If you’re any kind of film and/or comic geek then you’ll know the big news this week is that Wanted hits cinema screens on Friday.
It’s adapted from the six-part, record-breaking series of the same name by writer Mark Millar and artist JG Jones, and in a summer that’s already seen the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, you better brace yourself for a new kind of comic book film.
Millar was good enough to have a natter with me about it last year, and I’m posting the interview here because it’s never appeared online before.
IT’S summer 2007 on a sweltering film set in Prague and the sexiest woman on the planet is rubbing suntan lotion onto a bloke from Coatbridge who can’t quite believe his luck.
Angelina Jolie is applying the Factor Dufflecoat to the milk-bottle-white skin of Mark Millar, but being lubed up against an exotic ex-Communist backdrop by the fittest stunner alive isn’t the only reason that the 38-year-old writer is excited.
Earlier, the effects of a hangover were almost forgotten as he stepped onto the set of Wanted and sampled for the first time the eyeball-grabbing visuals that should hopefully turn his hit comic of the same name into this Summer’s slice of superhot must-see cinema.
Fellow Scotsman James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Terrence Stamp flesh out the cast but it’s the signing of the most-photographed woman in the world that could conceivably put the most bums on seats when the $110 million flick opens this Friday, June 27.
Millar speaks highly of the leading lady, saying: “She was really, really nice. Being Scottish and having pale white skin it was really warm.
“You think of Prague being cold but it was actually 40 degree heat and the minute I walked out I was starting to burn and she was saying ‘Oh I’ve got something for that.’
“And I remember thinking ‘I can’t wait to tell my pals.’ It was the only thing going through my head. I couldn’t even enjoy it, when she was rubbing it all over my face and neck.
“She was brilliant. Like everybody else I only know her from magazines so I was expecting her to be unfriendly and a bit weird but she was really, really pleasant, really nice, just sitting talking to her for ages.
“She’s right into Little Britain, unexpected stuff like that, and in between takes she was in her trailer watching Little Britain DVDs and she did the voice for me and things like that, and it was really weird Angelina Jolie doing a David Walliams voice and I’m thinking ‘Is this really happening?’
Incredibly, it really is happening. Millar is in a fantasy playground, a multi-million dollar dream come true that was over 30 years in the making; one that can be traced back to a council house in Coatbridge.
It was there that the then six-year-old comicbook fan came across an old picture of actor George Reeves dressed as the first TV Superman.
Puzzled that his hero had apparently stepped from the pages of his comics into real life, he wanted to know what had happened to the Man of Steel. Why wasn’t he saving people?
So he turned to his big brother Bobby who said: “What happened to Superman? Didn’t you hear? Superman disappeared during a big war with all the supervillains. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, they all disappeared during this enormous battle and they’ve never been seen again.”
All the heroes were dead, and if the Devil’s greatest trick was to convince mankind he didn’t exist, then the supervillains born out of Bobby Millar’s teasing went one further. They made us forget that they ever existed in the first place.
And three decades later, after Mark Millar turned the memory of his brother’s wind-up into a hit comic, studio bosses saw the Matrix-meets-Fight Club potential and forked out $110 million.
Man-of-the-moment McAvoy signed on to play Wesley Gibson, the biggest loser in the world, who discovers his estranged father is the deadliest assassin in the world and gets the chance to take his place in the family business when the old man takes a bullet.
Freeman plays criminal mastermind Sloan, who introduces Gibson to the underground cabal of supervillains that secretly runs the world, while Jolie is stone-dead killer The Fox, the woman who whips Wesley into shape.
Millar said: “It’s about an ordinary guy in his early 20s who just absolutely hates his life. He’s got the worst job in the world, the worst girlfriend in the world, he’s got the worst boss in the world.
“He’s given the opportunity to join an underground cult of supervillains that secretly runs the world. The world that exists beneath our own is where these guys operate, and he’s got a chance to take that up when his dad dies, to replace him.
“So it’s about the guy who’s the most boring guy in the world suddenly getting the chance to become the most exciting guy in the world.
“It’s quite liberating, it’s kind of like Spider-Man, a guy who’s a geek suddenly getting the chance to do exciting stuff, except it’s not good stuff, its bad stuff. He sorts out his life, kills the girlfriend he doesn’t like, kills his boss.”
Much more than a revenge fantasy, the zeitgest-tapping film appears poised to take advantage of a jittery world gone mad. Fear of violent crime is widespread, politicians are never off the TV talking about the breakdown of society, people worry about how to protect themselves – and here is a deeply flawed character driven by negative impulses of anger, shame and self-loathing rampaging through an eye-popping, ingeniously choreographed blast of ultra-violence.
