BEHIND THE SCENES
Every superhero story has an Evil Genius, and this is no exception. This particular Evil Genius, however, doesn’t wear a cape, or live in a hollowed-out volcano, or plan appalling atrocities that will bring society to its knees. What he does, instead, is write compulsively readable, often perversely funny and deeply twisted comic books. From his radical reinvention of Superman’s origin, Red Son, to his re-imagination of Marvel’s premier superhero team The Avengers into The Ultimates, to Wanted, the villains-as-heroes punk-tinged series that led to a hit film in 2008, starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie, the Evil Genius in this case is Mark Millar.
And one day he had an idea that would not only become Kick-Ass the comic book, but KICK-ASS, the Major Motion Picture. "I’ll draw something and then work out the story organically around it," says Millar. "I had a drawing of two superheroes – a young girl dressed like Robin and a big guy dressed like Batman. I loved those characters and decided to put them into something, but I thought they were too out there to be the leads.
"Then I started to do autobiographical stuff – I had this notion when I was fourteen, of becoming a crime fighter in Glasgow. I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of that, had it happened. So then I had a drawing of a superhero going out on his first night, and getting stabbed and run over by a cab. Then I realized the two projects belonged together."
And lo, Kick-Ass – in which Millar asks the question, ‘why does nobody ever try to become a superhero?’ and answers it with a barrage of extraordinary violence, bizarre characters and insanely quotable dialogue – was born. He started to work on the creator-owned comic with artist, John S. Romita Jr. but then, buoyed by the success of WANTED, decided to explore the possibility of bringing his new baby to the big screen before barely a panel had been drawn.
So he picked up the phone and called his old pal, the TV presenter and comic book nut Jonathan Ross, about his idea. Ross, in turn, then told his wife, Jane Goldman, the co-writer of STARDUST.
"I think that Mark has had millions of brilliant ideas, but I could see why he was particularly excited and I shared his excitement," says Goldman. "It is one of those ideas that makes you ask ‘God, has nobody done that? That’s insane!’ The very basic story of someone who loves superheroes deciding to give it a try without having any powers simply hadn’t been done before."
From there, Goldman tipped off her writing partner and STARDUST director Matthew Vaughn, who was already looking for his next movie, and KICK-ASS seemed to fit the bill.
"I was a fan of Mark’s work," says Vaughn. "We got on really well. He pitched it to me and the concept was great. He came down to my house – all the best creative meetings for me take place there – and we sat down over an afternoon and plotted the whole movie. That same day I told him ‘I’m in!’"
And that, as they say, was that. KICK-ASS had its Evil Genius, and now it had its Hero.
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN? NOT QUITE
From the beginning, KICK-ASS was different from previous comic book movies given that it wasn’t based on a long-time property – in fact, the movie was in development at the same time as the comic. By the time the movie started filming, Kick-Ass issue 3 had come out. By the time filming ended, issue 5 was on the stands. And the final issue – issue 8 – was released only a couple of months ago, as Vaughn put the finishing touches on the film.
This meant that the line between the comic and the movie blurred more than any on previous effort, as Vaughn and Goldman worked closely with Millar and his artist, John S. Romita Jr. - who also drew an animated comic book sequence in the movie which explains the origin of Big Daddy and Hit Girl - to craft not only the plot of both, but also to make sure that the look crossed over. Kick-Ass’ costume looks virtually identical in both iterations, for example, because of the way these two teams collaborated from the beginning. "In a weird way, I found it quite exhilarating because lots of good ideas and experiments were happening at the same time," says Vaughn. "It lifted the script and I think it lifted the comic – it was like a great game of tennis."
But Vaughn and Goldman were also keen that their movie wouldn’t simply be a carbon copy of Millar’s book. Handily, by the time they started writing the script, Millar had only plotted up to issue 3, giving the screenwriters a chance to take their KICK-ASS in a different direction. So the back-story of Nicolas Cage’s Big Daddy is markedly different from the comic book version, to name but one example, while the climax of Vaughn’s film is more explosive.
Once Vaughn had committed to the idea of writing KICK-ASS, he and Goldman got a script together very quickly, with Vaughn writing a first draft focusing on structure and story before Goldman added the dialogue and characterization. "I love writing with Jane," says Vaughn. "I’m the guy who draws the blueprint of the house and she comes along and goes, ‘that’s a pretty good house, but I can make it a lot better. She turns it into a proper home. I’d be pretty lost without her."
