Last week, I had a chance to see the new documentary film Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts in its Los Angeles premiere screening at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood. This is the second movie — I have to resist my tendency to call any movie a “film,” because very few of them are made with it anymore — from the Sequart Research and Literacy Organization, publishers of such fine tomes as my own Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen (buy it now!). Their previous film, Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, was a bona-fide hit with comics fans and got a lot of attention in the mainstream press and was screened at conventions and film festivals. The Ellis version is made by the same filmmakers, headed up by director and film editor Patrick Meaney and d.p. Jordan Rennert — both of whom attended this L.A. premiere screening.
Here’s the trailer for the film:
Like the Morrison doc, Captured Ghosts is an engaging portrayal of the writer behind such huge comic book hits as Transmetropolitan, Planetary, StormWatch, The Authority, Global Frequency, Red, NextWave, Doktor Sleepless, Ministry of Space, Ocean, Desolation Jones, Strange Kiss, Bad World and FreakAngels. The film follows a typical path of starting at the beginning and detailing Ellis’ life from childhood through to becoming a writer and his extensive impact on the industry. Meaney and his crew do a great job of keeping a movie that is probably 95 percent talking heads moving at a fast and entertaining clip. There is a lot of ground to cover in this movie because Ellis is the most influential writer of comics since Chris Claremont (more on him in a bit).
I first came across Ellis’ work on Transmetropolitan, of which I picked up the first three issues after seeing some good reviews online in the ancient internet days of 1997. It instantly became my favorite series of the moment — due in no small part to the lead character being a kick-ass journo — and set off a bit of Ellis-mania. When the one-two punch of Authority and Planetary hit in 1999, Ellis had definitely arrived and the rest has been, as they say history. Though his presence in mainstream comics has dwindled in recent years — mostly by his choice to work with a publisher like Avatar that will allow him do anything he wants without the interference that working on Marvel or DC properties entails — he’s still one of the most popular and well-known writers in comics.
The movie has a slightly different approach than Talking With Gods, as Ellis himself is self-deprecating and even humble when talking seriously about his work and its impact. A lot of the portrait comes through from the interviews with writers and artists and editors he’s worked with over the years. Many of those tales are quite sweet and touching, most notably the story of how Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick first met on the old Warren Ellis Forum, began dating and now are married with two children.
The many interviews — Meaney says he did about 50 of them for the movie — is a who’s who of comic book creators and other celebrities, and runs a huge gamut from Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, John Cassaday and Joss Whedon, to Wil Wheaton, Patton Oswalt and Helen Mirren, who starred in the movie adaptation of Red and is from the same town in England as Ellis. The pacing manages to keep it all very entertaining and packs in a lot of information. It’s clear from all this that Ellis is much-admired as a writer and valued as a friend.
For those who know Ellis’ biography and bibliography, there’s not a ton of new information save for some details on Ellis’ life prior to his breaking into comics writing and some neat bits on Ellis’ reputation among serious futurists. And there’s not much information that puts his accomplishments into perspective, especially for non comics readers. It’s all a bit jumbled and even though you come out of it feeling entertained, it’s still not really clear from the film why what Ellis has done is of such note.
And it’s a problem compounded for viewers not familiar with Ellis, his comics work or the comic book industry in general. One Variety colleague of mine said the film was “interminable” for non-comics folks and a far cry from Terry Zwigoff’s classic Crumb. I can’t disagree on that point, but I also don’t think this movie is made for anyone other than fans of Ellis and his books who want to know more about both subjects. And as such, it’s a success, and a film well worth checking out.
In the Q and A after the screening Meaney and Rennert said they had interviewed Ellis in two day-long sessions a year apart. They shot at a Holiday Inn in England near Ellis’ home because it is the only hotel in the area that has a room that could accommodate Ellis’ cigarette habit. The bulk of the interviews were done in the intervening year, and the film cost about $10,000 to make, with much of the donations coming from Kickstarter.
Which is about as natural a segue as there is to mention Meaney’s next project, a shorter documentary on Claremont’s run as X-Men writer from 1975-1991. (The project has reached its funding goal on Kickstarter, which is good news.) The project is called Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont’s X-Men and will include a round-table discussion between Claremont and his former X-Men editors Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson in its 45-minute run time. It looks like a great project, and I look forward to seeing it when it comes out.
Check out this cool early look at the project: