Mark Millar: Wanted - From Comic to Film, 1
Wesley, from the Top Cow Comic & the Universal big-screen adaptation
In a way, it’s oddly appropriate, or at least weirdly ironic that Mark Millar, who wrote a story about a loser who becomes a supercool assassin can’t find his cell phone – while it’s ringing. After two tries from my end, I receive an e-mail from Millar telling me he can’t find his phone, even though it’s in his house, and he can hear it ringing…which is why we’re now talking on his land line.
“It’s weird – it’s ringing, and it’s like this ghostly thing that’s haunting me, but I have no idea where it is, or even where to start looking,” the Scottish creator laughs. “Just when you think your life is coming together, there’s something that brings you right back down to earth.”
For Millar, the notion of his life “coming together” has taken off at lightspeed in the last few years. His rise from a new comic writer handling the comic book versions of the The Adventures of Superman cartoon series to best-selling writer of Marvel’s Civil War as well as his creator-owned “Millarworld” projects has been nothing short of meteoric. Love or hate his work, there’s no denying that Millar is one of the new breed of comics creators, one who is currently busy in comics and film, as well as any number of other side projects.
Of course, this weekend, you can put a checkmark in the “win” column near Millar’s name as his and artist J.G. Jones’ Wanted hit screens around the country. Sure, from the trailers, it may not look to be a shot-by-shot adaptation of the comic, but story thoughts aside, to see a property move from its original miniseries published by Top Cow in 2004-2004 to a major movie in 2008 is the timeline that other creator-owned comics can now aspire. And it’s only the first – Millar’s Chosen, Kick-Ass, and more are already in various stages of development. Think “superhero movies” have carved out a nice spot as their own genre? Start subdividing – and thinking about “Mark Millar superhero movies.”
So – about this whole Wanted thing. How did it get started in the first place, and reach this point? Millar’s more than happy to explain.
(Oh, and by the way – Hollywood’s latest “it” boy? He’s about had it with cell phones. Once he does find this one, he’s thinking about giving it away. He’s only started using one, anyway, and the whole “tether” notion of never being out of touch doesn’t really sit well with him – he likes to be unreachable when he’s walking the dog in the evening, or especially, down at the pub with friends.)
Newsarama: Mark, let’s start off at the very beginning with the comic. The story goes that Wanted, at its root, was influenced by something your brother told you as a kid, that there were no more superheroes, that they were all dead?
Mark Millar: Yeah, totally. [pauses for a moment to write Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada an e-mail in response to Quesada’s asking why he’s not answering his cell phone] As a kid I had this book in primary school when I was five years old that was called America, there was one for every major country in the world, but in this one, under the entry for “S,” they had Superman, and all it said was “Rocketed to earth from the Planet Krypton, Superman arrived on earth in 1938…” that little one paragraph description of who he was. And it had the photo of George Reeves above it. I had no idea who this guy was, because the television show had never come over here. So I actually stole it out of school – the only thing I ever stole in my life.
So I showed it to my brother - and bear in mind that my brother at this time was doing his doctorate, so he was an adult who should have known better – and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s Superman.”
And I said, “What do you mean, is Superman a real guy?”
“Yeah of course.”
I just looked at this photo in wonder – it was the most awesome thing I’d ever seen or thought of in my life. So for a couple of years, Superman was like Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny for me – I thought Superman was a historical figure, someone who existed. My brother then, one day, probably just out of boredom when he should have been studying, came up with a whole story of what actually happened to Superman. He told me that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, all these people all fought in World War II, and they all died – all the supervillains teamed up and killed them. And I thought, “Oh god” – I started missing Superman right then. But my brother wasn’t done with me – he said that the story went that one day Superman would come back, and when he did, he would be looking for a partner.
I asked him if he thought it might be me, and he said yeah, so I trained every day – he made me do press ups and all of this to be Superman’s partner.
So that’s the story of it all, and that story sort of metamorphosed into the background story for Wanted, where all the heroes were killed by the villains.
NRAMA: He had you set from the start – Campbell’s Heroes Journey, The Once and Future King and Superheroes all rolled into one. You didn’t have a chance to escape from being influenced by stories…
MM: Oh yeah – and I was utterly crushed when he told me that they were all dead, and later when I found out, on top of that, that they weren’t real. I thought “super hero” was a career option for the longest time, and that was my plan.
NRAMA: So fast forward to being Mark Millar, comic book writer – when did Wanted start to take shape? There’s the persistent story that Wanted was originally a pitch for a Secret Society of Super-Villains story at DC that morphed into something new…
MM: Although it started life as a pitch for that, barely one bit of that remains from my original pitch. When you’re a DC fan in particular, you tend to write stories around DC continuity, and we’ve seen that quite a bit over the last ten years or so. People feel really obliged to have everything tie together, and I can understand it, because I did the same thing when I was there. So my thing really tied in with the Monocle and the Floronic Man, and the son of Deadshot, which is one of the few things – the protagonist as the son of a supervillain – that carried over from the original idea.
