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Joss Whedon on Super Heroes, Killing Characters, and Existing Outside the Pop Culture Mainstream

Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment
Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment

In John Ford’s 1950 Western Wagon Master, the protagonist, Travis Blue, is asked whether he has ever drawn his gun on anyone. “No, sir. Just snakes,” Blue answers. Later, after he shoots the villain dead, someone questions him. “I thought you never drew on a man?”

“That’s right, sir,” the hero responds coolly. “Only on snakes.”

Joss Whedon says it’s one of the first cool-hero quips he remembers, and it has stuck with him all of these years. When a hero finally defeats his enemy, he says, “I think it’s a given that they’re going to have a zinger or callback prepared.”

It’s obvious that the Western genre has been a major influence on Whedon: While at Wesleyan University, he studied under Richard Slotkin, a renowned academic who has written extensively on the frontier and its relationship to culture and the media. Although Firefly, the prematurely canceled Fox series about a renegade crew of space smugglers, might be the only Whedon project to make the influence of American Westerns explicit, all of his work seems interested in telling stories about outsiders and their struggles with using their unique powers.

Though Whedon says that “American narrative has always structured itself around losers,” superhero movies require acquiescence to their own set of genre rules. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters May 1, Whedon found himself facing the challenge of making a sequel to his wildly successful 2012 blockbuster The Avengers that would both feel new and still please the series’ longtime fans.

A few weeks ago, I received a heart-stopping notification that “@JossWhedon is now following you on Twitter!” As a lifelong devotee of nearly every one of his projects (I have photographic evidence of dressing as Dr. Horrible for Halloween as a teenager), I couldn’t resist sending him a direct message. In an act of celebrity magnanimity previously unprecedented, Mr. Whedon agreed to an interview.

It has become a clichéd suggestion to “never meet your heroes.” Unfortunately, that’s a life lesson I’ll still need to struggle through at a later juncture as I was privileged to learn that Whedon is as funny, forthcoming, insightful, self-deprecating, and kind as any of his projects might lead one to believe—a modern renaissance man who knows his Macbeth as well as he knows his Marvel, and who turned “cult classic” into mainstream cool with old-fashioned talent and hard work.

Can I ask what you’re working on now? I imagine you’re the type of person who likes to have something going at all times.

Yeah, and I’m trying desperately to be the person who doesn’t have something going at all times. I’m trying to take a vacation for the first time in several years and we’ll see how it goes. I’m nosing around ideas, but I don’t have a job, I don’t have a deal, I don’t have a pitch; I have this beautiful artistic void that I don’t get to have a lot. So I gleefully can answer that question with, “nothing.”

Of course, all of your fans are going to think every free moment you have is spent gearing up for Dr. Horrible Two.

That is not the case. Everything is “bring back this,” “bring back that,” which is great, because they’re not tweeting “For the love of God, don’t make any more of that.” And Dr. Horrible Two is very much in the mix … But I also think this is an opportunity for me to create something new, really new, and it’s been a while. Because I did two Avengers movies, the S.H.I.E.L.D. show, and Much Ado About Nothing, none of which were original to me. So that’s a long time.

What’s it like when you’re sitting down to write for characters that already exist versus characters of your own mind? Do you approach it differently?

Not really. I mean, there’s a set of parameters. And so much of my writing has been for television that as soon as you have the person and there’s a task, the parameters are there. So writing a movie like The Avengers, where half the cast or more was already in place, was not that different. When you’re sitting down and creating something completely out of the whole cloth, you have more question marks, but at the end of the day you’re just trying to find the coolest tradition of the thing you want to convey. And if you know who’s going to be playing that or what the character is, those are boxes you would have had to check anyway.

With something like The Avengers, when so much of it was already set up by the prequel movies and, I imagine, restricted by the deals that have already been made, did you feel your vision was roped in? Did you feel limited?

Well, limited and freed. A certain amount of questions get answered by the structure of a superhero movie: We’re doing this and this and this with this guy. And some of it, well, it just eliminates work. Because you know, "Well, we have to get from A to B, and this guy has to come along and this guy has to do this thing and he can’t do that because he needs to be there." So there’s a certain amount of feeling hemmed in. And then there were a few things I wanted to do that I couldn’t and that’s frustrating, but it definitely helps as much as it hurts.

Well you can’t kill off characters with six-movie deals.

Yeah, no. Killing off a franchise character, it’s not done! It is simply not done!

Has Disney’s involvement led to a new set of criteria? When they came in, did it make a difference on the creative side?

Well, they have strong policies about "nobody smokes," but nobody was anyway … They come in with notes obviously, which is a certain amount of pressure, but they’re pretty hands-off and quite supportive.

