The Oscar-nominated writer and series showrunner talks about his latest projects: the film Much Ado About Nothing and the upcoming series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Writer-director Joss Whedon
Tavis: So imagine you’ve just directed a blockbuster with a reported production budget of over $200 million based on iconic Marvel comic book characters that when released goes on to earn over $1 billion worldwide, and you’ve just agreed to do the sequel.
So what do you do with your free time? Well, if you’re Joss Whedon, you direct a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing” in your own backyard. Featuring actors you’ve worked with in your TV series work and you film it in black and white with a shooting schedule of not even two weeks, say 12 days, and this is what you come up with.
Tavis: (Laughter) So Ben Kingsley, Sir Ben Kingsley, was here not too long ago, and whenever he comes through it is impossible to go from beginning to end of a conversation without Shakespeare making a cameo somewhere in the conversation. So I will ask you, as I ask him, for you, what is it about Shakespeare?
Joss Whedon: It’s the language, really, I think. And it’s how personally I relate to it. I grew up around people doing it and watching it and reading it, even before I could understand it, just because I was trying to look cool to my parents, and it sort of seeped in.
But I love the poetry of the thing, but then ultimately, the more I studied it, the more I go, “Oh, this is about me.” (Laughter) Which is the case of all great literature. But it really just, it strikes themes that obviously it’s 400 years since he wrote it and they still completely resonate, and the jokes still work.
Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of the fact that his writing was such, or is such, that you can do a modern-day version of it, that you could do it in your house. I don’t want to give – people know the play, of course, but you’ve got cell phone and security cameras being seen here. How does Shakespeare play in a contemporary setting?
Whedon: Well, very often people will set it anywhere. It’s like, here, it’s in Hawaii, it’s in space, it’s in World War II. For me, it was a question of just making it contemporary, just because I wanted it to be relatable, and also I couldn’t afford costumes. (Laughter)
Whedon: But the fact is it works because it works. Because it’s still stuff that we care about. It’s love, it’s passion, it’s mortality, it’s jealousy. It’s what does it mean to be in love, what are we expected to be, who are we. It’s all the stuff that we’re asking each other and ourselves every day.
So it doesn’t matter if someone’s reading a letter or scrolling down on a letter. It’s still a letter. It still affects them emotionally. That’s the stuff I want to get through.
Tavis: As a writer, that says what to you about Shakespeare’s work, about his writing?
Whedon: That he’s a talented fellow. (Laughter)
Whedon: That he’s going to go places. Keep your eye on that guy. (Laughter) Yeah, it’s timeless, literally.
Tavis: So when did the idea, how’d the idea come to you to do this in your spare time in your backyard? Like, how did this come to be?
Whedon: Well, years before, when I was running “Buffy” and “Angel” and starting to work on “Firefly,” I’d been talking to some of the actors, and a lot of them did a lot of Shakespeare in the past, and regional theater and stuff, and that was part of their training, and they loved it, as actors do.
We thought well, we all love it. We’re not getting any. Why don’t we just for fun meet and have a few drinks and read a play? A bunch of writers and a bunch of actors (unintelligible).
Tavis: So it was the drinks, in other words?
Whedon: It was the drinks.
Whedon: I didn’t tell them there was going to be a play. (Laughter) I was just like, “I have booze,” and then started passing out – they were like, “What is this?” No, actually, there was a certain amount of drinking because there was a lot of nervousness. Like we thought well, we’ve never done this. What if we’re terrible, what if we’re bored?”
Then as it went on and kept going on week after week, the drinking kind of just fell away, and it was just all about getting together, being together, experiencing the play, and we really did.
Even though we were reading it obviously aloud, nobody learned their parts by heart, we still, every joke landed, every emotional moment, these connections, we found beautiful stuff.
The thing I think that struck us the most was how just casual and intimate it was, and how natural it sounded. A lot of people, especially if you’re in school and you have to see either some grand production or some school production, it seems very stately and very removed.
