Okay… I think I’ve teased this out as much as possible. Time to make the Big Push (as T.E. Lawrence called it) and wrap up my reports on the time I spent in London on the set of Matthew Vaughn’s upcoming adaptation of the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic book “Kick Ass.” If this report runs too long, I’ll break it in half, but we’re doing it this week. No more delays.
So far, I’ve talked a little about the first scene I watched them shoot, some about Nic Cage’s approach to the character he’s playing, and I talked to Christopher Mintz-Plasse about his role in the film as well. But in terms of the chronology of my time on-set, we’ve barely scratched the surface.
In a way, it’s fitting that we’re four articles into this set visit report and we’re only still describing the filming of the first scene, since it felt like that first scene took forever to shoot. Sometimes, you just hit the wall with something in terms of staging, especially when you’re trying to orchestrate chaos with something like nine people packed into a fairly small space. If you’re not careful, you end up with a bunch of people shouting at each other in a room. But if you know how to keep the energy alive in that small space, and you can really stage the violence and… more importantly, the potential for violence… then you can make it work.
[more after the jump]
There was one interesting moment when a bit of physical business between Nic Cage and one of D’Amico’s goons got a little out of hand. I’m talking about a matter of seconds, where a reaction went from staged to real, and it was amazing to see how it changed the energy on the set. Everyone just shook it off and went right back to work. It was not a big deal, because it was just one of those little things that can happen between actors who are in a moment. What had been a little sluggish in the takes leading up to the moment suddenly got real laser-focused and precise. And not just the action, either. All of the comic business that everyone was trying to slip into the scene, the odd left-of-center wry tone, all came into focus in the right way in the last few takes. The stuff between Kick-Ass and Hit Girl (a constant barrage of withering sarcasm seems to be her strongest weapon against the film’s uncertain hero), the stuff between Red Mist and D’Amico’s goons… it all got more natural in those later takes. The tone came together. It finally felt like everyone was playing the same scene, and even though the afternoon ran long in that one set, Matthew and Jane both seemed happy when they finally wrapped that set for the day, moving into the hallway outside instead.
While they shot a few inserts on that set, punctuation marks to what they’d just staged, Tarquin (the best host any journalist could have on a film set) took me over to one of the stunt sets, where the second unit was waiting for Chloe Moretz, who had just been released from the first unit where we were. Since that first unit work consisted largely of firing off a few lines before taking a gunshot to the chest and going backwards out a window, take after take after take, it seemed like her first and second unit work was very similar for the day. Talking to her in transit from one set to the other, she seemed delighted to be able to do everything she’d been trained to do in the film.
The second unit set was the burnt-out shell of a warehouse, still smoking in places, filled with men with guns, the lights out completely except for powerful flashlight beams. The camera team was shooting with the Phantom, and talking to them about it was like talking to Viagra patients who just got laid for the first time in years. They were LOVING IT. They LOVED THAT CAMERA. If you don’t know what it is, it’s an HD high-speed digital camera “with 4 megapixel resolution, frame rates in excess of 1,000 frames-per-second, shutter control to 1/500,000 of a second, 42-bit color and 35mm depth-of-field at either HD or 2K resolutions.”
In other words, it does slow motion you have never seen before.
The shots they were putting together with Chloe involved a lot of running and gunning. The guns they have her holding are cartoons. Gigantic in proportion to her. Shell casings flying everywhere. She’s emotional. She has good reason to kill every sonofabitch in this building. And I was seeing it in regular speed, where it looked great. Once it’s slowed down as much as they can, once they play with those images… it’s going to be gorgeous. I can’t wait. Hit Girl moves through the warehouse, tossing off short sharp bursts of submachine gun fire as she faces down waves of bad guys, a furious little angel in a purple wig.
