"No Studio Would Touch It:" The Big Gamble Behind 'Kick-Ass'
Matthew Vaughn was already playing a high-stakes game when he showed up late to a poker night at friend Dexter Fletcher's London flat. The filmmaker was betting everything he had on Kick-Ass, a violent, R-rated movie based on a comic book that nobody had heard of, because it hadn't even been completed yet. But Vaughn was so taken with the story of an average teenager who decided to become a superhero that he would mortgage his home to get it made.
"We were having a poker game with Mark Strong, Jamie Oliver and a few others," recalls Fletcher, who played a mobster named Cody in Kick-Ass and would go on to direct Rocketman. Fletcher had cooked lamb for the group with the help of Jason Flemyng, who would later play the disgruntled doorman in Kick-Ass.
Heat Vision breakdown
Vaughn showed up to the game with an ace up his sleeve. "I had some [previsualization] done so we could raise money for the film," Vaughn says. "We did the first minute of the film, which was a good representation of its tone, combining the comedy and violence."
Strong, who had worked with Vaughn on Stardust a few years earlier, took it all in.
"It was the guy diving off the roof with the voiceover line, 'That's not me by the way, that's some guy with mental health problems,'" recalls Strong, who later played the role of mob boss Frank D'Amico. "I remember thinking, ‘What the fuck is that?!'"
In the weeks following that poker game, Vaughn had no luck generating studio interest.
"They weren't even intrigued," Vaughn says. "Literally every person who saw it or read the script said, 'No.'"
Against all odds, Kick-Ass hit theaters 10 years ago on April 16, 2010. It became a cultural touchstone as well as a modest hit, earning $96.2 million globally. It sparked controversy, with some critics decrying the violence, particularly violence performed by the 11-year-old character Hit-Girl. It would also establish Vaughn as a new voice in the comic book space and paved the way for a slew of irreverent, R-rated comic book films, including Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) and Fox's Deadpool (2016).
Kick-Ass wasn't just a bold reimagining of the comic book genre, it was a page-one rewrite on how comic book films are made. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to its key players to look back at how it all happened.
Mark Millar was already a superstar comic book writer by the time he crossed paths with Vaughn. The Scottish scribe helped bring Marvel Comics into the 21st century with The Ultimates, a post-9/11 re-imagining of The Avengers that later helped inspire the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he was on his way to becoming a hot commodity in Hollywood. His comic Wanted had been optioned and was being made into a movie starring Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy.
Millar wanted to get in touch with Vaughn, best known for producing Guy Ritchie's early hits and directing Daniel Craig in the crime drama Layer Cake (2004). Screenwriter Jane Goldman, who co-wrote Vaughn's latest movie, Stardust (2007), made the introduction.
"My first call with Matthew lasted three hours. We really got on and knew we wanted to do something together," Millar recalls. "Vaughn ended up inviting me to the Stardust premiere, which was happening the following week."
Originally, Millar sent Vaughn his comic American Jesus as a potential collaboration. "Matthew asked if I owned anything that he could look at," Millar says. "At the time, Wanted was being adapted and War Heroes was optioned, but American Jesus hadn't had a formal offer, so I sent it over."
Vaughn responded positively to American Jesus, but something inside Millar told him he should mention his idea for Kick-Ass. "On our next call, I said, 'I've got this other thing called Kick-Ass. It's not done, but I've got four issues of the eight-issue first run.'"
Millar delivered the first three issues and issue six to Vaughn. From there, the decision was clear to the filmmaker.
"I was desperate to make a superhero film, and I liked Mark's pitch the moment I heard it," Vaughn recalls. "According to Hollywood, it was the wrong move because no one wanted to make it. That just got me even more excited, because it seemed so obvious to me."
Millar went off to finish the comic with artist John Romita Jr., and Vaughn teamed up with Goldman to write the script.
"Matthew was hopeful that when it was ready, people would see what we were so excited about," Goldman recalls of the writing phase. "You couldn't point to another movie and say, 'See how well that movie did?' Because there weren't any movies that were similar."