You made the choice to introduce two new characters in the new film with the twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Were there other characters you thought of including in The Avengers: Age of Ultron? I think you said previously that the reason you didn’t include Ant-Man in The Avengers was because it would have been a “too many cooks” scenario.

Ant-Man was already in development long before I got to Marvel … But for me the twins represented “the old” in the sense that they’d always been Avengers when I was reading the books as a kid, and “the new” in terms of they would, by necessity, be younger and have a different perspective on things—a different style, a different visual style, their powers would manifest differently. It would be something to just really freshen up the experience because there comes a point where it’s all about punching. And you want to do something a little more left of center.

Are there any current TV shows or movies that you’re watching and enjoying or are inspired by?

It’s so cute that you think I could do that. [laughs]

Well you said you were unemployed!

I’ve been unemployed for almost a week.

That’s enough time to binge-watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

I’ve just been grabbing my kids' faces, touching them, and being like, I remember you! I can see you in my hands! And they’re like, “Dad you’re not blind.” And I’m like, Nooooo, this is better.

So I’ve missed a lot. I haven’t seen much of late. I’m several years behind. Most major popular TV shows I either haven’t seen or didn’t really want to, and at some point I feel like I’ll have to catch up again. But, except for a brief intersection where I seem to be creating some of it, I’ve actually never been much of a pop culture maven.

That’s so funny, because you are like the king of pop culture and yet you sort of exist outside of it and beyond it.

As a kid, I was there listening to the show tunes and the movie scores and reading comic books at bedtime. I wasn’t really paying attention to what was on or being listened to … It’s not like I didn’t see Star Wars or anything, but I’m going to slide very easily into crotchety old manhood. I’m going to wear that really well. Yet another long answer that is: nope!

People don’t really stay dead in Marvel movies. I think we’ve had to deal with Loki dying four, five, 12 times. Coulson coming back. Fury comes back mid-film in Captain America: The Winter Soldier ... How many more times do you think a character’s death can have an impact if it doesn’t have a permanent effect?

A lot of people come back in The Winter Soldier. It’s a grand Marvel tradition. Bucky was supposed to die. And the Coulson thing was, I think, a little anomalous just because that really came from the television division, which is sort of considered to be its own subsection of the Marvel universe. As far as the fiction of the movies, Coulson is dead.

But I have to say, watching the first one with my kids—I had not watched the first one since it came out—and then watching it with my kids and watching Coulson die but [thinking], Yeah, but I know that he kind of isn’t, it did take some of the punch out of it for me. Of course, I spent a lot of time making sure he didn’t. And at the time it seemed inoffensive, as long as it wasn’t referenced in the second movie, which it isn’t.

There’s a thing where you can do that so many times and there’s nothing at stake. But it’s difficult because you’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant. And now I find myself with a huge crew of people and, although I’m not as bloodthirsty as some people like to pretend, I think it’s disingenuous to say we’re going to fight this great battle, but there’s not going to be any loss. So my feeling in these situations with Marvel is that if somebody has to be placed on the altar and sacrificed, I’ll let you guys decide if they stay there.

Loki’s redemption in Thor: The Dark World was pretty amazing, and then a little bit less amazing…

Well, yes! I mean, I can’t speak for [them]. Although I did work on that movie, it wasn’t my film, but I think there was no way on God’s green and verdant earth they were going to kill Loki.

So, I don’t know if this is kosher to ask, but of the other Marvel movies, do you have a favorite?

Of the Marvel movies besides mine? I think it’s probably still the first Iron Man. That’s where it all started and it’s never more exciting than when it starts. But they all have a place in my heart. Except Iron Man 2; it doesn’t have a place in my heart.

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15 Festive Facts About Jingle All the Way
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In all of Arnold Schwarzenegger's film oeuvre, Jingle All the Way might just be the one that most exhibits the ugliness of humanity. Set on a fevered Christmas Eve brimming with desperate last-minute shoppers, Schwarzenegger's Howard Langston and Sinbad's postal worker character Myron Larabee find themselves battling one another to make themselves look good to their sons by getting their hands on the elusive Turbo Man action figure. The comedic genius Phil Hartman; Rita Wilson; future young Anakin Skywalker, Jake Lloyd; Laraine Newman; Harvey Korman; Martin Mull; Curtis Armstrong; and Chris Parnell were the other willing participants in this cult comedy, directed by Brian Levant. Here are some things you might not have known about the contemporary holiday classic.

1. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER WAS ABLE TO PLAY THE LEAD BECAUSE OF A DELAY ON A PLANET OF THE APES REMAKE.

