MARK MILLAR - THE KINGSMAN's Secret Weapon: Making Movies Out of Comic Books

Kingsman: The Secret Service
Credit: 20th Century Fox
Credit: 20th Century Fox

If you got a hankering for a comic book movie, this weekend offers the first of a big year – 20th Century Fox and director Matthew Vaughn's super-spy thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service – an adaptation of comic book writer Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons 2012–13 six-issue Icon series The Secret Service.

Kingsman will be the fourth Millar-created comic book to be translated to the big screen, following 2008's Wanted from Universal, and 2010 and 2013's Kick-Ass (also directed by Vaughn) and Kick-Ass 2 from Universal and Lionsgate. Plus he has several others in various stages of development.

We recently conversed with Millar about how he approaches his comic book work (does he have movies in mind when writing?), why he's had so much success getting his stories adapted to film, about letting go of the comic book as it gets liberally translated for film, and his favorite film production experiences.

And since we had him on the line, yes, we couldn't help but ask his thoughts on Marvel and Sony working out a deal that will probably make Spider-Man available for 2016's Captain America: Civil War (based on another comic book he wrote) and what sort of role Spidey could play.

His answer may surprise you...

Credit: Icon

Newsarama: Mark, Kingsman: The Secret Service will be the fourth feature film adaptation of one of your creator-owned comic books and you have several more in various stages of development. So let us in on your creative process. When you're creating the concepts and characters and plot, before you're actually writing the scripts to be drawn by an artist, do you visualize them in your head as films or as comic books?

Mark Millar: Comic books. Always. If I planned them as a movie I'd just do them as a movie. It's a really weird question to be honest, like asking Stan and Jack if when they created the X-Men they saw them as a series of movies, action figures and video games. The answer is of course not. Even when I was writing Kick-Ass 3 I saw the drawings in my head, not Aaron and Chloe.

Nrama: So in your mind, are those things completely distinguishable?

Millar: Comics and movies? It's a really weird question. What's a movie? A movie is Boyhood and Grand Budapest Hotel and Transformers and The Red Shoes. They each feel entirely different from one another and really just a story. In that sense, I think it's impossible to set out to craft a comic that will become a movie because a movie is a nebulous as a blank page. Was Scott Pilgrim crafted as such? It's an odd question I'm often asked, but makes no sense.

Nrama: Fair enough Mark. Given the extraordinary rate your movies are adapted to and optioned for film and given characters in your titles have been seemingly modeled after real-life actors, I don't think it's that out of left field. Nor is it a criticism, by the way.

Credit: Top Cow

Millar: That's a pretty crazy idea to be honest. If basing a character’s face or hair or whatever on a specific actor got you a movie deal DC would be drawing Metamorpho to look like Chris Pratt. It makes no sense at all.

You don't cloud the minds of movie execs into parting with a hundred million dollars because there's a visual similarity. The characters can look like actors for a variety of reasons.

One, a lot of artists are very reliant on photo-ref. Two, when introducing new characters in particular, characters who haven't been established yet, an old comic-book trick is to base them on actors so people can follow who they are, especially ones not in identifiable costumes. Bruce Wayne was based on Gregory Peck back in the forties and artists in the Silver Age would use Rock Hudson or Cary Grant for Superman. But most often it's visual shorthand between the writer and artist.

Ultimate Nick Fury's first appearance
Ultimate Nick Fury's first appearance
Credit: Marvel Comics

When I had the African American Nick Fury in Ultimate X-Men #10, I based him on Colin Powell because he held a similar post within the Bush administration. Bryan Hitch took it a step away from that and evolved the Rat Pack cool of the Steranko Fury into the Sam Jackson cool of that period and gave him that younger, cooler look. Did the Marvel cinematic movies happen because Bryan would base a lot of these visuals on actors? Of course not. It really makes no sense at all.

Nrama: Okay, then moving along, do you conceive work-for-hire or DC/Marvel stories, for example, any different than you would your creator-owned work.?

