This is a Joss Whedon story.
Which means this is the story of an overlooked underdog who rises up, embraces destiny, and strives to make the world a better place as part of a powerful team. It means there will be heartfelt speeches, smart humor, frequent pop culture references, and tales of fighting bullies and sinister corporations. There is also darkness— or at least the fear of it. Whedon arrived as a blockbuster filmmaker with last year’s top-grossing superhero mash-up The Avengers, which he’s spinning off into an ABC series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which premieres tonight. But as his devoted fan base knows, Whedon struggled to tell his wondrous stories in Hollywood’s trenches for years. A third-generation TV writer (his grandfather and father worked on shows ranging from Leave It to Beaver to The Golden Girls), Whedon created beloved culty TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, as well as the online musical smash Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog; he’s also directed other films including this year’s indie darling Much Ado About Nothing.
Whedon’s story opens on the run, which is how you find him nowadays. We accompanied the 49-year-old writer-producer-director as he trekked from an EW photo shoot, raced along a Los Angeles freeway to the Marvel offices (where he’s plotting The Avengers: Age of Ultron), and then took a much-deserved breather at a coffee shop. The instant our interview concluded, a fan asked, “Is your name Joss?” and his attention spun away again.
EW Did you spend a lot of time by yourself as a kid?
JOSS WHEDON I spent a ton of time alone. I was raised by a feminist, I had a terrifying father, and oppressively scary and mean brothers. We had a farm. The rule was between breakfast and lunch you weren’t allowed to make a sound. “Quiet time” is what we called it, because my mom was writing. So what are you doing? You’re either writing, or you’re eating, or you’re walking up and down your driveway creating giant science-fiction universes and various elaborate vengeance schemes upon your brothers. At our apartment in New York, I’d stay in my room and listen to [Star Wars composer] John Williams and make up stories. I was afraid because every time I went outside in Manhattan, I got mugged. I remember being in my room and going, “Oh, I’m alone, but not lonesome. I have a family. They are people. But I’m all alone.” For me, that’s a defining trait.
Were you beaten up?
Only once. The first time I got mugged. They kicked me around a lot.
How old were you?
Thirteen. A tiny 13-year-old. I was small for my age.
That must have made an impression.
I’ll tell you what made an impression. I was going to a newsstand on Broadway where I got my comic books. I saw these guys, there were like five of them, and I thought, “Those guys are going to mug me.” I started walking, then I just bolted. I get to the store—it’s closed. So I duck under them with a certain degree of athletic precision and run the other way. But they catch up with me, grab me by the hair, throw me to the ground, and start kicking me around. This is the part I remember: We were on Broadway during rush hour. It was filled with people. They parted like the sea and walked around us. That’s an impression that doesn’t go away.
A 13-year-old goes to buy comic books, the older boys beat him up, and nobody helps. It sounds like the first scene in a superhero origin story.
Yeah. In my [unused] pitch for Batman Begins, there was a scene where [young Bruce Wayne] takes on some older kids— and wins. For me, it was the key to the whole movie. Where he goes from being “I’m just morbidly obsessed with death” to “I can work the problem; I can actually do something about it.” Beautiful revelations of power are often written by the guy who got kicked around and didn’t have any power. Although they didn’t get my money.
You’re associated with strong female characters—and you credit your mother for that—yet as a teenager you went to an all-male boarding school in England.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a classic high school show; I assumed I knew what it was like. Who I was had been crafted long before I went to England. It was an extraordinary experience, and I was, like, the worst student in the school. It seems like I shouldn’t have been.
You’ve said that the school had good pot—
Well, the school didn’t have good pot…
Okay, the area had good pot. Is that still a part of your lifestyle?
I think weed’s a fine thing, for the enjoyment of and, occasionally, for thinking about movies. I don’t use it socially because it does not improve my socializing. And I never, ever smoke unless it’s the last thing I do that day because there’s a long period of stupid that comes after it that’s pretty useless. You don’t need it, but every now and then it takes you to a different place.
Is there any specific idea you credit to it?
There’s one or two, but I’m not going to say which.[pagebreak]
Your dad was a TV writer, but what’s so unusual is that your first position in the industry was as a staff writer on Roseanne—it’s like applying for your first restaurant job and getting hired as a chef.
I didn’t study writing. I didn’t write anything substantial until I got to California. “Oh, I need a job, television is a job, I should try that out.” Then I started and I was like, “Oh, this is the love of my life. I get it now.” It took me a year and five spec scripts, but I got a job on what I considered to be the best show on TV, which is bonkers. I’m well aware that’s bonkers—going from working at the video store on a Friday to Roseanne on a Monday.
You don’t have a very teachable history.
“What advice do you have for aspiring writers?” “Well, first, have your father and grandfather be in the industry so you know it backwards before you ever set pen to paper.” “Oh, okay, thanks.” I’m well aware when they fired the starting gun I was halfway down the track, but I still ran as fast as I could for 25 years.
There’s a story you’ve told about working on Roseanne. After a round of tabloid attacks, Roseanne yelled at the writers, and it taught you that “every time somebody opens their mouth they have an opportunity to do one of two things—-connect or divide.”
It’s been as big of a game changer for me as anything. Because her preamble was “They’re all out to get us,” she created this cocoon of safety. Then she ended with “And if any of you ever talks to the press, I’ll f- - -ing fire you.” I was like, “Wow! That was like a twist ending! I didn’t see that coming!” That’s when I realized this is not the Saint Crispin’s Day speech. This was a threat. I was so in her corner because her life was insane and her work was groundbreaking as a feminist. A lot of us would have followed her straight into battle and taken that hill, but she turned us away.
You actually wanted to be a filmmaker more than a writer, which was how the Buffy the Vampire Slayer film script came about. You wanted a script that you could direct.
But nobody would [let me]. I was doing well in films, selling things, rewriting things. And then I’d say, “I’d like to direct,” and they’d look at me like I’m saying “I’d like to give babies more cancer.”
I love that the first draft was titled Martha the Immortal Waitress.
It was the idea of somebody that you discount that has a secret and the weight of wisdom. I always wanted the person who nobody pays attention to to have a cool secret. It’s so obvious. I’m so obvious. Subtlety is for little men. And I look back at my work and see a rage-filled hormonal autobiography that spans over four different series—five now—and several films. There’s lots of fear, lots of love and confusion and sex, and deep-seated anger at the bullies of the world, be they corporations or demons. I don’t have a ton of enemies. I get along with people pretty well when I’m not annoying them to death. But there’s a lot of inarticulate emotion that I articulate pretty well when I’m in the guise of a teenage girl.
You’ve said, “I talk better through other people.”
As I’m proving in this interview!
When The WB was interested in a TV version, they begged you to change the title from Buffy. I’m amazed you had the clout to keep it back then.
This is something that I do consider to be good advice: I took my first paycheck and I put it in the goddamn bank. Then I took my second paycheck and put it in the goddamn bank. I had seen the roller coaster of my father’s career—top of the world, then unemployed, top of the world, then unemployed—and I never wanted to take a job because I needed money, and I never have. I saved my money, so when I went, for instance, to The WB with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I said, “This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you want something LIKE Buffy the Vampire Slayer, God bless, I’m outta here. If you want THIS, this is what I’m doing.” The one thing a creator can bring to the table when everybody else has all the money and power is a centeredness and the ability to walk away. Never sit at a table you can’t walk away from.
It’s the one superpower a Hollywood writer has.
I look back and think, “I could have been more confrontational, I could have been more rebellious.” I have a pathological fear of confrontation. I’m working on that. Dollhouse was the one time I looked around and said, “I don’t know what show I’m making.” It had sort of been eaten away from the center. I loved the show; we got to do some beautiful work. But it was the only time I felt like, “Am I steering this ship? Our ship? Are we the iceberg? I don’t have a metaphor here!”
