The following is a transcript of the “Joss Whedon: Meet the Filmmaker” from the Events at the Apple Store podcast. The talk was conducted by moderator David Edelstein and was released to iTunes June 3, 2013. Its description reads:
Join filmmaker Joss Whedon (“The Avengers,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and moderator David Edelstein as they discuss Whedon’s take on Shakespeare’s classic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.” Given a contemporary spin and shot in just 12 days (using the original text), the story of sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick offers a dark, sexy, and occasionally absurd view of the intricate game we call love. [X]
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Let’s take a look at the trailer for Much Ado About Nothing.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome this evening’s guest moderator, David Edelstein from New York Mag, and tonight’s guest, Joss Whedon.
Edelstein: Hi, good afternoon. Welcome. I guess you guys know that by this time that the Whedonverse is large and contains multitudes. So we’re going to do a lot of talk about Shakespeare this afternoon and then we may segue into some other things. And I’m sure you’ll have other questions too.
The film comes out of your experience, Joss, with doing a lot of Shakespeare, with being sort of comfortable with Shakespeare. You actually, I read, would have people over, people in your kind of surrogate family to just read Shakespeare for fun, and edification. Can you tell us a little about why—I’ve always dreamed about doing that at my house with my friends—how’d you get started doing it and what has Shakespeare kind of meant to you?
Whedon: We used to do it when I was a kid. My mom would do it. She had a lot of friends who were either actors or just, y’know, English teachers, enthusiasts, or just game. And then gradually, the kids got sort of involved. We got some parts ourselves. So we were always just around it. And then we when were, about ten years ago, we were doing Buffy and sort of thought there’s a lot of us out there that loved this and don’t get to flex that muscle anymore. And so let’s just sort of dive in. We thought maybe we’d do it once or twice, and then really it became a staple. At least maybe once or twice a month. Everyone would come over. There’d be snacks. I think it was the snacks actually more than the Shakespeare. Because that can really bring it.
Edelstein: Well, so, who was Sarah Michelle Geller playing, for example? Alyson Hannigan? What were their favorite Shakespeare roles? What was it like to watch—
Whedon: You know, I actually didn’t get them, except once. Aly wasn’t as comfortable doing the Shakespeare. Nor was my wife, except once my wife said, “Okay. I want to do one thing. I want to do Merry Wives of Windsor and Aly has to do it with me.” And, that was the first Shakespeare I had really seen because we saw it on our honeymoon in London. And the first she had seen that wasn’t terrible high school Shakespeare. And some high school Shakespeare is very wonderful. But there is the other kind. And I liked to think that Much Ado About Nothing is some of the finest high school Shakespeare really ever committed to film. But, y’know, not just the actors but the writers, and friends, anyone who was interested could come. It was very clear. We tried to keep it egalitarian. They were Othello one week, they’d carry a spear the week after that. You wanted to change it up. And when somebody fell out at the last minute and a really good part turned up, well, that was okay for me. But it became clear that Amy and Alexis were kind of the home-run hitters.
Edelstein: Amy Acker and Alexis…
[They talk over one another a bit, clearing up the pronunciation of ‘Denisof.’]
Whedon: …when they read Beatrice and Benedick a long while ago. At some point I have to figure out how to film this.
Edelstein: So what were the plays that kind of you hit out of the park? Was Much Ado, did that sort of loom larger than any of the others?
Whedon: That was a really fun one because they killed it. Everybody killed it. I had written the music for the songs and brought a friend of ours, Angie Hart, who’s a wonderful singer, was playing Balthasar, and brought her her husband and my brother Sam early, taught them the songs, and so when they said “Balthasar! Sing us a song!”, they actually whipped out a guitar and a mandolin, and she sang them and nobody saw that coming. So it was really fun. Every time we could add a little juice like that, it was really fun. But generally, there were a couple. We did Midsummer a couple of times. It was amazing. Othello was… I mean, there were a bunch. And I finally got to do Hamlet. Why? ‘Cause it’s my house!
Edelstein: You did this al fresco? In your living room…?
Whedon: Living room. Out back, if it was nice. You know, wherever felt right.
Edelstein: No audience? Just you guys?
Whedon: Never. Nobody was ever allowed to be there who didn’t read. Except once, James Marsters’ father. Is the only person we ever had who didn’t— If you— one line. You had one line, it was fine. But you had to read something. That rule, and no casting directors. ‘Cause I actually had a couple come and say, “I heard about this. I’d love to come and—” No, no, no. That is the opposite of what we’re doing here.
