In August 2010 I saw Joss Whedon speak at the Opera House in Sydney. I got home and typed up what he said, just so that I would have it always. And now, so do you. But in any case, he chatted about self-doubt and the writing process as well.
He was funny and self deprecating – is that almost a trademark now?
He told a story about talking to Stephen Sondheim about writing and he said he would always write about teenage girls with neat super powers and Sondheim said he would always write about ‘yearning’. God, why didn’t I say that? That was such a cool answer. I need a time machine to go back and say that instead.
So he decided after the fact, (endearing because we all do that right?) that he should have said he wrote about helplessness. He wrote from a dark place within him and it was not the dark place that babies came out of. That helplessness became cluelessness as he got older.
He said he had a normal childhood with brothers who picked on him and a stepsister and he is not sure why he writes so darkly sometimes. His mother insisted that in the school holidays from breakfast to lunch, no body spoke. She called it ‘quiet time’. So he started to make up worlds and adventures. He hoped to work in whatever industry would allow him to not actually work hard. Coming from two generations of writers he said he had thought of other things as a career but just never did them. He said he drew but stopped at the standard of a 12 yr old. He has trouble moving any of his skill levels to a higher plane, except for writing. He enjoys making it harder for himself for example, write an episode where nobody speaks. (And weirdly won an award for script writing for it.)
His father and he had a tradition where they get really drunk once a year and play all the Sondheim musicals in a row.
His first job was writing for TV sitcom Roseanne. He was told to ‘bring his number 2 pencil to work the first day’ and rushed out and bought a hundred, having a panic attack that it was a literal command not a metaphor and what if was the only one who didn’t have a pencil?
He said it took him a very long time to realize that Buffy was him; his avatar if you will. And that he wrote her to release the feelings of helplessness, you have when you are small and defenseless. He described himself therefore, as a ‘literary transvestite’. He shared the information that the original idea was “Rhonda the immortal waitress”; he wished he was joking about that. Given the power of immortality she uses it to be a waitress?
He said that killing off characters you have got close to is why it is more touching; nobody cares if you kill off a character that nobody likes. He gave the example of the movie Speed, the actors were all cast when he changed the script somewhat. The annoying lawyer that everyone hated and was supposed to be killed, he morphed into the irritating but ultimately likeable tourist. Then the execs wouldn’t let him be killed. He said that they had to do it now, because people liked him. But they were adamant.
He said that he just wrote and the controversy that came with some of the things he wrote was a surprise to him. He had no idea that Willow and Tara being lesbians would cause such a stir.
He said one thing he regretted was a story arc in the final season of Buffy that would have brought back
Tara alive, but that the actress Amber Benson was
unavailable. He said he liked where it went with Willow’s guilt and self-blame
for her death and described Kennedy as his ‘most liked’ character (I think he
was being sarcastic here). When Willow moves on and kisses someone, she
magically turns herself into the guy who killed her girlfriend in guilt. He
said he had only written 8 bad episodes out of nearly 300 he thought that was
ok. He didn’t say which 8 episodes were awful in his opinion.
He said sometimes he wrote something he thought was terrible and it turned out ok and he had to apologise to everyone involved for doubting them. The example he gave was ‘the thin dead line’; an episode of Angel about zombie cops. ‘They are undead, but they still walk the beat’. He thought it was a ridiculous idea but the episode turned out okay.
He said Dollhouse was changed so dramatically from season One to Season Two because they were told it would be cancelled and then it was approved and they had to change everything, again. He assured us that there were monkeys who understood his stories better than some studio execs.
He disliked the obsession with him killing characters and assured us that life had a 100% mortality rate and he wasn’t nearly that bad.
He talked about the Avengers and how initially he was terrified at the prospect of writing for such a huge cast of outstanding actors. Then his wife told him it was what he always did and not to panic about it. They are still actors; she told him. He said being better actors helps him and he had a ‘nerdgasm’ (a Joss word) discussing the hulk’s motivations and emotions with Mark Ruffalo. He likened writing for the Avengers like writing fan-fiction; he got to play with other people’s realized characters.
He refused to say who the bad guys would be as he is bound by contract.
He has no problem with fan-fiction with his characters, but thought most of the Buffy story lines tended to be porn. He giggled at the thought that he had made series 6 and it was basically porn anyway. (Heck yeah, and therefore my favourite – spike…sigh)
The compere made a joke about comic books and they riffed on the names and came up with Dick and his sidekick Balls. Joss held his arms like a gorilla and imitated Balls; then laughed at himself that we had paid to see him imitate balls. He complained that he couldn’t see the audience and they didn’t get the hint and turn the house lights up until question time.
He spoke of a comic ‘the body’(did he mean that episode of Buffy where her mother died?) that I hadn’t heard of but one audience member said it had got him through a very dark stage when he lost his partner to a brain aneurism.
Comics allowed him to do anything that someone could draw; he loved TV because it allowed him to have a longer story arc and to play with and expand the characters and he loved movies because he got bigger budgets and could do ‘cool’ stuff. Each had their own attraction for him and he didn’t express a preference.
He said he knew true grief when they cancelled Firefly. He described it as losing a limb. He would get over it, but would always miss it. He spoke of many plot lines and dark stories that he had outlined for later episodes and it killed him that they would never be made. Evidently he was going to take Captain Mal to a very dark place. He had taken a vacation with his wife in
after series 2 of Buffy. Their idea of a vacation was reading ten books in a London hotel room;
adorable. He read a book on the civil war; ‘something angels’ (sorry forgot the
title). He came up with the idea for Firefly; a combination of 1970’s western
movies, with Elizabethan language and set on the millennium falcon. Elizabethan
language spoken in a modern American accent sounded cool and different. He said
it was exhausting juggling 7 characters with strong storylines and constant
He described his wife as formidable, she spoke other languages, travelled the world on nothing and made things with her hands; he said he had married MacGyver. (should he have said Michael Weston?- showing his age)
They opened the floor to questions. One twitter question was about Speed. The person wanted to know if he had written what they described as the best line in any movie ever, which was “Jack, you forgot your muffins.” There was complete confusion as no one could remember where this occurred in the movie let alone who had written it. (Is it at the beginning when the first bus blows up?)
He loved musicals and was trying to find the time to write an opera or a Broadway show. He thought Buffy would make an awesome opera but getting the rights would be tricky. Dr Horrible was so much fun he thought he would work with his brother Jed again. Nathan Fillion’s only request was that they lower the register of his song and have the line ‘better than Neil’ in there somewhere.
He said it is the only thing he has written where the woman was an everywoman and had no super powers. He didn’t realise until they printed the t-shirts that she didn’t even have any good lines. There are therefore, no Penny t-shirts. He thought he might be Tim with a side of Moist if he had to say who was him in Dr Horrible.
Someone asked him about writing good dialogue and he said he did like dialogue where one character drove it to an eventual conclusion. He much preferred his characters to bounce off each other with more ‘real’ conversation.
He said he had no idea how obsessed his fans were until the first comicon he attended with Nicholas Brendon and Alyson Hannigan from Buffy. He thought that now he had the best fans ever and he loved us all. He was blown away that people liked him and sat pinching himself after that first session as he was sure it was a dream.
Someone who had the unfortunate name of Bella (the whole audience giggled) asked if he took credit for the current vampire obsession. He said no, but would take credit if it was good, ‘oh yeah, that is totally me.’