Luckily this interview with Mark Millar was not conducted during last weekend’s marathon bevvy session when the Scottish-based members of his MillarWorld website hit a boozer in Airdrie, because the jibberish we ended up talking was quite something to behold. Guinness will do that to you. No, this wee blether with Coatbridge’s finest exponent of comic book writing was conducted a few weeks ago, but with my windswept and interesting life I’m just getting round to posting it now. I’m off the sauce this week, so the second part of the interview should be up by the weekend. Hopefully.
Mark Millar is in a world of shit.
You could be forgiven for thinking that someone with his uncanny run of success, segueing effortlessly from best-selling comic book creator to Hollywood producer, would be going through life smelling of roses.
After all, his hit title Wanted morphed into a bona fide summer blockbuster that grossed $300 million at the box office. The bean counters say that will rise to $500m once DVD sales are pocketed, and studio bosses have already greenlit two sequels.
Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage was so attracted to a story called Kick-Ass that filming started on the big-screen adaptation before the comic, about a teenager with no superpowers who puts on a costume to fight crime, was even half-way through its initial eight-issue run.
Just weeks ago, Sony snapped up the rights to War Heroes, a yarn about US soldiers being given superpowers to combat terrorism. A tale called Chosen, about the Second Coming of Christ, should be in cinemas by 2010. And on all of these movies, Millar has been brought on board as a producer.
If you log on to the writer’s MillarWorld site, every new post seems to announce some amazing new event in his life (although today’s big news was a trip to the VIP premiere of High School Musical 3, so maybe I’m stretching a bit here). Yet, despite all of the good-vibery that has come his way, Mark Millar is literally in a world of shit.
It’s late August 2008, shooting has just started on Kick-Ass and Millar said: “It’s funny, the first day was in a shit factory. I was thinking the first day would be hooray for Hollywood, I was expecting it to be beautiful girls and we were literally driven down to out to a shit factory.
“I never even knew these things existed out of Darkseid, it seems like something you shouldn’t get on Earth. It stretched for miles, I can’t think of anything that’s as big, imagine 10 Asdas but just reservoirs of shit. And one of them was open and hadn’t been used in 20 years and that’s what we were shooting inside and it was like a kind of waste ground and I’m thinking ‘Surely we could have found a better waste ground!’
“I think they keep trying to find places where they can close the set and for some reason they got permission to shut the shit factory down. And you know if you hang around a chocolate factory you come out smelling of chocolate, if you hang around a shit factory then you smell of shit. The particles were in my hair and the next day I could still smell it on myself.”
Nobody likes to go around smelling like a jobby, but it’s a small price to pay to see a dream become a $65 million reality. Matthew Vaughn – who produced Stardust and Layer Cake – is helming this latest adaptation of a Mark Millar comic. And it has all happened so fast that fans of the comic will read the final chapter shortly before they can watch the movie next Autumn.
“It did happen fast,” admits Millar. “When you think about it, Spider-Man took 40 years, Superman took 40 years from 1938 to 1978, it is unusual. Even Wanted took four years and that’s kind of weird, so something to actually probably be out just as the final part of the first arc is finishing is nuts.”
Brutal, stylish and addictive, Kick-Ass the comic has been flying off the shelves. Just when you thought every possible superhero story had been uncovered and done to death, that first arc of Kick-Ass came along and rewrote the formula. The misfit who becomes a costumed vigilante is a familiar figure, but Millar and artist John Romita Jr have reinvented the tale as an all-too-human tragedy.
Stripped of four-colour glamour, this adventure is deeply disturbing, searingly raw and unflinchingly honest; an unblinking look at what would really happen if someone donned a mask to fight crime. It is a snarling, street-wise version of what Stan Lee was doing in the 1960s. Snappy dialogue followed by sudden bursts of brutality replaces The Man’s unflinching optimism and over-the-top hyperbole.
“I see it as a 21st century version of Spider-Man,” said Millar. “My big influence on it was Steve Ditko‘s run on Spider-Man, just the idea of that ordinariness of superheroes, you don’t really get that often. Even Batman: Year One you’re still talking about a billionaire. With Spider-Man, the first 30 issues or so just felt like a regular guy and I tried to update that.
“Wanted was about a guy becoming more badass, a nerd becoming a badass, and at some level that’s what this guy is doing too, but this guy is a much more endearing figure, a wee guy who just wants to make a difference and make the world a better place. You kind of worry about him because you know all it takes is a guy with an iron bar to smack him over the head and he’s dead and there’s a real sense of danger to that stuff, like Spider-Man doesn’t have, and even in Wanted, Wesley had superpowers.”
