Production designer Russell De Rozario on Kick-Ass 2, borrowed Ferraris

In our latest on-set roundtable interview, production designer Russell De Rozario talks about Kick-Ass 2, and borrowed Ferraris...

NB: This interview contains quite a lot of spicy language

During our visit to the set of Kick-Ass 2 last autumn, we were lucky enough to meet some particularly famous faces, including Mark Millar, John Romita, Jr, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Chloe Grace-Moretz (the movie must surely win the record for the most double-barrelled names in one cast). But one of the most engaging and funny people we spoke to was undoubtedly production designer Russell De Rozario, whose anecdotes about making Kick-Ass 2 were often priceless.

The highlight? Easily De Rozario’s story about the acquisition of a very expensive sports car for the villains’ lair. “It’s not as dodgy as it sounds,” he said, as we guffawed incredulously. But, really, the whole interview’s a lively insight into the vital yet often overlooked process of designing, building and lighting sets for a movie.

To kick things off, De Rozario talks about the experience of returning to Kick-Ass after a gap of almost two years…

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How does working on this one compare to that one?

Great. I mean, it’s really quite different. It’s a different scope and a different feel. And also, there’s a familiarity about it, almost a nostalgia, seeing Chloe [Grace Moretz] again; we got to know her really well on the first one. And seeing her now, and she’s older, but you still feel protective over her, like she’s a little kid. So that’s weird.

It’s a bit like seeing an old girlfriend, doing this film. So I suppose it’s the best of both worlds, working on this film: it’s the familiarity and then the massive difference, the scope is much bigger.

Is there a difficult line to find as a designer where, on the one hand you want to do as great a job possible, but you’re dealing with two groups of people. The costumes are handmade, their headquarters is cobbled together, so in a way, you don’t want your work to look too good, do you?

No, I know exactly what you mean. It’s quite schizophrenic if you like, because there’s that and the counterpoint with the evil lair. The way I thought of it, these are damaged people, and they have a thing about fixing things. That’s my background: I came from a shitty background, went to shitty schools, and always had to make do and mend.

So this was a natural thing for me. My workshops are down the road; we brought the place where they built the Daleks, and the place is shit, and the fucking roof leaks, and I guess I’m a bit of a gypo, because I like all that. And I suppose I’ve done quite well, because I’m in the film industry and I’ve got nice cars and everything, and I’ve moved into that world.

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So I do have that schizophrenic view. But that’s an interesting point that you make, in that it’s what we wanted. We wanted it to look like it’s been collected by this mad person who’d met other mad people, and they’d brought stuff back and fixed it, and put up flags. They want to fix society.

Whereas the other fucker wants to cause anarchy, chaos and destruction in equal parts. That provided us with an interesting design synergy, if that doesn’t sound too…

And isn’t there that point to the story, because the former Red Mist would have had all that Mafia money behind him?

That’s right, yeah. And that was the thing. That was my main motivation behind it. There’s nothing behind it here [pointing to the Kick-Ass lair around us]. It’s all just found and stolen. I mean, some of the things there, we’ve had to take some liberties. The Ferrari’s worth a massive amount of money.

I saw you covering it over when you weren’t filming.

Yeah, because it’s worth the most frightening amount of money.

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It’s not one of your cars, then?

No, not yet! The person who owns it doesn’t necessarily know that it’s here, either. [Laughs] But this will come out afterwards. It’s easier to apologise than, er… It’s not as dodgy as it sounds, but erm… yeah.

We had terrible trouble getting stuff, because the bad guy’s essentially a psychopath, and people don’t want their brands associated with a psychopath. And then car people and bike people want to see nice riding shots with somebody that’s the right age to ride a Harley Davidson or what have you. They definitely don’t want to see a complete loony dressed in women’s clothing and killing people.

So we’ve found it difficult to do, so we’ve had to resort to a Justice Forever solution. I knew somebody that races cars, and they have a collector, and the collector’s not about. And I said I could store it for a little while. “Store it? In what way?” “Well, I’ve got this big warehouse…” [Laughs]

I said we’ll look after it and get it cleaned. And he just looked at me and said you’ll get me sued, or sacked or whatever. I said I’d take the number plates off, we’ll get some great photographs with people leaning against it. We did the same with the other cars, we sort of told them it was for a different film [Laughs].

