Friday evening, after the show floor shut down at Comic-Con International in San Diego, an audience-packed room was treated to a preview and commentary for the upcoming “Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts.” Even though the convention show floor had closed, fans were still interested in getting a first look at the documentary on popular comics writer Warren Ellis.
Present at the panel were the film’s director Patrick Meaney, director of photography and producer Jordan Rennert, and executive producer F. J. De Santo. This team had also made the recently released “Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods,” a doc featuring another wildly popular comics writer.
To kick off the panel, the trailer for the feature-length film was shown. It presented a whirlwind of testimonials from those who know Ellis, including well-known comics personalities such as writers Matt Fraction and Antony Johnston, past Ellis collaborators like Marvel CCO Joe Quesada and artists Darick Robertson, Ben Templesmith and Phil Jimenez, as well as surprising celebrities such as actress Helen Mirren, comedian Patton Oswalt, adult film star Stoya and Claudio Sanchez of the band Coheed and Cambria. Of course, it also featured a darkly lit, cigarette-smoking Ellis, who alternated from being serious, bleak and threatening to jubilant and shaking with laughter.
The filmmakers wanted their follow-up film to be on a subject just as compelling as Morrison, with an impressive resume in the comics field. To conduct the interview that comprises the backbone of the film, they had to find a room in England where smoking was allowed, a task that proved difficult. Ellis gave them his conditions: bring whiskey, Red Bull and cigarettes. The eight-hour interview was the filmmakers, Ellis and 16 to 20 packs of cigarettes (which may or may not have been a slight fabrication).
The panel alternated between showing clips and the panelists’ commentary and teases about what else will be seen in the film. The first full clip featured Ellis talking about what drives him. One of his biggest motivations is his father and the novel he wrote, which seemed ridiculous in the way he described it but surely was an impetus behind how the younger Ellis turned out the way he did, professionally (and mostly likely personally).
The filmmakers had talked to Ellis about his early life, where he declared that he was not defined by his history. He had a normal childhood, he said, which made him always look toward the future. However, a great influence in his history was growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s England, as Ellis explained in the next clip. That state of England bred in him a distrust of authority and made much of his world view — and thereby his work — much more harder-edged and violent than Morrison’s surreal storytelling.
“Captured Ghosts,” as represented by the clips shown, leans heavily toward Ellis’ comics work and away from his writing for television and film adaptations. The next clip shown centered on “Transmetropolitan,” perhaps Ellis’ most notable and trenchant work. As most fans know, “Transmetropolitan” was a long-running Vertigo comic series about Spider Jerusalem, a journalist in a future that is both gritty and too bright. It was with this mouthpiece that Ellis could espouse many of his views, and it was through this series that Ellis connected with a large audience, creating a work that is still relevant today. Ellis said he wrote issue #8 in 24 hours. Artist Darick Robertson said in the film that that was what he felt was the most important issue of the series
It was noted that Ellis was one of the first major writers to embrace the Internet, even predicting some of today’s technology in his work. “We live in the science-fiction edition,” he said. In much of Ellis’ writing, including “Transmetropolitan” and “Doktor Sleepless,” he boldly explores his fascination with the future. It was rare that a writer could make science fiction work in comics, but Ellis was able to do so in an always-compelling fashion, opening the door for other creators to also look at such themes.
The open forum on Ellis’ website was also a great influence, with many of today’s significant writers being involved in it. It was also said that Ellis was instrumental in getting a lot of creators work in the industry, connecting with them if he found their work interesting, and introducing them to editors or people he knew could help them with their goals. Ellis was one of the few mainstream creators who would publicly encourage other creators to do their own thing, to own the work and be sensible and serious about it.
Ellis has a number of legacies, and his work on the “Hellblazer” story “Shoot” gets a mention in the film. In 1999, Ellis was working on a memorable run on the Vertigo title, and this one-issue story — drawn by Phil Jimenez — about a young student who takes a gun to school and murders classmates had been accepted for publication, until the Columbine tragedy happened just as the story was about to go to print. Ellis’ story was edited to the point that it was purposeless and far removed from what the writer had originally intended, so he decided to not let the story be printed and promptly quit the title. This was a breakthrough move, as it was rare that a big-name comics writer would brazenly quit a title over an argument with editorial over content. That this could happen gave a lot of creators confidence that they had some say in their artistic endeavors for the major publishers.
Ellis’ huge nexus of contacts was never understated, and to prove this point, panel guest Antony Johnston was brought to the stage. A fellow British writer featured prominently in the film, Johnston echoed much of what he said in the movie, relating his own experience with Ellis introducing him to comics publishers Oni and Avatar, which was huge for his career and gave him a lot of work. He noted that Ellis was good at exposing his readership to more off-kilter work.
The scribe insists that he is not a cynic, but rather a frustrated optimist. The characters in his work are endlessly trying to create a better world but are stopped by those who do not want that kind of place.
A main theme of the film is Ellis’ public persona — he’s called a “bastard” by many of the interviewees in the movie, some in a rapid-fire montage — and whether or not that’s even his true personality at all. For as many would call him a bastard, just as many say he’s a real teddy bear. Even Johnston, in person, said that how Ellis comes across online and in print — curmudgeonly and grumpy — is just an act. To repudiate this, Ellis, in the movie, after taking a long drag on a cigarette, says that between fear and respect, he’d rather be feared. Respect, he says, goes away. There are numerous clips interspersed in the movie of a person, blurred beyond recognition, enacting the horribly violent things that Ellis threatens to do.
Also shown was a clip of a puppet looking startlingly like Ellis, with the beard, hat, cigarettes and all, but voiced by Ellis. At this point a puppeteer appeared with the prop from the film, the puppet clutching a can of Red Bull, of course.
With the time for the panel almost over, questions were accepted. A query was made about how Ellis does not seem to relate to the comics community anymore. The panelists defended the writer, saying that he still does, he just wants to move on and try some other things. They said that Ellis told them that he always wants to write comics, but he also wants to move into films and prose. They also said that Ellis hates to travel. As a matter of fact, Ellis got onto the Internet so much because he did not want to have to come to the U.S. and lose writing time to traveling.
The sequence of clips wrapped up with the trailer for the “Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods” documentary, available for sale on DVD on the convention floor.
The filmmakers ended the panel saying that there were more interviews to be done for the movie, to be completed in about a week. They said that the film will premiere at the Napa Valley Film Festival in November, and after that it might get some one-off theatrical screenings, but the DVD should be out late this year or early next.
The audience did not get to see their hero in person, but with clips of a film they got the next best thing, which might have been better since the convention rooms are explicitly non-smoking areas. Regardless of whether they smoke, drink or do neither, Warren Ellis fans have a monumental piece of film to look forward to.