Patrick Meaney is the author of Our Sentence is Up, as well as essays in several Sequart anthologies and a contributor to Sequart.org. He’s also the director of Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, as well as the upcoming The Image Revolution. Outside of comics, he’s produced The Third Age, currently serialized on Martian Lit.
JULIAN DARIUS: A lot of your work has studied Grant Morrison’s comics. What was the first Morrison comic you can remember reading?
PATRICK MEANEY: The first Morrison book I read was The Invisibles, which I picked up because I’d heard that it was a major inspiration for The Matrix, so I decided to check it out and really enjoyed it. At that point, I’d just gotten into comics, so in a matter of months, I’d read Watchmen, Dark Knight, Sandman, Preacher, Transmet and many other series. Morrison was actually the last of the big ‘90s Vertigo series I checked out, and it turned out to be my favorite.
I liked the first trade a lot, but it wasn’t until “Entropy in the UK” that the series totally clicked for me, and from there I was hooked on both Morrison’s work, and his personal cosmology / approach to the world.
MEANEY: The biggest thing was just how much I loved the series. Nothing before or since had me so engaged on both an emotional and intellectual level. It’s one of those series that a lot of people don’t quite get, but for people who do love it, it’s one of the greatest things ever.
Beyond simply liking it, there’s the fact that the series is incredibly complex. As the characters themselves say, it’s something you can reread and pick apart from different angles and countless different approaches. You can read it as an adventure story, a deconstruction of adventure story, a treatise on the cosmology of the universe, or as its author’s diary of a transformative decade of his own life.
The series itself is incredibly rich, but you add in the meta element of Morrison incorporating so many elements of his own life, and every interview from that decade, every public appearance or photo becomes a supplemental narrative in the web of something really huge. It’s a series that demands total engagement, and that’s why I spent so much time thinking about it after I first read it, and subsequently writing about.
DARIUS: Which of the three volumes of The Invisibles is your favorite?
MEANEY: Volume II is my favorite, though Volume III has gained on it in recent reads. The Invisibles has the reputation as a really complex, almost impenetrable series, but the emotions and character arcs are just as compelling as any of the ideas, and never more so than in Volume II. Volume I has a lot of ups and downs with the art and takes a while to coalesce, but with Volume II, and the arrival of Phil Jimenez (and later Weston) on art, everything really clicks and it feels like the “budget” of the series skyrocketed. The Robin / King Mob love story is the emotional spine of the Volume, and it feels like all the characters take on a life of their own here.
Volume III is the most difficult to wrap your head around, and the first time I read it, I had a lot of issues. The art is so drastically different from what came before, and it’s hard to get used to. I still think the art jam is a disaster, but the ideas in those first couple of Volume III arcs are so forward thinking that we still haven’t really caught up to it as a culture. But it can’t quite match the perfection of Volume II for me.
DARIUS: I’ve heard a lot of feedback about Our Sentence is Up, which people seem to really love and which I think is really good at explaining a difficult series. It definitely improved my own understanding of the series, even though I was already a fan and had thought a lot about it. It’s smart stuff.
What does the book mean to you?
MEANEY: The Invisibles was so personal for me, it was an experience that affected the way I view pretty much everything around to this day, and set me on the path I’m on to this day, so the book just came out of a way to try to interact with the series in a new way. I had read the series a few times at that point, and writing about in such depth was an attempt to wrap my head around all the elements I hadn’t quite grasped before and fully understand it.
Unlike a lot of Sequart writers, I never had a background in higher-level academia, so my writing was a bit more ground-level, trying to dissect the series, but also chronicle my own feelings about my personal experiences in relation to it — and also to put the series in the context of that time, in the late Bush and early Obama years. To me, it’s incredibly prescient about the “post-truth” world we moved into in the 2000s, and trying to connect the events and concepts of the series to real world events was something that was very important to me.
I’m sure some people took issue with certain elements of that approach, but for The Invisibles in particular, your own experience of the series is so central to it that it seemed appropriate to write about it in that way.
