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Interview with Joss Whedon from Rookie Mag


Yay, Geometry: An Interview With Joss Whedon

Our hero on Shakespeare, high school, and his new movie. No, his other new movie.

11/07/2011

For anyone who has the nerve to be enthusiastic about things, a species I believe is commonly called “nerd” or “geek,” Joss Whedon is like a living embodiment of that presidential slogan about hope. A person might be laughed at in high school for reciting self-motivational mantras with rocket-ship metaphors, but these are the people who have the will and creative juices to go on to make great things, great and thoughtful and awesome things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse, the upcoming Avengers movie, and now, a semi-modernized version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Here, Joss talks about that homemade project and things of feminist concern, helps me get over myself and my attitude problem about school, and displays the wonderful knowledge and interestingness you gain when you have the nerve to be enthusiastic about things. And so, vote for Obama in 2008! Or…what? I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. Read the interview. Bye.

TAVI: Hi.

JOSS: Hi. I’m so sorry that I’m super late.

Not a problem at all. I’ll just jump right in then.

All right, let’s do this.

So The Avengers was like this huge superhero production, and really exhausting, I would imagine. After making it you should’ve taken a vacation, but instead you made another movie. I wanna know why, and what’s wrong with you.

There is something horribly wrong with me. I admit that fully. I’m not exactly sure how it happened. I was in New York at the end of the shoot of The Avengers, in the beginning of September. It had been about seven months since I’d slept for a full night. I was so crazed, and Kai, my wife, and I were talking about the vacation we were gonna take for our 20th anniversary of bein’ sweeties. We had October free, so we were going to Venice. Then we started talking about Much Ado—neither of us can remember how it came up. And Kai was like, “You know what? Make the movie. Venice isn’t sinking that fast.” I said, “Honey, there’s no way I can adapt the script and put it together in a month.” She’s like, “Yes, you can.” So I started talking to people about it. Then I realized how much work it would be and I was like, I have gone insane. This is a terrible idea. But at that point I’d already started getting people to commit, so it was like, I gotta put my head down and do it. It’s one of the weirder decisions I’ve ever made and absolutely the best.

That’s good.

Yeah. What if it turned out the other way!

That would suck.

It was exhausting, but it was the kind of exhaustion that feeds you and makes you strong. I mean, I’m very excited about The Avengers, and I hope people will be like yay! for that film, but you know, you make a movie like that piecemeal, a tiny bit at a time, and then you assemble those pieces, and half of what’s going to be great about the movie is not even built yet, because it’s special effects. And then I get to do this other thing, where I’m shooting by necessity about eight to 10 pages a day of just…meat. All the interactions, all the dialogue, all the silly, all the fun, all the visuals—they’re all there. They’re accomplished by the end of the day. You don’t go, “Oh, excellent! We got him walking into the room. Tomorrow he’ll say a word.” It’s a completely different experience.

You’ve worked with a lot of the actors in Much Ado before, and you filmed it in…I believe I read 12 days? on a shoestring budget and in a single house. Does that kind of seat-of-your-pants spirit come through in the movie at all or will it be like The Avengers: Shakespeare Edition?

[Laughs] It definitely will come through—though hopefully not so much that people go, “Wow, this looks like they shot it fast!” But yeah, it is literally homemade. ’Cause it was my house we shot it in.

Oh, wow!

Yeah. My wife designed the house. She’s an architect. That was another reason we finally decided to make the movie. I was like, I have the space, the whole movie takes place in one location. And I happen to live in it, and it happens to be beautiful. I mean, I’m in love with that house. My only regret was that we didn’t have any kind of rigs or steady cams or anything like that, so I couldn’t move from space to space as much as I wanted to. Because part of what’s beautiful about that house—and what I like about a film—is the flow.

I heard that you used to throw these, like, Shakespeare parties at your house.

