Mark Millar Interview: Just for Kicks
From The Ultimates and Red Son to Wanted and Kick-Ass, Mark Millar has helped redefine the superhero genre again and again. Along the way he’s become one of the biggest-selling comic book writers, and has co-produced both the hit movie version of Wanted and the upcoming adaptation of Kick-Ass. “I try not to stand still for too long,” he tells Matt McAllister.
You’ve now finally had a chance to see Kick-Ass the movie. What did you think?
It’s so weird, because Matthew [Vaughn, director] and I have lived this for over two years. After seeing the process of casting and costume design, and then the filming, I’ve seen Kick-Ass in so many different forms. But when I finally saw the film, where everything was in sequence… Well, it sounds so big-headed, but I loved it! I couldn’t wait to see it again. I’ve seen it six times now, and I’m so into it, which is nice. Because it’d be horrible if it was shit!
The test screenings have also been through the roof. A lot of the material is so objectionable that I thought it would alienate about a third of the human race, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
You came up with the original concepts for Red Son and Wanted in your childhood. Was it the same with Kick-Ass? It feels like a comic book-loving kid’s dream…
Nobody’s actually made that connection before, but that’s interesting. I pitched Red Son when I was 13, and started to formulate that story when I was six. I’ve still got a copy of the original that I did! And then Wanted came out of talks I had with my brother as a kid. But I hadn’t actually made that connection with Kick-Ass.
But, yes, it is very similar, and it’s very autobiographical. And watching the movie it really struck me how autobiographical it was. Because it’s all about a wee guy who’s really into comics; his mum dies when he’s 14, and he’s living with his father and eating the same dinners every night – that’s all stuff from my life. He sits playing videogames and reading comics every night, and as a piece of escapism he decides to become a superhero.
Well, my best friend Paul and I were really into Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Batman when we were 15 – we loved The Dark Knight and Batman Year One. And they just seemed like guys in suits. So we thought, we’re guys, we can do this! So we designed costumes for ourselves, we went to the gym almost every day for six months – the only time in my life when I’ve been in good shape! We went to Taekwondo and karate, things like that. We thought we could take on gangs, things like that, and we had all it worked out.
This wasn’t exactly Gotham City though – it was a small rural community in the west of Scotland. The worst thing that had gone on there was probably minor vandalism! And at the last moment we kind of came to our senses and thought, actually this is pretty stupid, let’s not do it… But the story was about what would have happened if that wee guy, me at that age, had actually tried it. The first night you’d have been laughed at in the streets. Then, as soon as you confronted someone, you’d have had the shit kicked out of you and possibly killed. (Laughs)
It does sound very autobiographical..
Oh yeah! (Laughs) Even down to things like he pretends to be gay to get close to a girl who wants a gay best friend. I pretended to like American soap operas like Dynasty because the girl I really fancied was into them.
Hit Girl and Big Daddy are also based a little on me and my daughter. Big Daddy is an adult who reads comic books and has an 11-year-old daughter who’s trained up to become a badass. I mean, my daughter’s not a badass, but we do fun stuff. We go on little training exercises, we have fun in swing parks and that kind of thing. So there are loads of elements from different areas of my life there.
Like much of your work, Kick-Ass plays heavily on superhero conventions. But it manages to do it without slipping into parody. Do you think that’s an important distinction? And is it hard to walk that line?
You know, I think it’s hard for people who aren’t comic guys to walk that line. Because there’s nothing that comic guys like me are more offended by than when people take the piss out of it.
I think comedy only works when there’s an element of tragedy to it. All the best comedy, whether it’s Dad’s Army or Steptoe and Son or The Office or M*A*S*H, are set in bleak situations, that’s where the humour comes from. I think it’s a mistake to go into something that is intrinsically silly and try to find humour in that. It’s why superhero parodies never work, whether it’s My Hero on the BBC or Mystery Men the movie. It can work well with animation – The Incredibles was amazing – but that’s probably the only time it’s worked.
So I think from a writing point of view it would have been a mistake to write Kick-Ass as a parody. The only way to do it was to write it straight. You should be laughing with everybody instead of laughing at them.
You’re famous for re-inventing the superhero genre in your work, and your fans almost expect something groundbreaking in everything you do. Is that expectation accompanied by much pressure?
