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When Marvel Comics announced at Comic-Con International 2010 that Joss Whedon would script and direct The Avengers -- the superhero all-star movie uniting the team of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" first assembled by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1964 -- comic fandom knew something special was on the way.
Known for his works' wry humor and for his own love of sci-fi and fantasy, Whedon had the right qualities to earn the respect and trust of True Believers. He grew up loving the same pop culture as they, and in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and even Dollhouse, of which he's amibvalent, he combined captivating plot twists with a deep sense of lore, great action and soap-opera drama, qualities he brought to his ucessful run penning Marvel's Astonishing X-Men comic.
Born in New York City, the son of TV writer Tom Whedon (The Electric Company, The Golden Girls) and grandson of TV writer John Whedon (The Donna Reed Show), the 47-year-old attended Riverdale Country School in his hometown and Winchester College in England, and graduated from Wesleyan University in 1987.
After breaking into TV writing with the sitcom Roseanne, he became a script doctor, wrote the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- which got changed significantly out of his hands and was a critical and commercial flop -- then revived the concept with his 1997-2003 cult-hit TV series of that name. The show earned an Emmy nomination for writing, a rarity for a genre program.
Whedon came onto The Avengers -- formally titled Marvel's The Avengers onscreen, though no apostrophe-s appears on the posters -- after credited co-story writer Zak Penn had written a script, which Whedon rewrote. The movie, which opened in the UK as Marvel's Avengers Assemble, has shattered eough records to make Marvel's Distinguished Competition nervous.
Whedon elabortated and elucidated about his mega-hit and the rest by phone from Los Angeles.
Q: You got the gig after exchanging a series of e-mails with Marvel. Could you describe how that happened?
JW: I came in and they said this was going on and they had a script, and I looked at it. And I've known Kevin [Feige, head of Marvel Studios] for a while so I just looked at the script and basically wrote up on my notes on why they needed a new one. And after puzzling it a bit I said, "Well, if I was going to do it, this is what I would focus on."
[The] Dirty Dozen was actually the first movie I referenced, because, y'know, it's a bunch of people who don't belong together and who absolutely need each other to survive. And in the process of explaining what I would do realized that I kinda wanted to. And they responded to what I was saying, so all of a sudden there was a job.
Q: Are you in the habit of e-mailing studio heads?
JW: Oh, no, I had come in and met with them As I've said, I've known Kevin for a while and I wrote up a memo in the e-mail after we met and I'd looked at the script. But yeah, very often [I do], not as often as before, but I used to read things or do some [script] punch-up for a director just because I had either worked with them or respected them, y'know, just as a favor. So in a situation like this it's easy for me to go, "Welllll, here's a thought, take it or leave it.
And then they don't [or] then they do but I never feel bad about trying to help out.
Q: On Marvel's The Avengers, you had to work with continuity from previous movies, and with the alien invasion at the end being stipulated. How did you make all that fit with the story you wanted to tell?
JW: Well, because [the invasion] was stipulated right from the start, I started formulating the idea of the story I wanted to tell based on that. At the end of the day, it was really about these people who are very dysfunctional. And my feeling was very much that [Marvel] wanted to do a superhero film that felt old-fashioned but wasn't as clean as I felt that they'd been.
If we're really gonna have this many characters with this much power, we need to take a toll on the people who are fighting. We can't just have this very neat, clean ending. And I'm not just talking about explosions -- I'm talking about taking a toll on the people who are fighting.
Q: An emotional toll?
JW: An emotional toll and a physical toll. Dirty Dozen was the first, but war movies were really my inspiration for this.
Q: Did anything in the script, as happens frequently in movies, change on the fly, on the set?
JW: Y'know, lines [of dialogue]. There was never a time on set where we said, well -- with the exception of a couple of CGI elements where I said, "y'know what, here's what we’ll do on the day to plus this moment, and here's what yer all reacting to, we're gonna add this to it" -- apart from that, it was every now and then throwing out an idea for a line or tweaking something or doing an intense sort of rejiggering. But in terms of the structure, once we got it, which wasn’t easy to do, we adhered to it.
