Although Joss Whedon has effectively spent the better part of the last two decades establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s most reliable purveyors of genre-friendly fun, mainstream audiences haven’t always warmed to his ideas. But with The Avengers, Whedon has merged that unique sensibility with the identifiable mythology of iconic characters to create a superhero team-up that feels as powerful and impressive behind the cameras as in front. Most impressively, Whedon stepped into the role of writer-director and took a project that was not just born but engineered to be a sort of victory lap for its predecessors, and managed to give it an identity, and a personality that elevates it above the cold machinery of studio formulas.
Whedon, who recently also saw the release of his co-written film The Cabin in the Woods, sat down with Movies.com at the Los Angeles press day for The Avengers, where he discussed the challenges – and opportunities – afforded him with the project. In addition to talking about absorbing the mythology and visual language of so many different characters and films, Whedon revealed his approach to the material in terms of expectations and ambitions, and explained his feelings about genre material in the context of his recent projects and career as a whole.
Movies.com: Just to get started, talk about the process of absorbing the visual language and the mythology of all these other movies, particularly in the context of these little post-credits codas that are sort of designed to dovetail into this film.
Joss Whedon: Visually, I wasn’t going to look to these movies for my cues, except in as much as Iron Man tells me that because he’s the sort of the daddy of all of them that we need to be grounded in the real world to an extent. But then a beautiful Joe Johnston frame is not to be sneezed at and the sort of grandeur of Thor, that’s got to be worked in there too, but I'm not going to go and try and figure out how to ape those guys. I have my own way of shooting. Luckily it kind of contains all those elements. It’s supposed to be sort of naturalistically florid, and so I just felt comfortable with the way I shoot and the way I plan to shoot for 3D as the way to unite all the different styles without just trying to copy them.
Movies.com: At this point, you have a style that people are very quick to identify and codify even. How much do you think that’s an accurate perception of your work, whether it’s creating strong protagonists or having ensembles or these other things that people associate with you?
Whedon: Well, I don’t want people to watch this movie and think about me. You subsume yourself to the work or it suffers. I do like a good joke now and again and I do have a particular way of writing and shooting, but I want people to hear Tony Stark, not me and even Robert, but Tony. I do think the things that I'm interested in, the lonely broken people who make up this world that’s a part of how the story gets told, the idea of sacrifice and the price of this kind of attempt at heroism, that’s something I'm concerned about. So I felt a proprietary feeling towards the film even while using somebody else’s characters. But at the end of the day I just want people to see The Avengers. After they see Cabin in the Woods.
Movies.com: Not to go too far back, but did you learn any lessons from your experience of doing Alien Resurrection where you inherited a whole existing universe that maybe you were able to apply to this?
Whedon: Yes, I did -- I learned to direct it myself. With Alien Resurrection I had such a good time with the script. They brought Sigourney [Weaver] in, they brought Winona [Ryder] in, it was all very exciting -- and then the man who directed it couldn’t speak English. I don’t know if they actually gave him a translation of the script. So it was very frustrating, but the lesson has always been the same, which is find something new while honoring what people love. And when you’re making TV, you’re doing that every week -- you’re trying to put a new spin on something that you may have done over 100 times, while still remembering why the audience tuned in, in the first place.
Movies.com: Notwithstanding the visual aspects that we talked about before, how much did you have to worry about synchronizing the mythology and story elements that were set up in the previous films? Was that important to you, or is there a certain point at which you go this is mine and it has to be on its own?
Whedon: Well, there were certain questions of logic, where I'm just like, “we’re just going to say this one sentence and then we’re going to move on” -- because that’s not what the audience cares about. Now some people do, so we’re going to say the one sentence, but ultimately the emotional stakes are going to be way more important than the information. Marvel is very clear about what it is they care about, and sometimes they get nutty for continuity. They wanted it to be Project Pegasus that they were working on in the beginning, because they had shown something that said Project Pegasus earlier in Iron Man 2 or something, and so they actually digitally changed some signs to say it -- and I'm just like, okay, it’s your money. But at the same time, they know that this movie has to exist on its own level and they’re not so slavish that they’re going to forget that it’s not the comics and it’s not the other movies. I never violated the logic of the other movies, but and I tried not to tread on their toes at all, but that wasn’t really a problem. That was just part of the puzzle.
Movies.com: A lot of franchise films seem to find a finite number of locations and sort of build a story around them as opposed to finding locations that flesh out the story. You do a really wonderful job in this movie of creating a really expansive landscape for everything in the film. How do you make sure that there’s real scope to a film, and it doesn’t feel like, well, we could build the living shit out of two sets and that’s it, and we have to shoot within them?
Whedon: We had a nice mix of big sets and tiny locations and at the end of the day with The Avengers, you need that kind of world scope. You need the world organization, and you really want to feel the multiculturalism of where they might all be and not feel like, “I'm in Arkansas, [and now] I'm in a slightly different part of Arkansas.” It needs to breathe like that. It’s not a James Bond film where the establishing shots could be in the opening credits billed establishing shots by because they’re so important. I'm not actually even a fan of establishing shots. I just like to be somewhere and get into the story. But we knew we needed as much scope as we could possibly get -- it had to feel enormous. And sometimes we worried if we had enough, but when we watched the final thing we were like, “it seems we’ve got something there.”
But it’s tough also because the other thing about a James Bond movie is that if he’s in Sienna, they’re going to Sienna. If we’re in Sienna, we’re going to Cleveland and having great production designers and great set dressers and some imagination. It’s easy to make it work, but there is also a challenge to that to find the scope when in fact you’re having to build it.
Movies.com: What are your feelings at this point about genre filmmaking? This film is certainly reverential to its characters and its universe, but Cabin in the Woods was a film that both celebrated and kind of asked, have we run the gamut of what can be accomplished within this genre? And how do you feel about fulfilling the expectations of the audience versus fulfilling what creative impulses that you have, regardless of what those expectations might be?
Whedon: I am begging for the audience’s love in every frame of everything that I do. I'm very needy and I'm also a fanboy, so my expectations and the audience’s are not going to be that far apart. They didn’t hire Lars Von Trier to make The Avengers. I'm a timid fellow. And at the same time, I get very excited about these things. My biggest thing that I felt was we need to add an element that I haven’t seen in a superhero movie yet -- and that was that I wanted to make a war movie. And I wanted to do that because I said with this many heroes and one villain, you’re not going to believe anything is at stake unless everything is at stake. And I started with The Dirty Dozen just as a model, structural model, watched Black Hawk Down again, and thought okay this is a tonal model. And I watched The Story of G.I. Joe, the one with Robert Mitchum, not the one with Channing Tatum, though I love Channing Tatum, and really felt the toll this takes is as important as the victory. And the fact that Marvel went with that and let us really put the screws to The Avengers in that final battle is something for which I’m enormously grateful. I wanted to give people everything they wanted, and then something they didn’t expect, so that your takeaway from the movie would always be more than what you saw in the trailers.