Election Day 2016: Joss Whedon gives final message to American voters
How 'The Avengers' and 'Buffy' filmmaker spent a million dollars of his own money to battle Trump.
“I would say to the people who have given up, you need one day of hope.”
That’s the final election thought from Joss Whedon, who has spent the past several months putting all his effort — and about a million dollars of his own money — into creating a collection of shorts about Tuesday’s presidential election.
The last installment in his Save the Day series dropped Monday, with a lot of familiar faces reminding voters that nothing can stop them from casting a ballot except their own indifference.
After one of the most grueling and bewildering campaigns in modern memory, Whedon knows people are tired, so he has tried to use as much humor as possible to highlight the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. “I don’t want to scold people. I try to keep it light,” says the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of Marvel’s Avengers movies.
Whedon has made no secret of his support in this race: He’s with her. His enthusiasm for Clinton runs as deep as what he described as his “disgust” with Trump, but the people he’s reaching out to aren’t die-hards on either side.
“Trump’s running mate isn’t Mike Pence — it’s apathy. It’s cynicism,” Whedon says. “I can’t convince the people who are voting for Trump not to. I can’t convince the people who are going to throw away their vote on a third party not to do that. But there are the people who aren’t going to bother, the ones who throw up their hands. Those are the people we’re trying to talk to, to remind them that outside of all this horror there is this beautiful thing that we have called Democracy.
“Every couple of years the people speak and the government has to listen,” he adds. “The people who aren’t going to bother to do that are how somebody like Trump can overtake a nation.”
On Election Day eve, Entertainment Weekly has assembled Whedon’s Save the Day videos in one place, along with his backstory on their creation – including the surprising (and hilarious) response he got from Robert Downey Jr., who has tried to remain publicly non-partisan but occasionally has expressed conservative leanings.
This is the one that started it all, with many of The Avengers, the former president of The West Wing, and two fictional doctors — Avery (Jesse Williams) and Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) — spoofing every preachy, political celebrity ad ever made… while also preaching hard via dozens of celebrities.
“I knew I was going to have to make fun of the fact that I have a lot of famous people, and I was really tired of those ads where everybody says the same thing over and over,” Whedon says. “I never ask for favors, but, okay, this is when my shyness is no longer relevant. There was nobody I didn’t ask, and everybody I could reach said yes.”
He pinballed around the country gathering up the footage of each actor, and every now and then another video would spring out of those sessions, like …
This spoof starring Keegan-Michael Key as a TV weatherman forecasting the nation’s stormy emotional state was written by Whedon on the flight to film the comedian in New York for the “Important” video. “I sent it to him the morning [of the shoot] and he said, ‘Great, I’ll bring a suit,’” Whedon says.
While Whedon has tried to keep the Save the Day videos upbeat and inspiring, he admits this is one that vents his rage. “It’s attacking Trump, but talking about the national mood. In a weird way even though it’s just me being mean and Keegan being funny, it has a unifying theme around it: We’re all falling apart,” he says. “The unifying thing is important for me. I’m trying to put people in other people’s shoes.”
Trump’s racist and misogynistic history is one thing that has galvanized Whedon, but he knows that’s not something he needs to underscore – and it’s not likely something he can change. It’s part of the Republican nominee’s appeal, like it or not.
“I think people know,” he says. “A lot of Trump supporters know that he’s a rancid fellow, but they have decades of undigested rage, and economically some of them have been left behind, and we have a news structure that has been debased and speaks racist dogwhistle stuff all the time.”
Whedon says it’s important not to just disregard Trump voters — they’ve been manipulated. “The worst in them has been nurtured over decades and the Democrats meanwhile are running around like chickens and attacking each other, as liberals do,” he says. “These people [supporting Trump] have been fed a diet of anger and race-baiting. And suddenly everybody is wondering why people are speaking this language out loud.”
YOU SAY VOTE
Grey’s Anatomy star and civil rights activist Jesse Williams stars in one of Save the Day’s more earnest videos, dropping the jokes for a sobering message about those who shrug off the opportunity to cast a ballot.
It was written by Whedon but inspired by the passionate speech about racial injustice that Williams made this summer while collecting a humanitarian honor at the BET Awards, which Whedon said he watched “10 times.”
“I had that voice in mind and said ‘Jesse … would you…?’” the director says, his words small and quavering. “He said, ‘Sure!’ I was genuinely intimidated. He tweaked a line or two and we were good to go. His only stipulation was, ‘Let me do the funny one too, okay?’”
This mock cop show is aimed at dispelling lies being spread about massive election rigging. It stars Minka Kelly, Anders Holm, and Luis Guzman as members of an elite crime-fighting force who … have no crime to fight.
“I wanted to shine a light on the fact that this myth had been created by the GOP to suppress voting,” Whedon says. “Somebody said, ‘Couldn’t you do a non-partisan get-out-the-vote , and I said, ‘One of the parties is trying to stop people from voting. So the act of saying “Get Out the Vote” is already partisan, because they know who I’m saying it to. North Carolina kept getting slapped down by federal judges then kept coming back and trying again to stop people from voting. This was before [Trump] was basically recruiting brown shirts” as poll watchers.
It’s a bit on-the-nose, so this fable starring Stanley Tucci pokes fun at its own obviousness by the end – a bit of self-awareness that the director hopes makes the preaching less preachy. “He has to say, ‘See what I did there?’” Whedon says.
The message is simple: there is strength in numbers, and weakness in isolation. “There are more of us than there are of them. That’s what voting is,” Whedon says. “It’s when the community stands up together for something. The point is, ‘I come out of the house, and I look you in the eye — with all of my forest friends.’”