DARIUS: I thought your observations on how The Invisibles anticipates — and perhaps fails to anticipate the lack of a backlash — to the whole “post-truth” Bush years was one of the strongest parts of Our Sentence is Up. The whole idea that “the conspiracy is in the open — and no one seems to mind” really stuck with me.
Could you talk about your background, especially in film? How were you raised? What was it that made you get into film?
MEANEY: I grew up in suburban New York; my parents both worked as journalists. As a kid, I remember seeing Star Wars when I was three years old and loving it. I always loved to go to the movies, and unlike a lot of people, I never wanted to be the hero on screen; I wanted to tell those stories. As a kid, I made movies with action figures or myself and my friends, just goofing around, but that was something I’d done since I was really young. I actually met Jordan Rennert (who’s my producing partner, and DP on all the stuff we’ve done) when I was in kindergarten, and we’ve been making stuff together since we were ten years old.
I always wanted to get into film, but can seem like a difficult thing to do, so when I was going to college, I was sort of wavering on what to do. But after I read The Invisibles, I realized the power of stories. You’re not just making something up to entertain people, you’re creating something that can have a huge impact on the world and change lives. As Grant says, Superman is older than you or I, and will be around long after. So, to create something like that can make a huge impact on the world. With that viewpoint, I decided to really go for it, and went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and studied film there.
After getting out of school, I worked for a big post house in New York for a year and a half, but during the recession I got laid off. At that point, Jordan and I had already been discussing building our own company, and I took this as a great opportunity to give it a go. We did a bunch of commercial projects first, then a few months after that, we got the go from Kristan and Grant to do the Morrison doc, and we’ve been busy ever since.
DARIUS: I remember meeting you for the first time at a New York Comic-Con, and we were wrapping up Our Sentence is Up. I think there was a beta copy at the con, for which I’d done a white, Invisibles-esque cover. And we were talking about getting a Grant Morrison interview for the book, because he’d been so kind as to do an interview for Tim Callahan’s Grant Morrison: The Early Years. Sequart Editor-in-Chief Mike Phillips was there, and you mentioned, “Wouldn’t it be cool to shoot the interview and put it up on the Sequart website? By the way, I’m a filmmaker.” (laughs) I don’t think I’d even known this before that conversation.
Before I knew it, we were talking about whether Grant would agree to do a more extended interview and that you would be cool to do a feature-length documentary, were Grant and Sequart to be cool with it. I think Mike reached out to the Morrisons, since he’s Sequart’s coordinator, and I remember working on the proposal with you that Grant ultimately read. And thus was born Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, which you positively killed on. It’s a magnificent film.
And with it, Sequart became a documentary film company, which I’d never expected. It was the most marvelous case of people coming together and using their resources and talents to do something new.
At least this is how I remember it. I might be screwing something up here. My memory’s pretty shitty.
MEANEY: That’s basically how I remember it. In the letter we wrote to Grant and Kristan, we laid out three possible alternatives, the most involved of which was the doc, and we’re incredibly lucky they chose to go for that one. I never expected to make documentary films, so it was a real game changer for me, and I think expanded the boundaries of what Sequart could do.
DARIUS: Absolutely. Grant’s been incredibly kind to Sequart, going back to him being interviewed for Grant Morrison: The Early Years. He actually read the book and gave feedback. I wasn’t there when you shot with Grant, but he opened his home up to us. Hell, he showed you his notebooks! It’s just the most amazing story of an A-list comics professional being so giving and really making a difference to some smart fans who want to do something cool — much as he’s encouraged his readers to do.
MEANEY: It’s amazing for me, since Grant was pretty much my idol and getting the chance to know him and tell his story was wild. We talked with him about why he wanted to do the film, and a lot of it seemed to the desire to encourage creativity and have people get out there and make things. I think that’s what MorrisonCon was about, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who leave Talking With Gods energized to create something new.
