The Everything Joss Whedon Said in Public At TCA Interview
MARVEL’S AGENTS OF SHIELD
By Abbie Bernstein
Joss Whedon is surrounded. This is not, to be sure, an unusual situation for Whedon – when he’s working, he’s got cast and crew gathered round, when he’s at public events, it’s fans, and when he’s at a press event, like ABC’s presentation for MARVEL’S AGENTS OF SHIELD, it’s a bunch of journalists. Whedon co-created the TV series, which premieres Tuesday, September 24 at 8 PM, with Jed Whedon (yes, he’s one of Whedon’s brothers) and Maurissa Tancharoen.
MARVEL’S AGENTS OF SHIELD, based on Marvel Comics, follows the organization tasked with handling the fallout of the existence of superheroes in our world. Whedon, Whedon and Tancharoen have just finished doing a big Q&A panel for the show with their fellow executive producers Jeffrey Bell (who was also a writer/director/executive producer on ANGEL and Jeph Loeb and SHIELD stars Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge. Following the panel, every one of the panelists is hemmed in by separate bands of reporters. Joss Whedon has anticipated this and remains in his chair so he can remain relatively comfortable during the experience.
Since most Whedon fans want to know everything the writer/producer/director/composer has to say, this interview includes both exchanges from the main Q&A and from the follow-up – in other words, pretty much everything he said in public at the event.
On all of Whedon’s previous TV series that he’s executive-produced – BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL, FIREFLY and DOLLHOUSE – he created (or, in the case of ANGEL, co-created with David Greenwalt) the original material and served as primary show runner. The show runners on SHIELD are Jed Whedon and Tancharoen. Is it weird or refreshing for Whedon to be in charge of a TV show where he’s not the primary show runner?
“It is weirdly refreshing,” Whedon replies. “It was very important to me to get these guys [Jed Whedon and Tancharoen], because when we did DR. HORRIBLE, and even when we worked on DOLLHOUSE, we had a very much completing-each-other’s-sentences thing. And not just Jed, but Maurissa as well. I’m reading every script and every story and giving notes and rewrites and I’m doing all the stuff. I just can’t be in the room every day, and knowing that I have the group that is going to push it forward and shares this sort of hard to convey idea of exactly how I want the show to feel, it’s a great relief. It’s why you do television. You build these families – you find people like Jed, Drew Goddard, Marti Noxon, Tim Minear, who are going to take your vision and not just further it but enhance it in ways you couldn’t see coming.”
What’s it like for Whedon to work so closely with younger brother Jed? “We are just trying to crack each other up,” Joss Whedon says. “That’s it.”
Whedon’s FIREFLY, a series close to his heart, dealt with people who consider themselves somewhat invisible and operate well below the public radar. Is any of that sensibility a part of MARVEL’S AGENTS OF SHIELD?
“I’m always interested in people who are in very sort of pressure cooker situations,” Whedon replies, “that are not necessarily world-famous for it. I like the people who are sort of on the fringe of things. And what’s great about SHIELD is, we have this organization. We have the history from the comic books. But these guys are out there by themselves. And a lot of the time, that’s going to be both an advantage and real trouble for them, so we can bond with them in a way that they don’t have every resource, and they don’t have the answers just sort of deus ex machine at the end of every episode – ‘Here comes S.H.I.E.L.D. to solve it.’ It’s up to these guys, and that’s what really makes a group bond, and that’s the sort of thing I like to write.”
It’s important that the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. be ordinary mortals, as opposed to superheroes, Whedon notes. “The thing that appealed to me from the very beginning about the show is the idea of the people who don’t have the superpowers, the idea of the people who didn’t get [Thor’s] hammer, who didn’t get the super-soldier serum, the idea that everybody matters, that the people that get sunted to the side in a giant epic that’s only on the screen for two hours can take the spotlight – the underdog, the common man. Clark [Gregg as Coulson] was, as he said, sort of an audience proxy in the movies, and the TV show is very much – I think you can see that from the pilot – about that sense of, ‘Well, what about the rest of us? How do we cope with this?’ And so yeah, it was important that our core team, while they are extraordinary, it’s television. So they are all incredibly good at what they do and ridiculously attractive. They still don’t fall under the category of ‘super’.”