Arnold Schwarzenegger signed up to star in the Apes remake in March of 1994, but 20th Century Fox rejected multiple scripts for the movie, including one co-written by Chris Columbus (Gremlins, The Goonies). Columbus left the project in late 1995, and Schwarzenegger followed him soon after, freeing him to sign up for Jingle All the Way, produced by Columbus, in February 1996. Fox's Planet of the Apes reboot found its way into theaters in 2001, starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Tim Burton.

2. SINBAD THOUGHT HE SCREWED UP THE AUDITION.

Sinbad in 'Jingle All the Way' (1996)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Filming was delayed so that Sinbad could follow through on his commitment to travel to Bosnia with Hillary Clinton. Even though Columbus agreed to wait for him, the comedian still thought he "messed up" his audition and told his manager-brother he was going to quit show business.

3. OFFICER HUMMELL WAS INITIALLY WRITTEN AS A WOMAN.

Though the role of Officer Hummell was written for a woman, the part went to Robert Conrad. Conrad's explanation was that the producers "wanted someone who could pull up next to Arnold and tell him to pull over and he pulls over."

4. IT WAS CHRIS PARNELL'S FIRST MOVIE.

The future SNL star played the toy store clerk. "Well, it was my first movie role, and I didn't know how they typically shot scenes," Parnell admitted in a Reddit AMA. "So I had to laugh a lot, and I sort of spent all of my laughing energy in the wider takes, so by the time we got to the close-up shots, it was a real struggle to keep that going."

5. MARTIN MULL STAYED ON SET FOR OVER TWO WEEKS LONGER THAN HE WAS SUPPOSED TO.

Mull (KQRS D.J. a.k.a. Mr. Ponytail Man) was told it would just be a one- to two-day shoot for him. Unfortunately, his part had to be shot on a rainy day, and it didn't rain in Minneapolis for two and a half weeks.

6. PHIL HARTMAN MADE UP A BACKSTORY FOR HIS CHARACTER.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Hartman (Ted Maltin) was probably joking for the film's official production notes, but you never know. "Ted is a guy who sued his employer for headaches caused by toner fumes and now hangs around the neighborhood and helps all the housewives," Hartman said. He also offered a take on how he was kind of being pigeonholed in Hollywood when he added, "Ted's another weasel to add my list of weasels."

7. HARTMAN ENTERTAINED HIS BORED YOUNG CO-STARS.

To keep young E.J. De la Pena (Johnny Maltin) and Jake Lloyd (Jamie Langston) from getting bored shooting a car scene all day, Hartman improvised songs designed to bring kids to hysterics. One tune contained the lyrics “You make my butt shine, the more you kiss it, the more it shines! The clock is ticking, so keep on licking, oh how you make my buttocks shine!”

"When you’re an 8 year old hearing that kind of potty humor, it was hilarious!" De la Pena remembered. "And we had a lot of fun."

8. JAMES BELUSHI HAD EXPERIENCE PLAYING SANTA BEFORE.

Belushi sort of trained to portray the Mall of America Santa in the movie by playing Kris Kringle for four years in "about 20" different homes, according to his estimation.

9. SHOOTING BEGAN IN MID-APRIL.

The Minneapolis/St.Paul areas were chosen because the producers figured they had the longest winter. But they also filmed in Los Angeles' Universal Studios for the big parade over a three week span, where it was typical hot California weather on the verge of summer. Sinbad remembered it was 100 degrees on the days when he wore the Dementor costume, and the water in his helmet had started to boil.

10. THE REAL TURBO MAN DIDN'T SWEAT.

Daniel Riordan's Turbo Man suit ensured he wouldn't have trouble with the scorching heat. He was wearing a vest underneath used by race car drivers. "They're very thin membrane vests that are filled with small, plastic tubing that's tightly coiled, back and forth, and they run cold water through it," Riordan explained. "So when they run it, it's like this cold water right up against your body and it was amazing. The sensation was fantastic."

11. TURBO MAN FIGURES WERE SOLD AT WAL-MART.

200,000 were originally produced and sold at 2,300 Wal-Mart shops for $25. They would have made more but, as Fox’s president of licensing and merchandising explained to Entertainment Weekly, there were only six and a half months to produce and promote Turbo Man toys, and it usually takes "well over a year."

12. THEY ALMOST SOLD DEMENTOR DOLLS TOO.

Sinbad recalled that the studio didn't sell Dementor action figures even though they tested high during research. "I had a prototype of the doll but they said 'give it back, we'll get you the real one when it comes out,'" Sinbad said." ...And dude, it NEVER came out!" Sinbad told Redditers his theory: "I think that they didn't want the competition between Turbo Man and my doll."

