Much ado about some­thing – Joss Whe­don moves from su­per­heroes to Shake­speare

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What do you do when, af­ter a few com­pli­cated years of cult con­fu­sion, you write and di­rect the third most suc­cess­ful film in cin­ema his­tory? Well, if you’re Joss Whe­don – in town this week for the Jame­son Dublin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val – you shuf­fle your stock com­pany into the liv­ing room and shoot a mono­chrome ver­sion of Wil­liam Shake­speare’s Much Ado About Noth­ing.

If there’s an art to be­ing Joss Whe­don, it’s tied up with the abil­ity to put un­ex­pected spins on fa­mil­iar ma­te­rial. Though he got an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for co-writ­ing Toy Story, Whe­don didn’t prop­erly reg­is­ter as a per­son­al­ity un­til the first air­ing of Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer in 1997. To that point, fe­male heroines in hor­ror had been lit­tle more than pret­ti­fied vic­tims. Whe­don’s TV se­ries made a kick-ass (not to men­tion thump-face) of the ti­tle char­ac­ter.

“That was a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to for­ward a fem­i­nist agenda,” he says. “It had to do with my pol­i­tics and my up­bring­ing. All my stuff is about the same thing. It’s about peo­ple who are over­looked or help­less. Be­cause I tend to look upon my­self as over­looked and help­less.”

Oh come on, dude! Last year, his take on Marvel’s The Avengers – bring­ing to­gether Iron Man, Hulk and an­other mess of su­per­heroes – took in $1.5 bil­lion world­wide. Only Avatar and Ti­tanic have ac­cu­mu­lated more loot. Over­looked and help­less? “Oh look at me.”

Now 48, Whe­don is a hugely ar­tic­u­late, un­stop­pably amus­ing racon­teur. He has per­fect tim­ing and a good line in height­ened comic im­per­son­ations. For all his gifts, how­ever, he can’t have imag­ined that he could ever have gen­er­ated such a fer­vent fol­low­ing. Even his flops have evolved into cults. For ex­am­ple, sup­port­ers of his fine, hastily can­celled TV space opera Fire­fly were in­stru­men­tal in

al­low­ing him to make the movie spin-off called

Seren­ity.

Much of the ap­peal stems from Whe­don’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to treat pop cul­ture – comics, sci-fi, hor­ror – as high art. Now, with Much Ado

About Noth­ing, he’s flipped the aes­thetic and brings pop cul­tural sen­si­bil­i­ties to high art.

Tack­ling a Shake­spearean com­edy was a brave move. The tragedies tend to fare bet­ter on film: more ac­tion, less twisty chat­ter.

“I never thought about that,” he says. “But I think you are right and the come­dies I have seen adapted tend to stress the drama. They seek some­thing else in it. As a re­sult, the com­edy falls a lit­tle flat. It’s to do with hav­ing the right ac­tors. Shake­speare is very funny. But peo­ple don’t take come­dies se­ri­ously – even his.”

That’s right. Just look how poorly come­dies fare at the Os­cars. “Ha ha! Yes. They’ll say: ‘Is this a mean­ing­ful Shake­speare work or is it one of his come­dies?’” Much Ado could hardly be more dif­fer­ent to

The Avengers. Fol­low­ing that be­he­moth, he in­vited a bunch of reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tors (Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fil­lion) to his Santa Mon­ica house for a fu­ri­ous few weeks of shoot­ing.

“I ac­tu­ally got more sleep that way,” he says. “I’d roll out of bed and find them all there. At one point, my son came down the stairs and said: ‘Where are all the peo­ple I know?’”

So, is Whe­don try­ing to drag the “kids” to­wards Shake­speare? Is he hop­ing to trick Buffy fans into swal­low­ing El­iz­a­bethan drama? He adopts a very con­vinc­ing mock­posh ac­cent.“Oh, young peo­ple nowa­days need to know th­ese things!” he brays pompously. “Ha ha! No, not in that sense, I hope. Ev­ery­thing I do is part of the same mis­sion. If some­body says: ‘I don’t care about su­per­heroes, but I thought Avengers was dope’, then I am se­ri­ously thrilled.”

Whe­don al­ways seemed des­tined for that mis­sion. He is one of the very few peo­ple who can claim to form the third gen­er­a­tion in a fam­ily of tele­vi­sion writ­ers. Wheel­wrights and cob­blers used to cre­ate such dy­nas­ties. His grand­fa­ther wrote for The Donna Reed Show in the 1950s. His fa­ther, John Whe­don, wrote on such shows as The Golden Girls. Did the fam­ily grandees try and scare him to­wards a less pre­car­i­ous pro­fes­sion? “My dad very kindly did both, just as his fa­ther had warned him,” he says. “But the moment I de­cided to start, he couldn’t have been more sup­port­ive. Three or four of the best pieces of ad­vice on writ­ing I ever re­ceived I got from him.”

Such as? “Well, he al­ways said that if you have any de­cent ideas on story struc­ture you don’t need jokes. All the jokes in the world won’t save you.”