So that thing was about something else entirely, and the plot bore almost no resemblance to what finally saw print, aside from one tiny detail which was also changed a lot – the idea of a supervillain having a son who was unaware of how cool he really was, and how cool his dad was.
So the idea of doing a book where the supervillains were the stars was really what I took from Secret Society of Super-Villains, and turned that into Wanted. That was cool to me, because I like playing around with reversals – I like the idea of having Superman land in Russia, so it’s more interesting to me to make the villains the stars, rather than the heroes, and let them win and have the day, like the heroes do all the time.
So yeah – it came from there in a sense, but that original pitch could still be done because the story is so different from what turned into Wanted.
NRAMA: So basically, this was your proposal that you were shopping around to any editor who would give you the time of day?
MM: Oh yes. Around about 1998, when I was trying to break in as a writer in my own right, I pitched it to Marvel as a thing called “The Shocker,” and over there, it was going to be about the son of the Shocker…
NRAMA: That really was the lasting theme of the work…
MM: Exactly. I had this idea of supervillains making up these crime families across the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe. I pitched it so many times. I think I even pitched it to Top Cow, using some of their characters as well, but it never quite hit the mark. It was always greeted with a “That’s nice, but what else have you got?”
NRAMA: So then, I’d assume this was before you’d written The Authority?
MM: Right - this was before that. Authority really changed my life in a lot of ways – prior to that, I was a jobbing writer who was lucky to get an eight page backup story. But yeah, Wanted went through a lot of incarnations, and I eventually realized it was never going to happen at Marvel, it’s never going to happen at DC. I’m not going to sell this anywhere. I might as well make up my own characters. Just for fun, I thre in analogs of characters from other companies. At that point, it was a last-ditch attempt to do something with it.
NRAMA: Would you say that the at least mild desperation you felt then – to make a last-ditch attempt at it pulled the governor off of the story? That somewhere you realized there was no need or reason to hold back on anything with it?
MM: Yeah, that’s probably true. I’d also developed the idea as a film around then as well. We talked to Film Four, a production company over here. They liked the basic plot, and the original idea, which was a quiet, lower-key version of what it is now. It had the same twist at the end, but absolutely no super-powers. So yeah – by then, I’d tried this in every possible format I could see it in – there was just no coming together at all.
NRAMA: And then…The Authority?
MM: That’s right. About six months after I’d tried it as a movie. That changed the way I looked at comics, really. I’d always just thought inside the box, really. I think Warren [Ellis] shattered that box. Superhero stories always followed certain rules up until that point. I thought The Authority and Planetary as well changed those rules – everything from the storytelling to the personalities to the types of powers. Warren had a very original, and non-American way of looking at things, and it absolutely changed my viewpoint on how to do superheroes after reading the first four issues of The Authority. it was a real before and after situation for me. It was a huge influence.
So then, I just re-thought Wanted for a post-Authority audience, essentially, and it worked.
NRAMA: With your mention that you had written this as a movie treatment – that probably doesn’t hit many people as a surprise as it’s been message-board rumor and speculation for years that you had JG Jones draw the characters to resemble actors in order to use the original miniseries into an advertisement for a possible movie. Was that always part of the plan – drawing certain likenesses in there so it could be taken to a studio?
MM: It’s funny, but a lot of people don’t realize this, but the sale of the book was about six weeks before the first issue even appeared. One of the producers at Universal Pictures had seen the picture of the character in Previews and read a brief description of what it was about. He got in touch with my agent, and made an offer, and we accepted. It was all done very, very quickly.
At that time, Universal had Eminem on their books as well – I think he had just been in 8 Mile, and one of the guys at Universal said that Eminem was a big comic fan too. It was funny, because we had just picked him because his face kind of fitted the character as JG and I saw it, and the type of music he was doing at the time was very similar to the tone of the narrative voice of the book. So putting “him” in there was a little in-joke between me and JG.
But then, once Universal had us, they said, “Listen, this guy looks like Eminem, you kind of based him on Eminem, why don’t we try to get Eminem to play the role?” Like an idiot, I was so excited about it, I mentioned it online, and in an interview with Sunday Times Scotland, so within about a day, it was all over the internet – that Eminem was playing this role. And then Universal called to tell me to shut the fuck up. And then Eminem’s reps called to say shut the fuck up – Enimen hadn’t agreed to anything. I think Universal did approach him, and he said he wasn’t interested, because he wanted to focus on his music. I think he reads comics, but he just wasn’t up for it.
