Interview: Joss Whedon Assembles ‘The Avengers’

Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon

As an unabashed fanboy of Joss Whedon's creations on TV ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel"), film ("Serenity") and the internet ("Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog"), I was thrilled to get to speak to him. Considering the subject was "The Avengers," it was truly a trip to nerd paradise. In my full interview with Whedon, we talked about the challenges of working with an ensemble of A-list stars, how he developed the individual stories for Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, and the week of filming he thought would prove he was bullet-proof (and the subsequent scenes that proved him wrong).

Matt McDaniel: You have done a lot of work with big ensembles before, but this is the first time coming into a group of pre-established characters and actors. How is that different than working with a group that you created from the ground-up?

Joss Whedon: Well, in some ways it's the same, because if you are ever working with a group you have created from ground-up, they feel they have been created already and they exist and the actors have already researched the roles. So it has a great similarity to working on anything, like a show you run.

But the difference, obviously, is not just that they played the parts before, but they are all super famous. And so you have the question of whether or not you are going to earn their trust. Whether or not they are going to bother to give you that. But ultimately, once you establish that fairly early on, that you have a real collaboration going, it really isn't that different.

MM: So what was that process like of earning the trust of these really well-established actors?

JW: Well, first of all, because they've played parts and because in some way we were creating a new vision of the part, I sat down with every one of them to talk about my ideas and their desires before I wrote the script, and that's very useful too.

So they knew from the ground-up that they were collaborating on it. And the things that didn't make sense to them or didn't work to them, they were like, "Well, I don't want to stress that part of my character. We have done that before." All of that stuff I could honor.

And then it's a question of making them heard, and then ultimately making them understand that there are things you are not going to budge on that are your vision. And once they know they are part of it, but you actually have a vision, and you are not just trying to tell them what they want to hear -- that it's all working towards one purpose, one story, one idea -- then I feel, yeah, you are doing fine.

MM: I have heard from people who have worked with him before that Robert Downey Jr. likes to keep things sort of fresh and fast. How did your two methods of working fit into each others'?

JW: Well, we have very different methods. But working as a showrunner, working as a script doctor, working in sitcoms -- a lot of my work has been coming up with stuff on the fly. Like fixing as we go, improvising, being open to a new idea. So Robert and I would spend -- we worked specifically towards both of our processes, so that we would beat out a scene so that he was very comfortable with where it was going or what was being said and very aware of where it would fit in the whole. And I would give him stuff to say, and by and large, he would say it.

But then there were always pockets where we had some wiggle room for him to play, or ask for options, and if he said, "Can we do something else here?" I could give him four or five options by the time he had his makeup on. Because that's actually fun for me, that frantic scramble.

We would try different things. He is very collaborative. He loves notes. He loves to be guided and worked with. He is not trying to steamroller over me. He is really trying to create it side-by-side with me. So it ended up being a really healthy and delightful collaboration.

MM: Now, you said you talked to everybody sort of about their character, was there sort of an aspect or facet of Tony Stark that Robert brought up that you hadn't considered before?

JW: I think the conversations were largely about "Where is Tony now?" Like, "Who is he now? Where is he [going] from 'Iron Man 2' towards 'Iron Man 3'?" He is such a well-delineated character, so it was really a question of, "What do we want to stress and what do we want to say? We have said that, we have done that, so let's not go there."

He felt a sort of isolated man who is -- even though there is an element of that, just because that's sort of what any team movie is about. He didn't want to be the sort of just, "I am totally wrapped up in one thing and I am not thinking about everybody else." He didn't want to be the tortured lonely man, which I totally get. And it was easy to make him as delightful and gregarious as he can be and still go, well, there is a piece missing and it's the piece that makes him an Avenger.

MM: I was really impressed by Chris Evans in "Captain America" because his performance was so different than what you usually see from him. There was no snark, no sarcastic edge to him. How did you have to adapt your sort of writing style to fit that sort of straightforward character?

JW: I love a straightforward character. I am the guy who loves Cyclops on the 'X-Men', because he is square. [Captain America] is a little square, and he is aware that he is a little square, and he is aware that the world is a beat ahead of him, or in his case, 70 beats. I think that's very disarming and very charming. I relate to that guy. I also don't know who the popular singers are right now, so he is actually really easy for me to write.

