Joss Whedon - Web Exclusive
- Mitchell Hurwitz talks about the resurrection of Arrested Development
- Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor on the show’s return and inevitable movie
- Katie Aselton on going from mumblecore to thriller—and directing her own nude scenes
- Michael Cera on the evolution of George Michael Bluth and working in Arrested Development’s writers’ room
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
[Due to space constraints in The Onion A.V. Club's print edition, more than 4,000 words of the Joss Whedon interview needed to be excised. Here are those exchanges, in their entirety. -ed.]
The Onion: You're a third-generation television scriptwriter, possibly the first one. How did your family affect your career choice?
Joss Whedon: At first, I was like, "I shall never write for television." I was a total snob. I never watched American TV, I only watched, like, Masterpiece Theatre. And I was like, "Television is lame-o, I am a film student, I shall never write for. They pay how much?" When I was just starting out, and I had no idea how I was going to become the brilliant independent filmmaker that I imagined myself to be, and I was staying with my father, I thought, "Well, I'll try my hand at a spec." You know, by selling a TV script, I could make enough money to sort of keep myself afloat. That was the first time I ever sat down and tried to write. I had always sort of written, but I had never studied writing, or thought of myself as a writer exactly. I always assumed I would write whatever I made, but I never really gave it much thought. Then I sat down and really tried to write a script and found the great happiness of my life.
O: Was that in college, or post-college?
JW: Post-college. I started writing TV specs, and I was like, "Writing is fun, and there are some good shows out there! I was being a snob!" So I wrote a bunch of specs, I didn't get any work, and finally I landed a job on Roseanne. And having walked, now, in the movie and TV world, I'm still a complete snob, but it's reversed. I feel like film is a ridiculous hell, and TV is the greatest place in the world.
O: Did you ever have a day job that wasn't related to media or TV?
JW: I worked at a video store. Actors wait tables, directors work at video stores. I did research for the American Film Institute, for the guy who was doing their Life Achievement Awards. Those were my two big, exciting gigs. I landed a job pretty young. I was, like, 24 when I started. I turned in my first script on my 25th birthday. And I looked much younger. When they found out I was 25, it was like, "Oh, you're no Boy Wonder. You're over."
O: Roseanne was your first actual writing job. Did you quit that when you sold the original Buffy movie script?
JW: I wrote the Buffy script because I had way too much free time. I was on Roseanne for a year, and in the first half of that year, I wrote five scripts. I was a staff writer, the lowest thing you can be. And one of my father's older writer friends actually asked me, "Have they let you start to write a script yet?" I was like, "I'm on my fourth." Because there was such chaos, and almost nobody else there could do it. It was great. It was like this vacuum of power, and I got sucked up. I got so much responsibility. But then my stuff kept getting rewritten, and in the second half of the year I just wrote one. I got shut out by the producers, basically. And I wasn't writing. I was coming in late, leaving early, and writing my screenplay instead, because they weren't using me, and it was driving me crazy, because I don't want money for nothing. So I said, "I quit." There was nothing for me to do there. So I had written Buffy, I hadn't sold it. I quit because I wanted to work harder, and I got a job on Parenthood, which ran for about 13 episodes. Which was a good show-good staff, good cast-that got eaten up by the network. So I had that experience, and after that I waned on TV and wanted to work more in the movies. And, after all the studios had [adopts booming, jocular voice] "Loved it and passed on it!," [producer] Fran Kuzui started nosing around Buffy, and that started to take off.
O: What about your Boy Meets World direction credit? When did that happen?
JW: [Laughs.] That never happened. [The Internet Movie Database] says I directed a very special episode of Boy Meets World, and I laughed so hard. I've never seen the show, but apparently it's on the Internet that I directed one. Boy has never met world. Let me put it this way. The episode of Boy Meets World that I never made, I'm still prouder of than Alien: Resurrection.
O: You describe yourself as an isolated, solitary kid, and then you moved into writing, which is often a solitary profession. Did you have problems adapting to an environment where you have to work closely with large crowds of people for long hours every day?
JW: You know, I had a lot of brothers, and then boarding school, 13 to a room. I definitely need my alone time. And when I'm writing, I'm happiest. My greatest joy is being alone with a story. But on the other hand, I enjoy people. I enjoy directing, making the show, and the people I work with are smart and funny. As long as I keep balanced, I'm okay. I need to spend more time alone than most people I know, and it's hard to. When you're producing a show, you're never alone. So to find the time to write, to really get away from everybody, it's difficult. It's difficult to find a balance. But it's not like I can't be around people, like this insane recluse with a big beard.