Because Fox was uncomfortable with exploring some of the basic foundations of the show—about a group of young women programmed to fill the needs of wealthy clients—in terms of sexuality–
They were totally comfortable with it until [Fox owner News Corp.’s then president] Peter Chernin said, “This sounds like prostitution.” Then Fox did an about-face that was dazzling in its speed and precision.[pagebreak]
Buffy, along with a couple other shows, pioneered the modern serialized drama. Do you feel it gets the credit it deserves?
Well, you just said that, so it’s getting some! There are so many things that influenced what I was doing. The idea of wrapping up a story [each week] but keeping a through-line for the characters involved—I don’t think I came up with that. But every now and then you can’t help [feeling like] bitter, petty people: “Oh, another metaphorical monster show about teenagers and their emotions. Well, fine.” But honestly, if anybody should be paid royalties for things they didn’t make, [The Silence of the Lambs author] Thomas Harris should probably be paid by every other TV show for the sexy serial-killer concept.
When Twilight and The Vampire Diaries came along, what did you think about them?
A small part of you is like, “Well, you know, I did that first. I liked that band before they were popular.” The thing about Buffy for me is—on a show-by-show basis—are there female characters who are being empowered, who are driving the narrative? The Twilight thing, and a lot of these franchise attempts coming out, everything rests on what this girl will do, but she’s completely passive or not really knowing what the hell is going on. And that’s incredibly frustrating to me because a lot of what’s taken on the oeuvre of Buffy is actually a reaction against it. Everything is there except for the Buffy. A lot of things aimed at the younger kids is just Choosing Boyfriends: The Movie.
For a long time nobody really cared who the TV showrunner was, then with you and The X-Files’ Chris Carter and a few others, it began to matter.
It stunned me. The idea that a showrunner would be any kind of quasi-celebrity was hilarious. We went to Comic-Con—me, Nick Brendon, and Alyson Hannigan—after the first season of Buffy had aired, and we’re like, “Do we have any fans?” And we walk out in the hall and there they are, cheering. “Oh! We do! This is nice.” But then the whole time we were doing the signing, I kept saying, “It’s okay, you can just have the actors, you don’t need me to sign that.” I could not conceive that they actually wanted me to sign something. It took a long time for me to figure out (a) just say “Thank you” and sign the thing, and (b) smile in the picture, because if you try to just half-smile you’re going to look constipated.
But you’ve fostered that relationship with fans, too. You go to Comic-Con every year for a panel where fans can ask you anything.
It’s an ego boost—not gonna lie. It’s also where all of my friends gather. I was always about interacting with people partially because I was so gratified that people would care. Partially there’s a business aspect to it—be decent [to people]; that will help. And there’s a real connection. Someone will say, “You helped me through a hard time in my life with this show.” For a long time I thought, “That’s so sweet and lovely they’re responding to the work.” And then I realized, “Oh, I was helping me through a hard time with that show, too.” I was a different version of them. We’re almost like a support group.
Has there been any film you’ve worked on that you haven’t copped to?
I’ve been pretty up-front about everything I’ve done. Almost all have been a crushing disappointment, with the rewrites almost always coming out wrong, with the exception of Toy Story and Speed. There’s other bits here and there—the “You’re a dick” line from X-Men. I had done so much work they had thrown out, so that was a personal victory. It was then overshadowed when I told the famous Toad story [when Storm, played by Halle Berry, dramatically asks Toad what happens to a toad struck by lightning]. It’s supposed to be [casually]: “What happens when a toad gets hit by lightning? [Lightning strike] The same thing that happens to everything else.” It was supposed to be like a throwaway, and she did it like she was King Lear. I was trying to explain what I had written versus the actor who played it. But all people remember is you’re the one who wrote that terrible line. I should have never told that story.
