BUCKINGHAMSHIRE – I will never stop being excited about visiting Pinewood Studios outside of London. It is one of my favorite places on Earth, and it’s always great when they’ve got several films on the lot at the same time. I walked past Chris Pine, in costume as Jack Ryan and on his way to the set, as I made my way across the lot on the first of two days I spent visiting “Kick-Ass 2.”
I walked onto Stage F, one of several at the legendary Pinewood Studios currently in use by this film. I’m sure I’ve been here before, and I even think it was for a Matthew Vaughn film. I’m pretty sure this was the interior of the inn owned by Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in “Stardust.” As I enter, there on a set designed to look like the top of a building, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are in the middle of shooting one of the main emotional beats for the climax of the film.
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“What’s the point of wearing a mask if you can’t do what you want?” Mintz-Plasse says, just before he takes another shot at Taylor-Johnson, whose costume from the first film has been updated with a few pieces that directly recall Big Daddy, the character that Nicolas Cage played in the first film. Incorporating that suit into his own carries an emotional weight this time around, and that’s no accident.
If “Kick-Ass 2” is about any one big idea, it’s about consequence. The events of the first movie set into motion everything you see happen in this film. This is not just another adventure with the same cast. This is what happens to them because of the first film, and for the most part, this film makes the case that consequences suck.
When Chris delivers his final monologue, most of it yelled at Aaron in between brutal kicks and punches, it’s heartbroken. He is not playing Red Mist this time around, and I’d argue he’s not really playing Chris D’Amico anymore, either. His character was broken by the first film. He was torn in totally different directions regarding his loyalties to his father, to his friends, to his own sense of right and wrong. He never really stood a chance. And while the first film ended with a direct reference to Tim Burton’s original “Batman,” meant to imply that there was a villain turn ahead for the character, it seems to me that they have gone much further than that scene implied.
Now would be a good point to warn you that there may be some strong language and imagery in the set visit material we’re sharing with you for this film. That’s because the sequel promises to be fairly profane, as is the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic that the films are based on. Some people enjoy that, others see it as proof that the series is no good.
I think it’s just part of the world that these kids are growing up in, which is a far more profane world than I grew up in, and I grew up in the 1970’s, for pissakes. I grew up in an era where Richard Pryor was a cultural hero and Archie Bunker was on TV and people actually paid to go see porno movies in the theater. I grew up in what must have seemed like The Last Days Of Sodom to my grandparents, and yet it all seems sort of innocent and quaint compared to the pool of blistering filth that is mainstream pop culture at this point. I don’t know what it’s going to be that robs my kids of their innocence, but I know it’s out there, some Great White Shark of graphic something that they’re going to encounter that is going to send them to me with questions that will change their lives. Being shocked by Millar’s sensibility is pointless; he’s accurately painting the way the modern mainstream speaks and sounds and what they laugh at, and maybe it is nihilistic and scary but it’s genuine.
Case in point: Chris Mintz-Plasse and his rebirth as The Motherfucker. When I see him for the first time, he’s in the final full version of the outfit, and he looks like the guy who would win a particularly disturbing fetish ball’s costume contest. He looks like he would be unpleasant to touch, pretty much head to toe. At this point, Chris looks like he has gotten rid of any hint of baby fat he may have had. He’s whip thin, so he looks like an X-rated Jack Skellington as he runs through the fight.
Almost in contrast, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is about twice the size he was in the first film. He looks like he has spent the time since that film doing nothing but training. His shoulders and his upper torso are both wider and way more dense with muscle than on the first film. It’s a reinvention for him as well.
This fight between them is about the core ideas that define their positions in this film, and it’s very ugly. It’s up close and it’s just about hurting one another, even as they defend their totally different approaches to life in a mask. Aaron insists that he does this because he wants to do good.
It’s like it makes The Motherfucker crazy to hear this. He starts kicking Kick-Ass, furious. “No. No. People WANT to win the lottery.” KICK. “People WANT to fuck Scarlett Johansson.” KICK. “No one WANTS to risk their life so some moron can walk through the projects at night.” KICK.
Right away, I see a lot of familiar faces on the set. There’s Stacey Mann, the unit publicist who I’ve dealt with during many of my trips to London, and Simon Hayes, who runs the best sound department I’ve seen on any set. He is allergic to the idea of ADR (recording done after the fact to sweeten what was recorded on set), and he is dedicated to the idea of using as much of the actual live sound shot on set as possible. He wants it clean, and he wants it real. That means he’s constantly worrying about background noise and mic placement and any number of issues that affect what he’s doing. When I visited, it was the week of Thanksgiving 2011, just a few days before the holiday. They were about to wrap up the shoot for the film, too, so everyone was ready to get out of there. Simon was excited because I told him that when I got back to town, I’d be seeing the Saturday screening of “Les Miserables,” which hadn’t been seen by anyone yet. Simon was the guy who was responsible for the much-discussed live vocal track recording for all the singing in the film, and he was justifiably very excited about hearing the feedback to the film.
