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Mark Millar – Success Story

As the creator of graphic novels WANTED and KICK-ASS, and now the writer/director of superhero movie MIRACLE PARK, Mark Millar has tamed an industry that doesn’t take kindly to newcomers. And, as he explains, in order to succeed, you must never compromise…

Mark Millar kicks ass. Not just on the page, but on the silver screen too. The creative force behind movies like Wanted and Kick-Ass requires little introduction, as he’s risen to dizzying heights as a writer, then an executive producer and now, in his latest venture Miracle Park, as a director in his own right. With Marvel employing his previous work for their movie franchises, Millar is in the rare position of being able to see the industry from the clearest viewing position of all: the top. And he knows how far the drop is, because he started at the bottom.

“It can be soul-destroying writing stuff and not getting paid,” Millar reflects. “That’s how I started. But necessity is a great thing. It forces you to be commercial. I think there’s a kind of literary Darwinism in evidence in all forms of media; it’s very much a case of the survival of the fittest. I hear people complaining about the system, but you have to totally embrace the system if you’re going to survive as a creative person; you have to love the idea of what you’re doing. If you stop loving it for a minute, it’s over.”

Millar’s rise from humble comic-book writer to Hollywood producer may be the stuff of superhero origins, but there’s no doubt that he’s worked hard it’s an 11-hour day, and at 5pm, I do an hour of interviews; you have to be your own publicist,” he reveals. “It’s an absolute necessity for me to be disciplined about the way I work, because of all the things I’ve taken on, like working with Marvel or setting up [website] Millarworld. There’s just not enough hours in the day.” But when it comes to getting his work onto the screen there’s only one mantra for Millar: no compromise.

Kick-Ass was a fairly radical idea for a superhero movie, and we found that out when we took it to the studios. They turned it down, so we made it ourselves and sold it to Lionsgate without any notes or changes,” he says. “In the world of publishing, you get used to working with amazing, creative people, and that gives you a certain self belief. Working in the industry is not something that a schools career officer would ever tell you to do, yet it’s not defying gravity; it’s a real thing you can do.

Kick-Ass was a fairly radical idea for a superhero movie, and we found that out when we took it to the studios. They turned it down, so we made it ourselves and sold it to Lionsgate without any notes or changes,” he says. “In the world of publishing, you get used to working with amazing, creative people, and that gives you a certain self belief. Working in the industry is not something that a schools career officer would ever tell you to do, yet it’s not defying gravity; it’s a real thing you can do.

“To me, taking control was a matter of common sense,” he continues. “I’d watched previous generations of creators and seen what had happened to them. In the 1930s, the guys who created Superman got ripped off. They ended up doing menial office jobs while their creation ended up on lunch boxes. So the trick was in keeping the copyright. Even a generation back, Alan Moore, who in my opinion was the best writer since Stan Lee, ended up having adaptations that, even though he started out optimistic [about] the process, he ended up wanting to have his name off the credits. So I decided the sensible thing was to stay on board and executive produce my own work.”

But exactly how do you go about navigating the labyrinthine corridors of Hollywood power, where so many have tried and failed, seeing their projects consigned to development hell? For Millar, as with the hero of Kick-Ass, it’s all a question of attitude rather than superpowers.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you let them, people will always want to walk all over you. You have to have the right philosophy from the beginning. Always be prepared to walk away from a meeting, always. They simply won’t respect if you buckle. I’ve walked into many a meeting, and walked straight out if I didn’t like the feel of the set-up. Otherwise, sure, it can be one of the most demeaning things in the world, looking for the approval of some studio exec, saying, ‘Here’s my idea, love me.’ It simply doesn’t work like that. You have to be the one who calls the shots.”

Finding the right formula for writing is also a tricky business, and there are plenty of guides to story structure and screenplay writing, usually accompanied by seminars with hefty fees. Millar is aware of the cottage industry, and he’s forthright in his view of what they’re worth: throw them away. “I never respect these people, because they’re never great writers in their own right. It’s daylight robbery; what these people do is preposterous. I’d rather have someone like Joe Eszterhas. He’s written some terrible stuff, but at least he’s been around the block. To me, it’s a con industry, it’s all about selling books, nothing but a wheeze.”

Millar also isn’t especially interested in television. “I love Doctor Who, Mad Men and all the usual suspects, but it’s never really appealed to me as a career option,” he says. The big screen has always been Millar’s passion, and he’s unashamed to say that he’s a populist; he likes what other people like. “I was 19 when I sold my first stuff, and when I was interviewed, they asked me what kind of stuff I enjoyed,” he recalls. “I said Jaws, Star Wars, Superman… People were embarrassed for me when they read that. They said, ‘You’re meant to say that you like stuff like Jean Cocteau so you’re regarded as a serious player!’ But being commercial is a blessing for anyone. As a creative person, it’s good to be in step with the majority of the population. Being creative and being commercial should be two qualities which go hand in hand. I want to make big hits, not endurance tests. Awards are nice when I get them, but really just compensation for not getting a big box office. Yes, you can make tiny movies, movies which are uncommercial, but I’m not really interested in navelgazing. I want to make films which are commercial and everyone can enjoy. I think UK films are finally starting to go this way again and compete on the global stage. It’s very heartening.”

But isn’t success also a question of who you know? Millar agrees, and reels off a list of his working associates. The trick is, in Millar’s opinion, to stick with people that you know and like, and not get sucked into an anonymous word of acolytes and hangers on.

“Every project I do, I make sure who I’m working with is someone that I actually like as a person. If you can do that, then everything is probably going to be fine. In the case of Timur Bekmambetov, I loved him and what he did. The same goes for Matthew Vaughn, or working with Tony Scott on [the forthcoming adaptation of Millar’s] Nemesis. I spent ages chatting on the phone with him, we instantly clicked. There were five other directors all wanting to do that one, I turned every single one of them down. With directors, if they’re not good at doing action, there’s no point in entertaining them. It doesn’t matter if your agent tells you that you’re out of your mind; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and that’s that.”

Millar describes his latest project, directing his own script for Miracle Park, as “X-Men meets Trainspotting”, a superhero story which “focuses on a group of animal rights activists who break into a low-level research laboratory to find a mile-long underground base owned and facilitated by the US government.”

Being able to privately finance your own movie might suggest Millar is at the top of the tree, but he’s not planning on selling his position out. He lives simply, making work his focus and eschewing the trapping of the mogul. “I make a good living here in Glasgow. To be honest, life is not that expensive the way I live. It’s fairly humble. Right now, I’m wearing an Asda T-shirt, jogging bottoms and trainers. My only real luxury in life is that I travel first class, but even then I can usually sucker some studio into paying for it!”

So what advice would he give to those starting out, or, if he could go back in time, what advice would he give to his younger self? “What would I say to myself? Well, if we learned anything from Back to The Future movies, surely it’s not to interfere with the past. I’d just say to take every risk that comes along. I have no directing experience whatsoever, but am having a crack at Miracle Park and learning as I go along. You can read all the manuals you like, but it’s nothing compared to what you learn on day one when you’re standing on a set and trying to make it work. There’s no point in fearing failure; you just have to do what you want to do. That’s the maxim that you have to live by if you work in the creative arts.

“The bottom line is, there’s no conspiracy trying to keep good people down; if your work doesn’t sell, then the only person you can blame is yourself, and if this doesn’t work I accept that. You have to be tough on yourself!” •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 19 (November/December 2010)

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