It’s hard to imagine someone like Joss Whedon having many regrets about his career.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers—Whedon’s list of credits runs as deep as the ardent following he’s amassed among sci-fi and comic book fans. However, during Tribeca Film Festival’s director series, Whedon had a surprisingly somber moment on stage with Mark Ruffalo where he all but apologized for Avengers: Age of Ultron, the second installment of the franchise Whedon directed that was met with tepid, and sometimes downright chilly, reviews. Whedon, a self-diagnosed workaholic, revealed that he got so down on himself about Ultron that he took his first vacation in 25 years.
Head cleared of the past and filling up with new ideas, Whedon also mentioned that he was a new project in the works that could be his best yet. Although said project is still heavily under wraps, Whedon did offer his notes on creating structure in writing, why weaving yourself into your stories is paramount, and when you know you’ve made art.
Particularly in these songs in a musical, if the musical is being done right, this is the moment—this is where it all comes out. Everything is building to this: You have this perfect state where not only is somebody articulating who they are and what they need, but it rhymes—it’s a very structured thing. Everything I do is about that structure and about that moment of somebody going, this is the best version of me that I can explain. You’re always trying to hit that feeling—you try to hit those peaks all the time in conversation.
The thing that comic books gives you is every time you turn the page, it’s an opportunity to go, oh shit! You want to constantly have those page turning moments. In the sense of dialogue, it comes down to the musicality of a phrase. And because I’m a wannabe actor, I say everything as I’m writing it and you can hear when something feels really awkward or abrupt or wrong. I’m very, very into how is this going to roll off and into the next line in terms of meaning and in terms of rhythm.
Shakespeare was absolutely about, let’s take this grand spectacle of theater about kings and queens and gods and fairies and bring it down to earth—it was genius. He was like, let’s humanize this. I’m always doing something large and dire in my scripts and in my ideas—there’s always some big concept I can build off of—the world is often threatened. It’s not very Sundance-y—nobody’s going to go on a road trip…unless it’s an evil road trip!
Everything I write is about power and helplessness. somebody being helpless, their journey to power is the narrative that sustains me. And I think a lot of it has to do with being very helpless and tiny [when I was younger]—I had terrifying older brothers, and a terrifying father.
What’s interesting to me [in The Avengers] is that line, "I’m always angry" which is one of my favorite things. When I wrote it, I was like, boom, drop the pen. Because I believe a guy can feel that way, and then probably four months after the movie came out, something happened and I was like, oh! it’s me—I’m always angry. I had no idea. That happens about 25% of the time. It was about four years after the end of Buffy that I went, oh! I was Buffy the whole time. I [thought I was] Xander—before he started getting laid. It’s the best thing about the work. If you’re not writing about yourself, why are you writing? If you’re making something that’s going to take three years out of your life, why would you not want to tell people something that’s important? I don’t mean a moral, I just mean and examination of the human condition.
[Movies are] not what I wrote or my intention. They’re not your feelings about your character. They’re the sum of what happens when you bring those things together. When the studio has a certain agenda and you have a certain vision, even if you’re largely in-step, you have to meet in the middle. It’s that connection between people that is not just collaboration but ultimately what the piece becomes. Yes, Jeremy [Renner] is going to say something about Hawkeye that I never thought of because he hasn’t had to think about anything else. As much as I love [that character], I’m giving it up. That’s where it gets to the art, is when you give yourself up to it.
Structure is always hard and the most important thing. Structure is where it’s math—it’s graphs. I will do color charts that look like I’m going a PowerPoint presentation: This is where it’s scary; this is where it’s funny—that can be appalling hard. But the act of writing is perfect bliss. It’s the greatest thing anybody ever got paid to do—I can never capture that feeling in another way.
Characters are the reason I’m there. They’re the most fun to think up—but they are not a movie. Even a premise is not a movie, although that’s something American cinema has forgotten. Structure is an absolute. Almost without exception, if you don’t know where you’re going you’re never getting anywhere. It doesn’t matter how cool the idea is and how cool the characters are—you’ve got to figure out why there’s a whole movie about it.
Ultron, I’m very proud of. There were things that did not meet my expectations and I was so beaten down by the process. And then we went right away and did publicity and I created the narrative wherein I said I had not quite accomplished [what I wanted with the movie]. And people ran with it and it became, well it’s ok—it could be better, but it’s not Joss’ fault. And I think that did a disservice to the movie and to the studio and to myself. Ultimately, I am very proud of it. The things about it that are wrong frustrate me enormously. But I also got to make, for the second time, an absurdly personal movie where I got to talk about how I felt about humanity and what it means in very esoteric and bizarre ways for hundreds of millions of dollars. The fact that happened twice is so bonkers and so beautiful and the fact that I come off of it feeling like a miserable failure is also bonkers but not in a cute way.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photos: Celine Grouard for Fast Company;