The Avengers director recalled his “Life in Pictures” at BAFTA in London, covering Buffy, Firefly and Toy Story as well as his recent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
With an array of iconic characters, witty scripts, and “more apocalypses than a vampire has incisors”, Joss Whedon’s work has helped define a generation.
In conversation with Francine Stock at BAFTA in London, the writer and director recalled how screenwriting was a part of his life from the start.
Born in New York in 1964, father Tom wrote for kids TV show Captain Kangaroo while grandfather John was a writer for sitcom The Donna Reed Show.
After following them into the business, with stints on TV sitcoms Roseanne and Parenthood, Whedon’s love of B-movies led to him writing his first feature, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992).
“I wanted to make something that could be terrible but - if remotely good - people would love me for not sucking,” he recalled. “It was initially supposed to be a horror film but actually turned out to be funny.”
Despite mixed reviews, the film led to a gig on groundbreaking CGI animated feature Toy Story, for which he was one of seven writers nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1995.
Whedon said: “You’re writing it as they’re drawing it. And drawing it is writing it. So there’s this weird collaboration. I already knew it was going to be a great film.”
When the opportunity came to take Buffy to the small screen, Whedon hoped to create something that people could “dig into” and would “sustain”.
“Every episode we did was for a different reason,” he added. “We don’t show up and give the audience what they already have.”
Touching on Whedon’s trademark pop culture references, he recalled a moment when he was 13 and overheard a group of children recalling moments from the sitcom The Brady Bunch.
“Everything’s that’s been made has a giant dose of ‘remember that one?’”, said Whedon. “I think it helped Buffy and Angel.”
His next project, in 2002, was futuristic ‘space western’ Firefly, which was cancelled after one season but spawned the film Serenity - Whedon’s first feature as director.
“I wanted people from a 70’s western and put them on the Millennium Falcon,” said Whedon, noting that Gene Roddenberry had originally pitched Star Trek as a western in space.
Talking about writing for the small and big screen, Whedon said: “Every medium is different and understanding the way that they’re different is important. But in the end, the thing that they all share is the storytelling.
“You’re trying to write something emotional through words, performances and visuals. And that’s the endgame.”
Avengers and Cabin
Last year began a new chapter for Whedon. First came the release of post-modern horror The Cabin in the Woods, co-written with Drew Goddard in just three days.
“The premise was ‘here’s a structure’”, said Whedon. “Because we understood the structure, we were about to write it in three days. The momentum and passion we had made it impossible to stop.”
Then came blockbuster hit The Avengers, bringing some of Marvel’s most iconic characters together under Whedon’s control.
In a bid to retain his vision for the film, Whedon said: “You have to stay ahead to make sure you have a personal vision.”
He also spoke about how he took inspiration from ensemble film The Dirty Dozen and Ridley Scott’s war movie Black Hawk Down, and said that ‘it would have to be like a war movie’.
Grossing $1.5 billion at the box office - the third highest of all time - Whedon has already begun writing the sequel, which is due in 2015.
His latest release is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which he shot in less than two weeks before going into postproduction on The Avengers.
“I started reading Shakespeare before I really could,” he said. “I believe in exposing children to something they’re not going to get or not ready for. Not in a horrible way of course. Like ‘Hey, kids you want to watch ‘Funny Games’?”
But despite his success as a director, Whedon said writing was “his greatest love”.
“That is what I would have on my tombstone.”