In the annals of geek fandom, the name Joss Whedon holds special significance. Early days as a screenwriter on Roseanne honed his skills, which came to sharp fruition on the modern classic TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Subsequent projects have seen their ups and downs, but his signature wit and emphasis on character have earned him a loyal fan base. His knack for ensemble work and deep-set love of comic books made him an ideal choice to helm the big-budget adaptation of The Avengers due for release this Friday. He talked about the project, and others in his career, at a recent press conference for the film. A partial transcript of his comments follows.
Question: What was the biggest challenge for you on this project?
Joss Whedon: The hardest part is – and always will be – structure. How do you put that together? How do you make everybody shine? How do you let the audience's identification drift from person to person without making them feel like they're not involved? It's not necessarily particularly ornate or original, but it had to be right, it had to be earned from moment to moment, and that's exhausting. That was still going on in the editing room after we’d shot.
Q: What in your mind separates a good comic book adaptation film from a bad comic book adaptation film?
JW: Well, there's all sorts, but for me, it's capturing the essence of the comic and being true to what's wonderful about it, while remembering that it's a movie and not a comic. I think Spider-Man, the first one particularly, really captured the formula of telling the story that they told in the comic. It was compelling, and that's why it's iconic, but at the same time they did certain things that only a movie can do.
I think you see things like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where they just threw out the comic, or Watchmen, where they did it frame for frame, and neither of them work. You have to capture the spirit of the thing and then step away from that, and create something cinematic and new.
Q: You've done movies with big ensemble casts before, like Serenity. You had to introduce characters then. How did you go about introducing all of the cast members of this film, the cast of characters?
JW: It's the same problem I had with Serenity and swore I'd never have again. Tracking the information is difficult, because it's not as much fun as tracking the emotion of the thing. You have to know how much people need to know, because some people come in knowing everything, and you don't want to tell them too much, and some people will come in knowing nothing and you don't even want to tell them too much. You want some things to be inferred. It's fun to see a movie that has texture beyond what you understand. When I watched Wall Street, I didn't know what they were talking about, but I was very compelled by it. It clearly mattered a lot. Or if I watch any film about sports, I feel the same way. If you feel that there's a life behind the life – if there's a life outside the frame – then you feel good about it. Organizing that is the most exhausting part of the film.
Q: What advice would you give Warner Bros on getting their Justice League movie going?
JW: [In a quiet, hopeful voice.] Call me. [Laughter.] Honestly, it's enormously difficult to take very disparate characters and make them work. DC has a harder time of it than Marvel, because their characters are from an older era, a bygone era where characters were bigger than we were. They've amended that, but Marvel really cracked the code in terms of making heroes we could relate to. That sort of veracity really started with Iron Man. It’s really helpful to use that as your base.
Q: What was your approach to spectacle in the film?
JW: My approach to spectacle was kind of wrong-headed: the most important thing for me, was that it not be spectacle for its own sake. It had to be earned, believable and understandable visually. The audience needed to know exactly where things were, what was at stake, who had to get where from where and how, and what was in their way. I tend to be very pedantic about that. I don't just want a blur of things crashing around. I want to know how everybody's doing. I think sometimes I would try to obey the laws of physics, and that would actually just make for weaker footage. Eventually I just had to give myself up and realize that every time a car is hit by anything, it blows up and flips over.
Q: Could you confirm which alien race it was that Loki was working with in the film?
JW: The alien race is the Chitauri, or a version of them. They are not one of the key races and they don't have a story or history and really, that wasn't the point. I know this debate will go on long after I am dead, so I'll just say it was the Kree-Skrull race and really make everybody angry. [Laughter.]
Q: How did you decide which secondary characters, such as Pepper Potts, to incorporate into the movie?
JW: My first instinct was not to have anybody from any of them, partially because you need to separate the characters from their support systems in order to create the isolation that you need for a team. Also, when they would go back to their own movies, they'd have something that the Avengers didn't have. I didn’t want to suck the juice out of all the sequels coming up. But Pepper, that was really Robert [Downey’s]'s thing. He pushed hard. He didn't want to be Crazy Alone Guy. He wanted to be Crazy in a Relationship Guy and he really thought Gwyneth [Paltrow] would bring something great to the table. He’s the one that convinced her to come and do it. And that made sense because he's been through two movies. He's had more of a journey and he is in more of a stable place. But he can still be that and be completely isolated from the world in his giant tower that he built and owns.
Q: There's an interesting balance between the action, characters and the conflicts they have, such as Iron Man rejecting the soldier mentality Captain America had. How did you develop these characters? Any ideology involved?
JW: Well you have to write something that you believe in. Captain America was kind of my ground zero for this film. The idea of someone who had been in World War II, had seen people laying down their lives in the worst kinds of circumstances, in a world where the idea of community and the idea of a man being somebody who is a part of something, as opposed to being isolated from or bigger than or more famous than it… it’s a very different concept of manhood than what we see today. The way that it, in my opinion, has kind of devolved from Steve to Tony is fascinating.
Obviously you're not gonna stand around and speechify too much, but the idea of the soldier – the idea of the person willing to lay down their life is very different than the idea of the superhero. And since I wanted to make from the start a war movie, I wanted to put these guys through more than what they would be put through in a normal superhero movie. It was very important for me to build that concept and to have Tony reject that concept on every level so that in the end when he's really willing to lay it on the line, you get where's he's come from and how Steve has affected him.
Q: How did you come up with the idea to cast Harry Dean Stanton for that post-Hulk scene with Mark Ruffalo?
JW: We needed to get Banner from the horror of what he had done to a place where he was prepared to go back into that state. The idea was to put him in a slightly surreal situation with somebody who clearly had no problem with what he was. Seamus McGarvey, our DP, was actually shooting a documentary about Harry Dean and spending a lot of time with him. I sort of got him stuck in my head and thought “who is more accepting than Harry Dean Stanton?” So I got to write this weird little scene, and it became not so little – like12 pages long. I was like, “this is great. Bruce Banner falls into a Coen Brothers movie.” But we got it trimmed, and the fact that they even let me keep it – and that we actually landed Harry Dean to play it – was very exciting. To work with Harry Dean and to quiz him about Alien and The Missouri Breaks… what a privilege.