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A Buffy-style kicking for torture porn 16

by Joe Utichi for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine

Joss Whedon explains why his sly new horror film has laughs and a moral purpose, not gratuitous violence

Could Joss Whedon be Hollywood’s unluckiest man? The 47-year-old creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ran for seven seasons from 1997 to 2003, reinvented television and created a cultural phenomenon with his tale of a high school student forced to battle demons both literal and metaphorical. But as subsequent work continues to draw critical praise and committed fans, Whedon’s ability to keep it on the air has been frequently tested.

First came the heartbreaking cancellation of Firefly in 2002. Whedon’s sci-fi western adventure had barely a chance to reach an audience when Fox, the network airing the show in the US, pulled the plug after just 11 episodes had aired. The network blamed poor ratings, though they didn’t help matters by broadcasting the episodes out of order, and in awkward timeslots. It’s a testament to its quality that, even without grand audience numbers, its core fans rallied immediately to news of its cancellation, in a futile attempt to find the show a new network.

“I will never get over Firefly,” Whedon now admits. “That arm does not grow back.” It’s with a sigh of regret that he reflects on the string of disappointments he’s endured over the last decade. Buffy‘s lead actress, Sarah Michelle Gellar, chose not to renew her contract for an eighth season, meaning Whedon’s plans for the Slayer could continue only in comic-book form. And while Universal offered Whedon a chance to bring the Firefly universe to the big screen with 2005′s Serenity – his feature directorial debut – an underwhelming box office scotched plans for a pair of sequels.

At the same time, Warner Bros. told Whedon it had been unhappy with his work on an adaptation of Wonder Woman he’d been set to direct, and a change of management at Universal meant that Goners, a horror project he’d been nursing, was shutdown on the verge of production. “It was a whole laundry list of gut punches. There were years where I wondered if I should even go to Comic-Con. I had nothing to say, other than, ‘I failed at the following things…’”

In the wake of these upsets, Whedon seemed ready to shun Hollywood. He was a regular fixture on the picket lines of the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike, and self-funded a web musical, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, in order to bypass the studios. Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day and Firefly alumnus Nathan Fillion, the series pioneered the model for a new manner of internet distribution, and Whedon was able to properly compensate the cast and crew with the proceeds raised by advertising, iTunes downloads and a DVD release.

Buffy fans have wondered whether Whedon is cursed for an especially egregious act of cruelty against one of the show’s characters in its sixth season. Tara Maclay, Willow’s gentle Wiccan love interest played by Amber Benson, had recurred for three seasons before Whedon added Benson to the show’s main cast credits. And at the end of that very same episode she was suddenly and unexpectedly shot and killed. No character, main cast or not, was safe in the “Whedonverse,” as the world of his creations has come to be known.

“I realised, just the other day, that I have this terrible reputation for killing people not just because I killed Tara, but because I was such a dick about it,” he laughs. “[Adding her to the credits] was just mean. Tara may be dead, but she haunts me still, because now all anybody ever talks about is the fact I kill characters off, and I think, ‘I do other things as well!’”

“There’s an element of this ‘torture porn’ promulgation that’s made me as angry as I can remember being.”Which brings us awkwardly to The Cabin in the Woods, the reason for our meeting. Whedon co-wrote the film with its director Drew Goddard, and it’s safe to point out that some of its characters do, indeed, snuff it. “But it’s an all-out horror movie,” he protests with a laugh. In fact, it is firmly ensconced in the world of cinematographer-lit nights, ­set-decorator woods and blood-drenched but meticulously coiffed beautiful people. And it’s a meta-textual response to the current state of horror cinema, which might be culmination of Whedon’s obsession with casting a critical gaze on the very medium in which he works. “Buffy was an answer to the question, ‘Why does that cute, funny blonde girl who likes to have a good time always get killed?’ Cabin is an answer to the same question. It’s a very different answer, but the question is exactly the same.”

