Joss Whedon goes over a scene with Amy Acker in his house, which also doubled as the set of the new movie 'Much Ado About Nothing.'(Photo: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis)
by Brian Truitt, USA TODAY
- Joss Whedon's new 'Much Ado About Nothing' is in theaters Friday
- He has an integral role in this fall's 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'
- Whedon first realized he had a fan base during the first season of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'
Fans want to share their thoughts with Joss Whedon regularly about his most famous projects.
And many times, the parents in his core audience tell their kids he also co-wrote Pixar's Toy Story, something the little ones probably will see before his TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly or the superhero blockbuster The Avengers.
"I'm like, 'The kid's 4. Nobody wrote Toy Story. Toy Story happened to some toys. Thank you but don't try to impress your kids with that,' " Whedon says, laughing.
The youngsters might have to wait a while but in time they may be as suitably awed by the "Whedon-verse" of works as the older folks. A creator, writer, producer and even composer on some of the biggest cult hits of the past 20 years, Whedon's gradually moved from king of Comic-Con to pop-culture royalty, especially after last year's mega-hit Avengers.
He might soon find himself as study material in high school English classes - his newest movie is a modern retelling of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, opening wide Friday and starring Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion and his Santa Monica, Calif., home as the film's setting.
MORE: Innovators and Icons: Joss Whedon the genre slayer
After that, Whedon's back on TV this fall as a creative force behind the new ABC series Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which brings the world of the Marvel Comics movie universe to the small screen, and by February he'll be in the director's chair again for The Avengers 2, scheduled for release in 2015.
"And then I slip into a nice hot coma," Whedon, 48, quips. "Writing and directing and making movies and TV is the hardest job in the world. But boy, does it beat working."
He's as witty in conversation as his dialogue is on screen, and with USA TODAY Whedon talks about Much Ado, doing superhero films, the one guy he most would like to work with and his first time feeling fandom:
Q: How weird is it to see your house on a cinema screen?
A. You know, it isn't. I absolutely always did want to shoot that house. It's so beautiful, I knew I'd shoot it for something. And they're two different animals. Leonato's estate and my house, they're separate for me. The role of Leonato's estate is being played by my house, but like all of the actors in it, even though I love them as friends, I see them as those characters.
Q: So many of the usual Whedon players are in Much Ado. Anybody new you worked into the cast?
A. The biggest new thing was the casting of Hero, Jillian Morgese. She really hadn't ever done anything except be an extra in The Avengers. I met her just as I was starting on the last couple of days, when I started thinking about doing (Much Ado), and she had a presence and a poise and the ability to cry that I felt would be a good match for playing Amy Acker's cousin. So I auditioned her on Skype a couple weeks later and flew her out.
Q: When you look at the actors you've worked with over the years, many like Alyson Hannigan, David Boreanaz and Nathan Fillion have become household names. Do you feel you have a knack for finding talent?
A. Honestly, I do. I've worked with great casting directors and that is enormously important. But I feel very proud of my ability to create an ensemble. It's a learned skill - it's a particular alchemy. When you get it right, it engages you as a writer and it also does a lot of the work for you. You're not like, "Well, we'll build something in the editing room." No, they're gonna give you the goods.
Q: You've kept Shakespeare's original text in a modern setting. Did you ever consider any alterations?
A. I don't believe in monkeying with it nor do I understand why anyone would. The text is why he has survived for 400 years. The text is the thing. Everyone will say, "His plots are stolen!" Sometimes they are nonsensical and bizarre. And certainly he didn't win us over with his stage directions, except of course for "Exeunt, pursued by a bear." But it is the words that we all came to the readings to celebrate and the characters within those words. It never occurred to me to mess with that.
Q: What can he still teach us about storytelling?
A. Everybody takes different lessons because you internalize Shakespeare. (In Much Ado) he takes the structure of a romantic comedy, which he's basically inventing, and says, "This is all a lie, this is all a construct." He looks behind all the goofiness and happiness and flowers into something very dark, and comes out with something very romantic because he's earned it.
The other lesson I take from him is that subtlety is for little men. Even though the textures and complexities of the plays are extraordinary, he likes to wear it on his sleeve. If he wants to make you cry, he's going to go all the way. If he wants to make you laugh, nothing is too low or too high. He will hit you from every angle.
Q: Similarly, what does someone learn about storytelling from your stuff?
