ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Professional decorum dictates that there’s almost never an appropriate time to sing to an interview subject.
[I would even accept the elimination of the “almost” from the previous sentence.]
But sometimes, Joss Whedon walks into a trailer of reporters and looks at the standard sea of digital and tape recorders and observes, “All of these for me? That’s weird that you all got me the same thing for my birthday.”
At that point, a collective serenade of “Happy Birthday” — without advance warning, nobody paid the licensing fee — becomes a muscle reflex as much as anything.
The “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” auteur reaches us toward the end of a two-day June visit to the set of “The Avengers” in Albuquerque, arriving after the stars of the film, one and all, have spoken nothing but praise for his work on the Marvel project, particularly its script.
Tom Hiddleston, reprising his “Thor” role as the power-hungry Loki calls Whedon “a brilliant writer and a brilliant storyteller.”
Chris Hemsworth — Thor himself — previously worked with Whedon on “Cabin in the Woods” and, like Hiddleston, he opts to repeat his superlatives, raving, “He’s great, he’s got a great sense of humor.”
Jeremy Renner adds, “There’s no bigger fan than Joss of this world and he’s a really good writer and he had a massive task to write this movie and direct it, massive. I don’t know anybody who could really write this and really put in all the stuff that he really wanted to put in, cause he honors all these characters so much.”
Even Robert Downey Jr., who takes pride in his tendency toward on-set script revisions revisions, admits that “It wasn’t broke, so it’s not like we had to fix things,” calling it a relief and adding, “It’s nice when the car kinda drives all by itself.”
We begin the interview by mentioning all of the praise for his work.
“And now it’s my turn,” the birthday boy says.
I don’t need to tell Whedon fans that that quote is mock-bluster and that you’d be hard pressed to more self-deprecating storyteller, especially not one who has been handed the keys to the expensive luxury car that is “The Avengers,” the crown jewel of Marvel’s burgeoning movie empire.
Whedon won’t hesitate to admit the learning curve that a film of this scale has required. For example, he isn’t shy about the reasons “The Avengers” was shot in 2D and will be post-converted to 3D.
“We were going to shoot in 3D and everybody said, ‘No, the new rigs move fast and they are small. It’s all going to be great’ and I shot the tag for ‘Thor’ in 3D with that setup and after we lost three and a half hours to lens changes and unknowable camera weirdness we decided to not do that,” he admits.
But he’s still glad to hear compliments from his stars.
“No, everybody seems to be on board,” Whedon agrees. “I’m still working on it. I hope to finish it sometime before the DVD release. It’s been very fluid, but it always is with a movie anyway and especially a movie where the perspective changes nine times every scene. I swore I would never make ‘Serenity’ again and here I am.”
And at that “Serenity” reference, it’s probably best to go to a somewhat trimmed version of the Q&A between Whedon and reporters on the “Avengers” set.
Question: A lot of writers, comic writers, are afraid of the The Avengers, because there are so many characters in the books in general…Was it really tough? Did you know you could do it from doing “Serenity”?
Joss Whedon: You know “Serenity” had been very hard and I literally said “I’m never doing this again, a bunch of characters who already know each other and are established, but have to be introduced to new people” and blah blah blah all of tha. But I didn’t fear it at all, I just regret it very much. You know, I walked in and I was like “I get why they should be a team. This is exciting!” But then you have to explain it to the audience, too; apparently they matter. It’s Vulcan chess, there’s just so many things. There’s a ripple effect on everything you do, but as long as you’re respectful of everybody’s perspective and everybody has a moment where they shine or hopefully several and everybody is speaking from who they are, you’re not going to fall too hard.
Question: You know we saw a lot of art before, but is there one sequence that you’re really proud of or really excited to work on?
Joss Whedon: I’m not sure there’s any one particular sequence that I would say “Well yeah, nailed that!” For me, honestly my favorite moments are the scenes where I have two of the characters, where I get to pair up two characters you might not expect to see together and see them go at each other whether they are getting along or not. There’s always friction and those scenes are probably not why everybody might rush to the theater, but they are the most fun when you really get to explore it with the actors and the space. That’s the stuff that I feel the proudest of. The action is not small and some of the gags we’ve come up with are enormous and delightful and I’m proud of them and excited by them, because I like to live in that world too, but when you are in those quieter moments, that’s just when I am just in heaven.
Question: Was there a particular scene that you started with? Was there a moment where you said, “I have to write this before I write anything else to show that I can do this.”
