tribeca film festival 2016

Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo in Conversation on The Avengers, Shakespeare, and Learning to Work With Insecurity

Photo: Getty Images

Joss Whedon is a sensitive guy. That much was evident when he sat down with his Avengers pal Mark Ruffalo at one of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Directors Series conversations on Monday night. Whedon talked about how his insecurities have fostered his career as a writer and creator of big-budget Marvel movies, television shows, and low-budget indie films. Most notably, he addressed the underwhelming response to Avengers: Age of Ultron. “The things about it that are wrong frustrate me enormously,” Whedon said. “But I also got to make, for the second time, an absurdly personal movie where I got to talk about how I felt about humanity and what it means in very esoteric and bizarre ways for hundreds of millions of dollars.” They also discussed Whedon’s lauded affinity for writing female characters like Buffy Summers, how they came up with the Hulk’s personality, the twin influences of Shakespeare and comic books, and why it’s not so bad to work with divas.

Then Vulture, a signature sponsor of TFF, typed it all up for you.

Joss, let’s start at the beginning. So you’re 48. What started your love for filmmaking and performance? Where did it begin? You grew up where?
New York City. I grew up in the Upper West Side. My parents were theater geeks in a big way and also just film lovers. They would just take us to things that were wildly inappropriate or strange. I saw The Exorcist in theater when I was like nine. It didn’t damage me. I’m good. My mom was head of the history department and every year she would abuse her power to rent a bunch of 16-millimeter movies and throw them up on our living-room wall before she showed her students. Every year for ten years. Not only did I get to see movies a lot with my parents but I got to see the same ones over and over, which is really the key. That’s the thing that makes you go, Oh, wait a minute. Now I want to know. Now I want to know how that’s done. I’m not saying that Star Wars didn’t help. That did.

Did you have a favorite movie as a kid? Did you have that movie that sort of really communicated something to you that said, I’m interested in this as a possible … ?
The big moment, it feels so stupid because I was so old — I was like 16. The moment of like, Oh, somebody directed this! was The Shining. The big wheel shot in The Shining. That’s when I went, Hold on a second. Somebody decided to do this, and that set everything sort of in motion. Right after that I got Hitchcock, which was just the Bible and the best comic book I had ever read at the same time.

So you have this wonderful sense of storytelling that feels theatrical to me. Did you spend much time with theater as a kid?
I did the school play. I was the sidekick or the villain. I was very short. Devastatingly brilliant, but also short and squeaky. But then I stopped. People were mean to me, so I stopped and then I was sad. Wish I hadn’t. I did enough to know that it’s the greatest. Performing in front of a live audience is, I think, the greatest feeling that you can have unless you’re doing a Q&A and you don’t know what you’re going to say and you’re scared, but if you have lines, then it’s fine.

It’s a lot more helpful. You had the movies, you had the theater, and then you had musical theater.
Oh, yeah. Before my dad wrote television, he wrote Off Broadway musicals. Before his dad wrote television, he wrote Off Broadway musicals. My mom had framed a telegram from Moss Hart saying he had a new show coming up and he wanted her to audition for it. In a way, it was like this beautiful, perfect little thing for her. It was like, I had you three, so I don’t get to do that!

Was your mom an actress?
When she was younger, she started out but quickly stopped. When they met, he was at Harvard and she was at Radcliffe, and everybody was acting and doing little theatricals, and then she directed stuff and starred in it at school, or in summer stock, or the Director’s Playhouse, which is one of my earliest memories in Cape Cod.

So you’re a theater kid. You’re a theater geek?
Yeah, yeah, yes. Pretty much put any enthusiasm that isn’t sports, put the word geek after it and that’s me.

Music, poetry, theater …

What about music for you, though, since we’re on that subject. I’ve been out dancing with you.
Lucky man.

Literally all night long. I had to go home and you were still dancing.
Yeah, I don’t like to stop.