The challenge of introducing the film, about a group of teens who travel to an abandoned log cabin in the middle of nowhere for a weekend of partying, is that the aforementioned one-liner is entirely unappetising, and yet going into more depth would spoil the film’s biggest surprises. Its marketing tagline – “You think you know the story. Think again.” – hints at a journey that balances effective scares with plenty of unexpected comedy.

It was the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th that first set Whedon’s mind racing on what would become The Cabin in the Woods. “I did walk out, but I found it fascinating that the movie opens with a group of expendable teens, which Jason kills – not, by the way, very inventively – and then the movie starts, and an even more expendable group of teens shows up. It was as hateful as anything I’ve seen. There’s an element of this ‘torture porn’ promulgation that’s made me as angry as I can remember being.”

If torture porn is Whedon’s kryptonite, then Hollywood must be his super-villain, for the continued adventures of fictional serial killers like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Jigsaw have kept studio balance sheets ticking over healthily. He can’t subscribe to such amoral filmmaking. “The disconnect between movie behaviour and normal human behaviour starts to strain,” he says. “It starts with, ‘I’ll drop the knife now, because it’s a really good time to be unarmed while I have my back to the thing,’ and goes further into, ‘I’m an unbelievable asshole and also I’m doing drugs and crime and sex all at the same time, so not only might I die but I deserve to.’ Punishment for youth-y behaviour is bizarre to me, and unsettling.”

“I’m lucky in that [Avengers] isn’t a means to an end. If I never make another giant movie, I won’t be filled with remorse.”The Cabin in the Woods is not, of course, horror’s first self-critique. There have been many, like 1996′s Scream, directed by genre staple Wes Craven, which had its characters explicitly detailing the rules of a horror film before their breaking of them resulted in injury and death. “Scream is much more postmodern, whereas this movie has its own reality,” Whedon says. “Oddly enough, I think this movie takes itself much more seriously, while being so absurd in its concept.”

He regrets having called it a “hate letter” to horror. In fact, he says, it’s a sonnet, to some of the genre’s best examples. “The joke of the whole thing is that this is the silliest movie I’ve ever made, and Drew and I just had an enormous amount of fun with it. The political message was very clear to both of us. It was just, ‘this is how we feel; this is a really fun way of expressing it; how can we figure in a unicorn?’”

Whedon’s curse, of course, ensured that the film didn’t go without faltering before the finish. It was produced by MGM, which filed for bankruptcy after work was completed. “Part of MGM’s crawl back from bankruptcy was to sell off all their assets, so they screened the movie and Lionsgate fought like tigers to buy it.”

Whedon remembers outlining his premise to Lionsgate by ranting about the ills of the Saw franchise. It was only as he glanced around the room, at a wall full of Saw movie posters, that he realised they had produced the movies. “But you know, they’re not precious about it. They love horror, and if they didn’t they wouldn’t know how to market this film.” In any case, he says, he hasn’t actually seen a Saw film all the way through.

It took two years for The Cabin in the Woods to escape MGM’s troubles. It should have been the decree absolute in Whedon’s messy divorce from Hollywood, but one needs only absorb a few of the references to popular culture explicit in the average Buffy episode, or hinted at throughout Cabin, to understand that he is deeply in love with the world of mass entertainment. This love makes sense of the announcement, in April 2010, that he had signed on to direct The Avengers. The film – now titled Avengers Assemble in the UK in order to differentiate it from the 60s television series – gathers together many of Marvel’s stable of comic-book superheroes, including Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk, and crafts a grand adventure for which their individual movies seem to have been mere feature-length trailers. In short: it’s about as Hollywood as they come.

“There was a moment where I just went, ‘Oh, boy, this is big!’” says Whedon. “And my wife said, ‘Joss, it’s just the next story.’ [The studio] are talking about how it’s got to make this much, and how it’s got to do this and it’s got to do that. The nature of Hollywood has encroached a couple of times. But honestly, Marvel is basically a mom-and-pop mega studio. They handed me the most important thing they’ve ever done and I told them how I would want to do it. And that’s exactly the film I made.”

