Joss Whedon on writing horror and superheroes for fanboys and casual viewers alike
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Joss Whedon is constantly called a cult figure, but his work has an impressively broad scope. He’s best known for his television shows: the fanatically followed Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, the equally adored Firefly, and the ambitious failure Dollhouse. Whedon is also a prolific comics writer, not only shepherding titles based on his series, but also scripting noteworthy runs on X-Men and Runaways. More recently, he’s been ramping up his filmmaking credits. Following the success of his independently financed and released short Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, he founded his own production company, Bellwether Pictures, to craft more web series and independent films like his upcoming Shakespeare adaptation Much Ado About Nothing, the “metaphysical romance” In Your Eyes, and Wastelanders, his mysterious forthcoming collaboration with comics writer Warren Ellis. And he’s no stranger to the multiplex: This spring sees the nearly back-to-back release of the sly, twisty, long-delayed horror film he co-wrote with Drew Goddard, The Cabin In The Woods, and a modest little superhero blockbuster called The Avengers.
Whedon is so busy, in fact, that he barely had time to do this interview: The A.V. Club was only able to get 10 minutes with him after Cabin’s SXSW première, though Whedon graciously paused during Avengers post-production to answer what he could in an email follow-up. While that meant, as always, Whedon purposefully left a lot of questions unanswered, he was able to talk about preserving mystery in the age of spoilers and finding a balance to ironic detachment, and he even named at least one of a dozen of his theoretical projects you should probably stop asking about.
The A.V. Club: How are we supposed to talk about Cabin In The Woods without spoiling it?
Joss Whedon: With vague enthusiasm. We’re supposed to talk about this movie like it’s a great movie—I should, as the one that made it. Drew and I wanted to make a really fun horror movie that had other layers in it. So I have two ways: “If you love horror, then you’ll love Cabin In The Woods!” And: “If you don’t love horror, you still might love Cabin In The Woods!” It’s designed for hardcore horror fans, but it’s also designed for everybody else. There’s enough thought and care and love and great craft that went into doing it, that the fact that it has some thrills and some hideous gore is—well, it’s either the cake or the icing. I’m not sure which. There’s cake. All I know is, you see it and you get cake.
AVC: Gore cake.
AVC: You mentioned during the Q&A that you saw it as a movie about being screenwriters.
JW: We didn’t set out saying, “Let’s make a movie about writers!” Because who would do that? Oh, the Coen brothers, and it would be one of the great American classics—Barton Fink, a horror movie about writers’ block. We did approach it as, “We love horror, and we write it.” When you spend enough time writing it, you’re manipulating people you care about into situations that are going to end badly for them. You do that enough and you kind of want to know, “Well, where does that come from? Why are we doing that?” And so this movie is sort of a cold look at that very thing. Bradley [Whitford] and Richard [Jenkins] are, in many ways, stand-ins for me and Drew. I’m pretty sure I’m Richard and he’s Bradley. We go back and forth.
AVC: Is it just that you and Richard Jenkins have the same hairline?
JW: No, I had hair when we wrote this, actually. I feel like [Jenkins’ character] Sitterson has sort of been in the trenches, and [Whitford’s character] Hadley is more up-and-coming. Drew’s more up-and-coming. I’m sort of down-and-going.
AVC: Cabin has something that’s been in your work since Buffy: placing real, self-aware people in outlandish circumstances, which they react to with some ironic detachment. Does this approach to your characters also mirror a certain amount of desensitization in your audience?
JW: Well, you can only go so far with ironic detachment, and then ultimately, you stop being invested in something. What Scream was great at was presenting ironic detachment and then making you actually care about the people that were having it, and juxtaposing it with their situation, all in the service of making a great horror movie. It was fresh. We wanted to make sure we never went so far with our awareness of popular culture and horror movies and the kids’ awareness that things were not as they should be—we never wanted to go so far that you would step outside… Like the end of Blazing Saddles, where they walk out of the Western onto the lot, which to me screams “Copout!” I’m a Blazing Saddles fan, but you never want to go that far. You want the integrity of the world. We live in the world. Unless you’re writing about [Cabin villains] the Buckners, about people who aren’t aware of how things work in popular culture. But you don’t want that to be your benchmark. You don’t want that to be what the dialogue’s really about.
