film festival could be summarized in one facial expression, then Austin’s genre-driven Fantastic Fest, which closed last week, fell to the German character actor Udo Kier, whose face displayed unrestrained, confused horror as he watched a woman in flip-flops slap down a hallway at the JW Marriott hotel. Like his co-star Vince Vaughn and director S. Craig Zahler, Kier was doing round after round of interviews to promote their new grindhouse film Brawl in Cell Block 99, and was unaware of the spa on the same floor.

“Vat, vat is this?” he said as she passed. Plenty unheimlich to be sure, but you’d think it would take more to rattle Kier, who played Madonna‘s S&M husband in her famous Sex book, but has somehow only played vampires twice.

“How wonderful, it’s a spa,” he said, after poking his head in. “I’m 73 and I said, ‘Can you make me look 60?’ And they said they could. With machines. Like Frankenstein.” He clapped his hands at the line of journalists. “Come, come. Who’s next?”

Kier is credited as the Placid Man, but all the movie’s heavy-lifting falls to Vaughn, its star, whose character Bradley Thomas is tasked by the Placid Man with assassinating someone in Cell Block 99, a super maximum security facility run by Don Johnson. If Thomas fails, Kier threatens to not only kill Thomas’s pregnant wife on the outside, but will first abort their daughter. Thomas needs to brawl his way to his target—the premise, and the resulting melee, is pretty grisly. It’s the kind of movie that could make Quentin Tarantino uncomfortable.

But it could also be Vaughn’s best performance in ages. We spoke to Zahler and Vaughn about making movies their way, outside of the Hollywood machine.

Vince, this movie probably best like uses your size and physicality probably more than any other movie you’ve been in.

Vaughn: [Craig] uses it differently. [The screenplay] was so unique. The character stuff is very rich. You know, it’s surprising when they stay together and that he takes culpability, the way that you root for that relationship. There’s clearly a lot of hurt and pain in these guys.

And then it’s just like the [terms] were so shocking and fantastic and interesting and just so well-written. And then having seen [Zahler’s 2015 film] Bone Tomahawk, I was like, this guy is someone that comes around very rarely, who doesn’t follow what they’re told but starts to tinker and build and says, “No, this is what I think it should be like.” It doesn’t fit a conformist mentality that you see so often, so I was just inspired by the originality and the quality of the piece.

So I just dove into and was excited to play the part; and then talking to Craig, I had a ton of trust with the accent. There was the physicality; I had to get strong, I had to box and get comfortable, I had to get this accent down, I had to have the emotions available so it was just time spent daydreaming, preparing, doing things to be ready to do that.

Zahler: And the transformation as well… Once we got into just our first day of rehearsals, seeing his immediate access and how he could just dial things just really, really subtly. We have a very similar taste in performers—and then the consistency, but we did this in 25 days and it was a pretty rough shoot, and then having someone that consistent, that on who could just go.

There was a day in there we did 11 pages of material, including a lot of really emotional stuff, and having a rock at the center of all of this is how it actually gets done. It gets done at that high quality. The difference with shooting something like this with someone who is having problems getting there or was disagreeable; the movie wouldn’t be what it is. It just rests on Bradley the whole time.

Vince, I’m going to try to ask a question that’s variation of one you’ve probably got a lot, which is you’re primarily thought of as a comedian, and in recent years have been heading in a more hard-edged direction. Term Life, True Detective—is this a trend or is it just that these are the sorts of things that are coming your way?

Vaughn: No; I think I made a switch. I got tired of kind of doing things that felt repetitive. It sort of came to me after I’d sort of put it out there, but True Detective definitely, and with Mel [Gibson] coming to me for Hacksaw Ridge to play the drill soldier, and then this with Craig.

It’s like I had made a switch in my mind, right? When I saw the more studio art comedies, that was challenging. At first they didn’t see me doing broad comedy. When Todd Phillips wanted to put me in Old School, the studio said, “I don’t think that that’s going to be funny.” I had had like Clay Pigeons and Return to Paradise and Swingers, and “Swingers” was comedic but it was grounded, right? So my career broadened with the studios, I guess.

So then I went on this run, which was great, and I probably stayed longer than… I was excited that the movies started to become more PG-13 and they were trying to reach all these audiences. If you don’t have a strong filmmaker or point of view, I started realizing as an actor you find yourself in something by committee. At first you go in and everyone says the right things, but then they’re testing and looking and you can’t say this. It’s not an enjoyable experience so I was like, “I want to go back and just really do things that I’m excited about, that are interesting.”

And fortunately these are the things that have come to me that I’ve been able to say yes to, so I’m excited to be doing things that are challenging in a different way, and more importantly to be working with a filmmaker like Craig and Mel and a showrunner like [True Detective‘s Nic] Pizzolato who are really strong, know what they want, great collaborators, and in Craig’s case just completely original.

Both of you view this movie to a certain extent as filling a gap in the marketplace and in the cinematic landscape. You mentioned Death Wish and things like that. Why do you think that people don’t make movies like that anymore? Maybe that’s a long answer.

Zahler: It’s a potentially we-won’t-make-the-screening answer, but the bottom line is fear. So at this point I’ve sold or had optioned 27 pieces in Hollywood. You haven’t seen any of these movies. They read them, and they love them and I get fan emails from, you know, like the A-list actors, A-list directors. And they go on and on and then they go make manure. And a lot of what the problem is they’re hunting the largest possible audience at all times, so the stuff I write, which if you’ve just seen the two movies or if you’ve seen these movies and read my books, I’m not seeking that.

I’m writing to my taste, period, and I want people to like it. It’s enjoyable when I hear that people like it and I enjoy the compliments but it’s not what I’m seeking. I’m seeking self-satisfaction first. I’d like the people who work with me to be happy with the piece. I’d like for it to lead to my next piece, which is definitely the case here as we just wrapped our next movie together on Tuesday…

I’m not hunting that other sort of thing. And then the other thing that causes fear, which is the one-word answer to your question, is: it’s unlike other things. And so if it’s unlike other things you have no idea whether it’s going to be successful or not and most of the notes I get—because I’m not going to say every studio executive I’ve dealt with is a moron; a good chunk of them are but not all of them—and generally, the notes you’re getting from these people are how do we make it more like something else that was already successful, because that’s all that they can do.

Vaughn: I think this is something different. I think they’re looking for something that they can’t answer; like, how do you know what everyone else is going to think, to some degree, right? Like if you’re following your own thoughts… ultimately you’re probably going to end up getting more people to appreciate it because it feels authentic.

This is kind of goofy but right before I came here, totally by coincidence my friend asked me to speak at his wedding—he didn’t know I was going to be interviewing you, Vince—and I said, “So okay, what do you want?” And he was like, “I don’t know. Just do a fun, cool, Vince Vaughn kind of thing.” So do you have any tips for how to give a wedding speech?

Vaughn: If I said that I didn’t know how to do this I would be lying, and if I told you that I did I would be arrogant. So I’ve done this speech, and very successfully, many times.

At weddings you’ve attended yourself?

Vaughn: Yes. I literally have had people come up to me and say, “I could never listen to another one of these speeches.” You’ve ruined everyone else for me.


Vaughn: Yes, this was before Wedding Crashers, even.

So how do I do it? Any adjectives or touchstones?

Vaughn: You’re working in the wrong way; you’re like the studio execs that we’re talking about. You’re chasing a result and you’re wanting the sun to shine on you. I would suggest the opposite way, which is go within and think about what you want to say about the person, and how you want to frame it. That will lead you to your answer.

Zahler: Or talk about their genitals; you can go that way.

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