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The Lost, Forgotten & Undersung Projects Of Joss Whedon

The Lost, Forgotten & Undersung Projects Of Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon is about to have a very good week. The writer/director/producer has, until recently, been best known for his work on television: he turned his poorly-received screenwriting debut “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” into one of the most beloved cult series of all times (which itself got a long-running spin-off, “Angel“), and followed it up with the short-lived but passionately followed sci-fi Western “Firefly,” a show that lasted a single season, but managed to get its own cinematic sequel, “Serenity,” which marked Whedon’s big-screen directorial debut.

Until now, “Serenity” has been the director’s best-known entry into the movies, but that’s all about to change. He wrote and produced the inspired, raucous horror flick “The Cabin In The Woods,” which hits theaters on Friday, and tonight sees the world premiere of “The Avengers,” the Marvel superhero team-up movie that is one of the most keenly anticipated films of the year, which Whedon has been entrusted with writing and directing. He’s also got a screen version of “Much Ado About Nothing” — starring several members of his regular ensemble — in the can, and has penned the supernatural romance “In Your Eyes,” which is currently filming.

And while his recent burst of activity may make him seem like a new kid on the cinematic block, Whedon’s actually had a far wider-ranging presence in film for nearly two decades, one that often gets overshadowed by his work on “Buffy” and “Angel.” He’s had his hand in some huge movies in the past, as well as a number that never made it to the screen, and he even stepped behind the camera on some of the biggest TV shows around. Below, you’ll find some highlights from the lesser-known areas of Whedon’s career, and you can catch “The Cabin In The Woods” in theaters on Friday, and “The Avengers” on May 4th.

1. His Oscar Nomination
Whedon is known as a lot of things – visionary television pioneer, Internet nut-cracker (with his beloved and highly successful “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” web series), big old nerd – but few remember him as Oscar-nominated screenwriter. What was that nomination for, you wonder? His involvement in the script for Pixar’s “Toy Story.” The narrative of what happened with the “Toy Story” script and who contributed what is a long and knotty tale, but the short version is that in late 1993, the movie broke down. It just wasn’t working – it was disjointed, unfunny, with ill-defined, unlikable characters and a story that didn’t move as much as it limped along. The overlords at Disney (among them Jeffrey Katzenberg, who kept pushing for an “edgier,” more adult version of the story) were understandably freaked. It’s easy to forget that none of the Pixar guys had any real screenwriting or storytelling experience and were used to crafting narratives that were over in a matter of minutes. Disney hired a succession of high-profile screenwriters (including Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen) before Whedon was called. As he recounts in the book “Joss Whedon: Conversations,” he had already been working at Disney at the time, and was brought over to try to untangle, simplify, and streamline (Whedon has claimed the script he was sent was in “shambles”). Most of his work had to do with strengthening and defining characters and situations in what was an inherently solid conceptual framework. Whedon went to Pixar for three weeks and ended up writing for four months. Among Whedon’s contributions: the neurotic dinosaur character Rex; what Whedon points to as “the voice and sensibility” of the characters (keeping away from the plucky Disney characters of yore); the “Wind the frog” line; and, most critically, after Disney and Mattel failed to reach an agreement regarding the use of the Barbie character (in the Whedon overhaul, she rescued Buzz and Woody), the creation of the band of nightmarishly cuddly mutant toys. While Whedon admits to playing a “substantial part” in the first “Toy Story,” he has never been invited back to work at Pixar. At one point he expressed concern over the company’s lack of strong female characters, and claims that after Elastigirl’s empowering speech to Violet in “The Incredibles” (which distills the core tenets of feminism perfectly in a movie about superheroes fighting robots), his wife turned to him and said it was written for him.

2. His Spec Scripts
Three years before Whedon began to build his television empire with “Buffy,” he sold two high-priced spec scripts entitled “Afterlife” and “Suspension.” “Afterlife” makes the bold move of killing off its main character Daniel Hoffstetter, a married-to-his-work government scientist who is in his mid-fifties and specializes in doing important DNA research. Daniel soon awakens in a new, able body he’s had his brain transplanted into, as a part of a CIA project known as The Tank, which consists of resurrected scientists who work on secret government projects. When Daniel escapes from the shackles of The Tank to reconnect with his wife, he finds himself in the body of a notorious serial killer known as the “Snowman.” The rest of the script makes for a solid thriller as Daniel, battling the subconscious urge to go on a killing spree, eludes both members of The Tank and those who think he’s the “Snowman” in a “Fugitive”-like race to reconnect with his wife. It showcases Whedon’s ability to implant high-concept sci-fi and action with heart, like he later would in his similarly-themed TV series “Dollhouse.”  “Suspension” is a softer sell, basically falling into the category of a “Die Hard”-style flick with the story centering on terrorists seizing control of New York’s George Washington Bridge during a hellish traffic jam. The John McClane-esque lead character Harry Monk is on his way back from spending 15 years in a New Jersey prison for shooting a cop, but finds himself working with the police in an effort to thwart the terrorist’s plot. “Suspension” was acquired for a huge $1-million in 1993 from then 28-year-old Whedon, but not much has happened since. “Afterlife” was set to head into production with Sony and helmer Andy Tennant in 2000, who was then coming off “Anna and the King,” but that film’s failure seemed to kill the momentum. Whedon also sold a mysterious pitch called “Goners” to Universal back in 2005, a mystical fantasy thriller with a female lead named Mia, but the studio never pulled the trigger.

