Joss Whedon, and his lesser-known film writing work

Waterworld, Speed, Toy Story, X-Men – here are the scripts you might not know Joss Whedon worked on…

These days, Joss Whedon is nerd royalty. As the brains behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer, FireflySerenity, and Avengers he is a man with no shortage of admirers and fans. However, that wasn’t always the case.

Before rising to the top of the creative pile, Mr Whedon spent a fair few years as a writer-for-hire and an uncredited script doctor. In this time, he was honing his craft and injecting welcome doses of his trademarked sharp wit into loads of films. In some of these movies, Whedon’s input is matching up to a fine production for a slick, impressive finish. In others, the writer was trying his best to hold up an otherwise-sloppily-executed picture with as many quips as possible.

Taking examples from both camps, here’s our list of films the mighty Mr Whedon deserves more credit for…

Waterworld

Yep, one of Joss Whedon’s first major projects was Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld. Peter Rader and David Twohy were the credited writers, but Whedon acted as a script doctor on the film (not a financial flop, as commonly thought).

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With enough lack-of-warmth to refreeze the polar ice-caps (although no spite or ire), Whedon eventually told A.V. Club of what exactly he was brought in to do: “Waterworld was a good idea, and the script was the classic, ‘They have a good idea, then they write a generic script and don’t really care about the idea,'” he explained.

He added that, at the point he joined the production, “there was no water in the last 40 pages of the script. It all took place on land, or on a ship, or whatever. I’m like, ‘Isn’t the cool thing about this guy that he has gills?’ And no one was listening.”

“I was there basically taking notes from Costner, who was very nice, fine to work with, but he was not a writer. And he had written a bunch of stuff that they wouldn’t let their staff touch. So I was supposed to be there for a week, and I was there for seven weeks, and I accomplished nothing. I wrote a few puns, and a few scenes that I can’t even sit through because they came out so bad,” he added.

Even though its not universally loved, the film does have a clan of staunch supporters, so maybe Whedon didn’t do as badly as he thought at trying to rescue a film from its struggling script.

Whedon-iest input: Besides those puns mentioned earlier, Whedon also attempted to put an even bigger stamp on the film. In a never-filmed scene, Whedon tried to turn The Mariner into more of a flawed and therefore likeable protagonist (a classic Whedon trademark) by having Costner freak out the first time his character was unable to see water.

“That to me was like … Oh! Y’know, now I understand this guy who has always lived here, who lives in it, who is a part of it, and suddenly for the first time ever […] it’s nowhere in sight, and how freaky that would be,” he said. Echoes of that idea remain in the film, likely thanks to Whedon.

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Speed

Here’s a second mid-90s household name of a film, and another that Joss Whedon did a fair bit of uncredited work for. While it sounds like he might be quite pleased to be off the credits of Waterworld, he’s got more love for his work on the terrific action film Speed.

Justified scribe Graham Yost is the credited screenwriter, but admits “Joss Whedon wrote 98.8% of the dialogue. We were very much in sync, it’s just I didn’t write dialogue as well as he did.”

Last year, Whedon opened up about the production, lamenting that “In my whole career, I’ve never had to talk about [Speed]. I’ve never signed a copy of it, I’ve never sort of been a part of it. And I was proud of it, I worked hard on it […] The studio gave me [a credit], but then the Writers Guild of America took it away, and I was pretty devastated. I have the only poster with my credit on it.”

His pride in the film is clear from further quotes from that Huffington Post interview: “although, I don’t think of Speedas a Die Hard, I do think it falls into the spectrum of updating the action movie so that the people in it aren’t immortal, gigantic, Schwarzenegger, Dirty Harry, above-the-law kind of titans.”

“I look to the progression of films like The Matrix, and I think there’s the idea of the peaceful warrior germinating in Speed, and I think that’s important.” Even if most of the posters don’t say so – we know you were a part of it, Joss.

