Argylle – A razor-witted, reality-bending, globe-encircling spy thriller

American actor and screenwriter Jason Fuchs is the mind and words behind some big name productions, namely Ice Age: Continental Drift, Wonder Woman, Pan and I Still See You

“My advice for aspiring writers is write, write, write. Always be writing. Work harder than the next guy, but be a generally decent human. Far more than my talent, the keys to my very limited success have been temperament and hard work. As a writer, you have to have the ability to be punched in the face repeatedly and come back for more with a smile on your face. It requires tremendous resilience. Every success I’ve had in the business has been the result of a lot of failure. Pan is a great example. I’ve had as much if not more rejection than anybody in the history of the business, but I’ve been able to push back, get up and keep going.”

Jason Fuchs

Their screenplay was a major meta-shift, a fictional version of the real-life author about a reclusive spy novelist who gets catapulted into real-world espionage when the plots of her books get a little too close to the activities of a nefarious spy.

“My primary motivation is to craft a compelling narrative,” Mathhew Vaugh. “I don’t aim to reinvent the genre, but to provide a fresh perspective. I direct as if I were an audience member, thinking about what I would like to see or what unexpected elements I can incorporate to keep it feeling new.”

Early in the scripting process, Vaughn and Fuchs decided that the film would fuse the real world, in which Elly Conway is on the run with Aidan, and the world she created, in which Argylle, the unstoppable secret agent, holds sway. As the danger for Elly escalates, the lines between her imaginary world and the real one blur with increasing speed and frequency. As a result, the audience is catapulted into a cinematic rocket ride where convention and expectation are constantly upended.

“I prefer movies that provide escapism, a combination of glamour and grit,” Vaughn says. “For me, beauty is essential. When I used to watch Bond movies as a kid, I felt I was on an adventure—going places I had never gone and seeing people I had never seen. It was an astonishing feeling and I have tried to recreate that type of feeling with this film.”

The greater the spy, the bigger the lie. Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) the reclusive author of a series of best-selling espionage novels, whose idea of bliss is a night at home with her computer and her cat, Alfie. But when the plots of Elly’s fictional books—which center on secret agent Argylle and his mission to unravel a global spy syndicate—begin to mirror the covert actions of a real-life spy organization, quiet evenings at home become a thing of the past. She’s accompanied by Aidan, a cat-allergic spy (Sam Rockwell), Elly (carrying Alfie in her backpack) races across the world to stay one step ahead of the killers as the line between Elly’s fictional world and her real one begins to blur. Elly’s imagined book characters agent are Argylle (Henry Cavill), best friend Wyatt (John Cena), their fearless field tech, Keira (Ariana Debose), Fowler, a senior member of agent Argylle’s organization (Richard E. Grant) , and Argylle’s elegant, lethal nemesis Lagrange (Dua Lipa). The film’s real-world characters are Ritter, the director of the evil spy organization known as The Division (Bryan Cranston), Elly’s mother, Ruth (Catherine O’hara), Saba Al-Badr, the mysterious “Keeper of Secrets (Sofia Boutella), former CIA deputy director Alfred Solomon (Samuel L. Jackson), Alfie is played by Chip, the real-life cat of supermodel Claudia Vaughn (née Schiffer).

In 2020, with the world in lockdown, visionary filmmaker Matthew Vaughn—the director and producer of The Kingsman films, Kick-Ass, Stardust and Layer Cake, and the producer of Snatch; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Rocketman and Tetris— sat down at his home outside London and decided to stage a film-appreciation class for his wife, Claudia Vaughn (née Schiffer), and their two daughters, who were around 10 and 15 years old at the time. “Because it was lockdown, it gave me license to keep screening movies for them to watch,” Vaughn says. He showed them movies such as John Hughes’ 1986 high school comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but it was the 1984 Robert Zemeckis comedy-adventure Romancing the Stone, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, which made the biggest impression on them. “It played like gangbusters,” Vaughn says.

He then screened Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic North by Northwest for them, in which an ordinary man (albeit one who looks like Cary Grant) gets swept up in an extraordinary, espionage-tinged adventure. His girls went crazy for it. “And I thought, ‘I want to make a movie like that for my daughters,’” Vaughn says.

As it turned out, the answer—or rather, the genesis of one—would soon land on his desk in the form of a manuscript for an unpublished spy novel by an unknown author. Elly Conway’s book, Argylle, was, Vaughn says, the best spy thriller he had ever read. But the structure of the novel was straightforward, focused on a young secret agent named Argylle, and Vaughn is not a straightforward filmmaker. Throughout his career, Vaughn has used source material as a cliff from which he can make daring, often breathtaking, creative and narrative leaps, and Argylle would be no exception.

