Mark Millar Interview: Kingsman, Fox’s Marvel films

Comic book writer Mark Millar talks to us about his work on Kingsman: The Secret Service, storytelling and more...

The latest big screen adaptation of Mark Millar’s work, Kingsman: The Secret Service, has arrived in cinemas. It follows the likes of Kick-AssKick-Ass 2 and Wanted to the screen, and Millar also advises Fox on its series of Marvel films. He spared us some time for a chat about his films, storytelling, auctioning names off for charity, and specifically about Kingsman itself.

Here’s how it went…

To what extent would you say this is a political story?

Funny you should say that. We were chatting about this earlier, and my friends who are left-wing so it as a left-wing political story about a guy from nothing showing that he’s just as good as people who had everything, and he’s even being better than them by the end. And right-wing friends have said they see it as a Thatcherite dream essentially, that a guy, by working hard, can leave behind that terrible life and join the elite, the aristocracy. People who watch this film have their own interpretations.

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And what about yourself? What were your intentions for it?

Very simple. I’m from western Scotland, which is a poor part of the world, and I’m from one of the poorest parts of western Scotland. I grew up on a council estate up there. And I bemoan the fact that there’s no leading men anymore who have that kind of background. Something very interesting happened about ten years ago, I think, which is that we suddenly saw the disappearance of the working class hero. They probably came in during the early 60s with films like Friday Night, Saturday Morning, the Albert Finneys and the Michael Caines, the Terence Stamps, post-war working class guys who were aspirational.

Nowadays, the only working class people we see on television are queuing up for ten hours for Simon Cowell to give the thumbs up or thumbs down on his whim, all opposed to them training hard or working hard, learning their craft which was, post-war, what social mobility was all about.

It’s also interesting that we’ve seen the complete destruction of social mobility in the last ten years. It was fluid but now it’s all freezing up again. All the actors I know now are boarding school kids, and that’s nothing against them, but it is interesting that what we have now are an almost aristocratic class again. We’re going back to the debutantes.

So I wanted a character who was a working class hero.

Director Matthew Vaughn used both the phrase “good egg” and “bad egg” in talking about the characters in this film. It dawned on me that the lead character being called Eggsy might not be an accident.

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It’s my old school friend’s name. One of my three best friends that I used to hang around with, and the reason he was called Eggsy – and he wasn’t a tough guy or anything like the character in the film – is just that he didn’t like eggs. We were all about fourteen and having dinner at somebody’s house and there was an egg in the meal and he said “Oh, I don’t eat them.” I said “Who doesn’t like eggs?” “I’ve never tasted one.” “You must have! Are you kidding me?”

I dedicated the book to him. 

One of the things you did quite often was auctioning off the names of your characters for charity. Naming those characters was taken away from you, but a name can be important, can’t it?

It can, yeah.

Some of these names, do they carry any weight for you?

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Funnily enough, it can be a little awkward. One guy who came second in an auction was called Lin Leng and the comic had been drawn already – I always do the auction just before we go to print – and we had a blonde, blue-eyed lead. His name was almost Lin Leng.

Thankfully, the names have kind of synced up, like Dave Lizewski, Wesley Gibson, James Arnold in this one. So far, so good, but what I’ve started saying now is “I’ll name a character after you,” not the lead character. Lin Leng gave me a fright. There would be nothing worse, almost a UKIP thing, than having to phone somebody up and say “I’m sorry, your name doesn’t comply. It’s a little bit ethnic for my lead character.”

Yes, that would be best avoided. But when you do choose name, how much stock do you put in them? Let’s think about Harry Hart, which immediately brings to mind a majestic stag, and it conjures up an appropriate image, I think.

Sometimes a name takes on an iconic nature in a way that was never intended. The guy who used to write The Shadow novels back in the 1930s used to keep telephone directories from across America, on his desk the way we might have a dictionary or something, and he’d literally choose a name at random. Then it’s a sincere name. If you come up with a random name – Taylor Wheatcroft, say – then it might not sound quite right. But if Mum and Dad have spent nine months thinking about something it saves you the bother.