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Whedon-iest input: While de-heroing the hero a bit is classic Whedon, so is a loveable side character. As such, Alan Ruck’s tourist character had a sizeable rewrite from Whedon. Originally, he was “written as an angry lawyer. He was a bad dude. He was like, ‘You are a bad cop! I want blah blah blah!’ He was that guy. Nobody is doing that in a disaster. They’re frightened, and they’re pulling together. And what was a lawyer doing on a bus?”

“So, I wanted him to be a nicer guy,” Whedon told In Focus. “The tourist, he’s a very grounding figure, and Alan is so sympathetic. For me, the whole essence of what I felt was useful in the movie was him saying, ‘We’re at the airport, I’ve already seen the airport.’ When the absurdity has just gone to the point where I can turn to the mundane.”

Toy Story

This one’s probably a little more widely known, but it’s hardly common knowledge either – Joss Whedon is a credited screenplay writer on the original Toy Story. So are Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, though. Four people share the ‘original story by’ credit as well.

By the sounds of it, Whedon came in and was pivotal to the entire production. According to Amy Pascale, “the movie was unwatchable. The story had lost the heart that Tin Toy [the original short film] had; the leads [Woody and Buzz] were sarcastic and unlikeable—not exactly ideal heroes for a children’s movie.” 

“Buzz Lightyear had always been conceived as a Dudley Do-Right: dim-witted but cheerful and self-aware. Joss helped them re-envision the character as an action figure who isn’t aware that he’s a toy, and who therefore takes his job as an Intergalactic Space Ranger quite seriously. It was a huge epiphany that turned the whole movie around and created the chemistry in Toy Story.”

Whedon-iest input: As we just mentioned, Joss Whedon often has an eye for a memorable supporting character. Toy Story features one of his best – Rex the dinosaur. Hapless, lacking confidence and utterly hilarious, Rex is arguably a very Whedon-y character once you think about it a bit.

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Toy Story could have been even more Whedon-esque, according to David A. Price’s History Of Pixarwhere he claimed that Whedon “sought a pivotal role for Barbie. As Whedon pictured it, Woody and Buzz, seemingly doomed at Sid’s house, would be rescued by Barbie in a commando style raid.”

“Her character was to be patterned after Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.” It’s a shame that it took until Toy Story 2 for Mattel to share the Barbie licence, because that sounds rather brilliant.

X-Men

The stuff of geek legend, this, but one that most cinemagoers won’t know – future Avengers assembler Joss Whedon had a hand in the X-Men film which gave superhero cinema a sizeable kick up the backside.

Of course Bryan Singer, Lauren Schuler Donner, Matthew Vaughn, Simon Kinberg and many more have played larger roles in the X-Men franchise, but you can at least see a glimpse of Whedon’s comic flair in its game-changing first instalment, if you know where to look.

Although he wrote the majority of a script draft (which Singer asked for, then didn’t use), two scraps of Whedon’s work sneaked through the net. As you may already know, Halle Berry famously misinterpreted Whedon’s ‘do you know what happens to a toad when it gets struck by lightning?’ line (intended as a blasé gag, delivered ‘like she was King Lear,’ in Whedon’s words), but his influence doesn’t stop there.

Whedon-iest input: We’ve embedded this one so you can share in remembering its hilariousness too:

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It’s such a tiny moment, but it’s pure Whedon. Of course, the universe rewarded Mr Whedon eventually when we finally got Avengers, a comic book movie for which he got due credit and control.

Titan A.E.

Here’s one that lacks the reputation of X-MenToy Story, or Speed. As such, animated sci-fi flick Titan A.E. is one that Whedon doesn’t talk about much. When a Redditor asked him ‘which joke in your body of work are you most proud of?’, Whedon responded by name-dropping this year-2000-released film, where he served as one of three writers.

Whether his statement was intended as a mere chuckle-inducer or not, we’d argue that there’s a lot for him to be proud of here. In parts, Titan A.E. is a very dark for children’s film – including core characters getting shot, neck-snapping and, um, jokes alluding to anal probing – it was a little ahead of its time, in this writer’s opinion. We’ve talked about the fact that the film is underrated before, too: herehere, and here.