And now, with script in hand, it was time for KICK-ASS to kick some ass. There was just one problem, though: nobody wanted to take a chance on it. Like Wanted, Kick-Ass was an independent, creator-owned and controlled comic that basically gave Millar carte blanche to do what he wanted, and Vaughn was determined to apply the same ideas to his movie version, even if that meant including scenes where an eleven year-old girl mows down scores of heavily armed men with a plethora of weaponry and scores of middle-digit attitude. Hollywood’s major studios, however, saw things differently.
"They all said no," recalls Vaughn. "To their credit, most of them were just a straight no, bloody quickly, which doesn’t normally happen. Normally, they procrastinate. And most of them said they liked the concept, but only if it was done in a PG-13 manner… with no Hit Girl."
More determined than ever, Vaughn decided to fund KICK-ASS independently. The money was quickly raised, and KICK-ASS started filming in September 2008, at Elstree Studios, London, and various locations in Toronto (doubling for New York). From there, Vaughn labored away at the film, finessing it with additional photography, including a beefed-up climax. He brought incredibly crowd-pleasing clips to the San Diego Comic-Con in July of last year, and again to Empire magazine’s Movie-Con in London last August, which set chat sites ablaze and fanboys’ tongues wagging. "But there was still a time when I thought we might not get distribution," he admits.
With the movie in the can, Vaughn started showing the finished product to studios. With its colorful fight scenes, punkish attitude and incessant stream of great jokes brought to life, two studios – Lionsgate in the United States and Universal in the UK – agreed to distribute the film.
It would have been mighty difficult for Vaughn to make KICK-ASS without… Kick-Ass. Yet, with the film deep in pre-production, that’s exactly the scenario he faced, with Vaughn unable to find an actor to fill the yellow boots of his hero, hapless-teen-turned-plucky-hero, Dave Lizewski.
"I nearly put the movie back six months," says Vaughn. "We’d cast all the other roles, but without the right guy as Dave? Forget it."
Vaughn had imposed an edict: the role of Dave, a New York teenager, would not be played by a Brit. "I was paranoid – as a British filmmaker shooting this in England with a British cast, we would do a Dick van Dyke in reverse," laughs Vaughn. "But the problem is that these guys were screen-testing, and they could do the geeky guy, but the scenes with emotion and heart? There would be nothing."
Then, Vaughn’s casting directors, Sarah Finn and Lucinda Syson, encouraged him to take a look at a tape from a young actor named Aaron Johnson, which Vaughn had earlier turned down without viewing. When he did, the star-making part of his brain, the part that discovered Vinnie Jones, Sienna Miller and set Daniel Craig on the road to Bond, began to light up. "I knew immediately," says Vaughn. "I wanted to say, ‘you’ve got the role’, right then and there. But I had to calm down. I said, ‘where are you from? LA? New York?’ And he says, ‘Little Chalfont’. I thought he was joking. I said, ‘that’s a bloody good English accent you’ve got there.’" The casting director clued me in that he really was English, which was why we’d rejected his audition tape originally.
Johnson – seen most recently as John Lennon in Sam Taylor-Wood’s NOWHERE BOY – was delighted to secure the role of Dave Lizewski (named after a Millar fan who won a charity auction to be immortalized as Kick-Ass), as he sets out on his painful road to becoming a hero. Mainly because, unlike most actors who play superheroes, Kick-Ass’ sheer incompetence meant that Johnson didn’t have to embark upon grueling training. Quite the opposite, actually. "Matthew said, ‘You’ve got to cut down on the gym and whatever you’re doing’," laughs Johnson. "You’ve got to lose a bit of weight and look really nerdy and bony, so the wetsuit looks baggy. I was happy with a training regimen of sitting on my sofa eating crackers."
But for Johnson, the appeal of the character lay far beyond his lack of pecs. "My take on it was he was a young lad, a comic book fan, who was shy with girls. He doesn’t have a whole lot going for him, so he tries to stand out from the crowd by becoming a superhero, and that’s when he becomes interesting."
Kick-Ass – so named because Millar thought it would be exactly what a teenage superhero would call himself – becomes interesting after his first mission when two car thieves stab him in the stomach. Oh, and then he gets run over by a car. Cue several weeks in hospital and the insertion of metal plates in his back which, along with dulled nerve endings, greatly enhance Kick-Ass’ capacity for pain.
Emboldened, he ventures out again, thwarts an attempted mugging and, thanks to a nearby crowd filming the fight and immediately uploading it to YouTube, becomes an internet phenomenon. From there, his adventures become increasingly outlandish as he attracts the attention of Mob boss, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), who blames Kick-Ass for the havoc wreaked on his organization. He then comes across Big Daddy and Hit Girl and from there, Kick-Ass – the movie and character – spirals into a world of outlandish violence and surreal, scabrous comedy. "It’s teenage high-school humor mixed with dark, messed-up violence," says Johnson. "To me, it’s SUPERBAD meets KILL BILL."