If somebody wants to look for your voice in Toy Story, what should they look for?
The thing that [Pixar chief John Lasseter] always quoted was “You’re a sad, strange little man”—that little argument between [Woody and Buzz]. They’ve been very generous about that [credit], and they can afford to be very generous because they got all the moneys. Because everything they touch turns to gold and every Toy Story movie is great. A small part of me was like, “They couldn’t possibly do it without me.” Oh, no, they did it perfectly without me—twice.
When NBC and The CW both tried and failed to develop a Wonder Woman project over the last couple years, were you like, “See? That one is hard.”
The CW did it?
Yeah. A project called Amazon — a Wonder Woman origin story.
It is hard. She’s a tough nut to crack. I know she’s famous as a television show, but I don’t think she lends herself to television. I think she only works on an epic scale. I saw a bit of the David E. Kelley [NBC pilot]. That was not a good marriage.[pagebreak]
With broadcast ratings declining, we’ve now crossed Firefly singularity threshold — it’s 2003 average is now big enough to not get canceled.
Of all the setbacks, you’ve said Fox canceling Firefly was the hardest, that for a while you were incapable of thinking about doing TV afterward. How frustrated did you get?
I wasn’t frustrated; I was heartbroken. A huge amount of energy went into getting [Firefly’s big-screen continuation] Serenity made. I had this four-year deal with Fox to do television, and I gave it up the last year. They were like, “How dare you!” I was like, “I just saved you an enormous amount of money.” A lot of my friends were like, “Just ride it out and don’t write anything.” But I knew in my heart I got nothing. It had been ripped out of me, and I couldn’t get paid for that. When I directed Serenity I had trouble writing, because I had to be the guy who cuts out the writer’s favorite bits to make it work…. It was a nightmare to write—nine main characters to introduce to the audience without alienating people who already knew who they were and then keep all those balls in the air. I was all “I’m never doing that again! Sure, I’ll make The Avengers!” So dumb.
In an interview around that time, you said you’d always wanted to make blockbuster movies, and the interviewer called that “completely unrealistic.” You responded, “You don’t know, it could still happen.”
Nice. In your face, some guy!
Where did that confidence come from?
I’m the least confident person in so many ways. But I believed that if somebody gave me the chance to tell a story, I would tell a story [well enough] that the person who gave me the chance would get their money back. Somebody once asked me if I have anything like faith, and I said I have faith in the narrative. I have a belief in a narrative that is bigger than me, that is alive and I trust will work itself out. [Buffy star] Sarah Michelle Gellar once said, “I’m not sure where we’re going with this [story line],” and I said, “You don’t have to trust me, trust the narrative, we’ll find our way back.”
For an atheist, was it an intentional metaphor when you had scientist Bruce Banner in Hulk mode beating the hell out of “puny god” Loki?
The fact that I got to write “puny god” made me very happy. That was me rubbing my fingers together in a Burns-ian super-villain fashion. Ultimately I did it because it was right for the movie, but yeah, that was fun for me.
What’s the origin story for landing The Avengers?
I had been telling stories that were clearly superhero-team stories for many years, writing and directing them on a smaller scale. And at same time Kevin Feige was slaving away at Marvel, then was eventually put in charge of it. We sat down to talk about a script they had and what I would do with it. I wasn’t even aware there was a possibility I could be called upon to [direct]. The more I thought about it, the more I fell in love with it. Everyone was like: “Why did they pick you?” But I fit the Marvel profile perfectly — I had vision and passion and I was cheap.
Earlier this year, there were reports that you were getting paid $100 million for Avengers 2. Why was it important for you to go online and refute that?
It bothers me. I think it gives people an impression of who you are that is not one I’m comfortable with. It’s something I’d live with if I had that much money. But, you know, I’m rich. I’m making the second movie. Does anybody think I’m not getting paid? But it’s not anywhere like what they’re talking about.