What sorts of adventures can we expect the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to have? “Every week, it’s not going to be some new hero,” Whedon explains. “There could be a device. There could be a mystery. There could be – there are so many aspects to what’s happened since everybody in the world found out that there is a superhero team and there were aliens that invaded New York [in AVENGERS], and we want to be able to change it up every week. We want to be able to deal with every aspect – the spy stuff, the hero stuff, the heartfelt stuff. We want to make sure that the humor [is there], obviously, but that every week you get something that feels a little bit different, so it’s not just, you know, turkey every day.”
Something a lot of people are keen to know about is how Gregg’s character, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, can be still alive as one of the series’ leads, as he seemed pretty dead by Loki’s hand in 2012’s blockbuster feature THE AVENGERS, which was written and directed by Whedon. At that point, was Coulson supposed to be absolutely dead, or did Whedon have something percolating for the character down the line?
“I absolutely killed him,” Whedon laughs. “There was no percolating. [Marvel Studios co-president] Kevin Feige told me before I took the gig, ‘You gotta kill Coulson.’ And I understood why, and I said, ‘Okay, but you’re taking the rap.’”
Of course, Whedon has resurrected other characters before, including his iconic heroine Buffy, but he says the two aren’t really comparable. “You know, [Coulson’s return] a very different journey than hers. Part of that is informed by the actor, part of it is informed by the situations, but the important thing is that we’re going to go on that journey with you.”
In the Marvel comics canon, there are robot duplicates of humans known as Life Model Decoys, or LMDs. Although SHIELD’s premiere episode makes it clear that Coulson believes he has simply recovered from a serious injury, this seems like one possible explanation for Coulson’s continued presence. “Yes, it does,” Whedon responds. “I don’t say anything, because I’m not going to confirm or deny anybody’s ideas. I’ve heard a dozen ideas – more than a dozen. Somebody at some point is going to be right, but I’m never going to say when that happens.”
One way or the other, there will eventually be a revelation about exactly what happened to Coulson. “We say [it’s a mundane explanation], and then we instantly refute it,” Whedon points out. “It will be something of a drawn-out explanation. But it will be drawn out over several episodes. We didn’t want to sit somebody down for seven minutes like Simon Oakland at the end of PSYCHO and just explain everything.”
There’s a scene in AVENGERS where it is pointed out that Coulson’s boss at S.H.I.E.L.D., Samuel L. Jackson’s character Nick Fury, has swapped out Coulson’s deck of Captain America collectible cards (Coulson as a character is a fan of Cap) in order to get the Avengers more worked up about the agent’s death. If Coulson was really dead, why the emphasis on Fury’s duplicity?
“That was a character thing about Nick Fury,” Whedon explains, “about leadership and about the gray area that sort of is S.H.I.E.L.D. versus the Avengers.” If Fury hadn’t used Coulson’s death to bring the squabbling Avengers together, might they have not fought the alien menace? “I can’t say. He died, they did.”
In THE AVENGERS and related Marvel films (IRON MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA) Jackson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. director Fury is a component; additionally, Cobie Smulders played S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill in AVENGERS. Will these famous S.H.I.E.L.D. members appear on the TV series?
“We’ve seen Cobie on the show,” Whedon relates. “We would love to see her again. We would love to see Sam, too, but he’s a movie star and a workaholic, so whether or not he makes time for us, I can’t say yet. I hope so.”
Would Whedon want to facilitate getting actual Avengers – that is, the superheroes and the actors who play them – to make guest appearances on SHIELD? “Insomuch as I think it’s a great idea for the show and a perfectly good idea for them [the actors]. I’m not going to go begging, and I’m not going to use up favors I need for AVENGERS 2. The DNA of the show is the show. Those guys would be a delightful bonus, but we’re not building our arcs around them and we’ll just see what happens.”
