Joss Whedon looks tired, really tired, when I meet him at the Four Seasons in Austin for a quick one-on-one. Can you blame him?
[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published during Indiewire’s coverage of the 2012 SXSW Film Festival. “The Cabin in the Woods” comes out this Friday.]
The restless 47-year-old is at SXSW this year with “The Cabin in the Woods,” his post-modern horror blast, co-written and directed by “Buffy” collaborator Drew Goddard. The film opened the festival and is hitting theaters April 13 after being shelved for three years when original distributor MGM filed for bankruptcy. Lionsgate has since salvaged it, wisely timing its release to coincide with Whedon’s other release, the hotly anticipated blockbuster “The Avengers,” which Whedon directed as well as wrote. That film goes wide May 14.
On top of promoting “Cabin” and making final touches to “The Avengers,” Whedon is also writing and overseeing the “Buffy Season 9” and “Angel & Faith” comic for Dark Horse. And that’s not all. Late last year, Whedon surprised his loyal fanbase when news broke that he had in fact wrapped another film during a lull in his post-production work on “The Avengers.” That film, a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” marks the first project completed by Bellwether Pictures, the micro-budget studio formed by Whedon and his wife Kai Cole. Remarkably, Whedon’s also found time to pen the studio’s next project, “In Your Eyes,” a sci-fi/romance starring Zoe Kazan (“Meek’s Cutfoff”).
I can’t imagine a better place than SXSW to premiere a film like “The Cabin in the Woods.” How did the big reveal go for you, especially after all this time?
The audience was terrific. They were so responsive, knowing exactly what was going on. I just wish more of the actors were there to hear the response. My only problem is that they sat me behind Drew so I couldn’t see half of the film. He’s like a monitor. He’s Frankenstein.
Dating back to “Buffy,” you’ve been in the public eye more than most writers. Now with “The Avengers” coming out, your profile is larger than ever. Do you think it’s a weird happenstance that “Cabin” is now coming out, right before “The Avengers,” when your name is all over the press?
It’s a very weird happenstance, but it’s not a bad one. It’s going to be a rough spring. I’m working on other projects as well. I have five projects that are coming out or in the works. Part of me is like, if I can make it to May, then I’ll be OK. But it’s exhausting. It’s also exhilarating.
Everything about “Cabin,” of course, is that the pain of making it is behind us by two years. So it’s kind of like just free candy. I can promote it without having to still finish it.
“Cabin” is tailor made for genre fans. Did you make it for them?
There are three parts of my audience and I think Drew would say the same thing. There’s myself. And like Drew, I’m an enthusiast. I’m a fan of all things, in this case particularly horror. Always the hardcore fans; you want to make a horror movie that they’ll respond to. And then there is everybody. I don’t believe in creating exclusionary art.
Who came up with the head-spinning concept for “Cabin”?
It was me. The problem is I honestly don’t remember a before and after. One day I thought, “Oh, you know what you should do?” And that included the entire story in three acts.
It’s a movie that’s about its structure. It’s not a premise movie where you have a hero, a premise and make up a third act. The third act of this movie is what drives the movie. So that doesn’t happen very often to a writer. When it does, you write that idea down.
Drew and I talked about that idea a lot. We circled a lot around it before we cowboy’d up and wrote it. By the time we did, we were so completely clear about what we were trying to accomplish.
Without giving away the twist, what inspired the third act reveal?
I always want to sort of explode everything I’m looking at. I think I’m going to alienate the horror audience on a grand scale — but one of the reasons why I love Stephen Sondheim more than any other writer is that every song he writes has a purpose. It’s not just to entertain. It’s usually a mediation on the kind of song that it is… as well as being brilliant.
There was a time before I felt I was real writer, when I was a yarn spinner and I just wanted to tell story until it was over. But then there came a time where I was like, no, I want to understand something through writing this that I might have not understood before. I want people to come away with something to think about. For them to be engaged emotionally, but also intellectually. Not hopefully at the time — hopefully they’re too busy screaming, laughing and covering their eyes going, “The third act is insane!” — but then later for them to go, “None of this was random. This was built for a reason.”
For years now, horror filmmakers have gleefully gone about killing youth. “Cabin” plays on that. You have this tendency to revisit youth in your work or aim for a young demographic. Where does that interest stem from?
Ultimately what I end up writing about is helplessness and the flipside of that, empowerment. This movie is about kids who are behaving the way kids would, but are treated as though they’re in a horror movie. It’s sort of about that disconnect between the things we accept in life and the things we accept for fictional characters and this weird need to punish youth that has not always been a part of horror.
From what I know about “The Avengers,” what you said about helplessness and empowerment really ties into that work as well. The characters seem to go on a similar journey.
“The Avengers” really is just “Cabin in the Woods” with capes. If you’re not building a textured human and putting them through some kind of pain, I’m not sure what the purpose of the narrative is going to be. That applies to comedy, too.
About comedy, you really threw your fans for a loop when you confirmed that you had completed shooting your adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” after wrapping principal photography on “The Avengers.” How did that all come about?
You know, it was my wife. She really knew that I needed one of my other gas tanks to be filled. It was a way to reconnect with my friends and my art. “The Avengers” had such a broad scope and “Much Ado” was so down and dirty. Just a completely different experience. The thing about something like that is I had an extraordinary time just adapting the script. And then getting the cast, god.
But what was really great about it, was instead of being, “Oh ‘The Avengers’ was work and now this is play,” they’re both different kinds of play. When you do one, it helps you doing the other. They informed each other. “Much Ado” allowed me to go back to “The Avengers” with this renewed vigor.
“Much Ado” marks the first Bellwether production. What were your reasons for forming the company with your wife?
We created Bellwether as a microstudio because it’s something that I had been talking to my agent about for years. Since we had done “Dr. Horrible,” we’d figured out there is no template and that now we’re in the age where technology allows you to create on your own level, within certain limitations. Just to always have a way to get more stories out there. And to make things that aren’t fettered by years of interference with potential bankruptcy (laughs). I want to make things that are small, pure and odd.
It’s important. Robert Rodriguez spoke yesterday and he said, “How many people here are film students?” A couple of kids in the back raised their hands. He’s like, “OK, next time I ask that question, you should all raise your hands.” I really like that. That’s how Bellwether makes me feel — like a student again.