Note: This article is also included in our year-end creative wisdom round-up.
Few people get things done in as consistent and impressive a fashion as Joss Whedon. His Avengers was the rare superhero movie to break box office records as it garnered critical acclaim. And while he was editing that Marvel-Disney monster, he secretly shot a version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at his own house with friends from many of his previous movie and TV projects, including Clark Gregg (The Avengers), Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Amy Acker (Dollhouse), Fran Kranz (A Cabin in the Woods), and Alexis Denisof (Buffy). Meanwhile, he’s the man behind the much-anticipated Marvel TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., also starring Gregg.
As Much Ado hit theaters and kicked indie-film ass, Whedon sat down with Co.Create to lay out how he manages to juggle so many projects. His secret? Identifying concrete steps, friends, and tough love.
In other words, get specific. When I asked Whedon to share some tips for being prolific, he had one question: "So do you want to go macro or micro?" I chose micro. Here’s what he said:
"Micro is about the moment and it’s about having an idea, or having writer’s block and just trying to get through those moments. For me, it boils down to specificity, knowing exactly what I’m trying to accomplish, because if I have three projects, it’s ‘Oh, maybe I’ll work on S.H.I.E.L.D. or maybe I’ll work on this or this.’ You know, it’s so easy to just get nothing done, but you’ve got to rock a little David Allen out to be able to get things done and break your list down into next actions. And this is true of producing and directing but even of writing. It’s like, 'Okay, today I am going to figure out this action sequence. Today, I am going to watch a shit ton of other action sequences,' whatever it is, but that would be the other side of it after the specificity of knowing. Don’t just say, ‘Oh, I need to work on that.’ Say, ‘I need to work on this element of that.’ Absolutely eat dessert first. The thing that you want to do the most, do that."
So, surprisingly, Whedon advises getting the fun stuff done first. "Some people will disagree, but for me if I’ve written a meaty, delightful, wonderful bunch of scenes and now I have to do the hard, connective, dog’s body work of writing, when I finish the dog’s body work, I’ll have a screenplay that I already love. I used to write chronologically when I started, from beginning to end. Eventually I went, That’s absurd; my heart is in this one scene, therefore I must follow it. Obviously, if you know you have a bunch of stuff to do, I have to lay out this, all this dull stuff, and I feel very uncreative but the clock is ticking. Then you do that and you choose to do that. But I always believe in just have as much fun as you can so that when you’re in the part that you hate there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that you’re close to finished."
I cut in, asking if he’s read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. "I did not get that done," Whedon says, with a straight face. "I told him, actually, because he did a little talk at someone’s house and I did tell him, ‘You should write a second book called Finishing This Book.' But it has been enormously helpful, even in the baby steps version that I embrace. I still use the phrases." Such as? "‘Next actions’ is one of the most important things that you can say in any endeavor."
Whedon has acknowledged the ironic fact that he hasn’t finished Getting Things Done. And he has mentioned eating dessert first. So I must ask, "Is dessert a metaphor?"
"No," he replies. "No, I’m saying give me cake. Why didn’t you bring cake? Didn’t they explain how these things work?" And then he gets serious, more or less. "I have a reward system. I am the monkey with the pellet and it’s so bad that I write almost everything in restaurants or cafes [so] that when I have an idea, I go and get chocolate." He doesn’t wait to flesh out the idea and then reward himself, he rewards himself simply for having the idea. "I’ll write it down and then get some chocolate. I have the idea, I get my pellet . . . I mean I’m terrible. I don’t put that on the list because that’s not advice. That’s something I’m seeking help for. It’s a vice and it’s different than advice."
Oh, come on, you’re obviously making it work.
"But I could be better. I can make it work better and I’m trying to teach myself more discipline because when you have children and you are an artist, you already have more than fills a day. I would also like to have friends, hobbies, maybe read a book sometime."
"The last piece of advice on that level is fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks. Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show."