I’ve known them and worked for them for a while, so it won’t be as bad as that. Unless… I keep not sleeping. I have this terrible dream that the fucking bulldozers have come in early and driven over the Ferrari and there it was all flat[Laughs]. But yeah, it’s good. These sort of films, to get it so it’s great, with the details, you have to go the extra mile. Especially in the current economic climate, and the producers have got a tough time, because they want to beat us into submission. “Do you really need that? Do you really need a Ferrari?” Everyone needs a Ferrari!

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So with the detail of this [Kick-Ass‘ lair] we’ve expanded it as much as we can, and there are a few things here that maybe shouldn’t have been here. But then the guys who did all the graphics, we’ve had problems with that, because people don’t want to clear things – maps and Google and stuff. So we’ve had to make our own stuff. My son did some of this out here. My youngest son did the thing of Kick-Ass holding on to the Empire State Building.

We were filming in a school, where I’d been before to shoot some commercials for Sky, and so I got to know the headmistress there. I had to pull the odd fast one on her, so what I’ve done is get the kids to do Americana as projects. [Laughs] So I paid for the paper, but they’ve done all these pictures… 

You’ve got a sweatshop, basically, in a school.

Yeah. [Laughs] But what it does, weirdly, it gives it the breadth and depth you were alluding to. With the evil lair, with his graphics, those were among the first that I designed, with the skull and the machine guns. We did it so it looked as though a designer on Fifth Avenue had done it, whereas this stuff, the scales of justice held by a fist, was drawn with biros.

We tried to have all that weird narrative in it. Weirdly, that’s what people commented on in the first one. They liked all the little layers that we did. I nicked some Andy Warhol images. We’d asked them in the end, but because we’d asked them, they were really helpful. I flipped one of them, so it looked like Mark Strong standing there with the guns.

I thought it was funny, a gangster standing with a gun to his head. But then people have talked about it and mentioned it, so I think it’s important to have those layers in design, that texture and richness. Hopefully, you lot will get that from the way these [sets] work.

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When you’re translating something that appears in a comic book, I guess you have to pay tribute. Is that a help, is it a challenge?

I like to see it as a strength, and we stand on the shoulders of that. So we take what Mark [Millar] and John [Romita Jr] do, and the script, and have loads of conversations with them. I’m not a corduroy jacket-type designer that would die without listening to Mahler. I like being part of a group, that team effort. The cameraman’s a good friend of mine, and I don’t particularly have an ego, so I don’t care if it’s not my drawing, or it’s somebody else’s.

Really, without sounding like too much of a wanker, it’s for the good of the group. There’s loads of things I’d have liked to have done – I could have had an artist’s tantrum. “Why won’t you let me fucking do it?” I’m not saying I haven’t had a few. But what’s really important, and nice about the first one, was that when Mark and John came, they really got it, and really liked it. They could see that we’d drawn things out and used different elements. I find colour really important, and I like using colour, and I added that to it. They could see the logic to it, because it stood on the shoulders of their work. We didn’t say, “That’s all shit. We’ll do our own thing.”

It’s a difficult thing, because you don’t want to be constrained too much. But we’ve gone off on tangents. With this, we’re set in a basement, but you don’t really see the basement in the books. I really like the film Fight Club, and I wanted this big oppressive weight close to your head. I wanted to do this so it went up and was just blackness beyond the pipes, so there’s the weight, and the feeling that they have the weight on their shoulders. Whereas the evil lair, it’s big and airy, it’s got cages and sharks and what have you. It would give you some of the narrative, and reinforce it.

If I’m being really honest, I’m finding it a help, as well. Because when I get lost, and I start wandering off into wanting to spray Ferraris orange. “Why can’t I spray my Ferraris orange? I want them orange!” I find a way back by looking through their stuff and talking to them. 

Do you have to take an identity for the film that’s everywhere and nowhere? So it could be any place, but it does have a specific feel?

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Yeah, that’s a perceptive look into it. Because even now, we’re still arguing about where Mindy lives. Is it the Bronx? Is it an industrial part of any town? We keep it as cryptic, if you like, as possible. But it is New York, with the police cars and everything.

It is like the Gotham thing, as well. We’ve approached it from a different point of view, like the precinct numbers. I like the number 13, so we asked if we could have precinct 13, but we couldn’t. Could we have precinct 31, then? Okay, you can have precinct 31. We find it through being positive and interested, talking to the New York Police Department about what we can and can’t have. It’s better than them phoning up and saying they’ve seen Kick-Ass with precinct 13, and driving them mental.

For people who’ve never been to New York, or don’t particularly care about America or Americana, there’s that. When we did the cemetery scene, all the research I did for that, American cemeteries are quite different, in that there are flags they’ll predominantly use. If they’re of Spanish extraction, they’ll put up Spanish flags. We found graves covered in Barbie dolls and all sorts of fucking mad stuff.

