The article below was written some three years ago but reading, it seems as relevant now as it was when Warren wrote it. I am familiar with Warren’s work on Marvel’s Iron Man comic book series, which in part was the foundation for the Iron Man movies starring Robert Downey Jr.
Warren Ellis: The non-digital world
This article was taken from the June issue of Wired magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before they’re posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online
I wrote a graphic novel called Red. An artist called Cully Hamner drew the hell out of it. We sold the film option to a company called Summit. They showed the book to an actor called Bruce Willis. Bruce Willis liked it. Summit hired two writers called Jon and Erich Hoeber to produce the screenplay, and showed that to a director called Robert Schwentke, who liked it. They started shooting the film in Toronto this year.
I flew out to the set the other week. There were no full-body scanners at Heathrow. I received a pleasant massage from a security guard, which I guess was supposed to be a pat-down but instead did wonders for the muscles in my calves. I would have tipped him if my wallet hadn’t still been in the X-ray machine.
On September 10, 2001, I got on to a plane in San Francisco. The walkway didn’t quite fit the sill of the plane, and, as I boarded, I found I could see right into the cockpit. Couldn’t see a soul in there, either. I got on to the plane, and the cabin crew were talking to someone else. No one was looking at me, and the cockpit door to my left was open. I remember thinking, with that peculiar and lucid awareness of a writer of crime stories, that I could nip right into the cockpit with no one seeing, and be ready for whoever followed me in later.
I landed in Heathrow on September 11, 2001 — right around the time the first plane was hitting the first tower.
Robert Schwentke runs a very energetic, very efficient film set. It’s relaxed, but people know why they’re there and what needs to get done. And what needs to get done, usually, is between a page and a page-and-three quarters of the screenplay. We’re in a grand old Toronto hotel. I watch Helen Mirren and John Malkovich do the same ten-second bit for half an hour. Helen Mirren drops her handbag, John Malkovich picks it up for her and leaves, Helen Mirren finds an envelope he’s secreted in the bag.
I watch it on two different flat screens in Video Village, where monitors and chairs are mounted to follow proceedings. I step out and watch it from the edges of the set, with an audio rig on so I can hear what the set mics pick up. They do it any number of different ways, trying things out, making it funnier, making it quicker, lingering on Helen Mirren’s last beat, taking more time with the exchange. The hard “snak” of a clapperboard.
There is nothing remotely digital about the process. There is almost nothing you could point at and say, “Ah! Futurity!” This is classical moviemaking, and it hasn’t changed in a very long time. I met John Malkovich the night before. He’d spent all day shooting many different kinds of guns. “They give you such lovely utensils!” He smiles a lot. They’d been firing guns on the second unit night-shoots, too.
Bruce Willis had apparently fired so many guns that the locals called the police, shrieking that there was a mob war in suburban Toronto. Bruce Willis, like the film set, is at once very relaxed and very serious. Very focused. “Ambitious,” he says. “Very ambitious, what we’re trying here. Pushing it.” We talk about 70s film making for a few minutes. We’re in a warehouse that has a bit of the Langley CIA building built inside it. It’s all wood. The smell of sawdust hits me from the moment I enter the front office. There are carpenters everywhere, still nailing and sawing around the actors and stuntmen who are going to be here all night.
Someone brings Bruce Willis a coffee. Without looking away from who he’s talking to, Bruce Willis reaches out his arm and leg and steadies the stepladder a busy carpenter’s perched on.
Video Village is a couple of small monitors on a cart. The (English) stunt coordinator confers with the (English) stuntman, discussing exactly how to kick Bruce Willis in the head. No one’s on a phone. No one’s twittering, flickring, blogging, emailing. In the small, dark editing suite, big flat screens run Avid software, flinging scenes from one frame to the other. The only place where digital seems to have leaked into the process: storing and presenting the dailies.
It is perhaps worth remembering that, for all our immersion in technological advance and digital lifestyle — and for good and ill — this is still a world where security means a guy pats you down and doors are left open, and where a film is still a thing that requires carpentry and people and lovely utensils.
Previous columns from Warren Ellis:
‘Exploration has always been central to the human drive’
The BBC, and unfair competition in 2010
‘The pops and crackles of vinyl poltergeists‘
‘Look out for Hollywood spelunking things into the Moon’
‘How an old guy saved online music journalism’
‘I want to vapourise you with a death ray from space’
‘Thunderbirds will grow a generation of mad engineers’
‘The future isn’t big any more. The future is small’
‘We could all have swine flu by the time you read this’
‘The Kindle is a mewling, crippled, pining thing…’
‘I plan to invest in anti-carnivorous robot security’
Warren Ellis is a prolific comic-book writer for Marvel and DC, as well as a novelist and socio-cultural commentator, based in Southend-on-Sea. You can read his blog at warrenellis.com and follow him atTwitter.com/warrenellis
Edited by GEORGE BARROW