Edelstein: Before we talk about the movie more specifically, can you talk about how your familiarity with Shakespeare, did it kind of percolate down through—I hate to keep saying the Whedonverse but we all love the Whedonverse or we wouldn’t be here—did it percolate down the effect of these plays? The language, the kind of narrative daring, connect to your other work in all of the other years?
Whedon: You can’t get away from the influence of the greatest writer in your language. It’s gonna show up. For me particularly, it’s about rhythm. I would say I look at Shakespeare and I look at the Coen brothers and I go, “Goddammit. You put words in the wrong order and it works better. And that makes me mad! ‘Cause I do it, and it’s just very obvious that I did it.”
But finding the musicality of rhythm in a sentence, finding the words that not only embody what it is you’re trying— but the sound, the sound of them evokes what you’re trying to do. Words that are almost visual. That is something that is so much in him. And, not subtle. The incredible texture of humanity that he finds is amazing. But he’ll go all the way all the time. The broadest, the silliest, the meanest, the most tragic. He wears it on his sleeve and that I love.
Edelstein: You were talking about language a little bit and you have to say when I hear you talking about, we know Shakespeare coined so many words and in his syntax was so fascinating. You, in fact, are responsible for creating your own patois, if you’ll pardon my French.
Whedon: I think a little bit. But you look at the body of his work—I mean, this is a number that I read in a book, so it could be wrong—that he used something like seventeen thousand words and made up ten percent of them. I add -wise to the end of sentences and think that I’m Shakespeare-y. But I don’t think there’s really a comparison. I definitely… I love his daring and the fact that he respects language but also mutates it. That for me is very exciting. If the thing is coming across in a way that you haven’t heard but that feels familiar. That’s really important, especially if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction. When something doesn’t work, when something grates on the ear, it’s really terrible. You have to find that thing, that phrase, that sentence, that word for something that you know what it means but you’ve never heard it before. That’s a very delicate art. And a lot of the stuff that I did in Firefly was very Elizabethan. I took from everything from forties talk to Westerns, all the way back to him. And probably a little Chaucer in there too.
Edelstein: And it’s what makes the difference between the kind of flat scene you’ve seen before and something that really is transcendent.
Whedon: If it works, yes. You have to be careful. I actually wrote a line in the comic book where Xander is being that guy, and at some point Dawn just says, “Y’know sometimes you can just say the thing you’re saying.” And I think it’s very easy to fall in love with your tricks and sort of go, “Oh, wait a minute. No human has ever spoken that way and we’re falling out of the emotion of the scene.” So it’s a fine line.
Edelstein: Well, George Bernard Shaw said of that Shakespeare too, complained of that of Shakespeare. Much Ado you shot, I read, in the middle of shooting Avengers, you just wrapped on The Avengers. You had this big mess on your hand kind of narratively, you needed to try to put the story together and you went and you shot… what was it, kind of a palette cleanser? You decided on the spur of the moment to get people together and do this?
Whedon: It was fairly spur-y. Right before I finished Avengers, my wife and I had started this micro-budget studio Bellwether so that we could do things like Much Ado but hadn’t really… She was working on another project, and she just said, “We’re supposed to go on vacation in a month, and I think you should make this movie instead. You’ve talked about it for years. I’ve got the crew, you’ve got the cast. I built a house.” She made it almost impossible to say no. And so, once I looked at the text and really thought, “Oh, no. Now I know what the movie is,” it really seemed like a good idea to me. I think there’s something horribly wrong with me, but I really honor my wife for knowing that and for knowing that I would come back from it more relaxed than I had ever come back from any vacation.
Edelstein: And you had these two actors, you had Amy actor… Acker and Alexis—
Whedon: No, let’s call her Amy Actor.
Edelstein: This is, by the way, when you see the film, this is really a breakthrough performance. She is absolutely radiant. That face just reads. Can you tell us about her and about him and… about her, really.
