Joss Whedon has had a long and storied history in Hollywood as a screenwriter, on television as the writer-creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, and back in Hollywood as the writer-director of Serenity. As an enthusiastic, unabashed fan of all things smart and geeky, it was inevitable that he'd find his way into comics, where (among other things) he's written the far-future Buffy spin-off Fray, a well-received run on Astonishing X-Men, and the Firefly miniseries Serenity: Those Left Behind. Currently, he's wrapping up his X-Men run, taking over writing duties for Brian K. Vaughan on Runaways, and scripting future issues of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Eight, the official comics continuation of his beloved first show.
Recently, Whedon took the spotlight at the San Diego ComicCon, where he announced that he's in negotiations to bring the Buffy spin-off Ripper to the BBC, showcased his online Dark Horse comic Sugarshock, and took five charity auction-winners to dinner, raising more than $60,000 for the worldwide women's-rights organization Equality Now. Just before heading to San Diego, Whedon spoke with The A.V. Club about his current and upcoming comics projects, his film project Goners, the status of Serenity, why spoilers are ruining our culture, and his much-publicized work on—and break from—the Wonder Woman film project.
The A.V. Club: Do you intend for Buffy Season Eight to be completely open-ended, or do you have a specific arc in mind?
Joss Whedon: It has a specific arc and an ending. It will be open-ended in the sense that there could be a Buffy: Season Nine.
AVC: In comics, or on television?
JW: In comics. There's not going to be a Buffy season nine on television. I don't think Sarah [Michelle Gellar] has the slightest interest in doing that, and quite frankly, I don't think it's a good idea for me, either. I do have to prove at some point that I can do other things.
AVC: Are there things you can do with the comic that you couldn't have done with the show, and vice-versa?
JW: Yeah, absolutely. The thing with the comics is that you have license to go down every alley your brain can think of. Willow's been on a mystical walkabout, you can actually show that. Instead of, "Well, she can talk about it in the magic shop for seven pages, because that's the money we got." You can pursue every thread, emotionally and visually, in a way that you just can't on TV. But on TV, you're on TV. There's actors, the people who created the characters with you, that everybody loves. Oh, and also, the paychecks don't make your family laugh.
The hard part about writing comics is creating juice. Let's say I'm trying to create a love interest for Buffy. People are like, "It's Angel!" "It's Spike!" Some people are saying it's Riley, possibly. Not many. I think that's above Andrew, actually, in the poll. But to create somebody in the comic who has anything like the juice of somebody who was on the show, that's an insane challenge. It's going to be really tough. That goes for the Big Bad, as well. A villain that people care about, who they've only seen as a drawing, is, again, a challenge.
AVC: So is the temptation to stick to established characters?
JW: Well, as much as it serves you. We don't want to just do, "Oh my God, it's this guy! Oh my God, it's this guy! Hey, it's that guy on the left from 12 years ago, he's in it!" Eventually, you have to let go and move on, and let the comic-book world be the comic-book world. I think after time, people will come to accept some of the characters, if we paint them vividly enough.
AVC: What's the status of the Angel season-six comic-book concept?
JW: Well, we're not calling it season six, because I don't want to people to confuse it with the Buffy comic. But it does take place after the end of the show. Brian Lynch has delivered a basic arc outline, and he's doing all the heavy lifting. We sat down and talked about where everybody was, and what kind of world it was, and what we were planning to do, and what we could never have done, and wanted to do. He's sort of taking it from there. I think the first issue is slated to come out later this year. Late, late, late, late this year.
AVC: Did the show getting cancelled affect the plotline you had in mind?
JW: I never would have killed Wesley if we hadn't been cancelled. [Laughs.] I decided how I wanted to end the season before we were cancelled, and I wanted to end it exactly that way while it was still in question. Which was, we're going out in mid-battle, because if we come back, we have something to come back from. If we don't come back, then this is how I want it.
With Buffy, I needed closure, because she, poor girl, had earned it. Buffy is about growing up. Angel is really about already having grown up, dealing with what you've done, and redemption. Redemption is something you fight for every day, so I wanted him to go out fighting. People kept calling it a cliffhanger. I was like, "Are you mad, sir? Don't you see that that is the final statement?" And then they would say "Shut up."
It didn't affect, with the exception of the untimely death of young Wesley, where we were going with it. But we did have an idea. The miniseries is called Angel: After The Fall. It is much huger in scope, and Brian has brought a lot of new ideas to the table. It is oddly more like what we had planned for season six than Buffy: Season Eight is.
AVC: Why did the TV series ending mandate killing off Wesley?
JW: Because it was awesome. The writers pitched it, with Illyria turning into Fred, and I was like, "Uh, okay, we have to do that, really, now." You squeeze all the juice out that you can. That was one of my favorite moments that we shot. If you're going to go out, go out hard. If you just go, "Well, off to another mystery. Here we are, arm in arm," that ain't an ending.
AVC: Do you regret making that decision, since you're planning to continue the series after all?
JW: Most people in my universe get more work after they're dead. Look at Harmony. If we had suddenly been given a reprieve, there would not have been a single episode without Wesley in it, dead or not. He'd have been given an eleventh-hour stay of execution. That has to do with my love of Wesley, and let's face it, my love of Alexis Denisof, who is, apart from being a dream to work with, staggeringly versatile.