After months of work, Millar remembers arriving at Vaughn's estate in London to take a look at the script for himself.
"It was a very surreal moment. Matthew is a bit like a cool Bond villain with butlers at his home," Millar says of Vaughn, who is married to supermodel Claudia Schiffer. "I was led into a room to read the script while Matthew and Jane were in another room waiting on me … It was like being a father and watching a baby being born, and just hoping it goes well but knowing there's nothing you can do if it doesn't."
Fortunately, Millar loved what he read.
"Jane and Matthew and I were shaking hands and congratulating each other and getting ready to go and sell the thing," Millar recalls.
But Vaughn soon discovered he could not sell the movie.
"Every single possible studio said it was terrible," recalls Millar.
According to Millar, one studio even delivered nine pages of notes on the script.
"They called Hit-Girl a disaster and said the only way to save her was to make her 25 instead of 10 years old," recalls Millar. "They also said no one wanted to hear superheroes cuss and recommended hand-to-hand combat instead of knives and guns."
"No studio would touch it," Vaughn recalls. "So I had to mortgage my house in order to finance the film, which was scary, to be honest."
Vaughn brought Brad Pitt onto the project as a producer. The two knew each from making Ritchie's Snatch (2001) and for a time Vaughn courted him to play Big Daddy, the Adam West-esque former cop who raises his daughter to become Hit-Girl. But soon Quentin Tarantino swooped in and brought Pitt aboard Inglourious Basterds, instead.
Pitt was out as an actor. Nicolas Cage was in. He gave a performance that became a meta commentary on the actor's real-life comic book obsession.
"I knew Nic loved comic books and superheroes, and this script was a love letter to superheroes," Vaughn says. "The film imagines what it would be like if the ultimate fanboy suddenly decided to play superhero, and some people mistakingly felt we were attacking the genre, but I knew Nic would buy in."
But casting another key role wasn't so easy. At one point, Vaughn considering delaying the film because he couldn't find the right actor for Kick-Ass/Dave.
"Matthew said, 'I've looked at 100 guys and no one has had the charisma of the character. I could find a guy that's 35 that could pull it off, but I need someone younger,'" recalls Millar.
That younger actor would be Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
"When Aaron came in, he was already doing an American accent." Vaughn recalls. "I knew he was perfect for Dave, and then when he finished the audition, he started doing an English accent," Vaughn says. "I said, 'Mate, that's the best English accent I've heard,' and when he told me he was British it threw me."
Chloë Grace Moretz, then just 10, was obsessed with Wanted. She admired Jolie's reputation for doing many of her own stunts and was enamored with its comic book feel.
"I actually looked at my brother and my mother and said, 'I would totally kill to have a role like that,'" recalls Moretz. "They were like, 'This doesn't happen for 11-year-olds. You don't get the option to play an Angelina Jolie-type character.' One week later is when we got the audition for Kick-Ass."
Moretz met with Vaughn in Los Angeles, and he was instantly taken with the young actor.
"He had kind of been on a road with someone else for a little while. I think I got an audition late in the game," recalls Moretz. "I got really lucky to get in front of him at that point in time."
While Vaughn had no problem dreaming big and thinking of specific actors (see: Brad Pitt) while writing the script, that was not true for Goldman, who as a rule does not write with actors in mind. Still, she couldn't help picturing Christopher Mintz-Plasse in her head when writing Red Myst. The actor had broken out as the overly confident geek McLovin in Superbad (2007), and Goldman liked the movie so much that she took the entire office of a TV project she was working on to see it.
For his part, Mintz-Plasse was among the hundreds of young men who read for the role of Kick-Ass. He recalls passing Lyndsy Fonseca (Katie Deauxma) on the way into his audition.
"Mathew Vaughn, the whole time, was watching me with this crooked eye. I wasn't sure if I was fucking up. He wasn't laughing," recalls Mintz-Plasse. "He wasn't applauding or anything. But when I was done, he looked at me and said, 'You're too spunky for Kick-Ass, but you would be a perfect Chris D'Amico.' He just basically offered me the part right there in the room."
