Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
London’s starting to feel familiar at this point.
When I was a kid, it always seemed like all the coolest films were shooting in England, and it always sounded impossibly far away. I’d read about STAR WARS or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or the latest James Bond film, and I’d try to imagine what sort of places existed where that sort of magic could take place.
SMASH CUT TO: Tarquin Pack, Matthew Vaughn’s right-hand man, standing next to me on Stage Eight at Elstree Studios, pointing at a spot on the floor where the word “TANK” is stenciled in white.
“Right there,” he says. “That’s where they dunked Han Solo in the carbonite. That’s where Indy started his descent into the Well Of Souls. Right. Fucking. There.”
Forget familiar. This place feels like home.
Let’s back up a bit. The first time I heard of KICK-ASS was before it began publication. Matthew Vaughn called to talk about how he was getting ready to buy the rights to something new. “Something even you haven’t heard of yet,” he crowed. He was still working on THOR at the time, but I could hear some anxiety creeping in when we spoke, anxiety over the way development was progressing. Matthew’s a guy who doesn’t do things in half-measures, and I’ve learned that he’ll walk away from something if he feels like he’s got to compromise it, and his vision of THOR was enormous. After the relative box-office disappointment of STARDUST, it hardly seemed like he was going to be able to wrestle his $300 million Asgard up onto the screen intact, so I got the feeling he was looking for a plan B. He promised he’d call me when he could reveal what the project was, but things must have accelerated rapidly for him, because the next time I heard from him, he was already neck-deep in preparing this one for production. He filled me in on what had been going on, and it seemed amazing how quickly they’d gotten this production up on its feet.
By the time KICK-ASS began publication, Matthew was already hard at work on the screenplay with his writing partner, the rowdy and razor-sharp Jane Goldman. She and her husband, Jonathan Ross (both rabid comic book fans), were the ones who put Matthew together with Mark Millar in the first place, and because they were involved with KICK-ASS from the treatment stage, it’s created a strange sort of cross-pollination of ideas between the filmmakers and Millar and John Romita Jr., who are the primary creative team on the comic.
I read and reviewed the script not long ago, and then started talking to Matthew about joining them in England for part of the shoot. I thought it was a provocative read with some very distinct challenges built in for any filmmaker. Although it was nowhere near the scale of THOR, it seemed equally ambitious in a different way. Deconstruction of a genre is a tricky thing, and right now, it seems like there are several people working on various deconstructions of the superhero genre. HANCOCK made a go of it this summer, and there are some very good ideas in that film, desperately searching for a story strong enough to support them. One might argue that Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT is both a genuine superhero film and a simultaneous deconstruction, the UNFORGIVEN of the genre so far. And, of course, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal WATCHMEN looms large on the 2009 horizon right now. So what chance does this scrappy little independent British film have of carving out its own place in the pop culture consciousness.
A damn good one, if you ask me.
I left Los Angeles mid-afternoon on a Wednesday and touched down at Heathrow around 3:00 in the afternoon on Thursday. That always freaks me out, and since I found myself completely unable to sleep on the flight despite being comfortably ensconced in business class and loaded up on Benadryl, my body clock was full-blown haywire by the time my driver managed to drop me at my hotel in Shepherd’s Bush. I was right around the corner from the almost-obscenely large Westfield shopping mall they’re building there, so construction made the entire area a sort of nonstop circus while I was there.
A quick ten-hour coma left me refreshed and ready to go at 8:00 on Friday morning. My driver picked me up and hustled me to Elstree so we arrived just before 9:30 AM, and once again, I found myself giddy at the prospect of visiting another of England’s legendary studios. I’ve been to Pinewood while STARDUST was shooting, and I went to Shepperton for both INKHEART and THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Elstree was the last of the old-school studios I was desperate to visit, and as I checked in and walked through the front gates, I’m sure I was positively beaming. I was directed into one of the first buildings, told to go upstairs. I found the KICK-ASS offices, and immediately recognized the names of everyone who had helped arrange my trip. They sat me down, handed me a stack of the Millar comics that had been published so far, and left to find the unit publicist. I hadn’t read the book, just the script, so it was interesting reading it as a reverse example of adaptation. Seeing what choices were made and why. For the part of the story that the comics covered, both tellings were fairly close in content and tone. Little dialogue tweaks, some character adjustments, but basically the same exact thing. It’s going to be a faithful experience if you’re a fan of the book. And within that, this cast seems to be having a lot of fun engaging and creating one of the hands-down craziest things I’ve ever watched shoot.
