This Monday night, Tribeca Film Festival's Tribeca Talks: Storytellers brought Joss Whedon together with the writer/director's friend and colleague Mark Ruffalo for a candid talk about his career, from Roseanne and Alien: Resurrection to The Avengers and Age of Ultron.
"I know that the stuff I write is occasionally not naturalistic," Whedon admitted a few minutes into the event. "You've made valiant efforts to say my lines and we're all proud of you for trying," he told Ruffalo.
"It fit well in my mouth," the actor shrugged, adding, as laughter broke out in the audience, "Thank you for coming!"
It was a candid talk, after all.
"Oh, it's me! Oh, that was me. I'm always angry."
Whedon's top three things he's ever written? The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "The Body," issue five of the Buffy comic book, and the Firefly episode "Out of Gas." What's kept him from writing a musical? Well, he was considering it, and then Hamilton happened.
"It was only after the album came out," he told a fan during the end-of-talk Q&A, "and I was listening to it 24/7, that I was like 'I can't hear myself, I can only hear him.'"
Whedon said he'd be putting his musical on the back burner until he stopped listening to the hit Broadway musical, which he estimated to be some time in 2021.
Most of what the writer/director had to say during the proceedings was about writing — why and how to do it. While he'd learned to enjoy directing, writing was his true love, and he had reflections on his own style, expounding further on his characteristic, some might say infamous, brand of snappy, combative dialogue.
"When I started [directing]," he recalled, "I would be in constant conflict with people about saying things exactly as I wrote them because I was doing something a little different than anybody was used to. And then over the years two things happened. One, I chilled the fuck out... and two, I realized that people no longer had as much of an issue with the way that I wrote. And it sort of entered the mainstream enough that it was now something people understood ... which was sort of gratifying."
The way Whedon Speak entered the mainstream was undoubtedly Buffy, the beginning of a long slate of Whedon properties to feature butt-kicking but vulnerable heroines. The writer spoke plainly about the reasons why that archetype appeals to him:
"I know one thing: Everything I write is about power and helplessness. And somebody being helpless; their journey to power is the narrative that sustains me. And I think a lot of it has to do with being very helpless and tiny and sort of — I had terrifying older brothers and a terrifying father and a withholding mother, and generally speaking I knew I was on my own and I had no fucking skills. ... And so I would be walking around, just in my head, creating these narratives where these little tiny people that nobody paid attention to kicked everybody's ass. In one way or another. Why they're always female I'm still not sure. But I'm comfortable with that."
"Structure is hard, structure is always hard and it's the most important thing."
A year away from Age of Ultron, many fans are wondering what will be next from Whedon, but he wouldn't say much about his latest project, except that it would be a departure from his usual, and that working on it moved him to tears.
"I also wrote one scene in it, towards the end, where 'I think this is where I'm heading' because I still have structural work to do," he said. "And I started writing it and I wrote all the way through to the end of the movie and was crying so hard, in public, that the restaurant closed, the valet guy came to me and then just turned around and went away. And I'm a shy sort of fellow, I don't like to make a spectacle of myself. I had to take off my shirt and blow my nose into it because they had taken away all the napkins and everything. And I couldn't stand up, couldn't stop writing. And then I got in a car, luckily someone else was driving, and kept writing for about 20 more minutes. 'Oh, I just wrote the end of the movie and I'm pretty sure it works.'"
The writer stressed that not knowing where he's going with a script is a rarity for him, saying, "Structure is hard, structure is always hard and it's the most important thing."
"Characters are the reason I'm there," he said later in the talk, "and they're the most fun to think up. [But] they are not a movie, and it's very easy to go, 'You know what would be really cool?' — even a premise is not a movie. Although, that's something in American cinema that we've forgotten. So, structure is an absolute. Two times in my life I have had an idea that had a third act in the idea. One of them was the biggest spec sale I ever made, and I knew it would be the moment I thought of it. And the other one was Cabin in the Woods, which we wrote in a weekend. You have to know where you're going ... almost without exception if you don't know where you're going, you're never getting anywhere. And it doesn't matter how cool the idea is and how cool the characters are, you've gotta figure out that reason why there's a whole movie about it. So structure, structure, structure."
But if there was another concise piece of advice he had for writers in the hour he and Ruffalo spent on the stage, it's that ultimately, writing about yourself can be the best way to connect with your characters — and with your audience.
"When I wrote [the 'I'm always angry' line for The Avengers] I was like 'Boom.' Drop the — well, it's a pen, but. Because I believed that a guy could feel that way. And then probably four months after the movie came out something happened and I was like 'Oh, it's me! Oh, that was me. I'm always angry.' I had zero idea ...
"I think what works about [my work], what ends up connecting with people, is that if you're not writing about yourself, why are you writing? For me, if you're not telling a story — spinning a yarn is fine and there are some people who're great at it and they're great at things that I'm not great at, like intricate heist plots and things that I admire and envy — but if you're sitting down to write something or make something that's going to take three years out of your life, why would you not want to tell people something that's important to you to say? I don't mean a moral, I just mean an examination of the human condition."