Strong can't remember if Vaughn offered him the role of Frank D'Amico at Fletcher's poker game, but the idea of playing a mafia boss was something Strong loved. "It was right in my wheelhouse of out-there characters," Strong says. "The minute he asked if I was interested, I said I was in."
Production soon began in London, doubling for New York. For 19-year-old Mintz-Plasse, the London shoot was the first time he'd lived outside his parents' house. He and Taylor-Johnson soon formed a close bond.
"We were kid adults. So we really had that obnoxious, silly energy that kept the vibe really loose," says Mintz-Plasse.
They hung out and sometimes got drunk together on the weekends. They also made choices about their characters together. In one of the more famous moments from the movie, Kick-Ass begins dancing to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" in the Mystmobile. Red Myst looks skeptical, before deciding that sure, it'd be OK to join in. That skepticism wasn't in the original script.
"We thought it'd be a nice building moment as performers. 'OK I'm going to be really thrown off and then we can grow together,'" says Mintz-Plasse. "That was the vibe of the whole thing."
Though the film had a $28 million budget, it was an indie film at its heart. Vaughn was on the hook for the production budget and he wryly reminded Mintz-Plasse about this when he had to drive the Mystmobile, a task that required the American actor to navigate the opposite side of the road while using a stick shift for the first time.
"The car is worth like $200,000, I believe. I have to drive it going like 40 miles per hour, turning a corner. I have to hit my mark as the camera on a crane is zooming in right to the front of the windshield, and Matthew Vaughn is like, 'No big deal, no big deal. If you crash this, you owe me $300,000. Not a big deal," recalls Mintz-Plasse with a laugh. The car was definitely worth more than he was making on the movie.
Moretz spent half a year training to play Hit-Girl. She studied with famed stunt house 87Eleven in L.A., Cirque du Soleil in Toronto and spent a few months in London studying Wushu under the team led by Kick-Ass stunt coordinator Brad Allan.
"By the time we got to filming, about 90 percent of it was me, except the big, big stunts, which I probably could have done, but we legally couldn't do them for insurance, because it was too risky," says Moretz.
Talila Craig doubled for Hit-Girl. So did Greg Townley, an 11-year old boy who would put on Hit-Girl's costume and wig.
"We have so many photos of him and I posing in our suits, feeling so cool," says Moretz. "And we had Jia [Yu], who was an adult man, putting on my outfit and would do some of the big flips and some of the triple cork twist kicks. That stuff takes years to learn and I definitely couldn't learn that."
After the film came out, Hit-Girl would become a cultural touchstone, a symbol of female badassery. She would also be a lightning rod for critics offended that an 11-year-old would be put in such violence situations or use such bad language.
Vaughn enlisted Goldman to help guide Moretz, as the screenwriter's youngest daughter was the same age as the actor. Goldman's daughter and Moretz formed a bond and remain close friends.
"I was the one who would get dispatched to have the slightly awkward conversations about language and that kind of thing," says Goldman. "It was a nice atmosphere and I think Chloë felt safe. She was fine about saying the C-word — I hope she doesn't mind me saying this, but I remember thinking it was so sweet — because she felt comfortable saying that word because it was a girl's part."
Moretz notes that as a young girl obsessed with Wanted, she was primed to dive into the world of comic book movies, and more or less was given a full picture of the Kick-Ass story.
"No, I wasn't allowed to go home and curse all the time. I definitely didn't do that, but … it would have been disingenuous to not understand the full breadth of the movie," Moretz says. "Obviously, the more teenage, sexual stuff that was happening in the movie, I wasn't aware of during filming. That was obviously very separate from all the things I filmed."
She also worked closely with her onscreen father, Cage.
"We were super close and he was so sweet with me," Moretz recalls.
Millar recalls Cage's first days of filming this way: "We started the day with the Big Daddy and Hit-Girl training in the rock quarry, then we moved to the bowling alley ... What was fascinating to me was seeing Nic give something completely different every single take."