Whedon: [laughs] Besides the fact that they’ve been dear friends of mine since I met them, Amy Acker is somebody that the moment she walked in the room, I was actually handing her her headshot to Marti Noxon and she walked into the room and it flew out of my hand and hit Marti Noxon in the face. The popular version of this story is that I turned into Jerry Lewis. I liked to think that I turned into Jimmy Stewert in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the scene where he keeps dropping his hat, but needless to say I was dorked out. And that’s never gone away in the ten years, maybe plus, that I’ve known her. She just has, besides being lovely, this just extraordinarly radiant quality and a very extraordinary precision as an actress. And I think people forget because she is so delightful. They forget how much is going on behind everything she’s doing.
Edelstein: One of the interesting things about this film when you see it is your use of close-ups. Now a lot of directors, really honored Shakespearean directors, tend to give you the proscenium arch when they shoot Shakespeare. And it seems to me that you made a decision very early on that you were going to forget, in some ways, it was a theatrical piece. You were going to get inside, you were going to do shot-countershot. Can you tell a little bit about translating Shakespeare into sort of film language?
Whedon: Well, the weird thing about that is my instinct is usually the opposite. Where I see filmmakers going in for close-ups I would rather stay wide and let everybody sort of pull the frame around and make it theirs. In something like this, there were two things at work. One of them was simply the amount of time that we had.
Edelstein: Twelve days, you said?
Whedon: Twelve big days to shoot this puppy. So we had three cameras going whenever we could and two almost always just to be sure that we were getting the best moment from everyone. There were times, like there’s the courtyard scene where he and she, where the two of them first talk, where that one take was the best, despite the fact that we had two other hidden cameras going at the same time. And it’s nice when it can flow like that.
But I didn’t want to sort of be obnoxiously theatrical about it. I wanted to capture the essence of the immediacy of theatre, and weirdly enough, by stepping away from theatre. By going in and saying, “We’re just at the party. We’re not watching it. We’re there.” And it sort of caused a reversed effect. The less theatrical I got, the more what was great about theatre came through.
Edelstein: Was Robert Altman at all an influence? I almost found it was more Altman-esque than most Shakespeare.
Whedon: I’m just going to take that and run with it. Yeah, it’s not like— I didn’t think to myself, “I’m going to make something the way Robert Altman would.” But, goddamn, I’m really pleased that you think I did. ‘Cause I’ve seen pretty much everything. He can’t not be an influence.
Edelstein: Well, he has a more casual attitude about dialogue, whereas I think you were somewhat more beholden. You did the adaptation yourself. How much of it did you cut? I was surprised that you kept a lot of the poetry in there.
Whedon: Well, I mean I cut probably a third of the play if not more. It’s a long, long play. Which nobody knows because it’s usually cut before anybody sees it. And I knew we didn’t have time to shoot anything we weren’t going to use. And also, when you’re adapting it, what you cut out is part of the story you’re telling so I also dropped at least one character and combined a couple of others. Antonio, Leonato’s brother. It’s very important for me to get into the heart of every character and I couldn’t find his. I’m like, “Buddy, you seem like exposition with a hat. So, you’re out of here.” And I didn’t miss him. And then I created the character of Leonato’s aide out of a couple of messengers and Balthasar and just because I wanted somebody who was always with Leonato to sort of just be a visual reminder of Leonato’s power that he was always attended.
Edelstein: This is one of the few films that you’ve made that’s kind of self-contained. You have shown a kind of preference for the long form narrative. For storytelling, for bringing in, for having stories continued, and characters evolving over multiple television episodes, multiple years. Even The Avengers, of course, used the backstories and relationships already established. Do you prefer the sort of long form of television to the self-contained world of movies?
Whedon: I prefer things about it. There’s definitely something really personal and novelistic about the way you can get into a character and just keep unearthing more and more and more about them and subverting them and learning about them. And it’s also a wonderful way to create a dialogue with an actor.
The most obvious example being Amy Acker, played the role of Fred on Angel. We did a reading of Romeo and Juliet where she played Lady Capulet. And for the first time ever I saw her turn off the Acker. I saw her not be charming. I saw the coldness. And I was like, “I’m going to kill Fred! This is awesome!” [Referring to the accent he just adopted] Because at the time, I was a old-timey prospector. [Accent again.] ”Eh. We’re going to make some angels. It’s going to be fun. Eh-heh. Demons.” [Attempts to start again. Has difficulty.] But he keeps coming back, the old-timey prospector. He harrows at my very soul.
But if you’re doing a show over a long period of time and you’re with an actor and you’re just having them do the same thing over and over, it’s deadening for them. It’s deadening for me as a writer. And to be able to have that back and forth and realize, “Oh! Tony Head can sing. Well, let’s see what we can do with that.” I was very angry when I found out that Jillian, who plays Hero, could juggle after we shot the party scene. Not sure she’s coming back from that one.
