Joss Whedon interview: The Cabin In The Woods, The Avengers, Shakespeare and more

Ahead of The Cabin In The Woods’ UK release, it was a pleasure to meet co-writer Joss Whedon to talk about that film, The Avengers, and much more...

2012 is a big year for Joss Whedon. After years of his creative output being scuppered by studio interference, or cancelled mid-flow, the Buffy, Angel and Firefly creator has his name attached to two upcoming major releases. And, in fact, they’re both out in the UK this month.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll see his super-powered ensemble blockbuster The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble), but first comes the long-delayed horror-comedy film The Cabin In The Woods. Originally written and shot in 2009, with Whedon producing and co-writing with director Drew Goddard, The Cabin In The Woods has had its fair share of production mishaps, including a botched attempt at 3D post-conversion, and an indefinite shelving when film studio MGM filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

Now, it is finally hitting our screens, and, even better, we had the chance to talk with Whedon about horror movies, production woes and Much Ado About Nothing, his micro-budget Shakespearean side-project, which might also see cinematic release this year.

It would be unsporting to give too much away about The Cabin In The Woods, but it’s probably safe to say that it messes about with the conventions of the horror genre. What was the writing process like? It’s a very fun film, was it fun to take the genre apart in the way that you do?

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The writing process was ridiculously fun. Drew and I got a bungalow in a hotel in Santa Monica. He had the upstairs, I had the downstairs. We already had ten pages and our outline, and we’d already broken it into three acts. Then we’d wake up in the morning, we’d take an act, go through it very specifically, divvy it up, and we both had to do a minimum of 15 pages a day in order to create a screenplay. And we did not talk about anything else. You get in a writers room, and there’s just a huge amount of anecdotes and dirty jokes and off-topic stuff.

Drew and I literally didn’t speak about anything except the film, and wrote all day. And I’d run upstairs and say, “What about this or that!” and he’s come downstairs and say, “How does this connect with this?” So it was the fastest and most enjoyable thing. We did it in three days. And obviously there’d been a lot of prep, and a lot of polish after, but basically the bulk of the thing just came from our brains.

And there’s a bit towards the end of the film…

That’s the thing you’re not going to mention until after the film opens, though, right?

Right. But oh, that’s going to be painful.

Yes. I’m going to be [makes pained noise] watching the internet every day, going, “Who’s going to ruin the experience?”

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But I don’t think it would ruin the experience to say that The Cabin In The Woods, in one way, issues a challenge to those who might see straightforward horror as an end in itself. You always seem to prefer to have something extra going on when you’re playing with genre.

Well, you know, I don’t like to create something that doesn’t say anything. At the same time, I don’t mind a horror movie that is an end in itself if it’s well made. I don’t remember what about the human condition was explained in The Descent, I just know that I adored it. A really, really well crafted horror movie can be an end in itself, it’s just that my feeling has been lately that a lot of horror movies have made a horrible death an end in itself, instead of the actual film, the horror experience.Looking over your career, even when you’re knee-deep in genre conventions, you’re still developing ensemble-based character drama. So is it more a case of offering something extra than just the thrills? Because, true, The Descent is a terrifying film, but it’s just as much about the breakdown of friendship.

One of the great lessons in storytelling is the opening scene of that, where without anything being spoken you know that one woman is having an affair with her friend’s husband, and the other friend knows it. And instantly, you’re in a very human space.

I’m never interested in movies where you don’t care about the people you’re watching, and that’s my biggest quibble about horror, that kids have gotten stupider and stupider. And people say, “Oh, it’s horrible! They are all tortured for 90 minutes, but it’s okay because they’re not very likable”. And it’s like, what part of that sentence was supposed to sell me?The Cabin In The Woods is your first film credit as a producer, after many as a creator, writer and director. Did you learn much about yourself in the process? Did you cane Drew to be on time?

No, I tried to cane Drew to be on time. It turns out that Drew is much larger than I am. As a creative producer, I think I’m very useful. I did learn a great deal the hard way, by assuming that people would get things done that didn’t. Production became difficult for me, because I was juggling a lot of things that I had not realised that I was going to have to be in charge of. I think I’ve become a better producer since Cabin In The Woods, but I still think we produced something extraordinary. I think we could possibly have done it with less pain, if I had learned, as I have now, to be much meaner.

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It’s enlightening to hear that The Cabin In The Woods was written in three days, because it’s taken three years to come out!

Yes, yes. Quick with the writing, somewhat longer with the rest of it.

And that’s yet another notch on your bedpost with production problems. In the past, you’ve had shows cancelled, you’ve had to put up with studio meddling, and now there have been economic troubles holding up this film. Have you learned anything from these experiences?

Well, pay more attention to the business end. And never work again. No! Everything I’ve done, everything has been delayed, had the release date pushed, my shows have been pushed to mid-season, or shut down briefly… So, it’s so much a part of the process. The only thing that went exactly the way it was supposed to was Dr Horrible, and that was because the studio was me. And I like the Me Studio, because apparently I don’t have to wait for the right weekend.Is that going to be the same with Much Ado About Nothing?

Well, Much Ado… I actually might take a different tack with it. It wasn’t really made for the internet, it was made as a film to be seen in the theatre. We sort of want to try and do the festival circuit with it, because I’d like to go to a festival. The thing about Much Ado, was that it absolutely was at our discretion, and we made it faster than anything I’ve ever done.