They were Shakespeare readings. Shakespeare parties sounds like we all get in the big collars and quilted hose and dance to a lute. It’s just people showing up and reading. We started it years ago with some of the Buffy and Angel people—actors and writers and friends—and it turned into a huge monster of fun. Everybody just enjoyed each other enormously, learned about the text, got to pretend, got to show off a little, and got to make fools of themselves. Then it kinda died down for a while, because we had kids, and everything dies down when you have kids. But during its most fertile period, we did Much Ado with Amy and Alexis, and it became clear to me that if I was ever going to shoot a version of that play, this is my Beatrice and Benedick. They had both done an enormous amount of Shakespeare onstage, and they were the kind of people that even when they had tiny little parts, they would just blow it up, and not in a show-offy way. When they read Beatrice and Benedick, they were just delightful.

That’s kinda perfect.

It all happened very organically.

Did filming Shakespeare feel different from your normal supernatural and superhero stuff, or did any of the super-blank tactics come in handy?

The most interesting thing to me was that it’s not that different. When you do Shakespeare, you have the burden of trying to make it all make sense. ’Cause some of it just doesn’t necessarily track. But there’s a way that it does, and you sort of have to find that. So I’m like, well, what’s up with Margaret? What’s up with Borachio? And why on earth would Don Pedro say this this late in the scene when it’s already been said? And one by one you figure out these problems, and you go, well, wait a minute, there’s a lot more here than I realized. And what I figured out was that my version of Much Ado is just exactly the way I make my shows and my [superhero] team movies. Everybody gets to step up and explain why they’re there. They get to have their moment, you know, that explains why in their world, they’re the center of this universe. Everybody gets to shine. They are all heroes. Especially Hero.

We have to read a bit of Shakespeare this year, and we did Romeo and Juliet last year, and I had a bit of trouble with it. It’s hard to read and appreciate something when it’s an assignment for school. Any ideas on making it easier? Did you like Shakespeare in high school?

Oh my god yes. Literally my favorite subject. I loved what he had to say, I loved all the darkness, I loved all the strangeness. Hamlet is my favorite—that would be no surprise to anybody who’s hung out with me. But I also found sometimes that I needed someone to interpret it for me. The best thing is to see it. Because there are certain things that don’t make sense until you really understand the context. I would always read a play before I saw a film of it, and I remember reading Henry V before I saw [Kenneth] Branagh’s version, and going, OK, this doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Then I saw the movie and saw, A, where it did make sense and I had missed it; and, B, where Branagh used the fact that it didn’t make sense to create his own emotional through line. Both of those things were life lessons for me. He’s great at making clear to an audience what he’s saying and what he’s feeling, and sort of going beyond the text and saying, here’s why they’re talking about this odd thing in the middle of this very emotional scene. And there’s a good deal of that in my Much Ado. A good deal of finding not just the point of the scene but the life beyond it.

I guess part of it is ’cause the plays are written to be performed. I think my favorite thing about what I have read of Shakespeare is how theatrical it is. Especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

He’s playing to an audience, he’s not playing to a reader.

Your Much Ado is a modernized version, right?

It’s modernized in the sense that it takes place today, or in a sort of nethertime. I mean, there are definitely iPhones about, everybody’s dressed rather elegantly, a lot of suits. This was a purely artistic consideration and had nothing to do with the fact that we had no budget and it was BYO costumes [laughs]. But we decided Leonato is clearly like a politician, and he lives the life of an extremely rich politician. One of the things we added is that he has what I refer to as a court photographer, who’s always just there, taking pictures, because everything in the play is a big event, and very important people are always having their pictures taken during big events. But also, the way she’s looking at everyone, and the way we’re looking at everyone—which is very often through glass or in a reflection or distorted—and the way they’re all looking at each other and not really seeing each other is very much kind of the point of the thing. Also, they’re all super drunk, not gonna lie. We sort of referred to it as the Kennedy compound. They’re very privileged, and they party very hard. They’re not responsible people. And everything they do in the play is evil, irresponsible, or just plain ridiculous. So it kind of makes sense that they’re all a little bit in their cups.

Is there anything in it that you think would appeal especially to A Teenage Girl?

