When you want to know about all things Avengers, you need to talk to the man, the legend himself—Director Joss Whedon. I had an opportunity to sit down with him and ask him about the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe installment Avengers: Age of Ultron, out in theatres this Friday, May 1.
Joss Whedon was overwhelmed with the graciously warm welcome he received as he walked in the room to the interview. “Thank you. Wow. That doesn’t happen when I walk in a room a lot,” Whedon said. As he took he seat in one of two chairs (the previous interview was two people) he joked, “Are there two of me? My imaginary friend over here.” You knew it was going to be an entertaining interview.
On working with his brother Jed Whedon (whom we had interviewed the previous day for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) Do you guys stay up late and have phone calls and have strategizing sessions, and be like, “Oh, this is what we’re going to do next?”
WHEDON: Well, I just made a movie, and he just had a baby, so not lately. We did, when we were first starting out, but at some point this movie consumed me, not unlike a whale.
You have that iconic shot of the Avengers jumping in slow motion which, I think all the fan boys and girls have like gone wild over. Can you talk about how that came to be?
WHEDON: We just caught it by accident. I hadn’t even said action yet. They were just clowning around and somebody had a phone, so that was great. That was the last shot we got finished, ‘cause it’s over a minute long. I wanted to create some frames that were just unabashedly comic book frames that would speak to our love of the thing, and that one took longer to create than anything else and to dial in, but it was important to me to have that right away, like first up in the movie. Not to say, “And now we’ve got to get everybody back together, and let’s go find them. Now we find Captain America, and he’s digging in a trench, and now we find…” Instead just go, “Boom. We’re back. This is what you love. Are you having fun? Good. Now we’re going to tear it apart.”
You have so many amazing characters with all these great stories. Was it really hard to make sure everyone got enough screen time? How do you balance that?
WHEDON: Yeah. It’s hard. What’s important is making everybody integral to this story, and not just have it sort of be a roll call where it’s like, and I’m also in the film, making sure that the twins’ story was part of Ultron’s story and obviously, from the Vision, and all these things, and making sure that their perspective on the Avengers had something to do with Ultron’s and so there was always a reason for everyone to be together.
The good thing they worked so well against each other, so when you’re giving somebody their moment, it’s usually with somebody else. It’s usually playing against somebody else, either arguing with or having fun with or teaming up with, and so it creates its own little web, so it’s difficult, but it’s not like Magnolia where you’re telling all these separate stories that are just vaguely intertwined. They’re doing some of that job for me. By the way, if it was Magnolia, it would be the best movie ever made, but I can’t reach for the stars, people. I’m just a man.
You’ve done so much to influence pop culture, but in doing so who do you look to or who inspires you to reach further and to reach higher to make this entire Marvel Universe and fulfill the vision the way you see it?
WHEDON: I have a weird relationship with pop culture. I’ve never really been a part of it until I suddenly was, and so, most of my influences, are a little left of center and/or very old. You know, the directors that I look at when I’m thinking about a movie, usually are people like Vincent Minnelli or Sam Fuller, or Frank Barseghian, but it’s the people—not not just artists—it’s just the people in my own life, that I see working four times as hard as I ever can.
And trying to do things they can’t. Those are the people that they never have. Those, those are the people that make me sit down and go, “Oh wait a minute, I can do better because ultimately, the only person who’s ever really going to inspire me to go further and do better is me.” I have to sort of like gear up and I should actually have two chairs because at some point, I always do go, “Okay, you need to work harder, you need to do more, you need to be better.” I’ll tell you who has inspired me of late is Lin-Manuel Miranda because seeing Hamilton at the Public Theatre was just such a breathtaking experience.
And the amount of work that he did for 6 years to put that together, I just thought, “Oh, gotta bring up my game. There it is. The bar is higher again. Dammit.”
In the movie, we saw the introduction of the Hulkbuster and one of the most epic Avenger versus Avenger battles, I think we’ve ever seen. Were there any difficulties filming that?
WHEDON: There is some slight enormous difficulties in the fact that neither of those people exist, so there’s a lot of with the camera, there’s a lot of “Guys, we’re here. Now he’s over there.” We had the thing mapped out very carefully, so it was, in a way, simpler because they weren’t like, “I need another, I need to go again,” but you shoot all of this stuff sort of with the faith that this will work physically and then the hard work comes up at ILM where they’re dialing in this action you’ve described in a way that looks human and believable, yet completely over the top. The work they did with those guys and with the Hulk, in particular, who’s not just the Hulk there, but he’s angry even for the Hulk. He’s unhinged and it’s a different performance than he’s given before, and the way they captured that, to me, was breathtaking, but it took a little time.