Millar: No, they're all just stories to me. It's interesting that a lot of moments in my Marvel period for example ended up in their movies, but it was never our intention on Ultimates or Ultimate FF or the possible Wolverine things that have been talked about in interviews. All I know is that a big pile of books get dropped on the desk of execs and quite often the work I've done at the company gets pulled out, which is all very flattering, but I've never really considered why. I guess from a writing point of view I like to employ a three-act structure, which can work well in cinema, perhaps in the same way that artists can be photo-realistic or cartoony.

Nrama: Well on that note, and sorry to put you on the spot, but why you… or why your work?

In terms of numbers, it's Frank Miller, Alan Moore and you and no one else that have had their comic books adapted for feature films, and Watchmen, and V for Vendetta and Sin City were all conceived at a time when a feature film adaptation was unlikely. And given your rate of new properties being optioned, you're really a unique entity. So what's Mark Millar's secret?

Millar: Again, there's no answer to that. It's like asking why some songs catch on or some novels sell a million copies. They just resonate somehow, but I think the trick, oddly enough, is to just focus on the comic.

Credit: Icon

Watchmen, V, Sin City, 300 and Kick-Ass are all completely different animals. There's no formula. You just do your best, work in a field you love, and sometimes your enthusiasm reaches people who want to take it other places, which is ideal because it helps your publishing a lot if the mainstream are aware of your ideas.

Nrama: Certainly many of your creator-owned projects are completely different animals, but do you think there is a Mark Millar common thread? Something, perhaps minor, that you consider part of your unique POV?

Millar: Not really. The thing execs often say to me is that they can understand my stories. They're generally not reliant on anything outside of the story itself. No prior knowledge is really necessary to enjoy Ultimates, for example, because I'd read maybe ten Avengers comics in my life before starting the book (mostly reprints of the Roy Thomas and John Buscema era in those Treasury Editions from the 70s).

Even Wolverine: Old Man Logan, despite drawing on Marvel folklore, is very broadly drawing on a knowledge of what some characters are called or what they can do because I didn't really grow up with Marvel like I did with DC and my knowledge was limited.

What would be a handicap if I worked in the Marvel Universe, not knowing the continuity, thus became a strength as the books could be read by non-fans in the way movies need to appeal to the broader market. Creator-owned obviously eliminates that problem for every creative team because there's no confusing back-history where Hawkeye used to be Ant-Man or whatever, which I guess is why studios keep an eye on all the creator-owned books in the hope of finding the next 300.

Nrama: Which of your movies have you been closest to in terms of actually seeing through in terms of adaptation? Being involved in the creative process? And how were you involved?

Credit: Universal Studios

Millar: Of the four that have been released, the two with Matthew [Vaughn] directing are probably the ones I've felt closest to in the sense that we talk every day and every single detail is scrutinized. Everything is considered. Wanted was a fantastic experience, but more in the sense that this had never happened to me before. Marvel adapting a book even now is them adapting something they own, but Wanted was the first taste for J.G. and I of seeing something that belonged to us suddenly out there with sets being built and Angelina sitting in make-up and 300 people walking around a forest.

As an executive producer you can be involved a tiny amount, as I was on Wanted, really just watching cuts and chipping in a few ideas. Or you can be talking about it every day for 18 months.

Nrama: Have you or do you have an ambition to write the actual screenplay for one of the films based on your comic books? And/or direct? Would you like to make that leap?

Millar: Not especially. I thought about making a micro budget superhero movie a few years back, but somebody had the idea two full years ahead of me [laughs].

Nrama: Mark, you're well-versed enough in comic book online fandom to know many fans feel it is sacrilege to loosely adapt iconic comic book properties. You've had to watch your own creations freely adapted for the big screen.

Do you relate to how hard it is for people to let go of properties they're close to when they're turned into movie? Any advice for fans how to deal with not seeing what you've envisioned – what's personal to you – up there on the big screen?

Millar: Not really. [Sam] Raimi's Spider-Man ends with Mary Jane being tossed off the bridge and surviving when in the books it was Gwen and she died. You just have to accept it's a different medium with different needs.

Kick-Ass 1 had Dave not getting the girl in the book and it worked fine, but cinematically Dave had to get the girl or we'd have left feeling horrible after everything he went through.