The mention of SUPERBAD may not be an accident, for Vaughn cast Christopher Mintz-Plasse – indelible as McLovin in Greg Mottola’s hilarious coming-of-age comedy – as Red Mist, a superhero who befriends Kick-Ass only for his motives to be revealed as less than pure.
Mintz-Plasse had actually read for the role of Dave – "I guess I had too much energy and charisma!" he laughs – before Vaughn offered him the role of Red Mist. (Interestingly, Johnson had initially read for the role of Red Mist, long before getting the callback to read for Kick-Ass).
In the comic book, Millar hadn’t yet revealed Red Mist’s true identity, so Vaughn and Goldman took the opportunity to make him the son of Kick-Ass’ true bad guy, D’Amico. In fact, Goldman even named Chris D’Amico after the actor. "I had Chris in my head, while writing the dialogue," she laughs. "I never told him that, because it sounded a bit lame!"
A bit lame is a perfect description of Red Mist, a rich kid who desperately wants to garner the affection of his father, who despairs that his son isn’t tough enough for the family business. When Red Mist nearly breaks his ankle jumping off a dumpster, it’s easy to see Frank’s point of view. "You wouldn’t look at me and go, ‘that guy’s a superhero!’" admits Mintz-Plasse. "He’s a comic book nerd, which helps him become a superhero, because he knows what he needs."
What he needs are all the tools and tricks of the trade, including a flashy custom-built costume that makes Kick-Ass’ look like a wetsuit that he bought on the internet (largely because that’s just what it is) and, more impressively, the Mistmobile, a souped-up red Ford Mustang which he uses to cruise the streets of New York. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, Kick-Ass and Red Mist drive along while dancing like two drunk dads at a wedding, to Gnarls Barkley’s "Crazy." "We were just messing around with it," says Johnson, "Sitting there and doing a ridiculous dance. It was hilarious. Matthew was like, ‘I might actually use that’. And he did!"
Mintz-Plasse, meanwhile, was concentrating on just one thing: trying not to panic. "It looks like it was fun but it was so stressful for me," he confesses. "It’s a stick-shift and I’d never driven a stick-shift in my life, so I had to learn on a $200,000 car. Matthew was like, ‘If you screw this up, I’m going to have your bloody career on a stick!’ But I didn’t crash and die!"
BIG DADDY & HIT GIRL
If you think that the relationship between Kick-Ass and Red Mist is complicated, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Meet Damon Macready and Mindy Macready, a father and daughter with one heck of a secret: when they’re not making hot chocolate with marshmallows for each other, they operate as Big Daddy and Hit Girl, highly-trained, heavily-armed costumed vigilantes, committing the organized attacks on D’Amico’s crew that he erroneously pins on Kick-Ass. Alone, they’re formidable – Big Daddy can take out a warehouse full of goons without even breaking a sweat, while Hit Girl is a dab hand with a samurai sword and ninja throwing stars – but together they may just be unstoppable, and one of the most remarkable superhero tag-teams to grace the silver screen.
As played by Chloë Grace Moretz – now thirteen years old – Hit Girl is a sparky, spunky force of nature, likely to be an instant icon redolent of Jodie Foster in TAXI DRIVER, and Natalie Portman in THE PROFESSIONAL (released internationally as LEON). It’s a heck of a part, calling for a hard-as-nails attitude, athleticism and an unexpectedly tender emotional core as events conspire against the teeny terror. Unlike the search for a Kick-Ass, though, Vaughn didn’t have to wait too long to find his Hit Girl.
"I saw just two girls," he says. "Chloë came in, tested, and that was it." In fact, Vaughn brought in his STARDUST star, Charlie Cox, to read on camera with Moretz. "I wanted her to be relaxed and Charlie’s a sweetheart," says Vaughn. "But halfway through the first take he looks at me and mouths, ‘Shit, I have to raise my game’. I was laughing, but I was gobsmacked as well. That happened with every actor – they’d be talking to her like she was a seven year-old and then I called ‘action!’, and all of them would be like, ‘I am being blown off screen by a child!’ After two weeks, nobody treated her like a kid."
For Moretz, the role was something of a gift. "About a month before I got the role, WANTED came out," she says. "It was on all the buses and I was like, ‘ohmigosh, mom, I want an Angelina Jolie-type role, a young woman who takes charge.’" Roles like that for teenagers are typically hard to come by, but Moretz was in luck. "Then KICK-ASS came up, and when I read it, I was freaking out. I was screaming for three days straight when I got the role because I was so much looking forward to doing a fantasy movie and wearing a superhero costume."