Edelstein: What you could tell from something even like The Avengers is you really love actors. Are you a bit of a stage-door Johnny? I know you said you were kind of dorking out when Amy Acker first walked in the room.
Whedon: Well, she hadn’t acted yet… I obviously acted in school. I’m a wannabe, in a huge way, which I think is useful as a writer and a director because as a writer, when you’re writing something you’re saying it. And that means if it doesn’t fit in the human mouth you’re going to at some point figure that out. The rhythms of the thing. If you can’t sell it and you wrote it, then you know nobody else can. And as a director, you just appreciate the, and I appreciated this a lot more after we did the Shakespeare readings, the kind of concentration that they’re bringing. Everyone always says, “Oh, acting! That’s an easy job.” And yes, it is not ditch-digging. But there is an enormous vulnerability and an enormous concentration and very hard work that goes into acting. None of the people in this cast, which is all made of people that I took away, are in any way lazy or in any way coasting on what they can do. Every single one of them is trying to be better and is bringing their best every single day. And that’s something that I not only respect, I adore.
Edelstein: The last question I’m going to ask about Much Ado is about Nathan Fillion, whom most people know as the star of Firefly and of Serenity the film.
Whedon: He never did anything after that. [amidst laughter] He’s mine. All mine!
Edelstein: An extraordinary actor but doing something here, he plays kind of the comic relief, the idiot constable Dogberry who I’ve seen many times, who is usually very kind of hammy and extroverted. He, this sounds anachronistic, but he’s given to malapropisms. Mrs. Malaprop came much later. But, the key to the performance is he underplays everything. And he’s the funniest Dogberry I’ve ever seen. Tell me about his characterization and also working with him. ‘Cause he’s quite extraordinary.
Whedon: [sarcastic groan] Such a diva.
He and Alexis are basically my role models. And for two very different reasons. Alexis is very much a seeker. He’s somebody who is always striving to be a better man. Nathan is just Canadian. He’s fine. It’s great. He’s just like, “I’m good.” But he is. He’s the most polite, most dedicated, most humble. And hilarious. With this, he did something that I’ve never seen him do before, which was really adorable, he desperately tried to get out of it. Part of that was his Castle schedule was a nightmare. Part of it was the only Shakespeare he’d ever done was in my backyard. And he just did not think he could do it. Which is, when you see the film, just hilarious. Because he does. He closes the book on Dogberry in a way that is really hard to imagine.
And I knew exactly what I wanted and so did he, and it’s something he’s very good at. We basically played all the constable stuff as SVU. That was it. Even to the point where we wanted the interrogation room, and when he says, “They are both in a tale” basically it’s like he’s talking to the ADA. I mean, we were very specific about that. And when Spencer Treat Clarke, who plays Borachio, I said to him, “Look. When you’re being interrogated, I want you to imagine you’re being interrogated by Chris Meloni on SVU.” And Spencer said, “I’ve been interrogated by Chris Meloni on SVU. Twice.” Okay. You’re good. We’ll rehearse another scene.
[Interrogation scene from the film plays.]
Edelstein: If any of you have suffered through comic relief in Shakespeare that wasn’t funny, I think you’ll really appreciate these scenes. You have a new surrogate family right now? Is that primarily what you’re doing now? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Is this your world at the moment?
Whedon: That has been my world. I’m about to… Right now my world is telling people to go see Much Ado About Nothing. But, yeah. I’ve been working on S.H.I.E.L.D. pretty much all year and have finished the pilot. The writers’ room is up and running. Started shooting episodes in June. Good God. But, I’m about to sort of slide into a very grandfatherly position on that one because I’m supposed to make this other movie.
Edelstein: I’m sorry. I don’t— can’t know what you’re referring to.
Whedon: Much Ado About Nothing Else.
Edelstein: That’s what I thought. ‘Cause there has to be a sequel.
Whedon: Well, yeah, I guess.
Edelstein: So one last question about Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., then we’ll open it up the— Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Is the mythology of these characters, has it been well established? I’m not a comic scholar. Or did you create this out of whole cloth, these characters?