DARIUS: One of the things I’ve always admired about your documentary films is that you avoid the “talking heads” phenomenon that often plagues interview-based films. With Talking with Gods, you did reenactments to illustrate some of the psychedelic ideas Grant was talking about. With the music throughout, the film has a very layered quality to it, and it’s always moving forward at a fast clip. I just love that layered quality, where the footage is altered and fast, and there’s thought to the music and audio, and the end result is something that looks a lot more like a highly produced, expensive movie than the stereotype people have of documentary films.
I think I know the answer, because we’ve talked so much about these films in process, but how conscious are you of this need to “break things up” or layer them in this way? Is it something you’re always thinking about, when you do a documentary? And is this even something limited to documentary filmmaking?
Also, do you see this as part of your personal style? Are you sympathetic with those who prefer the “long shot” and perhaps aren’t happy with how common the jump cut is these days? Or do you think this kind of naturalistic style is just dead these days, in response to the rapid cutting that’s come to dominate cinema and TV since the rise of MTV?
MEANEY: My main goal is always to try and keep people engaged, to ensure that each byte or image adds something new and is essential to the overall structure of the film. I spend a lot of time cutting down many elements to create the final films, so I’m very aware of every moment and how it plays, and try to create that layered and dense feel with the projects.
The one thing I kind of regret on the Grant project is that I think it can at times be almost exhausting in how relentless the flow of information is. With Captured Ghosts, we included those more ambient sequences of Ellis reading his work as a way to break things up and give people more of a breather. For me, it’s about finding a balance between keeping things moving forward and knowing when to break things up.
I think more slow-paced stuff is still viable. A lot of people think Mad Men or even The Sopranos are way too slow, but they’re my favorite TV shows. And a movie like The Master is very relaxed in its pacing, refusing to hit the audience with that fast-cut style that a lot of movies use. For me, I think it takes a lot of audacity to do something that’s slow-paced, and you can easily run the risk of boring the audience. So down the line when I have more of a reputation, I might do something like that, but for now, I like to cram a lot of information and have a heavy density of events in my work.
In narrative works, I always have a lot more ideas than are viable to shoot, so I wind up trying to cram as much stuff into a short running time as I can. But I think the goal is to never just edit for editing’s sake, or fling the camera around for no reason. I want every shot and every cut to contribute to the whole in some way.
And even though Ellis and Grant are very psychedelic and experimental, the approach we took on The Image Revolution is much more straightforward, and I think still works. I’m drawn to more psychedelic material, but can adapt to the demands of whatever story I’m telling.
DARIUS: Let’s talk about those other films. We followed up Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods with Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts. What was the genesis of that project?
MEANEY: After the Morrison project was up and running and going well, we started to think about other creators that might be interesting to profile, and Warren was the one who jumped to mind for me. On one level, the attraction was the fact that, like Grant, he is almost as famous for his personal mystique as for his work. People like Warren’s personality, his internet presence and his “legend,” so it seemed like a great topic to tackle for a doc.
For me personally, Warren’s internet presence in the late ’90s / early ’00s was a massive influence on the way I viewed comics, and creativity in general. When I was in high school I was reading, and occasionally posting to, the Warren Ellis Forum, and seeing so many funny, creative people talking about comics got me really excited about the medium.
So we wrote up a pitch, sent it to Warren, he agreed to do the project, and we were off and running.
DARIUS: I think you’re right about Warren’s internet presence. It was a real beacon to a lot of us, myself included. It sent me to Colleen Doran and a lot of independent comics too. I was already interested in webcomics, through Scott McCloud, but Warren was great in pointing people to the good stuff. He also was great at just spotlighting weird, WTF stuff around the net, from just odd 4chan kind of things to articles on theoretical physics. And I think the documentary really covers this well, especially through the Matt Fraction interviews.
Fraction’s unforgettable in Captured Ghosts. We’ve been so incredibly fortunate to have so many professionals, not only in comics but in many different fields, talk to us. And I must say, you are an absolute genius at coordinating and reaching out to people. It’s really amazing to see how many interviews were conducted for these films.