AVC: Did you ever feel that the ending was painting yourself into a corner if you did want to continue the series?
JW: No, had we had a season six, it would have picked up right where season five ended, because I knew what I planned to have happen right after that battle. If nobody ever found out what I had planned, then we were going out with the statement that life is a battle. And love, sidebar, is a battlefield. But had they given us an 11th-hour reprieve, we absolutely would have picked up right there. After The Fall should give you a glimpse into what we were planning to do about that battle. But no, we didn't paint ourselves into a corner, we were right where we wanted to be. Except for the fact that we were cancelled.
AVC: Is your Wonder Woman film adaptation irrevocably dead, or is there any possibility of going back?
JW: I loved what I was doing. I mean, it was really hard. It took me a long time to break the story structurally to my satisfaction. When I did that, it was in an outline, and not in a draft, and they didn't like it. So I never got to write a draft where I got to work out exactly what I wanted to do. In terms of the meaning, the feeling, the look, the emotion, the character, the relationship with Steve Trevor, all of that stuff, I never wavered for a second. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. It was really just a question of housing it. I would go back in a heartbeat if I believed that anybody believed in what I was doing. The lack of enthusiasm was overwhelming. It was almost staggering, and that was kind of from the beginning. I just don't think my take on Wonder Woman was ever to their liking.
I wasn't getting them to feel what they wanted to feel. They couldn't describe what that was to me. We're talking about a huge investment. To ask somebody to jump on that, what is going to be a few hundred million dollars these days, if they just don't have that feeling… I had that feeling. I got chills when I think of some of this stuff, but apparently I was the only one who was chilly. Everybody was very gracious about it. It was a blind date, and everybody thought we'd get married, but let's just leave it at the door.
AVC: What would you do on a set with $100 million dollars, having never worked with a budget like that before?
JW: It's the exact same job. The money has never mattered. If you have $100 million, if you have $100,000, you're trying to hit someone in the gut with an emotional moment. If you can back that up with an awesome visual, that's really neat. If you can back that up with a visual that's not awesome, but at least gets it done, tells them what they need to know to hit them in the gut emotionally, that's neat too. If the characters can only talk about it in a room, then the emotional moment has to be really, really good, but it's still neat. That's never really worried me. I've always thought way too big, and then people have gone, "Great. Now you have to scale this way back." In this case, I didn't have to scale it way back, I just had to stop doing it.
AVC: Can you say anything about the plot you had in mind for your version of the film?
JW: Well, I'll tell you one thing that sort of exemplifies my feelings. The idea was always that she's awesome, she's fabulous, she's strong, she's beautiful, she's well-intentioned, she thinks she's a great big hero, and it's Steve Trevor's job to go, "You don't understand human weakness, therefore you are not a hero, and you never will be until you're as helpless as we are. Fight through that, and then I'll be impressed. Until then, I'm just going to give you shit in a romantic-comedy kind of way."
There was talk about what city she was in and stuff, but by the end, she had never actually set foot in America. Wonder Woman isn't Spider-man or Batman. She doesn't have a town, she has a world. That was more interesting to me than a kind of contained, rote superhero franchise. I think ultimately the best way I can describe the kind of movie I was wanting to make—it was a fun adventure, not gritty, or insanely political, or anything like that. There was meat to the idea of, "Well, why aren't you guys better? What's up with that?" Her lack of understanding of how this world has come to this pass.
My favorite thing was the bracelets. I mean, the bracelets are cool, but how do I make that work? In the original comic book, they needed them because they fire guns on Paradise Island. I don't think I'm going there. So, I thought about it for a while, and I realized, "Oh, right, this is how this works." So in my version, she left Paradise Island with Steve, who was a world-relief guy bringing medical supplies to refugees, which is why he was so desperate to get off the island. She goes with him, and the moment she sets foot on land outside of Paradise Island, somebody shoots her in the chest. And it hurts. [Laughs.] She's just so appalled. And obviously, she heals within a few hours. She pulls the bullet out herself, and kind of looks at it like, "What the hell is this?" She heals, but she's appalled and humiliated, and the next time someone shoots at her, she puts her bracelet in the way because she's terrified of getting shot. It's just a reflexive thing. She has these bands that they all wear, just a piece of armor, and she puts it up. And then she gets good at it. By the end, it's kind of her thing, but it's because she got shot one time and didn't think that it was awesome. I think that is probably not the feeling the producers wanted to have. Though honestly, that could have been their favorite thing. I don't know, because when I asked Joel Silver, point blank, "Well, if they don't want what I'm doing, what do they want?" he said, "They don't know."
AVC: In movies and comics, an awful lot of female characters still fall into eye-candy/damsel-in-distress fantasy-object roles, even the supposedly strong heroine types. You've taken a strong stance toward a more empowering kind of feminism in your work—was that ever an issue?
JW: I have no idea. Obviously, nobody ever said "Don't be a feminist." And nobody ever said "Don't be political." The politics of the movie were all more or less moral, it wasn't like we picked somebody to root against, it's just more like everybody either steps up or they don't, and this is their opportunity to do that. I think that's part of how I got the gig. They wanted her to be strong. It wasn't like Buffy was a crone. It wasn't like anybody thought I wasn't going to make Wonder Woman extraordinarily beautiful. That's part of her thing, that she's so beautiful that men can hardly bear it. I'm all about that, and power just makes her sexier. I certainly wasn't turning my back on her hottie-ness, just because of my politics. I think that's a common misconception about feminism in general.
AVC: Most of your experience working on films seems awful: development hell, and processes that take forever, and having your work second-guessed, dumbed down, or bowdlerized. Have you ever considered giving up on film?
JW: Yes. Yes. When I was a script doctor, I was wealthy and miserable. I never had less fun succeeding at a job in my life. Then I got to do TV, and for the first time in my life, people just let me do the thing. That was amazing. Then, when I made Serenity, they let me do the thing. They helped me, they guided me through it. It was my first movie, and the people at Universal were amazingly supportive at the same time as being instructive, but at the end of the day, I did my thing. Once you've done that, it's hard to go back to the other, to not being able to do your thing. To putting up with, "Gee, these guys had a bad weekend because of such and such," or "Now they're looking at this actress," whatever it is. And the appalling things that happened to Firefly. I could just live inside my rage. I did for a while. Ultimately, it ain't that tasty, and I've learned to sort of put it in a box. I've had more luck than any 10 guys I know. I've been able to tell my story more than a few times, and that's the greatest gift. If I'm never given that gift again, I still will have had it, and I'm grateful for that. My gratitude has finally exceeded my rage by a good, long margin, and when I wake up in the morning with my work and my family, gratitude is the thing that guides me, not rage.
AVC: Do people still try to get you to do script punch-ups?
JW: Every now and then. Now that I've actually directed une filme du Joss Whedon, it more tends to fall into the, "There's a script that needs work, and you might shoot it as well." I've looked at a couple of those, and I'm interested in that, because I'd like to do that. I actually enjoy the process of script-doctoring very much, it's just like being an executive producer, finding out what's wrong with a story and fixing it, finding out what makes it mean something. That's fun. But then if they don't shoot it, or they shoot it in a way that's counter to what you had hoped for, it becomes frustrating. The fact that I am now the director that might shoot the things that I might rewrite means that that's kind of a different animal. But you never know which project is actually going to go, and which projects they're talking about really fast so you think it's going to go. It's part of their job, but they had me so completely convinced that Wonder Woman was so going to happen instantly. Every time I'm convinced of that, I'm wrong. You'd think that I would learn, but here's the funny twist, the M. Night Shyamalan moment: I'm a moron. I'm a complete dweeb. I don't get it, I never get it. Every time, I think everybody's lovely, and it's all going to work out, and I've never been right. For some reason, I can't get that right, can't figure that out. I think I'm getting better. I think I'm mean now. You're going to see a whole meaner person, now.
AVC: With that in mind, what can you say about Goners, the horror-fantasy film you're developing?
JW: Well, there may be some female empowerment in it at some point. [Laughs.] I don't know who put that there. It's the same brew that I tend to brew, which is a combination of horror, and heroes, and people crying, and female empowerment. It's been the thing that's made my career, but it's also the thing that's come the closest to killing it: Whenever I write anything, I want to stuff every genre in that I possibly can. And then people are like, "Well, we don't know how to market that, and if we don't know how to market it…" [Whispers.] "We're not going to make it." [Laughs.] Although Universal's been great, and they understand exactly what I want, what the movie's about. In 18 months of working on Wonder Woman, nobody asked me what the movie was about, whereas at Universal, I've never had that problem. They really get it. Obviously, Goners is about human connection, and loneliness, and responsibility, and power, and the things that I inevitably end up writing about, because they're the only things that interest me. Besides sex, and there's not a lot of sex in it. I'll probably have to change that in my next rewrite.
AVC: What's its current status?
JW: I'm rewriting it. Rather more often than I'd hoped. [Laughs.] It's pretty much where it was, which is bought by Universal, but not greenlit.
AVC: Do you intend it as a stand-alone project, or a new franchise?
JW: Yes. Yes, it has the potential to be the f-word, franchise. That can sometimes kill you, because when people start seeing that, sometimes they stop seeing the movie. It killed me with Serenity, because everybody was left with a bad taste in their mouth. We kind of failed. The movie did not make scads, at the box office, it barely broke even. But it made oodles of money on DVD, it's doing just fine. But everyone was like, "Wow, we didn't get to make the trilogy." There was never a trilogy! In this sense, this movie is very much a journey. It's not just a classic superhero movie—set up a premise, and here are some cool people, here are the rules, and let's go. It's very much this woman's journey, and it's a very painful, strange, hellish journey. I have to concentrate on that, not the fact that there may be dolls. But, unfortunately, once the word "franchise" comes up, people look at the structure of the script you've given them differently. That's just going to happen. The word "franchise" has almost killed my career. If people don't stop using it, I'm going to get very twitchy.
AVC: So were all the claims that there were two more Serenity movies planned just false rumors?