There were some lines where [Chris] would be like, "Okay, now I just sound like an idiot." And in context, I was like, "Yeah, actually, now that it's all laid out that is a bit much." But he is very aware of his dignity, but at the same time understood why I wanted to find the humor in somebody who was so out of touch.

MM: You have Mark Ruffalo stepping in for the first time playing the character of Bruce Banner. So did you feel more freedom to kind of create your own take on the character?

JW: Yeah, he and I did the most character work of anyone, because we really were starting fresh, but we were starting with something that had been embodied several times.

And both of us agreed upfront that the template for who we wanted this guy to be in his life was Bill Bixby, the TV [show character] who was busy helping other people. That was more interesting to us than the Banner in the first two movies who was always fixated on curing himself. We spent a lot of time talking about what makes us Hulk out, the nature of anger, how it feels.

We even fought some. I mean literally we actually got some pads out and did some tussling. Just to talk about the physicality, and also the physicality of somebody who has to control this thing, and the way he moves in space and the way he relates to the people and the objects around him. It was extremely fun. What we found was that he could be very bumbling and kind of awkward, but at the same time very graceful and in this almost transcendent control of himself.

MM: Personally, I am excited for the movie just to see the character of Nick Fury come into his own, because we have just gotten these little glimpses of his function in this world. Did you want to keep that edge of mystery to him, or explore who he is underneath the patch?

JW: Well, he is not going to be talking about his childhood, and you do want to keep a certain mystery. Also -- and this is something that I was very pleased that Marvel actually mandated -- they were very interested in keeping him, not just in the sort of a mystery of how the organization operates, but a real moral gray area where you really have to decide, "Is Nick Fury the most manipulative guy in the world? Is he a good guy? Is he completely Machiavellian or is it a bit of both?" And that was really fun to tweak.

I felt that in the other movies, they had been cameos and he had been called upon to come in and be Sam Jackson and bluster a little bit. And I told Sam upfront that my big agenda was to see the weight on someone who is supposed to be in control of the most powerful beings on the planet. The weight on somebody who has to run the organization and the gravity of it. Not that we don't have any fun with Nick, but he definitely -- it's, I feel like a much more textured performance and at times really moving.

MM: For you as the director, what was the more sort of intimidating tasks, these giant action scenes with 100 cars blowing up, or the sort of group scenes where you have eight major characters and they all need their own story to come through?

JW: I had one week where we shot basically the entire team arguing. I was like, "If I can get through this week, no bullet can harm me." And that week actually was complex, but went off really, really well.

Then we got to the cars exploding, and I realized, "Well, this is actually much harder." And what's harder about it was that, trying to keep action from being generic -- from being the same gag over and over and over -- it's extremely tough. Because we have a go-to, and it's the cars flip over and blow up. And to take that and go, "Okay, well, how do I contextualize this? How do I make it matter, and how do I make it different, and how do I differentiate all their powers and their actions?"

I ended up spending as much time writing the stunts as I did writing the dialogue. Just trying to keep track of who everybody was, what they were capable of, and keeping it from being repetitive. So the thing that I feared was, it's never the bullet that you see coming.

MM: I imagine the other hard part about that is balancing a god and who can create lightning, and a guy with a bow and arrow, and giving them both the action that brings out the best in them.

JW: Yeah. Well, I feel like we pulled that off. At the end of the day, the guy with the bow and arrow is a lot easier to write gags for than the god. But we created a situation where everybody can be useful, and everybody can be in jeopardy, and they really can act as a team, even though -- as we have known from the first issue of 'The Avengers' comic -- there's no reason for these people to be on the same team.

MM: All this talk of superheroes is great, but I am also kind of curious about supervillains, specifically Dr. Horrible. Now that you are finishing "Avengers," are we looking to get another installment of his story?

JW: We have been working on that for a while. It's been hard, because we all have jobs, and some of them are extremely taxing. But we have had a vision of the thing for a while, we have been working on it, we have a bunch of songs and a few scenes. We need a little free time and right now that's plenty hard to come by.

Watch the teaser trailer for "The Avengers":