The director Universal hired to bring this big, blood-soaked blast of over-the-top mayhem to the screen is largely an unknown quantity with Western movie audiences, Timur Bekmambetov. Giddily creative Russian sci-fi hit Night Watch sealed the deal for him and while even Millar admits to raising an eyebrow at first, he is now convinced Bekmambetov is the man to turn his fevered imagination into reality.
“He’s actually the best thing that ever happened to the film,” said Millar. “I’m not kidding you, I saw the first draft of the script when we first sold it, and it wasn’t very good and I remember thinking ‘I’m not into this.’ That’s why my expectations were pretty low.
“Then the minute Timur came on he brought in all his own writers. The original draft, honestly, there was the names of the characters and that was about it.”
Watching the Russian turn the faltering production around, Millar eventually got round to viewing Night Watch and suddenly became very enthusiastic about the future of Wanted.
He said: “I’ve got so many DVDs that I’ve been meaning to watch, Japanese stuff and Russian stuff and I can’t be arsed. Eventually, just because the guy is doing my film I thought I better watch it, and I had it for about six months before I watched it, but it’s bloody brilliant.
“And he made it for $5 million and it looks like $100 million. He said ‘Wait till you see what I can do with $100 million.’
“These guys brought it back and Timur, he’s like an artist. He’s got he most amazing visual eye. Kind of like what the Wachowski Brothers brought to The Matrix.
“There’s an action sequence where they’re fighting on a train, if you can imagine ten supervillains running across the countryside jumping onto the side of a train and it’s moving at 100 miles an hour and they start to rock it from side to side. People are screaming and fighting inside.
“The train goes over a cliff, it turns vertically and inside James McAvoy is chasing Terrence Stamp, up the back of seats like ladders, running up the way, shooting through the windows at the supervillains outside while the train is falling through the air.
“I’ve never seen anything like that. That’s the kind of feeling I got. It’s something new, something exciting.”
In recent years superhero audiences in cinemas have had their attention increasingly diverted from gaudily-attired, friendly neighbourhood do-gooders to a more gritty, flawed kind of vigilantism and Wanted promises to go a step further.
Millar continued: “An R-rated superhero movie, an 18-rated superhero movie, it’s never been done, as far as I know it’s never been done, especially at that budget, it’s a real risk making an 18 movie with that budget .
“It’s a bit like Quentin Tarantino meets The Matrix and there’s nothing like it I’ve seen before and that makes it exciting.
“They’ve described it as Fight Club meets The Matrix and that’s quite a good description of it. It’s got all the over-the-top action but it’s got real intense character stuff you don’t get in other superhero films.”
Having seen some of the film already, Millar is adamant that it is not all style and no substance; that amid the effects-laden money shots and unstinting violence there is a solid emotional hook.
After striking up a bond with fellow Scotsman McAvoy and seeing him stand toe-to-toe with the Hollywood A-listers, the writer has no doubt Wanted will deliver on many levels.
Millar said: “It was weird. You’re thinking that you’re walking onto the set of a Hollywood movie, a big $110 million film, and then you think ‘Hang on, its actually two guys from the West of Scotland here, two guys that support Celtic and know all the same pubs.’
“We clicked really quickly. I hadn’t seen any of the stuff he’d done and I was quite embarrassed about that you know, and I’ve been catching up.
“The guy is just brilliant. For a guy of 27 to be in a scene with Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie, and to hold his own, that’s unbelievable.
“He’s got real gravitas, just looking at him you know he’s the next big thing. He just brings the character to life.
“The great thing is, all my stupid lines I’ve written that look so cheesy in a comic, when you hear him and Morgan Freeman or somebody bringing them to life, it actually sounds quite intelligent.
“There’s a scene at the end of the first issue that they do word for word, and Morgan Freeman really makes it scary.”
The scale of the production has thrown Millar, who found himself walking around sets that he once saw only in his own imagination.
He said: “Its a $110million picture and I didn’t really know what that meant. You always kind of hear of big budgets then someone said the last James Bond film was $70 million and I thought ‘Bloody hell, this is kind of expensive.’
“And I think they want it to look even more over-the-top, and if you shoot in Prague you can actually make it look like $150 million.
“I wasn’t really prepared, I was just imagining a few cameras and some actors. I remember just walking out my first day, getting out the car in the middle of the countryside. They were shooting a scene and I got out the car and just looked up and I saw that they had built a building. I couldn’t believe it, and I had a hangover and it made no sense, and I just looked up and saw the headquarters of the bad guys, the Fraternity.
“That was stunning to me, and then I went over and saw there was 500 cast and crew all inside two giant tents and again the scale of that, the way I looked at it was like it was kind of like being in somewhere like the Barras, here’s a bunch of strangers, but then you realise they are all wearing Wanted crew t-shirts.