Far from a traditional adaptation, the film of Argylle would use the world and characters of the book as inspiration only, functioning as a springboard for an entirely new, original film.

L to R: Sam Rockwell as Aiden and Bryce Dallas Howard is Elly Conway in ARGYLLE. © Universal Pictures / All rights reserved

Fuchs and Vaughn collaborated closely, and at all hours, to make sure that every aspect of the script was as sharp, unexpected, witty and thrilling as possible.

“What I admire about Matthew’s approach to development is his secure and confident style,” Fuchs says. “From the beginning, it was clear that the elements that excited me about the story were the same things that excited him. Our notes and the development process flowed organically. Matthew’s fearlessness as a storyteller encouraged me to take bolder and unconventional paths, even if it pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

Out of the comfort zone is exactly where Vaughn thrives, and where he loves to transport audiences – as he’s done as director and producer of The Kingsman films, Kick-Ass, Stardust and Layer Cake, and the producer of Snatch; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Rocketman and Tetris.

“The cinema remains one of the last places where we, as a society, can connect on a deeply human level,” Vaughn says. “It’s a place where we can come together and experience the rollercoaster of emotions, the highs and lows, as a collective. This film, in particular, was made for the big screen. It’s grand and filled with unexpected moments you won’t see coming. When you’re in a theater, surrounded by fellow audience members, and those moments hit, the reactions create an unforgettable experience. It’s more fun, more immersive. It is pure escapism, something we all need in a world that is not always sunny. A little ray of sunshine, even in a dark room, is a good idea.”

Although Vaughn had made a series of spy thrillers with the two Kingsman movies and their prequel, The King’s Man, he was drawn to the chance to embrace a new world of spies and double-crosses, and a completely new tone. “There’s a fantasy world of spies that I’ve been portraying in many movies for years,” says Vaughn. “The joke here is that this is the real world, and Aidan and Elly are normal, accessible people.”

Dua Lipa and Henry Cavill in ARGYLLE. © Universal Pictures / All rights reserved

Novelist by day, cat mom by night, Bryce Dallas Howard was immediately wowed by the screenplay. “This is a spy thriller like you’ve never seen before, and I couldn’t believe it when I was reading it,” Howard says. “I thought, ‘I think I can play this character.’ And then I thought, ‘Wait, I think I am this character.’ As a 40-year-old woman, it’s not every day you get a part like this sent your way. It feels like a small miracle, so empowering and satisfying and fun. It is the best script I have ever read and the best part I have ever gotten to play.”

In every way that Elly Conway’s imaginary secret agent, Argylle, is smooth and confident, real-life secret agent Aidan.

Sam Rockwell as Aiden, Alfie, Bryce Dallas Howard is Elly Conway in ARGYLLE. © Universal Pictures / All rights reserved

Rockwell was happy to dive into Aidan’s world head-first. “I was very excited by the first read of the script,” Rockwell says. “We added a kind of Han Solo humor to Aidan. He is an amalgam of anti-heroes I have watched over the years, including Bill Murray, Jack Nicholson, Richard Pryor and even Mercutio. He pretends to be a bit of a cad, but he’s just posing as Mercutio. He is really Romeo at heart.”

All that analysis came in handy on set and forged a bond between Rockwell and Vaughn. “We connected as nerdy cinephiles, trading references back and forth,” Rockwell says. “Then, on set, Matthew would say, ‘More Bill Murray,’ or ‘More Jack Nicholson,’ which was this shorthand from the movies we’d been talking about.” Rockwell also appreciated Vaughn’s willingness to think about the characters, and the casting of those characters, in unconventional ways. “Matthew’s casting is so punk rock,” Rockwell says. “He’s willing to take a chance, to go outside the box—which is probably why I was there.” 

As the leader of a sinister rogue spy organization known as The Division, Bryan Cranston, was equally captivated by Fuchs’ screenplay. “Matthew had incredible confidence in Jason Fuchs’ work, and when I read the script, I was blown away by the audacity of the plot, but I was also thoroughly entertained,” Cranston says. “On set whenever anyone questioned a line or description in the script, Matthew would yell out, ‘Fuchs!’ The similarity to a ubiquitous expletive made me laugh every time!”

Cranston contributed a personal element to the script in the scene where Ritter is introduced, in memorable fashion, talking about his beloved shotgun, Clementine. “I remembered the stories of my grandfather having this shotgun that was a family heirloom. It was old and probably would implode if fired,” says Cranston. “But I threw out the idea that Ritter named his shotgun after his mother, Clementine. It is our version of Rosebud, an homage, if you will. The shotgun is particularly important to him – and it worked!”