A. The one thing I would say is that - and it's a theme of my work and it runs through everything - everybody matters. You need to question the tropes of the genre you love and you also need to understand that nobody's expendable. If somebody is in a story, they need to be there for a reason, and not just to set up somebody else's story.
Q: Is that why your works have such loyal followings?
A. Yeah. It's supposed to be very inclusive and it's supposed to be standing up for the people who don't feel included.
When fans come up to me and are moved by what I do, it's not just because they're responding to my work. They have a need that I clearly have because I'm writing about it all the time, which is that I don't feel I've been respected or was worthy of respect. I've felt small and helpless and I hated it. It marked me.
The fact that I'm dealing with that issue makes me write about it, and writing about it makes people who are dealing with it relate not just to it but to me on a level that is what every artist dreams about.
Q: At what point did you first figure out you had fans?
A. It really was Buffy, partially because that was really at the start - and lucky me - of the concept of the Internet community. And my first Comic-Con. You got feedback right away - there may not be many of them but the people who were responding were responding well. Critics in the same way really seemed to get what we were doing. We thought they might enjoy it - we didn't know everybody would get it.
Q: Did you get close to the rapturous applause at that Con as you do now?
A. It wasn't as many - there was between 1,000 and 2,000 people, and it was me, Nicky (Nicholas Brendon) and Aly. It was after the first season (in 1997). We walked out on stage, and that was a lot of people. And they were very excited. We sat giving autographs, and the whole time I kept going, "Are you sure you want mine, too? Because it's OK if you just want the actors." I really didn't get it.
Q: What's the downside of your fame?
A. It's very easy to believe that you're king of the world and that everybody in the world is talking about you. Then you take two steps to the left and nobody knows who you are at all, and you go, "Oh! That's right. There were 12 people on that posting board. They just posted a lot."
Q: At this point in your career, who would you most want to work with?
A. John Williams. (As a kid) I would just play the Superman (soundtrack music) over and over and over again because there wasn't video to watch. I would just live it again and again. And then in his later years, he's doing his best work: Memoirs of a Geisha, Angela's Ashes, A.I. His stuff is just indelible. He's the man.
Q: You composed the score for Much Ado and have talked about doing a musical. For those who may have missed the "Once More With Feeling" episode of Buffy, what does a Joss Whedon musical sound like?
A. Hopefully not like a lot of other musicals. I'm not completely free of my influences. A Joss Whedon musical sounds a little poppy, a little old school and very corny.
Q: What has you revisiting that idea?
A. I fell out of music and a lot of that had to do with the kids. Apparently they don't want you to play music. Now that they're older, they're actually playing themselves and they're certainly in front of it, but when they're little, they're like, "That sounds like a lot of noise. That means you're not paying attention to me." I'm not good enough where it's like riding a bike - it's a muscle I need to learn to flex more.
Q: With Bellwether Pictures, the new indie company with your wife, Kai Cole, is this the beginning of you as film mogul?
A. We go back and forth. It's on an as-needed basis. There are certain people who said, 'Well, gee, we'd love to do this small thing. We'd be very interested in talking.' But most of the stuff we've talked about so far has been self-generated, the stuff we want to do, the Internet stuff that I already had in the works. We're sort of feeling our way.
Q: When the Veronica Mars Kickstarter was announced and made millions in the first day, your short-lived series Firefly was bandied about a lot online. What do you think of Kickstarter, Netflix and these alternative avenues to networks in bringing back shows that people loved?
A. I was pitching a Kickstarter model to my agent years and years ago - of course, these guys got it totally right and got off their duffs, but I was like, "Couldn't we get fans and give them things if they pledge a certain amount?" I was always looking for a different way to do things, but I'm not really a maverick. I don't follow through on things. I just go, "Wouldn't it be cool...?" and then I go and do my job.
It's absolutely a wonderful thing. Some people said, "Well, Veronica Mars is going to sully the waters because it's got studio backing." I don't think so at all. Fans want it, I want it, and they get something for their contribution. It's just the beginning, and one of the best things that's going on right now.
Q: Let's say this happened when Fox canceled Firefly way back when. Would you be calling Netflix the next day?
A. Not the next day because nobody actually saw it when it aired. If they just saw it on Friday night, we would have made like $30 on a Kickstarter. But yeah, absolutely. I would have done anything in the world to keep that show on or at least give it a little closure. We got very lucky that Mary Parent stepped up at Universal and said, "We're interested in (a Serenity movie)."
