Yesterday I happily posted my review of Patrick Meaney’s new documentary Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, a profile of the legendary comics writer and follow up to Meaney’s other awesome comic creator doc, Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods. Ahead of the film’s big Friday night screening at New York Comic Con ’11, Patrick was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions about the film, the future and what he’s working on next.
You’ve already made one acclaimed comic book documentary. What made you decide to do a second one and how did you choose Warren Ellis?
We actually started shooting on the Warren film midway through the Morrison doc. The Morrison doc was going really well, and the logical question is, what’s next. Where do you go from here, and Warren jumped out as one of the only other guys in comics who was as interesting as a person, and an icon, as he was as a writer. I like a lot of different comic book writers, but very few of them have a mystique, where you want to know more about them. If you’ve read a lot of interviews with them, or followed them online, you want to know who’s the “real” Warren or the “real” Grant, and that makes them perfect subjects for documentaries.
In each film, we begin by building up the legend of the creator, then gradually digging around and trying to figure out what about the legend is true, and what the person underneath is like.
When were you introduced to Ellis’ work? What about it hooked you?
I got into Warren’s work shortly after I got into comics in general. Someone online recommended Transmetropolitan, and I loved that book and got into it, and then sought out more of his stuff from there. I was in high school at the time, and Transmet was a great mix of rebellion and sincere belief in a better world, all wrapped up in this crazy sci-fi world. It was the kind of story I wanted to see in movies or TV, but that wasn’t being told there, so it was great to see it in comics.
After that, I wound up spending some time on the Warren Ellis Forum. This was after it was already up and running and established, and I didn’t make much of an impression on there. But, it was pretty interesting to work on this film and get to interview people like Kelly Sue, Fraction or Kieron Gillen who I remembered from back in the day on the forum. And, I had actually done an essay for Antony Johnston’s Ninth Art website ten years ago, so it was great to meet him. And obviously it was a huge deal to meet and get to talk to Warren after seeing him as this hilarious, vicious online presence for so long.
Ultimately, Ellis was a huge influence on the way that I viewed comics as a medium. The way that comics were treated in the WEF, and reading his Vertigo and other creator owned stuff, made me think of comics as an ultra cool medium that was ahead of the mainstream. So, even more than his comics in some sense, the online community and his writing about comics made a massive impression on me.
Was there any reluctance on Ellis’ part to be a part of the film?
In the movie, you can see him mention that he’s not sure why we’re doing this, that he’s not sure why he’s worthy of a documentary. But, he was game to do it from the start, and it was pretty easy to bring the project together.
Ellis is known for his very well-crafted, often abrasive public persona. How did you go about breaking through that and getting at the truth about his life and his work?
Part of it is just talking with someone for a long time and building a trust. We interviewed Warren two different times, and the first time he was in storyteller and entertainer mode, telling us these wild stories and ideas and cracking everyone up. The second time, he was a bit more subdued, and it was great to see a different side of him. I think we’d gotten more comfortable with each other, and having spent a year or so talking to people about him, I had a better idea of who he was, and that led to him being a bit more open I think.
And, as you see in the film, that public persona is largely a construct. He really is a nice guy, and was very open and honest in answering our questions.
You seem to have an even bigger roster of interviewees this time around. How do you go about getting so many people – some of them very big names – to be a part of a film like this?
It’s a little easier to get big names when you have a track record, and being able to point to the positive reception and mere existence of Talking With Gods let people know that we were serious about the film. And we worked more closely with our distributor Matt Pizzolo to reach out to different people. I would have said, there’s no way we’re going to get Helen Mirren, but he talked to her people and managed to set up the interview!
But, I think it’s also a testament to Warren, and his extensive reach that many big name people were eager to talk to him. We interviewed Joss Whedon on his lunch break while shooting The Avengers. That’s a busy guy, but he made time because he had so much to say about Warren.
Captured Ghosts has a very distinct visual style, particularly when you compare it to Talking with Gods. How did you go about crafting the look of the film?
When we were basically done with Talking With Gods, Jordan and I talked about the ways that we could make Captured Ghosts something different and my idea was to make it really non-linear, and have a lot of wacky things, like an infomercial style ad for “Doctor Whiskey” and make it like flipping channels on the demented TV within Warren’s mind. Some of that wackiness survived to the finished film in stuff like the puppet scene, or the fake Joss Whedon movie trailer bit.
Ultimately, it wound up not quite as wacky, and the focus of the visuals became capturing the feel of Warren’s work. Grant’s work is very hazy and psychedelic and the swirling colors and images really worked for that. But Warren is a bit clearer, harder edged realism with elements of dark humor and strangeness within. So, we tried to shoot something that captured that feeling.