“Then they took us down to these train tracks and I thought that was pretty cool, they had managed to borrow a train and they said ‘No, no, we bought this train.’
“And they built four miles of track, that’s when I thought ‘This is big, we’ve got our own train.’
“It suddenly went from something I was doing in a spare room in the house to here it is, it’s real, something big, employing a load of people, there was guys that were the stuntmen on Star Wars. It suddenly became very real.”
The reality is that everything has fallen into place for Millar, who built up a name for himself as one of the best comic writers in the business working on established household names like Superman and Spider-Man. He was then able to translate that success into creating characters he retained the copyright on. A pension fund, essentially.
Millar said: “In the 90s I had no plan at all, I didn’t even do anything really, I just arsed around and did stuff for beer money and it was actually when my daughter was born, the minute Emily was born I remember actually thinking ‘Hang on, all my pals are working and have got a plan, and I really should start working hard now I’m somebody’s dad.’
“And I really tried to plan it out. You’re never always going to be a fashionable writer. If you’re lucky you’ve got your decade, so the idea is to create as much stuff in that time as possible and then let it work for us later on.”
With Hollywood constantly on the scour for new ideas, studios have increasingly been turning to the comics industry in recent years and have been using it as an ideas factory.
And yet, there used to be a time when Millar’s sales were so low that he waited by the side of the phone every month for his New York editor to call him with the news about whether he was cancelled or not. These days he’s been the top-selling British comics writer in America for the last eight years, and the second-top overall. Wanted is the best-selling creator-owned comic of the last decade. An upcoming title called War Heroes will see him embark on a coast-to-coast signing tour of the States.
And there’s the movie work. Iron Man’s $554 million box office makes it the second-biggest hit of 2008 so far, behind Indiana Jones, but before a single shot was filmed the director Jon Favreau flew Millar over to California to consult on the film, so impressed was he by the writer’s comic book work on the character in The Ultimates. More than that, the Scot has at least four movies (Wanted, Chosen, Kick-Ass and War Heroes) adapted from his own creator-owned properties in various stages of development.
Supermodel Claudia Schiffer has even been bringing Millar cups of tea while he works with her husband, director Matthew Vaughn, on the adaptation of Kick-Ass. Rumours are rife on the Internet that Robert de Niro, the greatest actor of his generation, has been signed up for a part in the story about a normal person who puts on a costume to fight crime.
And now that Wanted is the first of Millar’s properties to come off the movie production line, he continued: “It’s mad, absolutely mad, it’s not just me, it’s all the comic guys over the last couple of years, and they’re just looking for anything really.
“I got offered quite a lot of things, I got offered to write scripts for stuff but the main thing I want to be involved in is comics, I want to create properties and just let them go out and let other people do the hard work. Joanne Rowling said that was a great thing for her with Harry Potter.
“I’ve written all the big characters now. I’ve written Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and all that kind of stuff. I really feel the next thing I want do is create.
“Everyone keeps saying to me you’re going to eventually stop smiling about this, the studio will screw you over.
“There was no contact for ages, we sold the movie really a few years ago really and there was no contact beyond contracts and stuff like that, and then shortly before production there was quite a lot of contact going on.
“You’re being consulted, kind of like the relationship JK Rowling has got I suppose with Harry Potter. They’ll phone you up and talk to you about stuff you don’t actually have to do any work on.
“They’ve been dead, dead nice so far, but from what I hear they talk everybody up. For example I had a meeting with the one of the heads of Universal Pictures and he said ‘This may be the most important meeting I take all year, you’re a mine of ideas.’
“And I came out actually feeling really good, but I was told they say that to every guy. It’s ridiculous, you’ve got to keep it in perspective.”
After almost 20 years in the comic industry Millar is now at the top of his game, but his future in the movie business will, to some extent, depend on whether audiences feel Wanted is something they have never seen before.
It promises to be a visually stunning, moral-free barrage of unremitting violence and Millar said: “It looks amazing, I went in almost expecting nothing. I had never seen a movie the director done, I didn’t know anything about the leading man at that point, so at that stage I remember going in thinking it might not be that good.
“The first time I saw The Matrix I remember thinking ‘I’ve never seen anything like that’, and I felt the same way the first time I saw Jurassic Park. It’s just something you’ve never seen before and that’s what this is like.”
And if the writing ever dries up, Millar can always try his hand at acting. “I got a small cameo on a train,” he said. “I’m in the background screaming, while there’s people getting murdered on the train and there’s a great scene with McAvoy just running through the carriage shooting bad guys and the train goes over the cliff and I’m one of the people who die on that train.”