It is the first romantic comedy, in the modern sense. Two people who can’t stand each other who are perfect for each other. All the greats—His Girl Friday, The Cutting Edge—all the great romantic comedies have built off of that premise to some extent. There’s a lot of humor. There’s a lot of romance.

I think Beatrice is one of the great female characters that Shakespeare ever wrote. She is extraordinarily witty. And generally speaking, Benedick—he may get the last word in the play, but not generally around her.

There is also an element where everybody behaves like a bunch of teenagers. Status is everything, and everyone’s always forming little cliques and either turning against or trying to help other people, and gossip nearly destroys Hero and tears everything apart. It is a very fraught little world that would be recognizable to anyone who’s ever been in a school.

What I’m saying is, the villain in Much Ado is gossip.

Can we talk about the feminist problem of this play—the fact that the plot revolves around whether Hero is a virgin and therefore worthy of the love of her father and her fiancé? Doesn’t her father say he wants to kill her when he thinks she’s had sex?

Yeah. But everything in the play is taken to a modern interpretation [in the movie] in the sense that, yes, they’re talking about whether or not she’s “a maid,” or a virgin. But what [her fiancé] Claudio’s dealing with is the idea that she’s into somebody else and that she’s made a fool of him. What [her father] Leonato’s dealing with is being publicly shamed. And that the closest person to him in his life, his daughter, has been lying to him. It was very much about playing the emotionality of two men who feel like they’ve been made fools of. It’s not about the hymen so much as it is about, uh…the human. The human, not the hymen! That’s my motto.

You know, you’re not gonna get around certain anachronistic and outdated concepts, but the emotionality about it isn’t outdated at all. Clark [Gregg, who plays Leonato] and I spent a lot of time talking about, well, how do you come back from telling your daughter she should die?

Does he tell her she should die in the movie?

It’s in the script: “Do not live, Hero, do not ope thine eyes.” But in that same scene, I have him embracing her fiercely, because he’s just so torn. He can’t figure out what to do. What he does is I think reprehensible, and so do we all, but we worked hard to understand that in his position what had just happened was socially completely devastating, and that’s what his whole life was based on. And that emotionally he felt completely betrayed. But by that same token, before that scene is done, he’s holding on to her, saying, if they’ve done something to her, I’ll kill them. We played it in such a way that he lost his temper completely, but then at the same time couldn’t not hold her.

Then there’s another problem, which is why would Hero take Claudio back after he’s been such a dick to her?

Getting her to forgive him was important, and part of that had to do with, when she finally says to him, “And surely as I live, I am a maid,” she doesn’t say it like, “It’s OK, I’m a virgin”; she says it like, “You were fucking wrong.” She’s fierce. A lot of lines that are often played laid-back and passive are her getting in his face. “Why would you think that about me? How could you do that?” She is a little tougher. And I also added a bit: in the funeral scene, where Claudio’s going down to the tomb to mourn for her and he’s all distraught, she’s actually watching. It’s a lovely image. And you can see her feel like, well, I’m still kinda pissed, but he clearly means it.

There’s been a teenage girl, or a little older, in almost everything you’ve done, and I wanna know what that fascination is about. Are you making up for the fact that you went to an all-boys school?

[Laughs] I think that obsession existed long before I went to an all-boys school. You don’t really grown obsessions late in life. I think they’re formed early.

I have never really known why I need to write about really strong adolescent girls. I do know that I have issues about helplessness, and that seeing [girls] portrayed as helpless, for all the years of my youth, got very old. I am much more interested in some of the older comedies, particularly the black-and-white comedies of the ’30s, when most of the movie stars were female and they actually had things to do and a lot to say before they were sort of sidelined in the mainstream, in movies. And I was raised by a super strong, very interesting woman. And I was also very tiny and helpless. Those are the things that I know about. But I still don’t know why my avatar’s a girl. But she always has been, and I’ve just given myself up to it.

What were you like as a teenager, other than helpless?