AVC: You also joked at the Q&A that you’ve “killed horror” with this movie, but is there some truth to that? Not just because Cabin touches on almost every horror genre, but it almost seems like going meta like this is one of the last ways to be truly original in horror.
JW: You know, the next way to be original will present itself, and we’ll all go, “Oh! I didn’t think of that.” We definitely put our own stamp on it—and it’s a big red stamp—but you don’t kill horror. One of the things this movie is very clear about is that there’s a basic human need going on here. We pay to see these kids, and in the way that this is sort of about us writing these situations, the viewer is absolutely complicit in that. Horror movies don’t exist unless you go and see them, and people always will. Every time you think, “Well, you know what, we all know the tropes, it’s all been done,” someone’s going to make The Descent and knock you off your ass, and you’ll be like, “Oh, that’s great.” You take people you care about and you make it awful for them.
AVC: You’ve talked a lot about the idea that modern viewers’ desire to know everything in advance is ruining storytelling, and Cabin almost seems like the ultimate rejoinder to that. Was that intentional?
JW: You know, the “spoiler era” is not something I’m a fan of. However, no, this wasn’t designed as a rebuttal to that. This was designed as a movie that unfolds. The reason we were able to write it as quickly and as lovingly and as meticulously as we did was simply because it had a structure where the story reveals itself gradually over the course of it. It’s very seldom that you come up with an idea that is structured. Usually an idea is, “This world, this character, and now we need a third act.” This movie was about its third act. And because of that, we ended up with a product that—God bless Lionsgate—had to be sold without being completely laid out.
We were talking about it last night, Jesse [Williams, who plays Holden] and I, that people seem to be really behind protecting—not the giant twist at the end, but just protecting the integrity what the experience of seeing it will be. You see people on the Internet like, “We don’t want to tell you, we don’t want to tell you,” and it’s like, “Wow, they didn’t just enjoy it, they cared.” It’s another level. Some people will have read the script, some people will have studied every frame of the trailer, and some people will go [puts fingers in ears], “La la la la la” during the trailer, like I used to with movies I really cared about. But I feel like it’s a movie that’s designed to be viewed more than once, so if people want their first viewing to be their second viewing, well, that’s fine too. I’ve had most of the great movies spoiled for me my whole life. It’s human nature. Those who want to avoid it will always try. I’m still going to make stories with plots.
AVC: In one respect—and this is something you deal with all the time—it has to be flattering that people care that much about knowing everything about your stuff in advance. Like, you remarked during a panel yesterday that the Skrulls aren’t in The Avengers, and today, that’s all over the Internet.
JW: [Defeated-sounding sigh.] Ughhh… I don’t know if I was allowed to say that.
AVC: How do you deal with that sort of fan impatience while also honoring their curiosity?
JW: You know, “There’s only one thing worse than being talked about…” It comes from a place of love and interest, and if they don’t care, the only advantage is that occasionally you can sneak up from behind and really surprise them—which I feel like we had the opportunity to do with Buffy as a TV show. People didn’t see it coming. Now, people tend to see everything coming. But their interest is thrilling to me, in the case of The Avengers, because who’s a bigger geek than me about The Avengers? So I feel I can fulfill the fanboy fantasies and still make something for people who don’t have those. And I feel the same way about Cabin. For hardcore horror fans, this movie is sort of designed for them on a very visceral level. But I’ve heard from a lot of people, “I don’t watch horror, and I love this movie,” and that makes me feel great, because I like to be inclusive. I want everybody to be able to enjoy it whether or not they are checking information before they see it.
AVC: It seems like most of your interviews end with, “What about this thing you said you’d do five years ago?”
JW: [Laughs.] What I’ve got to do is shut my mouth.
AVC: Is there anything you want to say, right now, that we should just give up on?
JW: Yeah, this Avengers movie. It’s not going to happen. I’m excited, I thought it could happen, we all got drunk and said, “Oh, let’s do this!” But I don’t think it’s ever going to come out.
No. You know what? I never give up on anything, because you come back around, and suddenly the thing you thought you’d never do is relevant. I talked with my wife about Much Ado About Nothing for years, and it was always like, “I don’t feel like my take on the material is solid enough to merit that.” And then one day I woke up and said, “Wait a minute, I know exactly what I think that movie’s about.” I definitely have had a lot of projects that stalled, but I never know which one’s going to suddenly pick itself up. I don’t tend to look back that much. Except for Firefly. But I’m always open to something that I thought was moribund suddenly coming to life and trying to eat my brain.
