Joss Whedon is the rarest of creatures in his ability to move between television, film, comics and web series with fluidity and a distinctive creative voice. It's been a career with its fair share of heartbreak -- like the cancellation of his 2002 space Western series, "Firefly," after a troubled run that saw episodes aired out of their intended order and left a devoted fanbase still holding out hope for a return.
Whedon's flying high these days with "The Avengers," which he wrote and directed, due out in May' and "Cabin in the Woods," which he co-wrote with director Drew Goddard and opened SXSW last night to much love from the audience. Appearing in conversation with Entertainment Weekly editor Adam B. Vary this morning in Austin, Whedon has some interesting insights to offer on working with studios and networks and on the difference between the big and small screens.
In movies, he observed, "everything is a giant franchise or tiny thing, and that works for me, but middle-ground movies aren't being made anymore. That's a problem in American cinema... I've always wanted to be a director, I want to be in control, so for me film does something TV just can't. In TV, there's so much compromise, it does start to grate a bit. But if you're a writer or an actor, it really is the place to be."
He told a story about how, pre-"Batman Begins," he went in to pitch on rebooting the franchise. "My heart was on the table; I was so into it. And the executive was completely thinking about their schedule and their window. It was like talking to a wall, a different language. I drove away asking, 'How much more an indication do I need that the machine doesn't care?' And I got back to work and they canceled 'Firefly' and I was like, 'IT WAS RHETORICAL!'"
Ultimately, he said, "Their structures cannot be built on passion. I believe in some ways they should be more, but I cannot fault them for that, and that doesn't mean that I never want to work with them again."
On marketing: Discussing shows like "Dollhouse" that are conceptually difficult to describe or films like "Cabin in the Woods" that are impossible to discuss without spoilers, Whedon noted that he knew he could be a marketer's nightmare. "I am always going to be at odds with that particular part of American culture. My favorite thing is to go into a movie or a TV show not knowing what to expect. Usually, audiences are very ready to come along for the ride." He admitted he had a tendency "to think that everything I do is super commercial and that people will love it. A lot of what I do is difficult for networks -- how do we market 'Buffy?' It's so many genres. How do we market 'Cabin in the Woods?' We're not allowed to talk about it?" He cited Felicia Day saying after something was sold that, "Now we have to figure out what they think they bought."
On "Firefly": I keep thinking they're going to call me, crunch the numbers and say "Hey, we can make money from this!" -- but they don't. I would never rule it out, I love those people. But I can't just wait by the phone."
On being your own boss: Next on Whedon's plate is a web series called "Wastelanders," "because I can and because it's the next voice I have in my head." He believes that this is an exciting time in which you have the ability to "take the initiative" and go directly to an audience, though he also notes that he drew a lot from the negotiations he had with networks and balancing his ideas with their requirements: "A lot of what made the shows work was the back-and-forth between us." With the web, "it's very easy to be self-indulgent, but also easy to take a risk... You have to become your own network head, your own watchdog. But if you can do that, you're definitely the network head you want to work with."