I think names are important. Alliterative names are good – Clark Kent, Peter Parker – you tend to remember them more, and that helps them become more iconic. Comic book characters can have very good names. 

You didn’t write the strip in parallel with Matthew [Vaughn] and Jane [Goldman] making the movie this time.

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No. The plan was to make this movie a couple of years later, but when the comic was published some opportunistic guys in Hollywood were like “Let’s steal this” and three different people were pitching this movie. Two quite well-known names were pitching this movie around Hollywood.

Basically the same premise? 

Different title, same premise. Very similar, as well. They were taking a young street kid being trained up to be an elite spy while there’s a global threat in the background. Then, on top of that, celebrity kidnappings. Two heads of studios phone me up and said “Your story is being pitched around town” and it’s only because we were friends that I got to hear about this. I phoned up Matthew and he was like “Holy shit” and jumped off X-Men: Days Of Future Past, because if he’d waited two more years, this would have been out by somebody else.

Those versions are all dead now, effectively killed by yours.

Yeah, they’re gone, thank god. You hear these Hollywood stories but that’s the first time this one has happened to me. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to being ripped off like that.

Pretty scary.

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People say “Why do you want your comics to become movies?” and I think it’s almost the best reason in the world to get it out before somebody else does. Harlan Ellison has the great line “Write faster than they can steal” and that’s absolutely true.

And yet they caught him. They caught up with Harlan. Look at The Terminator, for example. It’s blatant.

Oh god, yeah. But he’s right. There’s nothing more valuable in this industry than an idea, and a comic is a quiet thing, and you can have it out there and some screenwriter starts to think “Hmmm, interesting” then lifts all of the best parts.

In a way it seems like Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman are a little left-brain, right-brain, but working alone, you have to be both of those things yourself. For example, you have to be Matthew’s love of plot and Jane’s love of character.

Character drives plot. Everything successful I’ve ever written has been character led. The plot follows what the character will do in the situation you give them. That’s why comic books work well as films because they’re entirely about character. It says Superman up there, it’s the title. It’s says Batman, it’s not about a high concept plot. 

What’s your process for plotting? Do you trace the course of action for the central character as the spine of your plot?

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I’ve got a really odd method that looks like something a serial killer would do. I’ve got loads of things, pieces of paper in my room and I’d link them up with pieces of string.

I’ll give you an example, using Kick-Ass. So I was interested in a superhero on his first night out on patrol getting stabbed. That would probably always happen, if you had no powers. Then I was thinking he’d be in hospital, and then we he got out, would he be so dissuaded if he was the guy who’d do it in the first place?

So I was drawing out all of these little scenes, and it started organically writing itself. I would draw a new little scene, and link it in with a piece of string. Then I’d have a big whiteboard where I’d do post-it notes, to bring it all together, arrange it with set-ups first and pay-offs later.

I grow it all first, then I organize the thing, and then once I have the structure, I start writing.

When do you tend to get the end in mind?

Sometimes the end is first. I would say nine times out of ten. The ending for this came first, in fact. Once I have the end, I reverse engineer the story so that it looks like I’m a clever plotter, all because I knew where I was going. I work my way back to the start and then begin writing issue one after it’s all worked out in the most meticulous detail.

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You have all of these rhythms imposed upon you when you’re working in comics that a film doesn’t. You’ve got rhythms on a page, how panels are arranged; then there’s the measure of a page, and you start with one page then go to double-pages, then usually end on one page; you’ve got the rhythm of there being separate issues, unless you’re doing a graphic novel –

Which nobody really does, it’s almost always serialized in issues.

– it almost never happens; and then you’ve got separate arcs, it goes “This story is done,” but there’s the promise, or need, for another to come afterwards. How intuitive are these structures and rhythms to you? And how do you make sure you’re in time with them?

I naturally flow towards the three-act structure. Most comic guys work on an episodic structure, more like TV shows. My friends tend to think in a 12-act structure. V for Vendetta, for example, was a perfect 12-act structure, which was one of the reasons it didn’t work perfectly as a movie. And likewise Watchmen, which would have been an amazing 12-part HBO series.

