Mark Millar on Kick-Ass 2, C-words, Wanted 2 and more
Ahead of this summer’s Kick-Ass 2, we spoke to producer and comic-book writer Mark Millar about sequels, C-words and more...
NB: This interview contains several naughty words. We should also point out that this interview took place last autumn, and it's since been revealed that Kristen Stewart is out of the running for Wanted 2.
A sleeper hit in cinemas and hugely successful on DVD, Kick-Ass was an anarchic, blackly comic take on the superhero movie. Three years later, and the sequel’s almost finished, while in the intervening period, its trio of young stars - Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, have continued to rise in stature. So too has comic book writer Mark Millar, who’s been fortunate enough to see two of his stories - Wanted and Kick-Ass - adapted into hit films so far.
And with adaptations of Nemesis and Secret Service underway, his particular brand of comic book writing looks set to appear on screens for years to come. So with Kick-Ass 2 out this month, we were pleased to be able to sit with Millar and enjoy a lively round table discussion about the origins of Kick-Ass, what we can expect from the movie sequel, and why it should end with a third movie...
The second Kick-Ass book, you actually knew it would be a film. Did that alter the way you wrote it?
I actually never think about it. I never think of how an actor would say the lines or anything like that. Because the minute you try to second-guess a movie, you do a shit comic. You see it all the time, people thinking, “What would work in a film?” You’ve got to think about your primary audience. You’ve got to think about the comics, or you should just bugger off and be a screenwriter.
I’m quite lucky that my style is quite cinematic, so it lends itself quite well; I tend to follow a three act structure, and I even think of the sequentials in a way that’s very linear. There are scenes [in the comic] that are almost as the movie is in the story art. So it’s a really, easy, literal translation, usually. It’s not like Alan Moore, who tends to write in 12-act structures, which doesn’t tend to lend itself really well to movies, it lends itself better to television. But I’ve always been a big fan of cinema, and I guess, subconsciously, I structure things in the same way as movies. But coincidentally - if it stays as a comic, that’s fine by me.
How faithful an adaptation of the second book is this film?
I would say, maybe, 80 to 85 percent. Maybe more.
Because the middle of the book is incredibly dark and violent.
It’s all there. It’s all going in. Sometimes things are slightly toned down, because it’s happening to real [actors]. When you see things happen to comic characters, it’s intense, but there’s still that slight distance. But when you see real people, you have to tone it down a little bit.
I don’t know if I can do spoilers or anything, but there are a couple of little bits where the scenes are slightly tweaked, so you’re not utterly suicidal by the third act [Laughs]. Because it is quite dark. I thought, when I read it back again, “This is quite fucked up!” But when you read it with the Hit Girl book, that’s the first half of the movie, it’s a bit lighter and a bit breezier. It’s more like Mean Girls than Reservoir Dogs, you know? Then you can sort of handle it because you’ve had a bit of a laugh, so you can take the darker stuff.
But it works. Jeff [Wadlow] does what the first film did, which is contrast between light and dark, so you get a little laugh in there now and again. Tarantino does that as well, he finds that balance.
There’s no chance of this doing a Taken 2 and becoming a PG-13, then?
There’s absolutely no chance of that. [Laughs] If it does, the world has gone fucking mad. But that could happen, because the first film had the C-bomb in it, yet it was still a 15. I was thinking, how does this happen? Who did [Matthew] Vaughn pay off to make that happen? [Laughs] I couldn’t believe it. I even assumed, when I read the script, that it would get cut out. And then when I was watching the rushes - because I get the stuff streamed up to Scotland - I phoned up Matthew and said, “Why’s the C-bomb still there?” And he said, “Oh, we’ll see what happens.”
Then it was in the first cut. Then I’m sitting in a cinema watching it with all my aunts! How could this possibly get through? In the first film, it was screening in Glasgow, where they had a premiere. My family is genuinely so big that it took up the whole cinema, so we had to have another screening for non-Millars. And all these hangers-on from primary school showed up and said they’d love to come. So we had 150 relatives and 250 people I vaguely knew.
But all my aunts were sitting round me, and every time someone said “Fuck” all my aunts would [flinches]. It was so uncomfortable. And I was unaware of how much swearing there is in that first film, until I saw it with my 70-year-old aunts. One of them came up to me afterwards and said, “I just want to say, I liked the film. But it didn’t need all that bad language”. And that’s in the back of my mind when I’m writing the sequels! [Laughs]
But they didn’t mind the violence?
Nope, the violence was fine! In Scotland, are you kidding? [Laughs]
Is there anything similar to the C-bomb in the second film? Because that was such a talking point.
Yeah. Absolutely. When I was writing the comic, actually, it was in issue four of Kick-Ass 2. But there’s a line that Christopher Mintz-Plasse gets, and it’s the most horrible line. And I thought, I wonder if that’ll make it into the film? And it’s there. Christopher Mintz-Plasse says it. But there’s a great pay-off, actually, that makes it less offensive. When you see the movie, it’s cool. Chris and I spent a lot of time together on the first movie, because we were on junkets together, and after the film was made, we were touring together and things.