MEANEY: Fraction is awesome, he’s always been a big supporter of our projects, and for me personally, it’s been interesting to watch him rise from Warren Ellis Forums poster to online columnist to now one of the biggest writers at Marvel.
When you’re doing these projects, a lot of the interviewees come from just talking to different people and having them say, “Well, you need to interview so and so…” This leads you on a kind of winding trail through a lot of different personalities. And luckily, most people are excited to be a part of whatever projects we’re doing.
DARIUS: One of the most famous aspects of Captured Ghosts was that you had a Warren Ellis puppet built for the reenactments you were filming. How did that come about?
MEANEY: While we were shooting material for the Ellis doc, it became clear that his story didn’t have the same personal ups and downs that Grant’s did, so we tried to come up with ways to capture his personal essence in new and experimental ways. For a while, we were playing around with the idea of essentially framing the documentary as a TV network in the mind of Warren, kind of like some issues of Transmet, and including fake commercials for “Doctor Whiskey” and other stuff like that.
I mentioned at a screening of the Grant doc that we wanted to include a lot of wacky stuff in the Warren doc, like a puppet, and my friend Jordan Byrne came up and said he had an awesome “puppet guy,” who could make the Warren puppet. So we talked this guy, Jesse Kingsley, and he was a big Warren fan and built an amazing puppet.
As editing moved forward, we found more of a structure for the film, and some of those wackier ideas faded, but the puppet survived and I think it works great in the final film.
DARIUS: What made you want to tackle the history of Image Comics for The Image Revolution?
MEANEY: At a screening of the Warren Ellis doc, I mentioned that we were thinking about tackling a few smaller projects next, and Ales Kot suggested we do a doc on Image. I wasn’t a huge Image reader in the ’90s, but I knew the basic story of the company, and realized it would make for a great film, so I jumped on it.
The Image project is one that’s really come alive as we’ve interviewed more people. It’s a big departure from the other films because rather than having to frame a story out of the disconnected elements of a person’s life and ideas, we have a clear historical trajectory to record. Rather than having one primary source (Grant or Warren) and then a lot of people talking about that person, everyone here is discussing their primary experience of the Image era.
In retrospect, that’s what I think makes it appealing for me, but at the time it was really just the fact that Image is such a wild story and I knew it would be great material to tackle.
DARIUS: I think it may be the best so far. It’s an amazing film. It is maybe more conventional than the aggressive style of Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts. But it’s just dripping with history. It’s mind-blowing to actually watch the Image revolution unfold in this way, and I think viewers will really feel like they’re there, behind the scenes, understanding it all.
Part of this is, again, the amazing interviews done for the film. You got all seven Image founders to sit down, as well as many of the other important players in Image history. It’s pretty staggering to think of how kind everyone has been with their time and in supporting this project.
MEANEY: The founders and many of the people who worked at the studios, as well as modern day creators, have been very supportive. We had Marc Silvestri on our panel at San Diego Comic Con. Erik Larsen, Matt Hawkins, and Joe Keatinge joined us at New York Comic Con. It’s very exciting for me to make the film and know that the people who it’s about are excited to see it. I’m spending so much time telling their story, and it’s great when they are just as excited about it.
DARIUS: You’re wrapping up work on The Image Revolution now. When it is expected to be publicly available?
MEANEY: I’m not sure exactly, but likely sometime later this year. With Grant and Warren, we released them immediately after they were done, and that’s not really the way you should do it for a film. It’s usually smarter to take some time, do festival screenings and then figure out your distribution and marketing plan. So the film will be done in a month or so, and hopefully we’ll be premiering at festivals later this year and out to the public soon after.
