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Old 04-17-2012, 01:26 AM   #137
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Joss Whedon on Assembling ‘The Avengers’
By DAVE ITZKOFF
Zade Rosenthal/Walt Disney Pictures The director Joss Whedon on the set of “The Avengers.”

As you may have gleaned from his fantasy TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” or his work on comic books like Astonishing X-Men, Buffy and Fray, the director and screenwriter Joss Whedon is a comic-book guy through and through. That might make him the ideal filmmaker for a project like “The Avengers,” the Marvel Studios movie (opening May 4) that brings together Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and many others.
Zade Rosenthal/Walt Disney Pictures Mr. Whedon with Samuel L. Jackson on “The Avengers.”

A profile of Mr. Whedon in this weekend’s Arts & Leisure section looks at him in a season that will see the near-simultaneous release of “The Avengers,” the biggest movie he’s ever made, and “The Cabin in the Woods,” a multi-leveled horror film he wrote with its director, Drew Goddard, and may be more emblematic of his ability to work on smaller scales with smaller budgets. In this first part of an excerpt from that interview, Mr. Whedon talks about how he was recruited to “The Avengers” and the challenges he faced making it.
Q.

Growing up, were you always a Marvel Comics guy?
A.

Everybody’s bi-publishing-curious. I tried a little DC. I dabbled in college, it’s a phase. But yeah, I’m a Marvel guy, first and last.
Q.

Kevin Feige, the Marvel Studios president, had told me you essentially won the “Avengers” assignment with a single e-mail
.
A.

They – they being Marvel, and most they being Kevin – know exactly what they need, so they really do let you make the decisions. And there was only one point of conflict, in terms of what they needed.
Q.

What was that?

A.

It’s about the villains. I kept trying to add one. And they weren’t behind it. I feel like we made it work but that was the only thing we disagreed on.
Q.

And that character was –?

A.

[teasingly] A specific figure. I wanted to have another guy in the mix, somebody who was up to their level, because I have all these strong guys! That was trouble. They felt the structure worked without it and it would be too much. But apart from that, everything they wanted, I completely agreed with. It’s like, “We want the Avengers not to settle their differences through talk.” O.K., good. I’m for that, too. It’s a superhero movie. Superheroics must take place.
Q.

Marvel had previously approached you on other film projects. What happened in those cases?

A.

I was interested in “Iron Man” when it was at New Line and then one day I thought, Do I really want to be in development on a movie? And I just backed out. Honestly, I think Jon [Favreau] did a better job than I would have. And you can tell the DNA of “The Avengers” – no paternity test needed, “Iron Man” is the daddy. “Iron Man” is where our reality comes from, even when it becomes fantastical.
Q.

How did you pitch “Avengers” to them in that e-mail?
A.

I was like, I don’t know if I want to make an “Avengers” movie, so I’ll give you some ideas about where I think you might go with it. If it’s about the origin of a team that doesn’t make sense together, and they really don’t, then you have to use the “Dirty Dozen” model, which is an hour and 40 minutes of training and 20 minutes of Nazi-killing. So I laid out my ideas, the biggest one being, I think it’s a war movie. That’s the only way you can make these people feel like they might lose. You can’t just create six exact matches but slightly bigger, six Abominations – you can’t do that. What you can do is put them through so much that you get that feeling of, I don’t know what’s going to happen to them – they might not all come back from this. And I felt it even more strongly when I watched “Black Hawk Down.” I was like, O.K., that’s the movie I want to make. My first memo was 3 or 4 pages, and from that, they started to get excited about what I was saying and I started to get excited about what I was saying. I was like, Oh, this actually sounds fun. These people are broken. I can write about these people. They’re tortured and strange.
Q.

Are those fundamental features your characters have to possess?
A.

Yeah. I’m the guy who hated “Emma” the first time he read it, because I didn’t get the idea of having someone who has everything and needs to be torn down. I was like, But I don’t like her! And it took a while to realize, oh, that was the intent. For me, I had a harder time writing “Angel” than I did writing “Buffy” because he looked like a stalwart, manly hero, and even though he was a massively messed-up fella, it was hard for me to figure out the structure of the show. You need that in, you need the weakness. Somebody wrote, early on, on the Internet, “I can’t believe they hired Joss Whedon. This should be a Dean Martin, Rat Pack-y movie with lots of testosterone. Joss Whedon’s just going to have them all cry and talk about their feelings.” And I was like, You know what, buddy? You’re probably right. I probably am. And they kind of do.
Q.

On some level, you just want to see famous actors playing these characters you’ve so dearly for so long.

A.

