Hollywood superstar Vince Vaughn has one regret about his documentary Art Of Conflict, the story of the Troubles told through the street wall murals of Belfast and Londonderry: David Ervine didn't live to see it.
The former PUP leader died shortly after filming an interview for the documentary, available online through Netflix from June 1.
"We interviewed David in-depth and grew very fond of him," says Vaughn, down a phone line from LA. "He was a very warm guy and really helpful to us. We were so fortunate to have him in the film -- it was one of the last interviews he ever did. It's a real shame he never saw it. I'm sure he would have been happy it's opening up to a much wider audience now on Netflix."
Seven years on from when filming began and six from Ervine's death in January 2007, Vaughn remains eager to promote what became for him a labour of love.
It's a bit of a thrill to chat to him; he's been one of my favourite comedy actors since he appeared on the hilarious Swingers with his friend John Favreau in 1996.
He has the same nasally drawl over the phone as he has on screen, and although he has packed a few pounds onto his six-foot-five frame since Swingers, he's still easy on the eye in recent films like Couples Retreat and Wedding Crashers. Jennifer Aniston affectionately referred to him as the “defibrillator” who eased her heartbreak over Brad Pitt, after pictures appeared of her cupping and kissing Vaughn's big friendly face off-set while the two of them were making The Break Up. I can hear the warmth and humour in his voice that must have won over Aniston (his nickname is Mr Sunshine), but he's professionally detached in his narration of the Art of Conflict.
Given his huge charisma and star power, Art of Conflict would have benefited from Vaughn asking questions and viewing the murals in front of the camera instead of behind, but he had other ideas.
“I was very much there behind the scenes but I wanted to let the story unfold through the murals themselves,” he says in quite a high-pitched Midwestern accent.
“I didn't want to get in the way of the story. The imagery is so strong — I was blown away by this street art when I first saw it. Once you ask the question, why did they draw this and what does it represent, you learn something about the conflict from both sides so vividly, you learn what plastic bullets and Semtex bombs did to these communities.”
The 43-year-old actor, writer and producer has an Irish grandmother on one side and an Irish grandfather on the other side, mixed in with Lebanese, English, German and Italian lineage. Born in Minneapolis to salesman Vernon Vaughn and his estate agent/stockbroker wife Sharon (once listed by Bloomberg magazine as one of the US’s top money managers), he has two older sisters, Victoria and Valeri. The latter, who attended a film school in London and taught school in South Central LA, directed Art of Conflict.
“We were always aware of our Irish grandparents but we have to go back and do some genealogy — I know one of my grandfathers was a hard-working Irish farmer and railroad worker but it's all a bit vague,” says Valeri, joining her brother down the line. “We were always told ‘you're Irish' so when Vince told me about these amazing murals I was really curious to come over and see for myself. There was so much to see and research and film, it was a big commitment to make but it was worth it.”
Valeri describes Vince as a funny child who was very entertaining to grow up with, and he's eternally grateful to her for taking the time over six years to work on Art of Conflict. The pair visited Northern ireland many times during the making of the documentary and have warm memories of their time here. On his first trip, Vince stayed in the Europa Hotel without knowing anything about its history.
“Yeah — it didn't say anything about all those bombings in the brochure,” he laughs. “I got recognised a lot but the people we met were so sweet and so nice. When I wasn't there for filming it wasn't so easy for the crew — people didn't know how to take them sometimes but they got the shots eventually.”
The broad Belfast accent was also problematic at times.
“When we showed the early cut at the LA festival people were saying ‘wow that accent is so thick!' I understand it better now than we did in the beginning. Same with the whole story — I was aware of the conflict over there but I didn't really understand what was going on. Now we're getting all this great feedback from people who have watched the film and for the first time they've gained some understanding about Northern Ireland.”
Although he didn't get to have a pint with David Ervine, Vaughn did get to try some Guinness and enjoyed an Ulster fry or two when he was here. He found our roads less scary than the Republic's “highways”.
“I was driving along all these country roads on the wrong side and I was a bit nervous when a truck would come along,” he recalls, amused at the memory. “You'd see all these blackspot signs that tell you things like ‘18 people have been killed on this road this year’ — it was kinda intimidating but when we landed over the border and started to explore, I was blown away by all these murals. I didn't know this art form existed and I was really moved by it.”
He has compared the murals to blues music, another art form that arose from pain and conflict. I tell him that growing up I used to find the murals scary and wonder if he didn't find any in bad taste.