Nicolas Cage, who plays Big Daddy, has nothing but gushing praise for his young co-star. "I just really liked Chloë," he says. "I knew she was going to be an enormous star because of how well she performed. I gave her a little starfish from Tiffany when we wrapped, because real stars are nice people, and that’s what she is."
Cage’s involvement in KICK-ASS seemed to Vaughn like something of a no-brainer. Long renowned as one of Hollywood’s most prominent comic book aficionados, Cage had circled several comic book movies before finally scratching his itch in 2007 with GHOST RIDER. But KICK-ASS – and Big Daddy – gave him a chance to bring something different to the superhero genre.
"The comic book movie to me is a perfect form of entertainment," he says. "They’re like the modern Western in some ways." Cage had initially been offered a choice of playing Frank D’Amico or Damon, and responded strongly to the latter. "I thought that was where the heart was, in the relationship between Big Daddy and Hit Girl. I thought that’s where the emotion could be."
"I wanted a movie star in that role," says Vaughn. "I like the formula of having your lead be an unknown so that the character is that character. But Big Daddy was the bit of tinsel you need to get people to notice the movie. I thought Cage could bring a unique flavor to it which he did."
Indeed. Not only does Cage manage to make the borderline-insane Damon likeable and human, but he also provides much of the film’s humor. In one scene, where Big Daddy and Hit Girl visit Dave Lizewski in his bedroom, Cage – speaking as Big Daddy for the first time – launches into a pitch-perfect impersonation of the lilting, lurching tones of Adam West, who famously played Batman in the 60s TV show.
"Big Daddy is my ode to Adam West who, for me, is the only Batman. I grew up watching Adam West and he still has yet to be topped, in my opinion," says Cage. "He had this odd rhythm to his delivery, and I just wanted to tip my hat to him a little bit, to actors like him and William Shatner, who I think really started a whole cultural movement."
Cage’s West tribute may have come out of the blue during rehearsals ("I was pissing myself laughing when he did it," giggles Johnson), but the nod to Batman and West was entirely apt, as Big Daddy’s look is modeled on Batman, with his costume resembling in some ways the Caped Crusader’s. "Matthew wanted me to have a yellow belt," recalls Cage. "It looked so much like the original belt from the "Batman" TV show that I thought, well, why don't we just go the whole way and have Damon be channeling Adam West because that's his Jungian muse, to help him accomplish the things that he accomplishes."
Vaughn is keen to point out, though, that the costumes don’t overlap as much as a first glance might suggest. "The helmet is very different from Batman’s helmet," he says. "It reminded me of [Brian de Palma’s] PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, actually. But the rest is stuff that can be bought on the internet, meaning riot gear. Most of his outfit is French riot gear. The shoulders, all the pads, that’s what the French riot police wear, in a different color. If you’re going to get beaten up on the terraces, that’s what you want to be wearing!"
But, when the costumes are off, the key to the Damon/Mindy relationship is that they’re truly devoted to each other… even if the relationship is a tad more twisted than your normal father-daughter pairing.
"I would say that he’s a man who genuinely loves his daughter but he’s misguided," explains Cage. "He’s been confused by anger and vengeance and has actually lost his mind thinking of ways to protect his daughter by putting her into violent situations. He feels that if she gets a dog, that might get her killed. But if he gets her a butterfly knife, that might actually save her life."
"But I wanted Damon to be the nicest father in the world," he continues. "So that it would be a counterpoint to the things that they were up to as Big Daddy and Hit Girl."
HIT GIRL ATTACKS
It’s the moment that defines Kick-Ass’ attitude, the line that will assure the film its place in the zeitgeist. When Kick-Ass is overwhelmed by goons following an ill-advised trip to a drug den to warn a thug off his would-be girlfriend, he is given a surprising reprieve when his attacker is speared through the stomach by a samurai sword. As he drops out of frame, we see Hit Girl—for the first time in her full costume, replete with purple Clara Bow wig—assume battle pose and deliver a line including a word that begins with C. We won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say it’s very rude. It’s a show-stopping moment, adapted precisely from the comic, but one that nearly didn’t happen.
"The script didn’t say the C word," Vaughn reveals. "It was in the comic. There had been some fanboy speculation and advance complaints that the film would shy away from reproducing that memorable line. Yet I still thought, ‘You know what? This is too far. I can’t do it.’ But we did all these takes and it just wasn’t having any impact. I was with Chloë’s mother, Teri, who had read the comic, and understood the singular impact the word made. She and Chloë agreed that it made sense to shoot one take with the word included." Vaughn recounts Teri reminding everyone ‘It’s Hit Girl saying it, not my daughter," a boundary that Chloë certainly also understands all too well, adding "Of course I’d heard that word, but if I ever said it outside of this role, my Mom and Dad would ground me for the rest of my life!"
