SXSW '12: Joss Whedon Talks Challenges of The 'Avengers,' Potentially Resurrecting Old Horror Epic 'Goners,' And How 'Cabin In The Woods' Came To Be

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by Drew Taylor
March 10, 2012 4:03 PM
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John Anderson via The Austin Chronicle
Today at South by Southwest, there was a panel with "Cabin in the Woods" director Joss Whedon (the screening the night before brought the house down – Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford were still talking about it today!), wherein the fan favorite writer/director talked about his intentions for the film, why he fled the Hollywood system (or at the very least distanced himself to the point that he's working parallel to it), the state of his big-budget horror movie "Goners," the pluses and minuses of working with an inflated budget, and his personal little art film, "The Avengers."

On "Cabin in the Woods," Whedon noted that he had written the story in a fit with co-writer/director Drew Goddard, "before 'Dr. Horrible;' we wrote and sold it just before the writer's strike." The two locked themselves in a hotel room where Whedon says he cranked out 26 pages in a single day ("a personal best"). The film, a funny, whip-smart takedown/celebration of all things horror (read our review here) where some college kids go to the titular spooky old house and all manner of horrible things unfold, hinges on some pretty large secrets, secrets that are tempting to talk about (or market to death). Whedon said that he has always found this arena unsteady, but enjoys it immensely.

"I like stories where I go into them not knowing what to expect," Whedon explained. "One of my favorite movie experiences was Danny Boyle's 'Sunshine,' because I had no idea where it was going," he said, before adding the zinger: "Until I figured out it was 'Event Horizon.'" Whedon said that he has been very happy with the way that Lionsgate has sold the movie, explaining that, "They have been really wonderful about pushing the movie, by giving people just enough." 

Watching "Cabin in the Woods," you understand that its creators, Whedon and Goddard, are horror junkies with an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre – both its strengths and shortcomings. On his inspirations for the movie, Whedon said, in that typical Whedon way, "The DP for 'Evil Dead II' shot our movie… that wasn't a coincidence." He went on to list some of the people and films that were particularly influential: "We talked a lot about [John] Carpenter, about the way he moved the camera. We didn't want to do fancy camera moves." Other movies that served as their "base" – "the early 'Nightmare on Elm Street's, before it started eating itself, particularly 'Nightmare on Elms Street 3,' a real classic. The 'Halloween's, 'The Thing,' and of course the Romero trilogy."  

As we noted in our extensive interview with Goddard, "Cabin in the Woods" was developed independently, outside of the studio system. The script was written, the movie budgeted, the creatures designed, and then they took that package to the studio and asked who was interested. This stemmed from a personal and professional desire to distance himself from the process of mainstream filmmaking, which later in the panel he described as, "Taking a big idea and wearing it down."

"My wife was saying last night that 'Dr. Horrible' was the first time we really cut loose but 'Cabin' was really the first," Whedon explained, citing his beloved internet musical series. "It was after 'Wonder Woman,' which was a long road to nowhere." For those who don't remember, Whedon was hired a few years back by Joel Silver and Warner Bros. to write and direct a big screen version of the Amazonian superhero, an ideal gig for the outspoken feminist and creator of the "Wonder Woman"-inspired television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." He continued: "She said you should just do what you want to do and take the studio out of the equation. And one came after the other because they're ragingly ridiculous."

Of course, after "Cabin in the Woods" (which was filmed a couple of years ago but held in limbo due to the bankruptcy of MGM and a subsequent hunt for a distributor), Whedon was snapped back into the Hollywood system by accepting the gig of writing and directing the big-screen version of Marvel Comics' all-star comic book "The Avengers" (which features the combined super-heroics of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, The Hulk and Black Widow). Whedon explained that the wooing process was a drawn out one (comic book fans will recall that Whedon did a memorable run on the company's "Astonishing X-Men" comic book series and a less memorable run on the same company's "Runaways"), but he never fully explained what made him return to a world that had turned its back on him (and he in turn turned its back on it). We imagine Marvel offered an unheard of amount of creative freedom (Whedon is a credited writer/director/producer, the first in the cinematic history of the studio) and lots and lots of money.

"It unfolded slowly," Whedon recalled. "But that might be because I'm slow. I had known Kevin [Feige, head of Marvel Studios] for a number of years because I had always wanted to make a movie of a comic book. But it felt to me sort of like a favor, which happens – people send me a script and I make comments on it. And it was like, 'Well, this doesn't work but if I was going to do an Avengers movie, this is what I would do.' [The original draft was written by Marvel movie stalwart Zak Penn.] Gradually we started meeting again and again and I was like, 'Is this a job interview?' And the more I thought about it the more I wanted to do it. So it had been a courtship process the entire time but I was a little thick."

Whedon is notorious for working with limited (or nonexistent) budgets – he had constantly battled the financial restraints on his various television series and made "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" almost for free during the WGA writer's strike. So it must have been a dream to be blessed with the unlimited resources of Marvel/Disney? Right? Right? "It was good and bad," Whedon said. "It's lovely to have everything and be able to have wild fantasies where you can have a Hulk. But it's also frustrating and daunting. Limitations are something I latch onto. It's like genre. A genre writer doesn't ever have a blank page. So that's useful to me. When you can have everything, everybody wants to give you everything and then it's very hard to make things feel real, to make things feel lived in."