DARIUS: Between Captured Ghosts and The Image Revolution, we came up with this idea to do shorter films under the rubric “Comics in Focus,” which would let some topics get addressed that might not lend themselves to highly-produced feature films. The first “Comics in Focus” was going to be on Chris Claremont’s X-Men, and The Image Revolution actually started as the second “Comics in Focus” before it grew into a feature film. I think The Image Revolution just took on a life of its own, delaying Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont’s X-Men.
Am I getting this, and the idea behind “Comics in Focus,” right?
MEANEY: That’s exactly right. The thing about doing Grant, Warren, or how the Image doc turned out, is that you have to interview so many people and put together so many elements. It’s very involved, and some stories are more suited to a more intimate treatment. So “Comics in Focus” is designed to explore in greater depth topics that are of interest to fans, and do them in a way that’s more targeted towards a specific audience than the feature films. Grant, Warren, and Image are all designed to be accessible to an audience that has no prior familiarity with the subject. The “Comics in Focus” projects would be more about going in depth, more along the lines of the Sequart books.
DARIUS: Could you talk a little about the Chris Claremont project? I know it was inspired by your love for Claremont’s X-Men.
MEANEY: Claremont is one of the most important figures in comics history, a guy who basically bridges the gap between classic Marvel Silver Age stuff and the British invasion writers like Moore and Morrison. He’s created more notable characters in comics than anyone other than Stan Lee / Kirby — and beyond that, has just written a lot of fantastic stories. Everyone points to the Dark Phoenix Saga, but he wrote an intensely personal, ever-changing fifteen-year epic story that still reads great to this day.
So the idea of the project was to explore Claremont’s perspective on his own work, and explain why Claremont is such an important figure. In the same way that people today look at Jack Kirby as an unimpeachable god of comics, I think in 20 years or so, people will view Claremont the same way.
DARIUS: What’s the plan for wrapping Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont’s X-Men?
MEANEY: We have most of the material for the film shot, and all of it rough edited, so it’s really just a question of getting in there and finalizing the film. The goal is to wrap up The Image Revolution in April, then take a couple of weeks and get in there and polish everything up and finish the project. The goal is to be done by June, but we’ll see what happens.
DARIUS: I won’t ask you about what documentaries might be next, because we can’t talk about them yet. So what about other Sequart books?
Tim Callahan gave his blessing to you taking over his proposed sequel to Grant Morrison: The Early Years, and you’ve serialized some of Grant Morrison: The Day-Glo Years on Sequart.org. The idea is to avoid The Invisibles, since you already wrote a whole book about that, right?
MEANEY: Exactly. The goal here is to basically create a companion book to Our Sentence is Up, a new book which covers the other books Grant was working on when during the ’90s and early ’00s. Things like JLA, Flex Mentallo, Marvel Boy, and New X-Men. A lot of material has already been syndicated on the Sequart website, but this is another project that will getting more work done once the Image doc is wrapped. I love this era of Grant’s work the most, so I’m excited to write more about it.
DARIUS: Let’s talk a bit about your other projects. The one I’m most familiar with is the webseries The Third Age. Could you talk about its origins and how it’s evolved?
MEANEY: Back in 2007, Jordan and I were both post college and living in New York. We developed some story ideas that didn’t fit in a short film format, but we weren’t ready to tackle a feature, so we decided to produce it as a webseries. So we started writing it, cast actors, and were off and running. The project wound up growing into a nearly four-hour, two-volume, 30-episode epic that’s just finishing up now, over five years later. The Third Age was an incredible learning experience, and I think we became infinitely better just from the act of shooting so much stuff.
The basic premise of the series is exploring an eternal war between good and evil on a very street-level basis in contemporary New York.
And I think the work stands up as something that, despite some bumps, I’m very proud of overall. It’s a pretty wild, unique story, and I think people who give it a chance will really enjoy it. You can find the whole show to date at watch.thethirdagebegins.com, and new episodes are coming out on Martian Lit. We’re wrapping up the second volume now, and the final run of episodes should be online in a month or so.
DARIUS: You’ve also done a remarkable amount of commercial work, as well as some other fictional projects, such as “The Viral Man.” Could you run down these for readers?
