The Faceless Mindless Collective are back and this time Patrick Meaney, film-maker and director of Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, is in reach of their terrible teeth in their terrible jaws.

Patrick’s new documentary, Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, focusses on the life and works of pop-comics very own futurologist, ‘Internet Messiah’, hard man auteur, and features extensive interviews with the man himself and a great many of his friends and collaborators. It’s well worth a watch even if you have only a passing interest in the guy behind Planetary, Transmetropolitan and the Authority.

Ellis turns out to be not just a true original, and maybe slightly scary, but also hugely loveable. Who knew?

We get stuck into it (Patrick, with our blunt fingernails) after the jump

Faceless Mindless Collective: So why was Warren Ellis second on your hit list? 

Patrick Meaney: As befitting someone who’s read a lot of comics, I’m very interested in the notion of identity and persona, of the way we construct ourselves, and the dichotomy between the person we want to be, or the person we present to the world, and the actual self underneath. In the case of both Warren and Grant, you have someone who has a very outrageous public image, be it Grant’s drugged out chaos magick messiah, or Warren’s drunken angry old bastard internet jesus. These are really fun personas, and they give each of them a mystique. When you look at interviews with Grant, or Warren’s Twitter feed/blog, you’re left wondering, how much of that is the real person, and is there something different underneath?

So, it’s that mystique that was the initial hook for me, and the reason I chose to tackle Warren as the next subject. You look at Warren and you want to know more about him, and that question of, who is the real Warren Ellis powers the first chunk of the film. As we went on, a lot of new layers emerged, and the ‘mystery’ of the real Warren is basically resolved a half hour in, but that was the major reason we focused on Warren over anyone else. 

And, for me personally, the Warren Ellis Forum, and his Come in Alone column, were hugely influential when I was getting into comics as a teenager. I remember being amazed that I was reading Transmetropolitan, then could go on and interact with its creator. I wasn’t a big part of the forum at all, but it made an impact on me, and without it, I doubt I’d be doing what I do today. 

FMC: Why the subtitle, “Captured Ghosts”?

PM: There’s a sequence at the end of the film where Warren talks about the ghosts that walk amongst us on city streets, the past interacting with the present, and the legacy of things that were once new and shiny, but now are taken for granted. Warren is also very interested in the idea of the futures we missed, of the rocket ship and jet pack world that we were promised, but never happened. So, much of Warren’s work is about looking at those ideas hovering around the periphery of the world and bringing them to the fore. This ties in to the concept of Hauntology, another favorite of Warren’s, which was drawn on for the Ghost Box storyline he did in X-Men. 

FMC: Hauntology, for sure. There’s an interesting tension between the effort to capture the ghosts of forgotten futures (see much of the work done by the fine fellows on the Ghost Box label referenced in Ellis’s X-Men run) and role of the futurist, a tension which Ellis appeared to be well aware of. The future as a set of contested ideas and discarded concepts as much as a destination. Did he expand on any of this further from the cutting room floor? 

PM: A lot of his work recently has been about dealing with the unfinished business of the 20th century. I asked him if the unfinished business was ever finished, and he said that it might not be, but eventually you descend into self parody if you keep dealing with the same issues. I think ultimately Warren is forward thinking in his looks at the real world, but has a great appreciation for those old pulp forms, and likes to write things like Captain Swing, Ignition City or parts of Planetary that riff on that old stuff. 

I think that tension you mentioned is something he’s definitely aware of, but because he does so much work, it’s not an either/or situation, he has time to do both. 

FMC: Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison… those guys, despite their idiosyncrasies, are about as famous as you can get within the niche market of “mainstream” comic books. Do you see your work as an effort to celebrate the form’s popular creators? 

PM: I think that’s part of it, you definitely want to do a movie about someone people are familiar with, but Warren is a bit of a fringe figure in comics at this point. I’d argue his major impact on the medium/industry comes not from his actual comics, but from his ideas about distribution and his support of a creator owned original graphic novel/TPB centric market. Much of the culture of comics, to this day, comes from the ideas he discussed in the late 90s/early 00s, and the improved image of comics in mainstream culture is probably partially due to Warren’s ideas and work back then.

I think it’s a testament to comics that people with work as out there as Warren and Grant can be so successful, and if watching the films makes someone read their comics, I think that’s a good thing. 

FMC: Our Warren’s a known technophile, and he’s also known to think out loud about formal ideas on a regular basis  -  did that aspect of his persona change the way you approached making the film at all?

PM: It made it a lot easier to figure out who to interview and get in touch with people. Grant has deliberately shied away from cultivating a big internet presence, so it was harder to figure out who to talk to. With Warren, you go on his blog or Twitter feed, and you’ve got an instant stream of interesting people who know and respect Warren, and many of whom were eager to talk about him. 

One of the big themes that emerged over the course of making the film was the fact that Warren is at the center of this massive artistic-social nexus of people who met each other through him, and have now become friends either online or in the real world. It also meant that even though most of the people we interviewed felt very close to Warren, very few had been to his house, or knew his family. People engaged with him through the internet, and built very real relationships online. 