And I mean crazy in a “wow, I can’t believe someone’s trying this” sort of way. I have trouble believing Vaughn put together the muscle to make this film independently, his way, using every stage at Elstree, including the big giant George Lucas Stage, opened up into the stage next to it so one set could be built that spanned the full length of both of them. This is a pretty elaborate “indie” in terms of scale and subject matter. When I was greeted by Stacy Mann, the publicist, we chatted for a while and went to meet Tarquin, who I mentioned earlier. I’ve known him for many years now, on a series of films, and as always, even in the midst of an obviously large and hectic production, he seems unflappable. Always in motion, but never in a rush. He walked me around to the stages himself, and as we talked about Elstree and how much fun he’s been having on the stages for the exact geekstalgic reasons I was excited to be there, he told me what part of each stage was used for what in the past, and I can tell he’s done his homework because of his own curiosity.
Weirdest part? The Big Brother house for the UK? It’s on the Elstree backlot, right across from the George Lucas stage.
That made me laugh for some reason, that collision of brand-new “cutting edge” 21st century reality infotainment and old-school big-budget blockbusters. Especially as I stepped onto the two-stage sets that represent the apartment of Frank D’Amico, played by the great Mark Strong. Frank’s a gangster, a businessman who has used his lumber company and other legitimate holdings as a front while amassing a huge illegal fortune. He’s got his fingers in a thousand different dirty deals all over New York, but he loves to put on a good face and flaunt his wealth. The apartment set was unfinished when I was there, but enough of it was done to see just how amazing the final set would be. The main hallway down the center of the apartment is several hundred yards long, one end given over to a massive balcony overlooking the city. That’s where some of the key action at the end of the film’s going to be staged, and the apartment was built so that everything could be done for real on the same set.
Frank’s got a son in the film, a high-school aged kid who he has assigned a bodyguard, and his son is miserable, completely isolated from everyone by this protective bubble in which his father keeps him encased. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, known to most film fans as McLovin in SUPERBAD, is playing Chris D'Amico, and at a certain point in the film, he decides to use his father’s money to become a costumed vigilante called The Red Mist. When we left the George Lucas stage, we walked across to the machine shop, where the Red Mist Mobile was sitting, waiting for its next appearance on camera. Calling the Red Mist Mobile a “car” is like calling Megan Fox a “girl” or calling LeBron James a “ball player.” It just doesn’t sum up the full impact of the thing. This thing is sex on wheels, and Tarquin asked if I wanted to climb in and start it up. I’m not a car fetishist, but if I had access to a machine like this, I might be persuaded. The rumble when I started it up and revved the engine shook my insides like jelly, and if there had been the slightest chance of me driving that thing off the studio lot without incident, I might have backed over Tarquin and made for the gate. I think he could see it in my eyes, too, because he suggested that we should head over to the set where they were getting ready for the first set-up of the day.
Oddly, though, they weren’t using any of the soundstages for the first scene. Instead, Tarquin led me into one of the Elstree office buildings, up to the second floor. First thing I saw as we came off the stairwell was Chris Mintz-Plasse in his full Red Mist outfit, and the first thing that flashed through my mind was VELVET GOLDMINE. The costumes in this film aren’t like the ultra-perfect design work done in movies like SPIDER-MAN or the BATMAN series, where you wonder how anyone is supposed to have made those costumes without an army of professionals helping out. In the world of KICK-ASS, everything’s got a handmade quality to it. Now, Chris D’Amico has money in the film, so he’s spent some coin putting together his Red Mist outfit, but even so, it’s more like something some glam rock kid would have worn to a club in London in the ‘70s than like what we’re used to seeing in superhero films so far. He’s got an outrageous hairpiece that tops off the look, and the effect is that you’re so busy looking at the outfit, you’d never notice the kid wearing it, exactly what his character wants. Well-played. I hadn’t seen Chris since the YEAR ONE set last year, so we spent a minute chatting, catching up, and as we talked, Chloe Moretz walked by in her Hit Girl outfit, and I realized I’d stopped talking so I could stare.
