The number one job of any artist is that of problem solver. How do you create or coordinate something interesting or great out of nothing? The greatest artists are the greatest problem solvers. They are the visionaries who set a clear road map, who see a project through from beginning to end, who collaborate but never sacrifice their vision.
In film, perhaps the most complex art form, there are a myriad of ways for one’s project to derail – from conception, to script, to development, weather, sound, image, schedule, budget, design, talent, editing, music, etc. It is a feat if ever to come out on the other end with an aesthetically pleasing product.
For a summer Hollywood blockbuster, the rules and complexities are no different. But they must also contend with an added hurdle: anticipation and expectation. The Avengers adaptation has long been one of comic-dom’s Holy Grails. A dream, perhaps. A hope. But never one any fan boy truly believed would ever come together – or might not in the end be a disappointment (i.e. Watchmen). So it is with great surprise and pleasure when a film as highly anticipated as Marvel’s The Avengers gets it right on all fronts.
Starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man/Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Captain America/Steve Rogers, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (Director of S.H.E.I.L.D.), The Avengers achieves a rare feat. Not since perhaps The Towering Inferno or more recently the Ocean’s Eleven remakes have so many award winning actors (including four with Oscar nominations) come together for a summer blockbuster – much less a comic book film.
As great as the performances are, and trust me, they are really wonderful and unexpected, the real star of The Avengers is writer/director Joss Whedon (TV Series creator: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and films: Toy Story [writer], Serenity, The Cabin in the Woods). Without Whedon, Marvel’s The Avengers would not be half the mega-success it certainly will become.
I had the pleasure of attending the press junket after the premiere screening and tossed a few questions to the panel of actors and filmmakers of the film. The panel consisted of Whedon, producer Kevin Feige, Downey, Jr., Evans, Hemsworth, Ruffalo, Renner, Hiddleston, Jackson and actor Clark Gregg (S.H.E.I.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson). Mainly my interest was getting to the heart of Whedon’s approach to the script, writing for so many characters, keeping it balanced, directing this ensemble and showcasing their talents.
What made Joss Whedon the perfect person in your eyes to helm this project?
KEVIN FEIGE: “One of the only fears I had, that the whole thing would collapse under the film’s weight. That [with] so much costumes and super powers and special effects, these characters and these actors wouldn’t get the chance to… My biggest interest in The Avengers is the interaction between these people. Looking at Joss’s body of work and the scripts that he’s written and the TV shows, the characters never ever get lost. In fact these are the moments [in the film] that shine. If we’re confident in our ability to handle a production of this size, we want the helmsman to come in and steer us in unexpected ways and to guide that tone, which is what Joss specializes in.”
JOSS WHEDON: “You have to capture the essence of the comic and being true to what is wonderful about it while remembering that it’s a movie and not a comic. I think Spider-Man – the first one in particular – really captured, you know, they figured out the formula of: “Oh! Tell them the story that they heard in the comic!” It was compelling. That’s why it’s iconic. But at the same time, they did certain things that only a movie can do and were in the vein of the comic. I think you can see things like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman where they just throw out the comic or Watchmen where they do it frame-by-frame and neither of them works. You have to give the spirit of the thing and then step away from that and create something cinematic and new.”
In the press notes, Feige expanded on his choice:
“The genius of Joss Whedon is that he can take these huge elements and find the balance, so that the characters are never lost to the spectacle and visual effects. We wanted the film to have amazing sets and incredible action, but we did not want the tone and humor to be trumped by the spectacular images on the screen … We wanted those relationship dynamics to be the real heart of the film and Joss was someone we felt could delve into the character development just as much as he could with the action in the film.”
“I’ve been able to spend time with all of the cast members while I was writing the screenplay, so they knew I was building their character from the ground up for them,” Whedon explains in the press notes, “As we progressed, I would go to them and say, ‘Here are my ideas and this is how I think you should play it. Is there something in particular you want to avoid? Something you feel the character needs? Wants?’ Every cast member had their input, to the degree that they wanted, so the script is very much a collaboration from the ground up and I think it helped set the tone right away.
“Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America don’t seem like they could co-exist and ultimately that is what intrigued me and made me go, ‘This can be done and this should be done,” Whedon says in the same interview, “These people don’t belong together and wouldn’t get along, and as soon as that dynamic came into focus, I realized that I actually have something to say about these people.”
What was your approach to the story and screenplay?
JW: “Captain America was kind of my ground-zero to this film. And the idea of someone who had been in World War II, had seen people laying down their lives in the worst kind of circumstances, in a world where the idea of community and the idea of a man being somebody who is part of that thing as opposed to being [such as Iron Man] isolated from or bigger than or more famous than it – it’s a very different concept of manhood. The way that it, in my opinion, has kind of devolved from Steve [Rogers – Captain America] to Tony [Stark – Iron Man] is kind of fascinating. Obviously you’re not going to stand around and speechify too much… But the idea of the soldier – the idea of the person who is willing to lay down their life – is very different than the idea of the super hero. Since I wanted to make from the start a war movie, I wanted to put these guys through more than they would be put through in a normal super hero movie. It was very important for me to build that concept and have Tony reject that concept on every level, so that in the end when he’s willing to make the sacrifice play or when he’s willing to lay himself down on the wire, you get where he’s come [from] and how Steve’s affected him.”