FMC: How much did you consider playing along with, or playing against, the self-mythologising of your subjects? Both Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis have carefully constructed personas that are both reflected in their comics and have a life beyond the page, and it feels like you’ve been at least a little bit complicit in this myth-making in both of Talking With Gods and Captured Ghosts.

PM: It might not have been the intention, but I feel like the take away of both films is that everything you’ve heard about these guys is true, but there’s a lot more nuance and humanity to the person underneath. I think both the Grant and Warren personas are the two of them at their most. In Talking With Gods, Grant said that he can be the guy who spoke at Disinfo con, and was hyped up and in an altered state but even then, he wasn’t always like that. It was a performance, and the Grant or Warren of legend, the Grant or Warren that became icons are taking pieces of their selves to the extreme. 

With Warren in particular, I think the film plays with the idea of servicing that persona, as when we have him commenting on peoples’ description of him as a teddybear, pussycat, etc. That was playing up to the persona, and I included a few segments in the film that are basically people describing that fictional mythologized Ellis who is attacking people and cutting up bodies, etc. But, I think just spending that much time with Warren means that you’re going to see him as more than just that shouty person on the internet.  

We interviewed Grant for the Warren Ellis film, and I talked to him about the difference between his persona and Warren’s. He said that Warren chose one persona in his late 20s, “the old bastard,” and has stuck with it, and that really helped him commercially. He said that Warren will never grow old, because he’ll always be the old bastard, he was the old bastard at 25 or 30, and he’ll still be the old bastard at 70.

Grant, however, chose to shift and shed personas over time, and that’s been responsible for some of the disconnect between the reality of who he is and what people think he is. Talking With Gods is more about a guy trying to reconcile with himself, and figure out who he is. Warren doesn’t go through that same deep abyss, he figured out who he wanted to be, and has kept that persona alive and vital for many years. 


FMC: Is Warren really the booze fiend he appears to be – I noticed whisky in his hands in more than a couple of… ahem… shots. Did you, as the man says, try to keep up?

PM: I couldn’t even attempt to keep up with Warren when it came to drinking. He had a bottle of whiskey he was working on through the entire shoot, and was also working on cigarettes and Red Bull while shooting. He said he usually didn’t drink that much, but he said he didn’t particularly like going on camera, and I guess was going to his comfort zone. 

But, he didn’t seem particularly effected by the booze, maybe a bit louder and more boisterous, but he wasn’t falling down drunk or anything. I will say that most of the stories people told about hanging out with Warren did involve being really, really drunk. 

FMC: Kind of as an adjunct to the question above, is Ellis the pussycat his friends and fellow creators insist that he is, or did he at any point break both your arms? 

PM: I think the truth is somewhere in between. There was one question I asked him that prompted him to say he wanted to punch me in the face, but in general, he was very supportive of the project, and patient with shooting. So, he seems closer to the pussycat, but I still wouldn’t want to mess with him. 

FMC: Threatened to punch you! What did you ask him, enquiring mindlesses want to know?

PM: I asked him to describe himself to someone who didn’t know him or his work, and he said…

FMC: More seriously were there any juicy stories that didn’t make it into the final doc? You can tell us.

PM: Hmm, there’s a lot of funny Ellis anecdotes or rants that didn’t fit in for whatever reason, including a story about an encounter with a porn star and a midget pimp at a convention. Perhaps the greatest anecdote that didn’t find its way into the film was the story of Warren, Grant, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson doing whippits at a San Francisco signing in the 90s, and rolling up to the comic store in a black convertible with ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ playing, which would probably be the media res opening if somebody did an “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” style book about the Comics British Invasion.

FMC: I got the strong impression that Ellis is well loved, as a man, by a great many people who come into his orbit, would that gel with your experience?

PM: That’s definitely true. It’s pretty amazing actually how many people have a deep emotional connection with someone they’ve only met in person a couple of times. There were a few people we spoke to where most of the interview wasn’t usable because it was just them reflecting on their personal experiences with Warren, and the way he serves as a shoulder to cry on, a psychiatrist and a friend. And, many of the creatives we interviewed gave him credit for their careers. 

One of the interesting dynamics in the film is a dichotomy between other people being incredibly effusive about Warren, and Warren being very humble and downplaying his accomplishments. 

FMC: The film touches upon Ellis’s infamous antipathy towards the superhero genre, did you get a handle on the reality of that situation in your conversations with him and the other contributors? How do you think Ellis sees what he does?

PM: He said that because he works in a medium so centered around the genre, he’s obligated to tackle it, in the same way if you worked on Broadway, you’d probably have to do a musical comedy at some point. And, he comes out of a tradition of anthologies like 2000 AD, so he doesn’t have the same attachment to the genre that a lot of American writers do. I think most of his rhetoric against superheroes is more about wanting to ensure that other work can find a place than it is about actual active distaste for the genre.

