I was a late-to-the-party fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, having not begun watching the series until the musical episode. With the availability of DVDs and its recent premiere in syndication, though, I was able to catch up ludicrously fast, quickly falling in love with the show and its troubled spin-off, Angel.
As is my wont, I decided to do an in-depth interview with Buffy’s mastermind, and found him to be a fascinating guy.
You can see for yourself in the interview below, which follows the original introduction for the piece.
If you’ve been living in a cave (and you know who you are), then you’ll be completely in the dark as to who Joss Whedon is.
Otherwise, you’ll know him as the creator/producer/poobah behind one of the largest “cult classics” to grace TV screens - Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
Add to that the Buffy spin-off Angel and the cancelled-but-not-forgotten sci-fi series Firefly, and you’ve got a bit of a cottage industry. For the longest time, though, Whedon (whose father and grandfather were both highly-respected TV writers) was best known as one of the most sought-after script doctors in Hollywood. If a script needed a fix, you called Joss Whedon - on everything from Toy Story to X-Men.
While Buffy may be over (Fox Home Video just released Season 4 on DVD, if you’re having withdrawal symptoms), Angel continues to thrive, and plans are currently afoot for a Firefly feature film.
We recently had the chance to talk rather extensively with Joss about… well… a little of everything…
KEN PLUME: In the past, you’ve described yourself as a bit of a TV snob, as a child.
JOSS WHEDON: That’s true.
PLUME: Was that a reaction against your family’s legacy, or just the environment you were in?
WHEDON: It was more the environment I was in. When my parents divorced, I lived with my mother. My mother had been with a TV writer for 30 years, with a comedy writer, and although my parents were good friends after they divorced and got along, she wasn’t exactly watching either sitcoms or football after my father left. She really was more into the Masterpiece Theater of it, and I kind of just followed in her footsteps - except for the part where she watched the news, which I didn’t. It was depressing. It was really my mother’s influence… a lot of stuff I do trace back to her. I also thought that, quite frankly, I loved when my father was working on The Electric Company when I younger … I liked the shows he did, but I never thought they were as funny as he was. In my mind, I thought that he was running them, because he’d run The Electric Company. I don’t think he was, but it felt like Alice, Benson, and even Golden Girls - which I think was hilarious and was a classic - this is the wittiest man I’d ever met, and all of his friends were extraordinary, and the sitcoms were never quite the same as my father.
PLUME: Did you blame the sitcoms as a form, for somehow watering down your father?
WHEDON: I think to an extent, yeah. And also just classic teenage rebellion. Rebellion and snobbery were both involved. But also that thing of, “I know what my father’s capable of, and I don’t think Alice is up to his level.” So there was a little bit of that, too.
PLUME: What direction did you start to go in? Did you see a direction for yourself going in a certain path?
WHEDON: Oh yes… I was going to be a brilliant, independent filmmaker who then went on to make giant, major box office summer movies.
PLUME: So, Spielberg…
WHEDON: Spielberg by way of George Romero or Wes Anderson, or a strange combination of the two …
PLUME: Commercial success with artistic integrity intact…
PLUME: So, obviously, you had these dreams of Hollywood which were completely unrealistic…
WHEDON: Well, you know, you don’t know - it could still happen. I did manage to keep my artistic integrity - I just happened to have to go to television to do it.
PLUME: Oh, bitter irony.
WHEDON: Not bitter at all, but definitely irony. The first thing I did when I came out to Los Angeles, on my way to Santa Cruz, where my brother was - where we were going to be independent filmmakers together with no money and no idea how to make a film. Then I ran out of money. Luckily, I was at my father’s house. So, after some great expunging, “I could make some money if I wrote a TV script,” thing sort of occurred to me.
PLUME: Was it a difficult wall to break down?
WHEDON: You know, I literally had left college going, “I’m not going to be a television writer.” And my friend would go, “Three-G TV!” Third generation. He’d taunt me all the time. “It’s not going to happen!” A lot of things happened when I got to LA, one of which is my father and I got a lot closer, I spent time with him - which I hadn’t really done as a kid. Which is really nice. I tried to write a TV series, and then I discovered first of all that I love writing more than anything on this earth, and that you could write exactly as well as you want to.
PLUME: What it something you had explored at Wesleyan?
WHEDON: I had written the little movies that I’d made, but production was the big part of Wesleyan back then.
PLUME: Was it more theory, or film study?
WHEDON: It was really film theory. Watching films over and over again and dissecting them, really understanding what they were trying to do, and all that good stuff. The best film theory study available. But, really, sort of crap production - as my movies evident.
PLUME: Well, you see the balance the other way in a lot of film schools, which is, “Studying the classics is all well and good, but we’re trying to push you out into production.” Do you think there’s a loss of a sense of place and understanding of the form they’re working in?
WHEDON: It’s very important to understand how to shoot a movie, if that’s what you want to do. But it’s more important at that age to be studying the meaning thing, to be studying what builds up the great movies. Where the simplicity is, where the complexity is. Anybody can tell you where to point a camera - and quite frankly, nobody can tell you how. You can either do that or you can’t. Learning what a gaffer is, or how to load your own film is great - I actually had to load my own film during my thesis film once, because my crew was too stoned. They just said, “We’re really too stoned to change it.”
PLUME: Damn those non-union crews…
WHEDON: Yeah, we were top notch. You get so many people out here with incredible technical expertise who have nothing to say, or no idea of the importance of having something to say, or the importance of understanding what they’re saying.
PLUME: Do you think, to some extent, those are the kind of filmmakers that the Hollywood executive tends to like - because they’re malleable?
WHEDON: Yeah. Well, you want somebody who can make it pretty and make it work and give the executive what the executive thinks they want, and bring something to the party. Not just translate the words. If you’re the writer, what you’re looking for is somebody who can convey the actual meaning of the script… and quite frankly, people who are just schooled in production don’t really have that. There’s a lot of people out there who make a pretty frame, that has nothing to do with what is said.
PLUME: Form over function.
WHEDON: But you know, there’s advantages to both - don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of people teaching theory who are filling people’s heads with completely idiotic agendas and not really getting down to the basics of “This is exactly what he was doing, exactly what you think, what you feel.” It hasn’t been accomplished. You need to be looking at that stuff.
PLUME: What kind of agenda irritates you the most?
WHEDON: Any agenda. Any agenda beyond what the film itself is trying to say. My biggest concentration was gender studies and feminism. That was sort of my unofficial minor. That was what all my film work was about, but at the same time, somebody bringing the knee-jerk feminist agenda to a text can be the most aggravating thing in the world. Especially if you’re a feminist, because you’re like, “You’re the person that everybody makes fun of. You’re the reason why we’ve got no cred.”
PLUME: Planting subtext for subtext’s sake…
WHEDON: Yeah, planting subtext based on everybody brings their own experience to a film - that’s why films are popular, and that’s fine. As long as they’re working from the film outwards, towards themselves. What people with an agenda do - whether it be, like, Cartesian physics or some thing I can’t begin to understand, or feminism, or anything - they try and shove it in. “Look at this this way.” Okay, let’s look at the film as it exists, what it is, what it’s trying to do. We can judge it. But you’re talking to somebody who was raised to be a radical feminist, who thought that liberals were wishy-washy and who loves Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. So you know, this conflicts around always. Take the film at its own value, and then go to the other place.
PLUME: Was that part of your motivation for taking gender studies for a minor?
WHEDON: It’s not that I took it for a minor, it’s just like I pursued it in everything I did. It’s always what interested me. But, when you’re dealing with feminism you’re dealing with a lot of people who understand feminism better than they understand film, and again you pose something and that doesn’t just go … the point is, you can have an agenda as long as you let the film come to you and take that out of you. I know a guy who could not get through a paper without talking through Freudian theories of infantile sexuality. And his lecture on the Wild Bunch, in terms of Freudian theories of infantile sexuality, was actually fascinating. Because he loved the Wild Bunch, he understood the movie, and then he let it speak to him. He didn’t try and like shove in a theory.
PLUME: Meeting his mother would be interesting…
PLUME: Going back a little bit, was it your choice to go overseas to Winchester - to what, I guess, was essentially high school?
WHEDON: Yes. My mother suggested it, because she was on sabbatical, and enjoyed England, and didn’t trust the schools in California where my father was. So I was to go for half a year, because she was taking a half a year sabbatical. I bizarrely managed to get into the single best school in the country, through no merit of my own. I really don’t know how that happened. I was lazy, I was terrible, but through osmosis, I was learning more than I ever had before. It was so extraordinary. My family went back to America, and the school asked me to stay along, and I did.
PLUME: So you got to be the standard there, as the token lazy American.
WHEDON: I was the token lazy American, except when it came to English class, where I was relentless and unstoppable.
PLUME: How palpable was the cultural difference, going to that school, compared to the American schools you’d gone to previously?
WHEDON: Well, let’s see. I went from Riverdale, a fairly progressive private school that my mother taught at, where I’d gone for 10 and a half years, since first grade - because it went all the way through, K-12. I went from that, having never been out of the country, to a 600 year-old all male boarding school where I actually listened to a lecture on why co-education will never work. The cultural difference couldn’t have been huger. The only thing that was the same was that, like at Riverdale, I had no money and was surrounded by very rich people.
PLUME: That lecture had to appeal to the radical feminist in you…
WHEDON: Yeah. Well, you know, there’s plenty of arguments that co-education is actually bad for girls in the present state of the country. But that was not his argument. Put it this way - at the end of it, I was like, “Sir, don’t you think if God had wanted man to fly he would have given us wings?” It was very, very strange.
PLUME: So, technically, you were never in a traditional public school…
WHEDON: No, I never was.
PLUME: Did you ever feel, personally, that you missed out on anything? Or do you feel that the course you took was actually a benefit?
WHEDON: Well, you know, Riverdale was a good school. Winchester was a great school. An incredible school.
PLUME: What aspects of it made it incredible?
WHEDON: It was literally rated the best education you could get in the country. I wish that I could have made some moves on a girl at some point in my high school career, but that probably wasn’t going to happen at Riverdale, either. Which is one of the reasons why I stayed at Winchester. Socially, every boy that comes out of Winchester was completely pathetic. Intellectually, it was a staggering gift to be able to be around that much intelligence.
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