I was interested in doing a few mini-movies, miniseries - any channel, any format. And back then, the options were very limited. Now, they really are not.
Q: Have you ever given serious thought to revisiting one of your shows, like Buffy or Dollhouse?
A. I've made a comic book for everything. I very much believe in the finding of a new venue for a story you love, but there is a point where you're like, "I must move forward. I must create something new." I've just gone from doing a movie with Marvel characters to doing a movie with Shakespeare's to doing a show with new characters but in the Marvel universe. The universe-creating is something I miss very much.
Q: Are you actively pursuing going back to that?
A. Yeah. I need completely provisional creations to come out of me again. There's different ideas I have that I want to do, but I'm very, very excited about the stuff I'm doing now. I'm just letting them percolate.
Q: Buffy was your first big success and you're returning to TV with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Do you feel more at home there?
A. Television is a grand place. When it works and you're with a group of writers, it's fun. Sometimes you're like, "This has to be less fun so we can get more work done." When you're on set, you've got all the wheels turning and characters are like these pebbles you find on the shore that you can just turn over in your hand again and again and see more things. You get to explore and expand and subvert and it's really a joy when it works. In a way, that's very different from movies.
Q: Did you fall in love with TV immediately or was it a gradual mating dance?
A. The first real writing I did with a purpose was for TV. What I discovered was anything is as good as you make it. When I see movies that are just terrible but contain the seeds of something beautiful, I'm like, "OK, there's something there. Last Action Hero could have been a good movie."
Q: Speaking of heroes, is doing a huge superhero film like The Avengers all it's cracked up to be?
A. Yes and no. There are some things about directing in particular that are incredibly boring, and there's an enormous amount of compromise and you have your heart broken in little ways all the time. Having said that, oh my God, who has a better job than me?
Q: There are a lot of people on the Internet who intensely watch what you do - these days many are discussing Avengers rumors and will your Quicksilver in The Avengers be the same as the one in Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days of Future Past. Do you find it fascinating how much people really do get into the rumor mill?
A. It's always good that they're interested - God knows, if they're not, you're in trouble. At the same time, I dial a lot of that down. I don't believe in spoilers, I don't believe in everything behind the scenes. Even though I read behind-the-scenes stuff voraciously in movie histories and monster magazines and Truffaut's Hitchcock and I adored it, there's a level at which it just dissolves the fun of the thing. It's like you're getting the movie in tiny little installments instead of going and having the experience.
The last time I went to a movie and hadn't seen a spoiler in any significant way was The Matrix (in 1999). And it's as good as an experience as I ever needed.
Q: What is the biggest challenge of doing something on the level of The Avengers?
A. The biggest thing for me was that I've been thrown into things and had to just bring it at the last minute. And in television, it's always the last minute. And in script doctoring, it's already the last minute. I'm not afraid of that. Working with a crew that's top of the line and worked with A-list directors, they were really good people but it wasn't the same kind of connection you get with a TV crew or a bunch of underdogs.
That was the learning curve for me - how do you deal with these people who are going from one huge Oscar-worthy blockbuster project to another when this is your first? And none of whom read comic books.
Q: Did you have to teach them the ways of the comic nerd as you went along?
A. It's not policy for Marvel to give them the scripts - they have to take them to a room somewhere and read it. So I had people working on the movie who had no idea what it was about. That's not something that will happen on the second one. I need everybody to be a part of the creative process and really realize what's going on. We were on the Helicarrier after two weeks, and somebody said, "Are we in space?" I was like, "Wow."
Q: Do you just hang your head in shame at that point?
A. Well, no, that was a perfectly valid question. There was nothing in the dialogue in that scene that would tell them exactly where they were. There's this big blue screen.
Q: Before you get around to Avengers 2, do you foresee directing more than just the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
A. Not this season. Got a movie to make. It's too bad - I'd love to just walk in and be like, "Let me do this one!" But that's 16 days I don't have to spare.
Q: Even though you might not be around set as much as you were with Buffy and other shows, will Agents still have your signature style?
A. Obviously I've got (executive producers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen) and people who I trust the most to see it through and make it theirs, as well, and I'll be proud of that. But I'm keeping my hand in it. I'm not in the business of slapping my name on things. I'm a writer, not a producer.
(Sunday Geekersation is a weekly series of Q&As featuring luminaries, mainstays and newcomers of geek culture discussing their projects, influences and pop culture.)