And, after the success of Talking With Gods, I was feeling a bit more confident that these visual things were working. Part of the reason that so much of the visual stuff in Talking With Gods was out of focus was because I wasn’t sure if it would work. But after it went over well with people, I felt like, we can get more ambitious with this and do more elaborate visual pieces.
The film is filled with excerpts of Ellis’ work read aloud by Ellis himself. Why was it important for you to get so many of his words into the film?
This came out of that flipping channels idea, that it would be a good way to break up the film, and get his ideas across in a more direct way. For people who aren’t familiar with Warren’s work, this gives you a better idea of his voice and interests. It’s nice to get a break from talking heads, and see something that can take you into different worlds and moods. From a structural point of view, it’s great because it made it a lot easier to transition between topics and introduce new ideas.
Plus, Warren is really known for his distinctive voice, and that needed to be a part of the film. I think it worked out great, and wish we had done the same thing on Talking With Gods.
Have to ask: What’s with the puppet?
After a screening of Talking With Gods, I was talking about the Ellis film and was just throwing out wacky ideas for stuff we could do, and said that we were going to have an Ellis puppet! That’s the idea that stuck, and I wound up meeting a guy who could design amazing puppets, and built the puppet Ellis for the film.
From a thematic point of view, you could say that the puppet represents that “Warren Ellis” persona he adopts online, and that persona is equally a facade, and that makes sense, but ultimately, the main idea was just to do different things to represent Warren and his words and the puppet seemed like a good one.
What’s your personal favorite Ellis work and why?
Planetary is my favorite series he’s done, it’s one of the most beautiful superhero comics I’ve ever read, and is a perfect collaboration between him and Cassaday. The way that he manages to tell so many little stories within this larger narrative is amazing, as is the way the series simultaneously deconstructs and analyzes genre and storytelling, and just straight up tells amazing genre stories.
More recently, I really love Freakangels and Doktor Sleepless. Freakangels features some of his best character writing, and he did a fantastic job of developing a huge casts, and Sleepless is probably the best distillation of his ideas about the future and society we’ve seen to date.
Unlike the Morrison film, we see very little of Ellis’ personal life on screen. Was this your choice or his?
I would say it’s a mix of both. Warren was fairly open about his life, but I think moreso than Grant, he lives a fairly normal life. He’s not trying to be a globe trotting rock star dressed in high fashion, he’s more of a family man who’s creating amazing stories, and connecting with people through a massive online network. So, in the same way that Talking With Gods shows how Grant turned his life experiences into story, I think Captured Ghosts shows the way that Warren’s ideas about the future in his stories influence the way he lives his life and connects with other people.
That said, I do think Warren is a more private person, and I respect that, and didn’t want to put in anything he didn’t feel comfortable with.
The film focuses very much on the future, probably in no small part because so much of Ellis’ work is concerned with it. Did working on this film change your view of our future, technologically or philosophically or otherwise?
One of the big ideas in both Doktor Sleepless and the film is the notion that we’re all so frustrated by the future we missed out on, one with space travel, flying cars and personal jetpacks, we don’t even notice that we’re living in a world where you can find out basically anything on the internet, and talk with anyone around the world in an instant. Our cellphones have information beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and we take it for granted. I remember back in the early 90s, my Dad talking about how amazing it was that you could look at a CD-Rom encyclopedia and pull up someone’s actual speech when reading about an event. Now, less than twenty years later, you can find pretty much any piece of media in an instant on YouTube.
So, I think it’s important to remember that even though the world we’re living in might not match up to expectations in every ways, we really do take for granted how amazing it is to be living today, in a world that’s changing faster than ever before, and making the film definitely reminded me of that.
After conducting lengthy interviews with Ellis himself, did you and your crew experience the same kind of awe that many of your interview subjects describe in the film? Is he really that larger than life?
It’s interesting because talking with him, you don’t really consider him that larger than life. He’s a great talker and extremely smart, but he’s very humble about his own accomplishments, so that kind of diminishes the legend.
But, other people are extremely effusive in praising him, much more so than he is in response to his own work. So, to some extent, he is larger than life, but he’s also just a person.
Do you have any plans to make any more comic creator documentaries? Anyone in particular you’d like to profile?
I’ve got a couple of projects in the works that can’t quite be announced yet. I can’t really answer that second question, but let’s just say, if these projects wind up happening, I’ll have covered pretty much everyone I could ever dream of in comics.
I’m also working on a couple of narrative projects that will start out as short films and hopefully be turned into features somewhere down the line.
From what you present in your film, what do you hope viewers take away most from Captured Ghosts?
The most resonant quote for me is Warren talking about how the major unfinished business of the twentieth century is to point out that we all live in the science fiction condition, that we live in an extraordinary and strange world, and through writing, we can make more people see that.