What is music for you? I want to get back to how it relates to your work as well.
There’s two things I would say about music particularly. One is that you mentioned theatricality as a part of my film work. There is a heightened state, particularly in a song in a musical, where if the musical’s being done right, this is the moment. This is where it all comes out. This is where everything is building to this. You have this perfect state where not only is somebody articulating who they are and what they need but it rhymes. It’s this absolutely pristine, very structured thing. Everything I do is sort of about that structure and about that moment of somebody going, This is the best version of me that I can explain. You’re always trying to hit that feeling. Whether it’s sad, happy, or scary — that feeling you get when a musical number is in that moment. I try to hit those peaks all the time in conversation. I know the stuff I write is occasionally less than naturalistic and tends more towards being very …

I’ve tried to say it.
You’ve made valiant efforts to say my lines and we’re all proud of you for trying.

I feel like it was … uh … It fit well in my mouth … Thank you for coming. It’s a vernacular. Joss, I want to get into the process a little bit because your writing is not what one would call naturalistic, although it’s incredibly humanistic. You have a universality in your people, even when they’re superheroes. There’s a vernacular that you’re speaking that, yes, it’s musical, but I also happen to know that you’re a big fan of Shakespeare.
I’m not aware of him. Yes. Shakespeare nerd. See how that works?

You have the musical and you understand that structure. People don’t really know that especially when you think of a comic-book movie, a Marvel movie. What you’re really doing, though, to take all those characters you had in Avengers and have them each kind of step forward and step back again and step forward and then come together and then step back. There’s a plan to that, isn’t there? 
Well, yeah. You hope you’re going in with a plan. Sometimes you think you have a plan, and then you go into the editing room and you have a new plan.

Sorry about that.
Never you, never you. You take the most theatrical stuff and make it sound like you just thought it up better than almost anybody I’ve worked with.

Thank you.
It’s a big deal. I’m like, Oh, good. He’s going to cover my florid self-regard and make it seem like a human thought. Can’t get enough of that. Structurally, the rhythm of the piece is going to be the same as the rhythm of the dialogue. You’re going to want to feel out how much you can put this person out before they need to come back and some other person comes in, and that’s in anything that you’re doing. When I first started doing comic-book movies, people actually had to point out to me that Buffy was The X-Men and that I had been making comic-book movies since I started doing television. The thing that comic books give you, because I studied them as much as I studied anything else — and by studied I mean read and tried to convince my parents that somehow this was going to pay off later so they didn’t tear them up — every time you turn the page, it’s an opportunity to go, Oh shit! Every time. You always want something wonderful to happen. You want constantly to have those page-turn moments. In the sense of dialogue, it comes down very specifically to just the musicality of a phrase. Because I’m a wannabe actor, obviously I say everything as I’m writing it because I type very slowly. You can hear when something sounds really awkward or abrupt or wrong, and sometimes it’s nice to throw something off, but when I’m being specific about it, I’m very in tune to how it’s going to fit, how it’s going to roll off and into the next line — in terms of meaning and in terms of rhythm. For a long time when I started, I would be in constant conflict with people about saying things exactly as I wrote them because I was doing something a little differently than anybody was used to, and then over the years two things happened. One: I chilled the fuck out and started remembering it was a collaborative process. Two: I realized people didn’t have as much of an issue with the way I wrote. It had sort of entered the mainstream enough that it was now something people understood. They would come to me and go, “I don’t need to replace this with the generic version of it. I get it,” which was gratifying.

Thank you for that. I want to pick up this piece on you reading these comics as a kid but you also love the classics. You went to Europe to study. In London?
Let’s say Europe because it makes me sound like I can speak two languages when I can barely manage the one. I went to Winchester in southern England.

Was that more formal, literary?
Yes. That’s about as formal … The year I graduated we celebrated our 600th anniversary and the Queen came. I got to sing for the Queen. We had a big number. She was opening our new theater, and I had a little solo in the number and then watched the news that night, and there was my solo on the news. I was just like, Can anybody imagine how drunk I’m about to get?

But you were reading comic books the whole time.