We walked over to the next stage the second-unit was using, where the fight team was rehearsing for the next big sequence. Bradley James Allan is the head of the team… an AMAZING team (including Damien Walters, who Devin justifiably freaked out about earlier today) I might add… and the scene they were walking through involved Big Daddy instead of Hit Girl. These are the same stunt fighters who are working on “Scott Pilgrim” for Edgar Wright at the moment. These guys did “Hellboy II” and Brad Allan started out with Jackie Chan in some of his later films like “Who Am I?” and “The Accidental Spy” before making the jump to American films with Jackie, working on “Rush Hour 2” and “The Medallion” and “The Tuxedo”. I thought the fight work in “Hellboy II” was sort of amazing, and it was an unexpected treat to be able to stand in while they were actually putting a fight together. I love the day they designed this moment for Big Daddy to take place in one long unbroken shot, the camera swirling through the action like one of the fighters. The camera department had their guy there, rehearsing with the stuntmen so that everything was timed precisely. As I watched, they rehearsed it with one of their own guys standing in for Nicolas Cage. They were still experimenting, still trying variations in the choreography, running through at half-speed then full-speed, to see how it felt. They were still trying new ways to make a point of contact look more brutal, selling a gag in a different way. It wsa great to watch them work and see how they decided on each beat of the fight scene, compromising and each player in the fight able to assert some voice in how it would play out. I can’t wait to see how they do it in the final film, with Nic Cage actually running through this one crazy badass beatdown of about eight different guys, quick, brutal, and possible.
Back in the first building, the first unit was reset to shoot Red Mist and Kick-Ass talking as they approach the door of the apartment where they’ve been told to meet Big Daddy and Hit Girl. It’s not their apartment… it’s just a room, a safehouse. They shot the arrival and them knocking several times, from a few different angles, basically playing on the uneasy trust between Kick-Ass and Red Mist, who barely know each other. After an hour or so of that, Matthew headed outside to watch them shoot a quick insert involving Big Daddy crouched on a rooftop, and that wrapped them out for the day.
The next morning was less about the stunts and more about watching the actors really find the strange edges and corners of these characters. The first scene was all Damon and Mindy. There’s no doubt when you see their work that Damon and Mindy are different characters than Big Daddy and Hit Girl. I’ll tread lightly here since I’m not sure how much has been revealed in the comics, and I’m sure a lot of you have not read the comics. Let’s just say that Damon has had a genuine dissociative break, and Big Daddy is alive so that he can do things that Damon could never every accomplish. With Mindy, she’s using Hit Girl more as a coping device and a way of staying close to her father in this moment of prolonged profound emotional crisis. They need these alternate indentities. Without them, they couldn’t survive. They’re much more broken (and, alternately, dangerous) than Kick-Ass, who just sort of decides to put on his costume. It’s not a game for them. They have to win.
One of the best moments I saw during my entire stay was on this second day, once Damon and Mindy have been called into action. Damon puts on the suit for his Big Daddy costume, then steps into his bathroom. Now, have you noticed how in the Batman movies, he always has this crazy dark eye makeup on under the mask? Have you ever wondered, “Does Batman actually stop long enough to put on eye makeup?” Well… Big Daddy does. And it’s crazy. Watching Damon greasepaint his eyes, you can see him letting go of his sanity, little bit by little bit. It’s permission. He’s wiping Damon away. Nic had to do it three times, and each time, he played different colors to the scene, none of it for laughs. This is a really private moment for Damon, and he actually puts on Pachelbel to soothe him as he does. Even when I don’t like a film that Nic Cage is in, I’m still intrigued by the choices he makes, and actually watching him work for a few days, watching him play this really extreme character, with some really extreme behaviors, I was won over anew to just how inventive he can be. I also noticed that he seemed to be warming up to me a bit, getting chattier between set-ups, relaxing when he saw me talking to Matthew and Jane and Chris and Aaron.
