'Avengers' Director Joss Whedon on Trying to Be More Like Buffy
Joss Whedon has the kind of credibility that only comes from repeated failure. To his intensely devoted fans, Whedon is nothing less than a genius, the hyperliterate auteur who created the cult hit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and would have minted a half-dozen other self-aware genre franchises by now if it weren’t for the eternal obtuseness of network and studio executives.
Which is why they’re all the more frenzied about this week’s opening of “The Avengers.” After years of treating Whedon like a cog, one of those corporate behemoths — Disney’s Marvel Entertainment — has finally cottoned to the obvious: that there’s no one in Hollywood better cut out to make a superhero flick that hardcore nerds will embrace and civilians won’t be embarrassed to see.
I spoke to Whedon in early April, in the midst of a flurry of activity that was intense even by his standards. Within a span of a couple days, he had finished post-production on “The Avengers”; started post-production on a self-financed adaption of “Much Ado About Nothing”; finished shooting on another self-financed film, “In Your Eyes,” which he wrote; and debuted a documentary about Comicon which he produced and Morgan Spurlock directed. A week after our interview, “Cabin in the Woods,” a horror film he co-wrote and produced, opened.
Whedon hates spoilers, so here’s a spoiler alert: This interview is long. Unlike the suits at Fox, I don’t think I know better than Whedon what form his words ought to take, so I’m presenting them more or less verbatim. Read on if you’re interested in learning:
-the secret of multitasking
-Whedon’s advice for would-be filmmakers who aren’t born into screenwriting dynasties like he was
-why he doesn’t use Twitter
-how he feels about the possibility of another director resurrecting “Buffy”
-why you shouldn’t invite Batman to Thanksgiving dinner
-what his favorite superhero movies are
-why “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” were completely different kinds of failures
-why he started a “microbudget” studio of his own
-how he realized that his most famous character is really his own alter ego-what he plans to do next. (Hint: You haven’t seen the last of Dr. Horrible.)
Let’s talk about “The Avengers,” which is presumably going to make the biggest splash, given the marketing budget around it.
It’s opening in arthouses in most major cities, so I’m excited.
Is it the biggest thing you’ve ever done?
Well, yes and no. It’s two years, give or take a week of my life, and it felt a lot like when I was running three shows. Those are the two experiences I liken the most of just constant — I am writing while I am filming while I am editing while I am…what’s the not thing? Sleeping. So it’s obviously an enormous project. On the other hand, doing a show for seven years is in some ways bigger. It’s longer. This one’s taller. And it is not small. It’s not small. “The Avengers” and “Cabin in the Woods” have one thing in common, which is they both go insane at the end. They really pour it on. The expression “go big or go home” really applies. For two years I went big, and then I went home.
In their marketing, both “Avengers” and “Cabin” whip potential audiences into a frenzy with the promise of what happens at the end while going to unusual lengths to deprive them of any idea of what happens at the end.
Well, in the case of “Cabin in the Woods” it’s very important to maintain the integrity of how the story unfolds. In the case of “Avengers,” people pretty much know they’re probably gonna fight some guys. The superhero movie has a structure that allows itself to be revealed. What hasn’t been revealed about “Avengers” so much is the journey of the group, not the destination.
It’s often said that the best part of superhero movies is the introduction of the characters, the telling of the backstories. After that it’s usually just a lot of CGI fighting. In this movie, there are a lot of heroes to introduce. Is that a strength?
A strength and a problem. The problem is most of them have already been introduced. The real joy of most superhero movies is that origin story because it’s that moment of “Oh, I have this power. I can do this. I can right this wrong, or stand up for someone.” That glorious moment. I don’t have that. These people have been introduced in the other movies. We may not know that much about them. Hawkeye basically had a few lines in “Thor,” but there isn’t anybody who’s going to be like, “Gosh, what’s this vat of radioactive acid doing here. Oh my gosh! I have superpowers!”
That part of the story is gone. So what I’ve got is a bunch of more or less seasoned professionals: professional soldier, professional billionaire superhero, professional god. It’s an oddly mature movie, and I don’t just mean that it’s thoughtful, though I hope that it is. It’s about grown-ups. There’s an adolescent nature to the origin story that these guys don’t necessarily share. This is more about people who live in the world trying to deal with what they become, not about becoming it — except for the Avengers themselves, the team. It’s the origin of a team.
What, in your view, have been the great superhero movies?
I still think the first two “Spideys” were unmatched. I think they captured the comic and found some cinematic extensions of that that were purely cinematic. Again, I think “Watchmen” was slavishly adherent to the comic, and that sometimes is almost as bad as completely ignoring the comic and just using the title. I think “Batman Begins” is certainly my favorite Batman movie I’ve seen.
Huh, not “The Dark Knight”? Most people would say “The Dark Knight.”
“The Dark Knight,” for me, has the same problem that every other “Batman” movie has. It’s not about Batman. I think Heath Ledger is just phenomenal and the character of the Joker is beautifully written. He has a particular philosophy that he carries throughout the movie. He has one of the best bad guy schemes. Bad guy schemes are actually very hard to come up with. I love his movie, but I always feel like Batman gets short shrift. In “Batman Begins,” the pathological, unbalanced, needy, scary person in the movie is Batman. That’s what every “Batman” movie should be.