Having America as a store cupboard of icons to go through, is a very liberating thing. And being English, we have a different insight into it. People commented on the first one, about the heightened sense of America that it has. Most people couldn’t believe that I built the streets here. That the coffee shop and stuff was here. Hopefully, people will think the same in this one.

Was there ever talk of going to New York and finding locations that would suit, or was it always going to be done in a studio?

New York, as a city, is too expensive to shoot in for anybody. And there are loads of problems you get that are particular to New York, and there’s another sort that’s particular to America. Our resources here are pretty good, so for Jeff, he really likes shooting on locations. He likes the reality of it, and this that and the other. The odd paradox is, I can give him more reality in something that isn’t real, and it was hard to discuss that with him, because he’d just look at me and say I was a fucking idiot. And he did say it a few times, that I was fucking crazy: there’s no way you can get more real than real.

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I was saying, it’s an odd paradox, and you might be right, I might be an idiot. But my background’s in commercials and pop promos and all sorts of strange things. It isn’t necessarily in feature films; I’ll do them with Matthew and Guy [Ritchie] and stuff, because I like them. With commercials, it’s a much quicker, wham, bam, and done. And it has to look perfect, it has to look real. What I’d learned from that, is that it’s much easier to make it. Then when they need a long shot from over there, looking at someone getting his head cut off, I can pull the walls out and give that to them.

We can select the things that we want. You can’t take the roof off a location, you can’t do those things. So it’s having that blend, keeping all of you confused about where it is. In the first one, you’d walk from a street in Toronto into a place here, along a bit and into a street in New York. I love that Citizen Kane, Orson Welles thing – he was famous for doing it in Macbeth.

Jeff was saying, “No, no, you’re mad, there’s no way.” I said, it’s entirely up to you, and we’ll make it look as brilliant as possible, but if you want it to look real, and you want the flexibility to do really imaginative shots, then let’s do it in a studio – and London’s great for that because there’s a great amount of resources. And Canada’s great because the people there are fantastic and really helpful – really good at doing their bit.

We’ll probably do some bits and pieces in New York, and get completely fucking done over. [Laughs] That’s the sad thing; I used to like going over to New York, but…

There’s dealing with the unions.

There’s that, and there’s the whole thing that film is an annoying excrescence that they don’t want on their pavement. You get reduced to lower than dog shit on the evolutionary scale.  And it’s terrible, because it’s such a great film city – there’s such an amazing tradition of making films there. But they have sort of priced themselves out of the market. Whereas because Europe’s fucked, everyone’s going to take the cash wherever they can!

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I was working a lot with John Leguizamo when we were in Toronto, and for him it’s weird, because he’s going to be sitting in a basement in fucking Berkshire or wherever. [Laughs] It’s great, the way that works. I’ve been to restaurants with him there, and people come up to him and say, “You shot Al Pacino!” And he’s “Yeah, yeah. I did.”

It’s great hanging around with him, getting that reflected glory, because no one gives a shit about me. I’m amazed you lot want to talk to a designer – no one normally gives a shit about what we think or do. He’s a good example of the greatness of New York, and the strangeness of having to move New York about. 

When you’re going for that realism you were talking about, what’s the most important thing? Is it lighting, do you think, or texture?

Well, my background is in sculpture and painting. I trained as that, and I had no idea about films. I liked watching them, and used to like bunking into the cinema when I was a kid – it was a magical thing for me. But essentially, my background was in that. I had my sculptures banned and seized and everything. A director saw it and said, let’s this guy would be quite good to work with.

So I ended up in film through this weird, obtuse angle. When I did that, the important thing was having a good basis. In conjunction with Tim and Pat, his gaffer, if I provide them with really rich textures and patterns and depth, and go to sometimes extraordinary lengths… like these windows, here. That started with just being a blank wall, but I think you end up feeling like it’s Prisoner Cell Block H if it’s just fuckin’ blank walls. I like depth and I like light, so I put that on.

Then Jeff said, what’s outside it? And I said I don’t have the money to put anything outside it, so I just made it so it was too dirty. So you end up with the brick wall, the depth of the window, then the odd angles that we put in, and then the glass, then the dirt. That’s a great thing for them; they can put colours on, and make it rich. I think, if you approach it without an ego, it gives them a rich palette.