“Well I know they arose from extreme conflict and represent extreme points of view but I think they’re mind-blowing. I’ve been talking about those murals to everyone for years.
“I was intrigued by the art so I started to investigate the murals. It’s something we worked on for a long time. We had so much footage and so many stories. There were so many people to track down. And you also have to structure the film in a way that explains what is happening for someone who knows nothing about this stuff. But when it's something that you like doing, then hard work is fun.”
Art of Conflict features an impressive cast of NI artists, academics and politicians, including Gerry Adams, Bill Rolston, Jonathon McCormick, Belfast's Exposed's Pauline Haddaway, muralist and former republican prisoner Danny Devenny, and Mark Ervine, son of the late David, who paints loyalist murals. Danny and Mark are interviewed separately about their work and also together, on their collaboration for their depiction of Picasso's famous anti-war image, Guernica.
Black Taxi Tours driver Paddy Kane gives good, concise potted histories. In one particularly moving scene, he brushes away a tear at the memorial to the victims of the McGurk's bar bombing. His brother was among the victims.
Says Vaughn: “Paddy was great. He made a wonderful contribution to the film. I found so much of the footage so moving — the murals of Bloody Friday, Bloody Sunday and all the children that have been killed, especially by plastic bullets. History is very different for the two sides. Also some are so witty. I like the one of the Mona Lisa on the Shankill Road (laughs).”
Vaughn hired Dan Lebental, an editor best known for his work on the much-loved Will Ferrell film Elf and the Iron Man movies, to put a structure on the documentary. Lebental “really fell in love” with the project and it featured at last year's Galway Film Fleadh and at the Denver Film Festival, where Vaughn received the 2012 John Cassavetes Award, a prestigious accolade in honour of the acclaimed actor and director.
It was a welcome industry nod after all the time Vaughn put into Art Of Conflict and a string of hit films over the last decade. The only time he has taken off in recent years was in 2008, when he married fresh-faced brunette Kyla Weber, a Canadian estate agent (the same nationality and profession as his mother), and in 2010,
when their daughter Locklyn was born — they don't have a nanny. They're expecting another child in August.
As Vaughn told Ellen De Generes: “I met the best girl in the world. It gives you such a great purpose in life. If I had met her before, I would've had kids a long time ago. So I'm very, very happy.”
Vaughn isn't your typical US Republican but he has stated his belief in laissez-faire government: “A government can’t create freedom and equality by using force. My feeling is that governments have gotten so protective throughout the world. A lot of times its very well intentioned. But there are always unintended consequences when a government starts interfering with individual freedoms.”
He has turned down roles in the recent spate of super hero films to work with his friend Owen Wilson and Bridesmaids star Rose Byrne in the upcoming comedy The Internship, playing a salesman whose career has been killed off by the digital age but who lands a coveted internship at Google where he and Wilson must compete with a group of young, hip techies for a shot at employment.
The Internship will earn him a lot more than Art of Conflict, for which he took a colossal pay cut — he earned $20m for Fred Claus in 2007 and in 2008 he topped the Forbes list of actors who give movie studios the best return on their investment, with his films earning $14.75 for every $1 dollar he is paid. But there's much more to Vince Anthony Vaughn than comedy. He has said that if he only ever did the same kind of comedies, he would feel like “a hamster on a wheel”.
“Making a documentary like Art of Conflict was a big challenge for us,” he concludes before he reluctantly lets his Hollywood PR woman interrupt for the second time to cut him off. “We came in as outsiders and it took us a long time, and it only really scratches the surface of your history over there, but I hope it helps convey what those fascinating murals are all about. I really am delighted more of you guys and people all over the world are gonna get a chance to see it.”
Behind the scenes
* Vince's dad, Vernon Vaughn, can be seen as the man sitting at the "$100 minimum bet table" in the movie Swingers (right) (1996).
* Because he did not have an exemplary grade in school, he became the president of his senior class at Lake Forest High School (1988). He knew that if he were the president, he would speak at graduation. If he had to speak at graduation, then the school would have to let him graduate.
* He lost a part of his thumb in a car crash.
* Vaughn does not like mobile phones and does not own one. When he's working on a movie he is given one and usually loses it.
* He was considered for the role of Chandler on Friends.
* His favourite films are: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Tender Mercies (1983), The Bad News Bears (1976), Terms of Endearment (1983), Urban Cowboy (1980), Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Paper Moon (1973).