You pitched a Batman movie at one point. Was that your vision for it?
It was different, but similar in that it had to do with the fact that he’s not okay. He’s not a guy who knows how to live like a person. That’s one of the great things about Batman. Everyone knows don’t invite Batman to Thanksgiving. That guy, he’s gonna be dark and weird. And that’s a great character.
I know you didn’t get to cast Robert Downey Jr., but man, he’s seems like the ideal actor for your dialogue.
We really had fun. We really did. We had a beautiful balance of times when he came in going, “I’m going to want some options. Let’s work through this together,” and times when he came in saying, “I’m just going to say these words you wrote down.” And making both of those things sound so fresh. He has a particular talent for making it sound like he’s thinking of things as he’s saying them and discovering them in the moment. He and I…that worked out just fine. Because if he does want to play, my background is such that I can just fire things off right there on set. “Here’s five different versions of that concept or that line.”
You have a circle of actors that are strongly identified with you — Nathan Fillion, Eliza Dushku, Felicia Day, Alexis Denisof. What attracts you to an actor?
The people I go to again and again are by and large the people I’m friends with, and that’s because they are lovely people. We share a passion for what we do. They show up every day like, “Ah, I’m excited to do this!” And I’m excited to do it with them.
They’re very sharing people. When you’re making a movie, no matter how in control you are, you’re collaborating. When you give somebody something, you want them to give it back to you with more than you gave it to them with. You want people to surprise you while delivering whatever it is you set out to do.
Basically, “Much Ado” stars the Whedon Repertory Company, and they’re all just magical in it. “The Avengers,” all of those actors have that quality. They’re very giving to each other. Some people were worried about, “What if they don’t like each other?” But I was like, “Guess what? I can use that. They’re not going to get along in the movie.” But then it turned out they had to pretend that part.
Speaking of which, your three-part musical feature “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” which you shot during the 2007 Writers Guild strike, was one of the first big online-only video hits. Now every big media company is trying to figure out premium web video. What kind of video works on the web?
What works is what’s compelling. It’s very easy to say, “Four minute comedy sketches – that’s all people will watch.” When we made “Dr. Horrible,” the people at my agency had no idea what to do with it. “Well, we could put it on YouTube if we cut it up…” I had watched an episode of “Star Trek: The New Voyages,” that web series that was largely done by fans out of pure love of old “Star Trek.” I watched an episode that was over an hour long, just because it was wonderful. I’m not even a Trekker! There are no rules for that.
I do think “Dr. Horrible” was particularly right for where people were with the internet at that time because it was a little bit more than they were used to, three 12-minute segments, but not so much that they couldn’t make the commitment. And it had songs and superheroes and it was silly. It’s very audience-friendly. And it also had to do with people who are in the culture of the internet. It wasn’t one of those things like “Quarterlife,” which was very much old people pandering. We made a movie about nerd types, Comicon types, because that’s who we are.
Back up — there’s a plan to do more “Dr. Horrible”?
We’re working on it. We haven’t completely cracked it yet. We’ve all been just a little bit busy. But yes, we’ve had it open and on the table for quite some time, and we’d really better close it up before it gets infected.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because your fans — and I know you said there aren’t enough of them to move the needle, but there are quite a few — they freaked out a couple years ago when it was reported that there would be a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" movie with someone else directing and writing it.
Well, yeah. Because they’re my fans. And it’s a bit of an adjustment. For me, the “Spider-Man” reboot is a bit of an adjustment. I realize that Tobey Maguire is in his declining years, and Sam Raimi is obviously too old to direct anything, so it makes sense. Wait, what? Wasn’t that, like, a couple years ago they were still bringing it? I found that incomprehensible. “Buffy” had actually been dormant for a lot longer than “Spider-Man” when that news came out and it still shocked me. But that’s what our culture is. Right now I’m working on the reboot of “Battleship,” because Taylor Kitsch is a little old.
Is the “Buffy” reboot still a possibility or is it fully dead?
Honestly, I’m not really tracking it. My feeling is it’s good and it honors what “Buffy” set out to do, then that’s great, and if it’s bad, then it will probably make me look cooler. So it’s kind of a win-win.
Do you ever delve into the voluminous fan fiction around “Buffy”?
I have delved into it. There’s a bunch. There isn’t a better barometer of the kind of success that I crave, which is that people haven’t only enjoyed the work; they’ve internalized it. I don’t, obviously, spend all my days reading it because that would make me creepy, but it’s a huge, huge thing for me that people have taken it into their lives.
You’re not on Twitter, although you do have an account in your name.
I created it because someone was using my name.
So why aren’t you using it?
I think I would find it a little paralyzing. If you tell me I only have 140 characters, that’s like writing a haiku. Shit is hard. Try to write a children’s book and you realize, oh, this is much harder than writing a novel because every word matters. I don’t want to be on Twitter and just go, “That burrito made me gassy.”
I’m not interested in sharing my life with people. And I would feel an obligation, if I were to tweet, to tweet something worth tweeting. And believe me when I say if I could lose four days of work — of page after page of good, solid work of my job of being a writer — to trying to figure out a tweet. Now, eventually, I might throw caution to the wind and dive in and see what happens, but right now I think that would be poor time management for me.
The rest of the freakishly long interview at the SOURCE: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovic