Joss Whedon is a third-generation television scriptwriter, possibly the first one. As he tells the story, he never intended to follow in his father's footsteps: He started his career as a snobby film student who never watched television and intended to write movies, until he found out how much TV writing paid. Ultimately, he did both, working as a scriptwriter on Roseanne and the TV series Parenthood before selling his script to the 1992 Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie. For several years, he was a film writer and a script doctor, doing uncredited touch-ups on Twister, Speed, and Waterworld, and writing drafts of projects such as X-Men, Toy Story, Titan A.E., Disney's Atlantis, and Alien: Resurrection. But Whedon came into his own with the television incarnation of Buffy, which has, over the past few years, grown from a cult classic into a cottage industry. As the original creator of the Buffy character, Whedon—now a writer, director, and executive producer of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV show—has a hand in virtually all of its spinoffs, including the WB series Angel, a line of comic-book tie-ins distributed by Dark Horse, and an upcoming animated series and BBC TV show. Whedon recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the Buffy phenomenon, his bitterness over his movie career, and the fans who share in his worship of his creations.
The Onion: So, how are you bringing Buffy back? [The character died at the end of this past season. —ed.]
Joss Whedon: Aw, I'm not supposed to tell.
O: I'm teasing. I know you get that a lot.
JW: Yeah, it's the first thing everybody asks, including my developers. And the answer is, I can't say, because that's why you watch the show. The one thing I can say is, I think we earn it. There's no Patrick Duffy in the shower, there's no alternate-universe Buffy. It's not going to be neat. Bringing her back is difficult, and the consequences are fairly intense. It's not like we don't take these death-things seriously. But exactly how she comes back, I can't reveal.
O: When your actors get questions like that in interviews, they always seem to answer with horrific threats: "I can't tell, Joss will rip out my tongue and feed it to wolves," and so forth. Do they actually get these threats from you?
JW: I'm a very gentle man, not unlike Gandhi. I don't ever threaten them. There is, sort of hanging over their head, the thing that I could kill them at any moment. But that's really just if they annoy me. They know that I'm very secretive about plot twists and whatnot, because I think it's better for the show. But anybody with a computer can find out what's going to happen, apparently even before I know. So my wish for secrecy is sort of pathetic. But they're all on board. They don't want to give it away, and a lot of times, they just don't know.
O: How closely were you involved with the making of the Buffy movie?
JW: I had major involvement. I was there almost all the way through shooting. I pretty much eventually threw up my hands because I could not be around Donald Sutherland any longer. It didn't turn out to be the movie that I had written. They never do, but that was my first lesson in that. Not that the movie is without merit, but I just watched a lot of stupid wannabe-star behavior and a director with a different vision than mine—which was her right, it was her movie—but it was still frustrating. Eventually, I was like, "I need to be away from here."
O: Was it a personality conflict between you and Sutherland, or was he just not what you'd envisioned in that role?
JW: No, no, he was just a prick. The thing is, people always make fun of Rutger Hauer [for his Buffy role]. Even though he was big and silly and looked kind of goofy in the movie, I have to give him credit, because he was there. He was into it. Whereas Donald was just… He would rewrite all his dialogue, and the director would let him. He can't write—he's not a writer—so the dialogue would not make sense. And he had a very bad attitude. He was incredibly rude to the director, he was rude to everyone around him, he was just a real pain. And to see him destroying my stuff… Some people didn't notice. Some people liked him in the movie. Because he's Donald Sutherland. He's a great actor. He can read the phone book, and I'm interested. But the thing is, he acts well enough that you didn't notice, with his little rewrites, and his little ideas about what his character should do, that he was actually destroying the movie more than Rutger was. So I got out of there. I had to run away.
O: What was Paul Reubens like? He seems to be the actor people remember most from the movie.
JW: [Adopts weepy, awed voice.] He is a god that walks among us. He is one of the sweetest, most professional and delightful people I've ever worked with. [Normal voice.] He was my beacon of hope in that whole experience, that he was such a good guy, and so got it. I mean, most of the people were sweet. Most of them were actively out there trying… They were good people. Paul was a delight to be around, trying to make it better. He actually said to me, "I'm a little worried about this line, and I want to change it. I realize that it'll change this other thing, so if that's a problem…" I'm like, "Did I just hear an actor say that?"
O: How early on did it occur to you to re-do Buffy the way you'd originally intended?
JW: You know, it wasn't really my idea. After the première of the movie, my wife said, "You know, honey, maybe a few years from now, you'll get to make it again, the way you want to make it!" [Broad, condescending voice.] "Ha ha ha, you little naïve fool. It doesn't work that way. That'll never happen." And then it was three years later, and Gail Berman actually had the idea. Sandollar [Television] had the property, and Gail thought it would make a good TV series. They called me up out of contractual obligation: "Call the writer, have him pass." And I was like, "Well, that sounds cool." So, to my agent's surprise and chagrin, I said, "Yeah, I could do that. I think I get it. It could be a high-school horror movie. It'd be a metaphor for how lousy my high-school years were." So I hadn't had the original idea, I just developed it.
O: You joke a lot in interviews about how you wanted to write horror because you experienced so much of it in high school. Did you have an unusually bad high-school experience, or was it just the usual teen traumas?
JW: I think it's not inaccurate to say that I had a perfectly happy childhood during which I was very unhappy. It was nothing worse than anybody else. I could not get a date to save my life, but my last three years of high school were at a boys' school, so I wasn't actually looking that hard. I was not popular in school, and I was definitely not a ladies' man. And I had a very painful adolescence, because it was all very strange to me. It wasn't like I got beat up, but the humiliation and isolation, and the existential "God, I exist, and nobody cares" of being a teenager were extremely pronounced for me. I don't have horror stories. I mean, I have a few horror stories about attempting to court a girl, which would make people laugh, but it's not like I think I had it worse than other people. But that's sort of the point of Buffy, that I'm talking about the stuff everybody goes through. Nobody gets out of here without some trauma.
O: How much of your writing made it into the final versions of Twister and Speed?
JW: Most of the dialogue in Speed is mine, and a bunch of the characters. That was actually pretty much a good experience. I have quibbles. I also have the only poster left with my name still on it. Getting arbitrated off the credits was un-fun. But Speed has a bunch. And Twister, less. In Twister, there are things that worked and things that weren't the way I'd intended them. Whereas Speed came out closer to what I'd been trying to do. I think of Speed as one of the few movies I've made that I actually like.
O: What about Waterworld?
JW: [Laughs.] Waterworld. I refer to myself as the world's highest-paid stenographer. This is a situation I've been in a bunch of times. By the way, I'm very bitter, is that okay? I mean, people ask me, "What's the worst job you ever had?" "I once was a writer in Hollywood…" Talk about taking the glow off of movies. I've had almost nothing but bad experiences. Waterworld was a good idea, and the script was the classic, "They have a good idea, then they write a generic script and don't really care about the idea." When I was brought in, there was no water in the last 40 pages of the script. It all took place on land, or on a ship, or whatever. I'm like, "Isn't the cool thing about this guy that he has gills?" And no one was listening. I was there basically taking notes from Costner, who was very nice, fine to work with, but he was not a writer. And he had written a bunch of stuff that they wouldn't let their staff touch. So I was supposed to be there for a week, and I was there for seven weeks, and I accomplished nothing. I wrote a few puns, and a few scenes that I can't even sit through because they came out so bad. It was the same situation with X-Men. They said, "Come in and punch up the big climax, the third act, and if you can, make it cheaper." That was the mandate on both movies, and my response to both movies was, "The problem with the third act is the first two acts." But, again, no one was paying attention. X-Men was very interesting in that, by that time, I actually had a reputation in television. I was actually somebody. People stopped thinking I was John Sweden on the phone. And then, in X-Men, not only did they throw out my script and never tell me about it; they actually invited me to the read-through, having thrown out my entire draft without telling me. I was like, "Oh, that's right! This is the movies! The writer is shit in the movies!" I'll never understand that. I have one line left in that movie. Actually, there are a couple of lines left in that are out of context and make no sense, or are delivered so badly, so terribly… There's one line that's left the way I wrote it.
O: Which is?
JW: "'It's me.' 'Prove it.' 'You're a dick.'" Hey, it got a laugh.
O: It's funny that the only lines I really remember from that movie are that one and Storm's toad comment.
JW: Okay, which was also mine, and that's the interesting thing. Everybody remembers that as the worst line ever written, but the thing about that is, it was supposed to be delivered as completely offhand. [Adopts casual, bored tone.] "You know what happens when a toad gets hit by lightning?" Then, after he gets electrocuted, "Ahhh, pretty much the same thing that happens to anything else." But Halle Berry said it like she was Desdemona. [Strident, ringing voice.] "The same thing that happens to everything eeelse!" That's the thing that makes you go crazy. At least "You're a dick" got delivered right. The worst thing about these things is that, when the actors say it wrong, it makes the writer look stupid. People assume that the line… I listened to half the dialogue in Alien 4, and I'm like, "That's idiotic," because of the way it was said. And nobody knows that. Nobody ever gets that. They say, "That was a stupid script," which is the worst pain in the world. I have a great long boring story about that, but I can tell you the very short version. In Alien 4, the director changed something so that it didn't make any sense. He wanted someone to go and get a gun and get killed by the alien, so I wrote that in and tried to make it work, but he directed it in a way that it made no sense whatsoever. And I was sitting there in the editing room, trying to come up with looplines to explain what's going on, to make the scene make sense, and I asked the director, "Can you just explain to me why he's doing this? Why is he going for this gun?" And the editor, who was French, turned to me and said, with a little leer on his face, [adopts gravelly, smarmy, French-accented voice] "Because eet's een the screept." And I actually went and dented the bathroom stall with my puddly little fist. I have never been angrier. But it's the classic, "When something goes wrong, you assume the writer's a dork." And that's painful.
O: Have you done any other uncredited script work?
JW: Actually, my first gig ever was writing looplines for a movie that had already been made. You know, writing lines over somebody's back to explain something, to help make a connection, to add a joke, or to just add babble because the people are in frame and should be saying something. We're constantly saving something that doesn't work, or trying to, with lines behind people's backs. It's almost like adding narration, but cheaper. I did looplines for The Getaway, the Alec Baldwin/Kim Basinger version. If you look carefully at The Getaway, you'll see that when people's backs are turned, or their heads are slightly out of frame, the whole movie has a certain edge to it. I also did a couple of days of looplines and punch-ups for The Quick And The Dead, just to meet Sam Raimi.
O: I attended your Q&A session at a comics convention last year, and many of the people who got up to ask questions were nearly in tears over the chance to get to talk to you. Some of them could barely speak, and others couldn't stop gushing about you, and about Buffy. How do you deal with that kind of emotional intensity?
JW: It's about the show, and I feel the same way about it. I get the same way. It's not like being a rock star. It doesn't feel like they're reacting to me. It's really sweet when people react like that, and I love the praise, but to me, what they're getting emotional about is the show. And that's the best feeling in the world. There's nothing creepy about it. I feel like there's a religion in narrative, and I feel the same way they do. I feel like we're both paying homage to something else; they're not paying homage to me.
O: Does knowing that you have fans who are that dedicated put extra pressure on you, or does seeing the show as something outside yourself make it easier to deal with?
JW: You don't want to let them down. The people who feel the most strongly about something will turn on you the most vociferously if they feel you've let them down. Sometimes you roll your eyes and you want to say, "Back off," but you don't get the big praise without getting the big criticism. Because people care. So. Much. And you always know that's lurking there. It does make a difference. If nobody was paying attention, I might very well say, "You know what, guys? Let's churn 'em out, churn 'em out, make some money." I like to think I wouldn't, but I don't know. I don't know me, I might be a dick. Once the critics, after the first season, really got the show, we all sort of looked at each other and said, "Ohhh-kay…" We thought we were
going to fly under the radar, and nobody was going to notice the show. And then we had this responsibility, and we got kind of nervous. You don't want to let them down. But ultimately, the narrative feeds you so much. It's so exciting to find out what's going to happen next, to find the next important thing in the narrative, to step down and say, "That's so cool."
O: Are you ever surprised by your fans' passion for the show?
JW: No. I designed the show to create that strong reaction. I designed Buffy to be an icon, to be an emotional experience, to be loved in a way that other shows can't be loved. Because it's about adolescence, which is the most important thing people go through in their development, becoming an adult. And it mythologizes it in such a way, such a romantic way—it basically says, "Everybody who made it through adolescence is a hero." And I think that's very personal, that people get something from that that's very real. And I don't think I could be more pompous. But I mean every word of it. I wanted her to be a cultural phenomenon. I wanted there to be dolls, Barbie with kung-fu grip. I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, "Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers, let's have dinner." I wanted people to internalize it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show. And we've done exactly that. Now I'm writing comics, and I'm getting all excited about the mythology. We're doing a book of stories about other slayers, and I'm all excited about that, and it's all growing in my mind, as well. I think she has become an icon, and that's what I wanted. What more could anybody ask?
O: Do you ever feel a responsibility to society, to use your massive power for good?