So were you seeing in the comics what you’re seeing in Shakespeare? Were you seeing that kind of grand struggle? Because they’re sort of doing the same thing in a strange way.
Yeah. There’s no way that Stan Lee and those guys weren’t influenced. Shakespeare is everywhere and he has invented a lot of the structures and rhythms that we understand and that we’ve built off of. It’s not surprising. At the end of the day, I feel like Shakespeare was absolutely about “let’s take this grand spectacle of theater about kings and queens and gods and fairies and absolutely bring it down to earth.” That was his genius: “Let’s humanize this. Let’s tell stories about ourselves and pretend they’re kings and queens.” I’m always doing something large and dire. In my scripts, in my ideas, there’s always something. It’s always genre, there’s always some big concept I can build off of. The world is often threatened and even people. It’s not very Sundance-y. I don’t have a Sundance-y vibe. No one’s going to go on a road trip and reconcile with their family. Unless it’s an evil road trip.

But you love family. You work so much with family.
I love created family. It’s different. Family movies are about, Well, you’re stuck with them but they’re kind of lovable. I’m like, No, they’re not and, no, I’m not. Nicholas Ray did a lot of the same thing. I studied his stuff a lot with my professor and the idea of the created family appealed to me enormously because the idea of a family that you build yourself … People who discover that they need each other, as opposed to people who are related to each other and driving each other crazy for their whole lives, seem to me the most compelling story.

I want to get into Buffy now. When you started writing, you had two parents who were writers, right? Your dad was a writer.
My mom was constantly writing unpublished novels. She was a teacher, but hers was the typewriter that I have in my head.

Did you know early on you wanted to be a writer?
Not really. I knew I wanted to be an artist, and by that I mean “not really work.”

I did the same thing and then we bullshitted our way here. They’re actually sitting here listening to us. Sorry, I don’t mean to offend you, but I can’t believe you’re actually here. 
I didn’t actually study writing. It was just something I did for fun. When I got out of college I was like, Well, I want to make movies. I just sort of assumed I’d write them and I didn’t really think it through. I didn’t have a plan back then. I wanna make movies!

Did you want to direct?
Oh, yeah. I wanted to make the movies. A lot of writers become directors because they want to protect their material and after Alien: Resurrection, anyone would feel that way.

We came, we conquered.
I’ve never complained about that before. Directing is the other half of storytelling and what I wanted to do. I only ever wanted to tell stories. Sometimes it’s very frustrating to me that I’m not this incredible lensman. I see people who can shoot so much better than I can and it’s a little frustrating. But it’s also a little bit of that thing where I know what’s important and it’s how they’re feeling, how I’m feeling about how they’re feeling, and the rest I’ll do my best. I’ll work very hard, but it will also take care of itself. Writing was always the first half. Back then when I started, you wrote a script and then maybe a studio would be it. Ten scripts I wrote, over 100 pages that nobody ever made. The act is somewhat masturbatory. If you don’t get the partner, if you don’t get the other person involved, if you don’t see it to fruition, then you’re just telling stories to yourself. Like when you masturbate.

Much more elaborate.
I narrate it like Morgan Freeman.

But you didn’t start as a director. You started as a writer. 
You know, if you’re going to ask tombstone, I’d say writer, too. A lot of that came out of [a] resentment of television directors that I had to control. Directing became fun for me. Writing is perfect joy. The moment I started writing I was like, This is it. This is my true love. This is why I’m on the planet, if there’s any reason at all. That’s still the case even after things sometimes don’t go the way you wish they would.

Buffy was actually a feature-length script. Is that the truth?
It was a film. It was actually a movie.

And then you sold it as a show?
What happened was I sold it as a movie. It was the first film script I ever wrote. I had been working in TV. I had been on Roseanne. When it was auctioned and eventually made, it was not the movie that I wrote exactly. The idea was there, the concept. Then a few years later, Gail Berman said, “What if this was a TV show?” and I said, “Gee, that would be cool.”

Your work women … Not your working women, your women in your work. You write these really beautiful, powerful, vulnerable women, and you do it again and again. Is that your mother’s typewriter?
It has a lot to do with her. Except for the vulnerability part. It’s something that I’ve been trying to answer. Why is my avatar an adolescent girl with superpowers? Why do I tell that story over and over and over again? I still don’t really know. I know one thing. Everything I write is about power and helplessness and somebody being helpless. Their journey to power is the narrative that sustains me. I think a lot of it has to do with being very helpless and tiny and sort of … I had two terrifying older brothers and a terrifying father and a withholding mother. Generally, I knew I was on my own and I had no fucking skills. I was like I don’t know how to survive. I got mugged every time I left the house. People were waiting in line. One in six New Yorkers has, in their lifetime, mugged me. I would be walking around just in my head creating these narratives where these little tiny people who nobody paid attention to kicked everybody’s ass in one way or another. Why they were always female, I’m still not sure, but I’m not uncomfortable with it.

