In the course of about a month, director Joss Whedon went from spending quality time with Hollywood power players such as Captain America, The Hulk and Iron Man to hanging with that superhero of sonnets, William Shakespeare.
Earlier this year, he was still riding high on the triumph of his most commercially successful film, 2012’s The Avengers, a blockbuster superhero movie that became the No. 3 box-office draw of all time with a take of more than $1.5 billion worldwide.
His follow-up? That would be the just-opened, modern retelling of the Bard’s classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, shot in black and white on a relative shoestring budget at his home in Santa Monica, Calif.
If you know Whedon, though, the 180-degree change makes total sense.
Look at his résumé, and it’s the definition of eclectic, with a hint of schizophrenia. Shakespeare himself liked to mix up genres — Much Ado alone has elements of comedy, tragedy, deceit and mystery — and Whedon has taken a similar approach to his projects over the past 24 years. As a result, the 48-year-old writer/director/producer/composer has become a god to geek culture and a household name in the mainstream.
Any story is as good as you make it, he says, and a restless guy sometimes has to help nourish that tireless zeal. While his actors pumped weights to build heroic bods for The Avengers, the director recalls having his own strict protein diet to get himself in mental and physical shape.
“I can’t ever be sleepy. I’ve got to be on my toes 24/7,” Whedon says while relaxing in the library of Manhattan’s Trump Soho Hotel.
The passion for variety and doing the unexpected were revealed in the title of his breakthrough TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Launched in 1997 for the WB Network, it sounded like a B-movie that he would have devoured when growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. It was built around themes of horror, vampires, female empowerment and coming of age, and ran for seven seasons.David Boreanaz, star of Bones and a member of the Buffy cast, recalls bonding with Whedon over the Grateful Dead in Buffy’s early days. “I just remember him with a red pen making lots of notes. He was very quiet and kind and very sincere. There was this overall sense of understanding that we both had. It was a new frontier for so much that was going on at that particular moment.”
That frontier spirit continued in 2002 with Whedon’s short-lived cult-hit TV series Firefly, for Fox. It showed obvious sci-fi and Western leanings but still imparted some deep lessons while kicking up space dust.
Even The Avengers explored the idea of a bunch of disparate people working together to make a difference in the world — or at least stave off an alien invasion and a trickster god from another dimension.
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Sometimes his mashups go too far, though — like the combination of strep throat, bronchitis and a horrendous cough he is battling during an interview on this sunny May morning. (He blames the sickness on traveling, a lack of sleep and the double shot of nerves that comes with appearing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and making a commencement address at his alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., within a matter of a few days.)
He may be nursing a horrendous hack, but he’s far from actually being one. Instead, Whedon’s the kind of writer and director to whom A-list studios hand over superhero franchises and the kind of witty, self-deprecating guy who sparks fierce loyalty among those who have worked with and for him.
“It’s a wonderful quality to have a man as creative and gifted and successful as Joss Whedon is, and still have a man who’s humble,” says Nathan Fillion, star of the ABC series Castle, who played Capt. Mal Reynolds on Firefly and is also in Much Ado. “He doesn’t do what he does for any other reason than he loves doing what he does.”
Shakespeare is partly responsible for Whedon’s mind-set. Nearly 400 years after the Bard’s death, he still has a lot of storytelling knowledge to impart on Whedon and the rest of us — verily so, according to the contemporary filmmaker.“He speaks to you very personally. He says take the things you understand — the stories, the tropes, the characters — and look further,” Whedon says. “Look within them, give them life, let them breathe.”
Whedon can’t remember his first dose of Shakespeare, but he does recall a childhood chockablock full of Masterpiece Theatre, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and other upper-crust TV fare. “I was a BBC snob,” he says. “I looked down on American TV.”
But that’s where he first made his mark professionally, and it’s also where previous generations of Whedons found their calling. His grandfather John Whedon worked on The Donna Reed Show in the 1950s, and his father, Tom, was an original writer on Captain Kangaroo and head writer for The Electric Company.
But his dad’s work didn’t inspire young Joss. “I always thought he was more interesting than the shows he was working on.”
When Whedon left film school in 1987, he had no intention of working in TV. “No, no. TV’s not ‘ahhhrt.’ That’s ‘art’ with three h’s,” he says, laughing. “And then I discovered that I was wrong. TV’s a lovely thing.”