Joss Whedon: You know it started out basically with Kevin [Feige] and Jeremy [Latcham] telling me “We know the basic structure of how they come together, what works, what doesn’t work and how we see the climax,” which was nice, because he gave me a basic skeleton of three acts that I knew I had to hang on and then it was just a question of “How do I get there? How do I earn that? What moments would cause these people to be in that situation?” I’m very fierce about making sure that everything is motivated, that nothing is by chance or misunderstanding or coincidence or something like if people are going to fight or face a conflict or an enemy, it has to be internal, it has to be because of something they believe and something they’ve done as opposed to “And now we clock this fight. And now check that box.” The whole thing was to avoid that and I had the luxury of having taken the job and then spending two weeks off in Australia with my family just thinking of moments, just thinking of that moment, that scene, “Oh, this is what this person would say.” I wrote more St. Crispin’s Day speeches for Captain you can shake a rattle at, none of which I think are in the film. I wrote monologues for all the characters and long scenes for all of them, bits of which wormed their way back in and many of which fell by the wayside, but all of which informed the characters. I just got to live in that free-floating space for a while. I n fact I lived in the free floating space for so long that I’m still writing the script, so next time I’ll think that one through, but yeah it all comes from “Wouldn’t it be beautiful to hear this from Hawkeye or to hear this from the Black Widow?”
Question: We talked to Scarlett and Jeremy before. She said that you had given them a very early draft and then they were able to come back with some notes that they had and they each spoke with you to adjust some things that they had thought after reading an early draft of the script. Can you talk to some of the things that they brought to the table that you thought were important to kind of go back when you were writing your final?
Joss Whedon: You know this is such a perfect time to make fun of actors, but the fact is going into this project knowing that it had been cast largely before I came onboard, with the exception of Jeremy [Renner] and Mark [Ruffalo] and some of the supporting roles, I knew that I had a contract with these people to respect what they had already done and because this is all part of a grander plan and I did have for example those structural elements set, I had this cast set, I knew who these characters were, because I had been reading about them since I was 11, so usually I’ll just go and write things and say, “Why don’t you say this? I’ll hire you to say this.” But in this case having a dialogue with them was enormously useful, because they all had their own backstories or questions about their back stories and I could literally sit someone down and say “What are you looking for in this?” At the beginning it’s like, “I’m an open book, so tell me what it is that you don’t want to repeat or you feel like you didn’t explore.” I would lay out my basic ideas about how I saw their characters. I think my favorite response was Sam Jackson’s. I was like “Is there anything you’re particularly looking for?” I told him how I saw Nick Fury and how I saw his role in the movie and was like “Is there anything you’re looking for or anything you particularly want to avoid?” He was like “Hell no. Thank you for asking. I don’t want to run. Don’t make me run a lot.” Then on set he pointed to the page, like “It says “Fury runs.” “I know, it’s just this one time…”
Question: What’s the most iconic moment for you personally in The Avengers comics? Were you able to incorporate that? How were you able to incorporate that into the script?
Joss Whedon: The truly iconic stuff from the comics isn’t really in the film. It’s part of the grand Marvel tradition to steal from all of the comics and all of the eras and Ultimates and for me The Avengers exist mostly in my heart because of the Jim Starlin Avengers Annual with Thanos and Warlock and The Thing two and one that followed it. That defined why I love the The Avengers more than anything. Obviously that was a long time ago and Moon Dragon is not in the film. But since then I think the most important stuff, Civil War, Ultimates, they’ve amped up the undercurrent of tension between The Avengers and that makes it really interesting to write, but when it comes to the iconic moments you sort of have to take all of those things and distill them the same way the costumers do and everybody distill them and then find your own. I mean ultimately for me the most iconic moment in the movie is — assuming they do — when they assemble.
Question: I would think Bruce Banner and The Hulk as the toughest part, because we have seen two other movies with two other actors playing him. Chris [Hemsworth], Chris [Evans], and Robert [Downey Jr.] have already been playing the characters. We know there’s characters who were in there… How have you been working on that and trying to develop your own Bruce Banner with Mark?
Joss Whedon: Well I had a very clear conception of what I wanted Bruce Banner to be and part of that was “Mark Ruffalo.” I was like “I want somebody who just opens himself to an audience who can’t help it and who just takes you along everywhere he goes.” The other was Bill Bixby and that’s something that Mark and I both talked about, it’s like I felt that the performances in the other movies were very internal and the movies themselves lead to that, because they were all about Bruce Banner… and you know the TV show was “I have a problem and I help other people and I live with that problem” and so that’s sort of the way I wanted to approach it and the way, Mark and I spent a lot of time in the very beginning talking about rage — how it feels, how it manifests, what causes it, what it feels like afterwards, just the nuts and bolts of the emotion itself — but in terms of the character it was very clear that we wanted to just have somebody who had gotten past where he was in those movies, so that when you meet him he is somebody who has internalized what went on in those movies to the extent that he’s someone you like and are interested in. If you’ve seen those movies, this would be a natural next step. If you haven’t, you’ll get the guy. You’ll get why he’s a good guy.
