Warren Ellis interview: RED, RED 2, Jonah Hex, Gravel, screenwriting and more

As RED arrives on DVD and Blu-ray, we caught up with the original comic book’s writer Warren Ellis about its big screen adaptation, Twitter, and much more...

Less than five minutes before my interview slot with writer Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Crooked Little Vein, Freakangels, among many others), the following Twitter update appeared, from the man himself: “slowly losing my mind doing phone interviews for the UK release of the RED DVD. poor journos.”

I reassured myself with the fact that, as it was a phoner, there was little chance of Ellis, whose public persona is best described as ‘cantankerous old sod’, causing me any physical harm.

And, thankfully, even the emotional trauma was minimal.

Read on for the interview, which starts with RED, the ‘old folks with guns’ action film starring Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren, adapted from Ellis and Cully Hamner’s comic book, and subsequently touches on Ellis’ online doings, the communities he has cultivated, and his far-reaching influence…

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Mr Ellis, it’s a pleasure, although judging from your latest tweet, I’m expecting the worst.

Oh, yes, I’m basically a shadow of my former self right now. I’m going to just swear incoherently at you for fifteen minutes and call it a day.

So, now the dust has settled, how was the RED experience? Because, in comparison to comics and your other writing work, it must have been much more of a backseat role.

Yeah, quite deliberately. It was my choice. They bought the right to adapt it. That doesn’t mean they buy the right to have me sitting on their shoulder saying, “Well, it isn’t like the book, is it?'” So, really, I just tried to stay out of the way of the whole process and let them do the job.

I remember one of your blog posts just as it was getting its release, saying there was a small part of you that was worried about being tied to the ‘last comic book flop of the year’. It must have been quite a surprise, then. Because it did well.

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Yeah, I don’t know if I was surprised so much as I was relieved. We cleared 90 million in the US, and about the same again internationally. So, for an inexpensive little film, it really did very well.

And in a year where The Losers and Scott Pilgrim underperformed.

And Jonah Hex.

Well, the less said about that, the better for all involved!

[laughs] Did you ever read the original script for that? It was by the guys who did Crank, Neveldine and Taylor. The script was fucking brilliant. And they just did horrendous, horrendous things to that film. They just gutted the script, presumably to get it as a 15 or a 12 or whatever.

Such a shame, because it should have actually been a really good film.

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But, yes, in the year of Scott Pilgrim underperforming, and Jonah Hex and The Losers, what have you, obviously, I didn’t want to be the last one of the year. I didn’t want to be the guy they hung it around, saying, “And this is finally what killed comic book adaptation films!”

And the sequel has already been commissioned, we hear.

They don’t talk to me about that. I mean, I knew it was happening. I spoke to Lorenzo di Bonaventura a few weeks ago, so I knew Jon and Erich [Hoeber] were being commissioned.

So, are you excited to see where they take it?

I’m interested to see what they do, because the second one isn’t going anywhere near the original source material. So, it’s not going to have anything to do with anything I wrote, so I’m as interested, I think, as any member of the audience, to find out where they take those characters next.

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And of course, the next hurdle is taking that script out to the original cast and seeing if they still want to play.

Have you felt any change in your career after all this?

[Laughs] None at all!

Do people still mistake you for (Australian musician, composer and Nick Cave collaborator) ‘the other Warren Ellis’?

All the time! In fact, the other Warren Ellis gave Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer a message to give to me. They’re in Australia right now, and they saw him the other night. And apparently people congratulate him on his comics work. I guess we’re actually going to be sitting down and drinking some time this year.

Surely, that would bring about the end of existence as we know it?

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People have said this, yes!

But you’ve not experienced a shot in the arm with the Black Summer adaptation?

No. Well, this all happened before RED. The production company and the actors were all very kind to me, but I imagine most people are unaware that it was based on a book at all. Which happens. I mean, most people don’t know Men In Black was a comic first.

Or The Mask.

Or The Mask, or even Road To Perdition.

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Is screenwriting something you want to have more of a go at? I know you’ve written screenplays for animated features and series, but what about live-action films?

