An Afternoon with Joss Whedon
I felt like a bit of a fraud attending Joss Whedon‘s one-and-only “show” at the Sydney Opera House a few Sundays ago. After all, while I was in awe of the man’s undeniable talent and achievements (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Dr Horrible, and in 2012, The Avengers), I don’t consider myself a hardcore fan. To be honest, I had only seen bits and pieces of his stuff, unlike some of the fanatics in attendance who appeared to know everything Whedon has ever done since he was five years old and can recite entire episodes off the top of their heads.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t excited. To the contrary, I was very eager to find out how a seemingly normal dude became a cult phenomenon.
(Click on ‘more’ to read on)
The atmosphere was electric that afternoon at the Sydney Opera House. It felt like we were about to walk into a rock concert. I expected to see some real freaks dressed as vampire slayers and so forth, but most looked normal, at least from the outside. The inside of the concert hall was virtually packed out. Mind you, this was not really ‘entertainment’. There wasn’t going to be anyone performing. There was going to be no acting, no singing, no dancing, no stand-up — this was just going to be one dude, talking about his art.
A big bonus, and a surprise for many in the audience, was that the ‘host’ of the afternoon was comedian Wil Anderson. He was very good and immediately formed a good rapport with Whedon.
The first part of the ‘chat’ (I suppose) was a soliloquy delivered by Whedon on stage. The hall was in complete darkness and the only light was emanating from the stage (which gave him a shock when the lights came on and he saw just how many people were in attendance).
Why he writes
Joss Whedon discussed at length WHY he writes the things he does (ie stories about adolescent girls with superpowers!).
The central, recurring theme that he keeps going back to is this ‘Dark Place’ he has inside of him.
He said his stories were always about helplessness, which he felt in abundance as a child. He feared his father and was constantly picked on by his brothers. He had no male role models to lookup to, and as a result spent much of his childhood creating worlds for him to escape to. It was a reaction to his terror of the real world, which made him scared and feeling alone all the time.
Now, he says, he’s doing basically the same thing (except he’s getting paid handsomely to do it!).
What’s the deal with all the girls?
Joss Whedon discussed why most of his central characters are girls, which he believes makes him the equivalent of a literary transvestite.
He claims he was often mistaken for a girl as a child (hard to imagine now). When he graduated from college, he said he went fom ‘hopeless to clueless’, and was a social cripple.
And partly because of those things, he says identifies with the girls that he creates. The truth is, he claims, is that he puts himself into those characters. After seven years of working on Buffy, he realised that he actually IS Buffy! (Though when people ask he says Xander)
Whedon admits that this was his way of writing about himself, which he doesn’t do openly because he is a coward and doesn’t want people to know about him. Having said that, he says he does love his characters and he wants them to love him in return. He is tiny, terrified and helpless and hopes that girl will save his life.
(And at this stage he admits Season 6 of Buffy is porn!)
Whedon says he has longed for respect. He said back in his younger days, he was so terrified of being mugged that he taped his coins inside his coat!
When it comes to writing, Whedon really knows what he’s talking about. You can see his eyes light up when it comes to his thoughts and processes and creating characters that drive his shows, films and comics.
According to him, every character must have something to say and must have a reason to be there. It is essential that the audience gets to understand the perspective of each character.
He says he hates lying and can’t stand it.
Whedon admits he works incredibly hard and was very lucky, but the reason he believes he was noticed was because he reached out to his audience in a fun way. He tries to make everyone feel like they are in the story.
He says everything he does comes from his Dark Place’, from need. He doesn’t feel like it’s work.
How he got started
At this point, Wil Anderson came out to begin a Q&A session, which was highly entertaining.
Whedon discussed his musical influences (which is why there are so many song and dance numbers in his stuff), saying that his father and grandfather both wrote musicals and plays and that his brothers are all very musical people. Growing up, he wanted to do everything — dance, act, paint — and loved all the arts (theatre, film), etc, and went to a college with the best film department in the United States (Wesleyan University).
