Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ “The Secret Service” hit comic shops last year, telling the story of a gentleman spy training his not-so-gentlemanly nephew for the family business. And while the Marvel/Icon comic twisted and turned the tropes of classic espionage faire like the James Bond franchise, it has a few last minute twists ahead as it enters its final form.
Currently filming is director and co-creator Matthew Vaughn’s film adaptation of “The Secret Service” starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson and relative newcomer Taron Egerton. And as with many of his past books, Millar’s story creation has been highly aligned with the preparation of the film. In fact, the writer has made a few choice changes to the presentation of “The Secret Service” comic ahead of the film’s release — most notably the addition of the Volume 1 subtitle “Kingsman” for the February trade paperback.
CBR News spoke with Millar about the preparations for both the book and movie, and below, the writer explains how he, Gibbons and Vaughn teamed up to make “Kingsman” what it is, why he had to change the famous author name of the lead character, what celebrities he expects to cameo in the final film and what this all means for the future of the franchise as well as his other Millarworld titles.
CBR News: Mark, let’s start with the origins of “The Secret Service,” which is not just a collaboration between you and Dave but also Matthew Vaughn. From the earliest stages of the project, what would you say each member of the team’s biggest high concept contribution was?
Mark Millar: “The Secret Service” actually started back in 2008, believe it or not. I remember Matthew [Vaughn] and I were in the pub around the time the first “Kick-Ass” movie filmed and just talking about films, as we do most days. He’d been talking to the Bond people about doing “Casino Royale” at one point, and we were both saying how it was weird that in a Bond reboot, an origin of sorts, they didn’t really do Bond’s origin. It’s a brilliant movie and no harm intended, but we were both just saying it was a shame that the 00 status he’s given in the opening wasn’t maybe a first act or maybe even an entire movie and that conversation was really the genesis of the whole idea.
I’d read this great article in “The Observer” a couple of years prior about Terence Young and how he’d selected Connery for “Doctor No” kind of against Ian Fleming’s wishes and how Fleming felt the Scotsman was just a little too rough around the edges. Young then took Connery to his tailor and gave him books to read and essentially trained him up to be James Bond, and we got talking about all this, but it was another year or so before I got started on the comic because the hook wasn’t quite there. I had an idea for an American secret agent years back and had started to do this as a comic back when I was just starting out, and we considered employing that a little, but Matthew felt we needed to keep it British, and once that clicked into place the whole story just kind of unfolded. The idea of a young boy without nothing in north London being trained up to be a gentleman super-spy almost wrote itself.
I should stress what a brilliant impact Dave Gibbons had in all this too. It had to be a British artist because nobody else could really capture the subtle differences between the various classes here and get the details absolutely right. The idea that we would get a legend drawing it is just insane. I queued for four hours to get Dave’s autograph when I was 17, and he and Alan [Moore] were doing the “Watchmen” tour around Britain. Having him draw the book was like being a competition winner for me. The screenplay has been done by Matthew and Jane Goldman, who have obviously worked together many time so you know what kind of treat you’re in for. Jane literally worked through Christmas last year writing this screenplay and it’s just magnificent. The two of them are an incredible combination. All the Millarworld books seem to land in really good hands, but this is an especially good team of people.
For Dave’s visual approach to the book, was there any guidance beyond the basic character arcs you gave him up front, or was the idea here to just let him make them some uniquely Gibbons-esque characters?
One thing Dave doesn’t need is advice so I basically just do what I always do and give the loosest of descriptions for each character, letting the dialogue really explain who they are, and leaving all the visuals up to Dave. I knew Gary would be a chav (an English term of a rough street-kid) and that Jack would be a suave super-spy in that Roger Moore/”Spy Who Loved Me” mode. We wanted this thing to have a sense of playfulness that Bond movies, much as we love them, seem to have jettisoned. This collision of Terence Young England or Steed and Mrs. Peel England with the grimier Ken Loach England always seemed interesting to us. Clashing cultures or ideas or inverting them is always interesting. “Red Son” was a clash between Superman mythology and Russian history. This is, tonally, “Downton Abbey” sharing the same story-space as “Attack The Block.”
Speaking of the design of the book, one thing that stood out to me as I read the series — particularly with the Olympus mountain base — was how it seemed to modernize the look of early Bond flicks like “Doctor No” from set design on down to costuming. How important a piece was that visual flair, and how might that same style carry over to Matthew’s film?
Well, we’re just back from Matthew’s place in the country, where we visited over Christmas, and watched a rough edit of a pretty huge amount of the movie, and you’re exactly right. The idea here is to grab that baby they threw out with the bath-water when Bond stopped confronting megalomaniacs with volcano real estate. I think, deep down, that’s really the Bond we all prefer and since it’s territory they weren’t on at the moment, it’s something we were all delighted to reclaim. I saw Gary (Taron Egerton) running down a corridor inside Mount Everest after a plane landed inside and taking out a dozen armed guards in boiler suits, and I just had a little smile to myself. Matthew and Jane and Dave and I are all absolutely into this slightly more irreverent stuff so that wasn’t going to be missing from the movie. If anything they take that up to the next level and have come up with the most amazing gadgets for the spies to be using. There’s a level or realism to that stuff — there has to be to make it work — but I honestly think it’s the most fun spy film I’ve seen since I was seven. That rough cut assembled from the footage filmed so far was about an hour long, but it flashed past in seconds. We just absolutely loved it.
Of course, stories always change in the telling. What was the biggest surprise or the biggest discovery you had while writing the scripts for Dave? Was there an essential part of “Secret Service” that didn’t come out until late in the process?
