Whedon't Need No Education
Talking with Hollywood Heavy Hitter and Self-Proclaimed Fanboy Joss Whedon
Melissa Casas, Associate Editor
Along with other newspapers from college campuses across the nation, I got the chance to participate in an interview with Joss Whedon, screenwriter extraordinaire, director of The Avengers, and all-around badass. The Q&A was conducted merely a day after the Los Angeles premiere of the film, and we were off to quick start.
Q: What was your process in writing the film? Did you already have a directorial vision when you were penning the screenplay?
Joss Whedon: Yes, I did. Half of writing the script is writing digitally-is figuring out what it needs to look and feel like and the stuff you’re gonna say. The process, therefore, was pretty organic, particularly also because we had such a tight schedule. They needed some things to be worked on, set pieces and action sequences, before I had written a script. So I was writing visual cues and action descriptions before I had finished structuring the story since we knew where we were going, so all of that was happening all in time. So, it was very difficult structurally to figure out how to make it work but in terms of the process, very organic.
Q: Is there something from your childhood experience with The Avengers that especially resonated with you and that you’re bringing to this movie?
JW: Well, the fact that the Avengers were all really, really messed up people I think is kind of a reflection of me. But The Avengers itself, the thing that I loved was that it was one of the comic books that was a little bit steeped in science fiction. Marvel is known for its gritty realism and Spiderman was sort of the base for, “Oh, they can just be people in New York.” And even though the Avengers made their home in New York, they were so often out in outer space and dealing with artificial intelligence and grand beings from another world and lots of monsters, and I love that element. That’s definitely a part of the film.
Q: How did you mentally prepare yourself to carry on the story of all of these established superheroes with these already fervent backings?
JW: I am the fervent backing, so it wasn’t that hard to key in. I have done a lot of work for things that already exist; I worked on X-Men, I wrote an alien movie that’s not the best one, and I worked with the script after you come in after things have been established. Even on a TV show, even if you’re the one to establish it every time you write the script, you’re dealing with an established universe. So it’s not hard for me to fall into the cadence of these people. It makes it a lot easier when people have seen them being acted in the other movies.
Q: Because Marvel is attempting to create an interlocking film universe, did you feel the need to maintain a directing style and aesthetic similar to the work of the other Marvel studio directors?
JW: There’s no way you could make a movie that looked like a John Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Louis Leterrier movie. You have to take from each one of them the thing that is useful and will thrive with the rest of them. I do think that the DNA of the Marvel movie begins with Iron Man and that’s very grounded in the real. I tend to be a tiny bit florid with my camerawork and my dialogue but hopefully in a way that feels like a realistic version of a comic book universe. So, it is the way that I can reconcile the different styles. My own style is actually kind of smack dab in the middle of what all those guys do. Therefore, it plays.
Q: The Avengers filmed in Cleveland. Why was Cleveland picked as a shooting location, and what was it like shooting there?
JW: Cleveland had some financial advantages rebate-wise and that’s always a big thing for Marvel. They also were very, very accommodating in terms of letting us blow up their city. Filming there was actually a joy. Cleveland is a really cool place, it has a lot of great culture, it has a lot of great restaurants. I’d been in the desert for almost a year so by the time I got to Cleveland it was like being in Versailles. It was so opulent and fun and had so many locations that worked beautifully for so many different places but without hardly any dressing. We were able to shoot so much practically because of that. It was very gratifying for us. The people were really, really welcoming.
Q: The Avengers is based on S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury trying to unite heroes with extraordinary powers and egos. With some pretty big names in the film, did you feel a little like Nick Fury at times trying to bring the actors into a team concept, and how do you handle any creative differences in this type of situation?