You’re actually pretty great at it. You had a really wonderful few years.
“It’s over” is what he’s saying.

How do you feel about where you are right now?
That it’s over. This is a bad one. I know that you get that after any project probably.

“It’s over. The jig is up. They’re gonna know.”
It’s worse this time. Partially because of the Ultron thing, which was difficult. I should just say, I feel like Ultron I’m very proud of. There were things that did not meet my expectations of myself and then I was so beaten down by the process. Some of that was conflicting with Marvel, which is inevitable, but a lot of it was about my own work and then I was also exhausted. We went right away and did publicity and I sort of created the narrative wherein I’ve not quite accomplished it and people just ran with that. It became, Well, it’s okay. It could be better but it’s not Joss’s fault. I think that did a disservice to the movie, and the studio, and ultimately to myself. It was not the right way to be because I am very proud of it. The things about it that are wrong frustrate me enormously, and I had probably more of those than I had on other movies I made, but I also got to make, for the second time, an absurdly personal movie where I got to talk about how I felt about humanity and what it means in very esoteric and bizarre ways for hundreds of millions of dollars. The fact that Marvel gave me that opportunity twice is so bonkers. It’s so beautiful. The fact that I come off of it feeling like a miserable failure is also bonkers, but not in a cute way. It becomes problematic. I don’t know what it’s like for you. I took my first vacation ever after that movie. I don’t mean ever, but my first vacation that was more than two weeks in 25 years, except for one four-month vacation where I wrote the Buffy musical. I really set out to do nothing. To accomplish nothing. I’m proud to say that I have truly accomplished nothing. I got to a higher state of fuck-all. I’m proud. My resting state is not a good one. I work hard. I love to work. I love the work that I do and I’m very happy and grateful about it. When I’m not doing it, I remember that I hate myself. It’s not good so much. The vacation’s over. Now I’m writing again.

Are you back at it?
Oh, yeah.

After Ultron I begged him to do Avengers 3 and 4, Hulk 3, Thor 3 and Quasimodo. I’ve been begging him and he said, “I’ll never do it again.” I was getting worried about you, but you’re back.
Yeah. I’m back.

Avengers 1 is really a masterpiece in this genre. I’m in it, so. 
By the way, this is Mark everyday for the first month of any shoot: “It’s not too late to recast. I know you have Joaquin Phoenix on speed dial. It’s okay. I won’t judge.”

I did and he would’ve been fucking great in the movie. 
It’s only you, brother. Sorry.

I wasn’t meant to be in that movie and I tried to convince him that I wasn’t meant to be in that movie. We had a conversation. We sat down, and I didn’t know how to make these movies. I had never been in these kinds of movies and I didn’t really trust the process. I didn’t trust the fact that there wasn’t a script before you accepted a movie. 
Which is wise.

I learned that the hard way. We sat down and your take on Hulk was so personal for you.
First of all, that was one of the greatest … that first conversation where we sat down to lunch and then we walked around the Highline and stuff. I got back to my hotel and there was like 14 messages so I called them at Marvel and they’re like, “What the fuck, man? Why didn’t you call us?” “I said I’d call you right after lunch. We just had lunch.” “It’s been four hours.” I had no idea. I thought we had been together for like 90 minutes. I was like, “Well, I guess it went well, then.”

You said what you wanted to do with Hulk was something that had never been done.
Yeah. You came at it the same way. We were both like, What if he wasn’t completely self-involved? What if he’s not thinking about curing himself? What if he’s like, I have this problem. It sucks but I’m going to help people?”

How am I going to make peace with it?
Then we talked a lot about rage. At one point, we got out wrestling mats and the two of us went at each other, which was adorable. I kicked your ass.