The main scene they shot on the first half of the day involved Damon and Mindy getting ready for bed, looking down at… something… and drinking cocoa with little marshmallows in it. Suddenly, an alert goes off, an alert they told Kick-Ass to use if he ever needed their help. The camera is actually in the open crate in place of whatever they’re looking at. I know what’s in the crate, but it’s one of the film’s big surprises, so I can’t ruin it. But it’s crazy, hell in a box, a trump card in the war that Damon’s waging against Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). And I love that as Damon and Mindy discuss this… thing… they’re enjoying this sham domestic normalcy, like Mr. Rogers planning a terrorist attack. It’s funny, but in a “dear god, these people are insane” sort of way. And just as Damon and Mindy’s big plan depends on this thing in the box working, Matthew Vaughn is betting on this outrageous finale to his film.
After lunch, they set up for a scene in Kick-Ass’s bedroom, which was completely constructed as a set, dressed to look like the room of a comic/anime nerd in his teens. Posters on the wall, books and comics and toys on shelves and on the floor, and clothes everywhere. I felt like I was standing in my own room when I was 15. The scene features Big Daddy and Hit Girl dropping in on Dave unexpectedly to size him up. He had no idea they could find him, and he realizes that he has no secret identity. Big Daddy and Hit Girl want to believe that Kick-Ass is a good guy, someone they can trust, but you can tell that they moment they suspect him of duplicity, they’d be perfectly happy to destroy him.
It was interesting, after watching Chloe be so fearless and bold in all the action scenes, to see her balk at a bit of coarse sexual language in her dialogue. It’s not like she refused to do something in a scene, but it was obvious she wasn’t entirely comfortable with a line. One of the benefits of Matthew and Jane Goldman writing their own films and being on set for everything is that they can adjust something on the fly. And since they’re both parents, and close in real life, they have this familial bond that extends to the whole set, the atmosphere they create for everyone to work in, and they seemed very protective of Chloe, determined to create a comfort zone for her even as they asked her to do these fairly outrageous things. Nic’s a big part of that, too, practically co-directing Chloe. He had a very parental approach to their scenes together, and she obviously looked up to Nic and was taking cues from him, basing much of what she was doing on how far he was willing to go. In that relationship, much of what was happening between them on-camera was real, and it seemed to ground the chemistry between them.
This was also the longest extended scene I saw with Aaron Johnson on the whole shoot. It took me a while to pinpoint what his performance reminded me of, but it hit me while I was watching him here, while he reacted to these intruders in his bedroom: Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly. There’s a lovely comic exasperation in his work. He gives good flustered. Aaron’s English, but he was able to effortlessly drop his accent and play American in every scene.
Finally, my last day in London arrived, and I packed all my gear, knowing I’d head straight to the airport after the morning’s work. I carried it all down to meet my driver in front of my hotel, and then he drove me north, out of London, into the countryside. It’s the first time I’ve left the city while in England, and we drove almost an hour and a half north, with no traffic at all. Since it was 6:00 in the morning on a Sunday, that doesn’t surprise me. We had to leave that early to make sure we’d get there on time.
“There” turned out to be a scrap metal yard, the highlight of which was a giant car crushing machine. That’s where the camera crews were setting up when I arrived. Tarquin made sure I was outfitted properly with a hardhat and a safety-orange work vest, and then led me over to where everyone was.
The car that was actually waiting in the crusher looked very familiar to me, but I didn’t make the connection at first. Matthew asked me if I wanted to sit in the car for a photo. Now, here’s the scene: we start in close on a goon sitting in the car, crying, begging for his life, and then we pull back to reveal that the car is in a car crusher, and Hit Girl is at the controls while Big Daddy interrogates the guy. Forget waterboarding… this works. The goon spills his guts, and then Big Daddy orders Hit Girl to run the machine anyway, and… no more goon.
Let’s be clear… real car crushing machine. Real car. I didn’t really think about it as I climbed up and carefully made my way out to the car. Even once I was seated inside and put the handcuffs on my wrist so that I was “locked” to the steering wheel, I didn’t think about it. But as they were taking the picture, it struck me that if the wrong button got pushed while I was clowning around, that would be that, and fairly quickly. And that thought finally got through to me. I got a nasty case of flopsweat all at once, and I quickly hurried to get out of the car and back onto solid ground, where I found Dexter Fletcher waiting to go get into the car so they could start shooting.