JW: People were like, [French accent.] "Eet's a three-picture deal." I was doing a lot of press in Europe. I was like, "No, it's a picture deal." And then, you know, [French accent.] "How do you feel about ze French?" I was like, "Guys, nobody's gone to see the movie yet. We haven't finished making it. Stop calling it a franchise." Almost every question was about, "Are there plans for more?" I get that it came from a TV series, so it already sort of had a built-in fan base that made it feel like a franchise. I understand why I was plagued with the question, but it really did turn into a plague. The fans themselves went to the theatre, saw the movie, and were like, "Oh, I guess he isn't going to get to make any more, the theater wasn't that full." But the movie, we made the movie. Believe me, I will take my rage about the death of Firefly to the grave, but we still pulled off something kind of miraculous. It got buried by the franchise concept. That is not to say that if somebody said, "Hey, you want to do another one of those?" I wouldn't jump on it in a heartbeat, because I would. But it does sort of tend to overwhelm everything else.
AVC: Does Fox still own the rights to Firefly?
JW: It's a situation that could not be untangled by me, but yes, they own the rights to Firefly, Universal has the rights to Serenity, and how that all works out is very strange to me.
AVC: What do you think it would take to get another Serenity movie made?
JW: Profit. They're putting out the Collector's Edition DVD, because the DVD is selling so very well. That's something that maybe, some time from now, someone will look at the numbers and go, "Well, that was worth it. Let's do that again. Let's do it smaller, let's do it different." I'd do it on radio. As long as I could write dialogue for those actors, I'd be in a happy place.
AVC: A while back, a group of fans started to try and organize a "fan fund" to get a second season of the show made. Do you think that model could ever work?
JW: You know, I've had the model described, and I believe there is a way in which it could work, but I don't think that the way entertainment is structured right now, that people are ready for it to work that way. I do think that the level of fan involvement in getting things put on will start to extend well beyond letter-writing campaigns. I've very intrigued by the concept of involving the fans at ground level. Saying, "This is what we want to do. Anyone want to see it?" Instead of saying that to a bunch of guys in a room, saying it to the world. I think that could be very fascinating.
AVC: What's the latest on further Serenity comics?
JW: There is one coming out later this year. I'm just going over the second-issue script, by Brett Matthews. It'll be another three-issue piece like the last one.
AVC: Getting back to Goners… You've been very secretive about the plot, just as you've always been close-mouthed about your projects in advance. Which makes a lot of sense when people are trying to get you to admit how you're going to resolve some big cliffhanger on one of your shows, but it seems a little odder when you're talking about an unknown project.
JW: The fact of the matter is, I'm not trying to sell it. In fact, I'm trying to keep it from being sold, because if everybody gets sold on it, and it doesn't happen for two and a half years, they'll feel like they already bought it. The people to whom I must sell it have bought it. [Laughs.] That's good. They got to read the whole script. There's no way everybody who wants to can find everything they want to know about the movie before it comes out. That is one of the worst things in our culture. I believe it's destroying storytelling. Now, I can't stop it, but I'm certainly not going to lay out the entire story when I haven't even got a green light on production, because then, people already feel like they've lived with a character, and not in a good way. It's not intelligent marketing, and it's not intelligent storytelling. I understand there's a limit. There's a point at which you have to talk about it. I struggled with this while doing the promos for Buffy, when people were like, "This act-two twist is what makes people come see the show. You absolutely have to put it in the preview." The entire world has turned into the opening credits from Battlestar Galactica and that just can't be. My wife and I always shut our eyes during those.
AVC: Is there a conscious philosophy to avoiding spoilers rather than seeking them out? There are fanatics on both sides of that divide.
JW: You know, I had older brothers, and I don't think there's anything worse than an older brother. They pretty much told me the end of everything they got to see before I did. It occurred to me very early on, "This would have been a lot more fun if I hadn't known everything that was going to happen before it happened." I got a little neurotic about it, and people were like, "What up?" So I sat down and I really thought about it, and realized that there is a philosophy behind it, one that I've talked about before, and I won't bore you with. It's the idea of surprise being the point of storytelling, and the most honest emotion, because it's truly humbling. Surprise means you have to reassess what you thought. It means that you were wrong about the way things were structured, and that's exciting, and really important. It also makes for a good story. I mean, The Sixth Sense is fine the second time around, but honestly, the first time around, it's dazzling. When it matters, when it makes a difference, letting a story happen to you, letting a narrative take place instead of just waiting for placeholders is a better experience, and it feeds you. We need narrative, it feeds us in a particular way, and deconstructing it completely before you've actually experienced it, I think it leaves us unfed.
AVC: Do you get tired of fans demanding spoilers? All your online and in-person Q&As seem to revolve around people wanting to know how you're going to resolve this twist or that cliffhanger.
JW: I only get tired of having to respond in a way that I know will displease 4,000 people all at once. "Uh, no, I can't tell you that, but thanks for your interest." I wish no one wanted to be spoiled, but I get it. I love trailers, by the way. A good trailer is an awesome thing, and I tend to write trailers in my head before I write scripts, and then cull ideas from the trailers. I know what I want to feel, and to encapsulate that is useful as a storyteller, and fun. But I think the need has just gotten overwhelming. It's also just really tough now, because the questions aren't, "Is Spike going to get together with Buffy?" The questions are, "Are you ever going to do anything?" [Laughs.] I'm like, "I can't spoil that."
AVC: What do you mean when you say you write trailers before you write projects?
JW: I'll have an idea, and then I'll start to think about what's behind that, and what would be the big emotional moment, what would be the catch, what would be the thing I'd love to see. It's usually easier in a situation with a known quantity. For example, Wonder Woman. Like, how do you introduce Wonder Woman? "Oh, that's cool." I did Aliens 4. When I first wrote it, it was a 30-page treatment that was completely different from what they shot. It didn't have Ripley in it. Somebody just said, "We're interested. Would you write a treatment on spec?" I was like, "It's Alien. Are you kidding? I'll carve one on my forehead." That hurt, so I stopped and used paper. [Laughs.] Paper has worked out great for me since, really. But, I thought to myself, "Okay, I've seen three Alien movies. Alien is one of the most important franchises in my mythic history. What haven't I seen? What are the moments that I go, 'Okay, that's new, that's worse, that's good, give me that'?"
It's easy doing that with a script for a TV show. You can feel the characters, you can get to the emotional moment. With a new thing, it's still part of the process. The most obvious example, and I've used it before, is Buffy in the alley. I really thought about it: [Trailer narration voice.] "It's a bad town to be in, especially at night." There's the girl in the alley. "Especially if you're alone." And then the monster attacks her and she kills it. "And especially if you're a vampire." It was that turnaround, which I hadn't seen, and which has obviously been seen a million times now, but this was 20 years ago. I wrote that, and it's in the actual movie. They didn't use it for the trailer, and the scene isn't shot exactly how I imagined it. But when I'm thinking of a trailer moment, I'm not just thinking of how I can grab people. That's my whole philosophy. My entire career is in that trailer moment: The emotional highs of the movie, and the thing you haven't seen, and the thing you're longing for. They should all be connected.
AVC: You said in a very recent interview that you're going to find out in the next few weeks whether you're going to be able to do Goners this year. If that doesn't work out, is it likely to be scheduled for next year?
JW: Well, if it doesn't go through this year, a) that'll suck. [Laughs.] And b) something else will. That's part of the idea of putting together small projects. I gotta roll. I gotta roll. I gotta feed the beast, as they say. I love to shoot. And I love the comics, and I'm having the time of my life, and when this comes out, there will have been a new comic unveiled, and it's great, but that's not enough for me, and it's not enough for the fans, either. I need to film some people. [Laughs.] So if it's not Goners, it'll be something.
AVC: You have a lot of comics projects going on right now. You're hitting the end of your run on Astonishing X-Men, aren't you?
JW: Yes, we are. It seems to have started a long time ago. Since they decided to make us bi-monthly, when I start a new script, I have to go back and look up what happened in the last one. But it's coming along. We're headed toward the thing I pitched to John Cassaday when we were halfway through our first arc, when I said, "Hey, instead of 12, what if we did this!" We have two more issues, and then the giant-sized annual, and then we are out of there, baby.
AVC: Where are you with Runaways?
JW: I'm into the last two issues of my six-issue arc. I'm actually having the time of my life. We got to create the entire Marvel universe circa 1907, and that's really fun.
AVC: How did the trade with Brian K. Vaughan come about, with him writing Buffy and you writing Runaways?
JW: Really, it was sort of a coincidence. I had been talking to Brian for a while about doing Buffy. You know, originally there had been the idea of doing Buffy movies that Fox was going to possibly finance, and then we realized that wasn't going to work out, financially. Brian was the first non-Buffy, non-Angel person that I brought in. I had been reading his stuff and hanging out with him, and I was just a big fan and a friend, and I thought he really got it. He had some ideas about Faith, and we sat down to dinner, me, him, Tim Minear, and Drew Goddard. He threw out these ideas about Faith, and we were all like, "Dang, he's kicking it. He's really going to bring something to the table." Literally, because we were at a table.
When the comic came around, I was like, "You know that idea you had about Faith? Can we play around with that? People really want to see her, and you've got a great bead on her." The idea was always to bring in other writers. His involvement in that has been gradual and almost inevitable. But Runaways, you know, he was leaving, and Marvel brought it up, and I was like, "Please! Can't you see that I'm terribly busy?" But of course, I lost sleep for an entire night, thinking that they were so cute and I loved them so much. So that happened rather suddenly. But the fact that the exchange timed out so close, that's just a big twist of fate.
AVC: Does working with the Runaways or the X-Men make you want to explore other company-owned characters, or do you sort of scratch that itch and move on?
JW: Well, I think I pretty much scratched the Marvel itch until it bled. Marvel is in such flux, character-wise. There's so much going on, I don't really have any ground to stand on. I love working with other people's characters if they're characters that I care about. I've been reading Runaways from issue one. It was delicious fun for me to dive in and see what I would do with them. Since I am an insane fan of The Office, it was really fun for me to direct an episode, because I had very strong opinions about what everyone was going to be doing in the background, based on all of their history. It's helpful when you're a geek. Alien, same deal. Everything where you have something to build off of that you love, it's fun. There are restrictions, X-Men particularly because it has such a long history, but it also brings resonance that you can only get from a comic book, or a TV show, or a franchise, something that's gone on for a long time. You say something, and it calls back somebody's entire childhood. That's an opportunity that I adore. By the same token, the moment that you've written one episode of a TV show, you're doing the same thing. You're working with characters that already exist, and are working around them. Most of my career has been doing that. Creating something completely new out of whole cloth is liberating as hell, but you have to create resonance where there is none. It's a different kind of fun.
AVC: How did your episode of The Office come about?
JW: I knew Greg Daniels a little bit, because he's married to Susanne Daniels, who is largely responsible for Buffy ever being on the WB. And I know Jenna Fischer because she's married to James Gunn, who briefly worked for me, and is a friend and an awesome guy. I saw him at a con, saw his wife, and said, "What do you do?" She said, "I'm starring in an NBC sitcom." I felt really dumb. So I rushed off and watched it. As it happened, I also took offices, briefly, right next to their writing staff, pre-season, and I became chummy with all of them. It was sort of a giant group of chum. So when somebody suggested it, it was kind of like, "Well, the comfort factor is pretty high, because I already know the writing staff and a bunch of the cast, and I adore the show. This will be a completely new thing for me, a real departure." And then they said, "It's about a bat, and there's a vampire." [Laughs.] I was like, "You have to be fucking kidding me." They were like, "Your stunt meeting is here, and your CGI meeting is here." I was thinking, "Didn't I just leave this party?" That was just coincidence. But that's how that happened. God, it was fun.
AVC: Did you have any input into the script, or freedom to alter it?
JW: I wouldn't say freedom to do things with it, because that sounds disrespectful. [Laughs.] But way more input was asked for than I would have ever anticipated. They wanted my notes on the draft before they went into the rewrite. There was a lot of physical stuff, especially when the bat appears, that I got to pitch. I got to pitch a ton of stuff. Some of it, they were like, "Great!" Some of it, they were like, "Hmmm… try it." The physical stuff made it in pretty well, and there was some stuff where I was like, "We're not going to shoot this, we don't have time, and I know that it's not going to work." They're incredibly open with their actors, and they're shooting improv. There was that thing about Pam's art. I got to the set and saw Pam's art, and I was like, "This is not right." [Laughs.] I held up production for an hour while they frantically made new art. That was the one time when I felt the power of the visiting director. What are they going to do, fire me? Somebody was like, "You're really working to protect your vision." I was like, "No, no, no, no, no. This is in the script. This is Greg and Brent Forrester's vision. They've written down a very beautiful thing about exactly what her art should be like, and that's what I'm going to put on the screen." The fact that they were that open and collaborative, and the fact that I was always completely respectful of their process and their world, I'm just going to do my best. Obviously, as a director on that show, all you want to do is hide. If anybody notices that it was directed, you've kind of failed. They gave me way more freedom than I can remember giving people. Ever. [Laughs.] I'm not going to lie about it.
AVC: How much freedom do you have working on Marvel characters? Does the company dictate or suggest plot points or directions?
JW: Nothing like that, no. They are extremely hands-off. It's only if I try to set a toe in the actual Marvel universe. There's a reason that one of my teams is in outer space, and the other is in 1907. I didn't want to do a Civil War tie-in. At the end of my run, I don't want anyone coming to it who's trying to read it, going, "What's this about, this new information?" It should just be a piece in and of itself. It has happened, like for example, with the Kingpin. They were like, "Well, he's out of the country." He's the Kingpin! It's New York! He's iconic! Finally, they were like, "Put in something that says he took a plane trip." [Laughs.] I was like, "Okay, thank you." The universe itself is too tricky. I can't even live there. But as far as what I'm doing, they've always been completely respectful. They know that I'm not going to do anything too crazy, and I do run it by them beforehand.
AVC: When you write comics, do you tend to work ahead and write up an arc on one title or the other, or are you more month-to-month on everything?
JW: Kind of month-to-month. I have on occasion gotten ahead. On Buffy, I delivered like three scripts in three weeks. I just couldn't stop writing, but that's a different animal. Usually, I have my schedule, and after I've written one, I'll try to rush through an outline for the next one based on the momentum of excitement. But trying to get the next script out is tough, so usually I'll wait. I'll write something else, and then later on, I'll try a bite of that and a bite of that. That works out pretty well. It seems like it's going terribly slowly for various reasons, which has been my fault occasionally, but not so much. It seems like it's a long time between bites, especially for the fans, but I do know exactly where I'm going, which is nice.
AVC: Do you ever have scheduling issues where you really want to be off on a tear on Buffy, but you've got a deadline on Runaways or whatever?
JW: All the time. You never want to be writing the thing you're writing, unless you're actually in it, unless it's just flowing, and you're typing, and you're laughing, and you're crying, and everything's giddy, and you're in the moment. That's the beauty of it. All the rest of the time, all you want to think about is whatever it is you're not supposed to be thinking about. Having said that, most of my best ideas have come while I was procrastinating about something else I was supposed to be writing. So I respect that. If my brain is saying, "You know what? You're supposed to be working on Runaways, but you're in an X mood," I go there, because if that's where the muse is hovering, I'm gonna go visit her. Sometimes you've got to bite the bullet, and be a man, and say, "Just write the script. Come on, find the inspiration. Bring that muse over here." But if I have a little leeway, and it's clearly going one way and not the other, that's what I'm going to follow.
AVC: You've talked a lot in interviews about how the best thing about your job is getting to be alone with a good story. But if that was enough, wouldn't you be less frustrated over the difficulties in getting those stories out to the public?