The filmmaker then gave an example of the kind of challenges he faced while making  "The Avengers" (or rather, the challenging lack of obstacles). "We had these amazing sets but I found that once we got off the sets when everything wasn't built for our convenience, my camerawork got a lot more interesting," Whedon explained. "So when you have those work-arounds, you have the dialogue with the environment. So sometimes trying to pull the big budget out of the process was essential to the creative process. As a producer wasting money kind of offends me. Sometimes you can tell when a movie has everything and I wanted to have this movie be a delicate balance, and anything that you can do to make it feel more real. To the point where there would be CGI spots and they would say, 'Well that looks like a bit of a mismatch.' And I said, 'Keep it! It'll be like it's from a different take!' If everything feels perfect there's going to be a disconnect."

Another interesting tidbit that came out was Whedon's feelings about the state of superhero movies and how he wanted to make that different. "I'm a fanboy," Whedon said proudly, to much applause and the sound of asthma inhalers snapping open. "I want to see these guys do everything they can do, both physically and emotionally. All of those things have been in my DNA since I was a tiny child. I look at the Avengers and say, 'This team doesn't make any sense at all.' But I work with that because it doesn't make sense to them either. So it's a story of isolated people who come together." Whedon then commented on other movies of its ilk: " 'Watchmen' or 'Dark Knight' are like 'We're past the idea of superheroes,' but I'm saying, 'Let's not move past it!' I'm not ready for superheroes to be post-modern." This is an interesting idea from Whedon, whose work is incredibly heartfelt but also peppered with many winks, nods, and parenthetical asides.

Whedon's take on the ultimate superhero team-up? Make it an entirely different type of movie. "I looked at it and the first thing I ever said to the people at Marvel was, 'I want to make a war movie,'" Whedon said. "I felt like I had Earth's Mightiest Heroes and... not much [of a] threat and I felt like a lot of these movies have a good set up but they're always fighting a slightly bigger version of themselves." (We detect more than a tiny barb in this comment, directed at his bosses at Marvel, who have seemingly every big movie end with Iron Man fighting another guy in a robot suit, or The Hulk battling another monstrosity.) "The feeling I get from a good war movie is the feeling I wanted to have."

Oh, and who will Earth's Mightiest Heroes be battling? There has been a raging internet debate about the alien invaders Loki calls upon to kick the superheroes' collective ass, with the leading contenders being the Skree and the Skrull. Not so, says Whedon. "It's Vulcans," he joked. "I don't know a lot about the Marvel universe and I thought it was Vulcans." He then clarified, sort of: "It's not the Kree or the Skrulls. I'm not spending a great deal of time on them." He suggested that the complex mythological backstory for both species was too overwhelming to be squeezed into a movie with a half-dozen superheroes.

Whedon filmed a quickie version of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" following completion of principle photography of "The Avengers," something that he says, "Wasn't necessarily the best idea for a vacation except that I had a better time doing that than I've had on any vacation." In fact, it was essential. After a grueling 92-day shoot on "The Avengers," he said it was nice to do something quickly, with friends, in his house, over a couple of weekends. To the point that, after completing an "endless" initial cut of "The Avengers," he returned to the project with renewed enthusiasm and a healthy detachment. "It filled up the tanks. I went back to 'The Avengers' with 'Now I can engage with this with just enough distance to make it the movie it's supposed to be.'"

After "Much Ado About Nothing" and a supernatural love story called "In Your Eyes" (which Whedon wrote and will be produced by his Bellwether production company), he says, "The next thing will be an internet series." We assume this to be the five-part "internet television series" "Wastelanders," which would be co-written by comic book legend Warren Ellis ("Planetary," "RED").

When someone asked in the crowd about "Goners," the 2005 spec script sold for "seven figures" to Universal, they asked if elements of the screenplay, which was said to have been a kind of widescreen horror epic, had been cannibalized for "Cabin in the Woods." Whedon had described the movie as "Like 'Buffy,' but scary," but said little else in the way of details. None of "Goners" is in "Cabin in the Woods," though. "'Goners' and 'Cabin in the Woods' are very different movies. 'Goners' was sold to Universal through Mary Parent. She was the de facto producer of [big screen adaptation of his short-lived 'Firefly' television series] 'Serenity.' And she set up her shingle at Universal, so I thought it would be protected. But the new people that came in turned around and said, 'No.'" Whedon remains cautiously optimistic about the project: "There has been some talk about, after 'The Avengers,' trying to resurrect it. I'm not sure what that process would be like." He still sounds wary of the studio system that had treated him so poorly ("I think I come up with super-commercial ideas"), and "Goners" was certainly part of his entrance into the creative wilderness. "'Goners' came after 'Wonder Woman.' And that was the kind of one-two punch that made me do 'Cabin' and 'Dr. Horrible.' I had been led to think that, well, sometimes you're not naive, you're a goldfish. But 'Goners' was, like 'Cabin,' about getting under the skin of horror in a big way, and I'd love to make it but I don't know if I can suffer through the process."

"Cabin in the Woods" opens on April (Friday the) 13th. It does not feature Vulcans either.

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4 Comments

  • starway2001 | March 12, 2012 2:02 PMReply

    "The script was written, the movie budgeted, the creatures designed..."

    Well, I guess I now know that the movie has creatures in it. Thanks.

  • irastev | March 10, 2012 5:54 PMReply

    Thank you, a great article and for info on Goners!

    One little thing: I believe it was 'Much Ado About Nothing', not 'Midsummer Night's Dream'.

  • John Whorfin | March 10, 2012 5:47 PMReply

    CORRECTION: Much Ado About Nothing - not A Midsummer Night's Dream

  • The One True b!X | March 10, 2012 5:37 PMReply

    Thanks for the lengthy Goners section. I've been looking all day for a sufficient capture of that exchange.

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