Comics: Director Patrick Meaney on Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts

You Ought To Be in Pictures

By , Columnist

It was inevitable, really.

Even as the comics medium has continued to mature, it has experienced a growth in acceptance as a legitimate medium by academics. Simultaneously, the general populace rediscovered the particular joys that comics have to offer, and that same increased public interest has led to a burgeoning curiosity on the part of those entering the hobby about the men and women who create their favorite sequential narratives.

This last development, in turn, has spurred the growth of books, articles, interviews, webcasts and films focusing on the writers and artists charting the adventures of Superman and Batman, Spider-Man and Wolverine, as well as more esoteric and personal independently published comics. And Sequart has been, and remains, one of the frontrunners of this nonfiction publishing trend.

After starting out as mainly a publisher of books about comics creators, characters and universes, the company has effectively morphed into a small, but powerfully directed multimedia provider of not just printed matter, but also of high end documentaries concentrating on modern creators of comics.

The company’s latest effort—and in-depth profile of Warren Ellis, writer of such popular and ground-breaking serials as Red, Planetary and Transmetropolitan, web comics like Freakangels, and the wonderfully weird novel Crooked Little Vein, and the forthcoming Gun Machine—is about to get its premiere.

With that in mind, Patrick Meaney, director of Warren Ellis: Captured Angels, recently stepped outside of the editing room for a few moments to talk about his work and why he does it. Along the way he provides some context and important details about this and his previous comics-related documentary, Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods.

Let’s start with the basics: Who is Warren Ellis, and what about the man and his work make him the perfect subject for a documentary?

Warren is best known as a comic book writer. His series Red was turned into a film last year, starring Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. The Authority was a revolutionary series, introducing a blockbuster aesthetic and edgy approach that inspired the upcoming Avengers film. Warren's work is known for a hard edged cynicism, and he often writes science fiction that focuses on technology and the future. 

Warren Eillis wide angle.jpg

Warren was an innovator in using the internet to promote and brand himself. In the early 2000s, his forum (the Warren Ellis Forum - Ed.), was a laboratory for his ideas about how to improve the comics industry and reshape the business. An emphasis on collected editions over single issues, more creator ownership, and a wider acceptance of comics in the mainstream were all early goals of his, and have all happened. Many now prominent comics writers, including Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, Antony Johnston and Kelly Sue DeConnick got their start on the forum, and the forum was also where Warren honed his "Old Bastard" persona, the cynical edge he brings to his online correspondence.

Warren definitely has a legend within the industry, and that's what attracted me to him as a subject in the first place. It's always interesting to look at people who have a definitive public persona, and contrast that with the real person beneath. Over the course of making the film, I learned a lot more about him, and realized that he's at the center of a massive nexus of artists, journalists, scientists and creative people who have met through him, and attribute some of their success to him. He's a connector and a creator who's going to leave a much wider impact on society than just his work. 

And beyond that, Warren's a really funny guy who can tell some amazing stories. So, just getting to listen to him talk for an hour and a half is a great time. 

And the film’s premiere is coming up pretty soon, isn’t it?

We're doing a special sneak preview screening at New York Comic Con on Friday. It's happening at Cinema Village at 11:15 PM on Friday night (the 14th of October, 2011).The film's official premiere is at the Napa Valley Film Festival next month, then it will be screening across the world in the next few months.

I just heard that you somehow convinced Warren to actually attend the kick off festivities in the flesh. Do you folks have any other tricks up your sleeve planned to help celebrate the opening?

Warren will be in person at the London screening on November 12th, which should be an amazing time! He'll be doing a question and answer session before the film. 

How’d this project come about, anyway? When did you come up with the idea for this particular documentary, what kind of development process did it undergo from that initial concept to the final film, and who else played a significant role in that whole process?

The project is the follow up to last year's Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods. That film provided the template for this one. I was winding down shooting on Talking with Gods, and thinking about who else in comics might be worth profiling in a film. Warren was the first one who jumped to mind, and Mike Phillips and Julian Darius at Sequart got in contact with him to see if he'd be interested in doing a shoot with us. He was game, and we booked one of the few smoking rooms at a hotel in London, then spent two smoke filled days in London with Warren.

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Going into the film, we had an outline that spanned Warren's career, but it really came together in the editing room. Talking to a lot of different people, it became clear that one of the main story threads was the impact Warren had as a tastemaker and curator, helping draw attention to his friends. Warren is very humble, so there's an interesting juxtaposition of other people being incredibly effusive in their praise for Warren, and Warren downplaying his accomplishments.  