Q: How long did the script take to write?
JW: Well, I was still writing it while I was filming, so I would say about a year. I actually had probably about six months before we started filming, but then I was still working out a few key scenes. I knew what happened in them, but they needed to be polished up.
Q: How hard was getting a team feeling from actors who had each starred in their movie as their character?
JW: The hard part was getting the part before they're a team, because they're all so much fun and enjoy each other so much that I had to create conflict -- or at least tell them to stop giggling long enough so we could role and they could act conflict!
Q: Robert Downey Jr. is very hands-on -- he wrote one of Tony Stark's early speeches in the first Iron Man, for example. Could you give an example of one of his hands-on contributions here?
JW: Robert wanted to go through the story from the very start and then be a part of building his scenes. And then on the day he would often ask for alternate concepts for a gag, or a scene button or something. And I would write him up some various ideas or come pitch him something and he would try this or that.
And y'know, we established a fluid relationship very early on where we always knew where we were heading so we didn't mind taking some detours and seeing how they worked for us.
Q: It was a 90-day shoot?
JW: Yep. plus.
Q: How plus?
JW: Just a couple.
Q: You've said you had to "straighten out" the fight choreographer who had [non-superpowered archer] Clint Barton [a.k.a. Hawkeye], Thor and Captain America all fighting the same way, despite their different skill sets and power levels. How did you approach this and say, "This is how it should be?"
JW: Just like that. Chris Evans [Captain America] and I once talked about some of the Cap stuff as being not quite up to his level and so I took his fight scenes and I would just write out the choreography very specifically, which I try to do anyway in a movie, but with this one I didn't have as much opportunity. So I sort of just had to take that in hand. The fight guys came up with amazing stuff, but it really was a question of what are these people capable of.
And sometimes you can think that in post[-production]: If they happen to be hitting a CGI alien, you can decide how hard they hit them.
Q: What about the choice to use or not use the code names Hawkeye and Black Widow, which weren't used in Thor and Iron Man 2, respectively.
JW: It's always a question of clarity and how many names can people learn, because if everybody's got a street name and a superhero name is that going to be too confusing?
Q: You've said you wanted a second villain in the movie, "somebody who was up to their level." The most charismatic one I can think of who matches that description is [the cosmic supervillain and universe-conqueror] Thanos.
JW: No, I was actually looking at somebody a little less world-conquery. He's actually out of their league. [Editor's note: While not in the movie proper, Thanos, the filmmakers later acknowledged, appears in a post-credits scene.]
Q: There were reports you were going to shoot at Grumman Studios on Long Island, but the shoot took place primarily in Albuquerque. What's the story there?
JW: Originally we were supposed to be in Los Angeles, then for a short period we were supposed to be in New York, and then somehow we ended up in Albuquerque. Yes, it was going to [shoot at Grumman if it had shot in New York].
Q: I understand you had done some uncredited script doctoring on Captain America: The First Avenger.
JW: Mm- hmm Yeah. I went in to just do some character polishing, some of [Professor] Erskine's stuff, some of the stuff [with] Cap in the last scene. It was fine, y'know -- a chance to write period, a chance to write for Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones. I basically went through the whole script, but the structure was really tight and there was a lot of great stuff. It was just building a couple of moments out.
Q: One of the most amazing concepts in all of Marvel is the Helicarrier, that airborne aircraft carrier. It was a huge, huge set. As someone who grew up with this stuff, how did it feel for you personally to be on the Helicarrier?
JW: Y'know, I never have that. I just -- I don't. I dunno, I just look at it and go, OK, how am I going to shoot this?" It was neat, God knows, it was a big standing set. But ultimately, people always [say to] me [that] it must have been exciting. "Oh, you must have had such fun times." Uh, no. I'm just there working so that you guys can have fun times."
Q: Are you committed in to any sequels
JW: I am not committed to anything. I'm committed to resting.
[Paragraph four was updated March 11, 2012, to reflect the final theatrical release, rather than the press-preview version of the film.]
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