You just hear these words, and they don’t add up. When you see it done just, like, off-the-cuff by someone you know really well, you hear it in their voice, you go, “Oh, god, yeah, this is something that I would love for people to see,” how just lived in it is, and how much fun, how effervescent.
Tavis: Was this – I’m asking you to put your director’s hat on here – was this a production, even though in your backyard, even though in 12 days, where you were cracking the whip, or were people kind of – was it just to get it on film, or were you really directing this with an eye toward this being a theatrical release?
Whedon: Well, I wasn’t sure that it would make a theatrical release, but absolutely. I absolutely – I wasn’t just going to put a reading on tape. You could do that –
Tavis: But this wasn’t just a backyard project.
Whedon: Exactly. Exactly. For a long time, because Amy and Alexis are good friends, brilliant actors, and when they played Beatrice and Benedick 10 years ago, I said, “Oh, I should film that.”
But it wasn’t until I actually had an idea for a movie, until I understood what the text would be for me as a director that I said, “Okay, we’re going to do it.” Then I wanted to capture a little of that sort of the urgency, and also my schedule dictated that I capture some urgency of the readings, sort of the intimacy.
Like you’re really there, it’s happening. It’s not over-thought, it’s not overblown, it’s not over-dubbed. It’s very much in the moment. But at the same time I had to make a piece of cinema.
So yeah, I had to crack the whip, except that everybody was working their hardest. It wasn’t like anybody was lagging. They knew going in this was going to be an incredibly difficult enterprise, but we all had the most fun we possibly could.
Tavis: Does the fact that you could do it in 12 days say something about the – I’m trying to find the right word here – the immediacy of Shakespeare’s work, that you can get it and deliver it in such a short period of time?
Whereas I imagine there are other scripts that you get, you couldn’t do it in 12 days no matter how many guns there are to your head.
Whedon: If I could have done “Avengers” in 12 days –
Tavis: You would have.
Whedon: – I would have. (Laughter) And then I would have taken a long vacation and America would have been very angry at me. But no, it is, it’s all character stuff.
Whedon: If you know what you’re trying to get and you understand your actors. I would say the thing that made it possible for me to do it in 12 days more than anything else is this troupe of actors.
These people who have been in my life, some of them for many years, some of them for less time, but people I knew I could trust to be there, be ready, lay it down. That we were all on the same page about it, because you can’t have any surprises in a situation like that.
Tavis: Yeah. You used the phrase “many years” a moment ago. I want to talk about the not so many years you’ve actually been in this business, and yet you’ve struck gold of late here.
I was just kind of looking at your corpus of work the other night, preparing for our conversation, and we all know that there really is no such thing as an overnight success in this business. There’s a journey that we’re all on.
But you really have struck lightning in a bottle, or struck gold – pick your metaphor – but the point is that it happened for you in this space in time. I’m just curious, at least from your perspective, what allows that, what makes that, if you know, happen for a particular person in this business?
Everybody out here wants to direct, everybody’s got a screenplay. Half the guys in this room got screenplays. (Laughter) Everybody’s got something they’re trying to get done, right? Yet for certain individuals there is a point in time at which it just all starts clicking on cylinders, and that’s happened for you. Do you have any -?
Whedon: Well, if we’re talking about the success of “The Avengers” and all of that –
Tavis: It’s TV, and –
Whedon: Yeah. I’ve been a professional writer now for 24 years, so a lot of those years were –
Tavis: Were lean, yeah.
Whedon: There were a lot of nights before the overnight.
Whedon: Something like “Much Ado” happens, and even “Avengers” happens because of the years of building connections and doing the work and proving yourself. A lot of people – of course what I got asked the most on “Avengers” was “How did you get this job? Why did they pick you?” (Laughter)
To the point where I was like, “Hey, quit it.” But it – and that was the groundwork that I had laid over years of making TV, of proving myself as a director and a writer and on a smaller scale, and building up to the moment when somebody would hand me the reins.