Um, I was annoying. But I was funny. As much as I annoyed almost everyone, I could make them laugh. I was a terrible procrastinator and, unless it was English class, kind of a terrible student, and I just…I hate that every day of my life. I regret that.

Really?

Yeah. Every day.

You should talk about that more, ’cause I’m in a really awful “I don’t care about school” phase and I need to get out of that.

I don’t think I ever had an “I don’t care” phase, because I went to schools—particularly Winchester—that were so good that you really got engaged in the process of learning. I just had a mental block against doing work, even if it was work that I loved, and that makes me sad. It plagues me. Like my girl avatar, it’s something I never really understood. Why would I sabotage myself? Because ultimately, I find, the class is gonna be as good as you decide it’s gonna be. You may have a terrible teacher. You may have a great teacher. But ultimately there is no such thing as a boring subject. It’s just a question of whether you’re going to decide to engage with it.

Math, I was good at, but I never really engaged. Literature was always the thing that had my heart. And I loved history, but I still could be lazy. I took a lot of languages—I can speak none of them now. I just really never got off my duff unless it was creating something. I always wanted to cut right to the part where you’re making something. I didn’t actually want to learn how. Which doesn’t work, by the way.

I didn’t really start writing till after college, didn’t realize I was a writer till after college. But once I started, I worked as hard as I could. All the time. I didn’t actually study writing, but I lived with a lot of it, and grew up with a lot of really good writers. Like with everything else, if I don’t lay the groundwork, if I don’t do the stuff that seems like it’s not that rewarding, I don’t get the reward later on. I feel that all the time. Not to sound like the biggest old fogey in the world, but it’s true.

So why do you think school doesn’t matter?

Like I know why it matters and everything. The thing is, I feel like you have this point of view when you’re a teenager that’s unique, the same way that I’ll never see things the same way I did when I was little again, where everything is all new. And I’m always itching to take advantage of that in ways I don’t think the schooling system encourages you to do. So I’m always writing or drawing or something…I don’t know. I think it’s also because I’ve always been a perfectionist and now I’m burned out from that as far as schoolwork goes. I think I was kept under the illusion that grades in middle school were really important, which they’re not, and now I’m all worn out.

You used up all your best, and now high school is gonna be a disaster. I do sometimes feel that school is a little counter-intuitively designed. I don’t think it necessarily takes the adolescent mindset or heartset into account enough. There is a need for exploration and change, and there are so many questions and there are so many priorities shifting and there’s so much shit going down, and our design for schools is pretty much “sit them down and give them facts.” I do think there are better ways to engage people in not just the accumulation of knowledge, but, you know, the desire, the habit of pursuing knowledge.

You said that you didn’t really realize that you were a writer after college. What happened for you to realize that?

A desperate need for funds. I was planning to go to northern California and make movies and I didn’t have any money at all, and I knew you could make money by writing a TV script—that’s how my father had made his living for many years, and I thought, well, TV is a lesser art form, but I’ll just try my hand at a script and maybe I can make enough money to get started. And the moment I started writing my first spec script, a script just to show people I could write or find out if I can, I fell madly in love with writing. And later on I fell madly in love with TV and realized, oh, most of the best writing isn’t in movies. It’s in this other place.

Were there any shows that made that clear to you?

Hill Street Blues was enormously influential for me. I’d never seen anybody quite do that.

Can you explain what that is a bit?

Hill Street Blues was a cop drama from the early ’80s, and its tonal shifts were startling and deliberate and unlike anything I’d seen on TV. Every week, every scene, the ground would just shift under your feet. You really didn’t know what kind of show you were gonna see. It was gonna be dramatic and people would cry and blah blah blah, but you also never knew when they were gonna suddenly drop something very funny or very tough or very unexpected. And that’s the only kind of TV I like to make. You go in not knowing, and most TV is about knowing. Mostly people [watching TV] are like, “Can I order potatoes again? Thank you for the potatoes. See you next week.” A lot of my favorite shows are potato shows. With Roseanne, for instance, you know what you’re in for. And Columbo. But I just like to change it up.