Whedon’s magnum opus. This video is aimed not at the presidential race but the down-ballot candidates for senate and congress, using the thinly-veiled allegory of a manager who causes havoc while others are trying to do important business.
It stars Chris Pine as the title character, a stand-in for obstructionist Republicans in the legislative branch, and Alan Tudyk as one of the weary fellow employees who can’t get anything done because of Leonard’s pigheadedness.
“It’s my magnum opus. I have been much angrier about the Paul Ryans, Mitch McConnells, and John McCains of the world than I have about Trump,” Whedon says. “Trump disgusts me, but he’s part of something bigger than he is that’s been fostered by these guys. These are the people who are really deadly, because they are respected.”
Although the video seems over the top, many of Leonard’s actions are drawn from real life incidents, such as Sen. James Inhofe (chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee) bringing a snowball to the floor of the Senate as “proof” that global warming is false.
“All of the humor is in the metaphor is because what these people are doing is insane. Shutting down the government. The snowball … Everything in there is actually happening: Their adherence to the NRA, their refusal to have a hearing on a Supreme Court nominee. That’s completely bonkers to me,” Whedon says.
“These guys have been getting away with murder and we have a chance to stop that,” he adds. “If Hillary gets in and she has a Senate that’s already vowing not to do its job, that’s the equivalent of Trump saying it’s rigged and ‘I won’t accept the outcome.’ And that destroys democracy.”
“That’s where I get angry,” he says. “And luckily, that’s where I get Chris Pine. Agents worked hard to track him down and see if he would do it. I’d never met him, when he came in that day. And he crushed it in a mighty fist, so hard.”
Another self-aware send-up starring Bill Hader as a well-meaning but clueless filmmaker and Nicole Byer as the young actress tasked with lecturing millennials about their apathy.
“You have to come in and say, ‘I get it. I know I’m old, and you’re young, and I’m going to sound stupid to you. But if you don’t make decisions for yourself, these other guys are going to do that instead, and you’re going to be very unhappy about it,” Whedon says. “You have to inoculated against the cynicism, instead of just yelling ‘VOTE!,’ which so many of these things do.”
If most of Whedon’s other videos aim to make you laugh, this one will break your heart. It follows a group of immigrants as they go about their daily routines, then gather on election night to see if the man who has threatened to deport their family members and build a Berlin Wall-style fortification along the U.S.-Mexico border will be the new president of the United States. There’s also a Spanish-language version.
“It was important for me to find some veracity so I didn’t look like a tourist or pandering. I wanted to tell these human stories, and the only change I made late in the game was have the people cross over more, sort of Magnolia them a little bit, to show the web of the community,” Whedon says. “Honestly, it’s just about people doing their best, and how hard they’re working. That’s the immigration story.”
It ends on a cliffhanger, with the winner of the election about to be announced while an older man looks down at a child seeking reassurance.
“To leave it on the question to me it was the only way to explain how important [the election] is,” Whedon says. “It’s there to remind them that the question hasn’t been answered yet, but they’re the person who will answer it.”
Once again, Whedon wanted to express that there’s more at stake in this election than just the presidency. This video was another that sprang from the “Important” video, with Whedon activating Martin Sheen’s West Wing gravitas to talk about the many other candidates and initiatives on the ballot.
Sheen, like Whedon’s Hulk actor from the Marvel films, is passionate about social issues and has a long history of fighting for important causes,
“I could listen to that man talk forever,” Whedon says. “I’ve seen celebrities who are blowhards and like to hear themselves talk and he’s the exact opposite. The ones like Martin or Mark Ruffalo, you hear them speak, and then you see them listen. That’s a lost art.”
Trump likes to call himself “Mr. Brexit,” a reference to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, which surprised many and has unleashed volatility on the world economic and political stages.
This video was an attempt to warn Americans not to wound their own interests and stability with a spite vote for a candidate who is vowing to upend the system. The twist: the smarmy Brit wants us to vote for Trump so the rest of the world will forget his country’s disastrous Brexit vote.
“It’s an actor named Dan Mersh who happens to be an old friend,” Whedon says. “He has a good combination of “’I’m sort of despicable, yet kind of sweet.’ I had just started Save the Day and was going to Europe to research a screenplay. I booked the trip a while ago but I felt so bad about going, that I decided to shoot something while I was in England.”
But after shooting with Mersh, Whedon realized … it could have been shot anywhere. “I said, ‘We have to get outside! We need to prove we’re in England,’” he says. “So we ran out on to Westminster Bridge, gave 10 pounds to a bagpipe player to stop playing, and shot the tag.”
There’s no dialogue, just the incessant voice of Trump from news broadcasts in the background. This video was Whedon’s effort to speak to the shy, perhaps meek individual – the one who never speaks up, but pays attention.
The message: You don’t have to be loud on social media, you don’t have to be brash in every day life. It’s okay to stay out of the fray – as long as you stand up when it really counts.
“Get through the day and make it to the polls,” Whedon says. “Then you get the power. Then you save the day.”
The stars from “Important” are back for the sequel (shot, of course, at the same time as the first video.)
It leads with Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. — the biggest name in Whedon’s line-up and a guy who has tried to remain non-political over the years, even though he has occasionally expressed that he has conservative leanings.
Whedon wasn’t sure what Downey would say when he asked him to participate.
“I was surprised when he said yes, which he did right away,” the director says. “He’s not interested in being particularly partisan, but he cares, he gets it. What he wrote me when I emailed him was, ‘I suppose I can take part in your champagne socialist agenda.’ So I was like, yes, I can’t argue with that.”
This is the final installment in Whedon’s Save the Day series, and it bookends everything with a simple message: It’s over.
And also: It’s time.
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