O: Has your film degree come in handy, or did you walk out of school with a lot of useless abstract knowledge?
JW: I walked out with unbelievably essential knowledge. I happened to study under the people that I believe are the best film teachers ever. Film hasn't existed that long, so I say that with a certain amount of confidence. The teachers at Wesleyan were brilliant, the most brilliant people I've been around, and there is not a story that I tell that does not reflect something I either learned, or learned but already knew, from my professors. In terms of production, the place was useless. In terms of connections, I suppose you could go there, but it wasn't the fast track to becoming a hotshot producer. But my. It was just an undergraduate degree, but I'm talking about an education, the most valuable thing I ever learned. Oddly enough, I never studied writing. I studied almost everything except writing.
O: And you never took any sort of outside classes or looked into any kind of formal writing training?
JW: I'd been around scripts my whole life. I'd seen my father's scripts, I knew the basic format, and I understood the basic style, the language, the rhythm. But in terms of whether I had any kind of structure or character, it was a crap shoot.
O: Did you ever go to your father for writing advice?
JW: I never actually said, "Father, what do I do?" But he has given me some great advice. In fact, I've actually said to my writers, "You know, my father said to me once." and then stopped and said, "I can't believe that came out of my mouth, who said that?" The best piece of advice he ever gave me-he's written sitcoms exclusively-was, "If you have a good story, you don't need jokes. If you don't have a good story, no amount of jokes can save you." I'm not really that interested in jokes. I like the more dramatic stuff. But that tenet of "the story is god" is the most important thing I could have learned.
O: How did you pick up the practical skills you needed to direct?
JW: Some of them just by watching, and some of them by doing. I just watched a lot of movies, and I had an idea of what I wanted to convey visually. My first experience was really bad. It was the presentation by which we sold [the TV version of] Buffy, and it was dreadful. I had a terrible crew that I could not communicate with, and I was a first-time guy who didn't know what he was doing, surrounded by old veterans who didn't know what they were doing. So I was hoping somebody was going to know what they were doing at some point, to sort of help me out there. I look back and see the mistakes I made, but I also know that visually, I always knew what I was trying to say and how to convey it. I just didn't know how to get the crew to make that happen. As soon as I started working with my permanent crew on Buffy, we had a great DP and a great bunch of people with whom I could communicate really easily, I realized, "Okay, I guess I can do this." Because there was a period where I was like, [whining] "Oh, I just wanna go home and write movies, this is gonna make me miserable," and Fox was like, "We just want him to go home and write movies."
O: When you saw the completed Buffy movie, it wasn't the film you wanted to make, and several years later, you recreated it as a successful franchise. Do you ever have similar thoughts about Alien: Resurrection? Do you ever want to go back and "fix" it?
JW: Oh, yes, I have. Ohhh, yes, the fantasies. I've never had a worse experience in my life, and I've often thought of doing a lecture series on how to make movies based on just showing that movie, because I think they literally did every single thing wrong. The production design, the casting. there wasn't a mistake they left unturned. So I've often thought about it, because we'd been in talks about Alien 5. I love sequels, I love franchises, and I love big epic stories that go on and on. I used to love summer movies, before every single one of them was crap. So, yeah, I've thought about doing what I'd originally thought in Alien 5. And, after I found out on the Internet that I was making it, just after I directed Boy Meets World. [Laughs.] I thought about what I would do, what I would want to do with that franchise. And I was like, "You know what? I think maybe I'd like to work on something that 19 people don't own and control. We have so many executive producers on Buffy-and they leave me alone, they're great, but I think I'd like to do something that isn't just somebody else's. Having said that, I'm now considering doing the Iron Man movie. But that's just because it's got that cool shiny suit. Alien 5 was a longer shot. I mean, you have a body blow to recover from there.
O: Were you on the set for that, watching them take your script apart?
JW: No, I wasn't involved at all. I only went to the set once or twice. I'd been on movie sets, and I tend to stay away from them, because people want rewrites. They see the writer, and they're like, "Wouldn't it be cool if my character." "Gotta go, bye!" So I went once or twice, and I went after the première of Buffy [the series]. And the producer guy they had saw me, and said, "Hey, I went to the première of your show, and it was so weird. I said, Hey, they're playing it the way he writes it!'" I was like, "And what are they doing here?" That was my first sign that there might be trouble. I literally didn't see any of it again until I saw the director's cut, during which I actually cried.