I kicked his ass.
It was so much fun just to talk about. What makes you Hulk-out? Both of us were like my daughter. I don’t know how she does it. She’s a genius. Those conversations and that understanding of who he was that we shared was one of my favorite things about the movie. What’s interesting to me, which is a sad story about me that I can tell seven different times, is that line, “I’m always angry,” which is one of my favorite things. When I wrote it I was like, Boom! Drop the, well, it’s a pen but still. I believed that a guy could feel that way. Probably four months after the movie came out something happened and I was like, Oh, it’s me! Oh, that was me. Oh, I’m always angry. I had no idea. Had zero idea. Even though we came at it like, How does this relate to us? With the character, I had no idea that I was writing about myself. That happens about 25 percent of the time. I’m very clearly begging for help and I have no idea until sometimes years later. It was about four years after the end of the run of Buffy that I really just went, Oh, I was Buffy! Oh, I understand and relate to this character in some way, but I’m like I’m Xander. I’m Xander before he started getting laid. I’m the wacky sidekick, and then I had this shocking moment of idiotic revelation that I had been writing about myself the whole time. I guess I’m trying to say that I’m sort of remedial. It’s the best thing about the work. It’s definitely what works about it and is connecting to people. If you’re not writing about yourself, why are you writing? For me, spinning the art is fine, and there are some people who are great at it, and they’re great at things that I’m not great at, like intricate plots and things that I admire and envy. If you’re sitting down to write something or make something that takes three years out of your life, why would you not want to tell people something that’s important to you to say? I don’t mean a moral. I just mean an examination of the human condition. You want to be able to talk about the politics of personality. That’s something that took me a while to find. I started to find it on Alien: Resurrection, which was the last thing I wrote before Buffy, before the show. That was the first time I went, Oh, this is a metaphor, and the only way this works is if I feel what she feels. The beginning of becoming a storyteller instead of a yarn spinner. If I can’t make that connection, then I’m wasting people’s time. As much as I may look back at everything that I’ve made and go, “Flawed, flaw, flaw, flaw, flaw, embarrassing, embarrassing,” I never feel like I did that. I never feel like, Well, I wasted somebody’s time. “What about episode four?” Shut up! We were vamping. We were tired.

Was that a crisis moment that you came to that? Do you have breakthroughs that come out of the difficult parts? 
I’d been on Roseanne. I did Parenthood, Toy Story and Speed and Twister and a bunch of specs. It came late. Maybe that’s something they teach in writing class. I didn’t take one. I was raised by an angry pack of comedy writers. Actually, they were pretty jolly. They were drunk.

Is writing hard for you? 
Structure is hard. Structure is always hard and the most important thing. Structure is work. It’s math, it’s graphs. I will do color charts that look like I’m doing a PowerPoint presentation. “This is where it’s scary. This is where it’s funny. This is where we know this.” Everything’s got to find its flow and intersect. That can be appallingly hard, the act of writing. The macro and the micro, which is having an idea, and then actually writing scenes once you figure out what they need to be is perfect bliss. It is the greatest thing anybody ever got paid to do. I’ll never capture that feeling in any other way and I don’t need to. What’s great is, as soon as I started writing again, it was there. It wasn’t like, I don’t know.

I’m blocked.
Nope, it was like, Oh my God. It’s been so long, my old friend. It’s the best.