It’s funny though – there are so many conspiracy theories about it all – one of the best ones was that I had tricked Universal into buying it by making them think that Eminem was going to star in the lead role. No – Universal…[laughs] I can’t really trick them. Believe me. But it actually was a great piece of publicity for the thing on the one hand, but on the other hand, it was genuinely terrifying, because these people have got huge lawyers that were telling me to shut the fuck up. So I’ve since learned to shut the fuck up. For instance, I know who’s in the Kick-Ass movie – I know who’s been cast from top to bottom, but I’ve learned to keep it quiet until it’s on the front pages of Variety. Really, the movie doesn’t need that kind of publicity – the studios have brilliant publicity departments, and they don’t need me to help.
But all of that said, what we did “cast” in the miniseries was never as cool as what we have here – Eminem and Halle Berry with the others we put in it would never have been as cool as Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, and Morgan Freeman. Compare their cast to ours, and you can understand why casting directors get paid a lot of money.
I mean – the idea of Halle Berry in a supervillain outfit seemed really cool – prior to Catwoman. That movie came out, and I realized what an idiot I was about that. [laughs]
NRAMA: Back to the main process of turning the miniseries into a movie. You said that Universal had an interest in it before it came out, and here we are, five years later – what was going on, movie-wise during that time?
MM: There wasn’t anything much – it was all really smooth and easy. And it may sound like a long time, but if you think about it, Superman went from 1938 to 1978 for the movie to show up. Batman went from 1939 to 1966 for even the first cheap movie to appear. So four years – it was pretty fast. Though it did seem to drag at the start – we knew we’d sold it, and then nothing happened for about eighteen months. A draft of the screenplay was written, but obviously, they didn’t have the full comic when they were writing the second half of the screenplay, so they kind of had to guess the second half. In that draft – even though they had the best of intentions, the guys had gone off and done something that didn’t quite work out, and it seemed very PG-13 in places. So I just assumed that it wasn’t going to be very good, and I wasn’t all that excited about it, weirdly. It was the first story of mine that had sold, but I just thought it was going to end up as something else.
NRAMA: You’re a little more excited now – so what changed?
MM: It was only once Timur [Bekmambetov, director] came on. I remember going into the meeting with him, and I went in there half-heartedly about two years ago, just before he started working on it. He’d done some pre-visualization stuff, and I went in there hoping there was something nice on the menu. I figured they’d got some guy from Russia, because they could get him on the cheap, and the guy from The Fast and the Furious is on the screenplay. I had zero expectations.
And then when I saw this pre-viz stuff, I was blown away. I told him that if he could only get ten percent of what he’s suggested in this movie, it’s going to be my favorite film ever. The producer said that he’d never seen a writer leave a meeting with a director excited and smiling before. I was, too – my optimism shot up. Timur has the same black sense of humor as the book, and he has an amazing, kinetic visual style. So he brought the writers back to do more drafts based on the later issues of the miniseries, and then brought in another guy, Chris Morgan and a couple other guys, and they just knocked something into shape that is just great. The only thing that I think is just radically different than what we did in the comic book is the origin of William – for me, it was simple – he used to live in the Marvel or DC Universe, and that wasn’t the case anymore.
They felt two things about it – if everyone was outright villains, it made it hard to root for the guys, which I could appreciate, but not agree with. The Godfather is all about villains, and you end up rooting for them. You just have to put them against guys who are more evil. The other thing was that it riffs so much on comic book stuff – it referred to the DC Crises, and had in-jokes to the Marvel and DC Universes. Mainstream audiences wouldn’t have gotten it the way that comic-based audiences would have. Although it’s a huge-selling creator-owned book, it was sold within a very finite, hardcore, specific group. I actually think it was a really good point. I’m a produce on the film as is JG, and I wouldn’t have agreed to it if I thought they were making a mistake. But I actually think that the changes that they’ve made tighten the whole thing up.
NRAMA: How so?
MM: The big reveal, for one. I have it at the end, but they have it halfway through the picture. It actually works so much better the way they’ve done it, because it leaves tons of room for an energetic, very kinetic ending, whereas for me, all of the energy was in issues #4 and #5, and it was all chat in issue #6. But they brought the chat into the end of the second act, and just keep the kinetic energy for this big raid on the enemy’s headquarters at the end of the movie. It just works better. You can tell that a team of people have sat and discussed this for quite a while to really make it work the best it can.
Check back tomorrow as we conclude our conversation with Millar, and talk about his feelings about making the movie something different from the comic series, and what is coming up in his future, in regards to his other comics-to-movie projects.