And, hopefully, that won’t be what people notice when they see it. But if we do land a distribution deal, then we’ll be into that “What’s a good weekend?” and “Oh, what if we do it in 18 months” – and you roll your eyes. But the good thing about Much Ado is it’s not like it’s going to be like “Oh! We’ve got a lot of similar films competing!” It’s a micro-budget, black and white Shakespeare film. I think it can exist in its own way.

I’ve heard you talk in interviews before about getting actors together for a weekend, and ploughing through some Shakespeare. Did filming it change the fun of it, or the atmosphere of those getaways?

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The atmosphere was actually fairly similar. Obviously, it’s a completely different experience from everybody sitting around in the backyard reading it, which is what we’d do. But that energy, the joy of discovery and fun and the silliness and all of that went on the entire time we were filming. It was more sustained joy than I ever remember having.

It should be an interesting film to see, as Shakespeare adaptations can often get rather bloated, or precious, or have too much money thrown at them.

This did not have too much money thrown at it, I guarantee!

It’s really fascinating timing, that your micro-budget, black and white Shakespeare film is coming out the same year as your biggest-budgeted, most blockbuster-y thing you’ve put your name to.

There’s a symmetry there. That is not coincidental.

When you were announced as the writer-director for The Avengers, something did click, because you’ve done very well with ensemble casts before, and you wrote a really good run of issues of Astonishing X-Men. But still, it must have been a tough job to take on in the beginning, because you have all these other films feeding in, all of these already established characters, and you have Marvel, who must be keeping quite tight reins on it. What was your process, when you sat down and said ‘I’ve got to write this’?

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Well, the first part of it is just extraordinary fun, which is “What would these characters say to each other? how would they define themselves?” And I got to spend a few weeks just floating in that o-zone, “what if we did this?” and “ooh!”

Most of that stuff never sees the light of day, but it does sock you into it. Once you get into the practical stuff, like “How does this guy…”, it’s a nightmare.

And it’s a recurring nightmare, because it was so much like Serenity in that way. So I really sort of went “Oh, God, I’ve done it again!” Because Serenity was pulling teeth to figure out the structure. And the same was true of The Avengers. And because we had a release date, we had to start production, it was a fairly terrifying experience at that point. But once it started to fall into place, I got back to the fun part.

When you’re pulling these films together, which all had a very different styles and different filmmakers behind them, what do you do? How did you coalesce that into one movie?

Well, you don’t try to make anybody else’s movie. Jon Favreau’s going to do a thing, Ken’s going to do a thing. I’m going to do something else. And obviously Iron Man’s very grounded in the real world, and that was the trademark, Captain America was a period piece, and Thor, obviously, was not grounded entirely in the real world. You have all of these disparate elements, you just have to create an atmosphere, and a look, where they all seem to feel natural.

And it’s not actually that difficult, because the people who are just finding out what’s going on, people like Tony Stark – him finding out there’s an Asgardian god hanging around… The science is there. A great scientist is more open to a new idea than almost anybody. And so, there is no impossible paradigm. No one clutches their head and goes “No! It can’t be!” They’re all so extraordinary that it doesn’t really faze them that there’s somebody else extraordinary about.

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And this film is just another in the long line of Marvel Studios blockbusters. What is it like working in that system, where there is a plan and a structure for future films? Is it like being a staff writer on a TV series, or working under an editor on comics?

I would say that comics is a better analogy, because they really did let me make my own film. They said, “Here are the things we need; here is the villain, we want this to happen; we need the conflict here; here’s the third act, it will involve the following”. Which I’m fine with. That’s great, give me the parameters, because then I know where I’m going, and it does some of the legwork for me.

And I know what their agenda is in terms of style, and what we’re delivering, in terms of thrills and the adherence to the Marvel universe, with which I’m very familiar. But it was like comics, because they didn’t interfere. I told them “This is the kind of movie I want to make”, and they said “All right, make that movie”. And that is what happened. And they were as unmeddlesome as any studio I’ve ever worked with, even though they had the very strict touchstones that had to happen. So it was a weirdly free experience.

So they gave you the framework, and then you said “I want the Kitty Pryde cameo here”.

No, I can’t do that, because Fox has the rights to Kitty Pryde.

That’s a shame. One day!

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I know, believe me!

And then, are you in the conversation when Marvel Studios talk about future sequels and further films?

Yes, the other reason I cite comics is that there’s also a larger universe going on that you have to respect. I’m not going to do something that’s going to make Captain America 2 impossible, I’m not going to take something that should be in Thor 2 and put it in my film. I am trying to tee them up as much as I’m recovering from whatever they gave me. But, again, it just makes it an interesting puzzle, and although I’m not a genius of plot, I do enjoy a puzzle.

There is a little bit of “Right, how can I progress the characters, without solving all their problems?”. I like things where you feel the resolve is “we’ve made a step forward”, not “we’ve completed the journey”. That’s something with Buffy that we were very strict about, it wasn’t “well we’ve certainly cured that guy’s ills forever!”, it was like “okay, we’ve saved him from the thing, and eventually maybe he’ll be able to deal with the trauma”. It’s always a process.

Mr Whedon, thank you very much!

The Cabin In The Woods is released on April 13th.

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