MEANEY: “The Viral Man” is a short film that we recently completed. It’s an evolution of the zombie genre, pitting one woman against a hivemind that’s consumed the rest of humanity. It stars the wonderful actress and comic book writer Brea Grant. It’s going to be in festivals later this year, and will turn up online after that. We’re working now to raise the money to produce a feature version of the story.
I’ve also done a lot of different stuff beyond that, including a lot of different comedy videos, including music videos for Comedy Central and a webseries for ESPN. And one of the first projects Jordan and I produced as Respect Films was a half-hour infomercial for stock trading.
DARIUS: You’re also branching out into comics writing, which I know you’ve been interested in doing for a while. You had a story in Occupy Comics, right?
MEANEY: Matt Pizzolo, the organizer of Occupy Comics, distributed Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts through his company Halo-8, so he approached me about doing the Occupy piece. It’s a cool anthology, and he got a killer list of names on board.
Writing comics is something I’ve always wanted to do. I have a lot of stories I want to tell, and don’t have the resources to do most of them in film, so comics are a great way to get big stories out there. I’m developing a new series with Eric Zawadzki, the artist I worked with on the Occupy piece, and it’s a mix of really big end of the world stakes with very personal stories.
Even though I do a lot of work in film, nothing bothers me more in comics than writers who structure their books like screenplays. I love doing layouts and storytelling techniques that only work in comics, and taking full advantage of what makes the medium unique, rather than trying to do “paper movies.” I’ve obviously read and studied a lot of comics, so I’m trying to take all the things I’ve learned and turn them into great books.
That’s in development now, but hopefully will be showing some results in the not too distant future.
DARIUS: You and I both do fictional material as well as non-fiction, and all of this is in multiple media. I think some people find this strange. As if someone should only be, for example, a documentarian or a fictional filmmaker. It’s a strange kind of way people like to categorize each other.
How do you balance your two lives? And do you find them so separate as some people might?
MEANEY: The thing a lot of people don’t get about documentary is that it involves just as many storytelling choices as fiction. You have to find a way to put real life into a narrative that’s compelling to people. Ideally, you do that without distorting or misleading people about what happened, but just by choosing what to include, you affect the way that people view a given subject.
Obviously there’s big differences, but you’re using the same basic skill set.
DARIUS: Another thing I think we share is a certain kind of ambition and work ethic. People don’t always see this, because they mostly see what gets done as it’s done or gets press. But of course there are countless hours of work and planning behind everything, and not everything comes to completion. Behind everything is countless hours of work — and balancing dozens of different things. And despite being a workaholic myself, I’ve been inspired by what I’ve seen hanging around with you. You seem to thrive on adrenaline.
So my final question is about this. How do you balance it all? How do you find the time? And how do you keep the fire inside going, while doing all these things that — as we both know — inevitably involve more time and stress than originally planned, and which just as inevitably have setbacks as well as successes? It’s all a lot harder than it looks.
MEANEY: The most basic answer is that I’m doing something I love, so I’m going to put in more time and effort, and deal with more frustration to get it done. With creative work, particularly when you’re dealing with the budgets needed for films, there’s always going to be three or four potential projects out there for every one that gets made, and nothing’s more frustrating than dealing with something that’s out of your hands.
We’ve been really lucky in that most of the projects we want to do have actually happened, but I can think of one we’re finally officially starting shooting on this week that’s been in the works for three years. And, it’s very hard to make plans or think definitively about the future when you’re not sure what’s going to be happening down the line.
In terms of finding the time, I try to keep organized and always have everything moving forward. I have a weekly document for Respect Films that details all our projects that are in development, in production / editing, and in the promotion phase, so that helps keep track of what the next steps are for everything and ensure that it moves forward.
It’s always hard to know which projects will work out, so I try to have a lot of things going at once. It helps avoid disappointment when something doesn’t happen, and can give you a pleasant surprise when something does.