That ad­vice must have been use­ful when Whe­don found him­self work­ing on the TV se­ries Rosanne. If the ru­mours are re­li­able, the

“All my stuff is about . . . peo­ple who are over­looked or help­less. Be­cause I tend to look upon my­self as over­looked and help­less”

writ­ers’ rooms for those shows are bear pits. Am­bi­tious young turks el­bow each other aside in the rush to get their jokes con­sid­ered. Whe­don recog­nises that car­i­ca­ture, but says the most po­lit­i­cal, most ag­gres­sive writ­ers rarely pro­duced the best ma­te­rial. He re­mained po­lite. He per­se­vered. Ul­ti­mately,

he pros­pered. Var­i­ous script doc­tor­ing jobs pre­sented them­selves. He got a gig on Toy

Story

The route to Buffy was twisty. A full 20 years ago, Whe­don wrote a film of that name. It was not a hit. He re­turned to script doc­tor­ing, but the con­cept nagged.

“It wasn’t the movie I set out to write, which is not to say the movie I set out to write was a grandly am­bi­tious thing. It was a pop cul­ture send-up. It was a hor­ror com­edy with a cool char­ac­ter in it. When the no­tion came of mak­ing some­thing for TV, the idea was there wait­ing. But there wasn’t much else.” It would be no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to sug­gest that

Buffy changed tele­vi­sion. The se­ries’ side­ways fem­i­nism opened up new pos­si­bil­i­ties for fe­male ac­tors. The ex­traor­di­nar­ily play­ful ap­proach to form (fa­mously, one episode was pre­sented as a mu­si­cal) awak­ened the main­stream to odder, less for­mu­laic think­ing. Whe­don ac­knowl­edges that he was work­ing to an agenda.

“I was so tired of the fact there were so few de­cent role models. I felt I must cre­ate a role model. It wasn’t just that. I really wanted to see an ass-kick­ing fe­male on TV. There was an agenda. But it was an emo­tional thing too.”

I won­der when he re­alised he was at the head of a phe­nom­e­non. Be­gin­ning on the Warner Brothers net­work, Buffy was ini­tially treated as some­thing of a nov­elty. Within a year or two, the shelves of gen­der-stud­ies de­part­ments were groan­ing with PhD the­ses on the show.

“I’m not sure I have re­alised that yet,” he says. “If you are writ­ing too closely to an agenda, that can show through. But, right away, the peo­ple who wanted it un­der­stood it. I hoped peo­ple would have a good time and we’d sneak in a gen­uinely good show. We thought, maybe, peo­ple would en­joy them­selves, but not get the metaphor. In­stead, they all got that im­me­di­ately. Crit­ics and fans got it. The re­sponse was way more in­tel­li­gent than I had feared.”

Whe­don’s ca­reer then passed through an odd tra­jec­tory. An­gel, a spin-off from Buffy, did pretty good busi­ness. But Fire­fly failed to find a sub­stan­tial au­di­ence. His sci­ence-fic­tion show Doll­house only man­aged two se­ries.

The Cabin in the Woods, Whe­don’s very amus­ing post-mod­ern hor­ror flick, got caught up in the col­lapse of MGM films and sat in the vaults for two long years. Yet, through it all, he re­tained a fa­nat­i­cal fol­low­ing on the in­ter­net.

“Well, most of us stay off the in­ter­net as much as pos­si­ble,” he laughs. “We do that to main­tain our san­ity. Yes­ter­day I hap­pened upon a thread say­ing I was a misog­y­nist. There is al­ways go­ing to be toxic stuff too. But there is also crit­i­cism you should lis­ten to.”

He ac­knowl­edges that most of the ban­ter has been pos­i­tive. So, is it true that sup­port from the Brown­coats, as Fire­fly fa­nat­ics were la­belled, al­lowed the se­ries to rise again as Seren­ity? “It was not as cut and dried as that,” he says. “But it sure helped. I was with Mary Par­ent, an ex­ec­u­tive at Uni­ver­sal, and some­body stopped us on the street to rant about Fire­fly be­ing can­celled. That helped.”

Did she think that he’d hired the Brown­coat? “I can’t say money didn’t change hands,” he chor­tles.

At any rate, it seemed un­likely that Whe­don would have to wait long for an­other smash. Marvel fans were, for the most part, de­lighted when he was hired to write and di­rect The Avengers. Now, he finds him­self sec­ond only to James Cameron as a gen­er­a­tor of movie dol­lars. For all his im­mer­sion in pop cul­ture, the project must have been daunt­ing. He had to ob­serve Mar

vel house style while mak­ing the film his own. “That part for me was a no brainer. My style was par­tially formed by read­ing Marvel. I got my vis­ual rhythms from that. I do re­mem­ber think­ing: my God, there are just so many characters. Can we make a movie where they co-ex­ist that doesn’t seem com­pletely bonkers? The sheer ton­nage was un­be­liev­able.”

Well, he seems to pull it off.His next task is a TV se­ries based around S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s para­mil­i­tary crime-fight­ing body, but he has been sworn to se­crecy on any plot de­tails. Af­ter that, he sets into Avengers 2. Then, one imag­ines, he can do what­ever the heck he likes. We should all be so over­looked and help­less.

ado

Joss

Much

about

Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer

Avengers As­sem­ble

Much Ado About Noth­ing

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