It is only when I sit down to interview Joss Whedon in the bar of the Oxford Union that I actually get a chance to see the man in the flesh. Until now, a packed talk in the Union chamber and a horde of adoring fans surrounding him and clamouring for autographs and photos in the bar has left him obscured from sight. Indeed, the talk was one that was full to the point of bursting, if not with students clad in the brown coats of Whedon’s Firefly rebel heroes, then at least a large number in Buffy, Marvel and Firefly tees. Oxford University, it seems, is home to a lot of geeks. Whoever would have suspected it?
Whedon is perhaps best known to those less inclined to binge-watch cult television shows as the director of the recent Avengers movies, but to say that this is not the only string to his bow would be a severe understatement. Creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, Whedon has also co-authored comic books, written an internet-distributed three-part musical miniseries, directed an acclaimed adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and, during the talk, mentions his desire to work in the medium of ballet. A one-trick pony, he is not.
I begin by asking a question that seems logical for a man engaged in such a wide spectrum of cultural activity and creation: does Whedon, speaking at Oxford, see an irony in the weight of scholarship attributed to ‘high’ culture whilst popular culture is neglected?
He does. “Oh yeah. My stepfather would always go ‘When are you going to make a picture without the vampires, and the rocket ships?’ You know, because everything that has the label of fantasy is considered low culture. My response to that is a) fuck you, and b) studying popular culture is always important, especially with great works of art. Whether they’re popular and you consider them highbrow or lowbrow, it’s necessary for one reason. If it strikes a nerve with people, it’s worth knowing why.
“With Buffy, we thought very carefully about everything we were doing. Even if we hadn’t struck a nerve, we’d know why. There are a lot of things that are popular that I’m not crazy about, but I know they gave the audience something they needed and that’s what we’re all trying to do.”
I suggest that it’s interesting to think that one could jump from directing a space western like Firefly and then adapt Shakespeare, and yet address the same concepts. Is there really that big a difference between the barbed repartee of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado and the sometimes-edgy banter of the Avengers?
“We’re all telling the same stories!” He tells me. “It’s not like anyone has come up with anything new! The Greeks did it, and Shakespeare did it in a more complex way, and they’re all cribbing, that’s the way of it. All of my favourite artists, in every medium, were enormously popular in their time, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think it’s that I gravitate to people who are trying to talk to everybody. Some are storytellers and some aren’t, but I think what is considered highbrow you have to look at historically.
“In the case of my argument with my stepfather, modern culture tends to view – as I said – fantasy as something that is ‘less’ and I was like, ‘So fantasies, like the Odyssey or Hamlet, those are lame?’ It’s a fact that that is a twentieth-century conceit, because people including my stepfather – and I loved him! – could not understand that this is what we’ve been bred to think.
“So yeah, it used to drive me crazy, but I think now people are blurring the lines, they’re beginning to understand.”
Something that Whedon mentions in the talk is the lack of originality in cinema, a subject on which he remains somewhat diplomatic as someone who has worked extensively on adaptations and reboots, yet also iconic original material. Conceding that Buffy’s is an origin story in itself, Whedon tells me, “It’s tough. It is true, that every- body’s sort of falling into this framework of storytelling. It’s hard for me because this is the framework that I live by; everything I do is an origin story.
“That is a classic structure from comics that I have learned, and I look at myself and I go, ‘I need to figure out something else that moves me as much.’ At the same time, that’s just me, that’s who I am and it’s going to be part of the storytelling itself: the journey, the power – I’m okay with that. There’s a reason I have to tell that story and so I don’t mind turning that rock over and over again.
“But, it is a little worrisome. There was a period in the past decade where every reason for something was ‘issues with an abusive father’. Like the Hulk, they added a bad dad to the first Hulk movie, and I was like, ‘Why are you all doing this? I mean, you can’t all hate your fathers. Is this convenient? Or is there a generation of terrible fathers?’”
Whedon is well-known for his feminism and his views on what has been termed ‘torture porn’; franchises like Hostel in which young men and scantily-clad women are violently dismembered and attacked in a variety of inventive ways. He is also infamous among his fans for killing off much-loved favourite characters unexpectedly and often in heart-wrenching ironic circumstances. When I ask him to elaborate on these, an unexpected opposition seems to emerge: Whedon looks to invest in his characters and claims, “Every time I write somebody, I’m in love with them.” So-called torture porn, he says, skips this investment. The cynical spirit of the genre can seep into one’s world view, to an extent and the relation between art and life does not necessarily end when one walks out of the cinema.
“In a very broad way, it’s going to feed into the culture and it’s going to come from the culture as well, they’re going to feed each other. What I dislike about torture porn is the degradation of the human spirit. People don’t matter. The experience of watching them go through something appalling is about voyeurism.
“Although pretty much all horror has an element of that, you can look at horror movies that I love; people in them are interesting or matter in some way, whereas these are just set up to be terrible so they can be inventively killed. That is a hateful view of the human race, and I do think that after a time that can be damaging to people.
And his favourite horror films? “I like things like the classic 80s ones, like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Alien. I like the straight-up classic B-movie.” He also praises 2005’s The Descent. “It’s a very human story, so tense, in fact, that when the troglodytes finally showed up I was like, ‘Oh, thank God, it’s just a horror movie!’”
On the other hand, Whedon’s characterisation is intensely personal and individual. He cleary cares for those he writes into being. I wonder aloud at another statement he made in the talk, that “every character is a main character,” and mention a disagreement I had with a friend over who the main character of Firefly was. Whilst I was in favour of the spaceship’s captain Mal Reynolds, my friend argued strongly that it was his love interest Inara Serra, whose complexities were hinted at throughout the short-lived series. For the first time, I see Joss Whedon grin.
“When you’re creating an ensemble, you obviously have to have everybody feel as passionate about their story as everybody else, and their character has to be as richly drawn. You have to know that you can go to that character for an episode or a mark or a moment in time. Even to the point where, specifically on Firefly, when we were shooting the pilot, Adam Baldwin [who plays Jayne] was doing a scene when he was menacing a guy and he was going very big, and I finally said to him, ‘You’re playing Mal. Jayne thinks he’s the hero of the story. Play Mal.’ And he’s like ‘Oh!’ and then he’s doing it perfectly.
“It’s necessary for the life of a show. Our reality sits between each other. As we all know, there’s no objective one and if you can’t see what’s going on in between your version and somebody else’s then it’s going to be a nightmare. It’s important for people to see that and go ‘I identify with them, but I also know that they’re onto something.’”
Earlier, when posed with a question about the possibility of a Firefly sequel, Whedon – in typical storyteller fashion – offers what by now must be a well-rehearsed answer. He tells the traditional tale of the ‘monkey’s paw’, in which a couple is granted three wishes by said paw: they wish for $2000, and their son dies in a mining accident and they get $2000 in compensation. Then they wish for him to come back from the dead, and he rises from the grave. Finally, as he bangs on their door, wretched and disfigured, they wish him dead once more. He likens the return of Firefly to the zombie son; a curse disguised as a blessing, and something better left as a happy memory.
This prompts me to ask if these characters – the likes of Buffy Summers, the crew of Serenity and others – are so famous and popular among hardcore fans that it ever proves to be a burden. When fans are so keen to talk about the past, does it frustrate his future projects?
Yes and no. “When you answer a question, you expect people to know if you’ve answered it a million times. Sometimes, yeah, it can be a little tiresome. At the same time, the stuff they’re asking means a great deal. It’s more good than not. I want to create things that people need.”