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12 Things We Learned from Joss Whedon's SXSW Talk

AUSTIN, TX: Exactly fifteen years ago today, the upstart WB network aired the first episode of a program that few, if any, viewers or critics were feverishly anticipating. It was the first show created by an all-but-unknown writer; he’d adapted it from his screenplay for a film that had been, charitably speaking, unloved when it hit theaters five years previously. But when “Welcome to Hellmouth,” the inaugural episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, aired on March 10, 1997, a Geek God was born.

This morning, Whedon took the stage in front of a standing-room-only house at the South by Southwest Music, Film, and Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas for ‘A Conversation with Joss Whedon,’ moderated by Adam B. Vary of Entertainment Weekly. They discussed his TV successes and failures, his new film Cabin in the Woods (which had a smash premiere here at SXSW last night), his upcoming big-budget blockbuster The Avengers, and some future projects. A few highlights from that talk after the jump.

He co-wrote his new film, Cabin in the Woods, (with director Drew Goddard) in three days. “I’m always nervous telling people that,” Whedon admits, “because it’s a great story if you’re a writer, but if you’re an audience member, it’s like, ‘That’s how hard you worked?’ I’d had the idea sometime before, and the idea just fell together—and it came with a third act, which has happened to me twice in my life. And when that happens, you know that’s something you have to write, and it’s also something where can also do the writer’s dream: where you lock yourself in a hotel room and just write it.” They did some prep in advance, and punch-up afterwards, but “we did the bulk of it over three days, and turned out 15 pages a day, each, minimum. I wrote 26 pages in one day, which is a personal best, I think… And what we wrote there is exactly what we shot.”

He’s sorry, but he’s going to write things—like this film—that are easily “spoiled,” so keep it in your pants. “I am always going to be at odds with that particular part of American culture. I like stories. My favorite thing is to go into a movie not knowing what to expect… It’s bumped, time and again. It’s caused problems for marketers, it’s caused problems for networks, it’s caused problems for audiences—sometimes. But usually, audiences are ready to come along for a ride… I do this to myself because I want to see a movie that surprises me, and I want people to be surprised.”

The Evil Dead influence on Cabin in the Woods is not accidental. When moderator Vary mentioned the elements of homage to the Evil Dead movies in Cabin in the Woods, Whedon immediately responded, “I’m not aware of that film.” And then, with a grin, he fessed up. “Two things I want to say: first of all, the DP [director of photography] for Evil Dead 2 shot our movie. That is not a coincidence. And with all respect to his great work, the real classic is Evil Dead 1, and I just wanna go on record there. I love Evil Dead 2, but it’s already aware of itself. Evil Dead 1 is really the influence. That’s a movie that goes genuinely insane, on its own terms, without ever violating its terms of reality. The movie itself goes bonkers, and I just think that’s a beautiful thing.”

He’s well aware that The Avengers is the “ultimate superhero movie,” and that’s why he’s excited about it. “In terms of fulfillment, I’m a fan-boy. I want to see these guys do everything they can do, both physically and emotionally. I want to see what’s up with Thor, and Captain America, what he can do with that shield… all of those things have been in my DNA since I was a tiny child. I love all that. In terms of how I make it mine, obviously I look at the Avengers and go, this team doesn’t make sense at all. But I can work with that, because it doesn’t make sense to them either. They’re extraordinarily dysfunctional people, and in their own ways, very isolated. And just being able to tell that very specific story—isolated people who come together and become more than the sum of their parts—is a meaningful story to me. And I also feel, I just wanted to make a straight-up superhero movie, in the sense of I’d see a lot of them, like Watchmen or The Dark Knight, that say, ‘we’re past the idea of superheroes, we’re gonna go past that.’ I’m not past it! I’m not ready to be post-modern about superheroes yet.”

There are drawbacks to having buckets of money at your disposal. “Trying sometimes to pull the big budget out of the movie has been part of the creative process,” Whedon says of The Avengers. “Definitely it’s lovely to have everything, and to be able to make up these wild fantasies where you can have the Hulk… I mean, that’s good times. At the same point, it’s a little frustrating and a little daunting, because limitations are something that I latch on to… The restrictions of set and location can be very useful. When you can have everything, everybody wants to give you everything, and then it’s very hard to make things feel real, to make things feel lived in… Sometimes you can really tell when a movie has everything. On this movie, I’ve got a guy in a cape, I’ve got a guy who’s wearing a big A on his head, I’ve got a big green guy, one of them’s an archer—it’s a delicate balance. And anything you can do to make it feel more real, to make it feel more like real filmmaking [is good].”