In the same way building this troupe of actors and my wife and I starting a micro-budget studio, Bellwether, in order to make our own stuff, and having success with “Dr. Horrible,” and just laying the groundwork. It’s years and years of extreme effort.
I worked very, very hard, and I don’t do anything else. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m bad at everything except this. But yeah, when people say, “Well, how do I get started,” I’m like, “I don’t know. Start. Just start, and then don’t stop.”
Tavis: Given who your parents were, are, did you have a choice? When you say, “This is all I do,” I’m just trying to figure out whether you had a choice, given the lineage.
Whedon: Honestly, sometimes I think not. I really do think that I was formed in a lab. My mom is a teacher, my dad was a writer for television, his dad was a writer for television, and combining those two has been sort of the goal of my life.
I really, the idea of actually getting a real job, this job is very hard, but man, it beats working. I think I was just only prepared to do something artistic. Which is not good, by the way. I’m not proud of that, but that’s the fact.
I think that I feel like I’m exactly the product of what my mom and my dad sort of created.
Tavis: Given what art means to our lives, what’s wrong with being designed, being wired, to only do something artistic?
Whedon: I think that there’s an insecurity about just being in the real world, and that whole, “Well, if things fall apart, you’d be the first to go. We’d eat you first on the boat because you can’t build anything and you can’t make anything and you can’t do math of any kind.”
You do, you feel a little bit like when you’re removed from the world in an artistic way, it’s a great privilege and I love my life and I’m very grateful for it, but at the same time you sort of go what happens if that remove goes away and I’m expected to, like, show up and be like a person? You get nervous about it.
Tavis: I assume, though, on this side of “Avengers” nobody has asked you why you got the job.
Whedon: (Laughter) Actually, somebody just recently did.
Tavis: No they didn’t.
Tavis: Not on this side of it.
Whedon: It was reported recently, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s the question I used to get all the time before it opened.” Yeah, now I don’t get it as much, I’m happy to say.
Tavis: So who’s the villain?
Whedon: Well, it was Loki, I think you’ll recall.
Tavis: No, I thought I’d just kind of ease that in.
Whedon: I know, I know.
Tavis: That didn’t work. For those who just kind of missed that, everybody’s trying to figure out who the villain is going to be in this “Avengers 2.” Are we calling it “Avengers 2?” Is that what we –
Whedon: We are for now, yeah.
Tavis: So everybody’s trying to get Joss to spill the beans on who the villain is, and you just ignored me.
Whedon: Yeah, no, I –
Tavis: Just straight disrespected me on that.
Whedon: I kind of did, yeah.
Whedon: I feel bad, don’t get me wrong. (Laughter) I feel bad about it.
Tavis: But the word is out, though, there are a couple new characters, though.
Tavis: Oh, so you can speak on that.
Tavis: Okay. Well, speak on it.
Whedon: Well, yes, we are introducing Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who are mainstays of the Avengers universe. They’ve been foes, they’ve been allies, and they’re very interesting to me, because I grew up reading “The Avengers” when I wasn’t trying to impress my parents with what I was reading. (Laughter)
They have powers that are kind of visually exciting and they’re interesting characters, very different than the people we’ve seen before. So I’m excited to sort of knock them up against “The Avengers” and see what shakes loose.
Tavis: I don’t want to over-process this, but is there something that happens inside of you, something you feel, something that happens when you are an adult and you get a chance to direct something that is a part of – Marvel comics is iconic stuff, and you’re reading this stuff as a kid.
Now you’re the guy, no matter what they say, you’re the guy that gets to direct it. That feels like what?
Whedon: That feels like great. Honestly, here is that special thing of like – you don’t see it all the time because you’re translating it into a new medium, you’re translating it to a new generation.