3. His Script Doctoring
It’s always a treat for cinephiles to find out one of their favorite filmmakers or screenwriters have done some sort of uncredited work on a screenplay, and Whedon has no shortage of those sort of stories. After his spec scripts sold for a pretty penny in the early ‘90s, Whedon was an incredibly in-demand writer who worked on a number of projects that would make many prospective screenwriters envious. While the script for the 1992 “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” was famously changed into a more teen-friendly piece without Whedon’s consent, that seemed to be the norm for the up-and-comer as he worked on major features like “Speed,” “Waterworld,” “Twister,” and Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Whedon delved pretty deeply into all of those projects, and in a 2001 interview with The AV Club, he stated that he had written most of the dialogue in “Speed,” and that “Twister” didn’t have too much of his work in it, while on “Waterworld” he “was there for seven weeks, and [he] accomplished nothing.” While his draft for the 2000 comic adaptation “X-Men” — a franchise so close to his heart that he eventually helped Marvel Comics revive “The Astonishing X-Men” brand with his own series — was entirely thrown out without him knowing until he was invited to a read-through by Fox, he does acknowledge that he wrote the infamous Toad line that Halle Berry’s Storm utters, but that it was taken drastically out of context. Regardless, Whedon seems to be able to laugh about his script doctoring misfortunes, and even has the only poster for “Speed” with his screenwriting credit left on it hanging in his office, telling The AV Club that, “I think of ‘Speed’ as one of the few movies I’ve made that I actually like.” Not quite a script-doctoring job, given that he was rewriting from scratch, was when he was hired by Joel Silver and Warner Bros in 2005 to bring “Wonder Woman” to the screen, but he and the studio never saw eye-to-eye, and they parted ways.

4. His Disaster
Fox, impressed with the job that Whedon had done getting “Speed” into shape, gave him the unenviable task of reviving the powerhouse “Alien” franchise after David Fincher’s morose third entry. Always one to put a super-powered young girl at the center of whatever project he’s working on, Whedon concocted a thirty-page outline that focused on Newt, a character from James Cameron’s “Aliens” who Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley protected with a motherly intensity. (Ripley, like every other character, had been killed off at the end of “Alien 3.”) Whedon turned in his treatment, which was met enthusiastically by Fox brass, until they insisted he change pretty much everything about the script, demanding he find a way to bring back Ripley. The Newt incarnation remains Whedon’s favorite version of the half-dozen drafts he ended up submitting, noting in “Joss Whedon: Conversations” that it was a “better-structured story than the one I ultimately wrote.” Ultimately Whedon’s draft would focus on the crew of the Betty, a smuggler ship not unlike the Millennium Falcon (or, later, Whedon’s own Serenity), tasked to deliver some very precious cargo to the hulking Auriga space ship. Set in the distant future, Whedon replaced the earlier films’ menacing multinational corporation with a more sinister version of the army, and Ripley, back from the dead and none-too-pleased, was now something of a hybrid – having been brought back from genetic material contaminated with alien DNA, giving her some of the monsters’ abilities. Supposedly Whedon’s first draft of the Ripley version went over like gangbusters, and featured a harrowing climax set on Earth. But the rapturous reception of Whedon’s screenplay was the only smooth part of the film’s long, tortured production. Keeping with the series’ tradition of going with an untested visionary to helm the film, the studio contacted Danny Boyle, Bryan Singer and Peter Jackson before ultimately deciding on Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the darkly comic co-director of French oddities “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children.” Jeunet imported much of his creative team from France, and spoke with a translator, unable to communicate directly to the cast and crew, conveying staging and camera movements via detailed storyboards. Eschewing the third film’s oppressive bleakness, Jeunet’s film was more comic and comic book, featuring strange sexual overtones and a prolonged underwater sequence that felt like something out of “The Poseidon Adventure.” Whedon was not pleased. Not only was he asked to change the ending five times (until a climax on Earth was jettisoned completely) but Whedon was not involved in the film’s production at all. Whedon was particularly miffed by a sequence where Ripley has a semi-sexual encounter with an albino mutant alien that she helped birth (the creature was designed by Chris Cunningham). “I don’t remember writing, ‘A withered, granny-lookin’ Pumpkinhead-kind-of-thing makes out with Ripley.’ Pretty sure that stage direction wasn’t in any of my drafts,” Whedon quipped. While diplomatic during the press for the movie, in recent years he’s been more forthcoming, telling Bullz-Eye circa “Serenity” that “it wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.” A director’s cut of the film was released on home video a few years back but those looking for more of Whedon’s original draft will be sorely disappointed. Instead there are a few more gonzo Jeunet flourishes in a film already lousy with them.

