A little movie called THE AVENGERS just opened. Chances are good you’ve heard of it.
Chances are also good you’ve heard of Joss Whedon, the gentleman who directed the film and wrote the script, working from a story he and Zak Penn co-created, based on the Marvel Comics. Whedon, an Oscar nominee for his work on the original TOY STORY screenplay, won a New Media Emmy for his Internet musical DOCTOR HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG. He also created the TV series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL (with David Greenwalt), FIREFLY and DOLLHOUSE, wrote and directed the feature film FIREFLY continuation SERENITY and produced and co-wrote (with Drew Goddard) CABIN IN THE WOODS, in theatres now.
However, THE AVENGERS is the biggest project Whedon has tackled to date – then again, THE AVENGERS is one of the biggest projects anybody involved with it has handled, what with all those disparate superheroes warily joining forces in one movie.
At a recent press conference in Los Angeles, Whedon talks about working on AVENGERS. Flanking him are several AVENGERS cast members – Cobie Smulders who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, Jeremy Renner, who plays the super-archer Agent Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, Tom Hiddleston, who plays the villainous Asgardian alien Loki, and Clark Gregg, who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson.
Modern cinematic history is full of comic book adaptations. What does Whedon think makes the difference between a good one and a bad one?
“Well,” Whedon says, “there’s all sorts, but for me, it’s capturing the essence of the comic and being true to what’s wonderful about it, while remembering that it’s a movie and not a comic book. I think SPIDER-MAN, the first one particularly, really captured [that]. They figured out the formula of, ‘Oh, tell the story that they told in the comic, it was compelling, that’s why it’s iconic.’ But at the same time, they did certain things that only a movie can do, and that were in the vein of the comic. I think you see things like THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, where they just throw out the comic, or WATCHMEN, where they do it frame for frame, and neither of them work. You have to give the spirit of the thing, and then step away from that and make something cinematic and new.”
The whole of THE AVENGERS looks like it was tough to make, but what did Whedon find most challenging about it? For that matter, what did he find most exciting?
“I think the exciting thing kind of speaks for itself,” Whedon replies. “That bunch of characters, that bunch of actors playing them, that much money – it’s kind of a no-brainer. The hardest part is and always will be structure – how do you put that together? How do you make everybody shine? How do you let the audience’s identification drift from person to person without making them feel like they’re not involved? It’s a very complex structure. It’s not necessarily particularly ornate or original, but it had to be right, it had to be earned from moment to moment, and that’s exhausting. That was still going on in the editing room after we’d shot.”
Finding the right balance between accommodating newcomers to THE AVENGERS universe and still pleasing viewers familiar with the Marvel comics and/or the movie adaptations leading up to the new film – IRON MAN, IRON MAN 2, THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA – was one of the trickiest aspects of Whedon’s job. “It’s the same problem I had with SERENITY,” Whedon says, referring to making the bigscreen follow-up to his FIREFLY TV series, “and swore I’d never have again. Tracking information is almost as difficult – more difficult, because it’s not much fun, as tracking the emotion. You have to know how much people need to know – because some people come in knowing everything and you don’t want to tell them too much, and some people come in knowing nothing, and you don’t even want to tell them too much. It’s fun to see a movie that has texture beyond what you understand necessarily. Like when I watched WALL STREET, I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I was very compelled by it. It clearly mattered a lot. Or when I watch a movie about sports, I feel the same way. If you feel there is a life behind the life, there’s life outside the frame, then you feel good about it, so you don’t necessarily have to lay everything out, but organizing that is and was the most exhausting part of the film. Because writing the stuff between the characters, that’s just candy, that’s booze and candy all day.”
How did Whedon come up with the specific dynamics between the characters that we see in THE AVENGERS? “You know,” Whedon says, “you have to write something that you believe in. CaptainAmerica [aka Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans] was kind of my Ground Zero for this film. The idea of someone who had been in World War Two and seeing people laying down their lives in the worst kind of circumstances in a world where the idea of community and the idea of a man being somebody who is part of something, as opposed to being isolated from or bigger than or more famous than – it’s a very different concept of manhood and the way that in my opinion it’s kind of devolved from Steve to Tony [Stark, aka Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr.] is kind of fascinating. Honestly, you’re not going to stand around and speechify too much – a little bit – but the idea of the soldier, the idea of the person who’s willing to lay down their life, is very different than the idea of a superhero. And since I wanted to make, from the start, a war movie, I wanted to put these guys through more than they went through in their own superhero movie, it was very important for me to build that concept and have Tony reject that concept on every level, so that at the end, when he’s willing to make the sacrifice play, he’s willing to lay himself down on the wire, and you get where he’s come and how Steve has affected him.”
In planning out the visuals of THE AVENGERS, many of them comic-book epic, what was Whedon’s approach?: “My approach to spectacle was kind of wrong-headed,” Whedon replies, “but the most important thing for me was that it not be spectacle for its own sake, that it be earned, that it be believable, that it be understandable visually, that you knew exactly where things were, what was at stake, who had to get where from where and how and what was in their way. I tend to be very pedantic about that, I don’t just want a blur of things crashing around, I want to know how everybody is doing. I think sometimes I would try to obey the laws of physics, and that would actually just make for weaker footage. In AVENGERS, I just had to give myself up and realize that, you know, any time a car is hit by anything, it blows up and flips over, [even if] a hamster could have hit it.”
