The world premiere of Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts won’t take place until the Napa Valley Film Festival next month, but those of us who attended an advance screening during the extended weekend of the New York Comic Con didn’t have to wait until then to see the Transmetropolitan writer’s face on the big screen. Director Patrick Meaney brought his film to Cinema Village last Friday night and gave us a glimpse of the nearly-finished film.
What we saw might be termed the “Almost Final Cut,” with at least one more substantial interview to be filmed and edited in before the official world premiere. It will be an interview with Grant Morrison, who wrote about Ellis’s comic book work in the personal prose history of superheroes entitled Supergods, and likely has an interesting anecdote or two to add to the documentary. But it won’t have much impact on the overall arc of the film. That narrative structure is already firmly in place, and the story of Captured Ghosts isn’t going to change even with some surely colorful comments from Morrison.
It’s ironic that Morrison’s piece was the part missing from Captured Ghosts, because my connection to director Patrick Meaney is so closely tied to our shared history with Morrison. Full disclosure time: Meaney wrote a book about Morrison’s Invisibles a few years back, and I provided the foreword. Then he directed Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, and I appeared onscreen quite a bit in that film, providing context for Morrison’s career as it developed.
But I’m not here to write about Morrison, or my longtime support of Meaney’s work. I’m here to write about the Warren Ellis documentary. To discuss what I saw on screen during the Almost Final Cut of Captured Ghosts.
Know this, though: Meaney takes the same approach he took with his Morrison documentary and then Ellis-izes it.
What does that mean?
Well, it’s still largely a film filled with giant talking heads — a documentary done interview-style, with the spotlight on a single comic book writer, supported by a legion of his colleagues and friends, all of whom talk about the different facets of his career and personality. It looks great (except for the out-of-focus interview with Ellis’s Orbiter collaborator Colleen Doran) and through the interviews — layered amidst two extensive conversations with Ellis himself — we get a sense of the life, art, and influence of a comic book creator.
But is also adds a new approach, a few scenes in which some of Ellis’s commentary becomes literalized on the screen. We get an ethereal Elijah Snow embodied by a 91-year-old actor, for example, or Director of Photography Jordan Rennert showing us exactly what a facetious Ellis hobo reference really implies. These reenactments, or physical manifestations, or symbols-made-flesh, are the weakest part of the film, but they do spring from the heart of the Warren Ellis ethos. Ellis has consistently advocated the act of creation. “Go forth and make,” is his implicit mantra to all of his readers, and the creative staging impulse within this movie bumps up against its role in documenting the career of Ellis himself.
Ellis’s words in the film are often enough. He’s an amazingly charismatic storyteller, and his deftly-delivered words don’t require the kind of intensive visual underlining Meaney and Rennert sometimes employ here.
Then again, that’s a trap Ellis himself falls into as well, in a significant portion of his comic book work. He, too, doesn’t trust always himself enough to let the story unfold around his fertile ideas. He pushes. He amps up. He overstates, through character word and deed. And this documentary about him suffers from that same approach. Fitting, I suppose.
And yet, with Ellis telling about his experiences scrambling to build a writing career for himself, and with genuine insight from other notable participants like Wil Wheaton, Patton Oswalt, Hellen Mirren, and Joss Whedon, Captured Ghosts has much to offer. It’s a genuinely engaging story about a writer who has deeply affected the comic book medium, and an entire generation of readers, with his works like Transmetropolitan, The Authority, and Planetary, and has also been on the forefront of using the internet to develop a transformative community.
As current high-profile Marvel writers like Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Antony Johnston state in the film, the participants in the Warren Ellis forums a decade ago are now taking over the mainstream comic book industry. All four of them credit their own participation in Warren Ellis’s corner of the internet as the direct agent for their current success in comics today. They were born from the Ellis forums, and Fraction and DeConnick make no small point about how their relationship and eventually marriage sprung directly from their interaction on those Ellis message boards. Their two children are, figuratively, the spawn of Ellis, a fact which Ellis himself cackles about in the documentary.
Ellis is certainly the star of this show. An essential thing, surely, when the documentary revolves around him. But when he’s onscreen, he is absolutely magnetic. His precise delivery lingers with gravelly weight. When he speaks, you can’t help but listen to every single word, and hang on every pause, desperate for his story to continue. His career reached its peak due, in no small part, to his audioless, faceless presence on the internet, where his persona shined through his words hammered out on his keyboard. But, as it turns out, he is an equally charismatic force on the big screen.
Earlier this year, I declined a chance to appear in this film, and offer my own talking-head take on Warren Ellis’s career as a comic book writer. I didn’t have anything interesting to say about Ellis, I confessed. His work didn’t particularly speak to me, even if I enjoyed some of his comics over the years.
After seeing Captured Ghosts, in its Almost Final Cut form, I am more interested in Ellis than ever, both as a human being, and as a creator in the comic book industry.
This documentary may have its small faults, but when it focuses on its compelling subject, it presents an overwhelmingly powerful portrait of a writer reading the world around him and processing it through his art. Warren Ellis is a major voice in the comic book industry, and the introduction-to-Ellis approach taken by this film has enhanced my appreciation of his achievements, and his efforts, far more than I ever would have imagined.
Tim Callahan often cites The Authority and Planetary as among the best comics of the past 15 years, and yet he still understimates the influence of Warren Ellis. He shouldn’t.