Jeff Wadlow on Kick-Ass 2, sequels and 15 ratings
The writer and director of Kick-Ass 2 chats to us about its making, and getting a 15 certificate in the UK...
NB: This interview contains a bit of swearing.
It’s after eight on an autumn evening at Pinewood Studios, and another hard day’s filming has just finished on the set of Kick-Ass 2. As the dozens of extras exit the sound stage, we take a look around at the oppulent space around us for the first time; this is the lair of Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s villain, and as you might expect from a young, slightly sociopathic comic book villain, it’s packed full of expensive cars, arcade machines, plush furniture, a bar, and somewhat incongruously (if you haven’t read Mark Millar’s source comic), there’s a gigantic water tank with a dead shark in it.
It was in this huge, extravagant setting that writer and director Jeff Wadlow spared some time to give us a round-table interview about Kick-Ass 2 late last year. If the day’s shooting had left him drained, he showed no sign of it with us, as he talked enthusiastically about the process of adapting the comic for the screen, getting the film made on a relatively lean budget, and ensuring his potentially violent, anarchic film gains a 15 rating from the BBFC.
We join Mr Wadlow as he talks about the balancing act that is his job as a movie director...
Jeff Wadlow: You feel like, what do I want to see at this moment in the movie? What am I feeling right now? It's such a difficult job, because you have all of these people on one side saying, "You've this amount of time, you've this amount of money." They want to budget and plan to everything down to the micro detail, and you have to engage in that, because that's your job - or my job as a director. It's a responsible way to be a director unless you're Terence Malick or Oliver Stone, and in which case, who gives a fuck. But at this point in my career, that's what I have to do.
At the same time, I have to be willing to turn to them and say, "It doesn't matter. It's not right. We need this shot, we've got to do it this way, the way we'd planned on it isn't working. I'm not feeling it. The actors aren't feeling it. You have to allow yourself to be completely intuitive and creative in that moment.
Then you have the actors on the other side other equation. They're like, "I don't know if my character would do this right now. I'm not feeling this." You have to engage in a purely creative conversation, too, so it's that balancing act that truly defines my job.
So, this fight we've been watching today. How different is the action you're conducting today different from the first movie?
It's so interesting making a sequel, especially when it's to a movie that you love. And I loved the first one. So many sequels are perceived as remakes or reboots or re-dos. I'm friends with John Chu, who just did G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and that movie was perceived by the community to be a reboot, even though it's literally a sequel - it was a chance to re-approach the property. And I think the only reason we're all here is because the first movie was so fantastic and we loved it so much.
I remember seeing it just as a fan. I didn't know Matthew or anyone else involved - I just went to the theatre and flipped out for it. So when I approach everything in the film, from the fights to the photography to the performances, I try to do it in a way that's true to what was so wonderful about the first film, but at the same time, embracing the idea that this is a new movie. We've got to push it further, and take it to new places and try different things.
To be more specific about your question, I think the first film was incredibly visceral and had great action and we loved the fights, but we want to see more people fighting in this movie. So it's about a larger group of heroes and villains engaging. I think what was fun about the first film was Hit-Girl had a very particular fighting style, which was influenced by Hong Kong fighting and wirework and that kind of work. But when you have more people fighting, you can't have them all fighting that way, because suddenly you're not in the real world. And that's why we love Kick-Ass, is because it's about superheroes in the real world, apart from Hit-Girl.
So we're seeing all these people fighting, and they can't fight that way - they're fighting like real people. We embrace more of a brawl style, like a street fight. The Warriors is a big touchstone for this movie. I want to see a much more visceral, pound-and-ground kind of style, that is less heightened, ultimately, because we save all the heightened fighting for Mindy and Mother Russia.
Is that why there are no guns?
Superheroes don't really have guns. I mean, you look at The Punisher and Hit-Girl, and Big Daddy were packing, but I think these superheroes are more like Kick-Ass, and Dave Lezewsky's ideal of what a superhero is. Batman is just a normal guy, and he didn't have a gun. Certainly, Superman and Spider-Man don't have guns, and those are the superheroes that Dave idolises.
I think it's pretty clear in the comic book, the first film and certainly in the sequel, it's Dave that inspires the superhero movement, it's not Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. So if people are inspired to put on capes and masks and be superheroes, at least in my mind, that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to buy handguns and shotguns. Because if you pursue that line of thought, Dave should be wearing a flak jacket and ski mask, not a green wet suit.
Given how much of a passion project the first film was for Matthew Vaughn, what did you have to do in order for him to trust you with the sequel?
It transpired in an interesting way. I wrote a spec [script] based on a Valiant comic character named Bloodshot, and I was working with Neal Moritz on it. Actually, it was just a pitch. I pitched it to Matthew, and he really liked it, and so then I went and wrote it. He read it, and rang me up and said, "Wow, you wrote what you pitched." I was like, "Yeah." He said, "I haven't worked with many people who do what they say they're going to do."
I said, "I don't know what to tell you. That's how I work." He said, "Would you be interested in writing Kick-Ass 2?" I said no. He said, "Would you be interested in writing and directing it?" And I said, "Yeah, that's something I'd be interested in!" [Laughs]
Nothing happened for a couple of months. We talked a little bit, but he got really busy with X-Men. I was thinking about how much I liked the first movie. The comics: the first issue had come out, and I got sent Mark's scripts for subsequent issues. I started thinking about it a lot, and got really excited about not only the story that Mark was writing, and I had some thoughts about the second movie, and I just wrote it.
I didn't have a deal or a contract yet at that point, but I just wrote the script and sent it to him. By the way, I'm not sure how widely this should be reported, because then suddenly Matthew's going to get a hundred scripts for Kick-Ass 3. But I just wrote it and sent it to him. And he was like, "Wow, you wrote it."
We had a lot of conversations. "I thought you might wait until you had an outline or a contract or something." I was like, I had six weeks down over the holidays, so I just took a stab at it. He read it and said, "It's really good. I think we should make it." So we did a deal and here we are.
Did you have to reign things in? This scene here occurs in Times Square in the comic. Did you have Times Square in the first draft?
Times Square was in the first draft, yes. I've obviously directed films before, and I knew that was a long shot, but I'd been talking to Matthew's production team, and they were saying, "No, we have an idea of how Times Square could maybe work." You know, in a parking lot with some set extensions. But as we got into the realities of production, we just had to get real. There was always an evil lair scene, because it's in Mark's comic, but it just seemed like too fantastic a location not to have the fight in it.
Also, Mark's comic is seven issues, and so structurally, a climax comes at the end of every issue. His fight scene is in something like issue five, but a movie is a three act or four act structure depending on your point of view, but obviously you're building to a big finale. You don't want to build and drop and build and drop, so it seemed like a good way to deal with the production issue of Times Square, and also to make the most of the evil lair.
Was it your idea to cast Jim Carrey?
I don’t remember specifically whose idea it was. He was definitely at the top of my first wish list. I never thought it would happen in a million years. What Matthew said to me was that Nic Cage really helped with Big Daddy. He showed up and brought all these interesting ideas, this Adam West reading of the dialogue. And from the very beginning, we both agreed we had to find someone who could do something similar.
So you read the script, and you think it should be a Clint Eastwood 15 years ago kind of guy, right? Sort of a gruff, cowboy type of a character. But that’s sort of the obvious choice, for Colonel Stars And Stripes. So we started thinking, who’s going to be the less obvious choice? And I’ve always really thought Jim Carrey was a fantastic actor, not just for his comedic timing, but because he has this intensity that I think you want from Colonel Stars And Stripes.
At the end of the day, he’s a zealot. He’s got a code - he has a gun that’s not loaded - but he’ll beat you over the head with an axe handle. He has a belief system that’s very strong. What was so amazing about Jim wasn’t just the performance he’s created, but what he brought to the story. One of my first phone calls I had with him, he’d written this creed that’s not in the script anywhere, but he’d written this creed for Justice Forever, and I turned it into this whole scene that’s part of a montage now. They’re chanting their creed around a table, and we see them making their weapons, and getting their headquarters in shape.