Do you feel people would think less of you if they thought you were paid that much?
Yeah, I think they would. I do feel like it indicates a certain removal from reality that I hope to avoid.
Did you get any vindicating calls after The Avengers came out about your other projects you’ve labored over that got passed to other writers — from X-Men, to Batman to Wonder Woman?
Nobody called and said, “Gee would should have made your movie.” There’s no indication they should have. The stars aligned with The Avengers. Life’s too short to dwell on the things that didn’t happen.
You’ve described Avengers as not a great film but “a great time.” What do you think you could have done better?
When I think of a great film, I think of something that’s either structured so perfectly like The Matrix or made so lovingly like The Godfather Part II. There was haphazardness in the way it comes together—not just the people, but the scenes. I don’t think you’d look at it and go, “This is a model of perfect structure.” You’d go, “This is working.” I like it. I’m proud of it and I like its imperfections. The thing I cared most about—making a summer movie like the ones from my childhood—is the thing that I pulled off.[pagebreak]
Have those feelings affected your approach to the sequel?
I want to be clearer about how I engage the audience, and where I take them. I want more control visually, more time to prep it. Not that I didn’t dictate every shot—I did. But there’s only so much you can do when you’re making a summer film when the ball is already rolling as fast as it was when I got in. Why do it again if you can’t do it better?
Ironically, the moment of your Avengers success is the same time you proved you didn’t need the giant corporation anymore with Much Ado About Nothing, which you shot in your own house.
The thing is, I believe in both. I love Hollywood movies. I want to see big stars in big spectacles. But I also like the fact that we’re in a place where any schmo can do their thing, and obviously I’m a particularly privileged schmo. But to feel as comfortable in both worlds, I dunno, isn’t that like every goddamn dream? I’m not doing the commercial thing, and then I make my art—The Avengers is as much of an artist as I am, and I approach it with the same kind of passion.
Will you follow up Avengers 2 with your version of Hamlet, which you’ve been working on for 15 years? I’ve heard it’s dark and controversial.
That’s a giant endeavor, and I’m not planning any giant endeavors. I feel like some of the family stuff in [Hamlet] is even more twisted than we give it credit for. [My version] is no darker than any other vision, in certain respects. If everything works out according to plan, S.H.I.E.L.D. will be on when the movie is over and then I’ll already be too busy.
This time you’re returning to TV with Marvel, the 800-pound hulk, backing you up. How has this experience been different?
There’s a certain amount of trust with the Marvel brass. It doesn’t mean carte blanche, nor should it. Because they’re not watching me as carefully, because I don’t have to justify what I want to do to them, I have to make sure I can justify it to myself. So I’m not just going “This sounds cool and nobody says I can’t, so wheeeeee, look at me fail!”
S.H.I.E.L.D. follows the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the Marvel universe, these government agents on the sidelines of the action. What appealed to you about that?
Anybody who’s ever seen one of my shows knows I love the ensembles; I love the peripheral characters. This is basically a TV series of “The Zeppo” [an episode of Buffy], which was a very deliberate deconstruction of a Buffy episode in order to star the person who mattered the least. The people who are ignored are the people I’ve been writing as my heroes from day one. With S.H.I.E.L.D., the idea of [Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson] as the long-suffering bureaucrat who deals with Tony Stark’s insufferability is delightful and hits the core of something I’m also writing about all the time—the little guy versus the big faceless organization. Now, somebody might point out, “But isn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. a big faceless organization?” It absolutely is, and that’s something we’re going to deal with in the series. But what’s really interesting to me is there’s a world of super-heroes and superstars, they’re celebrities, and that’s a complicated world—particularly complicated for people who don’t have the superpowers, the disenfranchised. Now, obviously there’s going to be high jinks and hilarity and sex and gadgets and all the things that made people buy the comics. But that’s what the show really is about to me, and that’s what Clark Gregg embodies: the Everyman.