On this film, as with everything I’ve seen him working on, Simon was focused on getting the real dialogue during the fight so they wouldn’t need to work on it later. He was constantly checking to make sure the mics were in the right place, and he was listening closely for anything that might make a take impossible to use.
As I was watching everyone get ready for a different angle on that same movement in the fight, I was watching Jeff Wadlow in particular. He’s the director this time, and I was very curious about why he was chosen. I had to look him up on IMDb, and I connected the dots. He made “Cry Wolf,” a thriller that I didn’t particularly like, and “Never Back Down,” a martial arts action movie I’ve never seen. Neither one made him an obvious choice for this movie. Watching him during each take, he’s very detail oriented. There’s a bucket full of roofer’s nails that ends up in play during the fight, and Wadlow made sure that the bucket was waiting in the same spot each time and that the nails landed in the same area each time. He knew exactly what shot he wanted and fine-tuned until he got it.
The first four or five set-ups I saw them do were for wide shots of the fight, running pretty much start to finish, or at least to the finish of the part that takes place on the roof. It’s a scene that is part of a much longer overall sequence that brings almost everything in the film to a head all in one crazy big action sequence. On the roof, it’s just The Motherfucker and Kick-Ass, their shared history responsible for the passions on display. The Motherfucker is crazy at this point. What he wants and why he wants it… irrelevant. He’s just pure hatred, focused like a gun pointed at Kick-Ass, and all he wants to do is pull the trigger again and again and again. He wants to hurt him, and he wants it to be personal. Kick-Ass is a character who is still figuring out his own moral compass, and it gets tested here by the way The Motherfucker and his cronies behave.
One of the things I noticed over the course of the morning was that for most of the fight footage, Wadlow was shooting at 48 FPS, especially in any of the close-up shots where they’re really trading shots back and forth, fast and precise. Chris beating on Aaron with a baton. Aaron taking one of those shots, blood exploding from his mouth. Aaron’s great at selling the pain during a fight scene. Looking at his close-up, you see every bit of sweat, every drop of blood. It looks like Tim Maurice-Jones is giving Wadlow a really gritty, dirty visual palette for this one, while still using the vivid colors of the first film.
I ran into producer Adam Bohling on the set, another of Matthew Vaughn’s longtime collaborators. He worked as a production manager on “Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” moved to line producer on “Mean Machine,” and then graduated to executive producing, co-producing and eventually being listed as producer. That’s the real secret of what Matthew Vaughn is able to pull off… he’s spent the last decade and a half building a professional family that can mobilize on whatever project he brings them.
One of the biggest challenges on “Kick-Ass 2” was casting a character who becomes a powerful henchman to The Motherfucker, a hulking female bodybuilder called Mother Russia. Bohling told me that it was one of the most elaborate in-depth casting calls they’ve ever done, and he talked about how they all agreed that Olga Kurkulina, who ended up getting the role, was visually perfect when she walked in, but she didn’t have all of the various skills and strengths they needed from the character. It was only after they started working with her to prepare for a screen test that they started to believe she might be right for the part. Despite her obvious size and strength, Olga had evidently never really fought before, and didn’t even have a sense of how to make an effective fist. They had to hand her over to Jimmy O’Dee, the fight master on the film, to see if he could make her look convincing on film. All the way until they actually saw her fight on film in the screen test, there was a chance Olga wouldn’t work out and they were still looking for other contenders.
We also talked about how they made this film under a different degree of scrutiny than on the first one. When I was in Toronto last year for the Toronto Film Festival, they were doing some exterior shoots in suburban Toronto for “Kick-Ass 2.” That’s why Christopher Mintz-Plasse was available to go to a Midnight Madness screening of “Lords Of Salem” with me, and also record a quick podcast interview. There was major paparazzi coverage of the sets, and there were a number of photos of Chris in costume, Mother Russia, and some of the other bad guys. It was very frustrating to the production because they wanted to reveal the look of the characters in carefully lit and processed production stills or character posters, and this sort of took that chance away from them. It’s a problem with any high-visibility shoot these days. I would not be surprised if it turned out that the photographers covering the set of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” already ruined one of that film’s biggest moments.
I watched some more takes of the fight, and by this point, the two guys had been going at it, running each fight scene at pretty much full intensity, for at least four or five hours. They were both in full costume the entire time, and it looked like a constant exercise in ignoring distractions while trying to perform. There were so many things about the costumes that seemed to be making it difficult for Chris and Aaron, and they had to just adjust, keep moving, and try to act past all of that.
There was a take late in the morning that seemed to really pull everything together at once for Jeff, and in it, Chris was particularly ragged and frantic, unhinged even. He seemed exhausted, no doubt because he actually was by that point, and it worked because it seemed totally real.