You want to make sure that you’re not just being nostalgic and throwing that out as a film. It’s got to be its own thing. But every now and then you go, “Oh my God, I’m telling Thor what to do,” like I did. (Laughter)
I was in my bed, reading what’s up with him, and now – admittedly I’m telling him like this, (looking up) “Listen, Chris, I think -” he’s not a small Thor. But it is, I’m standing around, like, posing like Spiderman, and just going, “This is a really good life.”
It is that resonance from childhood, that little extra kick, that makes it extraordinary.
Tavis: Because the stuff that we watched is different than the stuff, of course, that kids watch today, because kids today aren’t into comic books in the way that they were back when we were kids, when you go in to approach it and you want to do justice by it, but you are exposing it to a new generation, what’s the thought process for how you tinker with it, for lack of a better word, to make it fit for this generation of kids?
Whedon: Well, it’s something I give Marvel and (unintelligible) who runs Marvel, a lot of credit for. It’s just about understanding what was important, what is not negotiable, what really made it work.
Thor’s going to have a hammer. We’re not giving him a spatula. There are certain things that you know. Then there are certain things that you have to let go of, and I’ve seen a lot of comic book adaptations where it’s frame-by-frame, just like the comic book. That doesn’t work.
They’re different mediums, and it’s really a question of knowing what you love and making sure that’s in there, but then also letting go of that and making sure that it’s a story that would work if you’ve never read a comic book.
A lot of people who saw “The Avengers” didn’t read comic books, don’t like comic book movies, and enjoyed it. That was huge for me. A lot of people who saw “Much Ado” didn’t read Shakespeare and didn’t like Shakespeare movies. For any artist, that’s the best thing, because you’re reaching out to people yourself.
Tavis: It occurs to me to ask you now, so I will, assuming that on any project there is a certain level of intimidating – small I, not a big I, there’s a certain level of intimidation on anything that we do that we’ve not done before.
What’s more intimidating – trying to make Shakespeare work in 12 days in black and white in a contemporary setting, or approaching a major blockbuster that you know you’ve got to get right, like “The Avengers.”
Whedon: I would say they’re kind of equal. It’s kind of amazing how every time you step in, you’re stepping into the same arena. It’s the same amount of problems, it’s the same schedules and you’re behind and the set’s not ready and this, that, and the other.
There was a moment at the beginning of “Avengers” where I, when I first took the job, I went, “That’s a lot of money.” My wife just turned to me and she said, “Joss, it’s just the next story.”
That was the last time I ever worried about it. There’s expectations, but you also have a lot bolstering you. With “Much Ado,” it’s a little nerve-wracking because there’s no expectations, but there’s also – I don’t have a road map besides this script and my adaptation of it, and I know that this is going to be archaic for some people.
But I think the thing that made it possible for both of them to work for me is that these aren’t languages that I speak. It took me a long time to understand that one of the things I think worked about “Avengers” was it never occurred to me that these guys wouldn’t hang out.
That Thor and Iron Man and Captain America, they’ve been partying together since I was a kid. That all made sense to me. I didn’t have to figure out how to make that work for me. I just had to translate it.
The same with “Much Ado.” I’ve been listening to that language and studying it and assimilating it my whole life. It makes perfect sense for people to walk around in suits, speaking in Elizabethan English. I just had to make sure it made sense to everybody else.
Tavis: Yeah. I suspect that even as a child, in some way, shape, or form you come to wrestle with the value of what your mom does, because she’s teaching people, and that’s a noble vocation in our society. When did you come to appreciate your father as a writer?
Whedon: It took a while in the sense of I admired him enormously, but it’s true – when he’s writing jokes for “Captain Kangaroo” or “Dick Cavett” or “Alice” or “Benson,” I’m not going, “Oh, wow, he’s out there changing the world, and also he’s like the funniest man I’ve ever met.”
Then these shows are good, but – they’re funny, but they’re not Tom Whedon funny. It took me a long time to understand what art can do and how art and teaching are so similar in their both intent and structure, and when they can come together without it seeming like you paid to go to a classroom, it’s the best feeling.