I asked [Marvel TV head] Jeph Loeb how much independence do the S.H.I.E.L.D. writers have to create their own show, and he said, “Marvel isn’t a library book you take out, it’s a partnership.” And I’m all, “That sounds like not very much!”
Marvel is the least restrictive studio environment I’ve ever experienced, across the board. I probably wouldn’t be back if that wasn’t the case. It is genuinely a mom-and-pop mega-store.
Did ABC give you notes?
Yeah. They gave me a ton of notes. We’ve jumped through every hoop. There’s no trust in television. But there’s been nothing but encouragement and excitement about what exactly you’re trying to do. So you take the notes. You don’t take all of them. But you never walk in expecting not to get any.
Is finally having a show that’s a hit in the ratings important to you?
No. I mean, I want it to be a hit because people who I work for have invested in it, and people I work with are in it, and writing it, and I want it to continue. We have the opportunity to do something special. If it’s not special, hopefully it will go away. I think we’ll be okay there. But I can’t measure it in those terms. It doesn’t seem useful to me.
Is there anything from your previous TV experiences where you’re like, “Now I know this, therefore I’m doing it this way”?
Well, don’t work for Fox. Cast for sanity. And the thing I brought to the other shows is the thing I still try to do: Have a different reason to tell a story every week and not just have a different story. This is the hardest thing, because S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t lend itself to the same level of absurdity; it’s a more straightforward show. I want these stories to connect to the people who are solving them. That won’t always be the case; sometimes it will be a cool story with character stuff that resonates, and that’s not bad, but I want more than that.
And Agent Coulson being alive won’t be addressed in Avengers 2 because it takes too much bandwidth to explain it?
Yeah. I don’t have time—Jesus. I mean, again. The draft is a million pages long.
How long is it really?
It’s north of 150, and it’s not gonna be. There’s a point at which I’m not holding back; I’m going to put in everything I like. Then there’s a point where it’s: “Okay, what do I like best.”
Tom Hiddleston confirmed he’s out. Why no Loki?
Every movie is going to be a different villain. Loki’s awesome, and he is awesome in Thor 2. But The Avengers is a different thing. I worked with Tom more than any other actor [in the last film], because he was the only villain and there were six heroes. And he was as great as anyone I’ve ever worked with, and I get why people loved the character. But it’s an Avengers movie.[pagebreak]
The new villain, Ultron, is a robot whose powers include superhuman strength, speed, stamina, and flight. Is humanizing him a challenge?
It wasn’t a challenge because I knew right away what I wanted to do with him. He’s always trying to destroy the Avengers, goddamn it, he’s got a bee in his bonnet. He’s not a happy guy, which means he’s an interesting guy. He’s got pain. And the way that manifests is not going to be standard robot stuff. So we’ll take away some of those powers because at some point everybody becomes magic, and I already have someone [a new character, Scarlet Witch] who’s a witch. You have to be careful to ground it while still evoking that guy. As a character I love him because he’s so pissed off.
You’ve teased “death, death, and death” for the sequel. Can you kill off a Marvel icon?
I’m always joking about that. Um… maybe? But I’d have to have a really good reason, a really great sequence for [Marvel executives] to go, “We’ll cut off a potential franchise, that’s fine!” They know, as any good studio does, that without some stakes, some real danger, how involved can we get? We don’t just rule it out across the board, but neither is the mission statement “Who can we kill?” We try to build the story organically and go, “How hard can we make it on these people?” You go to movies to see people you love suffer—that’s why you go to the movies. [Pause] You looked like you didn’t believe me when I said that.
No, no, it’s just that—yes, characters are challenged in any drama. “Suffer” seems like a strong word.
You don’t go to see a movie about a guy who already knows he has a wonderful life. We used to call Sarah Michelle Gellar “Jimmy Stewart.” We realized every time we turned the screws on Buffy, the show got better.
