NB: This article contains strong language from the outset.
It’s an ordinary mist Autumn day outside the South stand Stage at Pinewood Studios. But inside, two armies of superheroes clash in a dervish of gaudy color and smoke. Every inch of the sound stage interior has been retrofitted to look like the lair of The Mother Fucker, Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s rebranded super villain from the original Kick-Ass.
Now outfitted in a kinky new get-up that’s part Gene Simmons, part gimp suit and almost all patent leather, he looks maniacal with his spiky hair and be-feathered shoulders. In fact, the twin armies of good and evil, gathered as they are in this one room, look uncannily like a Slipknot appreciation party circa 2001, adorned with capes, masks and padded costumes cobbled together from a random conglomeration of stuff you might find in a disused warehouse – there are remnants of high-vis jackets, hockey masks, fire axes, and baseball bats emblazoned with the stars and stripes.
Coupled with the extreme lighting, constantly pumped-in stage smoke, and weird arrangements of expensive cars, retro arcade and pinball machines and, somewhat incongruously, a huge fish tank with an oddly motionless shark lying at the bottom, the set has a fevered air, like a Tokyo nightclub or a Las Vegas strip joint.
We’re here to watch the filming of Kick-Ass 2, a sequel to the anarchic Mark Millar comic book adaptation released in 2010. With the director of that movie, Matthew Vaughn, now thoroughly immersed in other projects (not least an adaptation of Millar’s own Secret Service), the reins have been handed over to Jeff Wadlow, who’s gamely taken on the challenge of bringing in a larger scale sequel to a much-loved, wilfully off-beat superhero movie that scored four- and five-star reviews all over the place.
In Kick-Ass 2, as in real life, some time has passed since the events of the last movie. And likewise, lead actors Aaron Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz have grown into big stars in their own right. There’s a rush, perhaps, to get Kick-Ass 2 underway, and Mark Millar, who wrote the comics and serves as executive producer on the movie, admits that this sequel started shooting around six months later than he’d have liked.
“I think we’ll have to move quite fast with Kick-Ass 3,” Millar says to us later on, “because Kick-Ass 2, for a number of reasons, was six months later than we wanted it to be… we’re going to have to be a little savvy, or else Chloe’s going to have five kids and all that!”
But like the original movie, those working on the sequel are blessed with a swagger and a fast-talking way of selling their vision. On his own, comic book artist John Romita Jr (who’s another exec producer on the movie) is garrulous and funny – every inch the self-effacing and boisterous New Yorker his violent, kinetic artwork might imply.
Similarly, Mark Millar is a witty, vulgar yet extremely shrewd orator; he fields questions as though he’s talking to his friends in a local bar, but when the conversation turns to the topic of box office, he can quote precise figures off the top of his head. This is a writer with feet planted firmly in the camps of both art and commerce.
“You get less control when a movie costs $200 million or something,” Millar says, when asked about Universal’s involvement in the sequel. “But when a movie costs $28 million, they almost don’t give a shit. They’ll just see if it makes any money.”
Interviewed together, Romita Jr and Millar are a class double-act, trading politically incorrect insults and bouncing set-ups and punch lines off each other like a seasoned pair of stand-up comedians. And while some of this is undoubtedly for show – they’ve a prime product to sell, after all – it’s also evident that their years of collaborations on the Kick-Ass comic books have left them with a kinship that’s impossible to fake.
Millar and Romita will even make brief cameos in Kick-Ass 2, though you’ll probably have to look carefully to see them; Romita Jr will play a character by the name of Schmuggy, while Millar will don an anonymous costume to play The American Ninja.
“I’m one of the Mega Guys, the bad guys,” Romita says. “I’m a bad guy, he’s a good guy. And during that mass scrum, Mark runs around and catches me, then we wrestle and beat each other up…”
Later, we meet production designer Russell De Rozario. Larger than life and utterly candid, he talks about the attention to detail that goes into making a superhero movie on a budget. During our interview, we’re sitting right in the middle of one of his proudest creations – the heroes’ lair, which is the rebel base to the Mother Fucker’s imperial battle cruiser. So convincing is its recreation of a basement in a New York tenement building – complete with pipes running overhead and concrete pillars – it’s easy to forget we’re sitting in a construction suspended within one of Pinewood’s numerous sound stages. In actual fact, it’s located just off Goldfinger Avenue, a mere stone’s throw from the mayhem of the villains’ lair on the South stand Stage.