5. His Animation Work
Even aside from his live-action work, Whedon found himself becoming a go-to animation script-doctor even before the success of “Toy Story;” he worked on a pair of Disney animations prior to that film that never made it to the screen, at least in their original form. The first was what Whedon described as “Journey to the Center of the Earth” meets “Man Who Would Be King” (keep in mind this was as EuroDisney was opening, complete with an entire themed land devoted to Jules Vernian sci-fi exploration), a concept that was said to have featured lots and lots of monsters and was exciting enough to get Mike Mignola, creator of “Hellboy,” on board to do design work. That was eventually scrapped and mutated into “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” a creatively compromised work that, despite a few flashes of brilliance (Mignola’s remaining design work and James Garner’s inspired vocal performance among them), is pretty lousy. (Whedon only received credit because he was the first writer on the project.) The other, much more interesting project that Whedon worked on was an animated musical version of “Marco Polo.” According to Whedon in ‘Conversations,’ the edict from Disney was “do ‘My Fair Lady’ with Marco Polo.” Whedon not only wrote a script but also, years before the musical ‘Buffy’ episode and ‘Dr. Horrible,’ wrote the lyrics to three songs that featured instrumentation from noted Broadway stalwart Robert Lindsey-Nassif (who worked with Whedon’s beloved Stephen Sondheim on “Bounce”). The “Marco Polo” project was developed at a time when Disney was moving away from the animated musicals that defined the Second Disney Renaissance, just as that became Whedon’s singular goal. “I joined Disney because I wanted to write musicals,” Whedon has said. “I wanted to do what Howard Ashman did” (Ashman was the Oscar-winning writer behind the tunes for “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” who passed away in 1991). Whedon later conceded: “The animated musical died with Howard Ashman.” “Marco Polo” was barely developed (if at all), sadly. While his later work on Fox’s box office failure “Titan A.E.” hasn’t been widely discussed, he has described his work on it in the past as “a great, thundering rewrite” most likely in the interest of merging the visions of two separate directors (notable Disney expats Gary Goldman and Don Bluth) and a small army of screenwriters (like frequent Tim Burton collaborator John August). There are two positive things that Whedon got out of “Titan A.E.,” though – a loose storyline about rogue space travelers that he would adopt for his beloved, frustratingly short-lived “Firefly” television series, and a working relationship with comic book creator Ben Edlund (“The Tick”), who would go on to write for “Firefly” and “Angel” , and work on Whedon’s beloved web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

6. His TV Direction
While it may not be abundantly clear from his big screen efforts (“Serenity” looks more like a television episode than actual episodes of “Firefly”), Whedon can be an impressive director, particularly when allowing a technical or thematic construct or limitation enter the picture (see the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes “The Body” or “Restless”). So it’s not entirely surprising that he would be invited to guest-direct shows on the small screen. In 2007 he helmed two episodes of NBC’s hit sitcom “The Office” (this was a time when the show was particularly concerned with netting big-screen guest directors – others from around this time included Harold Ramis and JJ Abrams). The first, season three’s “Business School,” was written by Brent Forrester, a former “Simpsons” writer who penned the immortal “Lemon of Troy” episode, and featured a sub-plot where the office-dwellers have to deal with a foe very familiar to Whedon – a bat. According to the DVD commentary track for the episode, Whedon was at first reluctant, saying, “Do I have to direct the bat episode?” but eventually got on board. (He’s a friend of the show’s co-creator Greg Daniels and much of the cast.) Whedon was shocked to find that he could change the script as he saw fit and had so much fun that he returned the same year to direct season four’s “Branch Wars,” which was written by cast member Mindy Kaling and centered around Scott’s attempt to foil an attempt by the Dunder Mifflin Utica branch to hire over their beloved Stanley. Less outwardly “Whedonesque” than the bat-riffic “Business School,” it is still expertly snappy and smart (its script was nominated for NCAA Image award) and incredibly well-directed (you can feel Whedon having particular fun with the “panty raid” elements, lifted directly from “Animal House”). Somewhat less surprising was Whedon’s decision to direct a first-season episode of Fox’s breakout musical series “Glee.” Whedon is, as we’ve discussed, a notable musical nerd, and it was fun to see him apply his musical number staging skills against something that is essentially a jukebox musical (the episode features a whopping eleven cover versions). Series creator Ryan Murphy said of Whedon, “Joss directed one of the great musical episodes in the history of television, so this is a great, if unexpected, fit. I’m thrilled he’ll be loaning us his fantastic groundbreaking talent.” For his part, Whedon underplayed his influence, saying, “Hopefully my hands will be invisible on the show.” Well, they weren’t, not exactly. His ‘Dr. Horrible’ star Neil Patrick Harris features as glee club leader Will Schuster’s arch-nemesis, in a role that was specifically timed for Whedon’s episode. But the most blatant Whedon contribution has got to be the staging of the “Safety Dance” number, in which Kevin McHale’s wheelchair-confined Artie gets up and dances around a mall. It’s sweetly surreal and significantly amps up the show’s already dreamlike fantasy elements. It’s also, in true Joss Whedon form, achingly touching. 

— Benjamin Wright & Drew Taylor

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