Not really. I tend to plot pretty tightly, and I have a system now where I block it all out on post it notes and have them around my office while I’m working. These scenes can move around or be scrapped, but I personally just feel the work goes better when I know where I’m going. The last year or two I’ve really tried to avoid even sending off issue one until issue five is written just in case I want to go back and change anything, and I think it’s creating tighter plots. The work I have planned for after summer — the projects following “MPH” and “Starlight” and “Jupiter’s Legacy” and “Kick-Ass 3” — I’d even like to have completely written and finished before the first issue even comes out with as much of the art done before people even hear about it. That’s the new plan. It’s very expensive to do, as good artists don’t come cheap, but I think it’s worth it and great from a scheduling point of view.
And on the “changes over time” front, I understand that “The Secret Service” will make a slight change to Jack’s name. What precipitated this? Did “Jack London” just feel the call of the wild?
Funny you should say that because, as a kid, I just thought that was a cool name and I wrote it into the book because I liked it. But Matthew said legally we couldn’t call him that in the movie any more than we could call him Tom Clancy. So we bounced a lot of names around and, since I named Gary after one of my friends, he renamed Jack after his oldest school-friend. In the original draft of the comic I gave Gary my friend’s old nickname of “Eggsy” because I thought it was funny, but thought everybody would hate it. But Matthew and Jane loved it and used that as Gary’s nickname in the movie so I’ve worked it back into a couple of panels in the book. I kind of love the madness of a superspy called Eggsy. Matthew thought it was really iconic and since I named this after one of my pals he felt it was only fair to call the other after one of his.
So as you just mentioned, at this point, the “Secret Service” movie is pretty far along. Where are things at overall, and what kind of involvement do you and Dave have with the production?
Actually, as an exec producer all the work really gets done before shooting and after. The actual filming is where the director just reigns supreme so you sit back, do the odd set visit, say hello to everybody and try to keep out of the way. Matthew and Jane wrote the screenplay last year, and then we had a few months of watching casting tapes every day. Matthew’s quite funny about this — you’ll be in a supermarket and he phones you saying he’s found a new guy who might be good for the leading kid and you say you’re literally buying beans and he’ll ask you to jump in a taxi, get home and check this guy out on the computer. This happened about three times a week as he’s endlessly enthusiastic, which is really brilliant. So there’s all that chatter and looking at designs and so on, but it’s really just a gracious thing for him to do as he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s one of the best directors in the world.
Obviously, some of the biggest news surrounding the picture so far has of course been the casting. What’s been your impression of Matthew’s picks of Colin Firth, Taron Egerton and Samuel L. Jackson as the anchors for the film? Do the match to what you and Dave had in mind when first crafting the characters?
Taron is exactly Gary Unwin. Without question. He just looks like Dave’s drawing come to life. Colin, likewise, looks like he’s stepped out of the comic. It’s just fantastic and having a couple of Oscar winners like he and Michael Caine just gives this project such a huge gravitas. Sam’s character in the book is more of a Mark Zuckerberg character, an internet entrepreneur who falls for this big global warming concern that’s genuinely given me sleepless nights since I first read James Lovelock’s “Gaia” books in my twenties. We talked about a lot of young, 20-something actors, but really there was nobody available who felt right and this part really needed a big American movie star since so many of the other parts are British. But then Matthew buzzed me up and suggested Sam Jackson, and it clicked into place. When he read out the dialogue in Sam Jackson’s voice, this great scene he and Jane wrote between Sam’s character and Colin Firth’s, I could totally see it.
The fun casting talk of late for the film is some appearances from Taylor Swift and David Beckham onscreen. Do you have a celeb (from the book or not) you’re hoping to land for the final film?
The only well-known face I knew we had to have in this movie was Mark Hamill. I actually wrote him into that opening sequence without asking for his permission and, since I didn’t know him at the time, I didn’t know how to reach him. This went right to the wire, like the night before the first issue went to press, and I managed to get his number through a mutual friend and he couldn’t have been more lovely. I was in L.A. a little while later as part of my Fox gig and so my family and his got together for a meal and we sat there for hours. I’d known him since he was a teenage, tattooine farm-boy, but he didn’t know me from Adam and couldn’t have been more gracious. I asked him if he’d cameo in the movie when it happened, and he was really into, which had Matthew very excited too. He’s a huge “Star Wars” nut. When he was eight he got onto the Dagobah set when they were filming “Empire” so to later be directing Mark was a huge deal for him. We were watching all Mark’s scenes up at the house last week and he’s amazing. Totally charismatic. He’s really got genuine depth and his scene in the ski lodge at the start is terrific. It’s too early to say anything else on all this and I hesitate to give spoilers you haven’t seen in the books, but I just kind of love the idea of my name being in the same credits as Mark Hamill and Dave Gibbons. Two of my heroes and two guys who have since become pals, which is great.
With the book wrapped and the movie locked in, is it too early to start thinking about a “Secret Service” sequel?
Well, Matthew, Dave and I have had a couple of ideas, which are very interesting, but there’s only so many hours in a day and I’ve really been focusing on other stuff at the moment. The whole Millarworld Universe thing is kicking off in March, and “Jupiter’s Legacy” and “Kick-Ass 3” are wrapping up as well as launching all the new titles. “Starlight” is first, and then there’s “MPH” plus the new titles I’ll start writing early summer so it would be at least next year before we get started on a second book of “Secret Service.” We’re really happy with how “Kingsman,” the first book, has turned out but I’d guess a second one probably wouldn’t even get started until after the movie comes out. Matthew’s really keen to turn this into a franchise though. He’s producing “Superior” next, though we haven’t decided on a director yet, so I guess it’ll be a little while before we can all sit around a table and plan anything else with these characters. The movie, I think, is going to be massive and it’ll be lovely to have that out there again giving the book a nice big mainstream profile.
“The Secret Service Volume 1: Kingsman” is in stores February 26 from Marvel Comics/Icon.