Whedon: The characters we created out of whole cloth. I wrote it with Jed and Maurissa. Agent Coulson is obviously Agent Coulson. The Marvel universe is the Marvel Cinematic—
Edelstein: He’s back from the dead, presumably? Or is this pre?
Whedon: This is not pre. This is post, this is post. How you say? Tune in. Tuesdays at 8. What is shame? Yeah, he’s back. We’ll explain that. And then everybody else in this sort of situation, we created ourselves. But the universe will be a mix of things we’re culling from what’s already in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some stuff from the comics book universe that hasn’t been utilized. Hopefully, it will be a seamless blend because what we don’t want to do it turn it into an Easter egg farm. We want it to be its own show where if you’ve never seen a Marvel movie you can love these people. And I love these people. And I love Coulson, in particular, because they represent the side that is always so important to me: in a world of superheroes, what is it like when you’re not one? And the Avengers sort of changed things in the Marvel world because now everybody knows. There’s no secrets anymore. That expands the sort of possibilities for what’s going on in the world. And what S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to need to do about it so… that’s sort of where we’ll be.
Edelstein: And also, you were in a position in The Avengers having money just thrown at you. Tens, hundreds of millions of dollars and now you’re presumably on a more constricted budget. Has that been an issue?
Whedon: Oooooh, yes. Yes. Episode one is amazing. And episode two, they have tea. Really good tea.
Edelstein: What is that called? A bottle show? Is that the—
Whedon: Yeah, we’ll do the bottle show second. No, y’know. There’s always that tension. There’s not enough money; there’s not enough time. If the characters work, if the actors are getting it done, if the writers are getting it done, if the stories are compelling and well-structured, then it doesn’t actually matter. You won’t go, “Wow. I had hoped to see more explosions.” That’s never going to happen. If you have the story and you know how to convey it, nothing else matters. And if you don’t, nothing else matters.
Edelstein: Let’s open it up to you guys. Questions?
Audience 1: I just want to say, Mr. Whedon, I’ve been a huge fan of yours since watching Buffy in high school. It’s, like, you’ve done a lot of incredible things. My question is: will we see more of Thanos in Avengers 2?
Whedon: I think he might be around. He didn’t get stabbed, and apparently that doesn’t even stop people. How much? I cannot say.
Audience 2: You’re a writer. Could you say a little about your inspiration about that? What it means to you? Everything you do?
Whedon: If what we’re saying as storytellers doesn’t reflect what the audience is feeling, then we’re blowing it. I definitely think there’s a moment and, believe it or not, that moment was Alien: Resurrection where I went from being a yarn-spinner to being a storyteller. Where I went, “Oh. This idea of what she’s going through, this beautiful woman who feels less than human, that’s something a lot of people are going through with their identities.” And I also was like, “Okay. I have to bring somebody back from the dead. Um. That’s got to be pretty weird. That’s got to feel pretty weird for the audience, so it probably should for her.” And those connections. But particularly that scene Ripley and Call, where Call says, “Look at me. I’m disgusting.” And she’s Winona Ryder. And that to me, the tumblers went dt-dt-click.
And… that was right when I was creating Buffy I wrote that. And it became clear, “Okay. This metaphor. High school is horrible. That’s a horror movie. And then, that’s it.” I look back at the people who influenced me, and they were all doing that. I never actually studied writing. I did a lot of literature courses, but I never took a writing class or anything like that. So, there’s a lot of obvious things that came to me kind of late.
But, I look at Shakespeare, in particular Much Ado About Nothing, I believe that he is deconstructing the romantic comedy while he’s creating it. This really is the mother of all romantic comedies. And yet, while he’s in the course of the film, he’s basically pulling apart the very idea of romance. I look particularly at Sondheim, whose songs are always not just the idea but the reason behind the song. He’ll sort of get into why anybody needs to hear this song or what it means beyond just “Hey! I’m in love.” And just who that character is. To be able to play and to connect with the audience as viscerally as possible. And also to look at the form and say, “Why this?” If I’m going to write a mystery, I’m going to want at some point ask the question, “Why are we writing mysteries?” And the most obvious version of that obviously is The Cabin in the Woods. Which is where I’ve just stopped pretending and said, “This is what I’m thinking about. What do you think? Oh! And here’s a unicorn.”
Edelstein: Can I just quickly ask, did your experience on Ripley then translate into you knowing at some point that Buffy was going to come back from the dead and have to confront the idea of having been dead for as long as she did and resolve herself to that?