Some jokes hit better than others, and the mix of hand-drawn with CGI arguably dates the film a little, and the soundtrack isn’t great. But there’s an awful lot here to like. What’s more, the spaceship-set banter was a precursor for Firefly, too. We can’t help feel that if a similar script was made now, it would probably be a massive hit.

It’s definitely one for hard-core Whedon-ites to pick up, and if you don’t trust me, trust Roger Ebert. If we never get to see more Firefly, or the Alienfilm Whedon actually wanted to make, this might help plug your need for Whedon-in-space antics.

Whedon-iest input: It’s hard to pick a specific moment, but Whedon’s eye for sarcastic dialogue is littered all over the film. For example: “my scanners show a veritable cornucopia of nothing,” “should I get out and push [the stationary spaceship]?”, “I weep for your species [upon hearing that Cale is the last remaining human male],” “where does the probe go?” and, the simple but effective “an intelligent guard? I didn’t see that one coming.”

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Twister

Back to the 1990s here, for a bombastically sized spectacle that Joss Whedon played an uncredited role in scribing. The idea of Bill Paxton and Mr Whedon making a huge blockbuster together is the stuff of our geek dreams, and yet it had already sort-of happened back in 1996.

Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, this would have been a fairly big gig for Whedon at the time, even though he had to share writing with the late Michael Crichton, Anne-Marie Martin, Steve Zaillian and Jeff Nathanson, who all worked on honing the script at some stage.

It was being written right through from pre-production until the end of principal photography, which tells you something of the difficulties going on behind the scenes. Bronchitis and getting married both saw Whedon leave the production at two different points. As such, his signature might be a little harder to spot than usual. There are a few signifiers of his involvement, though.

“In Twister, there are things that worked and things that weren’t the way I’d intended them. Whereas Speed came out closer to what I’d been trying to do,” he told A.V. Club.

Regardless, Twister is near-universally-recognised as a three star blockbuster which took a wordwide gross of just shy of $500 million. That’s hardly an achievement to be scoffed at, certainly at that stage of Whedon’s career.

(For another example of a decently-received money spinner that Whedon worked on, see Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which – in spite of having problems – still made $186 million worldwide.)

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Whedon-iest moment: Probably when the core cast gather around for steak and eggs at Aunt Meg’s dinner table. It brings to mind fond memories of Firefly and even the Avengers post credits scene, where Whedon uses communal eating to show a family-like relationship between close friends.

The Quick And The Dead

Another pinch-yourself moment for geeks here – Sam Raimi and Joss Whedon have already worked together, back in 1995. The Sharon Stone-headlined western isn’t the highest profile project for either individual, but The Quick And The Dead saw a tantalisingly good working relationship form between the pair of big behind-the-scenes names. Sam Rami told IGN how impressed he was nearly a decade later…

“In 1994, I was making The Quick And The Dead and having a script problem, and I came to the studio and said, ‘Can you find me a writer? I’ve shot this movie, and the end isn’t working.’ And ultimately, the movie didn’t quite work. But they suggested Joss Whedon, who was doing Buffy, so I met Joss and he saw the movie, and he helped me solve this ending in one afternoon. I thought, ‘Damn, you’re a good writer. I wish I could have had you rewrite the whole movie and save this picture.’”

Is it just us that wishes that Raimi had acted on that impulse at the time and snapped Whedon up for full project?

While The Quick And The Dead was something of a financial flop (it didn’t recoup its production budget, judging by the published figures), it garnered its fair share of positive reviews. A shame the Bruce Campbell cameo never made the final cut though.

Whedon describes his role on the film as ‘looplines and punch-ups,’ meaning additional dialogue added after the shoot (normally when a character’s back is turned) to spruce things up a bit.

Whedon-iest input: Well, Raimi said the ending and Whedon said it was a case of looplines and punch-ups. It’s hard to spot his input, though. Here’s the ending anyway, which stands as an entertaining finale to the film, in some way down to Whedon. Spoilers ahead, obviously…

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So, hard-core Whedon-ites – you could do much worse than seeking out a few of these films while you anticipate Age Of Ultron. If we’ve missed a favorite of yours, pop it in the comments.