JW: I felt very much like Nick Fury. He is the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., literally, and that puts him at a remove from everybody even if he likes them. He knows he’s putting them in harm’s way. Hopefully I’m not putting my actors in harm’s way. Hopefully I’m not even making them uncomfortable. I’m not nearly as intelligent or manipulative as Nick and I didn’t have as many problems because my actors actually wanted to be together, they enjoy each other. But you do feel that responsibility that you’ve got to get all of these people to give their best. For him it’s in battle and for me it’s when we’re rolling to really come up with their best stuff and play off each other as well as possible. And you have a great responsibility to service them with your camera at the same time. So, definitely felt some of the pressure, but I can see out of my left eye.
Q: Did you have any particular favorite combination of superheroes that you thought were the most interesting to see interact?
JW: The tragedy of the movie is that you don’t get to have scenes with everybody interacting because not everybody is so interesting up against each other. I would say… I loved the Bruce Banner/Tony Stark relationship. Bruce Banner’s the first guy Tony Stark’s come across who operates on his level intellectually who isn’t a villain, and the way Tony nudges him and Tony’s particular attitude about The Hulk is endearing and cool. But I also love Tony and Steve and how much they can’t stand each other (laughs) and I’m very invested in Natasha and Hawkeye and their deep, deep friendship. Oh, I’m all—I hate this question! (laughs)
Q: What advice would you give to any student with ambitions of one day sitting in the director’s chair?
JW: My advice would be: sit down, now you’re in the director’s chair. We live in an age where anybody can make a movie. If you have a phone, you can make a movie; maybe not a huge movie, maybe phone-sized. When I came up, you wrote a script and you hoped and hoped or you raised enough money to make a short film. Things are different now and the best way to get your work out there, not just as an offering to somebody else to hope they’ll make it but to show yourself as a filmmaker and to learn as a filmmaker, is to just make movies. There’s no excuse not to now.
Q: Both your father and grandfather were screenwriters. In what way did they influence your work?
JW: They were both enormously funny men, they both worked extremely long hours to do their jobs. They are cold and distant, kind of like me – no, my dad’s actually a teddy bear, but I learned a great deal about stories from my dad, sometimes just inadvertently by listening to him or watching him or reading what he did. Very often, he’d just throw down little pieces of advice and I find that almost with that exception, the things he said to me are the things I carry the most.
Q: If you were going to input yourself into a superhero movie, what power would you have?
JW: I would have the power of invisibility, and then I wouldn’t have to show up for as many shooting days.
Q: How did you become attached to this project?
JW: I’ve known Kevin (Feige) for a while; I’ve known comics for a lot longer. And I think Marvel has a great nose for a director who has a passionate vision, who’s not famous for churning out big budget hits but will bring something a little bit fresh to the concept of a hero movie and it’s one of the things that I respect the most about them. It just seemed like a good fit. The only other movies I’ve made had a very similar problem: how do you structure a story that some people know very well, other people don’t know at all? But you have eight main characters and they’re all friends already. So, it seemed like a fit. I think they regret it now. (laughs)
Q: College students have a lot of options this summer with movies to see during their summer break. Why should they go see The Avengers? Why should this be first on their list?
JW: I think The Avengers is the kind of movie that I grew up wanting to make and thought they had stopped making. When I grew up, the summer movie was literally created as a concept and all my life I wanted to do something like that. Something like the first Indiana Jones, something that was steeped in character, in a love of the genre that it was portraying, had intelligence, had real acting, had a story that unfolded, and wasn’t just the sort of big premise that you already knew going in, or is it based on Parcheesi or something just because it has the name. More and more summer movies have been a little cynical. There are very, very big exceptions to that but that has been the case where people throw so much money down, they’re not interested in the story. They’re interested in just barraging you with excitement and imagery and brand names, and Marvel doesn’t operate that way. They care about people. That’s why they hire some of the best actors in the business to play their heroes, and this is an old-fashioned movie. It’s a little bit bigger than life but very human.
The Avengers comes out on May 4. Make sure to see it before finals leave you with no time to breathe, much less any time to go see A-list actors kicking ass in spandex.