Hit Girl and Big Daddy are, in my opinion, the break-out characters of the film. I think the whole thing is smartly written, and everyone’s got great stuff to play, but there’s something so immediate and so right about Hit Girl and Big Daddy that I find it hard to believe they didn’t exist before this series. Although the entire conception of KICK-ASS has to do with the idea of costumed vigilantes in an identifiably real world, the concept finds its ultimate expression in these two, a homicidal riff on Batman and Robin. This is the ugly face of vigilante justice at its absolute ugliest, the logical end game, and there’s something monstrous and perverted about just how much fun they are. One of the reasons I was brought in for the three particular days I was is because there’s only one scene in the film where Hit Girl, Big Daddy, The Red Mist, and Kick-Ass all end up in one room together in costume, and that’s the first thing they were set to shoot on the morning I arrived. One of the rooms in that Elstree office building had been redressed to look like one of Big Daddy’s safehouses, and that’s where I found Matthew Vaughn, already behind the monitor and ready to go.
By that point, Chloe Moretz was in the room, practicing for a tumble out a window she’d have to take in the middle of the scene. Keep in mind, this girl is eleven years old, just like the Hit Girl in the comics, and over the course of my stay in London, I saw her involved in gunfights, doing stunts, and killing gangsters with hydraulic machinery. This is not the typical work by a girl her age, and yet, Chloe seemed completely nonplussed about the extremity of the role the entire time I was there. Chris Mintz-Plasse was the second actor to make his way into the room, and he seemed eager to get going. Aaron Johnson, the star of the film, showed up next in full Kick-Ass regalia, my first time seeing the costume head to toe, and there couldn’t be more of a difference in the way he carries himself and the way Chris carries himself. When you’re wearing a costume as outrageous as these are, you have to sell it. You have to go out on a limb in terms of the choices you’re making, and it’s only now... sitting here writing about it... that I sort of realize how much trust all four of these actors had having me on set for that particular morning. Chloe’s young enough that she might not be self-conscious about it. Besides, Hit Girl’s the coolest of the bunch. Her outfit’s a variation on a schoolgirl outfit, but with body armor, leather-wrapped. She’s got a purple wig and a small black mask, and Chloe’s got a sneer that would make Elvis Presley proud, like if Batman adopted a tiny female Billy Idol as his sidekick.
Aaron, on the other hand, seemed to be constantly... ready. Coiled. Aaron seems like not only can he handle himself, but he’s ready to. He seems comfortable with the outrageousness, so over it at this point. They’re not overselling him as a nerd or a geek or anything of the sort, which is certainly a danger. It’s when he’s out of the costume that some of that started to come out. But in the costume? And with the mask on? He seems at home.
Chris and Aaron talked to Matthew for a moment, and then walked back out of the set, into the hallway outside where they were out of view from video village. Matthew, Jane Goldman, soundman badass extreme Simon “Purple” Hayes, and about four or five others were huddled in a small room on the other side of a non-existent fourth wall for the safe house. There was one wall, with a window into the alley, one wall covered in guns and armament, one wall with the door. And then all of us about five feet away.
So for a moment, it was just Chloe, sitting in the window, and then Nicolas Cage walked in.
Now, like I said... everyone’s in full costume. And up till now, I’ve had no indication what to expect from Big Daddy. The Dark Knight to Hit Girl’s Boy Wonder. And like I said... having me there for the shoot required an act of trust on the part of everyone, including Cage. I’ve never met him before this, but I’ve certainly been a fan since the ‘80s, and part of that is because he’s always pushed boundaries with his work. He’s made some great films. He’s given some great performances. He’s made some big movies and given some entertaining performances. He’s been in awful films. He’s been in flawed wild weird experiments. He’s been in playful messes. More than anything, he always seems to me to be a guy who comes in and makes some big bold choices.
That is definitely the case with Big Daddy.
Matthew went over to talk to him at the desk which was the only piece of furniture in the room. Nic was supposed to start the scene seated at the desk, in his outfit, talking with HitGirl, seated in the open window with her back to the alley, also in her outfit. They’re waiting for someone to arrive. There’s a knock at the door, and it’s Red Mist and Kick-Ass. They come in to talk for a moment, and then...
... actually, I’m going to save that for more of the set report tomorrow. I’ve got KICK-ASS stuff to share with you from now till the morning of BNAT, and each day, I’ll have a new exclusive image or two for you.
Today, here’s a look at the moment where Kick-Ass and Red Mist first meet. As always, click to embiggen to jumbo size:
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles