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Joss Whedon at SXSW: ‘You have to become your own network head.’

Joss Whedon at SXSW: 'You have to become your own network head.'

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.

On film versus television: “I prefer the lifestyle wherein I do not have to choose — I really love them both,” Whedon said, but allowed that “I think, ultimately, gun to my head, TV is the place. Being able to spend years with a character, to really develop them, to understand them, to challenge the actor, to learn from the actor, to work with a team of writers — that experience is so fulfilling. The idea of putting something out there and letting it grow is really exciting.”

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.”

On his troubles with networks: “The networks have a particular agenda, a particular model and structure. It doesn’t have anything to do with content. This is not a dis on them — they are a business model, run by business people. There’s very little ‘Oh, this is just awesome!’ — they don’t get to think like that.”

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 the benefits of limited resources and time: He admits that getting to work, for once, with generous resources in “The Avengers” is nice: “It’s lovely to have everything… to make up these wild fantasies, where you can have a Hulk. That’s a good time.” But it’s also “a little daunting. Limitations are something that I latch onto — like working in genre, or if you’re writing TV, there are act breaks, there’s a length of time it’s supposed to be. The restrictions of budget and sets can be really useful. When you can have everything, it’s very hard to make things feel real and lived in.” Hence “Much Ado About Nothing,” his upcoming film based on Shakespeare’s play, which was shot in 12 days in a schedule he compared to television: It was “seven or eight pages a day” and whole scenes or collections of scenes would be completely shot by day’s end.

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 keeping the Buffyverse alive in comic-book form: Whedon pointed out that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the one show they actually stopped making when they felt they were done instead of due to a network’s decision. Returning to the universe in the Dark Horse Comics series, he said, was like seeing “my old friends. I’m writing Andrew again! It was so much fun. It felt like a universe that had validity and when I’m able to be in it, I’m really grateful. People wanted it and I felt like there were more stories to tell. For me, it’s like a little vacation — every now and then, I get to visit the ‘verse again.”

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.”

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