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But I like using practical lights. I like things to work like that. There are about 10 different paint patterns here. Rendered concrete over there, part rendered, part brick there. We put grease between the layers of paint, so that the paint flakes away and peels. Wherever they look, they get a complete 360 of richness and texture.

We stole all these lights from the studio that the evil lair’s in. We enjoyed that. Everyone likes a bit of crime. [Laughs]

So you’ve got a Ferrari and some stolen lights?

Oh yeah. I could bore you endlessly with all the things we’ve got. They all more-or-less end up with their rightful owners at the end. But these lights won’t. [Laughs]

Because Tim’s a great, collaborative person, it makes it easy. Sometimes you work with people who are a complete fucking wind-up. What I normally do then is provide them with a white set which is impossible to light. I’m known for being relatively stroppy like that. So it works quite well.

What’s your crowning achievement on the film so far?

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Fuck, that’s really hard. Well, I’m proud of the Ferrari, but that’s more from a blagging perspective. And I know that’s alright because the person won’t mind in the end. But I don’t know. Probably getting the job was a thing, because it’s a different director. Matthew and all that lot were keen that he didn’t have all of Matthew’s people rammed down his throat, which is weird because he did have all of Matthew’s people.

I suppose in terms of actual sets, I suppose this one is. People like being in this. I used it for an office for a couple of days, and I would sit in here holding court and shouting at people. But saying that, I like the evil lair, because that’s an incredibly expensive sofa in the middle, and when it’s empty, I’ve been able to sit in there on the turntable, and hold court as if I’m some sort of middle eastern potentate, with invisible servants. [Adopts posh accent] “Fetch me a cappuccino, you fucker!”

This one, though [Kick-Ass’ lair], because it’s most like me. I’d love for the other one to be like me…

[Publicist comes in apologetically]

Can’t we have just a couple more minutes? 

Isn’t it good that when people have the Blu-ray a couple of years from now, they’ll still have bits and pieces in the background that they never noticed?

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That’s a really key point to do with art and design. I always really like poetry. I like the way that you can go back to a poem. I like the poems of Garcia Lauka, because you can go back to them, and latterly, a big fan of his was Leonard Cohen. I like to go back to those songs and think different things every time, because the language is really rich and the metaphors are really strong.

That’s what I really love about design. When I was doing my paintings and sculpture, I really loved people being able to visit and see something new. And that’s why people come and have a look. Someone noticed the other day that there are posters for some of Mark Millar’s other things, and got really excited by that.

In the soup kitchen, we did a poster for Violence Against Guys, whose initials are VAG [Laughs]. I love that. I’m in the first film. I’m a lift goon. Matthew always loves the fact that every now and again someone says, “Oh fucking hell, look, there’s that twit…”

Are you in this one?

Not yet. If there’s someone who’s having his head cut off or shot, that’ll be me. That’s what Matthew wanted to do in the first one. He wanted to get me shot, and have the lift door repeatedly slamming on my head [Laughs]. I was in costume for six days, so I had the humiliation of wearing this ghastly cheap suit, in freezing fucking cold, to have my head smashed in. I had to move the set from place to place so we could have the lift doors close, but we never got round to doing it.

Jeff’s, luckily, kinder.

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But Matthew’s the producer. He could come down at any minute.

Yeah, I’m waiting for that voice of God. “Put him in the fish tank!” [Laughs] That’s Margaret Thatcher, the shark. But hopefully, I’ll get some nice bit. I wanted to be the builder that gets bollocked for things not being ready on time or something like that. The unfortunate thing is, you don’t get time. I’m trying to sort out Jim Carrey’s head at the moment. I’m trying to get a sculpt of his head done.

Does Red Mist’s Mustang appear in this film?

No, because it got nicked. I’d have had it in there – it would have saved me nicking, or borrowing that Ferrari. But I phoned up Matthew and asked if we could have it in the film, but it got nicked by Mindy in the last film, so no, it would look wrong. I said, couldn’t we just have it in a state of disrepair, like he’d just got it back? And he said, nice try, and that was that.

That’s a good question that, about which one I liked. It had me, that. I should have said one you couldn’t have seen. The Chinese brothel. You’d have liked that. I think that got pulled down. That’s a shame, because you’d have liked that one.

Do you get sad when they get pulled down?

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No, I love it. I shouldn’t say, but I do love it. It’s nice to have them here, but in 20 years, I must have done about 10,000 sets.

Where do they go? Do they put them in storage?

These will go in a unique storage unit. It’s called a skip.

Russell De Rozario, thank you very much.

Kick-Ass 2 is out on the 14th August in the UK.

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