That’s when I finally made the connection. The yellow car in the machine…. I knew I’d seen it before, and the last time I saw it was at the end of “Layer Cake,” when Dexter Fletcher ended up with it. When I mentioned that, everyone onset smiled, and Matthew suggested to me that this was, in fact, the same car and the same character, and that the guy’s luck just finally ran out as he crossed paths with Big Daddy and Hit Girl on the wrong day.
Dexter turned out to be a great choice for that short role, begging and cajoling and doing his best to charm, even as he tries to wrap his head around the sight of this father and daughter clad in these crazy superhero outfits. Between takes, Nic was positively verbose, and I found that he seemed like he had a lot of questions about film journalism that he must have always wanted to ask someone. We talked about the responsibility that comes with writing reviews of someone’s work and then meeting that person, and I told him about my history with Mark Steven Johnson, who directed him in “Ghost Rider.” My favorite book is “A Prayer For Owen Meany,” and when Mark adapted that into his film “Simon Birch,” I sort of lost my mind and wrote the single meanest review of my entire time online. At that point, I was still “anonymous,” known only by the Moriarty name. It took six months for Mark to contact me via e-mail, but once he did, he said he wanted to meet to talk, and I had to man up and (A) tell him my real name and (B) actually go talk to him. I could have said no, certainly, but I felt like if I was going to write these things, I needed to be willing to stand behind them. That conversation I had with Mark changed the way I feel about writing reviews in general. In the end, I’m not writing to prove how clever I am or to see if I can make other reviewers laugh. I have to write for the audience, the viewer, and I have to be as clear and forceful as I can without resorting to cheap shots just for the sake of making them. It’s not sport. These are movies that people have worked incredibly hard on… even the terrible ones. I asked Nic if he reads his own reviews, good or bad, and he said he can’t help reading sometimes. This led to us discussing “The Wicker Man” and the way it turned into an Internet meme, and Nic started laughing. “It amazes me how many times I saw people use the phrase ‘unintentional comedy’ when talking about that movie. For god’s sake, I kick LeeLee Sobieski in the throat while wearing a bear suit. How unintentional can the comedy be?”
Finally, Dexter finished his work in the car, and the time came to run the machine and say goodbye to the little yellow “Layer Cake” car forever. Simon “Purple” Hayes, the best sound guy in the business, offered me an MP3 of the direct feed of the car being crushed, and I’ve embedded it here:
And on that note, I thanked Jane and Matthew and Tarquin and the crew for their extreme accomodation of my intrusion into the process. There are very few teams I’ve met who are so open during a visit, so willing to show you every bit of their process, even when they’re working through something, even when they don’t have the answers right away. I have real faith in these people, and not because they gave me access… it’s because with that access, I was able to really look at every part of what they’re doing, and the ambition and the energy I saw seems to me like it could all come together in something really special, a less-ponderous, more emotionally engaging “Watchmen,” a movie that deconstructs the very idea of wanting to be a superhero. Is it really a wish you want fulfilled?
Hopefully we’ll hear news about a distributor at Comic-Con. Hopefully “Kick-Ass” will have a cool presence at the convention this summer. I’d imagine they will. And hopefully the film hits theaters later this year. Right now, they’re tweaking and fine-tuning, and I believe just putting the last touches on things. There was a round of additional shooting a month or two back, and they’ve been testing the film a bit, and If Jonathan Ross’s Tweets are to be believed, Jane just put the film to bed last week.
Will “Kick-Ass” be a major hit? That’s impossible for me to guess. Depends on any number of factors, including when and how it’s released. But what I can predict confidently is that it’s an indie film at heart, with some big ideas, and it’s going to be unique. It proves to me that the superhero genre has room for fresh ideas still, and there’s a lot more that can still be said.
Thanks to everyone, including publicist Stacy Mann, who helped me during the travel and to put this together, and for Matthew and his amazing collaborators for putting up with me. There’s no question I could ask that they didn’t answer, and that alone makes them good people in my book.
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