And so, the fact that he understood the story and the character at that level, and brought so many ideas to it, just made him the perfect choice. I’m glad that he was at the top of our list, and thrilled that he accepted.
Can you talk about the characters’ journey a bit more in this movie? Because if you don’t care about them, the action doesn’t make a difference.
Yeah. And I think that’s really true given our budget level too. Let’s be honest, we don’t have an Avengers-sized budget, so we’re never going to outdo them when it comes to action. So for me, it’s all about the characters. That’s why I got so excited about the movie and wanted to write it, even without a deal, because I had some ideas about their journey.
For me, the first film was about creating an alter-ego; this movie is about figuring out who you really are. There’s this great wish fulfilment element to superhero movies, where you think you could be that person. What I think is exciting is to take these characters and say, okay, you’ve created these alter-egoes, but who are you really, and how are you going to define who Dave Lezewski is, and Mindy McCready, and Chris D’Amico?
I think we do that in our own lives, often, through the company we keep. So this movie’s about these three characters splitting off and associating with different groups, and finding out who they really are. And they only realise who they really are when they come together in this final conflict, and we define who they are in their souls - and that, actually, culminates in a scene where there’s a conversation about the merits of good versus evil. I know that sounds very philosophical, but they do it in a very Kick-Ass sort of way.
How do you feel when you walk into these amazing sets?
They’re just fantastic. Russell De Rosario, the production designer, is just a mad genius. And that means a lot coming from me, because my other two films were all location based. Cry Wolf had no sets, we were all on location. It was a million-dollar movie. On Never Back Down, we had an apartment set and a warehouse, but other than that, it was a location-based movie.
I was really skeptical about shooting for eight weeks on a studio lot. As excited as I am to be here at Pinewood, for all the film geek reasons, I was not that excited about being on sound stages. I thought it would be very theatrical, a bit of a put-on, and wouldn’t have the texture that a real space has. And the reason why I love shooting in real locations is because of the depth and the detail.
Russell’s given me all of that in spades. In fact, I might not ever want to shoot a movie on location, because now I’ve seen what someone with imagination can do with not a lot of resources, and I think it’s truly mind blowing.
Have you had to be quite creative with your budget, because the expectations are that this will be a bigger movie than the first, but made on the same money?
Interestingly enough, we actually have slightly less money, because in 2008, the first movie was made and the stock market crashed. Now the pound’s worth a lot more, so even though it’s the same budget as the first movie, but the expectations are even higher.
Fortunately, we’re working with all the same people. I’m literally the only new guy. Tim Maurice Jones, who’s the DP, did second unit [on the first film], Sammy Sheldon’s doing the costumes again, Russell’s the production designer again, even down to camera operators. We have all the same people, and they love the property, so they’ve come back to it with all the ideas, research and experiences that came from doing the first film. They’re using every tool in their toolkit to raising the bar with the same resources.
How hands on is Matthew [Vaughn]?
Matthew and I talk every day, so I’d say that creatively he’s very hands-on. But I’d say from a practical standpoint, he’s very hands-off. I think that’s to his credit - he could be very controlling and micro-managing, because let’s face it, he’s the producer, this is his franchise - an independent film he’s pulled together the financing for even though Universal’s going to release it. But he’s a filmmaker at heart, and he understands that he’s brought in a filmmaker to make this movie, and that there wouldn’t be any point in micro-managing my part of this, because he might as well do it himself. He’d be wasting everyone’s time if he did that.
So I think that, truthfully, because I wrote the script and he liked it so much, he was inspired by my enthusiasm. And I think that he’s returned the courtesy by allowing me to make the movie. That being said, I turn to him every day for advice and guidance, and he’s been a mentor, and I’m incredibly grateful.
What sort of things do you ask him about?
I’m not sure I can tell you! We talk a lot about story. Like, where the characters were coming from in the first film, where they’re going in the second film, and where they’ll go in the third. We have very lively debates, too, because even though it’s the second chapter in a story, I think it’s very important to not take for granted that people have seen or remember the first film. It amazes me how many people who’ve said, when I’ve told them I’m making Kick-Ass 2, “Oh man, I loved that movie.”