While Whedon is full of praise for all of his actors, he particularly wants people to know about the work of Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill, who is technically not a superhero but nonetheless displays notable physical prowess. “First of all,” Whedon says, “Cobie is one of the best stunt people on the AVENGERS team. She did all her own jumping and flipping and shooting and stuff. She’s got that tomboy thing.” He addresses Smulders directly. “I was trying to add frames to that shot of you flipping and shooting, so that people could see your face and know that it wasn’t a stunt woman.”
There are some unexpected secondary characters in THE AVENGERS, notably including Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, who is also in the IRON MAN films as the love interest for Downey’s Tony Stark. “As far as the support troops go,” Whedon explains, “my first instinct was not to have anybody from any of [the other films], partially because you need to separate the characters from their support systems in order to create the isolation they need for a team, put them in new environments, but also so that when they would go back to their own movies, they’d have something that THE AVENGERS didn’t have. I wasn’t interested in sucking the juice out of all the sequels that are going to be coming up. But Pepper – this was really Robert’s thing. He pushed hard. He didn’t want to be crazy alone guy, he wanted to be crazy in a relationship guy. And he really thought Gwyneth would bring something great to the table and we all thought so, too, but he’s the one who said, ‘Come do it.’ And that made sense, because he’s been through two movies, [his character has] had more of a journey and he is in more of a stable place. But you can still be that and be completely isolated form the world in the tower that he built.”
Another interesting casting choice is Harry Dean Stanton in a small but crucial role as a security guard who encounters Mark Ruffalo’s somewhat traumatized Bruce Banner after he returns to himself after manifesting as the Hulk. “You know, the love scene was cut,” Whedon jokes about the Ruffalo/Stanton sequence, “but I needed to get Banner from the horror of what he had done, almost killing Natasha [Scarlett Johansson’s character], to a place where he was prepared to go back into that state. And I thought a lot about it, and I thought, ‘You need somebody who will just accept him.’ And Seamus [McGarvey], our d.p., was actually shooting a documentary about Harry Dean, and was spending a lot of time with him. I said, ‘I’ve got him stuck in my head,’ and it was like, ‘Who’s more accepting than Harry Dean Stanton?’ And so I got to write this weird little scene, which when I wrote it was not little – it was about twelve pages long – and I was like, ‘Oh, this is great! Bruce Banner falls into a Coen Brothers movie!’ And the fact that they let me keep that concept and that we actually landed Harry Dean to play it was very exciting. The idea was to put [Banner] in a slightly surreal situation with somebody who clearly had no problem with what he was, just to make that transition without milking it too much. And besides, to work with Harry Dean and to quiz him about ALIEN and MISSOURI BREAKS – what a privilege.”
A debate that’s been raging since THE AVENGERS was first announced concerns the species of aliens that align themselves with the movie’s villain. Whedon is aware this is a loaded issue for many of the more passionate fans. “Well the alien race are the Chitauri, or a version of them, because they’re not one of the key races and they don’t have a storied history and really, that wasn’t the point. I know this debate will go on long after I’m dead. So let’s say it was the Kree-Skrull race and really make everybody angry.”
Although – or perhaps because – they are similar to his beloved mediums of comics and films, Whedon says he never plays videogames. “I actually don’t own any videogames, because if I start playing one, that will be it. I’ll be gone and I won’t be able to do this,” referring to writing, directing, producing and general human interaction with that last phrase.
Whedon is great in handling the press, but he does seem to get hammered with the same questions on occasion. Asked about a recent online question-and-answer session, he says, “The highlight was any question that wasn’t about why I kill characters. Any question where they don’t ask me that is okay.”
Having worked with Marvel on THE AVENGERS, does Whedon have any advice for Warner Brothers on their planned film adaptation of DC Comics JUSTICE LEAGUE?
“Call me,” Whedon deadpans and the room erupts in laughter. When order is at last restored, he continues, “Honestly, I would just say it’s enormously difficult to take very disparate characters and make them work. And DC has a harder time of it than Marvel, because [DC’s] characters are from a bygone era, when characters were bigger than we were. And they’ve amended that, but Marvel really cracked the code in terms of, ‘Oh, they’re just like us.’ So a dose of that veracity that Marvel really started with IRON MAN – I think you need to use that as your base.”
Is there a particular moment during the AVENGERS shoot that stands out in Whedon’s mind as most memorable? “I don’t remember any of it,” Whedon jokes, then provides a more serious response. “[It is] super-boring, but people kept asking me, ‘Are you excited that you’re directing this movie?’ And I kept saying, ‘I will be. I don’t feel things necessarily in the moment, but it’ll happen.’ And we were in the lab [set] where almost all of the Avengers get together for the first time, and I was giving Chris Evans [who plays Steve Rogers/Captain America] a piece of direction, and I walked into the hall and I stopped and I just said to the producers, ‘It happened. I’ll tell you later.’ That was the moment – it just sort of flooded over me. I was just, ‘Oh, that’s nice. Excitement.’ That was it.”
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Article: Interview: THE AVENGERS Director Joss Whedon captures the essence of the comics