At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I had the pleasure of following around Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert of Respect! Films as they did cool things, hoping that the cool things they did would rub off and I’d also be doing cool things too. In between watching them film stuff and struggle to find memory cards, we sat down to talk about the cool things they’ve done so far and will be doing in the future. It was cool. Previously, they’ve worked on Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts. Edinburgh was a while ago, but their words were trapped in electricity and I bring the conversation to you now, in full color.
Tyler Gross for Comics Bulletin: I guess the first thing I want to know is, what got you guys into doing these sort of documentaries?
Meany: I’ve been a comics fan for many years. Since high school, I was very into those Vertigo guys, like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis and Alan Moore. Garth Ennis. All those books were wrapping up at time, somewhere around 2000 or 2001. The Invisibles had just ended, but all that stuff was out in trade.
I got into comics and in like three or four years I read all these now classic books. I always loved Grant’s work, I always loved Neil’s work. Then a few years later, after getting out of college, I had done a whole bunch of blog posts about The Invisibles and I met up with these guys from the website (back then they were just in the early days of publishing) called Sequart who publish books about comics. They had just done a book called Grant Morrison: The Early Years by Tim Callahan, and he was uncertain if he was gonna do any more books, and they said to me, “You should do something about The Invisibles and put all this stuff together.”
So I compiled all that into a book, and we were planning on interviewing Grant for it, and because film was my passion, the industry that I work in, I thought, “Well we filmed this interview, why don’t we try to make it into a whole documentary?” Grant was someone I was hugely interested in, so I thought he’d be a great subject for a documentary. We wound up pitching Kristan (Grant’s wife) and Grant on this idea, and they said yes. We were pretty much off and running from there. So we shot the film about Grant.
CB: That was your first film?
Meany: That was the first film we did, yes. It went pretty well, I think. I was really happy with the way it was going, so we thought, “What would be some other interesting projects to do?” And the two people who jumped to mind were Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis since the thing they all have in common, that made them worthy of a documentary, is that they all have this this mystique, this public legend or iconography where it’s about more than just the work.
People want to know about the person, which I think is kind of the common thread among all three of them. So at the time, we wound up shooting Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts first. We started shooting that one when we were finishing up Talking with Gods, and then a couple years later, Neil’s schedule and our schedule coincided and we were able to start shooting with Neil, which has been pretty awesome so far.
CB: I think what’s cool about what you guys are doing is that most documentaries you’ll see about comics seem to be about the history of comics, and there’s not a lot of focus on the people, especially because a lot of the people who have influenced comics are dead. A lot of the stuff was written a long time ago.
I think it’s great that you guys do your best to focus on the individual, which is what has made these documentaries really great to watch.
Meany: I think it’s cool because all the people we’ve done the documentaries about have been at a transition point in their lives. When we shot with Grant, he was just turning 50 and was at a point where he was very introspective about stuff. He had just done Final Crisis and was moving in a new direction in his work. He had reached a place of peace or resolution or something within himself. So it was great because he had all these troubles he’d been through in his journey, and he was able to reflect on the journey in a way that you can really only do once you’re out of it.
Warren was also at a point where he was still doing comics, but he was wrapping that stuff up and moving into other things. Red had just come out. I think Red came out while we were shooting. And that was him taking a step into a larger world.
For Neil, it’s his last signing tour. Which, I think Neil isn’t necessarily transitioning as much as those guys were, but I still think it’s a big landmark time for him, saying, “This is the end of signing. This is the point in my career where I’m gonna be doing some different things.” He’s been branching out into theatre, so it’s a cool time where he’s becoming more than just a writer.
CB: I actually didn’t realize that. He’s not going to be doing these big long signing tours anymore? Is he just too old for it or what?
Meany: Basically what he said is that it’s really no fun for anybody because to do a signing at a place where it’s a thousand or fifteen hundred people and it takes like three to five hours. It’s hard for him. It’s hard for people. It’s hard to ask people to sit around until like 2:00 am to get their book signed. I’m sure he’ll sign more books in the future, but this is like the last big thing of this scale.
Rennert: Also, he had mapped it out in an advantageous way. Coraline was in 2002. The last major signing tour he did was in 2005 for Anansi Boys, so this is the point where, timewise, the people that Coraline was meaningful to have come of age and have grown up with it. You can definitely see a huge portion of th
e people asking him to sign that book because Coraline was such a touchstone for him.
CB: Especially at the panel today, you could see a lot of people standing up and wanting to know things about Coraline.
Rennert: Exactly, so he really understands the timing. In many ways, this signing feels like it’s for Coraline.
Meany: I think the kids who read Coraline, say if you’re like 12 in 2002, then you’d be 23 now. And Neil was saying now that he’s seeing lots of second generation fans, people who grew up reading his books and now have kids and their kids have read his books. We saw a lot of that today. There are more and more people in his fanbase. There’s a wider age range.
Rennert: It’s a Michael Jackson, This Is It situation. He’s got the energy. And that’s one thing that’s been inspiring to be around him — how much energy he has for all the events he’s doing. It’s pretty absurd. It definitely puts in perspective your own life. If this guy has this much energy at 50, and he’s doing this many incredible things, what are we all doing?