My stuff tends to be 6 issues, and each 2-issue chunk tends to roughly for the act of a story. You have “set up,” “getting into trouble,” and “big finale” where you get out of trouble and you have all the pay-offs. I feel like my brain is hardwired to think that way, and it’s just a stylistic thing.

I’m more interested in cinema than I am in television, so maybe I’m just more informed by stories that are cinematic than those with a television, episode nature. Soap opera doesn’t interest me. One of my things was being turned into a TV show and I wasn’t feeling very into it. It was a very short thing that I’d done and they said “We could do five seasons out of this” and I said “I think I’ve barely given enough for a two hour film.” They said “TV isn’t about getting you to the pay-off, it’s about promising you the pay-off every week and then delivering it, finally, at the very end.”

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As a writer that offends me because as a viewer I’m going to be left unsatisfied. There are things I love on television but it generally doesn’t appeal because I want a pay off every time, not just a promise.

Then you’ve got these breaks between issues that come mid-act, the end of your first, your third and your fifth issues. How do you work with those?

I think it just means you have a doubly exciting act. You don’t have just one end to the first act, but two. What I love about comics is the pace of it because every 22 pages, something interesting has to happen. Preferably two really interesting things in every issue, but at the end, you’re forced to have something interesting. If you’re doing a novel, you could wait until page 155. With a comic, you’re fired if by issue three nothing interesting happens. 

There are two things you were involved in before that seem to be suspended to me. One was your transition to film directing with Miracle Park and then your involvement with Fox’s superhero canon. Whatever you’re doing with them is behind closed doors.

It’s just behind the scenes.

So, with Miracle Park, I got a week into filming and found out that there was a movie that was both better and similar that had been made a year before and that was Chronicle. I’m now friends with Josh Trank, weirdly enough, because of the Fox consultancy job, and I met him back in 2012 and said “You’ll never believe this but I was making my first movie and then I heard about Chronicle and yours was an amazing version of my quite crude effort. As soon as I heard about yours I had to kill mine.” He thought this was hilarious, and I was like “Oh…”

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I think we got four days in the can but thank god we found out when we did because to be doing a rubbishy version of an excellent film would be the most dispiriting directorial debut. Nobody had done hand-held superheroes to that point.

The fact that it was in Glasgow made it quite different, but it was close enough. A bunch of young people get superpowers, one has a camera, and one of them turns against the others. It was structurally identical to Chronicle.

What has that done to your ambition to be a filmmaker?

To be honest, it was more an experiment, and the nice thing about hand-held is that it would smooth over the rough edges of people just starting out. It’s a brilliant Get Out of Jail Free card.

I’ve got plans for the next few years in comics, but maybe to do a ten minute short for the fun of it and to release it on YouTube for free. I’d love to try it. The similarities between comics are very close, and I love being around a set, I love actors.

The Fox job, I signed up for four years. It was August 2012 I started, and my contract runs until August 2016. I stealthily work in the background, talking to execs. Matthew and I do a lot of talking, Joe Carnahan and I did a lot of talking when he was doing Daredevil, James Mangold are talking about his next plan. Josh Trank and I spent a few days together.

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What do you talk about?

You know, I signed an NDA, so all of the interesting stuff, I can’t say, but I’m more like a resource for them.

“The expert,” as it were.

I’m a cross between a studio guy and a comics guy because I’ve had experience with both so I can chat with everybody. Some guys don’t need to chat at all because they know the material so well – Bryan Singer knows X-Men better than I know X-Men. He and I have now talked, though we hadn’t when I started. There’s nothing I can tell Singer about the X-Men, he knows more than any of us.

There’s a lot of expansion going on, in the X-Men universe in particular, and I’m there if they need me. It’s been a sweet job, and I love dressing neatly and going into meetings because it’s so unlike my actual job where I’m in pyjamas all day.

Mark Millar, thank you very much.

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