ROBERT DOWNEY, JR.: “What everybody captured was the right tone. And at a certain point you try not to take it too seriously – this is essentially a comic book movie. But you find the reality of it. I think Joss did a good job of finding everyone’s frequency. There’s a moment in the final scene… [SPOILER REMOVED] … That there is the moment where the center of Avengers could have fallen flat on it’s face and have people not suspend their disbelief or get behind it anymore. To me, that was the Act III moment where the movie succeeded. I would speak to Joss’s wit. Whether the wit is funny or whether the wit is actually being able to hold a whole myriad of ideas and notions that you have to get right in order for The Avengers not to be bunk, is what he accomplishes.”
Working with big ensemble films in the past (like Serenity) and reintroducing characters to film audiences, how did you go about weaving together and reintroducing all of the cast members in this film?
JW: “It’s the same problem I had with Serenity [adapting it from Whedon’s television series “Firefly”] and swore I’d never have again. Tracking the information is almost as difficult – more difficult – because it’s not as much fun as tracking the emotions of the thing. I have to know how much people need to know. Because some people will come in knowing everything and you don’t want to tell them too much. And some people will come in knowing nothing – you don’t even want to tell them too much! You want some things to be inferred. It’s fun to see a movie that has a texture beyond what you understand necessarily. Like when I watched Wall Street. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I was very compelled by it. It clearly mattered a lot! [Laughter] Or if I watched any film about sports, I feel the same way. [You want to believe] there is a life behind the life. If there’s life outside the frame, that’s when, you know, you feel good about it. You don’t necessarily need to lay everything out. But organizing that is and was the most exhausting part of the film. Writing the stuff between the characters? That was just candy! That was booze and candy all day.”
Can the actors talk about being part of the ensemble and working under Joss’s direction?
SAMUEL L. JACKSON: “… That was the interesting thing. I didn’t really know all of that was going on in that scene where everyone was talking at once until all of a sudden it happened. We were like, ‘Oh, we’re having an argument!’ It was almost like an ‘Our Gang’ movie. We just decided we were going to have fun. And Joss is one of those guys… Joss sets up the rules and we show up and we played by the rules in that world. You know certain people have [sic?]: he [Robert Downey, Jr. – Tony Stark] is the rich, smart ass guy, he [Mark Ruffalo – Bruce Banner] is the little guy with the big words that might turn and fuck you up at any moment, [Laughter] and he [Tom Hiddleston – Loki] is trying to make [Banner] do it – which is like the bad little brother… It was a great time doing that and being able to be in that space and allowing an audience to see that, ‘Okay, these guys have super powers but they have normal kind of attitudes.’ You know they piss with each other and argue about petty shit. They can be smart asses. And they eventually are going to find a way to love each other. And thank God we had somebody that could guide us in that direction.”
TOM HIDDLESTON: “With a character like Loki who has such a level of complexity and so many layers to him and so many things to explore, especially when he is as well written as he was in this film by Joss. When I read it, I couldn’t believe my luck. The film is called The Avengers and yet Loki was almost on every page. He’d taken it further and it was as damaged and psychologically interesting as I’d hoped it would be, but it was also darker and funnier and demanded so much commitment.”
CLARK GREGG: “I thought this was not an achievable task. I didn’t think it was feasible to have this many characters and have them all get to kind of move forward and to have the story of them kind of coming together to really work. And if it did work, with that many amazing super heroes and movie stars…I felt it unlikely that Agent Coulson would do anything but bring some super coffee to somebody. [Laughter] So when I read [the screenplay], and kind of saw that it was my fan boy wet dream of an Avengers script and that Coulson was a big part of it, that was a great day for me. I just drove around the streets with the script in the other seat just like giggling!”
MARK RUFFALO: “It was terrifying. I knew what my responsibility was. I felt it just by making the mistake of going online and reading some of the fan boy responses to the announcement that I was playing the next version of Bruce Banner. That was a mistake! [Laughter] I’ll never do that again! I never had a role more criticized and scrutinized before I shot a single frame. But coming onto the set with all of these guys was pretty daunting. Many of my heroes in life are in this cast.”
In the press notes, Whedon describes his work with Ruffalo:
“Besides Robert, Mark is probably the person I spent the most time with in pre-production. We talked about anger and how it manifests so we could get The Hulk away from being this roaring creature. Bruce Banner has given up on the idea that he can cure his anger problems and is just trying to manage it and focus all his energy on helping other people. He doesn’t want to be the center of attention and of course, he becomes the center of attention when he joins the team.”
Any advice Whedon would give Warner Brothers on getting their long in gestation The Justice League project going?
JW: Call me… [Big Smile and Laughter All Around]
Anslem Richardson is an actor, writer and artist living in Los Angeles, CA.