Besides, Hit Girl should not be defined by her way with a choice invective every now and again. This, after all, is the girl who puts the kick-ass in KICK-ASS. "By the end of the filming," admits Johnson, "she could take me and Chris on at once, and take us both down. She became a mini-Schwarzenegger!" In scene after scene, Hit Girl mows down scores of D’Amico’s henchmen like an unstoppable squirrel that’s armed to the teeth. There will be some who cry ‘irresponsible!’ but it could be that they’re simply missing the point. "Even my agent balked at it," laughs Mark Strong. "I remember her saying to me, when I said I was interested, ‘it’s got a twelve year old girl who kills people and gets away with it. Is that morally sound?’ I thought, ‘I don’t care, it looks like great fun!’."
"But what Matthew’s done, very cleverly, with the music is to reinforce that notion that it’s otherworldly, that it’s a comic book universe. The kind of violence you see in the film is 100% hyper-real," a signature of the revenge-fantasy genre in which the film is solidly steeped.
Unlike Johnson and his laissez-faire training regime, Moretz had to dedicate herself to getting in shape for the role. "I did a lot of training," she says, already the mistress of understatement. "I did about four to five months of training before the movie started. It was crazy. I did a thousand crunches a night and like 70 push-ups and 70 pull-ups." The training also involved getting to grips with Hit Girl’s weapons, including her favorite method of death dealing, a butterfly knife. "It’s like a third hand," she says. "That took me about a month and a half to get down pat. And I can actually still do that – we have a fake one here and when I’m bored, I start flipping it around!"
Hit Girl is at the center of most of KICK-ASS’ action scenes; scenes which Vaughn knew could define the film stylistically, from a strobe lit shoot-out that plays like a particularly brilliant videogame to the raucous scene at Rasul’s and a climactic showdown at D’Amico’s apartment. "I decided to make each action sequence different and unique," says Vaughn. "Action-wise, I was bored of shaky cam and quick editing. Good action is about so much more than throwing the camera around. I like knowing who’s doing what and where and how."
"So, for the strobe sequence, that gave us a legitimate excuse to use slow-motion without it looking like a gimmick. There’s a storytelling reason. My second unit guys said, ‘strobe sounds stupid’. But SWAT guys use them in America. So we got one, went into the toilets, turned the lights off. I turned it on and said, ‘ok, hit me.’ They couldn’t because the light is too bright – it’s a little girl in this scene, and we have to justify how she can take out all these people. So she puts on the strobe and kicks their arses doing that."
Another standout action sequence involves Big Daddy taking out an entire warehouse of D’Amico’s henchmen; a feat made even more impressive by the fact it was done in one take. "When I said that’s what I wanted to do, everyone’s jaws hit the floor," laughs Vaughn. "But what I didn’t want to do was what I call Hong Kong Phooey, where a hundred people are fighting the guy and they’re all waiting for him to finish with the guy he’s fighting before they attack. That drives me insane, so I had to keep changing the choreography otherwise Big Daddy would have had his head blown off by the guy with a shotgun. So we had to apply real sense to it all. As a director, I love style. I don’t like style over content. I’m always trying to think, how can I make things stylish and cool, but have a reason behind it?"
In many ways, KICK-ASS is the ultimate comic book movie. Like the Millar/Romita Jr. comic, KICK-ASS is stuffed to the gills with references to comic books and other superhero movies. "With no power comes no responsibility" is a play on Spider-Man’s catchphrase, "with great power comes great responsibility." There are also multiple references to Batman and Superman, and the movie constantly plays with the tropes and conventions of the genre.
"It’s a love letter to comic books," says Vaughn, echoing a phrase used by both Goldman and Millar. "It’s a post-modern comic book movie, it’s a comic book movie for now. I feel that comic book movies have become creaky. You can’t get away with cookie-cutter superhero movies anymore, and I feel that kids are going to relate to this."
As a result it was important that the tone be cheeky but reverent for Vaughn, and that the subversions of the conventions of the superhero genre be playful. "There is definitely an element of parody in there but it comes from a place of great affection. It’s about paying homage to something that I love rather than holding it up for ridicule."
"I wanted to steep it in the comic book world," adds Vaughn. "It was about deconstructing everything I loved. Not destroying it. There’s not one negative aspect to the way that any of these characters, apart from Frank, is depicted. He’s the only one who’s got a problem with superheroes. Everyone else thinks they’re cool."