As the film was coming together, we branched out more and more with interviewees, and thanks to the help of distributor Matt Pizzolo, we were able to get in touch with a wide range of people, including Helen Mirren, Patton Oswalt, Wil Wheaton, Joss Whedon and more, to help show how wide Warren's impact had been.

Along the way, I realized that doing a straight biography structure wouldn't work for this particular film, so the second time we interviewed Warren, I had him read twelve passages from either his prose work or comics, and together with producer/DP Jordan Rennert, I shot a variety of 'ambient visual' segments to illustrate those passages.  

So, the film became much larger than I had anticipated, and much more visually ambitious than Talking with Gods was.  

What kind of surprises, large or small, did making this film a reality?

One of the big surprises was just how many interesting people we got to meet and talk to. I'm a huge Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) fan, so getting to interview Joss Whedon was fantastic, and obviously meeting Helen Mirren was a huge deal. Beyond that, I think it was interesting to really discover the film as I went along, and let the film control its own direction. 

When did you start doing this kind of work, and why?

I've always been interested in film, ever since I was very young, and always knew that's what I wanted to do. I studied film in college, and after I graduated, I worked at a big post production house in New York. After getting laid off from that job, I started a film production company with my long time friend/business partner Jordan Rennert, and we've been working on different projects ever since. For me, making movies is just the most exciting thing I could imagine doing. 

Grant Morrison purple pic.jpg

And what about the comics medium and its creators mark them as particularly good subjects for your films? 

I think comics creators in general don't necessarily have anything special, but people like Grant and Warren, or Alan Moore, all are fascinating people, who have diverse and sometimes strange interests that are worth exploring in more depth. You don't get to see many in-depth profiles of these guys, so there's a lot of uncovered territory, and a large audience interested in them. And, since comics have a visual component, but aren't film, there's a lot of room for invention in figuring out the best way to represent their work on screen. That can mean just animating comics panels in interesting ways, or shoot reenactments and recreations, as we did in Captured Ghosts

So how involved is the whole process of making one of these puppies? Is there a lot of preparation and research that needs to be done ahead of time, or is it a little more straightforward than it might appear?

The whole film started with our first interview with Warren. So, I had to have a certain level of familiarity with his work, and a whole bunch of questions to ask him. But, most of that was done by me reading his work over the years, and generally being familiar with him. And, having already done the Morrison film, I had a good sense of what questions would produce interesting answers, and which wouldn't fit the film. 

Hellen Mirren group photo.JPG

After that, there's a chunk of time where I basically got in touch with everyone Warren knows or worked with that I could find. So, for about a year, we were shooting interviews with many, many people. By the end of this film, we'd interviewed about fifty people, and nearly all of them wound up in the finished film, if only for a byte or two in some cases. 

But by far the trickiest part of the film is editing. I edited the film myself, and it entails basically going through all the footage, breaking it out by question, then sorting it by topic. So, you start with, say, four hours of material loosely organized then just go through it again and again and again, gradually figuring out what's worth keeping and what doesn't fit. From there, I start to integrate other interviews with Warren's stuff and gradually form the skeleton of the film. 

While this is going on, we're still doing interviews, so it starts to become clear that, say, we need more bytes on Freakangels, or about Warren's feelings on the future, and then tailor the questions to fit with what Warren said. The second interview with Warren was also really key in filling in gaps and pieces we missed. But, the second interview also sent the film in new directions, and I had to edit accordingly.

I don't go in knowing what the film will be; it gradually emerges as a three hour edit gets whittled down to the final 80 minute running time. This one was easier to edit than Talking with Gods in some ways, since I had a better sense of which clips were good, but don't fit a film, and which would make it to the end.

But Warren's story was a bit less straightforward than Grant's, and the structure of the film couldn't be as straight biographical/chronological as Grant's. Warren's is a bit more idea based, and it can be hard to figure out what order stuff should go in. Should the section on Planetary come before a section about Warren smoking?  

Warren E close up smoking Screen shot 2011-09-27 at 12.36.23 PM (2).png

Ultimately, it's intuition, and a lot of passes through the edit before you gradually realize, alright, I guess this is done.  

What kind of qualities does a person have to possess for them to be interesting enough to commit to doing a film on them? Is it anything you can codify, or is it more of a “know it when I see it” type of thing? 