On the table we surround, De Rozario switch to a piece of graffiti he’s particularly pleased with: a London cityscape, captioned with the words, “Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank. Give a man a bank and he can rob the world.” A hint, perhaps, of just how well De Rozario’s attitude sits in the Kick-Ass universe – its events may take place in America, but its humor is quintessentially British. This is a movie that features a shark called Margaret Thatcher, after all.
“There are about 10 different paint patterns here,” De Rozario tells us with more than a hint of pride. “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.”
De Rozario began as an artist and sculptor, and he makes no secret of his joy at having stumbled into the movie industry almost by accident. (“…my background is in sculpture and painting. I trained as that, and I had no idea about films […] I had my sculptures banned and seized and everything. A director saw it and said, ‘This guy would be quite good to work with.'”)
One of the centrepieces of the villains’ lair was what we’d assumed was a replica Ferrari F40 – presumably one of The Mother Fucker’s collection of stunningly expensive cars. “The person who owns it doesn’t necessarily know that it’s here,” De Rozario tells us, to which we could only chortle with disbelief. To this, he quickly added, “Well, we didn’t steal it. It’s easier to apologise than, er… It’s not as dodgy as it sounds, but erm… yeah.”
This brash attitude to filmmaking and storytelling is, of course, what sets the universe of Kick-Ass apart from other comic book movies, which could be described as, by turns, pompous or even a little tame by comparison. This swagger is perfectly embodied by newcomer Donald Faison, who most would immediately recognise from the hit TV series, Scrubs.
Marching into the room with a can of Diet Coke and a huge grin, his attitude is perfect for the movie, and ideal for his character Doctor Gravity, a would-be hero whom Faison himself admits is possessed with more enthusiasm than outright fighting ability.
“He doesn’t have any super powers if that’s what you’re wondering. He’s just a guy who’s created an alter ego and a character… He does have the gravity stick. But it can’t levitate people. It’s just a baseball wrapped in can foil. It’ll levitate a man’s soul from his body, how ’bout that?”
After Donald Faison, in walks Chloe Grace Moretz, her face still covered in Hit Girl movie make-up, her hair secured in stage with a thin net. From the neck up, she looks like a young Michelle Pfieffer in an onion bag. Although the picture of composure (in spite of her tender age, she’s the most unnervingly professional person we interview all day), her face changes into one of amusement when asked about the fandom that’s grown up since her performance in the original movie.
“When I did the first movie I was 11. Now I’m 15, almost 16, but people still come up to me and say, ‘Oh my God!'”
Weirdly, some fans have a bizarre habit of asking her to hit them. “They freak out,” Moretz says. “They say, ‘Can you hit me or something?’ That’s what someone said. ‘Can you punch me in the face?’ And I’m like, ‘What? No…'”
Back over at the South stand Stage, where moments of mass combat are still being performed seemingly ad infinitum, we’re introduced to Aaron Johnson and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Oddly, both are still decked out in their respective hero and villain costumes. And if they’re supposed to be sworn enemies on screen, that antipathy is nowhere to be seen in real life. They talk excitedly about the movie they’re making, about the brave attempt to make a bigger movie on the same budget as the original, and how Mintz-Plasse’s character found his rather kinky superhero costume while rummaging through his mother’s belongings.
“This is my mom’s,” Mintz-Plasse explains, pointing to his patent leather outfit. “No, really, Jeff wrote a hilarious moment in the script where it’s like a few years later, and my mom’s thrown my Red Mist costume away. Something happens, and I’m going through her stuff, and I find her fetish gear. I see it and John Leguizamo, who plays my security guard, wants to throw it away, but I look at it and see there’s something there, and create this [costume] out of it.”
The piecemeal, often frustrating process of making a movie will become immediately obvious after only a few minutes on a movie set. We’re seated before a pair of large flat-screen monitors, on which we can view the shots being recorded at that given moment. For what seems like a hundred takes, we watch a fist very slowly connect with Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s screaming face.