Are you moved as you’re writing?
Generally, I know where I’m going. The thing that I’m writing now — which I will not say a damn thing except that it’s super-good — it is definitely a departure. Not from the themes I care about, but from the kind of storytelling I’ve done. I’m excited about it. It’s been one of the few times when I didn’t necessarily know where I was going with it because I wrote some exploratory stuff and found myself going to places I did not know I could get to. That’s happened to me before. The first time when I wrote [about] Angel turn[ing] evil, ’cause he and Buffy made the beast, I wrote the scene where he basically acts like he doesn’t care about her and just acts like a dick. That was an actual … I didn’t drop my pen but I looked at it and went, Oh my God. I had no idea I was such a dick. I accessed this terrible person and I was just so happy. This darkness in me was just appalling. This has been happening with this script over and over. Probably too much. I also wrote one scene in it where, towards the end, I wrote all the way through to the end of the movie and was crying so hard in public that the restaurant closed. The valet guy came to me and just turned around and went away without even talking to me. I’m a shy sort of fellow. I don’t like to make a spectacle out of myself. I had to take off my shirt and blow my nose into it because they had taken away all the napkins and everything. I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t stop writing. I got in the car — luckily somebody else was driving — and kept crying for 20 more minutes. I was like, I just wrote the end of the movie and I’m pretty sure it works. That was a different experience because I’ll set out to write a sad scene and I’ll cry and sometimes I’ll write for 90 minutes and then I’ll have to stop because I’m all dried out. I can’t cry anymore. I’ll go do something else and then come back to it. I’ll laugh if I think it’s funny. I’ll get pissed off. Many people have reported hearing thumps from upstairs while I’m writing stunts and falling down. I’ll throw myself around the room like, Will this work? I’m in it. I’m absolutely in it. I’m playing all the parts. Every angle. It’s the best.

I always felt like Ultron was you.
Oh, yeah. A bit. James [Spader] is another person like you that I got to sit down with. I made him nervous, too, but we got to sit and talk about the character. I adore him.

What kind of actors do you like to work with, other than me? Do you like actors, generally speaking?
As many of my best friends are actors as writers. I love actors. In the old school, it’s an adversarial relationship. I’ve worked with my share of divas, but I also have enormous respect for divas. They’re usually people who do something extraordinary and know it and show up and do it. You have to deal with a lot of other stuff, but they’ll usually come in and say, You’re gonna have to deal with a lot of other stuff. I’m a diva, so here we go, and then you get this beautiful work. Thanks for the heads up. Really toxic people, I avoid. I cast for sanity. That’s a very important thing to me. Toxic people are different than divas. Divas are complicated, but they know there’s a simplicity to what they’re going to give you that you need and want. Truly toxic people are just about trying to tear something down. Whether it’s someone else in the thing, whether it’s a story, they’re about power. Those people have no business in my life and, as far as I’m concerned, in the industry. It used to be that was supposed to be part of the thing. If you were brilliant, you were supposed to be difficult. I think we’ve come to a different place. We’ve come to a different way in which actors and writers deal with each other because so much is being done in TV and movies that is more collaborative. Actors are being given the opportunity to direct, they’re writing, there’s improv people. A lot of my friends are both performers and writers. My best friend, Riki, is an amazing writer and an amazing actress. In fact, I have a frustrating number of friends who are like, You know, I’d like to write something sometime. I’m like, Fuck you! It’s a calling. It comes from the heavens … Oh no, that’s really good. It’s great, I’m like, Come on. What am I for?

Do you like the collaboration? Do you enjoy it?
I love it. I was afraid at first. I didn’t study directing. You know that feeling you have, Oh, they’re going to find out I’m a fraud? I was. I was an actual fraud. I was bullshitting. I thought there was some secret language they knew that I didn’t and they were all going to find out. The only weapon I had in my arsenal was the truth. That’s all anybody wanted to hear was the truth, a nice version of the truth. It became very easy, very quickly, and then, very exciting. There’s pushback.

What do you mean?
There’s pushback in the sense that you’ll be like, I don’t feel like I’m here. You haven’t gotten me here in this line or whatever. You’re not a difficult guy at all. Everybody in that cast was incredibly nice and professional and very trusting. Even on the first one when almost nobody had any idea of what I was trying to do. [Chris] Evans later was like, Now we get it. Then we were like, What the fuck is he up to? I’m very grateful for that. I not only love that, I think that’s what movies are. They’re not what I wrote or my intention. They’re not your feelings about your character. They’re what happens when a studio has a certain agenda and you have a certain vision. It’s that connection between people, which is not just collaboration, but ultimately what the piece becomes. Yeah, I get to be in the center of it, but I’m only in the center of something much larger. That’s where it gets to be art. When you give yourself up to it.

Top three things you’ve done?
“The Body” episode of Buffy, the script for issue five of the Buffy comic book, and [the Firefly episode] “Out of Gas.”

Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo in Conversation