It is, but I think that I’m quite tough on myself. Most of my friends write about four comics a month or 48 comics a year. And we get paid per book, so it can really affect your income, you know? But last year I wrote about 11 or 12 comics. It’s actually stupid in a lot of ways because my job is a professional writer, but I want to make this as special as my previous work.
Sometimes I’ve ripped up three issues worth of stuff, which is maybe three months work, because it’s not the way I want it. If you’re charging people money – and comics can be £2.99 or £3.99 now – I just think you’ve got to make everything as good as you can.
So I try and treat each project as a special project. And I try not to stay on anything too long. A lot of my pals do books for three, four or five years. But it can become like American TV shows – sometimes you might love the first two seasons, then it takes a big dip, and then maybe it gets good again in season five. And I hate that. Why should a reader put up with you not being very good for a while? I think that that you should just get in, do the thing and then get out; you can recharge your batteries and then come up with the next big thing hopefully.
Is there the danger of slipping into self-parody if you stay on one project too long?
Oh definitely. People can start anticipating what going to happen, and if they pick up a comic that’s not as special as the previous one they can get disheartened as well.
I try not to stand still for too long. The Ultimates was a really big hit, and The Ultimates 2 was a really big hit. It would have been very easy to have done The Ultimates 3 – we really could have done pretty much anything and it would have probably sold the same amount. If people have bought 26 issues of a comic, they’ll probably buy the next 12 issues, even if they’re just going to complain.
But Bryan [Hitch, artist] and I were really rigid about it. We said we haven’t got anything that we can top Ultimates 2 with. We didn’t want to do a Godfather III. People said to us, “You’re mad! Just write anything, it’s free money, people will buy anything!” And I said, “No I don’t want to – because then the next thing I do people will be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t like his last one so much.’” So only do something if you utterly believe in it, you know?
It sounds like integrity is important to you. But, considering it was optioned before the first issue had even been released, was there ever any danger of compromising over anything in Kick-Ass?
No, actually the exact opposite. The funny thing was we didn’t actually get an option on it – it was just an informal agreement between friends. Matthew started working on it without a contract, it was really just two mates having a good time doing it. And the reason it happened was because we didn’t compromise. With Kick-Ass I really believed in it so much that I didn’t want anything changed – I didn’t want one tiny thing changed because it works, so why mess with it?
When Matthew and Jane [Goldman, co-scriptwriter] finished the screenplay, I met with them, read over it, and we then took it out to the studios. And I was so optimistic with it, because it was the most brilliant screenplay I had read. I thought this redefined superhero movies the way that Pulp Fiction redefined crime movies. There’d be ‘before Kick-Ass’ and ‘after Kick-Ass’ – you couldn’t have a lame Fantastic Four movie now, you know?
So we went out to the studios – and every single person hated it. Matthew got seven ‘Nos’ in 24 hours, I’d never seen anything like it. Either they didn’t want to do it or they wanted massive changes. They wanted Hit Girl to be 19 instead of 11, they didn’t want a kid doing that stuff. And I’d rather not have a film than have a shit one.
Matthew Vaughn’s even more stubborn than I am – he saw it as the ultimate challenge! He said that when the studios all said no in 24 hours he knew he was onto something amazing. (Laughs) So he said, “I’m just going to make this myself.” And he did it, he raised 50 million! Luckily he’s got a lot of rich pals, but he raised the money personally, made the film – and if you think about it, his only hope of distributing this film and getting his money back was to take it back to the places who said no – yet he was making it exactly the way they didn’t like it. Chances were these guys wouldn’t even pick it up as they hated it! But he said they’re wrong, and I want to show them they’re wrong. And he did it – he sold it back to them for twice as much money and got a little bidding war going! (Laughs)
I love the balls of that. I think it’s the best ever story of how independent cinema can triumph. Hopefully it will lead to more people working outside the system. I mean, I’ve got no interest of working inside the system. I’m making something later this year, and it will be privately financed.
You mentioned that Hit Girl was one of the areas that you didn’t want to compromise on. Are you expecting the character to cause much controversy in movie form?
(Laughs) I actually think that there’s something so charming about her. When you see these things online, these little clips, you’re so shocked. Have you seen the redband trailer? You’re like, “I can’t believe I’m looking at this!” But in the movie it’s so well balanced. She’s had her mum killed by the mafia, her dad gets killed by the mafia. She’s this little kid up against these guys, and you’re so happy when she kills these guys at the end. You think, “That’s so nice!”, you know?