Whedon: I loved teaching and I did a lot of work as a teacher’s assistant in college, and my favorite experience was basically getting a laugh from a bunch of people because they had just understood something.
Because I had shown them something they hadn’t seen before, and it amused them. That’s the combo platter. That’s a perfect moment.
Tavis: You were a teacher assistant – I’m just curious now. You were a teacher’s assistant for what subjects, or in what –
Tavis: For film.
Whedon: Yeah, for various film professors.
Tavis: Have you had the occasion or the interest as you’ve grown in your own stature to look back at your dad’s writings?
Whedon: Sometimes, yeah, and even my grandfather’s.
Tavis: Father and grandfather, yeah.
Whedon: My grandfather wrote radio before he wrote television.
Whedon: I’ve got some old “Great Gildersleeves” that he did on radio. It’s very interesting to see the progression. They also both did off-off-Broadway musicals.
Tavis: What do you see when you look at your father and grandfather’s work, in retrospect?
Whedon: They’re extremely witty and there’s a lightness; but then the best thing, the best thing of my father’s for me, it was a show called “United States” that got canceled before his episode ever showed up.
It was Larry Gelbart’s show, and it was the first time he got to write, like, people. It was when they were first trying to do half-hour single-camera, and nobody was sort of cracking the code.
The “dramady” was this sort of terrible word. But it was so real and so funny and so, just, almost random, and that’s, in a way that I look at “Louie,” which to me is just a watershed TV show, it had a little of that flavor, and that was really my favorite thing.
Tavis: Yeah. So I’m fascinated by this story about your father having done some of his best stuff and it got canceled before it ever got out the gate. You haven’t had, I guess, much of this to deal with, but was there a lesson in there for you about how tough this business could be, vis-à-vis cancellations?
Whedon: Yeah. My dad’s whole career was a cautionary tale. It’s the roller-coaster. Up and down, up-down, up-down. I’ve always been very cautious, I’ve always been stingy, I think is the word.
I saved my first dollar because I was like at some point, this business will turn around and say, “Yeah, no, we’re done. You were great. No, seriously, wonderful.” (Laughter) “Really. Leave. Just leave.”
So, or that’ll happen and then something will come but it’ll be years. It is an absolutely unpredictable, and sometimes untenable, existence, being particularly a writer.
Tavis: Yeah. Before I get out of here, are you still interested in doing more TV stuff, or are you –
Whedon: Well, I’ve got “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” coming out in the fall, which I created, and I co-wrote and directed the pilot of that, and so I’ll be able to sort of like keep my hand in TV while I’m doing “Avengers 2.”
The problem is I want to do everything. I really love all of it, and I love every aspect of movie-making and storytelling, and I love television, I love the Internet. I wish I had time to do absolutely everything.
Tavis: Yeah. So you’ll start filming “Avengers 2” when?
Whedon: Probably around February.
Whedon: I’m still – there’s a lot to do before that happens.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Like what? So what are you doing between now and the time you start shooting? I’m just curious – between now and February.
Whedon: Well, besides finishing the script and casting and all the prepping and set-building and location-scouting, you also have to be ready on a level with that that, it’s not like hey, come to my house in two weeks, we’ll film some Shakespeare.
We have to know exactly what we’re shooting because the VFX guys have to build an entire world before we even get a shot off, and they have to start building Hulk, which is a long process.
Tavis: I better let you go. You got a lot of stuff to do.
Whedon: I do. (Laughter)
Tavis: Between now and February. Get out. Joss Whedon, good to have you on the program.
Whedon: Thank you so much.
Tavis: “Much Ado about Nothing” is the new project, and of course “Avengers,” well, we’ll be talking about that months from now. Of course, we ain’t got to promote that; everybody’s waiting on that. Good to have you here, though.
Whedon: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks as always. Until next time, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.