A bell rings. A make-up lady rushes in with a paintbrush, and dabs an elegant drizzle of blood down one of Mintz-Plasse’s nostrils. Then we’re a go again, with another fist very slowly hoving into view. “Sweet Jesus, Aaaggghh!” is the only dialogue uttered in this entire sequence.
Later, Mark Millar will explain exactly what’s going on here; apparently, a dog rushes in and bites the Mother Fucker’s testicles, before Kick-Ass rushes in with a finishing punch.
“I saw that dog being trained to bite balls,” Millar explained. “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?”
Viewed from a distance – and bear in mind, we’re seeing raw, unedited footage, or simply people moving around earnestly on command – much of the battle sequence looks uncannily like an episode of the old valet TV series, which of course ties in with Nic Cage’s wonderfully mannered Adam West impression from the first movie.
Nevertheless, it’s a really spectacular clash of colorand famous faces – a dervish of weird outfits, hockey masks and bric-a-brac. Jeff Wadlow runs in and out of the crowd with great bounds, shouting instructions and encouragement to the set full of actors and extras. Cameras zoom back and forth. Smoke billows. It’s all very chaotic.
A few hours later, and bells have rung, and the set is silent. The great metal doors that usually enclose the South stand Stage have been rolled back, and the cast, crew and extras have wandered home for the day. Night has fallen, and it’s unseasonably warm. The lights are still flashing on the arcade machines in the evil lair, but the atmosphere on the set’s changed: suddenly, it’s far easier to see how huge this echoing interior is.
Only a few writers remain, and we set with Jeff Wadlow on some plush seats in the middle of the set. Considering the energetic day’s filming he’s just been through, Wadlow’s remarkably relaxed and eager to chat.
“I think the whole superhero thing’s sort of a fetish thing, right?” Wadlow says, when asked about the rather kinky nature of The Mother Fucker’s outfit. “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.”
Wadlow’s previous movie was the $20 million MMA action movie Never Back Down, but it was his spec script for the comic book character Bloodshot that got the attention of Matthew Vaughn, director of the original Kick-Ass. Although Wadlow initially turned down Vaughn’s invitation to write a script for Kick-Ass 2, he thought about it for a little bit, and then changed his mind.
“I started thinking about it a lot, Wadlow tells us,”and I got really excited about the story that Mark [Millar] 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.”
Vaughn was so impressed, he not only decided to go ahead with the script, but also give Wadlow the job of directing. “He was inspired by my enthusiasm,” Wadlow says. But while Kick-Ass 2 has a new director, Wadlow, like everyone else we’ve spoken to today, insists that the same anarchic, violent and humorous tone from the first movie will be present and correct.
“We have no problem in America – it’ll get an R, done,” Wadlow says when asked about navigating the tricky issue of getting a movie rated. “The 15-18 [UK certificate] 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 movie that got a 15.”
In many ways, Kick-Ass 2 has a tough act to follow. The original movie was a unique cult hit, a quirky pop culture moment, a snapshot of a group of young actors just on the cusp of breaking through. Three years on, and those actors are now established names. Mark Millar’s now a comic book celebrity. Matthew Vaughn’s been busy producing, writing and directing other high-profile comic book movies, including a forthcoming reboot of The Fantastic Four. Can this new movie catch the first movie’s youthful, febrile energy?
The encouraging sign, perhaps, is the effervescent, almost childlike sense of fun we’ve got from everyone on set. Even now, as an established Hollywood figure (he now oversees the Marvel movie universe at Fox), he still laughs and jokes about training a dog to bite a man’s testicles. John Romita Jr talks boyishly about putting on a costume and getting into a fight scene. Even the production designer Russell De Rozario talks about acquiring sports cars and lighting rigs through dubious means.
It’s just possible, then, that all that mischief and madness will find its way onto the screen, and result in another great Kick-Ass movie. Wadlow himself talks about pushing against the limitations of his budget, against time, producers, and the limits of his own sanity.
“I’m always going to be pushing, trying to make it better,” Wadlow says. “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…”