JW: Yes and no. I mean, I've always been, and long before anybody was paying any attention, very careful about my responsibility in narrative. How much do I put what I want to put, and how much do I put what I feel is correct? People say, "After Columbine, do you feel a responsibility about the way you portray violence?" And I'm like, "No, I felt a responsibility about the way I portrayed violence the first time I picked up a pen." I mean, everybody felt… It's a ridiculous thing to ask a writer. But you feel it, and at the same time—and I've said this before—a writer has a responsibility to tell stories that are dark and sexy and violent, where characters that you love do stupid, wrong things and get away with it, that we explore these parts of people's lives, because that's what makes stories into fairy tales instead of polemics. That's what makes stories resonate, that thing, that dark place that we all want to go to on some level or another. It's very important. People are like, [whining] "Well, your characters have sex, and those costumes, and blah blah…" And I'm like, "You're in adolescence, and you're thinking about what besides sex?" I feel that we're showing something that is true, that people can relate to and say, "Oh, I made that bad choice," or "Oh, there's a better way to do that." But as long as it's real, then however politically correct, or incorrect, or whatever, bizarre, or dark, or funny, or stupid—anything you can get, as long as it's real, I don't mind.
O: Speaking of sex and reality, the Tara-and-Willow relationship has been controversial from several angles, with one side of the spectrum accusing you of promoting a homosexual agenda while the other side accuses you of exploiting lesbian chic.
JW: You just have to ignore that. I actually went online and said, "I realize that this has shocked a lot of people, and I've made a mistake by trying to shove this lifestyle—which is embraced by, maybe, at most, 10 percent of Americans—down people's throats. So I'm going to take it back, and from now on, Willow will no longer be a Jew." And somebody was actually like, [adopts agitated whine] "What do you mean she's not going to be a Jew anymore?" I was like, "Can we get a 'sarcasm' font?" But, you know, the first criticism we got was, "She's not gay enough. They're not gay enough." We were playing it as a metaphor, and it was like, "Why don't they come out? They're not gay enough!" And eventually we did start to say, "Well, maybe we're being a little coy. They've got good chemistry, this is working out, why don't we just go ahead and make them go for it?" And, of course, once you bring it out in the open, it's no longer a metaphor. Then it's just an Issue. But we never played it that way. Ultimately, some people say "lesbian chic," I say, "Okay, whatever." Those criticisms don't really bug me. You look at shows like Ally McBeal and Party Of Five, which both did lesbian kisses that were promoted and hyped for months and months, and afterwards the characters were like, "Well, I seem to be very heterosexual! Thank you for that steamy lesbian kiss!" Our whole mission statement was that we would bury their first kiss inside an episode that had nothing to do with it, and never promote it, which I guess caught people off-guard at The WB. The reason we had them kiss was because if they didn't, it would start to get coy and, quite frankly, a little offensive, for two people that much in love to not have any physicality. But the whole mission statement was, "We'll put it where nobody expects it, and we'll never talk about it." I mean, there are people who are genuinely concerned—are we falling into a pattern that other shows are falling into? It's very possible. The WB was like, "We have gay characters on all our shows. Why didn't you tell us you were making characters gay?" "Well, I don't watch your other shows. I didn't know." I'm sort of not really aware of what's going on out there. So the accusations of, "You shouldn't have a gay character on your show," those people are just—they should just be tied to a rock. "Whatever, you dumb people." Not that I feel strongly. But the other ones, "Oh, you just do that because it's sexy"… Well, the writers, and the men and women on the set, are like, "Yeah, it is pretty sexy!" I mean, so were Buffy and Angel. If it's not sexy, then it's not worth it. Like those two guys in thirtysomething sitting in bed together, looking like they were individually wrapped in plastic. They did a scene with two guys in bed, and it was a big deal, on thirtysomething, and it was the most antiseptic thing I've ever seen in my life. They were sitting ramrod-straight, far away from each other, and not even looking at each other. I was like, "Ahhh, sexy!"
O: One aspect of your fans' dedication is that they become very threatened by perceived changes in the show, like Giles becoming a lesser character as Anthony Stewart Head moves to Britain, or the show itself moving to UPN.
JW: Change is a mandate on the show. And people always complain. [Agitated voice.] "Who is this new guy, Oz?" "Where'd that guy Oz go?" They have trouble with change, but it's about change. It's about growing up. If we didn't change, you would be bored. The change as far as Tony Head is concerned, the man has two daughters growing up in England, and he'd like to live there. The kids [on Buffy] are old enough now that they don't really need a mentor figure, and this is a period in your life when you don't really have one. So it made sense for him to go back, and he chose to be on the show as a recurring character. But change is part of the show, and people always have a problem with it. But I think it's why they keep coming back.
O: How do you think the move to UPN will affect the series?
JW: I don't think it'll affect it one iota. Any change that happens in the show will happen naturally because the show evolves. UPN has never said, "Skew it this way, do this thing," and they never will, because I'm not going to do it. I've had an unprecedented amount of control over the show, even for television, considering the show is a cult show. From the very start, The WB left me alone. You know, they collaborated, they didn't disappear, but they really let me do what I wanted. They trusted me. And UPN is on board for letting me do the show the way that works. I don't think anything will change. I mean, there'll be wrestling. But tasteful wrestling. Wrestling with a message behind it.