JW: The thing is, you can never turn your back on the idea that you may one day tell that story. Three years down the road, I'm doing a Buffy comic. Now we're telling that story about Angel in a comic. I got to make Serenity. I got to make a TV series out of Buffy, which, as you know, did not do that great as a film. If there's one thing I've learned, and this is ever-increasing, obviously, with the Internet and all of the cross-pollination, is that there's always a way to tell the story. There's novelizations. That's why I resolutely will not tell anybody what happened in Shepherd Book's past, because I'm still clinging to the notion that I one day may be able to. There's been talk of doing that inside a multiplayer game, having his past buried somewhere in that game. That's another great way to create narrative. I'm all about that, assuming that ever gets off the ground. Telling somebody at a dinner party or at a convention is never as cool as doing it. So, yeah, I can protect something to the grave. I'll tell my writers, or the person I hope will write it, if I'm not. I told fans my big Tara moment, because the opportunity had come and gone. I still feel like I shouldn't have. I still feel like it's almost disrespectful to what I did, to tell them what I was going to do with her.
AVC: You've had more luck getting comics going lately. Could you see yourself just doing comics for a career?
JW: I would like my children to eat solid food, and possibly go to grade school, let alone college, so not so much. I love comics, very much, and I love being alone, but I also love the other part. I love actors, and I love filmed entertainment, and that is not something I plan to turn my back on. The comic world has its own limitations, as everything does. I adore it, I respect it, but it's not going to take over all of me.
AVC: What do you think about the current wave of comic-book movies?
JW: After Spider-man finally got it right, they've improved. I still take issue with most of them, not just as a comic-book geek, but as a storyteller. Every now and then, I see something that I really like, and I think we're out of the time when it was a bunch of old men in suits, going [Old-timey businessman voice.] "Kids like the comic books. He's bitten by a spider. Does it have to be a spider? Nobody likes spiders, they don't test well." Now, the guys in those jobs grew up reading those comic books, and they finally figured out the formula. "Oh, just do what they did in the comic book, and it will be good," as opposed to changing everything. With the exception of Superman, nobody had ever really come close to getting it right. Now that there's a different generation and comic books have a different kind of weight in our culture, the movies have gotten better. Not all of them, but a few of them, and that's nice. That aesthetic has infused, à la The Matrix, movies that are not comic-book movies, and that's fun, too.
AVC: If you had carte blanche to make your own movie version of any comic-book property out there, would it be Wonder Woman or something else?
JW: Well, I've already written Wonder Woman, so I'd probably go with that one. If I could do absolutely anything… You know, I don't really think about it, because most of the things that I would love to do… I pitched a Batman before they made Batman Begins, basically a different version of Batman Begins. I still have as much grief about not being able to tell that story as I do about my script for Wonder Woman. I fell so in love with just my three-minute pitch. I'd like to do all the greats. You know, Spidey, and the Bats, they've been done. And the X-Men. There's not that much left. Although, you know, Kitty Pryde. First of all, she's got a great power, walking through walls, and stuff like that, and they already have Ellen Page playing her, so that would be cool.
AVC: Last time we talked to you, there were a couple of things on your plate that have long since stopped coming up in interviews. One of them was the Iron Man movie.
JW: The Iron Man movie is already in production by Jon Favreau. It has nothing to do with my script whatsoever. All I did was write an outline, and what happened with that wasn't them going, "No, we don't like it." Everybody said "We love it," but I just didn't want to be in production, in development with a studio. I had the TV shows going, and I just thought, "This is not the time for this." I really like New Line, and everything was going along fine. I loved the story, but I just suddenly had a flash of, "This is going to be a long period of development. This is not going to happen." Why I didn't figure that out about Wonder Woman, I cannot say.
AVC: So you pulled out?
JW: Yes, I just pulled right out. I said, "You know what? This has been fun, but I realize this is a mistake for me right now, career-wise."
AVC: What about your Alien 5 concept?
JW: Well, they did Alien Vs. Predator, so that already happened. And once he's versed a Predator, it's hard to get people juiced to go back. Not impossible, by the way, and I even kind of liked Alien Vs. Predator. But that's already kind of been capped by others.
AVC: Are there other back-burner projects that you'd theoretically like to get back to someday?
JW: There are so many that it's almost appalling. I make a list of the things that I'm working on, wish to be working on, or could one day think about working on, and it fills a page. I have 12 clipboards stuck to my wall with projects that I am working on, just to remind me where I am with each of them. I can pull one down at any moment and go, "Okay, here's the outline for the next issues," or "Here's the phone call I need to make to talk about funding for this concept." I've been writing music for a short, for a ballet that I want to film, a little short film with Summer Glau, for a while. It's very hard for me to write music, especially without lyrics, because I cannot play the instruments so well. So it takes me longer than it takes other people. It's a short, obviously, it's not a giant career move, but it's something I've been dying to do. But Summer's going to be very busy terminating people, isn't she? But, yeah, there's a ton of things. I never lack for things to occupy my time. I just lack for, at this point, it feels like traction.
AVC: Did the success of the Buffy musical episode "Once More, With Feeling" prompt you to want to write more musicals?
JW: Musicals were my absolute bread and butter. My father wrote Off-Off-Broadway musical lyrics, so did his father, before they both worked in TV. I was raised on a steady diet of Sondheim. That has never changed. I'm absolutely a musicals boy. A lot of people didn't know that, because I love horror movies, and I love other things, but those were the things that you could get off the ground. I made a musical because I was six years into a show, and I knew that nobody was going to stop me. The fact of the matter is, I'm dying to do another musical, more, possibly than any other single thing. The other fact is, nothing is more labor-intensive. Because I have so many things that I want to be doing right now, I'm going to wait before I buckle down and say goodbye to the world for a year or six months. Let's say six months. "Once More, With Feeling" took me four months to write, so let's call it eight.