I say, “I loved it too, and I’m excited to be making the sequel,” and then they ask, “Is Big Daddy coming back?” And I’m like, “He died. You remember, right? He died.” And they say, “Oh yeah. I forgot, I forgot.” [Laughs]
So if they’re people who say they loved the first movie, and they don’t remember that Nicolas Cage died in it, you’ve got to assume that they’re not coming to this movie knowing exactly what happened in the final scene of the first film. Matthew lived and breathed that first film, and he’d say very early on, “Chris [Mintz-Plasse] has got to have that mask he wore in the first film.” And I’d say to him, “Nobody’s going to remember that mask”.
And more importantly, we’re saying that time has passed. If the second film begins literally where the first one ended, why is it two years later? We have to create a stall, and explain why this movie is happening now. And he embraced that philosophy, and that’s why we get to have The Mother Fucker, an entirely new identity for Chris, and a new costume.
Speaking of costumes, there’s a slight fetish vibe going on. Is this a kinkier Kick-Ass we’re seeing?
I don’t know. I think the whole superhero thing’s sort of a fetish thing, right? Dave puts on a green wetsuit and goes out at night. It all leads into the wish fulfilment, fantasy aspect of wanting to be someone else, and whether you want to be a superhero or cross-dressing, there’s similarities between the two. One of the ways I got Chris into his Mother Fucker alter-ego, and answered the question, “Why now”, was because I dug into who he is and what his relationships are like not only with his father, which we’re fairly familiar with from the first film, but what his relationship’s like with his mother, which is a big part of how he becomes The Mother Fucker. These two relationships very tragically form his alter-ego.
The first film stuck closely to the comics, with the exception of the girlfriend, which wasn’t in the movie.
And the jetpack - that wasn’t in the comic.
Did you find, as you wrote this, there were conceptual changes you had to make from the comic book because they maybe wouldn’t work as well in a feature film?
What I did in my process for this was, I was making a sequel to a film, but adapting a comic book that was a sequel to a comic book where the movie had already taken some departures, right? And I actually think there’s even more than you mentioned, but it’s loyal to it, but there are pretty radical departures in other areas. I had to find a way to make a cross-section between the first movie and the second series of the comic book, which would become the second movie. So my process was, I literally took Mark [Millar’s] scripts, and turned them into a screenplay.
I just adapted the comic book at first, and ignored the movie. Then I sat down and watched the movie five times back to back, just over two days, and completely absorbed it. I watched it over and over again, and listened to bits of dialogue and got their voices. Then I take that script, and did a page-one rewrite on it. I wrote it as quickly as I could as a sequel to the movie, and that was the draft I sent to Matthew.
So to get to your question about changes from the comics, that just happened organically, as I thought about what the sequel should be. But then it happened more when I spoke to Matthew and especially Mark about it, because he said you’ve got to make the best movie possible. This might be blasphemy for some of you, but he said that Watchman isn’t the best movie in the world, because it’s a literal adaptation of the comic book. So he says, don’t adapt it literally - make it a great movie. That’s better for the comic book than a literal adaptation.
There are changes that happen because of that, and changes because of production. There are changes because a movie is a different medium. Something different happens when there’s real people in front of you. For example, violence - you can have the most gory splash page in a comic and think, “Oh cool”, but when you see that kind of explicit violence on camera, it can take you out of the movie, because it’s so over the top. I think some of the most powerful violence happens off-camera. Look at Reservoir Dogs, with the cut-off ear - that happens out of the frame. It’s much more chilling because you sat there meditating on it. But you can’t do that in a comic book.
So it’s about making the best movie you can possibly make.
Do you keep the ratings board in mind as well when you’re doing this?
Yeah, unfortunately, because I have to. We have to get a 15 certificate, I think, here. I mean, I know the American system very well, and this will get an R no problem. On my other two movies, I had to get PG-13s - and one was a slasher movie and the other was about teenagers who fight for fun, which, on content alone, those should have gotten Rs. But I was able to get PG-13s because I know how to really thread the needle when dealing with certainly the American ratings board.