Whedon: No. But I think I was less afraid of it when it came up. I mean, you do something like that and first thing you say, “Ah, look. Don’t want to do that again.” And then… And after I did Serenity, I said, “Ugh. Introducing all these characters, and they’ve already been introduced in something else, and there’s so many of them, and then they have to get together and do— I’ll never do that again.” The whole time I’m writing Avengers, I’m like, “What is wrong with me? I’m like a goldfish!”
Audience 3: Hi, Joss. I’m wondering what your creative process is for writing. Do you visualize things in your head before you start writing? Do you work better by yourself or collaborate with people?
Whedon: To be in a good writers’ room is a great joy. When you’re really firing and it’s bouncing between all of you, it’s like playing hackey sack, which is another great joy. But ultimately my favorite times have been when I’m alone, which is both beautiful and sad. For me, it’s all happening before I write down a word. I’m creating the entire thing. It’s going in my head. I tend not to sit at all until the scene is almost completely written. And then sometimes I’ll be writing it and it’ll start to further itself as I’m going. But most of the work is done by pacing. If I don’t have the right pacing space, I’m in a lot of trouble.
Audience 4: Joss, I just want to say thank you very much for everything. I have two questions that are really quick. One is, you have an amazing rolodex of actors that you always use. Is there any actor that you’ve always wanted to use that you haven’t yet? And the second thing is that if you need a PA for The Avengers 2 I am by the phone. Please call me. Thank you.
Whedon: Honestly, there are a few actors you go, “Oh! Me and Daniel Day Lewis. We get along so well.” There’s a slew of them, but… I don’t… that’s not my M.O. exactly. I can’t even create for the people I love. When I’m creating something, that it is itself. Then later on I go, “Oh. Maybe this person could play it.” So it’s not like a wish list. I could do what Woody Allen did with September and refilm this entire thing with a different cast because I know so many people who are unbelievably talented and so many of them who are not in this. But, I’m not going to because that’s ridiculous. I have so many great people to draw from. It’s just a question of when will I work with them again.
Edelstein: You hit it out of the park with Mark Ruffalo. Was that your casting? What do you think of him as a performer?
Whedon: He’s stunning. I adore that guy. He is incapable of being forced or unnatural. He’s the sweetest guy in the world. I thought of him to play Banner and I thought, “There’s no way Marvel’s going to go for this.” And, it turns they had already wanted him. That he had been on their list from the start. So, I was shocked and delighted. But he’s such a… he’s an everyman. He really just has this sort of low-key naturalism that just pops in a way that’s hard to explain. And, that’s who he is in conversation. The first time we talked about— I flew here to talk to him about playing the part. We talked about rage, and we talked about the meaning of it and different experiences, and what makes us “Hulk out.” We both had the same answer: our daughters. And just how it manifests physically. And all this different stuff. What we thought of the old ones. We talked for… over lunch, a couple of hours, and then walked around a little bit. I got back to my hotel… all these frantic emails from Marvel. They’re like, “What? What’s going on? What happened?” I’m like, “I told you I’d call you when I got back.” They’re like, “It’s been four hours.” I was like, “Oh. I was busy with my man-crush. So I didn’t notice.” He’s just phenomenal. He and Clark. They’re both the kind of people that you just feel like you knew them growing up.
Edelstein: Clark Gregg.
Audience 5: Speaking of Clark Gregg, as somebody who’s been carrying around a “Coulson Lives” button on my bag for a year now, I just wanted to thank you for your part in bringing him back to life. You’re going to be spending so much time with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with Avengers 2, and this is great. But what does that mean to, say, a follow-up to Dr. Horrible or another Shakespeare or some of these other smaller projects that you’ve been wanting to do?
Whedon: It means they get the shaft. It means they get pushed to the unforeseeable future. Taking on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I perhaps didn’t do all the math. I actually had out in my contract for Avengers to do the smaller stuff. All time of which I used up on S.H.I.E.L.D. Nice going. Hopefully S.H.I.E.L.D. will be wonderful and people will forgive me. But I didn’t realize I was making a trade-off, and I might’ve done something differently. But then if I had, you might not have a living Coulson so… you never know.
Audience 6: I’ll just— Thank you. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog seems to be the work that stands out in my head as one of your defining tragedies, and it fits a very Aristotelian structure. Did you go in knowing you wanted to write that kind of story? Or did become that as you were writing it?