Chris said to me, “It was lovely having McLovin. It was a life-changing experience and everything, but...” And he does still get called McLovin wherever he goes. And it’s a shame, because on my mobile phone, I had him listed under the name McLovin! [Laughs]
My plan originally for Kick-Ass 2 was for a real big, bad-ass guy, almost like Bane. And he would have killed Chris’ character in the first act. This is what I was thinking of way back in 2008 or something. And he would have killed Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character and asserted himself as the big bad.
But then I met Chris and really liked him, so I thought, “I can’t get rid of Chris, he’s so nice.” And when Chris told me about all this stuff, I thought it would be quite fun to play with the whole McLovin thing, and because people feel safe when they see him onscreen, to make him worse than Heath Ledger, in a way. Then you’re freaked out, watching this thing. You can’t believe you’re seeing McLovin doing all this stuff.
So I said to Chris, I’m going to do something that makes people no longer think of you as McLovin. And that’s when I changed his name to The Mother Fucker. And he’s rising to the occasion. Have you guys seen any of the movie? [We say no.]
It’s funny, on the drop box, I get to see the rehearsals and things. And I saw that dog being trained to bite balls. Seriously. Originally, I wanted to be a doctor. And I was thinking, “What am I doing with my life?” It’s like, I’ve come up with this thing where there’s a guy who’s getting his balls bitten off, and there’s a dog being trained to do this in real life. What are they going to do with this dog after filming? Are they going to shoot the dog on Thursday night? [Laughs]
One of the reasons I loved the first film was because it was so brutal. And I got the impression the reason it could get away with being so brutal was because it was made outside the studio system. But this time, you’ve got all this interest and studio backing. Will that dull the edge, do you think?
No, no. Matthew’s very savvy. He’s really, really shrewd. As I always say, he’s an average-looking man married to a supermodel, so he knows what he’s doing. He’s the smartest guy you’ll ever meet in your life.
But that was my concern, when they brought Universal in on this one. And I know the Universal guys; I know the head of production, and I know he’s a good guy and loves Kick-Ass. So these are good guys, but I was still worried a little bit. But Matthew has a deal, basically, where if anybody asks a question, he can remove it and take it to another studio. So the movie will be how we all want it to be, or else we wouldn’t stay.
It’s still really independently made. There’s no Universal guys on set or anything. There is for the PR side and everything, but on the actual making of the movie, nobody’s answerable to anyone. The studios are getting a bit more like that. You get less control when a film costs $200 million or something, but when a movie costs $28 million, they almost don’t give a shit. They’ll just see if it makes any money.
I’m seeing that happen in my job at Fox as well. I just see them hiring guys they trust, and just backing the hell off and letting them get on with it. Which is kind of the way it should be. You don’t want some pencil neck coming in and telling you what to do if you’re Matthew Vaughn or James Mangold or Josh Trank or any of these guys working at Fox just now. You just want to get on with your job - you’re good enough, you don’t need somebody looking over your shoulder.
I was watching an interview on the Kick-Ass DVD, and there was a part where you said you got the idea from wondering why nobody’s ever dressed up as a superhero. Were you not aware at that point that people actually do do that?
At the time, I wasn’t. Because I think it is a recent phenomenon, I think it only really started around the middle of the last decade. So when I was writing the first Kick-Ass, I didn’t have any idea it was happening. Then, once the comics came out, some of these guys started getting in touch with me. It was, weirdly, life imitating art imitating life again. People saw the movie and were inspired to join those original guys and things. It’s mushroomed - I think there are 500 people doing it now. That’s more than there are doing it in Marvel comics.
Did you ever dress up as a superhero?
I did have a plan to do it when I was 15. A little bit old to be thinking about doing it - you should really be about 10. I think it was the stress of exams. I remember sitting doing chemistry, and thinking I’d rather be a superhero. I was working so hard, doing three hours of study a night, and my friends and I were reading Frank Miller comics. It was all this quite realistic superhero stuff. Alan Moore and Frank Miller were the gods of comics at the time.
It all looked achievable. You just thought, you just have to go to the gym for a while, and get a suit. That was the origin of Kick-Ass, really, because it was an alternative autobiography of what I could have done in real life - which is, that you’d be stabbed on your first night out. [Laughs]
You mentioned your job at Fox. Will this be you moving into the world of writing movies?
No, not at all. When Wanted came out in 2008, it cost $70 million and made $342 million, so it was half of what X-Men cost, but made X-Men money. So everybody was like, “Great, do you want to write something for us...”
Sorry, I’ve just seen tits drawn on the table. [Laughs] I’m so distracted by these...
Everybody said to me, if you’re interested in doing something, go ahead and do a screenplay. But I didn’t get into comics to get out of comics - I genuinely love comics. And I love the autonomy of comics, the fact that you don’t have to think about budget.
I’ll give you an example. In Kick-Ass 2, there’s a big fight scene, and in the comic, it breaks off into Times Square. And to justify building that huge set, you had to justify it by having the entire set take place there. I love the fact that, in comics, that’s not an issue; if you want to set something in space, you can set it in space - it’ll cost you the same as a talking heads scene.