I feel like I skipped over the high school stuff out of cowardice but it’s weird to talk about because I’m, like, in a rut.

I’ve been in a rut. I was in a rut for several years. Ruts are easy to come by when you’re a teenager. The ground is pitted with them. I also know that even though I couldn’t articulate it, I was pretty much in control of my world in a sense that…you know, early on, I don’t know, maybe 14, I realized that every year I go to school and in September I’d be like “Yeah! Let’s do this! I’m very excited!” and by mid-October I’d be behind in everything. And I kind of trained myself—I gave myself this little mantra: I was like, you know, “I’m gonna be fierce this year.” I can’t remember the whole mantra, but it had to do with me being a rocket ship. And it worked. I was like, no, I’m fierce homework guy, engaged guy, doing my work, I’m a rocket ship, I’m not gonna let up. And I was working great, and then I told somebody about my rocket ship mantra, and they laughed at it. And I just stopped.

Did you ever fall into a Lindsay Weir thing where you’re less into the idea of being a rocket ship and more into the idea of being a lazy person or somebody who doesn’t care?

[Laughs] That’s a good metaphor for me, a lazy person…

No! I was talking about, OK, about myself, because suddenly the idea of being someone who is not engaged becomes appealing somehow. Even though I know that I actually do like math and that I am a huge nerd, that idea at some point this month became appealing to me.

You know, there’s two versions of that. One’s “I don’t want to do anything that I don’t want to do.” Then there’s also “I wish to be this person. This person who is not engaged.” Which I think are two different things.

For me it was never me-against-the-school kind of stuff, because I was raised by teachers and my mom taught at my school that I went to for 10 years, so I always sort of had their perspective in mind, and had respect for what they were trying to do, and I had some of the best teachers you could have. So it wasn’t that, but there was desire to be disengaged, or at least to appear disengaged, a desire to be…dare I say bold? Which I really never even got close to. Super did not accomplish bold. It’s not like I was gonna go hang out in the alley and smoke cigarettes with the “bad” kids. It’s just that thing where you want things to feel easy, like they seem easy to you, like you’re just sort of coasting.

Sometimes you need to get away from ordinary expectations, but at the same time it’s very easy to be a lazy person and go, “I’m getting away from ordinary expectations by not doing my homework.” And with the way some classes are run, all of a sudden you find that, yes, you’ve just become a lazy person. You actually haven’t done anything awesome or disengaged or cool, you’ve just forgotten to do your homework. Again.

Well. I’m going to take that and do something inspiring with it. Can we know anything about what Wonder Woman was like in the script you wrote?

She was a little bit like Angelina Jolie [laughs]. She sort of traveled the world. She was very powerful and very naïve about people, and the fact that she was a goddess was how I eventually found my in to her humanity and vulnerability, because she would look at us and the way we kill each other and the way we let people starve and the way the world is run and she’d just be like, None of this makes sense to me. I can’t cope with it, I can’t understand, people are insane. And ultimately her romance with Steve was about him getting her to see what it’s like not to be a goddess, what it’s like when you are weak, when you do have all these forces controlling you and there’s nothing you can do about it. That was the sort of central concept of the thing. Him teaching her humanity and her saying, OK, great, but we can still do better.

Why do you think the “humanity and the world being awful” theme is something that you visit a lot? Like in Dr. Horrible

Well, I think the world is largely awful, and getting worse, and eventually the human race will die out. And it’ll be our own fault.

That’s gonna be my rocket-ship mantra.

[Laughs] “It’s all futile and soon the human race will die out. And now, geometry! This isosceles triangle will save us all!” No, I can be very pessimistic on a broad scale. On a smaller scale, I love people and I’m interested in them. There are certain human truths, like death, that nobody gets to escape, and pain, which everybody not only feels but needs. You have to go through it. So for everybody, at some point—very often for teenagers—the world is a terrible place. The world is a giant, awful black hole of evil conspiracy. Sometimes that’s because you have perspective on what the world’s really like, and sometimes it’s because you’ve completely lost perspective and you’re having a terrible day. But no matter what, everybody shares that feeling, and life is kind of about your ways around that, your ways around certain truths. Some people combat it with faith, some people combat it with work. For me, if I’m not writing or creating something, I get very antsy. That’s my little defense against darkness. Also, my kids.