As Elly Conway’s long-suffering mother and de facto book editor Catherine O’Hara loved how the film’s tone and the audience’s expectations of the characters keep shifting and evolving through the screenplay. “Every twenty pages another anvil drops,” O’Hara says. “It’s really exciting, and I couldn’t stop reading.”

Handsome, charming, with a flattop haircut, Argylle is, as imagined by Elly Conway in her novels, a world-class spy who will stop at nothing to bring justice to those who deserve it. He is the epitome of espionage cool and director Matthew Vaughn needed to cast an actor who would be convincingly chivalrous, noble, larger-than-life and able to deliver both the dramatic and action demands of the role.

There was only one choice: Henry Cavill, reteaming with Vaughn for the first time since Stardust

Henry Cavill is Agent Argylle in ARGYLLE. © Universal Pictures / All rights reserved

“Matthew is a great storyteller,” says Henry Cavill, “He knows what he wants and his eye for detail is extraordinary. He and I have a great shorthand; we’ve known each other for years and he always brings a sense of unique fun to anything he’s working on. He’s a good, straightforward communicator, and as an actor, that’s what I need. At the end of the day, it’s about trusting your director and leader, and Matthew is someone you can trust.”

Once Cavill read the film’s script, he realized that the story was different from anything he’d read before. “It was unique in its own space,” Cavill says. “It was refreshing to see something new, bold and willing to take risks. There is a tendency these days for a good product to come out and then, for the next ten years, everything is just like that product, but not quite. Matthew’s projects are never like that. Argylle is about as far from generic as you can get.”

From conception, the look and style of director Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle was as integral and essential as the film’s characters and plot.“I firmly believe in branding, and when it came to the movie, I looked into what Argylle signified,” Vaughn says.

“It was an old word referring to a gravy boat, which didn’t quite fit what we wanted to convey. So, we decided to redefine and modernize the Argylle brand. We wanted it to be cool, pop-y and the first thing that comes to mind when you see the argyle pattern anywhere in the world. We have integrated this pattern throughout the film, creating a vibrant, bold and colorful visual identity for Argylle. In my view, Kingsman is a quieter, more elegant brand, while Argylle is exuberant and daring. These two universes balance each other out. We now have these two distinct brands, each with its own character and appeal. Perhaps one day they will intersect, but for now, they remain distinct and far apart.”

Throughout the production of Argylle, production designers Daniel Taylor and Russell De Rozario employed a dynamic collaboration.

L to R: Henry Cavill, Dua Lipa, and John Cena in ARGYLLE, © Universal Pictures / All rights reserved

Music in the films of Matthew Vaughn is as important and integral as plot, character and design.

From the score to the soundtrack, every musical element serves the storytelling, narratively and emotionally. Never has this been truer than it is for the exuberant, daring and thrilling musical landscape of Argylle.

“To capture a ‘feel good’ feeling for this film, I turned to the most feel-good music I could think of, which, for me, is disco,” Vaughn says. “It’s the kind of music that, whenever it’s played, is almost impossible not to make you smile and tap your feet. We have incorporated a range of disco tracks into the film, including classics and even an original disco piece that truly captures the essence of the era.”

With Argylle, Vaughn was keen to craft a screen romance that fizzed with banter and chemistry, redolent of those movies he had watched with his wife and daughters during lockdown. As Elly Conway and Aidan go on the run, they find themselves slowly drawn together, in spite of all the danger. “It is a love story deep down,” Vaughn says. “It’s a weird one, but it is one.”

And as their relationship deepens, one song in particular becomes increasingly important to them and their story. “We needed a love song that we would play three times, and the meaning would change each time,” Vaughn says. Vaughn tried multiple tracks, but in the end the song he went with is a little piece of music history all by itself. At the heart of Argylle’s soundtrack and score is the just released new, and final, song from The Beatles, “Now and Then.” At the time Vaughn heard it, it was unreleased. Argylle will mark its cinematic debut, and the song’s very existence is something of a miracle.

Argylle’s innovative approach to music and storytelling promises a spy thriller unlike any other.

Henry Cavill, Matthew Vaughn, Bryce Dallas Howard, Chip the Cat and Claudia Schiffer attend a special ARGYLLE experience presented by Universal Pictures, Apple Original Films and MARV on January 22, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Antony Jones/Getty Images for Universal Pictures, Apple Original Films, and MARV)