Question: Now in this movie you’ve got all of these characters who Marvel needs for future sequels and future franchises, so it’s not like you can kill off Iron Man. It’s not like you can kill off most of these people…
Joss Whedon: Awkward moment…
Question: So A) we know you like to kill people off for drama in your movies and TV shows, but B) just for stakes on a thing like this how do you make stakes when the audience knows that the seven main characters aren’t going anywhere?
Joss Whedon: You know it is a struggle. How do you make stakes when they are all really strong? And really tall and handsome. Ultimately the answer is always what’s at stake has to be more than their lives. It has to be something bigger externally and smaller internally like they have to be going through an internal struggle that matches what they are facing on the outside, so that even if they survive, they may be compromised to a point where they can’t recover and if you have that and you really push them towards that, you push them towards something that is frightening and unlikable and a real choice that they can’t necessarily deal with, then you have some stake, you have emotional stakes that go beyond the hitty and the punchy.
Question: So it’s the risk of characters losing themselves more than characters losing their lives?
Joss Whedon: Yeah.
Question: I’ve got the impression it’s a very big movie, like a huge movie compared to any of the other movies so far. What’s the danger of making movies so big that Marvel cannot release another movie, because they will just seem minor. Like if they do “Iron Man 3,” it’s going to be like “Oh, it’s not “The Avengers”…”
Joss Whedon: The fact is one of the things that I was very adamant about and I don’t think people were really fighting me on it, but don’t have the support systems of all of these movies, because these movies have their own internal workings and have the supporting characters, they have their own feel. I’m like “First of all this can’t feel like any of those movies and second of all you have to take them away from their support systems,” First of all that’s a good way to make a team — It’s like they all go to camp! — and second of all they said “Do we want to put Jane Foster in the movie?” I’m like “Yeah, that’d be great. Then the writer of “Thor 2″ will come and kill me with a trowel, because their first meeting will be ‘I haven’t seen you, except that one time.” There are iconic things going on in their own stories that I’m not going to touch. They have to step out of their worlds into the The Avengers world and hopefully this thing works on a big scale, but because there are so many of them everybody gets so much juice and then they have to step aside, the other movies have a much easier through-line — It’s never easy but a simpler through-line — of that one person’s journey where they really get to explore that person on a level that in this movie I’m just never going to get to.
Question: It’s got to affect those other movies, because of the things going on.
Joss Whedon: Yeah, you can’t walk away completely, but I try to do as little collateral damage as possible and as far as I was concerned the sorta “I’m in a semi-stable relationship with Pepper” or whenever, I was like “That’s collateral damage. I mean are you kidding? What am I supposed to do with that?” But in general yeah, you do have to take them to a place they haven’t been and they have to have come back from there in their next movie, but it’s a fine line. It’s the same thing when you’re writing a comic and you know there’s that comic, there’s the team they are on, there’s the big event, there are all sorts of different masters that you’re serving. I guess first “Do no harm” is now the screenwriters’ creed and the second is “F*** s*** up.”
Question: With “Iron Man 2,” Jon Favreau talked about how Marvel came in and wanted him to put certain elements in there for “Avengers” to set that up. Are there elements that you have to or not “have to,” but are planting in “Avengers” to maybe set something up later on?
Joss Whedon: Not really. I mean there’s a couple of things that I’m like “This could maybe point to what would happen later, long after I’ve retired and live in a tree…” But we are getting it here and I think it can be the death of a movie if you’re just smelling “franchise” and all of a sudden you’re making “Jumper” or “Eragon” or “The Seeker” and you really have to just concentrate: This is the culmination a grand plan that’s gone on for years. Beyond that there may be seeds planted, but we don’t know what will grow.
Question: Can you talk about the first day of shooting? Did the enormity of this hit you or did you try to keep it out of your head when you realized you were making what people have wanted to seen for forty years?
Joss Whedon: There was a time, there was a moment a couple weeks after I had taken the job when I suddenly went “Agh” and my wife just turned to me and said, “Honey, it’s just the next story.” I went, “Okay thanks. I’m back.” That was it, because ultimately, it is. The financial burden is not on me. As I have said many times, “The first weekend is your job, the second weekend is mine. If the story is compelling, if I got it right, if people want to come back to it, yay!” I can’t really concern myself with the numbers or I would just go banoonoos. They are large, but it is. It is that scene in “Hoosiers” where he measures the backboard. It’s always just a story. It’s like “Do you care? If so, we scored. If not, it doesn’t matter to me if it succeeds or not.” And I found in production in the first couple of weeks of production that it was more like making an Internet musical than anything I’ve ever done. I was completely at the mercy of everybody’s schedules and we were constantly having to adjust what we were doing based on what we could get when and it was very bizarre. It was sort of both ends of the spectrum are exactly the same. There’s a ton of circumstance that you have to dance around and you just adapt.
“The Avengers” opens in theaters everywhere on May 4.