During the mid-day break, I interviewed both Jeff Wadlow and producer Tarquin Pack, who has been right there beside Matthew the entire time I’ve known them. I’ll have those interviews for you later this week as part of our extended “Kick-Ass 2” coverage, and what’s nice about these conversations is that there was no other outlet on set with me. This isn’t something you can read in six other places at the same time. I’ve known this group of people for years now, and I feel like they’re able to relax and reveal themselves around me by now. Wadlow may be new to the equation, but he fit right in immediately, and I felt like he went out of his way to try to explain and illustrate his approach to the sequel.
After lunch, I walked over to the splinter unit. Chloe Grace-Moretz, returning this time as Mindy/Hit-Girl, was wrapping up her work on the film, and we wanted to have a chance to speak before she left that evening. It was a very strange moment to walk in on, and I watched for a few moments trying to figure out what was happening. She was laying on her back on a platform above a green screen, and there was a small camera pushed in tight on her in a close-up as she made exaggerated slow-motion faces, one after another. After they ran through that fifteen or twenty times, she stood up in front of another green screen and they did a moving shot pushing in on her face as, again, she did a slow-motion sort of grimace, running through it several times. Finally someone explained what they were doing. The shots they were capturing were all going to be used for face replacement scenes over stunts that were too dangerous to allow Chloe to do in person. She performs a good deal of the fights in the film herself, just as she did on the first one, but there are places where there was no way they were going to let her do it.
After she wrapped, Chloe joined me back by the seats where her mother and her brother Trevor were sitting and watching. I met the Moretz family on the first film, and the interview we did on that set was one of her very first for anything. Watching her grow more comfortable with the press over the last few years has been impressive. She seems to be every bit as easy to talk to now as she was on that first set, and even though she’s been working with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Kimberly Pierce, she didn’t seem to have changed at all. I’ll be running the interview with her later this week as well, and as soon as we were done, they announced that she was wrapped on the film.
We all walked over to the main stage again, where the fight was still being shot, and Chloe jumped in between takes to say goodbye to everyone. She held the clapper for one of the takes as her last official action on-set…
… and then she was gone. As the day wound down, I sat with Simon Hayes a little while longer, and we talked about his most recent films, which included not just “Les Miserables” but the Ridley Scott double-feature of “Prometheus” and “The Counselor,” and as always, it sounds like he loves solving problems, like that’s the most satisfying thing for him. I love guys who are always looking to push their craft even further, and it was great to see Simon win his Oscar this year.
At the end of the day, I was getting ready to go when Stacey, the unit publicist, asked if I’d like to attend a special screening at the Pinewood Screening Room. Evidently, this was not part of the schedule for me originally, but Wadlow decided he wanted to see what my reaction was to a ten-minute preview reel, cut mainly to let the cast and crew know how the film was coming together. As the shoot was almost over, Wadlow had a fair amount of material to work with, and so I joined the crew in the screening room. There were a few adult beverages being enjoyed, and a general sense of a crew winding down, happy to be wrapping up another job.
The footage he screened made a case immediately for this being a bigger, sicker, stranger film than the first one, and I was highly entertained by it. The opening scene was a very sly riff on a scene from the original film. In that one, Nic Cage takes Chloe Moretz out to show her what it feels like to be shot by a handgun while wearing a bulletproof vest. In the new movie, it’s Mindy (Moretz) teaching the same lesson to Dave (Taylor-Johnson), and it’s the perfect way to ease back into the very bleak and funny moral landscape of the movies.
Quite a bit of the footage had to do with Chris and his transformation into The Motherfucker. There’s a very disturbing sequence in the comics involving his character and Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), who is an ally to Kick-Ass in the film. In the comics, they cross a terrible line, and for many readers, it was a moment that pulled them out of the story. The film doesn’t make the same choice that the comics did, but they certainly don’t soft-pedal it, either. It’s still awful… it’s just different, and I was happy to see them make the change.
By far, the thing that got me most excited was all of the footage I saw involving Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars’n’Stripes, a vigilante who ends up as part of a team with Kick-Ass. Carrey worked with his own prosthetics team to develop the look for the character before he showed up on set, and it’s a pretty radical transformation. He has a fake nose, fake cheekbones, a forehead appliance, a new chin, and his jaw has been squared. When you see it all together, though, it just looks natural. Carrey plays him as an earnestly dangerous person, totally deranged but in a way that makes it seem almost amiable, even when he’s cracking skulls and knocking out teeth.
It was a very convincing ten-minute reel, and as it wrapped up, I thanked Wadlow for sharing it with me, then headed back to the country inn where I was staying just a few miles away from Pinewood so I could come back early the next day.
We’ll have part two of the set visit as well as a few different interviews as we continue our coverage of “Kick-Ass 2” for the next few days.