Whedon: It became that. I knew that I wanted to tell his story, and it evolved. First, it was just the idea of doing a sort of podcast diary. And then it was this fictionalized, even more fictionalized. Then it was Dr. Horrible. And then it was there’s a strike, maybe we could do this with actual live people. I think it was Zack who said, “The ending should feel sad.” I’m like, “Yeah! Let’s kill Penny!” And he was like, “I meant like sort of bittersweet?” I was like, “I don’t know. What is sweet?” And as soon as I said it, to me, it became an inevitability. It became, “No, actually. Everything in it is leading towards that. Everything he’s doing wrong in his life and in his mode of thinking is going to lead to that.” Sometimes these things lay themselves out. And sometimes you find something and realize they’ve been laying themselves out. And this was one of those times.
Audience 7: Hi. I mean this in a totally nice way but do you ever get tired of being clever? And if so, how did the Shakespearean form of comedy, working on this, how did that meld with your sense of humor and the text? Did you ever feel stretched? And in other times did you feel like “Oh. I totally get this. I love this kind of joke”?
Whedon: Always. I’m so— Words good. Me, all the time. I’m not entirely sure, clever though I am, what you mean. But, the thing I love is, and particularly about this text, is that no matter how witty people are, how articulate they are about what’s going, they usually have no idea what’s actually going on with them. And that, to me— Some of the most beautiful writing is about non-communication.
That’s hard for me. I tend to write people who stand up and go, “Hey! I’m this guy exactly.” Shakespeare does that with his villains very well. I tend to do with everyone, “I’m the best garbage man ever, and here’s why.” “I disagree with you.” I mean everyone’s like the debate team. I think I suffer from that problem. Possibly Aaron Sorkin suffers from a similar problem. Y’know, I’m a huge fan but we both have that desire to write to articulate something with people and for them to really shine. But sometimes you watch things— But what I love about Shakespeare is that you watch it and they can do that, but at the same time you’re just watching them crumble. You’re watching them have no idea what’s really going on. So, whether or not people are clever, they’re still going to suffer. They’re still not going to get it. And somebody going to die.
Edelstein: It seems to me—
Whedon: Though not in this! Can’t stress that enough.
Edelstein: Don’t give anything away. It seems to me that you’ve learned to be clever on the surface and yet have the tragic subtext bubble up from below. And that’s happened to your work gradually, that you’ve learned to do that.
Whedon: Well, I mean it’s… It’s, ah… I don’t know, I… I… [beat] I do love the hyperarticulation but more and more I am more interested in the way we start to misunderstand. And it does— I do remember just in “Objects in Space” when I was doing Firefly, I had a little moment where somebody says something and he’s mishears him. He says, “Are you Alliance?” And he says, “Am I a lion? I don’t think of myself as a lion. You may as well though. I have a mighty roar.” And then he says, “No. I said Alliance.” He’s like, “Oh.” And it was a weird little break-through for me. I was like, “Oh my God. Language is so much more interesting when people don’t know how they’re using it.”
Edelstein: That’s pure Midsummer’s Night Dream. And we have the last question, I think?
Audience 8: Thank you so much for making my childhood and my adulthood. Kind of my life. You’ve kind of been the entertainment for my life. What is the entertainment for your life? What entertains the entertainer?
Whedon: And, who watches those guys who are looking at people? Honestly, Shakespeare. Comic books, Marvel comic books. Sondheim. You know, all the things that you would expect. Dickens. Nobody with any subtlety. I will not have it! And, y’know, I mentioned the Coen brothers already. And I obviously was eleven when Star Wars came out, so I’m not immune to that at all. I’m a huge science fiction buff. And, y’know, anything that I get my hands on has the potential to entertain me.
I do think that’s the really essence of being a creator. You can’t— If you limit yourself, it’ll start to show because what we’re all doing is… stealing. No. We’re reinterpreting what we’ve experienced. Or, in my case, what we’ve read or seen because I don’t actually experience things. That’s sounds hard. So, those are the big headlines. But really, what’s exciting is the stuff you don’t see coming. It’s like the college course that you took on a whim that you’ll never forget. Those are the things that really help.
Edelstein: After you guys see Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll probably want to come back in a few years after Avengers 2. We should all meet here to talk about his next Shakespeare film. Is that alright?
Whedon: We’ll all be here. How’s five? Five? Or should it be five, or five-thirty?