Matt Fraction said that he thinks of Warren as someone who knows the genre, and at least at one point loved it, but might be done with it now. I was frustrated sometimes by Warren’s pronouncements that he was done with superheroes, then seeing him go out and writing Ultimate Fantastic Four, but he said that writing Ultimate Fantastic Four gave a huge boost to Transmet backlist sales. So, it seems to be a necessity to keep him in the dialogue around comics. 

FMC: Given Ellis’s larger than life persona, I think viewers will be surprised by how unsatisfied he appears to be with his work. Did you get a sense of him as a frustrated, if successful, artist or was that just the whisky talking?

PM: That was one of the biggest surprises for me actually, and I can’t be totally sure, but it felt genuine. He talked about how he’s never written a Sandman or an Invisibles or a Preacher, and in general, he seems to just write his stuff and move on. I’d ask him questions about past works and he wouldn’t even remember them. I don’t think he likes to look back on stuff, it seems almost painful to go back. 

This is a major contrast to Grant, who saw his past work as a charming reminder of the person he was back then. I think Warren is someone who loves the actual process of writing, but isn’t as interested in the finished product. It felt like each step away from the initial spark of the idea was falling away from this perfect project that existed. 

He talked a lot about being a pulp writer, someone who works fast, gets it done and moves on to the next thing, and I guess the work never feels as good to him as it does to others. 

FMC: Yes, I had the impression that Ellis doesn’t see, say, Transmetropolitan as his Preacher or Invisibles. Did you put it to him that for many people it sits in precisely that niche?

PM: I said that people see Planetary or Transmet as a work at that level. In the film, you can see people praising Planetary, Transmet and even The Authority as hugely personal, emotional works, but when I asked him about the emotional response people have to his works, he said that there is none, that he’s not the kind of writer who produces an emotional response. That surprised me, and I asked him more about what fans say to him, or things they’ve given him, and he said that fans don’t respond that way, that he doesn’t provoke the same response as a Neil Gaiman or a Morrison. 

I think you could make the argument that none of his works are at the level of a Watchmen or Sandman, but I think he does have as fierce a fanbase as any of those creators, and particularly Transmet and Planetary are very resonant, enduring works. I think that Warren is someone where people have less of a completist drive than with Moore or Morrison. His work is all over the map, and there’s so much of it that very few people have read all of it, and usually you’ll find something you don’t like along the way. But, that also means he has a more varied output than people sometimes give him credit for. Yes, there’s a lot of hard edged smoking bastards along the way, but something like Freakangels shows a real wide range of characters and ideas, and feels like a totally different writer than something like Frankenstein’s Womb. 

FMC: Ellis the futurist, Ellis the guy who changed comics, Ellis the hell-raiser… If there was one insight about the man that you’d like viewers to take away from the documentary what would it be? 

PM: Ultimately, I think it’s Ellis the forward thinker, the guy who’s putting out new ideas about how things can be done, be it in the writing and distribution of comics, or in real life technology and science. He’s a guy who wants the future, and a large part of his mixed feelings about his own work might be that’s in the past, and he’s already looking forward. 

FMC: How do you plan on distributing the film?

PM: The film premiered a couple of weeks ago at the Napa Valley Film Festival. We’re doing a series of one off screenings and small runs at various theaters and comic stores around the world over the next few months and it’ll be out on DVD in February. You can pre-order it as a DVD or download now at www.halo8store.com

FMC: What’s next for you now that Captured Ghosts is finished? More comics creator docs? Or does that idea terrify you, like – “Where does the madness end?!”

PM: There are some more comics related projects in the works currently, including one feature length doc that can’t be announced just yet, but will hopefully be starting up in early 2012. I’m also working with Sequart (our co-producers on the film) to develop a series of smaller scale docs called Comics in Focus. These will cover historically significant works or events in comics history, in the words of the people involved. They’ll run about 45 minutes, and be a bit smaller scale than the features, so maybe 10 or 15 interviews instead of 40 or 50, but hopefully still be satisfying. The first of those is going to be about Chris Claremont’s X-Men run, and is currently in production. And, we have some really cool ideas about projects to tackle next for the series.

On one level, I want to move on and do different stuff, but getting to go around and talk to all my idols in comics, and have a canvas to tell stories that people actually want to see is pretty amazing, so I’m not eager to abandon the comics documentary world just yet! But, I’m also developing an original project called The Viral Man that I’m hoping to shoot as a short film in January, then produce as a feature next year. So, we’ll see how that goes, but I’m looking for investors and support now. 

The great thing about comics as a documentary subject is that you have a lot of visual material to work with, but people haven’t seen it on film yet. So, I’m adding something to it that I wouldn’t be in documenting a film director or musician. You haven’t seen this stuff represented on screen, and that gives me room to work. So, I’m happy to keep telling stories about comics in documentary format as long as people want to keep watching them. 

FMC: Thanks Patrick

Go see the flick, everyone. Or pre-order the DVD here

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