Whedon adds he’s not especially worried about, say, Thor or David Banner overwhelming SHIELD if they did appear. “The good thing about the universe is that they’re superstars in that universe, so if they showed up, if they’d overbalanced it slightly, it would actually make sense. That’s how people would react to them in the universe of the show. So I don’t think that’s a problem. But I do think it’s a problem if you have them too regularly and then people are just wondering, ‘When do I get to see a movie star again?’ instead of concentrating on these guys.”
J. August Richards, a Whedon colleague from their ANGEL days, plays a key role in the opening episode of SHIELD. Will the actor and his character return at some point? “I can neither confirm nor deny whether he’s coming back,” Whedon says, “but I thought he was great. So do that math.”
Extremis, a story element from IRON MAN 3, turns up in SHIELD. How is Whedon able to synch up plot points from the Marvel movies with the TV show? “You know, a lot of it comes from talking to the Marvel people. We say, ‘Can we do this? Will this help? Will this tie it together?’ We don’t want to hurt the movies at all. With Extremis, we said, ‘This will give us a ticking clock, this will be useful for us,’ and they were excited. They said, ‘Oh, that’s great. It will build on the mythology that we just created and people will get something out of that.’ On other occasions, they’d be like, ‘Yeah, don’t touch that. That we need for the movie.’ And I’d like to protect the movies, too – particularly the last one in Phase Two [AVENGERS 2]. I hear it’s going to be wonderful,” he adds in a joking tone of his sequel to the third highest-grossing film in history.
Will story elements in SHIELD be used to promote upcoming Marvel feature films? “There will be as much as we can allow. We’re still working that out. It’s a fluid process. The important thing is that it’s a fun opportunity, but it’s not the reason behind the show. We don’t want just to be an Easter egg farm. We want people to come back because of these people,” Whedon indicates the cast members, “and not because of some connection to the movie universe. This show has to work for people who aren’t going to see those movies and haven’t seen them before.”
As far as the scale of SHIELD, how easy is it going to be to bring the sensibility from the films to the small screen? “End of the day,” Whedon replies, “it’s people. Somebody said, ‘How are you going to do this again, [AVENGERS] was so big?’ The question is never how big can it be, the question is how small can it be, and people are still going to be showing up and really caring. Some of my favorite issues of comics when I was a kid were issues where people just sat around talking and the fight wasn’t coming until the next issue. It was getting into character like that. So I’m not really worried about the scale.”
What has Whedon’s collaboration with Marvel and ABC – both companies are under the Disney umbrella – been like for SHIELD? Has he had more creative freedom this time around than he did on, say, his last network series, DOLLHOUSE on Fox?
“We’ve gotten trust,” Whedon says, “which is different than freedom. My collaboration with Marvel on the movie [AVENGERS] was pretty extraordinary and, for me, unprecedented. It wasn’t a question of them getting out of the way – we really worked that story together. ABC and Marvel have been very active in making sure the show is what they want for their company and their network and their audiences and, at the same time, very supportive of the vision that we first laid out to them. The most important thing is that we all sort of are trying to make the same show. It’s not really about, ‘Oh, we’re past them, and we don’t want to have to deal with them.’ It’s, we’re all on the same page, which has occasionally not happened to me.”
In terms of ABC’s input, Whedon adds, “Honestly, their biggest note after we presented the thing was they wanted to make sure that our investment in the characters and their interaction was as big as the case of the week. They wanted to make sure that people were coming for the recurring story, as well as for the story that would conclude in a single episode, which to me is how I’ve done all of my shows. So they basically said, ‘Would you please do it that way that you do it and not learn a new skill.’ And that made me very happy.”