If being creative is part of your work and not doing that work makes you antsy, but it can also be so exhausting, how do you make all of that work?

Well, you do have to shut down every now and then. That was hard for me for a long time. My wife kind of helped me by demanding that I do so. That worked out. And then I had kids, and everything changed. I learned to be present. I learned to stop and just do what I’m doing for a little while. And then I’m recharged and it all helps. I started doing yoga, too. There, I said it. Yes, I live in L.A. Clearly I live in L.A. Now excuse me while I have my protein shake and my chardonnay. Mixed together. No, that was a horrible idea.

It sounds awful. Even though I’ve never had chardonnay.

No, no, no. Stay in school, kids! Geometry!

Have you ever been disappointed by anything you’ve made?

I’ve been disappointed by things other people have made of mine—the Buffy movie, Alien: Resurrection, stuff like that. I’ve been disappointed when I didn’t feel like I brought everything to the table that I could. Either because of exhaustion, or I just missed something. There’s at least one phrase I wrote that I’m like, “That is not what I’m trying to say!” and I never fixed it. It was between Willow and Tara, and it still bugs me.

Really?

Yeah. At the end of the [Buffy] episode “Family,” Tara says, basically, you always see the good in me, and when I feel bad, you make me feel better—how do you do that? And that’s not what I was trying to say. I was trying to say that you take the worst thing about me, and you make it seem like the best thing. That’s something that I got from my wife, because she does that for me all the time. She’ll take something that I’ve always sort of felt awkward about and be like, no, that makes you awesome, doofus. Ohh. How’d you do that? How’d you turn that around? I failed there. I failed. I failed America. And its territories.

You subscribed to Sassy, right?

I did, I had a subscription.

And it was for girls but you really liked it.

Yeah, I did. I liked the way they talked to girls. They talked about things like feminism, body issues, community, and diversity, but in context with teenage girls’ actual life and language—not with an agenda of either dictating their politics or getting them to buy more makeup. Other people weren’t doing that. I liked what they had to say, and I liked the bands. Definitely some people say, “It is odd that you should have had a subscription to Sassy.” But I don’t think it needs to be explained. I get complaints about Buffy that, you know, “There’s no strong men! Male character!” I’ll be interested to hear what people say about Much Ado on those terms, because men are very often supremely doltish in this movie, but even Beatrice herself is made a bit of a fool. I’ll be interested to hear some people say, “Oh my god this text is so misogynist,” and some people will say “No, it’s a great feminist text,” and some people will say, “No, it’s just a funny play!”

Is it any of those things to you? Just a funny play, or misogynist, or feminist…

I think it’s often chauvinist, often feminist, often funny. It’s human; it’s Shakespeare, you know? He has a very keen eye for who we are and he’s a little bit merciless with it. That’s where he gets his humor as well as his darkness. I think that’s kind of what makes it art—you can’t just be a political statement one way or the other. It’s gotta breathe beyond those boundaries.

OK, I think we’re about done. Is there anything you’d like to say to the TEENAGE GIRLS OF THE INTERNET?

Um, go geometry. Yay geometry. I feel like I gave it a bad rap earlier. Um…if there’s something I have to say, it’ll show up in something I create. I talk better through other people.

Well then I guess we’ll have to keep an eye out for what you say through Much Ado About Nothing, in theaters blah blah blah!*

[Laughs] Wow! That was segue-tastic. You just wrapped that whole thing up.

Thank you. And thank you very much.

Thank you! Nice to talk to you.

Nice to talk to you too.

* Much Ado About Nothing is, even as you read this, being edited, and will be finished sometime in the spring.

Original Interviw at Rookie Mag

 

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