Writer/director Joss Whedon is a Comic-Con Icon, and even received an award while he was there, telling him so. While he was in San Diego, he spent some time chatting with fans at NerdHQ, joking, giving advice, and sharing insight into his work and career.
During the panel, which benefitted Operation Smile, Joss Whedon talked about whether there might ever be a director’s cut of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Christian iconography in the film, masterminding character deaths, the impact Buffy and Angel have had on people, the possibility of more Dr. Horrible, whether he’d ever return to Firefly, Shakespeare adaptations, his experience working on Toy Story, the first story he ever created, how he approaches writing, the technology he’s excited about using in film, why he really left Twitter, and which Comic-Con panel he would have liked to have seen. Here are the highlights of what he had to say.
On whether there will be a director’s cut of Age of Ultron:
WHEDON: It has always been my ambition never to do a director’s cut of anything, and always to make the movie with the studio that we both want to make. Ultron was very complex. There was a lot of back-and-forth. My instinct is no. Just as an artist, I’m super fucking lazy and that sounds like it would be hard. I don’t think there’s interest in it, right now. You’ll see a bunch of stuff on the DVD in extras that were meant to be there. But the narrative came together very close to the way that I hoped it would, and I don’t think it needs me to constantly tweak it. I feel you put something out, and there it is. The first time I ever heard a re-mix, I was 13 and I was listening to the radio. I heard a song that had been re-mixed and it freaked me out so much that I turned off the radio and never listened to it since, literally. That is an actual truth. I felt like, “Wait, that was the song. You can’t do that.” Our entire culture consists of doing exactly that, but I’m not for it. If I tell a story, I want that to be the story I told. Ultron may have some transitions that I’m not 100% on board with. It’s also one of the most ridiculously personal things I’ve ever put on screen. The fact that Marvel gave me that opportunity and supported it, I’m very happy and very proud of everybody that worked on it. I don’t feel the need to go in and fix. I feel like, there she is.
Why he included Ultron as an Old Testament figure and The Vision as a Christ figure:
WHEDON: There’s a lot of Christian iconography going on because everybody in that movie thinks that they’re the savior, including Tony Stark. It’s like, “Dude, look at your beard. You’re a supervillain!” We evoke that stuff mostly because it’s resonant to the idea of whether or not we can solve something, whether or not we can evolve, and whether or not we can be our best selves. Obviously, I don’t want to say The Vision is Jesus and Ultron is the mean guy from the First Testament. I don’t want to be specific, but everybody is obviously going to bring that into play. There’s a shorthand to it that people understand. When somebody starts talking like that, they need to be shut down a little bit. As far as The Vision is concerned, he actually is a step above. What I love about him is Paul Bettany. When I took my first Avengers meeting, ever, on the first one, I said, “I don’t know if we should do this, but if you do a second one, it has to be Ultron, and then he has to make The Vision. But they have to put Jarvis in The Vision, so that Paul Bettany can play The Vision ‘cause only Paul Bettany can play The Vision. And three years later, I got to call Paul and say, “Will you do this thing?” God, he’s so good! Maybe my favorite thing in the movie, and maybe the thing that I’m proudest of, is the conversation with Ultron at the end where he’s just like, “Humanity is doomed,” and The Vision says, “Yes.” It gave me the chills/creeps so much that we finally made a, “We know he’s worthy,” kind of thing. We know he’s a pure being, and yet he very dispassionately is like, “Oh, yeah, these guys are over,” but with love. That is interesting to me. All of the religious overtones and all that iconography is deliberate, but it’s meant to be not vague but interpreted individually.
The most enjoyable scene to write and/or direct in The Avengers films:
WHEDON: I’m going to have to give it up for Natasha and Loki, just for being a dream to write, and to two actors for being word perfect and riveting. People ask me if I get excited, but I don’t get excited when I’m supposed to. So, about six weeks in, we were shooting everybody arguing in the lab. Tony and Steve were going at each other, and I gave them a couple of notes. Then, I walked back to the monitor and was just like, “It happened.” I was like, “I do this for a living!”