How much does a Marvel show lend itself to experimentation with form, like, for instance, Whedon’s musical episode of BUFFY? “I’m ruling out a musical episode,” Whedon declares. “I’m ruling it out.” More seriously, he says, “We are not out to pull stunts. We are not out to go, ‘This will be black and white, this will be us having a laugh.’ It’s always going to come from the show. BUFFY lent itself to a musical because it was so hyperbolically emotional and so over-the-top in its mythos. None of my other shows really have. But there is an element of absurdity in the Marvel universe that’s come from back when I was reading the comics in the Seventies that is satirical and bizarre. And the fact that we’ll be able to tap into that will keep the show from feeling too self-important or dry. We definitely want to push our boundaries and give people new stuff, but we’re not just looking for a cool angle. It’s always going to be built from the characters and their stories.”
Whedon directed the SHIELD pilot, but says he probably won’t be able to direct more episodes for a good while. “I don’t think it will happen again for the next couple of years, because I’m getting behind another camera [for AVENGERS 2] in another country, but we have some directors that we’ve worked with before, that we trust very much. The producers are always on set. We’re very, very careful about making sure that what we have in the script is what shows up on screen.”
So how hands-on will Whedon be as an executive producer with SHIELD as it goes forward, given that his professional body and soul largely belong to AVENGERS 2 for the immediate future? “As much as an executive producer can be who is also making a movie. I got the best writers I know to do this and actors who can do pretty much anything so that I could do less. That’s always the way to run a show.”
What does all this Marvel development mean for Whedon’s DR. HORRIBLE 2? “It pushes it,” Whedon says. “SHIELD took its spot, and that’s just a sad reality.”
Earlier this year, Whedon had an independent hit with his low-budget black-and-white film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. The film was shot in and on the grounds of Whedon’s house; the dwelling is designed by Whedon’s architect wife Kai Cole, who also executive-produced MUCH ADO. The film won festival awards and set art house box office records. Was Whedon’s reaction to the film’s success more, “Well, it’s nice that everybody’s as excited about this as we are,” or more, “What on Earth is going on?”
“A little bit of both,” Whedon says. “We definitely made the movie thinking, ‘We’re just going to show this to each other at parties,’ but it was a movie that came completely from passion, and the fact that other people responded to that passion – I’m surprised every time it happens. And absolutely delighted. In this case, a little more surprised, because black-and-white Shakespeare home movies don’t usually get this kind of response, but, you know, I’m just grateful.”
Given how many people have seen it onscreen now, has anyone made offers on the Whedon/Cole house? “None that we would take seriously.”
Going forward, once Whedon has finished work on AVENGERS 2 – “No,” he quips, “I think there’s definitely room for me to do another television show while I’m doing this and a movie” – does he see himself going more towards features or television?
“The goal is never about the medium,” Whedon replies. “It’s always about the next story. It’s always about the thing that I haven’t done before. It’s about learning, or it’s about becoming better and whatever story grabs ahold of me. And sometimes I don’t even know which medium is best for that story, but usually I go, ‘Well, that’s a TV show. Well, that’s a movie,’ and I like not knowing what’s next. It’s all just making people care about people. So I have no idea what the next one will be. I don’t have a particular ambition in any medium. I just want to keep telling stories. If somebody pays me, also good. It’s also part of the ambition, but honestly, we’ll see.”
This said, with AVENGERS, Whedon has made the most successful comic book-based film ever. What does that feel like? “It doesn’t suck. I’m not going to lie – it’s pretty gratifying.”
When Whedon was growing up, did he ever imagine he’d be doing this? He replies with mock-earnestness, “Yeah, of course I did. It was that or get a job.”
What does success change for Whedon? On some levels, not that much, he responds, pointing out that each new project still has to be sold to the public. “You know, here I am, stumping. At the end of the day, I just spent a lot of time selling MUCH ADO, I want people to see everything, and you can’t guarantee that they will, just because the show has hype. For me, my biggest concern is, I’m looking at the next script and the script after that and the script after that, making sure that we keep our game up, because if people are watching, I want to make sure that they get everything they can.”
Interview by Abbie Bernstein