AVC: Do you have a story or concept in mind for it?
JW: I've had different ideas. Some people have told me I should do Buffy for the stage, which I get, and it could obviously be very fun, but I'd like to do something on film. I've got a few different ideas, but I'm still circling them. Although now, my favorite subgenre, thanks to Drew Goddard, is the Final Fantasy VIII interstitial videos cut up to music by Evanescence. I think that's the movie I want to make.
AVC: Do you spend a lot of time on YouTube trolling for that kind of thing?
JW: Not a lot of time, but enough. They're awesome.
AVC: "Once More, With Feeling" has been touring the country as a subtitled sing-along show in movie theaters. Have you been to any of those screenings?
JW: I just went to one with [Buffy producer] Marti Noxon a few weeks ago. It was really fun, and oddly moving.
AVC: Did you go incognito, or as part of an event, or what?
JW: I snuck in the back, and then at the end, Marti and I came out and waved at everybody. I was actually kind of nervous. I was like, [Vaudeville voice.] "What manner of person would come to a late-night screening of this episode of television? I don't want to be seen, I'll wear a false mustache." [Laughs.] But it was a delight. It was really sweet.
AVC: Are you still doing your in-home Shakespeare-readings with friends?
JW: Well, I haven't been in-home. Everybody's been sort of scattered to the four winds, so we haven't done one for a while. If I could just get my peeps to all stop going to Canada to do episodes of things, and hang out long enough… I want to get back to it, it's been too long.
AVC: You've always been a surprisingly candid interview subject, secrecy about projects aside. When we last interviewed you, you called Donald Sutherland a prick.
JW: You know, I try to restrain myself.
AVC: Has that forthrightness ever gotten you in trouble?
JW: Oh, yes. Oh God, yes. The fact of the matter is, it's not my natural bent. Don just pushed, okay? He just pushed. [Laughs.] The fact is, I feel really strongly that one shouldn't be overly candid, one really should follow the old rule of talking about people as though they were in the room. But I called Don that, I can't help it. He was mean.
I tend to try to see both sides of everything. The Wonder Woman situation was frustrating for me, I'm sure it was incredibly frustrating for them. It took me a very long time to write. I was in a very bad place. Having just made a movie, it was very hard for me to get back into the writer's seat. They wasted my time, but I wasted a whole lot of theirs. If you come to it always realizing that the other guy has a perspective, then being candid is all right. If it starts to sound like a bunch of complaining, then you should shut up, you should just shut up. That's not the point.
I have stories I like to tell. Sometimes I got to tell them, sometimes I didn't. Sometimes they came out right, sometimes they didn't. I hope that I'm just as candid about my own mistakes as I am about grousing, but the fact of the matter is, there are things that I can never say, and I think that goes for absolutely everyone who works in this town, or any town, or are human. "Yes, darling, that outfit makes you look fat." Do people say that? No, they do not. Actually, I would, if anyone did. But they never have. Luckily, I haven't been faced with that one.
It bit me in particular with X-Men, where I was treated sort of shoddily. I was in England, very tired, and some fanzine asked a question, and I went kind of off. Well, of course, that fanzine was a web fanzine, I didn't know about this web thing. I hadn't really gleaned the fact that there wasn't such a thing as a guy with a photocopier handing out sheets of paper anymore. Everything I said got to the Fox executives before I went to bed that night. They were pissed, and they were right. That's not what you do. I kind of treat moviemaking and TV like the Army, and I kind of always have. Whoever is in charge, is in charge, and if they're going to march you up a hill and get you all killed, that's what you do. You march up that hill. You have to respect that, you have to respect that chain of command. I've done it under directors I believed in, I've done it under directors I didn't believe in. I've done it with executives and on projects.
Alien broke my heart, and I never said a single word about it until it was out on DVD. I thought, "Okay, now I can start to bitch and moan." Quite frankly, now, because there's always another DVD, or another thing, and everything is reported forever, there really isn't a good venue to cut loose like that, except perhaps the director's commentary. They actually asked me to do an interview about Alien 4, and I was like, "Guys, no, you don't want me to do that." It's important to be candid, or else everything sounds like a press release. But it's also important to have perspective, and not to get so up in one's own righteous rage that one forgets that other people are also people.
AVC: Have any of your experiences changed what you're willing to say in interviews?
JW: I've always had a rule. What happened with X-Men happened because I was exhausted, and because I had gotten so used to being a muckity-muck in TV that I'd forgotten that in movies, I'm nobody. When you're a rewrite guy in movies, it doesn't matter that you have a successful TV show, you're nobody. They had no obligation to treat me any better than they did, but I had gotten so used to being in a position of respect that I was sort of overly appalled by what happened, because, quite frankly, things just as bad have happened to me a lot, and to other people. It has always been my rule to tell the truth as much as it is useful to the interviewer, so that they are interested and want to call you back someday. [Laughs.] I'm not out there to blow the lid off such-and-such, or get back at so-and-so. I don't have any of that. You can't live with that. It's ungentlemanly, and ultimately self-defeating.