One of the main themes, and arguably the central question of both the Grant and Warren films, is who is the man behind this outlandish public presentation? Grant had these rumors and legends about his wild drug use and shamanic encounters. Is that who he really is, or is he different? In Warren's case, his super grumpy "Old Bastard" internet persona led people to believe he was drowning himself in whiskey, cigarettes and Red Bull while hating everything in the world. But, the real him might be different. 

Ultimately, I think those are both guys that people in comics wanted to know more about. They're people where you want to know the "real Grant" or the "real Warren," and that's where the film comes in. 

grant portrait black.jpg

There are a lot of great writers in comics, or interesting people in other media, whose work I love, but who I don't particularly have any interest in personally. Somebody like Steven Spielberg is a massive name, but he seems like a well adjusted guy who's making movies and doing his thing. There's no mystery there, whereas with Grant and Warren, there's a mystique, and that makes you want to know more about them.  

What do you hope that Warren gets from this film, be it in the short or long term?

I hope that Warren gets exposed to a wider audience, and that people who know only a few of his works check out things like Freakangels and Doktor Sleepless, and realize how important and enjoyable those books are. There's a lot of conjecture and myth around Warren, and I wouldn't want to destroy that. I hope that the film shows you a more human Warren, but also shows that every legend about him is true. 

What do you hope to accomplish with this film? How about your work in general? Is it just about giving people a solid, entertaining and informative way to pass their time, or do you hope to accomplish something a bit more substantial with your efforts?

The main goal with this film, or with any of these biographical docs, is to show you what it's like inside the subject's head. So, all the style choices, the pace, the look, is determined by trying to replicate the feel of Warren's work and his attitude towards the world. For Talking with Gods, that meant a lot of psychedelic images and music, and a hypercompressed style that fit as much information into as small a space as possible. 

With Captured Ghosts, it's more industrial/ambient music, and a mix of grotesque comic imagery and some sincere optimism about the future. Hopefully watching the film feels like reading a Warren comic. 

More generally, the goal of both films is to show how artists can imbue their work with meaning and emotion. Both Warren and Grant are writing sometimes outré stories that are very real, and we need more work that actually talks about meaningful things. 

Grant Morrison -- Talking with Gods for Wired 2.jpg

So, I always hope to entertain people. I don't want watching the film to be a chore, and when I'm editing the film, I'm thinking about myself as a viewer and what would be enjoyable to me. But, hopefully, you take away some interesting insights about the future, creativity or the kind of impact that you can make on the world too. 

And what do you get from doing this? What kind of rewards does this type of project offer that other films don’t? 

It's really exciting to get to meet and talk to the writers and artists who created works that have been really important in my own life. I couldn't have imagined getting to spend a day with Warren or Grant, talking to them about their life or work, but here I am. It's a passion project in that sense.

From a business standpoint, it's really hard to get people interested in watching your films without big names or a big advertising budget, and these projects advertise themselves. They have a built in audience, and it's great to know that if you make something people will actually be passionate about it, and want to see it. So it's pretty amazing as a first-time, or second-time filmmaker to have total control over the movie, guaranteed distribution and guaranteed audience interest. 

And, getting the opportunity to be the guy who tells Warren's story or Grant's story is a real honor.

What else are you working on? What’s coming up next?

Well, there are a couple of other projects along the lines of these that are in the works, but aren't one hundred percent confirmed yet, so I'd be hesitant to announce those. But, with any luck you'll be seeing them in late 2012 or early 2013.

I'm also working with Sequart on a line of smaller scale 'webumentaries,' which will go in depth on specific comics that are important to the development of the medium. Those will be targeted at a more specific fan audience, and the series will hopefully be launching early next year.

I'm also developing two narrative short films that will be shot with an eye towards turning them into features next year. We'll see what happens with those, but hopefully I'll get the chance to work on them!

Anything else to add before I let you get back behind the camera?

People should definitely be on the lookout for the release of the Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods Special Edition DVD in January 2012. It's got about four hours of additional content, mostly Grant speaking about all kinds of interesting things that didn't fit into the film for whatever reason. You'll find out how to summon the New Gods through a magic ritual, how to do Batman's workout and much more. And if you already have the DVD, don't worry, you'll be able to order the bonus disk as a standalone item from our distributor.

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Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts will be screening around the country, and world, later this year. Keep an eye on or @ellismovie on Twitter for all the latest.

 I'll be at the Napa Valley Film Festival for the film's premiere on November 11th, and we'll be doing a  screening, time and place TBA, in LA the week of November 14th. 

So, keep an eye out for all that and you can follow me on Twitter @patrickmeaney for all the latest!

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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