Even though you’re watching all these atrocities going on in front of you, somehow I think it would be quite hard to get offended by it! Maybe I’m desensitized by it though…
The Daily Mail might not have the same view…
Well, the funny thing is I actually read The Daily Mail! I don’t know if I’ve got paranoid schizophrenia or something, but I read The Guardian and The Daily Mail, they’re my two papers, I’ve always got them. So when I hear about “Daily Mail readers outraged!”, I’m thinking “I read The Mail and I’m fine with it…” (Laughs)
You’re co-producer on both the Wanted and Kick-Ass movies. You seem to have a very different outlook than, say, Alan Moore in the film adaptations of your work. Do you enjoy watching them come to life on screen?
If it’s good I do. I mean, Alan is the greatest comic book writer that’s ever lived. But the reason for that is that he’s a perfectionist; he has such attention to detail, and he can get the artist to do precisely what he wants, so it ends up amazing.
But that just doesn’t happen in cinema, because you’ve got 300 people involved in the decision-making process. An actor can do something different than you want, a cinematographer can, there are 50 takes, editors can mess with it… and I think it’s Alan’s worst nightmare. Because Alan is a superbrain, he does exactly what he wants and doesn’t need all those people. Whereas as long as I’m surrounded by people I respect, I love the process. If it’s people I wouldn’t respect I just wouldn’t do it.
I’ve been lucky. I love what they did with Wanted, and I love even more what they’ve done with Kick-Ass, but only because it’s a good team. I’m sure I’d be weeping if something like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or From Hell happened. Even Watchmen the film – as much as I love [Zack] Snyder – wasn’t as good as the comic, so I can understand Alan’s broken heart.
Well, the film versions of Watchmen and Wanted were very different. Watchmen the movie was almost slavishly faithful to the original, whereas Wanted ditched a lot of the more fantastical stuff…
You’ve got to. If you’re making a film you shouldn’t be doing a love letter to the 100,000 readers of the comic. The primary point of a film is to entertain the cinema-going audience. If the cinema-going audience says “I don’t get it”, and somebody else says “Well, you actually need to read the back-up feature in Issue 4 to really get what’s going on”, then it’s failed.
What stage is Wanted 2 at and how involved are you?
I’m a producer and get script supervision as a producer. They’re about to start filming in the next few months, and it will hopefully be released towards the end of next year. It’s really weird because there are a lot of people in that project that have to be lined up – you have to get Angelina [Jolie] for three months and have a script she’s happy with; you have to have the director on board with what Angelina’s happy with… a lot of things have to come together.
But the first film made a lot of money, so Universal suddenly started talking about a franchise. I said, “Well, it’s only one book…” They asked me if I wanted to write the sequel. I said I didn’t, but I also said they could make as many films out of it as long as they’re good. Everyone’s happy with the current draft of the Wanted 2 script.
You mentioned earlier that you’ll be directing a movie yourself later this year. Can you reveal anything about that?
It’s going to be reasonably low budget, and it will be entirely privately financed as Kick-Ass was. As a first time director, hopefully I’ve picked up a little about what works and what doesn’t from being around someone like Timur [Bekmambetov, Wanted director] and Matthew. We’re going to film entirely in Scotland and it’s going to be the District 9 of superhero movies.
It’s going to be a relatively low-budget take on superheroes in an environment you’ve never seen before. It’s totally original, I’m writing it myself, and we start shooting in June.
Have you been influenced by Frank Miller’s move into filmmaking?
I’m doing the opposite approach actually. It’s going to be really realistic – totally non-stylised, almost arthouse. I want it to be the least commercial superhero movie ever made. There’s a great pitch right to the studios there. (Laughs)
Do you still maintain that movies are just a hobby?
Oh yeah, comics are still my day job. I mean this could be shit; I’ve never directed anything before! I’m going to give it a try and if it’s shit I’ll be really embarrassed and bring it out really quietly, and if it’s good I’ll be delighted. But I’d still see myself as a comic guy and maybe two or three years down the line begin directing again.
Do you see yourself making superhero comics indefinitely then?