CB: What are you guys’ goals for the Neil project?
Meany: I’m really excited about the Neil project because it’s an opportunity to do something a little bit different.
With Grant and Warren, they were primarily interview-based movies, which we then added a lot of psychedelic flourishes to, but with Neil, it’s interesting just to get a view of him on the road.
It’s more of a fly-on-the-wall approach where we’re seeing a lot of different events happening and capturing it, capturing who he is at this point in time in his life. It’s been really fun to spend a lot of time with him. He’ll do jokes and stuff with us and play to the camera, so I think it’s his record of this point in his life in this journey he’s on. It’s cool. It’s very different for us, so it’s something I’m excited about.
Rennert: It’s also cool because we don’t really have too much to compare what he’s doing to other people. Others have done signing tours and this sort of thing, but it’s hard think of authors that have this much of a reach, this much of an audience who are out there doing this kind of thing. It’s very unique in that.
Who else is going out day after day and signing books for thousands and thousands of people? What is that experience like? Who can you compare it to? There are obviously bigger authors, but I don’t think they have that big, outward personality. It’s shaping up to be something very unique in and of itself.
CB: And I think it’s cool too because he is so multi-faceted that’s why he’s a guest here. He has one panel about his comics work, one about his novels, one about his children’s books. And then during the show, people ask about him writing Doctor Who. His works have been adapted for theatre as well. He literally has fans from all over.
Meany: For me, the touchstone for Neil is still Sandman, but all the kids, there were like 400 kids at the panel today, and probably only like 20 people in there had read Sandman. Some people have no idea. It’s kind of funny to me to think of some of the content from Sandman and you know kids will one day look that up. They’ll realize, this guy who I read his book as a kid is doing all this other stuff too.
Rennert: There was a really cool moment that we just filmed, just to put it in perspective, of this guy, I think he came from Dublin, who had brought his whole family here. It was like four kids and his wife, and we got a really good shot of him explaining that Sandman was a big deal to him, but now he’s distributing the Gaiman to his kids of different generations. Like, “Well she’s about 11, so she gets Stardust right now.”
Meany: He’s got Graveyard Book, this kid’s got Wolves in the Walls, that kid’s got Fortunately, the Milk. Neil has something for everybody, so as you age you can escalate up your levels of Gaiman.
Rennert: So you can see, literally, he’s like a big influence on how these kids are being raised, whether they like it or not.
CB: So what’s next for you guys? I know the Neil project is a little ways off.
Meany: We just finished up a project called The Image Revolution, which is about the history and formation of Image Comics. It’s very close to being done. We got a little sidetracked traveling around, but it’s going to be finished editing in about a month. We’re going to be trying to go to some festivals, so we’ll see what happens with that.
It’s something I’m really excited about; it’s a fun story. It’s something that I think has a big reach outside of comics. We’ve been kind of test screening it and workshopping it with people who don’t know what Image Comics is and who don’t know what comics are to some extent. It still resonates because it’s this story of guys who are sticking it to The Man, doing their own thing.
Rennert: We’re really excited about that because the original intent was to make about a 40 minute piece because we figured 40 minutes is more than enough to explore this idea, but as we st
arted filming, we realized this is a pretty awesome story. It was bigger than we thought. There are lots of great personalities in it, and it just became bigger than we expected. At some point, we were linked up with, by a friend of a friend, Jeff Dowd, an independent filmmaker who was the inspiration for the Coen brothers movie The Big Lebowski.
Meany: He’s “the Dude.” The real Dude.
Rennert: The Dude is with us. He’s been helping us champion it. We showed it to him and he’s very much into it. He’s been telling us that it has a really great message and that it could be a blueprint for taking control of your life. The story of how these Marvel artists stuck it to their corporate slaveholders. He’s been saying it has some potential to inspire people, so he’s been helping us get it into shape and help get it to the next level.
Meany: He’s somebody that doesn’t know comics, who doesn’t know what Image was, but what he saw in it was a kind of story that’s in our world today. Corporations have such a big influence, and to have a very viable company be created that’s just about creator’s rights, finding a way to get their work out there, to create something and control it on your own is pretty cool.
CB: That’s definitely the kind of thing that might attract people who don’t like comics and then it brings them in and stuff like that. They want to know more about it.
Meany: Yeah definitely, and it’s something that’s an interesting story because it has its ups and downs. It wasn’t an easy story for that company to get to where it is now, but they’re reached a point where it’s working as a model and it’s letting people create cool stuff. Grant is working there. Warren has done stuff there. It is something where you get a lot of turmoil as well, which probably wasn’t great for those who lived it, but it’s fun to watch and look back on the struggles they had. They had so much money and so much success, so how do you deal with that? In the end, that tore apart some relationships.
I think that about does it. Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts are both available on Hulu and Youtube, streaming for free. Keep an eye out for The Image Revolution in late 2013, followed by the as of yet untitled Neil Gaiman project, due out in late 2014. You can see more stuff Respect! Films and Sequart are up to on their websites .