On filming in other countries
WHEDON: Fun. I got to go to a lot of countries I’ve never been to and see these beautiful cities and these places and eat really good food, and generally I don’t get to take vacations. Location scouting is definitely the next best thing.
On what made Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen perfect for their roles
WHEDON: I didn’t want anybody else. I just wanted them. Aaron is too pretty to live, but I’ve dealt with the Hemsworth problem, so I can forgive. He’s somebody that I just saw, even in Kickass where he’s playing kind of a weak character that he just commands the screen, and it was, I think Nowhere Boy, where I just said, “Oh, this is my guy because he’s an old school movie star. He’s that commanding and beautiful.”
But he also looks like he could be kind of an arrogant dick. He’s not. He’s the sweetest puppy I know, but he’s great at playing that sort of, “Oh, I got this.” And that’s Quicksilver to a tee. He’s always hotheaded, he’s always being a pain for everyone, but is essential and very cool. And I sat down with Lizzie ‘cause I’d just seen Martha Marcy May Marlene and you spend 2 minutes with Lizzie, and you not only don’t want anybody else for the role, you think maybe she should play all of them.
What the hardest scene to shoot? Do you have one that sticks out?
WHEDON: I would say probably after the first attack by Ultron. Everybody’s in the lab kind of trying to figure out what’s going on. We referred to that as the “WTF scene,” and it was just very difficult for me to put together. It’s hard to explain why. There’s something about the way the light in the room, I could not find the focus of where everybody should be and how they should move, and Robert had to do something really difficult which was start laughing in the middle of this scene, as sincerely like, become a little unhinged.
And getting there and sort of making that work, that was one that I struggled with. I struggled every bit as much with the after-party scene. We actually shut down during shooting early one day because I started shooting it, and I hated everything I was doing, and then I was like, “What should I do? What’s wrong?” And then I realized, “Wait a minute. Didn’t I just make an entire movie where people sit around and drink? Wasn’t that Much Ado About Nothing? Ohhh, and then I called. I was like give me some– I need cards, I need beers.”
Anyway, I get all these things and we’ll do it all handheld and we’ll just let them go and as soon as I remembered how to shoot a party, it became a party.
Is the the party scene scripted or ad libbed?
WHEDON: There’s a little, they’re throwing stuff out. With Robert in a situation like that, I’ll usually give him five or six options just to see what tickles his fancy and he’ll sort of run through them. Most of it is scripted, but I like to leave a little room for those guys. First of all, they’re all funny, articulate people who really know their characters, and second of all, it helps the flow particularly in something like that. You don’t want to feel camera moves or dialogue. You just want to feel like you stayed at the party.
We hear Ultron say, “Upon this rock, I shall build my church,” and we also hear the Vision say “I am.” Was there any type of significance to having these forms of artificial intelligence kind of speak those Biblical terms?
WHEDON: Yes. It’s not necessarily specific in the sense of we are saying this about this person, Ultron, to say he has a bit of a God complex is not—and that was all James, by the way. We are talking about new life, and we are talking about the Vision in particular is something more than man, and that iconography is deliberate, but it’s open to interpretation. I’m not saying that they are one thing or another. I’m saying that our response to them contains some element of that understanding of ourselves and our history.
It’s a Frankenstein story as much as its anything else and the Frankenstein story is, “Who made me? Why am I here? And I guess I’m kind of pissed about it.” So that iconography rolls into that very naturally, I think.
Did you plan something at the beginning of production that you didn’t get to do in the movie?
WHEDON: So much movie. There’s always stuff you sort of either give up on or just realize is ridiculous. I can’t really think of something we didn’t do. There’s stuff we cut out; the first cut of the movie was an hour longer than the one that’s in theaters. I think it’s the length it ought to be.
I’m very happy. In fact, a minute shorter than the first one which is a point of personal pride because as much as I wanted this to be bigger, I didn’t want it to be bloat. I didn’t want us to seem like we were full of ourselves, like, “Oh, you love us. Here’s 3 hours. You’d like to pee? Tough”
Avengers: Age of Ultron—New Trailer
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON opens in theatres everywhere on May 1st!
I've been invited to LA courtesy of Disney for a media event. All opinions are my own.