You want to see Captain America and Tony Stark not like each other, articulately. Writing them was where I started. They represent two polar opposites and I’m basically Tony and I wish I was Steve [Rogers, Cap's alter ego]. I believe everything that Steve says, but at the end of the day, I’m more like Tony, without the brilliance and the billions.
Q.

And you can live with having all the plot points of the previous Marvel movies dictated to you when you walk in the door?
A.

Yeah, sure. And where all the other sequels are going to go. There was talk about, should we have this character? I’m like, you need to save that character for that other sequel. You can’t just throw that moment away. One of the biggest struggles for me was the end of “Iron Man 2″: “I’m in a semi-stable relationship.” “We approve of Iron Man but not Tony Stark.” They really made my job hard, in that respect. But you get all these pieces and it’s a puzzle. But it’s a puzzle that comes together. It’s not just a bunch of broken stuff — there is a way that it’s supposed to fit. And when it does, you find you’re being given as many gifts as you are problems.
Q.

Were there story problems you were still playing with once filming was underway?
A.

I make it sound like I’m Mycroft Holmes and boom, there you go. I’m not. I got it wrong, several times. I only had the structure dialed in a little bit before shooting and was still writing a few key scenes while shooting.
Q.

What would be an example of something you didn’t figure out until later in the process?
A.

One of the best scenes that I wrote was the beautiful and poignant scene between Steve and Peggy [Carter] that takes place in the present. And I was the one who was like, Guys, we need to lose this. It was killing the rhythm of the thing. And we did have a lot of Cap, because he really was the in for me. I really do feel a sense of loss about what’s happening in our culture, loss of the idea of community, loss of health care and welfare and all sorts of things. I was spending a lot of time having him say it, and then I cut that.
Q.

Even though you have directing experience, when you come to a film with stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, not to mention all the guys who the Marvel movies have turned into stars, is there a learning curve involved?
A.

The biggest star in the world, if they’re still an actor, they want a director. And all of these stars are actors. They want to know that you know what you’re doing. Because no matter how much control they have over their part – and I collaborated with them intensely, as much as any of them wanted to – they know it’s your movie. And Robert is extremely hands-on. One of the first things he said is, “I will never mess with your intent. I will question every day how you plan to get there. But I will never mess with what you’re trying to accomplish.” We had to sniff each other out. Because I’m used to having people do everything I say, and so is he. [laughs] What we found was, one of my favorite collaborations that I’ve ever had.
Q.

You’re known for the strong female protagonists in your TV shows. Did you have an influence on making Black Widow a more prominent character in “The Avengers”?

A.

Absolutely. There was at one point a question of, should the Black Widow be an Avenger? I was like, Guys, they’re called fanboys. Yes she should. I am inevitably going to give her a decent amount of juice. Widow is really the man on the street. So you’re going to spend more time just to find that person. And you’re going to spend more time with her because she is the only female on the team and for me, one of the most interesting characters.
Q.

Are you concerned about the growing fatigue with summer event movies, and how that could affect the reception for “The Avengers”?
A.

I’m one of those guys who will be as crabby as anyone: They’re only trying to make franchise movies, where are the prestige pics? Where are the ’70s, where are people taking chances? While I’m making a giant, tentpole, franchise, action summer movie. [mock defensiveness] That doesn’t make me a hypocrite – it just gives me layers. [fake weak laugh] There’s a weird kind of cultural obsession with instant gratification that has entered our business model. Nobody’s interested in making a living – they only want to make a fortune. With the amount of money we made “Avengers” for, you could make a lot more movies. Now, in Marvel’s case, these are movies that I think deserve to be bigger than life. And “The Avengers” being the culmination of this grand plan that has had no less than five movies leading up to it, deserves to be as big as it is. I feel like you have to deliver scale in this movie. Hopefully, they got the right guy to do it or I’m in big trouble.
Q.

It’s not just that the films are so big, but that their vocabulary has become so similar. There are elements of “The Avengers” – alien invasion force; mysterious artifact – that we’ve just seen in other movies that haven’t fared very well.
A.

Believe me, there are tropes in this movie that will appear as nothing else. I referred to the Tesseract more than a few times as “the MacGufferact.” The invasion at the end, that was stipulated. And all I could think was, Great, I know where I’m going. My whole thing was, make sure that none of this feels like a checkmark. But more than once, we watched the trailer for some movie and went, “Oh, are their aliens better than ours? Are they too similar?” Panic, panic, panic. At the end of the day, it’s like, Was there a story about human beings threaded through all of that? The superhero team movie is going to have a certain structure, but no cars turn into anything else except piles of rubble. Cars magically transform into burning cars. That part I’m happy about.
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