After having kids, Steven Spielberg said he wouldn’t do the same ending for Close Encounters. Has having kids changed your perspective on you work at all?
You want to make something they can see. It doesn’t make me re-think the way I made those things. Some of it I go, “I don’t know if I agree with that,” but nothing where I’m like, “I take it back, I take it back!”
Are you a writer who enjoys the process or are you like Dorothy Parker, enjoying “having written.”
If I find out I have to write today and nothing else, that’s a perfect day. I know a lot of people who are great at it and make it look easy who are tortured and miserable people. Writing for me is perfect peace.
What work are you most proud of?
There’s a couple of episodes. [Buffy‘s musical episode] “Once More, with Feeling,” [Buffy‘s] “The Body” and [the final Firefly episode] “Objects in Space” come to mind. Those felt transcendent to me.
Do you still write everything in restaurants or cafes given your rising profile?
Oh yeah. Nobody at Starbucks ever bothers me. Somebody might say “I love your work.” Nobody is going to sit down and pitch me something. Everybody there is working on their own screenplay, anyway.
You dance too, which surprised me. At the EW Comic-Con party, you get the floor started. Where did that come from?
I never danced until I was in college. I was dragged on the floor. I think a lot about it. Because on one hand, it’s the most free I ever feel. On the other hand, I’m analyzing everything I do all the time. It’s this weird combination of “dance like nobody’s watching” / “but everybody’s watching, right?” It’s showing off for no one. I’ve never taken a class. I can’t do the foxtrot or the running man. I want to be with my friends, but it’s a weird way of being alone. It’s just about the movement. It’s a way of being at the party and also getting away from the party.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking the Dr. Horrible sequel spot—what would that have been like?
It would be [Dr. Horrible’s] evolution, where he is now. What it was like for him on the bottom, what it’s like for him on the top. We got a bunch of stuff written, and God knows the actors are willing. But I stupidly decided to make a TV show.
With Cabin in the Woods, you literally killed off everybody. Is a sequel possible?
[Co-writer/director Drew Goddard] and I are capable of all sorts of shenanigans. The question is if that’s good idea or is that one where you should really drop the mike. That movie is a very specific structure and a statement.
That’s how I felt about Dr. Horrible. I loved the final image of Billy, Dr. Horrible’s alter ego, alone in his room at his computer, and I didn’t want to know anything after that.
First of all, yay, that means we did well. The thing is, it can’t feel like episode 2. That’s the important thing. A sequel has to be its own movie. You’ve got to look to Godfather II and to The Empire Strikes Back—even though Empire committed the cardinal sin of not actually ending. Which at the time I was appalled by, and I still think it was a terrible idea.
You think The Empire Strikes Back had a bad ending?
Well, it’s not an ending. It’s a come-back-next-week, or in three years. That upsets me. I go to movies expecting to have a whole experience. If I want a movie that doesn’t end, I’ll go to a French movie. A movie has to be complete within itself; it can’t just build off the first one or play variations. You know the thing in Temple of Doom where they revisit the shooting trick?
With Indy facing the two swordsmen.
That’s what you don’t want. And I feel like that’s what all of culture is becoming—it’s becoming that moment.
That must put some pressure on you, since you’re doing a movie with a “2” in the title.
It’s the Age of Ultron. It’s a different story with a different feel, and it’s about something else. Doesn’t mean it will work. It doesn’t mean it will be better. But it needs to be its own thing.
Post-Avengers, you can probably pick the next property that you want to play with. What’s one you’ve always wanted to do?
There’s probably a dozen. It’s very important I don’t do that. It’s very important that we start creating new content again. We can only build on nostalgia so much before we have nothing left to build on. Before we’re rebooting Spider-Man—again. It’s dangerous to the culture, and it’s boring to me. I squeezed in between my Avengers movies a 400-year-old play. So I really need to create some new worlds.