In comics, you’re only limited by your imagination. In cinema, you’re limited by cost and decency and all these sorts of things. So I like my job of writing comics and producing some of them as movies. Somebody who’s smarter than I am, hopefully, will write the screenplay and make it work.
Is there any chance of a Wanted sequel?
Here’s what’s happening - it’s the same with Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass One came out and made $100 million on a $28 million budget, and then made $140 million on DVD and Blu-ray - Blu-ray appeared at just the right time for it, so it did great. The price ripped everybody off - it cost about $30 at the time or something - but we did really brilliantly out of it. It was a $28 million investment, $240 million return for the investors, so I knew it was happening.
Jeff Wadlow was contacted in 2010, and the screenplay was written in 2011, and the movie’s being made now for 2013. So I always tell the truth, and when people asked me about Kick-Ass 2, I said we’re working on it right now. And then nothing happens, and there’s no public announcements. Matthew will always phone me up and say, “Shut the fuck up! Build some anticipation, and then we’ll say, ‘...and now there’s Kick-Ass 2’. That’s the game.”
I was like, I didn’t realise. Christopher Nolan, after The Dark Knight, was saying he might do a third one. And it’s like, “Of course you’re going to do a third one!” But I didn’t realise that’s the game. You get two news stories out of it: you pretend you’re not, then you reveal that you are.
Iron Man was the same, with Jon Favreau going from one to two. So officially, I don’t know [about Wanted 2], we’ll see what happens. But really, what’s going on is there have been four screenplays. Because the first made so much money. One was written immediately after, and they were trying to find some way of making Angelina Jolie come back, because Angelina was a big deal. It’s a bit like doing Spider-Man without Spider-Man. So they were trying to think of some way of resurrecting her, but it would be kind of shit to resurrect her; what’s cool is her death.
To just bring her back for the box office is the wrong reason. So we went through a couple of drafts where there was a lame version of that, but now they’ve got a great screenplay that got handed in about three weeks back. And it doesn’t use Angelina at all, it’s all the other characters. The idea is that, if all goes well, it’ll start production in the spring. But it’s still got a couple of hoops to go through, there’s some revisions happening in the screenplay, but it’s almost there now.
So no Angelina, but McAvoy’s become a bigger deal through X-Men and things. McAvoy will be there. But you need two other big stars - we had Morgan Freeman and Angelina last time. It’s by no means sealed or anything, but Kristen Stewart’s been talking about doing it. And it’s a great role for her, actually. I know she doesn’t immediately spring to mind for an action movie, but the journey her character goes on is a brilliant one, and it ties in really well with that universe. My daughter’s delighted as well, because she’s 14 and loves Twilight.
[Update: as mentioned above, Kristen Stewart is no longer set to appear in Wanted 2.]
Might we see a Hit Girl spin-off movie?
I think the logical one probably is Hit Girl. There is a part of me that likes the idea of ending it. Everybody liked the first one, but it wasn’t a massive, wide hit. Everybody saw it seemed to love it, and it got all these five star reviews. The second one, I think, will be a bit like Austin Powers 2, or Lethal Weapon 2, where enough people went into the first one, it had a solid base, and then it exploded for the second one. I think the second movie will go like that. I think it’ll become a really big thing. And then to end it with the third one, I think, could be really cool.
When people make money, they never stop. They think, “Ah, let’s do seven rubbish ones and make as much money as we can.” But I’ve always had a conclusion in mind; when I wrote page one of the first one, I knew my final panel of the third book. Kick-Ass 3 I’m writing at the moment, and it’s the end of Dave’s story. And it’s a logical conclusion of what would happen if you were a realistic superhero - if you were one in the real world.
So I always wanted it to end. To get it to the stage where everyone’s clapping, there’s nothing worse than hanging around too long. I don’t want to be Star Trek 5. I want to jump off when everybody’s into it. The original Star Wars trilogy I see as a great inspiration. It’s stood the test of time, for me, because they didn’t do a rubbish fourth and fifth one... well, they did later. [Laughs]
I think there’s something else that could be done with Hit Girl, but it has to be the right story. What makes Han Solo and Hit Girl cool is that they were used sparingly, so a Han spin-off movie, would that have been a bit weird? I don’t know. But Hit Girl, I think, has potential. And I would be curious, even, with a prequel, because Hit Girl and Big Daddy, they’d been around for a while by the time you’d seen them in Kick-Ass.
So maybe the idea of [Nic] Cage and a younger kid a few years down the line could be interesting to explore. But Dave’s story ends with three. That’s it. My agent’s going crazy, because he’s saying it’s the most money we’ve ever seen. And I’m saying you have to have a bit of integrity and just end it at the right time.
Do you know when we’ll get a Kick-Ass 3?
I think we’ll have to move quite fast with Kick-Ass 3, because Kick-Ass 2, for a number of reasons, was six months later than we wanted it to be. But it was because Chloe [Moretz’s] career was really blowing up, and she’d signed up for six movies, and she’s working with Martin Scorsese and all this kind of thing. But the next one, we’re going to have to be a little savvy, or else Chloe’s going to have five kids and all that. [Laughs]
Mark Millar, thank you very much.
Kick-Ass 2 is out on the 14th August in the UK.
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