"I read The Killer Angels. It’s a very detailed, extraordinarily compelling account of the Battle of Gettysburg from the point of view of various people in it and it’s historical. It’s historically completely accurate, and the moment I put it down I created Firefly, because I was like, ‘I need to tell this story. I need to feel this immediacy. I so connect with that era, the Western and how tactile everything is and how every decision is life or death, and how hard it is and how just rich it is, and how all the characters are just so fascinating.’ But so I should be on the Millennium Falcon. Now, if I only watched sci-fi I would have just had the Millennium Falcon part, which has already been done, but finding that historical texture, it literally, I put the book down and started writing Firefly. And that was my vacation from Buffy, which was two weeks. I got two weeks every year, and in that vacation I read, in 14 days, 10 books. My wife and I saw like nine plays, and that’s all we did. We just filled the tanks.
I ask about the melding of social and work that he seems to have mastered with his friends (Much Ado grew out of Shakespeare readings at his house). "For me that’s almost always necessary. I mean, obviously I’ve hung out with the Much Ado crew and they’ve become closer to me than I could have imagined, but the way I see people is by saying, ‘Come over and we’ll read Shakespeare. Come over and we’ll film Shakespeare.’ I need some kind of end. I like there to be a point. I was never a games night guy, but at some point social interaction starts to freak me out. So when there’s a point, it’s easier for me to see the people I love and hang out and try to have fun.
"The Shakespeare readings affected what happened on the shows I was doing, because I saw things from my actors that I didn’t know they could do, and I was like, ‘If I know you can do it, everybody else should know it, too. It’s going to go in the show.’ And so it’s not like I’m mining my friendships for content. I love hanging out with these people, but . . . we have a circle of everybody feeding everybody else and then something else comes up and you go, ‘Oh, they can do that,’ or they put something in your ear about this. To have that flow of creativity within a friendship so that it feels like it’s spiraling upward and not just circling. It’s not just like, ‘And we meet and we play fantasy football, and then one day we’re old.’
"I always enjoy conversation more if there is some substance to it—which is a just incredibly hilarious thing for me to say because for many, many years I was the guy whose only contribution to any conversation was, ‘There was a funny Simpson’s joke about that.’ But I’m trying to evolve from that. I mean, just having a silly time and laughing your butt off is . . . don’t get me wrong, I’ll take it, but yeah, I have a problem with pointlessness."
"This comes from Kai, my wife, who produced the film. She [quotes from] Rio Grande: ‘Get it done, Johnny Reb.’ It’s like, don’t make excuses. There aren’t any anymore. If you’re talking about it, you should be doing it and she doesn’t like to see talent go fallow. She doesn’t like to see people repeat themselves. She likes people to get it done, purely out of love of the person and then joy for the product itself. And that’s the thing: I talked about Much Ado for 10 years and it was Kai who finally said, ‘What if instead of talking about it . . . ’ and I went, ‘What?’ Someone will always tell you that you can’t. One of the things that she delighted in was the fact that, apart from telling the people at Marvel so that they didn’t freak out when they found out that I was directing another movie [while we were in postproduction on The Avengers], we really didn’t tell anybody. It was just our little thing. There’s an old thing they say: Writers never tell somebody what you’re writing because then you won’t write it down, and it’s kind of applied to the production in a way. If we let this get out and balloon into something that mattered to anybody besides us, we might not finish it.
"We accomplished it, like, instantly. We shot it a month after I wrapped the other movie. We shot it in 12 days, and the moment I said, ‘We’re done. That’s a wrap,’ I turned to Danny Kaminsky and I was like, ‘Drop the one sheet and, Nathan [Fillion], tweet it.’ We had that kind of immediacy with Dr. Horrible and that’s what made Kai and I start [our production company] Bellwether, to do these smaller things, to get the middle of the process out, to eliminate the middle man. Yes, admittedly (there were) 10 years of me going, ‘I really should do that,’ but that’s my issue. Once it was go time, there was nothing between us and the art, and that’s the place you want to put yourself in. And you get people like (actor-writer-comics Brian McElhaney and Nick Kocher), who are younger and are content creators; they know that. They do it for themselves. Later on, they’ll be able to do it for somebody else and get paid more, but this generation is not waiting for someone to read their spec script, and I love that."
[Photos by Elsa Guillet-Chapuis | ABC | Bob D’Amico]