Emma John meets Joss Whedon, the Buffy and Avengers guy whose latest movie is a spot of backyard Shakespeare
Joss Whedon is standing in the Forbidden Planet comics store in London, surveying a row of plastic action figures. There are Gandalfs and Frodos, Batmen and Ironmen. Whedon points out the few female characters - pert young warrior princesses - all standing in the same pose: shoulders back, cleavage thrust forward. This, he explains, is the reason he resisted a Buffy doll.
Until last year, Whedon was a writer and director best known for his television creations. Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel, were cult classics, the just-home-from-school fantasy shows that made vampires sexy long before R-Patz and Kristen mooned at each other in Twilight. Then Marvel handed him the biggest toy set they had: Avengers Assemble, a film that trapped their greatest superheroes in one megalithic, extortionately expensive movie. Thor! ... Hulk! ... Captain America! ... Robert Downey jnr! It came with a price tag of no less than $220 million; Whedon turned it into the third highest-grossing movie of all time. "I kept telling my mum that reading comic books would pay off," he deadpans.
Whedon makes a pilgrimage to Forbidden Planet whenever he comes to London. He might be the Hollywood director responsible for the most successful film of 2012 - he has a house in Beverly Hills and Scarlett Johansson on speed-dial - but the creator of Buffy is still very much a fanboy. Like J.J. Abrams, who controls the parallel universes of Star Trek and Star Wars, Whedon is proof that the geek can inherit the earth. In fact, before Avengers came along, Whedon was worried that the zeitgeist had overtaken him. "When Sam Raimi made Spider-Man, I was like - 'gah, I wanted to be the guy who got it right!' When I saw The Dark Knight I was like, 'oh, now it's post-modern ... They're doing the superhero Godfather!' So I guess it's over and I didn't get to make one ..."
For a certain type of entertainment fan, Whedon's arrival in the mainstream (last year also brought The Cabin in the Woods - a clever meta-horror flick) is particularly satisfying. Even if you don't care for vampires and werewolves, he can make you laugh. If you enjoyed Toy Story, chances are you were laughing at the brilliant repartee he wrote for it; if you followed the US election on Twitter, you probably saw his home-made ad, endorsing Romney as the only candidate who could bring about the zombie apocalypse. But Whedon's genius is never going to be the kind recognised by the "serious" awards - at last year's Oscars, Seth MacFarlane told the audience, "The Avengers was the most popular movie of the year ... which is why it was only nominated once." Whedon shrugs off the snub. "If you make a movie where you're just trying to delight people, and you want them to come out overjoyed, then ... you're f***ed." So meeting him is the ultimate geekout. He has a russet beard, a dress-down look, and kind-dad eyes, and is every bit as genial and funny as his on-screen creations. When we meet in the morning he is making coffee in his hotel room. "I have an obligation to do press, but I don't have an obligation to stay out dancing until 3am," he says, guiltily. Tom Lenk, one of the actors who works with him regularly, has told me that they share a passion for disco, although I can't quite picture Whedon throwing shapes. But then I also can't imagine him facing down an intimidating and costly constellation of stars (including Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow) and their egos. "I had one bad week where some people lost confidence in me," he admits. "But I told them to shut up and got on with my work."
While his Avengers sequel begins the colossal task of assembling itself - it is not scheduled to reach cinemas until 2015 - Whedon's new directing project, Much Ado About Nothing, seems like the most contrary project he could have conjured: a black-and-white chamberpiece, shot in 12 days entirely in Whedon's own house. And yet, as the play for which Shakespeare reserved his pithiest dialogue, it is also utterly appropriate for a man who has spent a career crafting zinging one-liners. Whedon nods in agreement. "Somebody came up to me and said, this must be so different from the Avengers! And I said it's really not. Except that I'm happier because I'm at home surrounded by my loved ones ..." Whedon's Much Ado had its genesis in the Shakespeare readings he began hosting at his home more than a decade ago. While shooting Buffy, James Marsters - well known to fans as the dastardly vampire Spike - had mentioned how filming had started to feel like rep theatre, and Whedon, who as a child had read out plays with his family during the holiday season, was inspired to invite his actors to his house to tackle everything from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Hamlet. Then he had children. "They put a stop to everything," he says. "'You like playing music? Oh, I like to yell ..'." Meanwhile, Whedon's wife Kai, an architect, had built a home in Beverly Hills with artistic endeavour firmly in mind (she even incorporated an outdoor amphitheatre). The idea of shooting Much Ado there took hold - it is the only Shakespeare play set on a single estate - and when his Avengers contract demanded an enforced week-long break between filming and editing, Kai told him: "It's time." As well as shooting in their own house, they funded the production themselves. "I did everything they say don't do," Whedon grins. "Great idea to shoot next to a golf course, by the way. You know what they do on golf courses all day? Mow." His cast consisted of regulars from his TV shows, who gave their time "for what will ultimately be dozens of dollars". The result is a truly intimate, ensemble Much Ado - one in which every character has his own triumph and tragedy, rather than revolving, as so many productions do, around the bickering flirtation of Benedick and Beatrice.
"If you've ever engaged in an endeavour that made you feel you were doing something right, you felt what we were feeling," says Nathan Fillion, the star of Castle, who plays the part of Dogberry. "I have no idea what that man sees or how his brain works. I imagine a switch in his head in the 'brilliant' position with the handle broken off. Fortunately, the 'awesome' switch next to it is in the same condition."
For Whedon, Shakespeare's "inspired ADD" was the key. "He's such a passionate writer, he leaves nothing on the floor. He loves even the smallest parts. And he's not afraid to completely switch genres, from 20 minutes of high drama to some of the lowest comedy you can imagine, something I love to do in my own work. Of course, comparing yourself to Shakespeare is the quickest way to make people hate you ..." He breaks off. "I actually did write a song called the Ballad of How I'm Like Shakespeare years ago. But that was after they discovered that there were traces of marijuana in his pipe."
Who: Joss Whedon
What: Much Ado About Nothing
When and where: Civic, Friday August 2, 1.15pm and 8.45pm
- TimeOut / Observer