And now this blend of blue-collar super-heroics, adolescent anger and ultra-violence has seen Hollywood come knocking on Millar’s door once again.
The Scot said: “Wanted was the biggest-selling creator-owned book of the decade and now Kick-Ass has just taken overtaken it. Our sales were really cracking, I think four times the nearest Icon book, Powers. We went through all these prints, we’re on the fourth print of issue one, the third print of issue two, I think we’re on the second print of issue three, and the minute movie producers hear that they say ‘Right, we better get this.’
“In all honesty that was why Wanted happened so quickly. They just said ‘Hang on a minute, this thing is selling just the same as Spider-Man, so this might be the next Spider-Man.’ So they just buy it and Kick-Ass was just the exact same. As soon as you hit those kinds of numbers, we’re on 80,000 an issue, if one of the competitors nabbed that and had the next Spider-Man someone would get fired, so it starts getting pretty vicious, the fights between the studios.”
In the film’s real-world take on superheroics, Aaron Johnson plays teenager with no powers Dave Lizewski,who decides to become a costumed hero and tackle street crime. Cage is another vigilante called Big Daddy, who crosses his path. Chloe Moretz is his nine-year-old daughter Hit Girl, who he has trained to be a killer in their war against a mob boss.
Vaughn is the reason Kick-Ass is hitting cinemas so fast, and Millar said: “He’s a pop culture guy, he likes Watchmen, he likes Dark Knight, he likes V for Vendetta, he reads all the good stuff but he’s not a guy like us who knows what happens in Spider-Man #121. He grew up reading graphic novels more than comics, but he’s very aware of everything.
“He was doing the Thor movie a couple of years back, he was announced as the writer/director, then the writers’ strike happened and a lot of projects just seemed to stop, and Thor was one of those projects that just slowed down.
“Even after the strike finished there was like a thrombosis in Hollywood and Matthew was like ‘I might go and do Thor later but I need to go and do something fast because I haven’t directed anything for a while.’
“There was a book I did a few years ago called Chosen, it was Harry Potter meets fundamentalist Christians, the Second Coming of Jesus, and Matthew wanted to do that. And then, weirdly, I copy a few pals into what I’m working on and I fired him the first few scripts on Kick-Ass, and he phoned me up and said ‘I love this can we do this instead and do Chosen later?’
“And I’m like ‘Are you kidding? I haven’t even finished this yet’ and he just said ‘Get me the rest of the scripts, get me everything you’ve got on it’ and I fired him most of it away. The next day I flew down and we started talking and he got Jonathan Ross‘ wife Jane Goldman to come in a do a polish. I literally started writing this last year about this time, and by February we had a full polished screenplay $65 million set aside by his pals and sets were starting to get built, costumes getting made and we just started shooting.”
Incredibly, after studios balked at the script’s violence the entire budget was raised privately from a close circle of Vaughn’s friends, including Brad Pitt.
Millar added: “Matthew has a deal with Sony, where he did Starburst, and they said ‘What have you got next?‘ And he said he had a superhero property, and when they found out every scene had someone getting shot in the head or or getting stabbed and one of the characters was a nine-year-old girl assassin they said ‘Right, we love this but we want to change everything!’ and they gave him a list of notes, but he said ‘Right I’m not going to do it through the studio, I’m just going to do it through my own cash.’
“The thing is I didn’t realise how rich Matthew was. You do sort of forget he’s a guy who’s married to a world-famous supermodel, but he also grew up in a really rich family and he’s also made a lot of money for himself. Even those kind of films like Lock Stock, as much as they were low-budget movies it meant they ploughed all their own money into that, so they made a lot of money back.
“His circle of friends are extremely wealthy guys, billionaires. Steven Marks the guy who created French Connection, the guy is literally worth a couple of billion. Matthew just basically phoned up a couple of billionaire mates and said ‘Cough up’ and they trust him so much, he’s so good at what he does and they’ve done it so much in the past and made such a lot of money back that they trust him totally.
“Kick-Ass did happen in a weird way, because we didn’t even do it through a studio. In all honesty there’s a part of me thinking it’s some kind of joke, like an Ashton Kushter thing. Other than a few phone calls and going out for a few drinks with some pals there was no real evidence this is getting made. It was kind of a relief to get on the set on that first day and see Nicolas Cage standing there.
“What’s amazing is they just didn’t think they should do R-rated superhero movies, but then Wanted came out and made $300 million so now they’re all talking about it and the studios are coming with offers, and we’re going to end up selling this for a lot more money than we could have got for it first time round.