O: Just over what they'd done to your script?
JW: It was a single manly tear rolling down my cheek. About an hour into the movie, I just started to cry. I said, "I can't believe this." I was heartbroken.
O: Have you ever been asked to doctor a script that you thought was doomed from the start?
JW: I've never taken a gig like that. There have been different situations. Like, Speed, I loved the idea so much that I was very anxious to come in and rewrite the characters. But I loved the plot. Toy Story was the greatest opportunity in the world, because it was a great idea, with a script I didn't like at all. When you know the idea is solid. I've been pitched ideas, or seen scripts, where I've been like, "You don't need me. You need to
[shouting] not make this." There have been some terrible ones. But the thing is, for a script doctor, the best thing in the world is a good idea with a terrible script. Assuming they'll let you play with it, which they did on Toy Story. Because you have the solid structure, and you can work the story into it.
O: How was your experience working on Atlantis with Disney?
JW: The only reason my name is on that movie is that I was the first guy on it, about eight years ago. I wanted to write musicals, and I thought it was going to be a musical. So I started working with them, because they wanted to do Journey To The Center Of The Earth, plus Atlantis, plus The Man Who Would Be King. That was their idea, and I wrote the first treatment for that, but I didn't have anything to do with the movie since. The movie they made has nothing to do with that treatment, but I'm happier having my name on that movie than on Titan A.E.
O: Apart from the problems with getting respect and avoiding rewrites in film, what kind of differences do you find between writing for TV and writing for film?
JW: Well, you also have the overload of. I'm not doing 90 minutes, or two hours, of writing, this year. I'm doing 22, or in my case, 44. You have a huge amount of pressure, constantly having to get it out there. It certainly creates discipline. I think every filmmaker should have to work in television. First of all, films wouldn't all be two and a half hours long, because you really learn about what you need when you're limited to 44 minutes. It's just a great, great training ground, to constantly be working. What you trade is the ability to control every piece of the frame, to really make everything work exactly the way you want. Yes, I have a great crew, we've been together so long, the cast gets it, the writers are superb. But you sacrifice a certain precision: You have to get this, you have to get that. But you also have a higher chance of doing your best work and getting it out there, because there are fewer executives and stars and ridiculous people between you and getting it done when it airs in two weeks and you have to shoot it. I've been described as Ed Wood, and I've been assured that this is a compliment, because of the amount of work we have to get done in so short a time. Especially with Buffy, which is a very hard show to make, because we have the action and the special effects, and we have to be very careful about the performances, making it all work. So you get that overload thing.
O: How about comic books? How does that compare?
JW: Well, I get to be alone more, and the characters never say, "Oh, I don't think I'd say that in boldface," or "I don't think I'd wear this." They just sort of do whatever I tell them. It's different but similar, and there's a little more leeway. It's fun.
O: Do you prefer one of the three over the others?
JW: At the end of the day, I would probably rather be making movies. I love television, because you get to see more of the characters than you'd ever see in the movies. You get to see 100 hours, 75 hours of a drama, and you just keep learning about the characters. That's really exciting. But at the end of the day, movies are my area. I would love to write a novel, I would love to write an opera. More than anything, I want to write a musical. So I'm happy if I'm writing. I love to direct, I love to edit, I love to produce, I love all of it. But as long as I'm writing, I'm happy.
O: Are you ever worried about getting into a Buffy rut?
JW: Yes. Buffy burnout big. I'm definitely eyeing some non-Buffy-related projects.
O:Besides Iron Man, are there any other scripts on the horizon?
JW: I have a script idea that I'm just developing, one of the things I really want to do, but it's still embryonic, so I don't want to say anything about it. Though I'm sure you can read all about it now on the Ain't It Cool website.
O: And you'd direct that yourself if it ever actually became a film?
JW: Yes. That's the next step. Part of the reason I made the TV show Buffy is because as a writer-even a successful one-in Hollywood, when you say you want to direct movies, they're appalled. They look like, "Do you kill babies?" I mean, they're just shocked. "What? You want to what?" "I'm a storyteller. I want to tell stories. I want to direct." "Uh, I don't get it. You want to what?" And people actually said to me, "Well, if you'd directed a video." I'm like, just once, somebody please say to a video director, "Well, if you'd written a script. If you just knew how to tell a story." I mean, the percentage of video directors who have actually told stories. Not that all writers can direct, or should, or want to. I'm sure a lot of writers want to direct because they're bitter, which is not a reason to direct. I want to speak visually, and writing is just a way of communicating visually. That's what it's all about. But nobody would even consider me to direct. So I said, "I'll create a television show, and I'll use it as a film school, and I'll teach myself to direct on TV."