So if Disney said, “Here’s the Boba Fett movie,” you’d say no?
I can’t say for sure, because that’s a tasty morsel. But right now my heart doesn’t go that way.
Does that mean fans should give up on wanting to reboot Firefly?
I came out publicly when the Veronica Mars Kickstarter thing happened to relay that because, right now, it can’t be done. Everybody’s working—thank God. I have often said I would love to get the crew back together. There’s another side of that. There’s the Monkey’s Paw fear of even if it’s just as good, it won’t be as good, because it will be just as good, and it’s already been new, so you won’t have that. Now everybody is like, “Are you going to remake Buffy? Are you going to Kickstarter?” My blanket answer is “No.” It’s not a question I’m interested in hearing again, which is why I quit my other job—Twitter.
I joined six months ago to specifically try to drive business to Much Ado because I figured Much Ado needs all the help it can get. The moment I joined, oh my God, what a responsibility, this is enormous work—very fun, but it really started to take up a huge amount of my head space. I’m making a movie, I got a responsibility, this job doesn’t pay very well. It’s a fascinating medium, it’s a fascinating social phenomenon. People are like, “It’s like a drug.” Yeah, and it’s like a job. It’s just another art form. Until I have a script I truly believe in or a tweet that’s really remarkable, I can just walk away and get back to the storytelling I need to do.
Speaking of exactly that, you once tweeted: “Everything is a drug. Family, art, causes, new shoes… We’re all just tweaking our chem to avoid the void.” That’s profound and depressing.
If you look at the Twitter feed like you look at my work, it’s all me trying to work out my problems—and some puns. And with that one I didn’t even feel like being funny. I remember that one particularly. It was one of those obvious revelations, but I was really feeling it. Everything we do really is just a little marker on the long road to death. And sometimes that’s overwhelmingly depressing to me, and sometimes it makes me feel kinship and forgiveness. We’ve all got the same ending to the story. The way we make that story more elaborate, I got to respect.
Fringe showrunner J.H. Wyman recently gave his take on the future: “I believe in hope, and I believe that we are good. And I believe that we are smart, and I believe that we are going to stop anything terrible from happening.” And I found that interesting because you once said the opposite: “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.”
I think that’s absolutely the case. I think we’re actually becoming stupider and more petty. I think we have one shot—and that’s education, and that’s being defunded along with all the social services. What’s going on in this country, and many countries, is beyond depressing. It’s terrifying. Sometimes I have to remember who I’m talking to. I’ll say something about climate change, how terrible things are, and meaningless, and the world is headed toward destruction and war and apocalypse. And at one point my daughter goes, “Hey! I’m 8!” She doesn’t want to hear that stuff. But I can’t believe anybody thinks we’re actually going to make it before we destroy the planet. I honestly think it’s inevitable. I have no hope.
That’s surprising, because your work isn’t bleak. Bad things happen, there’s pathos, favorite characters die. But it’s not like the fifth act of Hamlet.
No. My stories do have hope because that is one of the things that is part of the solution—if there can be one. We use stories to connect, to care about people, to care about a situation. To turn the mundane heroic, to make people really think about who they are. They’re useful. And they’re also useful to me. Because if I wrote what I really think, I would be so sad all the time. We create to fill a gap—not just to avoid the idea of dying, it’s to fill some particular gap in ourselves. So yeah, I write things where people will lay down their lives for each other. And on a personal level, I know many wonderful people who are spending their lives trying to help others, or who are just decent and kind. I have friends who are extraordinary, I love my family. But on a macro level, I don’t see that in the world. So I have a need to create it. Hopefully, that need gets translated into somebody relating to it and feeling hope. Because if we take that away, then I’m definitely right. I want to be wrong, more than anything. I hate to say it, it’s that line from The Lord of the Rings—“I give hope to men; I keep none for myself.” They say it in Elvish, so it sounds super cool.