Whedon says he never studied writing properly (only one course), and always assumed that he’d make movies. After completing his course, he went to LA and started writing TV scripts and fell in love with it — he didn’t realise it was so much fun. A year later he got a job as an executive producer on Roseanne, and things snowballed from there.
Whedon says his ideas start small and Buffy was not actually his first idea.
He started to realise just how popular Buffy was becoming at the Comic-Con after the first season, where he was blown away by the number of people. He said when he got off the stage he was addicted.
In relation to fan fiction, Whedon acknowledges he has read some and found them a bit ‘twisted’. (Personally I think fan fiction in itself is twisted.)
Firefly, which was prematurely cancelled, was a lesson in grief for Joss Whedon. He said he didn’t know about grief until he lost Firefly because there were still so many stories living inside him. He compares it to losing a child, and says he’ll never get over it, but he has learned to adjust.
Creation vs adaptation
A question was asked about the difference between creating new characters/stories and adapting them from another source. Whedon says they are ultimately the same because even adaptations are about putting characters together and making it work. It’s about immersing the audience in their world.
The Avengers movie
For those who don’t know, Joss Whedon is writing and will direct the upcoming The Avengers film, set to be released in 2012. It will feature Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor, and has fan boys all around the world spraying their shorts.
Unfortunately, Whedon is contractually obligated to not reveal anything about the film at this stage. However, in terms of the writing process, he did have a few things to say.
He said while the scope of the project was probably bigger than anything he has ever done before, at the end of the day, it’s just telling another story. He drew an anaology to the Gene Hackman film Hoosiers, where the stadium might have been enormous, but the playing field remains the same. That said, he did admit it was very difficult, like it was when he wrote Serenity (the film follow-up to Firefly).
As for dealing with all those big stars in one film? Whedon says they may be big stars but they are ultimately still actors. He says it’s not going to be an ego-fest and will be an organic process.
In all, he finds the challenge exhiliarating and is not worried.
I find dialogue extremely difficult to write, but Joss Whedon seems to be a master at it. He says it’s about finding where people are different. It’s about looking for heightened moments. He says the score (music) is also important.
The best dialogue involves characters that feed off each other and always moves the story forward.
He listens to children a lot of the time to get ideas for dialogue because of the unique way they articulate things.
Finding new ideas
Whedon says that a lot of his ideas come from things he has read and heard and seen. He claims that Firefly came from a book he read about Gettysburg and the old Westerns he likes.
He loves language — especially the old Elizabethan stuff — but he can get ideas out of anything.
For all the good stuff Joss Whedon has done, there have also been a few shockers.
One he pointed out was the infamous ‘Zombie Cops’ episide on Angel, which Whedon apologised to his staff for after watching it. He says sometimes things just don’t come out the way you expect them to, but other times you don’t really know something didn’t work until you hear about it on the Internet!
Nevertheless, Whedon says he’s not big on regret and he has few regrets in his life — the biggest one being that he could no longer do Firefly.
The vampire craze
Naturally, the conversation had to shift towards Twilight and the new vampire craze sweeping the globe. And of course, the majority of Buffy fans in the audience appear to LOATHE Twilight.
Joss Whedon doesn’t seem to be a big fan of it himself, and says Anne Rice should take the heat for introducing the vampire romance. But then again, he says if Twilight is good, then he’ll gladly take the props!
The fans in attendance
Lots of crazies in the crowd that afternoon. They had a fan Q&A session where Whedon fielded comments and questions from the audience. There were a few good questions here and there, but man, some of them were real freaks. One almost burst into tears and blabbered on about how Buffy saved her life, and then asked for a hug. Another dude, in an excited, drooling, stuttering geek manner, asked a question about something so obscure that even Whedon had to be reminded what the heck it was that he did.
But really, that’s what makes Joss Whedon such a phenomenon. When you can get fans like that, it can only mean one thing: you’ve truly made it.