O: You still have some unproduced scripts floating around Hollywood. Do you have any interest in directing those yourself?
JW: Well, there are a couple that I've sold, that have been through rewrites and hell and whatnot, and I've given up on them. I've moved on emotionally. I liked the scripts, and I wish they'd been made into movies, but I'm done with them. I want to do the next thing. There's one that I wrote that I never sold to anybody that I might think about. But really, why go back to the old stuff?
your cult success in TV sparked any interest in having other directors revive those scripts?
JW: You'd think it would. Every now and then I hear a little buzz about them. But no. The two worlds. although people can move between them easily, they don't have much to do with each other. I'm still nobody. They're starting to notice me now, so that could change. But nobody in Hollywood seems to be saying, "Hey, let's go talk to that Sweden guy." When you get to, like, Stephen King level, then they want to film your sweatsocks. "You wrote down a phone number? I'll option it!" But I'm not at that level.
O: How much involvement will you have with the Buffy animated series?
JW: A great deal of involvement. We've got a bunch of scripts together, written by the Buffy writers, who know the characters and are the best writers I know. I expect my involvement to taper off as the show moves forward, but I'll still have control.
O: Given that the original Buffy and Angel are, as you've said, dark shows with sexual content, how will that translate to a Saturday-morning cartoon?
JW: They're also shows with teen angst, empowered girls, funny little monsters, and lots of jokes. The writers are constantly making jokes we could never use [on the live-action show] because they're too silly, or abstract, or Simpsons-esque, and the cartoon is kind of our release valve for that. It's Buffy: Year One. Obviously, there's not going to be dark sexuality, because it's for kids. It's not for babies, but it's for kids. It's sort of Buffy: Year One, the untold stories, which is Willow loves Xander, Xander loves Buffy, Buffy sort of has a crush on this vampire guy who's a little bit older, Giles is in the library, Cordelia's a bitch, and it's going to stay year one as long as we can. Unlike the series, it's not about change. It's a chance to tell all of the high-school stories that we couldn't tell because they were only in high school for two and a half years. Stories like the driving test, and having to eat cafeteria food, and all the little minor stuff that we can blow up into real stories. It's a very silly show. We refer to it as Simpsons Beyond.
O: Is it actually going to be called Buffy: Year One?
JW: No, that's just the mandate for the series, in reference to Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Animated Series is, I think, long enough.
O: Now that you've actually appeared in an episode of Angel, do you have the acting bug? Are you going to write yourself into more scripts?
JW: I do and I don't. I've always had it, and I think it's part of being a writer and a director. It's knowing how you want things to be played. But I don't have the face-that's the problem-and I don't want the giant ego. I don't want to become Kevin Costner, singing on the soundtrack to The Postman. The acting bug, I mostly got the worst from doing our weekly Shakespeare readings.
O: Weekly Shakespeare readings?
JW: Some of the writers and the cast and some friends from both shows come to the house on Sundays to do readings of plays. And it's incredible. I'm working with actors I know are great, and a lot of the writers have long careers in theater. Some of them are carrying spears and saying "Yes, sir," and others have the big monologues, but we do it in shifts every week, and it's really tremendous.
O: How do you decide who gets what role?
JW: Based on what people want, did they have a big role last time, were they really great. Some people get more big roles, some people don't want them. Some people are terrified by the prospect and refuse to come. I try to shift it around, try to make everybody do spear-carrying duty. It's extraordinary. More than putting on makeup for three hours and dancing around like an idiot, that really gives you the feeling of being inside a piece, really acting. It gives you perspective, which is good to have. It's not good that I should think of myself as a TV star, because I'm not. But it is good to be in touch with what an actor goes through, because it makes you better.
O: What would you like to be working on right now that you don't have time for?
JW: My movie. I really want to get rolling on it.
O: What would you like to be doing just in general that you don't have time for?
JW: Well, everything. The things that people do when they don't write. Playing games, sports maybe. Drinking and sex are things I've heard a lot about.