Whether he’s masterminded any deaths that he hasn’t been able to do yet:
WHEDON: You know, I don’t sit down and go, “Kill!” Killing is a hobby. It’s not what my art is about. No. I believe that people are taken from us very suddenly, and it’s important in a narrative to not only remember that, but also remember that is one of the ways you can subvert a very obvious narrative flow, and turn it into something more interesting and more compelling. So, I believe strongly that it has to happen sometimes in stories, but I don’t have a Post-It that says, “Kill!” I just want to make sure that the stories matter to people. If people think that I kill a lot of people, proportionately, watch a procedural because they’ve got the most bodies of anyone. Buffy was the least frightening horror show ever made because I didn’t want to hurt people. They matter. I don’t like seeing bodies lying around. I respect the people that I’m writing about, and it’s hard for me to write people that I don’t, so it’s hard for me to write a bunch of dead bodies. But every now and then, there are certain truths that I go back to, and death comes to us all, in time.
If he had any idea about the impact Buffy and Angel might have on people:
WHEDON: I wanted it to have an impact on people, but I did not understand the kind that it would have. I did not understand the ways not just that people would get something from the narrative, but the community that would form. Timing wise, the internet and all of these communities were really just starting to happen. A lot of them happened around Buffy, and the sharing of that shared experience worked in a way that it never has. My favorite thing is when I hear people say, “Oh, we never got along, but we watch Buffy together.” The people that it’s brought together, how can you know that’s going to happen? What I wanted to do was give people strength in themselves, where they could communicate that. The fact that they could celebrate it together was a completely unexpected benefit and one of the best things. I’m sorry, but that’s a nice thing to hear.
His favorite and least favorite season of Buffy:
WHEDON: I don’t think I have a least favorite. I really don’t. I think if I went back and watched them, I’d go, “Well, in the first season, we had 12 episodes and we were finding our way, so some of the stuff wasn’t in place.” It was baby steps. And as for favorite, that would probably change a lot of times, but I might have to go with Season 5. I feel like that mission was accomplished really well. But, I’m also a big fan of Season 6 because I like porn. When we finished Season 5, the mandate was, “Next season, we’re gonna lighten up. It’s gonna be way less dark.”
On the possibility of more Dr. Horrible:
WHEDON: People don’t want that. People do want that. The people who would do that want to do that. But as is always the case, they all have jobs, and all of the jobs that they don’t have, Neil [Patrick Harris] has. We feel passionately about it, but that also means that we passionately don’t want to get it wrong. The last thing we want to do is have you guys go, “Yeah, thanks.” It’s gotta be right. Hopefully, we’ll open a window.
Whether Firefly could ever come back:
WHEDON: There are rights [issues] between Fox and Universal because one had the show and one had the movie, so it gets a little funky fresh with that. More than with any other crew, I would love to get that crew back together. I also want to do the next thing and try to have a new thought. I don’t guarantee anything. I’m very terrified that we’ll bring it back and it won’t be as good, or I don’t have the same mojo, or it’s just as good but we’ve all seen, so we’re like, “I don’t know.” Obviously, I’m excited as everybody else about Full House. Thank god, that’s coming back with Coach. Nostalgia is my favorite thing in the world. It’s absurd to me that they’re bringing everything back. But if we brought Firefly back, there would have to be so many pieces in the right place at the right time. I can never say, “Oh, yeah, we might,” because then it will be on the internet that it’s definitely happening. I’m very proud of it, I love it very much, and I miss them all very much, but it would have to be the next story to tell, and not just an excuse to party with the people that I love.
On what other Shakespeare adaptations he’d love to do:
WHEDON: I’m obsessed with Hamlet. We all are. Who’s not obsessed with Hamlet? I think Twelfth Night is really underrated. And Othello.
Working on Toy Story and what that experience was like:
WHEDON: It was me, John [Lasseter], and mostly Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and the late Joe Ranft, sitting around and throwing ideas back and forth while they all drew incredible little pictures until they got a Sharpie headaches and had to go outside. So, I got to bleed my voice in, but that process is incredibly holistic. There’s a big mix. There’s a lot of stuff where I’m like, “I don’t know who wrote that.” I have to say, with all humility, that I did not come up with the claw, which is the signature moment. That was all them. The animators are always writers on an animated movie. In fact, Lasseter was the first person to say, “Let’s give these guys credit.” Usually, they’re just listed as animators, but he was like, “These guys created this story and I want to give them credit for it,” so they did and it was cool.
The first story he ever created:
WHEDON: I spent a lot of time by myself. What a shock. It wasn’t stories, at first, so much as it was universes. I would create an entire universe of different characters. I would imagine them and build all of this stuff, but never actually put it into a narrative form. It just swam in my head, for hours and hours and hours. At the center of my weird little universe was a guy named Harry Egg, and his best friend was a sexually ambiguous demi-god named Mouse Flesh.