AVC: But we should give up on that Giles spin-off, Ripper, right? Come on.
JW: Oh yeah, totally. [Laughs.] No, the thing about Ripper—the essence of it—is that the BBC came to me at one point like, “It doesn’t have to be Ripper. It can just be [Anthony Stewart Head], and there’s magic, and he’s Tony, cuz he’s awesome.” And that’s the thing: For some reason, he keeps getting sexier every year. That’s not happening to me! I’m like, “What are you doing?” And that story was always about a mature guy who’s lived, and about the choices he’s made. So you could make that now, or you could make it 10 years from now. And I’ve tortured Tony more than any other living human with, “We’re definitely gonna do this!” Because I thought we were. He’s working so much, though, I’d feel too guilty. But that’s the thing with Ripper: It doesn’t go away in my head because he’s still right for it, and he could still bring it.
AVC: Do you have any more concrete plans to return to television?
JW: I want to return to television. I don’t have anything in mind right now, and I sort of need to learn the landscape a little bit, since the last time I was in television… But it is maybe my favorite form of storytelling, and I definitely want to go back.
At this point, Whedon’s publicist whisked him to his next interview. The below comes from the email follow-up.
AVC: One of the other recent comments that got the web all worked up was when you said you saw a potential Avengers sequel as “smaller and more personal.” Were you prepared for how people would react to that?
JW: All I said was, you don’t have to “top” yourself. You have to dig deeper. I stand by it. Doesn’t mean the flick wouldn’t have thrills ’n’ ridiculously expensive spills.
AVC: How would you even go about making a “smaller, more personal” sequel without getting swallowed up in the maw of The Machine—of the studio, of fan expectations for those characters, of all the toys and other merchandise they’re meant to introduce? (Unless they’re looking to make an Iron Man figure with Genuine Self-Loathing Action, in which case you’d be right on target.)
JW: How much do I want that toy now? Damn! But again, spectacle and character are not inherent enemies.
AVC: You had your own Iron Man outline written before Jon Favreau took over that film, but you pulled out because you were too busy with your TV shows. Were you able to revisit any of your original ideas when you took over Avengers?
JW: I try not to recycle. Well, consciously. That was one story, this is another.
AVC: Not only did you have to be true to decades of Avengers comics history, you also had to follow the stories already laid out by the individual characters’ films. Was it difficult keeping all that straight?
JW: It’s a puzzle. You spend months solving it. But it’s also a bunch of useful guidelines. The puzzle DOES fit together.
AVC: You’ve always been busy, but this year especially seems like a crazy one. Can you describe a typical day of work for you right now?
JW: I’m too busy.
AVC: We touched on this a little in person, but I wanted to press you a little more: Because you do so much, it seems like most of your interviews end up being endless litanies of “What about this thing you said you were doing? What about Dr. Horrible 2? What about more Firefly? What about Wonder Woman?” Seriously, aren’t there some things we should just give up on? I mean, really, there’s no chance of a Faith or Spike TV series at this point, right? I just saw James Marsters a couple of months ago, and even he said he’s officially getting too old.
JW: You know, I’d like to create enough new stuff that the questions about the older ones would maybe thin out. But then, I’m trying to make people connect, to want to live with my fictions, so I’m not exactly angry when I get those. But Wonder Woman doesn’t look promising.
AVC: You’ve often told the story of the one crappy day where you pitched your Batman to an uncaring producer, then found out hours later that Firefly was canceled. By now, have you gotten to the point where you’ve got so many other things going on, that you could just look at that sort of rejection as “Their loss”?
JW: I’ll always protect what I’m working on. Which is why more and more of it is stuff only I can ruin.
AVC: Have you heard anything more about the possible big-screen Buffy remake? Do you remain opposed to it?
JW: I’ve never had strong feelings about it.
AVC: Other than being really tight-lipped about anything that actually happens in the stuff you’re making, you’re usually fairly open in interviews. (At least, the ones not conducted via e-mail.) Has the increased attention or the scale of your projects changed that? Now that you’ve got huge multimillion-dollar international franchises you’re playing with, do you feel like you have to watch what you say?
JW: I always watch what I say. I am what I say. And I say I’m Emperor of Always, so… Respect, buddy.