Vaughn credits Cage with the decision to have Bid Daddy speak like Adam West's Batman.
"I wasn't sure about it, and then he did it and I thought it was brilliant," Vaughn says. "When he put on that costume, I can't tell you how happy he was … he had an enthusiasm which is vital on a film set. There are days where you're so exhausted that you really rely on the enthusiasm, otherwise you end up with a flat film."
Cage has a reputation for committing fully to roles and making surprising choices. In perhaps the movie's most memorable scene, Big Daddy is burned alive, while screaming out orders to his daughter.
"That delivery, he just pulled that out of the bag on the day. I remember Matthew turning to me and looking really anxious and surprised," says Goldman. "I think most of us were like, 'Where did that [come from]?' That sort of strange rising intonation in the shriek. He had just done a straight read at the table read. It was so strange and such a brilliant, bold choice."
Moretz recalls witnessing that scene this way: "We were like, 'What a wild, brilliant choice.' You are sad because this man is on fire and his daughter is having to save him, but you are also kind of laughing because of the choice he made. It's just awesome. It just worked perfectly in that scene in that moment."
Shooting Cage's death scene was one of the hardest sequences for Vaughn as a director.
"That sequence was just a nightmare," Vaughn says with chuckle. "We were shooting in the dark and dealing with the strobe light of Hit-Girl's weapon. Just getting the cameras to work was really difficult before you get into the timing of everything with the actors."
Mintz-Plasse only worked for one day with Cage, and was both surprised and thrilled when the actor complimented him during rehearsals, when as a joke, the 19-year-old actor made an over-the-top choice just to make Taylor-Johnson laugh.
"I remember shooting Hit-Girl in rehearsal and screaming at the top of my lungs like a gorilla, banging my chest," says Mintz-Plasse. "Nic Cage turns to me, 'Do that! Oh my god, that is brilliant. Do that!' It just got him so excited." (The actor did not end up doing that in the final cut.)
Every good hero needs a good chief villain, and Strong was ready to deliver. He spent hours a day working out to perform Frank D'Amico's karate moves.
"Matthew had a guy come over and stretch my inner thighs for hours, so that I could do a believable high kick," Strong recalls, referencing the scene where a deranged D'Amico kills the children's birthday party Kick-Ass impersonator in a New York alley.
"I love putting in the work to make those moments believable. Matthew loves that too, the idea of a crazy climax fight sequence is something that he thrives on," says Strong. "At the end of Stardust, I have to fight Charlie Cox while I'm hanging from wires and fighting with my eyes closed. It was a difficult sequence, and then in Kick-Ass, I was fighting an 11-year-old Chloë and her stunt double."
Mintz-Plasse was among the few who didn't have to do much physical training for the movie.
"There's a line in the movie that makes me cringe, when Lindsay Fonseca says, 'Yeah, Red Myst has a better body than Kick-Ass.' And Aaron has an eight pack underneath that wet suit. I'm just like, 'Oh! The credibility of the movie is gone,' " Mintz-Plasse says with a laugh.
The film stood out thanks to the clarity of its action sequences, a few years before movies like John Wick made that more of the norm. Vaughn worked closely with stunt coordinator Allan to develop those moments.
"Brad takes my ideas, adds magic dust to them, and then we wrestle about the storytelling components," Vaughn says. "Every frame has to be telling a story, advancing the narrative, and maintaining the geography for the audience."
In addition to the big action moments, the film had plenty of small, memorable characters, such as Fletcher's Cody. Fletcher had a role in Layer Cake, and notes that when Big Daddy kills Cody in Kick-Ass, it is a subtle Easter egg for that film.
"At the end of Layer Cake, my character of Cody ends up in a yellow Range Rover," Fletcher says. "In Kick-Ass, I'm also named Cody and I get crushed in a yellow Range Rover in a junkyard. I'll go on the record as saying Matthew really likes putting his friends in his films and killing them."
Actor Stu Riley enjoyed throwing his weight around as the bodyguard to Mintz-Plasse's Chris D'Amico, and ultimately bringing out the bazooka in the climax.