We have no problem in America - it’ll get an R, done. The 15-18 thing, I’m still navigating. I’ve asked for a lot of research for films that are 15 and films that are 18, and I actually think Kick-Ass is a pretty significant case study for an ultra-violent film that got a 15.
Especially when it came to language.
With language, too. So I’m navigating that, still. We’re gonna get a 15. I also, because of my experience on the other two films, have ways of shooting a scene, so we have options in post [production], and can cut around things.
As you said, you liked the first film. Is there a lot of pressure in following up on that?
I mean, yes and no. I sort of feel like yes, now that you’ve mentioned it. [Laughs] Thanks for noticing that. I do feel like there’s a lot of pressure, but I actually feel like, having written the script, and having got an overwhelmingly positive response to the script, that was really empowering for me. I can say, “Okay, I know what I’m doing. I can make the film that I want to make, that people are going to embrace.”
When the idea of a sequel was first floated, I heard back from lots of reps for different actors - and I’m not going to name any names - saying it’s not going to happen in a million years. But then once the script got out and Matthew made some calls, everyone got on board. That gave me the feeling like, “Okay, I’m on track and I’m going to go with my gut.”
So when will you be satisfied?
Never. [Laughs] Honestly, that is the problem with filmmaking, too. I think George Lucas had an amazing quote, which was something like “You never finish a film, you just abandon it.” I’m always going to be pushing, trying to make it better. I’m always going to be fighting with the producers, to make it better, make it more, more, more. Give us more time with these characters we love, don’t tell me to stop shooting.
That’s just my job - to push, push, push, push, until we’re out of time, money, and I’m exhausted.
How have you found the jump from million dollar movies to 30 million dollar movies?
My first one was a million - it may have been 1.5 for some additional photography. And then Never Back Down was about 20. I don’t know the exact budget on this, but it’s more than that; it’s the same as the first one. I mean, you never have time or enough money.
Is it a bigger crew than you’ve managed before.
On Never Back Down we had four camera teams, so I like a big crew and a big production. Even Cry Wolf, which was a million dollar movie, still had a big cast, exteriors. I’m always going up, pushing. At film school, they gave us a list of rules for our thesis film: no live animals, no firearms - and I broke every one of them. And I actually think that’s why I won the Chrysler Contest, and why I got the million dollars to make the movie - because I broke every rule I could, and basically, it wasn’t a fair race, because I broke all the rules, so the stuff I was doing looked and came across better.
How have you got on with Aaron and Chloe? They weren’t very well known when Kick-Ass came out, and now they’re big stars.
Oh, they’re such prima donnas. [Laughs] I get along with them great. I don’t know, you talked to them - maybe they had a different answer about me, but I love them. I absolutely love them.
What sort of conversations did you have with them about developing their characters?
Aaron is just so amazing, because he has no ego about the character he’s playing. So many actors, based on things I’ve read, but even my own experience, they come to a character thinking, “Well, how am I going to look? How am I going to come across? How will the audience feel about me?”
Whereas Aaron takes the approach of a filmmaker. He looks at the story we’re telling, and it’s not about how he looks or how he’s going to come across. He’s all about, where’s Dave in this story? What part of the journey are we on? He wants the lamest Tennis shoes for Dave, because Dave doesn’t have money, and Dave isn’t into cool sneakers. He gets it. And I’ve so much respect for him for that reason. To be a guy in his early 20s who’s a hot young actor, to approach a defining role with that kind of attitude, as a storyteller first, is really admirable.
Chloe is the same. She understands that she created this character with her first performance - it’s an icon. Not just an icon for teenage girls, but a feminist icon in many ways. She gets it, she understands the responsibility that comes with it. But she understands that the movies have got to be fun - that’s the most important thing at the end of the day. So I’ve loved working with them, and I think the fact that they have their own stories in this film, and then come back together at the end, is also great for them, because they get to play different things with different actors, and go on these separate journeys until they meet up again in the third act.
Jeff Wadlow, thank you very much.
Kick-Ass 2 is out on the 14th August in the UK.
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