When Joss Whedon creates a huge spectacle like Avengers 2 or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., he's speaking to a mass audience using studio money. But he also manages to speak directly to his fans, with smaller projects like Dr. Horrible, Much Ado About Nothing, and the Buffy/Angel/Serenity comics. He told us how he's keeping it real.
We were lucky enough to have a one-on-one interview with Whedon at the Dark Horse Comics booth, where we could talk to him about comics, writing and the creative process.
Whedon says the tie-in comics for Buffy and Serenity aren't aimed at a niche audience of die-hard fans. "I always thought of it as wanting as many people to read it as watched it," he says. "You always want to write for everybody — I don't want to exclude anybody from the party."
But at the same time, you have a lot more freedom when you're not dealing with a huge TV or movie studio. "If you want to deal with the abortion issue or have a character like Billy — well, that's easier. We don't have studio executives sweating every decision and that's very nice."
And meanwhile, Whedon has moved from doing scrappy upstart TV shows that play with superhero tropes, to creating the movie adventures of some of the world's most famous superheroes. Which is sort of a natural career arc. Says Whedon:
I met Dave Thomas and he said [that] they were writing parodies of Bob Hope jokes and then they got hired by Bob Hope. At some point you get hired by Bob. You become the next iteration of it. Every kid who hated grownups becomes a grownup. Well, except the ones who died.
When Whedon was making his TV shows and movies, he says, "we always made these things at the behest of the people with money." But Dr. Horrible was the first project where it " was just me and the peanut gallery. Same with Much Ado About Nothing. I wanted everybody to see them and love them but I was also perfectly comfortable throwing that money down the well." Instead of having a rich patron, like in Renaissance Europe, who pays for the art that the peanut gallery consumes, Dr. Horrible removed the patron from the mix.
Says Whedon, "This is the first time that we've been able to do that on a mass level. Not that there's anything wrong with having a patron, says the man who is about to make Avengers 2. I'm very grateful for these opportunities."
We asked Whedon who his role models are, in terms of connecting with the fans. He said:
I saw people like my dad, who were gracious. But I think most you'd hear stories — famous or apocryphal stories. Here's my favorite. So Debbie Reynolds is doing Singing in the Rain. She's at the studio, and she's crying and really having a tough time. Gene Kelly is a rough guy, and she's only 19. And this guy comes up to her and says, "Hey what's wrong?" And she says they're killing me, and he talks to her and helps her out. And you know who it is? Fred Astaire. Now that may be apocryphal. But it captures the essence of who he was — really accepting, working his ass off, and always a gentleman. That's the guy I'd like to be. I'm not a hard worker and I'm not a gentleman, so I've failed already. But that's my model.
We also asked Whedon how much of Darlene, the morose teen character he wrote on Roseanne, comes out in various characters throughout his work. He responded: "I don't see that, but that doesn't mean she's not there. I never thought of her as an iconic thing. I did like writing Darlene. If there's a nerdy, antisocial dark person sniping at grownups in my work, that would be me."
We asked Whedon for the secret of a great lair, like the scientist headquarters in Cabin in the Woods, and he said it basically comes down to trying to have a great set that you can stand to keep filming in:
In television you create one because you need to use the same set again and again or you'll run out of money. So you want one that gives you the most opportunities, and the most ecclecticism in terms of how to shoot another goddamn scene in that goddamn lair. Drew Goddard is from Los Alamos and in Cabin, we wanted to get that low tech 70s feel of science back when. It was the squareness and mundaneness of that, contrasted with the appalling and fascinating nature of what they're doing.
And as for the shift to a shiny new lair — in every instance, the environment is part of the characters. The idea of giant corporations sticking it to the little guy is huge theme in all my work. That's going to be hard with S.H.I.E.L.D. — they're a ragtag group working for the government now.
Talking more about the Buffy comics, Whedon addressed the "Buffy and Angel fuck a universe into existence" storyline, saying, "It's Brad Meltzer who turned the comic into fanfic." He laughs, and adds: "Every writer comes with their own agenda — I think Brad asked how many DC references he could make. Drew [Goddard] did the Japanese arc, which is a big favorite of mine. He loved writing Dracula — the silliness of that, and the giant Mecha-Dawn. We had the most fun breaking that stuff together. Getting their voices into the story is fun. And sometimes you bring the sexy — because we're people."