“I was at the Wanted premiere here in Scotland and all my aunties are saying ‘I can’t believe you’re doing a film as violent as that, with all that swearing’ and they were saying ‘I hope your next one isn’t as bad as that’ and I’m thinking in the back of my mind ‘Oh my God!’ because it’s 20 times worse, it takes it to a whole new level.
“It’s weird because obviously I hate stuff like that in real life, i’m peace-loving and go to Mass, but for some reason I just love seeing all this kind of thing on film. It’s the same thing as when you’re wee and someone gives you a Dirty Harry video and you think it’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever seen, the cartoon violence.”
Although Kick-Ass began as an idea in Millar’s head, it’s now a multi-million dollar project that employs hundreds and is currently jumping between shoots in Toronto and London. Millar is very hands-on, more so than he was on Wanted, and he said: “Kick-Ass is a lot more work than I expected. Even being on set, I just did a tour of the States where I was away 10 or 11 days, 14 flights, never more than three hours sleep and it was brilliant, I felt great coming back from it even though it should have been knackering.
“But see two days on the Kick-Ass set, I was only there two days last weekend, we only shot last weekend Saturday and Sunday, and a car came for me at 5am and we were on the set and 6am and you’re actually standing all day until 7 at night and same again next day. I was f*****! I’ve never been so tired in my whole life!
“I was going round to Jonathan Ross’ house on Saturday night, I was supposed to meet him for dinner at 6 or 7 up at his place and I literally sat down on the bed and I must have just passed out. I woke up at 9.30pm and phoned him and apologised and just went round for some toasted cheese later on. I was just absolutely done in. A mate of mine is a copper and he said ‘You wouldn’t believe how hard it is standing up all day.’
“The wee lassie they have playing Hit Girl, I don’t know how she did it, she never complained once. Nicolas Cage never once complained, absolutely brilliant, but they’re pros I suppose and I’m a chancer.”
What seems certain is that this will be a new type of superhero movie, exponentially more violent than even Wanted; but most of all it will be totally uncompromising because everyone believes in the material. Millar and Romita Jr obviously have a lot invested in the story, but given how the director took such a strong stance over the content, it appears this will be a film for the fans.
Millar said: “I was talking to Nic on Saturday morning and I came on the set half an hour late and he was already on so we didn’t get talking till he had done a few takes. When he came off we got introduced and I said ‘This is really weird. It’s a movie about a comic book fan and a bunch of comic book fans around him, and it’s being made by a bunch of comic book fans’, because Matthew is essentially a comic book fan in a broad sense. Jane reads comics, the cinematographer reads comics, every single person on that set can tell you Giant Man’s secret identity, it’s really weird.
“We all feel at home with the material its not like we’re doing a movie about 12th century Japan. It’s something we can all identify with, and it’s a bonding thing as well because it meant Cage and I could instantly be pally.”
Fans of the comic will be familiar with what happens at the end of the third issue. It climaxes with the blood-spattered introduction of Hit Girl impaling bad guys on her sword and casually lopping their heads off. You can’t quite believe what you are seeing and the writer feels that the movie audience is in for a similar treat.
Millar said: “It’s amazing, one of the things about being a producer is I either got to sit in on the auditions or at night time I got digital streaming through of the auditions. It was so weird, we must have looked at maybe 30 kids for Hit Girl and they were all 10 or 11-years-old and all had to be able to swear and shoot people and everyone else seemed to be a little too Disney Channel, and just looked like typical child actor.
“And then Chloe Moretz came along and she just seemed like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, and I phoned up Matthew Vaughn and said ‘Have you checked this kid out?’ and we all knew instantly this was the one. It’s really exciting, I feel that out of the whole movie this is going to be the character that resonates with the public, this is the one who will be really massive. Something happened at the end of issue three, it just went to a different level, in terms of reaction from reader, it was really weird, everyone was like ‘Who is this?’ It was like this is almost the real star of the book
“And French Connection, who are doing the merchandising, want to base everything around Hit Girl, the bags and the t-shirts, there’s just something about this. We’ve lucked into something, we lucked into Kick-Ass itself but we’ve lucked into it even more with this character. We’ve been calling Chloe ‘Han Solo’ on the set because we think she’s going to be the biggest thing in the movie.”
And that’s the end of the first part of the interview. Check back in a day or two when Millar talks about his recent War Heroes signing tour, Superman and a bunch of other cool stuff.
EDIT: Actually it took a bit longer for the second part to go up, but you can go read it here.