So has he learnt nothing from his past catastrophes? Perhaps not; Whedon had barely settled back into his LA home after the Avengers shoot when he gathered some friends together and directed a self-financed feature version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Like Dr. Horrible, the film is his to release as he sees fit. “Honestly, I’ve never felt like such a stud in my life,” he laughs. “It means I’m lucky in that [Avengers] isn’t a means to an end. If I never make another giant movie, I won’t be filled with remorse.”

There’s no doubting that Whedon’s misfortune took its toll, but it also empowered him to charge ahead. He’s not Hollywood’s unluckiest man, but its countercultural icon; compelled to defy the system from within. “I’ve had so much success,” he reflects. “I had something to say, I got to say it, people heard it, and they agreed. That’s every artist’s dream. That’s the brass ring.”

16 comments click to show
  • Steve says:

    This is a great interview. Joss is boss.

  • QuoterGal says:

    Really excellent interview – one of the best articles I’ve seen about Joss: facts correct, great tone, and you got some nifty quotes from him. You’ve captured the man at this high point in his career, and you’ve made it a pleasure to read. Thanks for this.

  • Joe Utichi says:

    Thanks so much, that’s lovely to hear!

  • dawesomemom says:

    Smart interview, revealing a little more about Whedon. Makes me wants to root for him that much more.

  • Cheyenne says:

    Good article. I like reading Joss interviews that contain information that I actually DIDN”T know before.

    One minor complaint – all the hyperlinks I clicked on lead me to the same place, to an abstract of THIS article. Internet pet peeve: don’t include hyperlinks in an article that don’t have anything to do with anything, please.

  • Manon says:

    I’m usually really scared by horror movie… and even though I’m a Whedon fan, I couldn’t motivate myself to go see the Cabin in the woods…
    Well, you did the job !!
    I’m really looking to it now !! Thanks !
    And the rest of your article is just great !

  • Hey, Joe, quick question. Is that bit about Goners having been on the verge of production something Joss mentioned? I run, of all crazy things, a blog on that project and that’s the first I’d heard that. I’d love to know the source on that if I missed something. Thanks!

  • Joe Utichi says:

    The One True b!X: Here’s the relevant quote from my transcript:

    “After I made SERENITY, I had GONERS set up at the studio. Mary, who’d basically produced SERENITY when she was working at Universal, had bought it. Everything was in place. And the new people just completely shit-canned it. And I wasn’t ready for that.”

  • Interesting, thanks.

  • [...] Just Completely Shit-Canned It’ Posted on April 26, 2012 by The One True b!X TweetIn a great interview for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine a couple weeks ago, there’s an interesting bit about [...]

  • Tim Brannan says:

    Frankly I am happy that he is only remembered for being a dick.

    He killed Tara and I gave up on everything he ever did. I was thrilled to see Firefly get canceled.

  • bullsfan says:

    To Tim Brannan, Really?!! Wtf?! Me think you need to get out more!

    Great interview and some really refreshing views from Joss on the poor depths to which modern horror has plummeted.

  • I’ve long thought that the idea of Joss Whedon, Champion of Feminism, was more hype than anything else. To me, it’s not just that he killed Tara or that he was a dick about it, it’s a lot of other things too.

    Like the fact that we never once saw a good, competent female Watcher. Or turning a killer and rapist into a hero because the girls thought he was hawt. Or that I can’t think of a single strong woman character he ever wrote out on the show without killing them.

  • [...] stumps for The Avengers under the “best ensemble” category at SAG Joe Utichi interviews Joss Whedon on his ups and downs and downs and downs and back up again in [...]

  • Transcendent says:

    @Ben Varkentine

    You do realize the Watchers were a subordinate to the Slayer right? Main character being female and the hero is a strong push for feminism. Plus characters like Faith and Willow etc…

    As far as turning a “killer” and “rapist” into a hero because the girls thought he was “hot”. Pretty sure Angel was one of the worst vampire villains in history till he fell for Buffy and got his soul back and rescued by Buffy many times.

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