He’s not going to tell you who the Avengers villains are. “I don’t know a lot about the Marvel universe and I thought there were Vulcans,” Whedon jokes. “We’re gonna get a lot of emails about that…” But, contrary to the prognosticating of trailer-analyzing super-fans, Whedon says this about the villains of The Avengers: “It is not the Kree or the Skrulls. Those two races… they have a big life of their own which could just not be contained by a film where I already have seven movie stars to contend with.” When Vary expressed surprise and asked if there’s something else he wasn’t telling us, Whedon joked, “I think what’s probably happening is that I just said something that Marvel didn’t want me to. It’s weird to be fired so late!”

Some people take vacations. Joss made another movie. “The first cut of The Avengers may have been a little long,” he says. “It may have been endless.” When that cut was done, according to Whedon, “I had a week. My wife and I were supposed to go on vacation to celebrate our twentieth anniversary of being together. We were going to go to Venice for that week, and neither of us can remember why she said, ‘You should shoot Much Ado instead!’ And I said, I don’t know if I can prep a movie in a month to shoot in a week.’ As soon as we finished, she was like, ‘Oh, sure you can.’ … It was not necessarily the best idea for a vacation, except I had a better time than I’ve ever had on any vacation or possibly in my life.”

How he writes: “I dislike revision, and I’ll tell you why: that’s more work. I didn’t write a lot of first drafts, even in school. And that was—for you young people nowadays—before we had the computer. So when you’re writing what is your final draft, and you’re typing it on your crappy little manual typewriter, you have to try to get it right. So I think out of my further laziness, I developed a system where I don’t write anything down until I’m sure about it. And in terms of writing fiction, that’s even more fun, because what I get to do is walk around the room and act it all out.” Of that process, he admits, “Sometimes I say things. Maybe sometimes I cry. Maybe once or twice Kai [his wife] has heard a huge thump from upstairs and gone, ‘Ah, he’s working on a fight scene.’ There is a tiny theater of me in my study, and it’s excellent, and it gets great reviews.”

Why he keeps revisiting his old characters via comic books: When the Buffy Dark Horse comic books began, “it’d been probably three years since the show had been—I don’t want to say cancelled, since we’d stopped making it. Because that was the one show that actually went as long as we wanted it to. It was the one show… But that was a perfectly valid way to continue the story. And then I started writing it again, and it was like, ‘Oh, it’s my old friends.’ It was so much fun, it was so exciting to get back into that mode again… It felt like a universe that had validity, and when I’m able to be in it again, I’m really grateful. For me, it’s like a little vacation. Every once in a while, I get to go visit the ‘verse again.”

He prefers TV to film. However, he says, “I prefer the lifestyle wherein I do not have to choose! I really like them both. I think, ultimately, gun to my head, TV is the place—because of being able to spend years with a character, to really develop them, to really understand them, to challenge the actor, to learn from the actor, to work with a team of writers. That experience is so fulfilling. A movie is all about putting it out there and then shrinking it down to its barest essence—and I love doing that, on a certain level. But the idea of putting it out there and then letting it grow is really, really exciting.” Of the current cinematic landscape, Whedon noted, “There is a middle ground of movies that aren’t being made anymore. It’s why so many film actors are going to TV: ‘Oh, this is where the roles are.’ And I think that’s a real problem in American cinema. Because [TV] has always been the best place for a writer. If you’re just a writer, you wanna be in TV. You are in control. I’ve always wanted to be a director, I’ve always wanted to speak visually, as well as wordy-wordy ways.” The audience giggled. “I’m an actual writer,” he mused, “and I couldn’t think of the word for ‘words.’”

Don’t hold your breath for more Firefly. “You know, I keep thinking they’re gonna call me,” he says wistfully. “I keep thinking they’re gonna crunch the numbers and go, ‘Oh, we could make money on this!’ But they don’t… I’d never rule that out, that’s so close to my heart, that’s such a great universe for me. But I can’t just wait by the phone.”

He pitched a Batman movie on one of the worst days of his life. Whedon was one of the many writers who went to Warner Brothers with ideas for rebooting the Batman series after Batman and Robin. It did not go so well. “I went in to pitch a Batman movie, and my heart was on the table, I was so into it. And I could tell the executive I was talking to was… just completely thinking about their schedule, and their window… It was like talking to a wall, or a different language. And I drove away from the meeting and I actually said to myself, ‘How much more indication do I need that the machine doesn’t care?’ And I got back to work, and they cancelled Firefly. And I was like, ‘It was rhetorical!’”

And one last, charming story: The first question from the audience came from a gentleman who told Whedon he was playing some sort of game, where he had “a quest that involves me giving you a high five.” Whedon listened to the young man, nodded, and said, “Okay. Then we should do that.” And they did.

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