Yeah. I’ve written screenplays before, and Legendary have engaged me to write the adaptation of Gravel. It’s something I’m thinking about doing more of, possibly not till after the summer, because I’ve got a lot of stuff on right now.

Do you still find yourself drawn back to writing comics, despite all your other work?

Well, comics is still my first love. But I always did other kinds of writing too, so I think of myself as a writer first.

I suppose it is a skill that is transferable between media.

Learning to write comics is, in fact, so bloody difficult, because it’s such a weird form that it does actually make you a bit more adaptable for other forms.

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You’ve worked in many other forms, but I’d class your online presence as almost a work in itself. With your persona, but also your use of Twitter and your blog and your discussion forums like Whitechapel. You’ve created this platform where you look beyond your immediate work and audience, and bring people together. Not many writers do that.

When Alan Moore started out, and was getting known in the 80s, pretty much the first thing he did when he got the opportunity, is he set up a column in one of the British comics he was working on, The Daredevils at Marvel UK, where he could review fanzines and things.

Reading that as a kid, I kind of got the impression that that was part of the job. How once your profile got to the point where people actually paid attention to what you were saying, you should use that to direct their attention to things that are worth knowing about, by people who don’t have that profile yet. I got the sense that that was what you did.

So, once my profile got to that point, that’s what I did. And it didn’t dawn on me till later that not everybody does that. And I was never interested in just limiting it to comics, because I’m interested in more things than just comics.

With Whitechapel and your other boards, you’ve also cultivated a spot on the Internet for a lot of writers and artists to come together. Is it weird to see that develop? I know that Kieron Gillen and Antony Johnston talk about how that’s where they met a lot of their early collaborators, and now they’re working as professional writers.

And Matt Fraction, and Kelly Sue DeConnick. It’s weird, the fact that Fraction and Kelly Sue met on one of my message boards and got married.

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You officiated over that wedding, in a way.

On my first message board, the Warren Ellis Forum, that ran for about five years, I think there were about four or fives couples that came out of that. And a couple came out of The Engine, and at least one that I know of has come out of Whitechapel. It’s what happens when you set up a fairly inclusive online community.

Online communities, in that sense, are going away. The message board is going away, but it’s been an interesting aspect of it.

One of the organisations that I’ve discovered through your blog is BERG, the design consultancy firm. And you’re collaborating with them on a comic called SVK. I was wondering if there was anything else you could tell us about that.

I really can’t. You see, I didn’t know this whole thing was going to happen, because, if I did, I would have tried to move it, because I’m under NDA or instructions not to talk about pretty much everything I’m working on right now.

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It is the worst possible time to be doing two or three hours of phoners. What’s there to say about SVK –  Yeah, it’s a thriller comic I’m doing with my old mate, Matt Brooker (D’Israeli), who I did Lazarus Churchyard with back in the day. And BERG will be publishing it. And there is a weird visual aspect to it that I can’t talk about yet, but if it works it’s going to be really kind of unique.

Some of BERG’s projects have been quite fascinating, so it will be interesting to see what they do with the medium of comics.

Yeah, I’ve known them for years. I knew them when they were still Schulze and Webb. In fact, it was me who named the company BERG. That was my fault! [laughs]

At lot of things seem to have been your fault, actually. Like with Transmetropolitan. The character of Spider Jerusalem was ahead of the curve with the idea of the political blogger-journalist.

So it’s been turning out, yes. So people have been telling me.

And what struck me recently, was when (New Statesman and Guardian journalist) Laurie Penny posted an advert for ‘filthy assistants’ on her blog.

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[Laughs] When you meet Laurie, you realise she is Yelena Rossini from Transmet. Really. She is Yelena and she was a Transmet fan as a kid. And I think I’ve probably ruined her life in any number of ways.

It’s been fun introducing Laurie to people. I put her in a bar the other month with Molly Crabapple, Jack Schulze, Kieron Gillen and Si Spurrier, amongst other people. And  [laughs] That was really interesting, to just watch those people from completely different backgrounds, just getting along and finding common ground.

That’s so odd, because it was only on Twitter, when I saw you and Gillen mentioning her, that I discovered that link. And I realised, it’s a small world.

That’s how small my world is, anyway.

Mr Ellis, thank you for your time!

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RED is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.

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