His process of writing, and whether he only writes for himself, or if he also thinks of his intended audience:
WHEDON: You are always writing for only yourself and everybody in the world. Those are the ony two people you care about. It’s absolutely for me. If you start trying to write towards somebody else, you lose yourself, you lose the integrity, and you lose the ability to find the truth of the moment. It has to come from you. It has to come from what you care about, what makes you cry, what makes you laugh, what makes you get all sexy time. All of that stuff, the good and the bad, has to be you. At the same time, I could not keep a diary as a child because I was like, “What will happen when it’s published?” I wish that I didn’t think that while practicing my Oscar speech when I was nine and in front of the mirror. I’ve almost finished it. It just needs minor tweaks. Even then, I was censoring myself, in that sense of not writing down what I actually think about my family and my life because someone will read it, and then everyone will be sad. So, you’ve got it in the back of your head, all the time. If it works for me, I feel like it will work for other people. That’s the only thing I feel confident about when I’m writing. If I think this works, then it will, if I hire really pretty, smart people to say it, or just get Nathan [Fillion].
How he draws the line to separate himself as a writer and as a director:
WHEDON: As much as possible, I try not to. When I am writing something, I am already directing it. I am writing it to be viewed a very particular way. A lot of writers start directing to protect their work because they’ve seen other people do it not in the way that’s in their head. Obviously, we’ve all had a bit of that. But for me, it’s always storytelling, and one is an extension of the other. So, I feel like I start directing, the moment I start writing. I’m not always writing when I’m directing, although I spend a lot of time on set going, “We could do better. Here’s a different idea. Why don’t you try this?” But mostly, I get to be purely visual, at that point, and all I want is to capture as much as I can.
With things like drones, holograms and virtual reality, what new technology he’d want to use in films:
WHEDON: For me, drones. Drones are wonderful because they really give you something that we could not accomplish, filmically. A crane can only do so much. There’s a sweet spot in the middle where you can get footage of an environment with a drone that you just could not get. When we shot in Seoul, we had this extraordinary drove pilot who was flying through and getting flying shots through pillars and over overpasses. I think his brother also ran a remote control car that we used with every traffic thing we did. It was amazing! When it’s not bombing and spying, that stuff is super exciting technology for me. The virtual reality thing is creating an environment. I’m much more linear in my approach to narrative. I’m old school, in that way. I don’t play a lot of video games.
What advice he would give to people trying to get original properties made:
WHEDON: I don’t have a ton of great advice. I had a weird mix of good luck and bad, as everybody does. The only thing I would say is that it never occurred to me that I wasn’t right about Buffy or Firefly. People say, “Did you expect Buffy to become a pop culture icon?,” and I’m like, “Why do you think I wrote it?” And that’s not to say that I wanted to be super famous. When you have a title like that, you must have enormous unreasonable faith in yourself. That was the biggest thing for me. I felt like I knew what I was doing, which I only feel when I’m telling stories. I cannot walk through a door or have a human conversation, but I can write a story. I know that this is what I want to do and that I’m not really interested in tweaking it to become something that somebody else wants. I made sure that I never sat down at a table that I couldn’t walk away from. If they didn’t get the thing that I wanted to give them, then we should not be working together. It was that insane confidence. You are going to have so many people telling you no and tearing you down. That’s what carries me through. It’s a completely unhinged lack of reality.
Which actor he’s worked with in the past that he’d like to work with again because he hasn’t worked with them enough:
WHEDON: There are many, many, many. If I had to make a movie right now with someone I haven’t worked with enough, that someone would be Mark Ruffalo. I think he’s as good at acting on film as anybody in our country, and he is so much nicer than I am. He is just a darling dear. I think he’s incapable of uttering an untruth. He becomes whatever it is.
Why he left Twitter:
WHEDON: The reason I left Twitter was not because of all the hate – and there was so much hate – but it was because of all the things I care about. The articles that I read and the causes were things I kept stopping to talk about. I could not have an idea because I had this noise in my head. It was a noise of agendas that were my agendas, but that’s not how you create, at all. You have to silence everything else and just go, “What’s in here?” Hopefully, the stories will continue to be textured and create roles for women and men that are interesting and worthy. But I can’t bring my politics to the blank page because that does not fill the page with anything except a lecture, and people know it.
On what Comic-Con panel he would have wanted to attend and what question he would have asked at it:
WHEDON: iZombie did a panel, but I didn’t get to see it. I would just be like, “Why are you awesome?”