Sue Turnbull: How does it feel to be God?
Mr Whedon: [after boasting how good his mountains are] …I don’t believe in Me.
Joss Whedon is one of those comedic personalities with full-formed quips flying out of their mouths, and this Melbourne Writers Festival interview sounds scripted. Whedon knows how to work the dramatic pause, how to play the dunce, the megalomaniac, and the guy-next-door. And as he scores humour points with his audience, I’m thinking, ‘God, I hate You…even if you did create Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.’
Interviewer Sue Turnbull is a Buffy buff and many of the audience members are Whedon fans, so much of the introductory ramble which accompanies such events is excised. The interview makes quantum leaps from Buffy/Angel to Alien Resurrection to Dollhouse and Fray, as Turnbull tries to nut out a coherent trajectory of the screenwriter’s career.
As a child, Whedon ‘spent most of…[his] time creating science fiction universes rather than stories’. He moved onto studying film-making with the hopes of creating a huge summer blockbuster, instead of a Sundance movie. His excuse, stated rather proudly: ‘I’m a Star Wars guy.’
Screenwriting was a way to earn money after college. Despite having his father and grandfather in the TV screen-writing business, he tried to stay away from going ‘3GTV’. He confesses to being a snob back then. TV was dumb, ‘mostly Fantasy Island, and stuff you can’t excuse.’ While writing five spec scripts for five TV shows in the year before getting work, he realised that he had found the great love of his life.
Television writing is like ‘living with a story for years and years in a collaborative fashion’. ‘TV is special like that,’ Whedon notes, ‘something you don’t get in movies at all.’ Over the years, Buffy characters moved beyond the initial spark of life: Willow got cooler, Giles became more hip, and Anya went weird.
‘Buffy was very much a study in actors influencing their roles.’ The whole process can be very organic, and when it isn’t, when there’s too much creative control, the end result can feel stilted.
In many ways, Buffy was a special project for Whedon. During its broadcast, longform TV series evolved into a respectable genre, allowing its creator to tinker with the form. ‘Ultimately…the real pleasure in playing with the structure came later [during the series],’ Whedon admits, bringing to mind ‘Restless’ and ‘The Body’, two memorable later season episodes that were written and directed by the man himself.
Strangely enough, Buffy’s first season coincided with the launch of the internet, and Whedon and Turnbull discuss the then-fledgling phenomena. The internet community made small network shows like Buffy viable. ‘They invented the internet for me,’ Whedon jokes. ‘Now they use it for other things…porn…you know.’
They touch on Firefly and writing comics, before turning to writing methods. It’s dark, you can’t see much of the audience in the Melbourne Town Hall, but I’m guessing that the writers in the room are leaning forward. Turnbull asks whether Whedon circles around his work like a vulture?
‘I circle like a beautiful dove that wants to peck at the flesh of a dead man.’ Everything needs to be there before he can sit down and write. He works on the big scenes first, before joining the dots with exposition, etc.
Even though a lot of his work comments on social and cultural issues such as feminism and corporatisation, he writes with no particular grand theme or message in mind. It just doesn’t work that way. (Dang.) But he has always put up with a ‘social monkey on…[his] back’, even as a boy scribbling stuff that wasn’t going to be read by anyone else.
The interview wraps up with talk of the upcoming Avengers movie. Since the release of Spiderman (2002), Whedon has wanted to try his hand at making comic book adaptations, despite being always entangled in this or that project. When postmodern comic book movies such as Watchmen and Kick-Arse appeared, he lamented, fearing that it would be too late to make an awesome but standard comic book movie. Hopefully, The Avengers will be a return to the original form.
After the interview, there are numerous intellectual questions on corporatisation, mental illness, and getting into the business of screenwriting. Many in the Town Hall have been one with the Whedon. But my favourite question comes from a true fan who just, like, wants to know what Mr Joss Whedon, God and Creator of Buffyverse and all other good things, yearns to be involved with. Whedon gushes, ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ And it’s geeks for the win.