Whedon worked on the sitcom Roseanne beginning in 1989, then moved to the big screen as a script doctor on movies. His break came as a co-writer on Pixar’s Toy Story (1995), which earned him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.
Two projects in 1997, the Buffy pilot and the movie Alien: Resurrection (“one of which went well, the other not so much,” he quips) contained the seeds of his maturation as a storyteller.
When Whedon scripted the 1992 horror-comedy film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, five years before he turned it into a TV show, “it was designed to be better than other movies in its oeuvre,” he explains. “This was back when Revenge of the Bimbos and those sort of funny-titled but underwhelming movies were out there. If you make one of those, it’s sitting on a shelf, somebody takes it home and it’s actually good, you’re the best.”Buffy the movie was a bust, but Buffy the show was a boon for the fledgling filmmaker, and it launched him into the pop-culture spotlight. He looks at a panel for the show at the 1997 Comic-Con in San Diego, during the summer following the show’s midseason debut, as a turning point.
“They were hanging on every word,” Whedon recalls. “And then I went downstairs on the convention floor and was like a junkie. I’d scratch my arm going, ‘Somebody recognize me! I need another hit of fame! I’m good for it — I’ll pay you next week!’ That’s exactly how I felt, and I knew. Oh! Note to self: ‘This is a drug. Be very, very careful.’ ’’
Whedon figures he has the best kind of fame: “quasi-fame.”
“I get recognized just often enough to keep my ego bouncing along, but not so much that I can’t go places,” he says. “It’s very easy to fall into the trap of ‘well, I must be awesome.’ But the Internet is also a great leveler. Not even a troll, but someone sweet as can be says, ‘Really love what you do, but I don’t understand why you would do this so badly …’ ”
He jokes about ego, but in reality, he’s a man who has no pride and is an open book. And he hates it when people compare him to an English literary giant such as Shakespeare, says Amy Acker, who stars as Beatrice in Much Ado. Her first TV job was as a series regular on Angel,and she later starred on Dollhouse, both of which were Whedon creations.
“You can definitely see his admiration for Shakespeare in his writing and directing and how he makes movies,” she says. “He writes characters and lets them take these amazing journeys, but you never know from one page to the next what your character might do.”
Fillion agrees: “In the same way you don’t paraphrase Shakespeare, you don’t paraphrase Whedon. Look how carefully crafted (the dialogue is) in Buffy. Everything people say is poetry in Firefly. And it’s loaded with meaning. He loves metaphor and he loves a greater message.”Entertaining people of all kinds is the Whedon family business. In addition to his father and grandfather, his brothers Jed and Zack are both screenwriters, and Joss’ children — son Arden, 10, and daughter Squire, 8 — are starting to be interested in entertainment, too, as they get the sense of what Dad does.
He shares a recent conversation with Squire: “She said, ‘My teacher asked me who my favorite director was, and I said it was my daddy and Hayao Miyazaki.’ I was like, ‘I’m happy to be in his company.’ “
With a tentative February start date for The Avengers 2 looming, Whedon is also expanding his own creative empire.
In addition to his company Mutant Enemy Productions, he and his wife, Kai Cole, founded Bellwether Pictures to create smaller movies like Much Ado and the quirky paranormal romance In Your Eyes. The company will also produce Internet projects akin to his 2008 Web series, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. (He also yearns to do a legit musical one day — he composed the score for Much Ado because “I’m the only person I can afford.”)
He continues to learn from Shakespeare, but Whedon’s also still figuring out his own idiosyncrasies. In May, he told Wesleyan’s class of 2013, “Don’t just be yourself, be all of your selves.”
It ties into his discovering that, over the past 20 years, “every part of me that I had never explored, I had had a character say and do very explicitly,” Whedon says. “While I have this great outlet for expressing, because I’m writing 17 different characters, you are 17 different characters.”
He looks back at a key episode of Buffy‘s second season, in which Angel turns into a soulless monster after a night of passion with Buffy, sending her emotionally reeling after the loss of her virginity.
“I was like, ‘I didn’t know I could write this guy! I’m a terrible person! This is great!’ I was so excited by accessing something like that,” Whedon says. “But every so often, I’ll do that and have no idea what I was doing and then later on go, ‘Ohhh.’
“We are all of us incoherent text,” he continues, “and just knowing that — knowing that no matter how much you say, ‘I am this’ and part of you is not that — means that you can say it.”
Whedon motions to his chest. “It’s a democracy in here. It’s not a dictatorship.”