I think there’s a shelf life, you know? I mean, I turned 40 at Christmas. I look at Stan Lee and he wrote most of his good stuff between the ages of 42 and 46. I do think it is a relatively young guys’ thing. Not in the same way as, say, skateboarding, but in that when you’re writing you’re a product of everything that’s taken you to that point in your life. I write the kind of thing I write because when I was seven I saw Star Wars, when I was eight I saw Superman and when I was 11 I saw Indiana Jones.
That to me is what I am and that is what my audience right now finds appealing about my stuff. But that will change. And I think audiences in 10 or 12 years time will want people who grew up with a different set of influences and who are writing about different things. The generation before me, the Alan Moores and so on, wrote about the nuclear bomb and their fears growing up. I’m the September 11 generation of superhero writers probably. I just think it’s natural, and in 10 or 12 years it will be somebody else, and you should quietly go off and do something else.
I’d rather have a library of characters that I’ve created in this period – my artists and I will retain copyright on those things while we’re off doing other things, maybe more low profile projects. Or I could just do what Stan Lee does and sit back and be executive producer on projects.
You could be making cameos in superhero movies when you’re in your 80s…
(Laughs). Yes, maybe!
Are there any of your other works you’d like to see made into films? Red Son would make a great movie…
It’s funny, because Timur said to me that he’d love to do another superhero film when we were shooting Wanted. I told him about Red Son and he said, “You just should have done that as a creator-owned project.” And I thought ‘Ah, I never thought of that!’ Because it’s different enough from Superman, it’s just a superhero who lands in Russia, and Timur would be fantastic at directing something like this.
But what I’m trying to do now is create my own stuff. Because as a reader I’m bored of seeing the same stuff – I mean, how many times do you need to see Batman or Superman rebooted? It’s been rebooted well sometimes, but I think there are few surprises left. I think that’s why Wanted and Kick-Ass sold so well – they were new, it was something people hadn’t seen before.
I just think there’s this massive gap for new superheroes, because people are coming in and writing the stuff they read as kids – they want to write Superman. But I’d rather create as many new characters as possible over the next few years. From a business point of view it makes sense too, because these characters are the ones being picked up as movies. Everything I’ve done so far is in production or has been optioned for a movie. And with the new thing I’ve got coming out in March, Nemesis, three big directors have already been in contact about buying it.
What can you say about Nemesis?
The villains are often the most interesting thing, so I thought wouldn’t it interesting to do a story from the supervillain’s point of view. Goodfellas, The Godfather… these things are told from the villains’ point of view, but we’ve not seen that in a superhero story yet.
I like the idea of a billionaire anarchist who is a playboy by day and at night is the world’s greatest thief or terrorist. He takes one month off work a year to terrorise any particular city. In the pre-credits sequence he terrorises Tokyo, kills the chief of police, and then looks for a new antagonist. He finds America’s best cop in Washington, the chief of police, who’s about to become the head of homeland security… It’s a Holmes and Moriaty thing.
What happened to the Channel 4 horror mini-series you wrote, Sikeside?
It just collapsed. This was before I had my first big break in comics in March 2001. Prior to that nothing was happening in comics so I thought, I’d just better get some work. So I sold the thing to Channel 4, but the department who bought it had just made a thing called Metrosexuality. Did you hear about it? It was the worst received programme Channel 4 have ever made! It was so bad, and the department were told by the Channel 4 boss “We’re never going to make anything you guys have commissioned again!” – and they’d commissioned Sikeside, so it never happened! (Laughs)
So there’s not a movie version of that one in the works?
There is! It’s funny, the guy who was producing the TV show, Angus Lamont, is a pal of mine. He said to me “Remember that vampire thing, Sikeside? Would you mind if I floated this as a movie?”
He’s got six million to make six low-budget British movies – Donkey Punch was one of them, and Sikeside is planned as another. He gave me a pound, we signed on a bar mat. And he’s got the rights to it for as long as he wants. Hopefully I’ll get more than the quid in the end though…
Finally, do you ever think you’ll return to your comic strip Big Dave? It was pretty controversial when it appeared in 2000 AD…
I’d love to do Big Dave again, it was great fun. But everyone seemed to hate it! A few pals who work in the media seemed to like it, but everyone else who read it in 2000 AD hated it. They said it was the worst comic they’d ever read. (Laughs) I don’t think they got that it was a joke…
Kick-Ass by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr is available now from Titan Books.
Kick-Ass the movie is released in UK cinemas on 2 April 2010 and in the US on 16 April 2010.
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