6 Filmmaking Tips From Joss Whedon

By  · Published on September 26th, 2012

No matter how big he wins, he will always be our underdog. Joss Whedon, the writer who cut his teeth on Roseanne and started cult phenomenons like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, seems perennially boned over by The Man who secretly placed a glass ceiling on his mainstream success. That is, until he Hulk smashed through it this summer.

For some, it may seem strange to check out filmmaking thoughts from Whedon, since he’s only directed three feature films (one of which has only been at festivals so far), but his success rate across mediums is unreal and his particular talent peerless. Serenity was and is a fan factory while The Avengers found the impossible sweet spot that satisfied fans and the financiers. Not to mention his screenwriting career and Oscar nomination.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from Joss the Boss. Maybe we’ll learn who actually calls him that.

Never Give Up On an Idea

“You know what? I never give up on anything, because you come back around, and suddenly the thing you thought you’d never do is relevant. I talked with my wife about Much Ado About Nothing for years, and it was always like, ‘I don’t feel like my take on the material is solid enough to merit that.’ And then one day I woke up and said, ‘Wait a minute, I know exactly what I think that movie’s about.’ I definitely have had a lot of projects that stalled, but I never know which one’s going to suddenly pick itself up. I don’t tend to look back that much. Except for Firefly. But I’m always open to something that I thought was moribund suddenly coming to life and trying to eat my brain.”

We are all susceptible to The Shower Principle.

From that same interview, a quick lesson for the Michael Bay’s of the world: “Spectacle and character are not inherent enemies.”

Sometimes a Drought Comes Right Before the Downpour

By most measures, Whedon has had a steady, successful career even if a lot of it was spent frustratingly close-but-not-quite to that highest plane of fame. Plenty of screenwriters would switch places.

So it’s a bit odd to think about the recent history that led to The Year of Whedo-mination. With the shelving of Cabin in the Woods, he hadn’t seen a feature theatrical release in 7 years and only had Dollhouse to call his own on television from 2004 on. That’s a nice, little dormant period. One that Whedon himself has noted a period of questioning ‐ wondering whether he was already seeing his career in the rear-view.

Then, based mostly on Lionsgate’s ironic timing (which was undoubtedly fueled by having a movie from the director of The Avengers that starred Thor on their hands), Whedon saw two movies hit in a month’s time. As a writer, Cabin in the Woods represented a movie that made genre fans salivate and non-genre fans clap just as loudly. As a writer/director, The Avengers was the summer itself.

It turns out this narrative of failure and success fits in nicely on a creative and personal level.

“That moment where you stand up and say, ‘I have the right to exist.’ I’ve written it a lot of times, and I never get tired of writing it. And if I could just believe it about myself, I think I could stop writing it.”

Never Lose Sight of the Emotional Stakes

So you’re main character is a mythic beast killer? An astronaut forced to battle dragons? An accountant? No matter what genre rules you’re adhering to, what concept dressing is on the side or what toys you get to play with, don’t forget what’s centrally at stake for your characters.

Build the Structure, Then Hit the Playground

“The plot [for Cabin] is something I presented to Drew [Goddard] as ‘I think I found the movie that we could actually sit down and write in a weekend,’ because it has a third act. It starts one way then takes you another way and just when you think you know where it’s going, it goes a third way. And this is how it wraps up. And not only did I present it to him all in a bundle, but it came to me that way. The structure came first. Not, ‘We should make a movie about a guy named Marty.’ Or, ‘We should make a movie about two guys in an office. What could they do?’ The structure is what appeared before me, shining like a unicorn.

And I went, ‘Oh.’ And we just filled it in from there. And structure is the hardest part of storytelling. With The Avengers, the structure nearly killed me. It was very difficult to make it flow and cohere in terms of all the changing perspectives and characters, all these movie stars, all these beats to hit. It’s a ridiculously complex puzzle. But once you’ve got the puzzle, and you’re just filling in the voices and coming up with the moments, that’s what’s fun.”

Could eating your vegetables make dessert taste even better? If you build your sandbox first, you can actually have some fun in it. And other analogies.

Hire Yourself

“When people ask me ‘How do I get my start?’, I’m not a great example. I grew up knowing a little about the business, and my dad had an agent so I understood a lot about how you write these things and I had someone to look at it. So it’s hard for me to give advice. But in the last few years, the advice became: If you like something, make it. Don’t write it and try to find a studio. Make it. Because it is very possible, for anybody.

When I did Buffy as a show, it was partly because I couldn’t get a gig as a director. So I said, well, I’ll write a show. I’ll hire me. Buffy was, unabashedly, seven years of film school for me, with me teaching myself how to direct. The best way to learn is to do it. Get it wrong a couple times.”

If You See a Tired Trend, Do the Exact Opposite

What Have We Learned

Normally, this section is meant for a quick recap, but all of his comments seem incredibly straightforward and…pleasant. Ridiculously pleasant. He’s enthusiastic beyond measure, even when he fulfills that Charlie Brown persona.

So instead of a contextual repetition, here’s a bonus tip on how to work with someone like Whedon: “The people I go to again and again are by and large the people I’m friends with, and that’s because they are lovely people. We share a passion for what we do. They show up every day like, “Ah, I’m excited to do this!” And I’m excited to do it with them.

They’re very sharing people. When you’re making a movie, no matter how in control you are, you’re collaborating. When you give somebody something, you want them to give it back to you with more than you gave it to them with. You want people to surprise you while delivering whatever it is you set out to do.” (See Tip #5 for link.)

Pretty great life advice, too.

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