O: I've got a quote here from a recent interview with James Marsters [who plays Spike on Buffy]: "Joss likes to stir it up. He likes a little chaos. He likes to piss people off. He likes to deny them what they want. He loves making people feel afraid." Do you agree with that?
JW: First of all, if you don't feel afraid, horror show not good. We learned early on, the scariest thing on that show was people behaving badly, or in peril, morally speaking, or just people getting weird on you—which, by the way, is the scariest thing in life. In terms of not giving people what they want, I think it's a mandate: Don't give people what they want, give them what they need. What they want is for Sam and Diane to get together. [Whispers.] Don't give it to them. Trust me. [Normal voice.] You know? People want the easy path, a happy resolution, but in the end, they're more interested in… No one's going to go see the story of Othello going to get a peaceful divorce. People want the tragedy. They need things to go wrong, they need the tension. In my characters, there's a core of trust and love that I'm very committed to. These guys would die for each other, and it's very beautiful. But at the same time, you can't keep that safety. Things have to go wrong, bad things have to happen.
O: What's your method for balancing humor and drama when you're writing the show?
JW: We get bored of one, and then switch to the other. I thought we got very dramatic last year, and I was like, "We need more jokes this year!" Every year the balance falls one way or another. You've just got to keep your eye on it. All of my writers are extremely funny, so it's easy to make [Buffy] funnier. The hard part is getting the stuff that matters more. Our hardest work is to figure out the story. Getting the jokes in isn't a problem. We wanted to make that sort of short-attention-span, The Simpsons, cull-from-every-genre-all-the-time thing. "You know, if we take this moment from Nosferatu, and this moment from Pretty In Pink, that'll make this possible. A little Jane Eyre in there, and then a little Lethal Weapon 4. Not 3, but 4. And I think this'll work."
O: Does the writing itself come naturally to you, or do you have to set hours and force yourself to sit down and get it done?
JW: It's like breathing. I'm not un-lazy, and I do procrastinate, but… Some of my writers sweat. The agony, they hate doing it, it's like pulling teeth. But for me, it comes easy. I love it. I don't rewrite, almost ever. I basically just sit down and write. Now my wife is making gestures about what a pompous ass I am. [Laughs.] And she's not wrong. But that's how it is. I love it. And I know these characters well enough that it comes maybe a little more naturally to me.
O: Have you gotten good at delegating, or do you really want to be doing all the writing yourself?
JW: No, I have, and that was really hard for me. It was hard because I had such a specific vision, and nobody was seeing it. And so you have to do everything—props, costumes. Gradually, you surround yourself with people who do see it your way. I've worked for producers, and I know producers, who are true megalomaniacs, and need to write everything, and be responsible for everything, and get all the credit. And, although I am something of a control freak, if somebody does something right, I will not change a word. If the script works, if a costume is right, if an actor gets it, I'm not going to get in there just so I can have gotten in there. I've spent five years culling the most extraordinary staff, which I trust to share my vision and my experience. So if somebody gets it right, I leave it alone.
O: Do you think you'd ever be able to completely let go of a Buffy spin-off, leave it totally in someone else's hands?
JW: It's possible. It's possible that I could. A while ago, I would have said, "No." But now I'm working on what will be four Buffy shows and three Buffy comics, and eventually you sort of go, "Uh, maybe somebody else could do that other thing." Would I be able to not have any hand in it at all? I think I just said "yes" and meant "no." I don't want it to have my name on it if it doesn't reflect what I want to say. Because once you get to the position of actually getting to say something, which is a level most writers never even get to, and is a great blessing, you then have to worry about what it is you're actually saying. I don't want some crappy reactionary show under the Buffy name. If my name's going to be on it, it should be mine. Now, the books I have nothing to do with, and I've never read them. They could be, "Buffy realized that abortion was wrong!" and I would have no idea. So, after my big, heartfelt, teary speech, I realize that I was once again lying. But I sort of drew the line. I was like, "I can't possibly read these books!" But my name just goes on them as the person who created Buffy.
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.
O: If you had Buffy to do over from the start, this time knowing how popular it would get, would you do anything differently?
JW: Not in terms of popularity. I mean, there were certain things on the show that I learned the hard way, but not really. I love the show, and I love the people. I love the stories we told. I mean, I'm angry about every single edit, and line, and costume change, and rewrite, but that's part of the business. So ultimately, I wouldn't change anything.