The Lost, Forgotten & Undersung Projects Of Joss Whedon

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by Drew Taylor
April 11, 2012 11:04 AM
8 Comments
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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.

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8 Comments

  • Bobbie | February 2, 2013 9:32 AMReply

    The concept for "Afterlife" sounds oddly similar to Glenn Gordon Caron's 1999 TV series, "Now and Again": a man dies, his brain is appropriated by a top secret government agency and transplanted into a genetically-engineered body, and he keeps trying to escape and reconnect with his wife and daughter. If the article has the dates correct, Whedon's was first. The stalled production in 2000 probably had less to do with Tennant's track record and more to do with the fact that the TV series had just been cancelled after a single season and comparisons would have been inevitable.

  • jb | April 13, 2012 1:36 PMReply

    i think you mean NAACP image award

  • Anna Granfors | April 11, 2012 9:25 PMReply

    No mention of "Ripper", the Buffy offshoot that Anthony Head was going to star in? Joss even announced it as greenlit by the BBC at San Diego ComicCon during a panel discussion, but I never saw a story as to why it simply disappeared. I'd had great hopes for that, since when Giles got his Ripper on in the occasional Buffy episode, he became a completely different character–it would have been fascinating and wonderful, I'm sure. And also, I felt that the BBC would have let Joss loose from the idiocy that he faced from US studios, FOX in specific.

  • Jason | April 11, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    -“Twister” didn’t have too much of his work in it

    I'd call that an unfair interpretation of what Whedon was saying during that interview. It's also interesting to note that he was joking about the lack of interest in his spec scripts with his agent and offhandedly said something along the lines of "I should just write Die Hard on a bridge" to which his agent replied PERFECT, WRITE THAT! It's hilarious he named it Suspension.

  • Rednax42 | April 11, 2012 1:53 PMReply

    No mention of his potential TV show set in the modern day of Niven and Pournelle's "Magic Goes Away" universe. They had initial discussions but Joss dropped the idea. Timing suggests he made "Firefly" instead.

  • Max | April 11, 2012 1:08 PMReply

    Whedon and his never-ending complains regarding Alien Resurrection and very annoying. Funny fact is that during promotion of the that movie he was more than passionate taking about it and explaining how great his script his. Suddenly when reviewers were mainly criticizing screenplay and story (while praising Jeunet and Weaver work) he stated that all was wrong but not his script. Interesting point of view.

  • Jason | April 11, 2012 2:47 PM

    You know it's highly common for people who aren't the director/editor to never see a cut of the film before the movie is releases. It's also common to be contractually obligated to promote a film before it's release.

  • The One True b!X | April 11, 2012 12:58 PMReply

    As an unrepentant Goners champion, I'm compelled to let anyone who wants to know more (such more that there is) that if they Google for "What Is Mia Made Of" they'll find the blog I've maintained about the project for several years now.

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