"I knew this was going to be a groundbreaking project," Riley says. "This was 2008 and we're filming a little girl swearing and killing three dozen people, that stuff wasn't going on in cinema."
Riley's character was referred to as Huge Goon in the script and comic, which posed some problems for Strong in the climactic shootout. "In one of the takes, Mark ended up saying, 'Stu, would you get him?'" Riley recalls. "When Matthew caught it, Mark pointed out that he couldn't exactly call me Huge Goon, so we went with it and I got to play myself in the film."
Strong affectionally recalls the improvised moment with Riley. "I did love that bit, and when Stu walks in and gets the bazooka and I just say, 'OK,'" Strong recalls. "That's one of my favorite lines in the film."
With such a freewheeling set, Vaughn captured plenty of moments that didn't make the cut, particularly as he likes to keep his movies under two hours.
"Matthew always wanted the character to go far out there," Strong recalls of his character becoming more unhinged as his vast criminal enterprise is seemingly undermined by a kid in a green SCUBA suit. "There's a sequence where I have a revolver pointed at my head and I'm completely freaking out. I don't know if it was too much for Matthew or if I overcooked it in the performance, but it never made the final cut. The wonderful thing was Matthew let me go as far as I possibly could, and he reined it in in the edit."
There were also moments with Hit-Girl left on the cutting room floor, "where she is privately yearning to have a real childhood," recalls Goldman.
"It was very sad and very sweet, where she thinks no one is watching she goes and plays on a swing set. It was actually heartbreaking," says Goldman. "There was also a sweet, romantic scene with Kick-Ass and Katie. ... I think they fit tonally, but you never want anything to be too long."
Goldman was on set every day, both as screenwriter and producer. She'd make small dialogue adjustments at the request of her teenage stars to make it sound more natural, and there was just one day on set that involved a major rewrite.
"The scene where [Dave] is awkwardly putting the fake tan on Katie. Originally that was meant to be that she was trying on clothes to go to a party," recalls Goldman. "She was meant to be changing in front of him and trying on different outfits. 'Can you see my nipples in this one?' Super awkward."
The day was running long, and the logistics of changing the clothes became too much, so Vaughn asked for alternatives.
"He was like, 'What else can we do that is really awkward that doesn't involve any props or clothes because we have to shoot it in an hour's time,' " recalls Goldman. "That was a day of frantic rewriting, but it was really fun."
After wrapping filming, Vaughn ran into a problem in postproduction: He couldn't figure out what to do with the music. Instead of a traditional score, the filmmaker was considering needle drops of popular songs to be played throughout.
He courted composer Henry Jackman, who was busy working on the Jack Black movie Gulliver's Travels.
"He kept calling me for advice," says Jackman. "He was making it sound like the most complicated thing in the world, like it was impossible to score. I said, 'Just send me reel one of the movie. Let me take a look at it.'"
Vaughn sent over that first segment, with the man jumping off the top of a skyscraper. It was temp scored with John Williams' classic Superman theme, and Jackman instantly saw that Kick-Ass did indeed need a traditional superhero theme to work. It couldn't just be popular songs.
"I went back to the house and sat on the piano for awhile and basically came up with this Kick-Ass theme on the piano," says Jackman. He quickly sold Vaughn on the idea, and ended up being credited on the score alongside Marius De Vries, Ilan Esh and John Murphy.
If Vaughn was worried about money while making the film, that fear was hitting a new levels as it was nearing completion.
"It's even more scary once you've mortgaged the house, made the film and realize you now need to sell it to the people who said ‘No' to it in the first place," says Vaughn. "Then you think, 'My god, I've actually drunk the Kool-Aid.'"
Vaughn arranged for Kick-Ass to premiere select footage at 2009's San Diego Comic-Con, where the packed, 6,500-person strong Hall H audience can make or break a movie. In this case, that was doubly true as the reaction would determine if Vaughn could drum up studio interest and land a distributor.
"I don't even recall how we got into Comic-Con, but I remember sitting backstage and all the Avatar guys are sitting at another table. I remember thinking our budget is likely their catering budget," Vaughn says with a laugh.
The James Cameron-directed Fox film was set to follow Kick-Ass in Hall H, and Vaughn was nervous about pulling off the panel.
"I had such fear and nerves walking onto that stage and starting the introduction … I could tell everyone was a little slouchy," Vaughn says. However, all that changed once the footage was revealed.
"When we showed the clips you could feel the audience leaning in and then everyone erupted in applause," Vaughn says. "It was that support, both in the room and online afterward, that turned the tide with the studios. They were now saying, 'Wait, what? People like this?'"
"We showed five clips at about three minutes each," Millar recalls. "Hit-Girl fighting the drug dealers, her training with Big Daddy with the gun in the rock quarry. Hall H went insane and it was the highlight of the day."
Goldman cried tears of joy.
"It was amazing. Except, then you realize it's actually not as wholesome a story as it sounds, because we'd just basically shown a clip of an 11-year-old saying the C-word and then massacring a roomful of people," Goldman says with a laugh.
Not long after, Vaughn secured a deal with Lionsgate to distribute the film. It launched April 16, 2010, and had already generated controversy due to reports of Hit-Girl saying the C-word, among other things. Though the film received largely positive reviews, some critics decried its edgy content. The late Roger Ebert wrote in his one-star review: "Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in."
Goldman doesn't single out any negative reviews in particular, but does note they surprised the team.
"We hadn't ever set out to be controversial, at all. It was never about wanting to rile people up," says Goldman. "I think particularly people's reaction to Hit-Girl … I thought she was an incredibly empowering character. I still stand by it. It's kind of a sad indictment of society, but she still remains the only kickass onscreen female, fighty heroine who is not sexualized. It says a sad thing about society that the only way to do that is to make the character 11 years old."
Vaughn recalls his feelings of validation following his big gamble.
"I felt validated at SDCC, after selling the film I felt validated, and then opening weekend was a weird time for me," Vaughn says. "The film cost $28 million and we did $19 million on opening weekend, for an unbranded R-rated superhero property and I thought, 'Woohoo!' Then I'm getting all these emails saying, 'Sorry man, it didn't work out like we thought it would.'"
"It was a case of Hollywood drinking the Kool-Aid again and projecting $40 or $50 million and now $19 million is a disappointment," Vaughn adds. "In Hollywood, no one likes dealing with hard facts. I was over the moon with an unbranded, R-rated release in April, and the film holds its own over time. When I saw Deadpool, I felt vindicated again because people were making R-rated superhero films and they were working."
For Millar, the most satisfying moment was going out on Halloween in the fall of 2010 and seeing two young girls dressed in the purple wigs and costumes of Hit-Girl.
"Seeing something that lived in your head being worn on the streets and being accepted by people, it was so exciting," Millar says.
For weeks after the film's release, Riley was stopped by young fans of the film who recognized his body guard character. "At least 50 kids stopped me on the street and told me that they loved the film and snuck in to see it," Riley says. "They would buy tickets to another film that I won't name, and then they'd sneak into Kick-Ass. We had a good box office run, but I know it was a bigger hit than the numbers said."
Fletcher notes that "the fact that people would sneak into the movie and break the rules to see it is certainly in the same Maverick spirit that Matthew had when making the film."
Mintz-Plasse is still recognized for the role.
"Besides 'McLuvin,' which I get a ton of, I constantly get 'Red Myst' and I constantly get 'The Motherfucker' yelled at me," the actor says, referencing the villainous persona he took on in 2013's Kick-Ass 2.
Moretz popped on Instagram the other day to announce she and others would be taking questions to mark the anniversary, and was happy to see so many people who still care about the movie.
"It's pretty raucous, but there's something special about it that I don't know has been captured in film in the same way," says Moretz. "I think it's a singular film and it's that special sauce, that perfect mixture of everything."
by Trilby Beresford
by Seth Abramovitch
by Sharareh Drury