In the book Dave's mask hides his mouth. In the movie we had to have it cut so the full range of emotions could be done and the sound worked better. You can't get too precious. The important thing is that it's good.

Nrama: Can you name a change made to one of your properties where you really had (and maybe still do) a hard time with?

Millar: Not really. Even Timur [Bekmambetov]’s thing with the looms in Wanted, which was pretty wacky, was fun and it made more sense to the general public than my background for the assassins in the comic, which is that it all related to a takeover by the super-villains in 1986 which we, as comic readers, perceived as Crisis on Infinite Earths, etc.

Nrama: How about a change where you said 'oh, duh, I wish I had originally thought of that'?

Millar: That way lies madness.

Nrama: Speaking about Kingsman specifically, this is upfront a softball question, but how happy are you with the finished product? For readers of the original Secret Service, tell then why they need to see Kingsman?

Millar: Matthew's made five great movies. Most of the people I know reckon this is his best one. If you miss spies who cracked jokes as they killed people, dressed well and enjoy getting up in the morning this is the movie for you.

Nrama: Why are you drawn to Mathew as a collaborator or why are you drawn to one another?

Millar: It’s funny because Matthew and I couldn't come from more different backgrounds. I was a poor kid growing up in the west of Scotland where the industrial landscape had been decimated in my childhood, lots of adults I knew losing their jobs when I was a kid and never working again, whereas Matthew genuinely supported the political party who were de-industrializing the north [laughs]. He's a massive Conservative and has even directed a party political broadcast for them.

I grew up unable to afford a family car whereas he had a butler and a private jet. Our lives couldn't be more different and yet we have this huge thing in common, an enormous thing, which is a love of the same stuff that we saw at exactly the same age. We were both around seven for Star Wars, eight for Superman, ten or eleven for Raiders and so on and then we watched all the great eighties movies at precisely the age those movies work best. I think our first phone call was several hours long as all our favorite movies, even the obscure ones like Being There, were the same pictures in the same order. So yeah, it's like any friendship or working relationship in that we just have tons in common.

Nrama: We can't let you go without asking about another comic book story of yours being adapted for the big screen – Civil War. You've commented briefly about it already, but any expanded thoughts?

Millar: I'm sure it'll be good. Marvel has a great track record and the Russo Bros are fantastic. They tie with James Gunn as the best talent at the studio.

Nrama: As of Monday, Mark, we've learned Marvel and Sony have worked out a deal to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Obviously people are speculating he'll play some role in next year's Captain America: Civil War that starts shooting in April. Any thoughts on what role Spider-Man could play in the film and any thoughts on what elements from the comic book story in general you'd like to see translate to the Marvel Studios adaptation?

Millar: I haven't really thought about it, to be honest. It's nice Marvel has got Spidey because I think creatively they're very sure-footed and they'll get it right in a way it hasn't been done correctly for a little while. I'm a huge fan of the Raimi movies, even elements of the third one, but I think everyone agrees they really lost their way and Kevin [Feige] will be brilliant at shepherding the character to new heights.

Credit: Marvel Comics

As far as Spidey in Civil War goes it was never really much of an issue for me. If you read the main book, which is all I wrote, Spidey's only really in it for a few pages. The story wasn't about heroes handing in their secret identities because, as I found when I started writing it, most of them had gone public anyway. The argument between Cap and Iron Man is whether they should join the federal government or not. Should superheroes be free agents or on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s payroll? That's what the actual book is about and what I'd imagine they do with the movie. I doubt they're going to unmask Spidey when they're trying to fix him again. That was really just a moment in the book and not at all what it was about.

But again, it's the Russos and the fact these guys are so brilliant make me think this is going to be terrific. Winter Solder and Guardians are by far Marvel's best movies. By a mile. These guys are proper filmmakers and I love seeing this kind of talent employed on the characters.

Nrama: Finally then, any updates on your other properties in various stages of development? What do you suspect will find its way into principle photography next?

Millar: It really depends a multitude of schedules. There are just so many moving parts. We've got four we'd like to get shooting inside the next 12 months, but it really could be any one of them next. Nothing will shoot before Autumn now certainly.

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