13. SOME PARENTS HAD ALCOHOL-RELATED COMPLAINTS AFTER TEST SCREENINGS.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Schwarzenegger and Sinbad talking at a bar over some alcohol, and the fact that reindeer also imbibed in beer, were among some of the problems mothers and other early viewers took issue with.

14. THE FILMMAKERS WERE SUED FOR PLAGIARISM, AND LOST.

Randy Kornfield penned the official script, but high school teacher Brian Alan Webster alleged his Could This Be Christmas? script was very similar. The publishing firm that had the rights to Webster's script won a $19 million lawsuit from 20th Century Fox, but the ruling was overturned in 2004. Webster's screenplay was about “the quest of a Caucasian mother attempting to obtain a hard-to-get action figure toy as a Christmas gift for her son. In the course of this pursuit, she competes with an African-American woman, similarly seeking to give the action figure doll as a Christmas gift.”

15. THERE WAS A SEQUEL STARRING LARRY THE CABLE GUY.

None of the original cast members nor characters returned in the straight-to-DVD Jingle All the Way 2 (2014). It was produced by 20th Century Fox and WWE Studios and featured wrestler Santino Marella. Sinbad expressed incredulity when a Redditer inquired if he was asked to return for it. "What they are doing a new version without me! Ain't gonna work!"

Additional Sources:

Schaefer, Stephen: "Sinbad leaps at the chance to go postal in Jingle All the Way," December 6, 1996; Des Moines Register

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10 Rich Facts About Wall Street
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

It’s often said that the love of money is the root of all evil. Wall Street could have easily turned this sentiment into a tagline. A gripping financial thriller, the Oliver Stone classic is a cautionary tale whose message is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was released 30 years ago today.

1. OLIVER STONE WOULD DELIBERATELY TICK OFF MICHAEL DOUGLAS BETWEEN TAKES.

“As a director, he really tests you,” Douglas said of Stone. Around two weeks after shooting had started, Stone showed up at the actor’s trailer and asked “Are you on drugs? Because you look like you’ve never acted before in your life.” Mortified, Douglas took a look at some footage they’d already shot. Yet, after diligently reviewing it, he could find nothing wrong with his performance. “I came back to Oliver and said … ‘I think it’s okay,” Douglas remembers. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” Stone replied.

Eventually, Douglas wised up to his boss’s overly critical act. “Basically, what he wanted was to ratchet up that much more nastiness in Gordon Gekko,” Douglas explained. “And he was willing … for me to hate him for the rest of that movie just to bring it up a little more.” 

2. WALL STREET WON BOTH AN OSCAR AND A RAZZIE.


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Douglas’s cold portrayal of the unscrupulous Gekko netted him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1988. On the other hand, critics were thoroughly unimpressed by leading lady Daryl Hannah, who took home a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie.

3. GORDON GEKKO’S FAMOUS PHONE WEIGHED TWO POUNDS.

In one pivotal scene, Gekko rings Bud with a state-of-the-art mobile communication device. Specifically, it’s a Motorola DynaTac 8000X. Released in 1983, this brick-shaped cell phone was 13 inches long, weighed two pounds, and cost the equivalent of $8,806 in modern dollars. During the 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the anachronistic gadget returned for a quick sight gag.

4. CHARLIE SHEEN CHOSE TO HAVE HIS REAL FATHER PORTRAY HIS FICTIONAL ONE.

“It was interesting having my dad play my dad,” Sheen said on the DVD's “making of” documentary. Wall Street’s most dramatic arc revolves around Bud and Carl Fox, who were played by Charlie and Martin Sheen, respectively. Stone had built a strong working relationship with the former on the set of 1986’s Platoon. So when the time came to cast Carl, he had the younger Sheen make the call, asking “Do you want Jack Lemmon or do you want your father?” “Oh, Jack Lemmon’s a genius,” the actor said, “but my dad’s my dad and he’s kind of a genius, too.”

5. SCREENWRITER STANLEY WEISER COULDN'T FIND INSPIRATION IN EITHER CRIME AND PUNISHMENT OR THE GREAT GATSBY.

Before the writer could get started, Stone gave him a little homework. Originally, the film was conceived as “Crime and Punishment on Wall Street.” When Weiser was brought aboard one fateful Friday, Stone told him to read Dostoyevsky’s novel over the weekend. “Not having taken an Evelyn Wood Speed Reading class, I went to UCLA and purchased the Cliffs Notes,” Weiser wrote in 2008.

But the literary exercise proved futile. “On Monday, I explained to Oliver that the paradigm for that masterwork would not mesh well with the story we wanted to tell.” In a flash, Stone hit him with another assignment. “Okay,” he ordered, “read The Great Gatsby tonight, and see if we can mine something out of it.” This time, Weiser simply rented the 1974 movie adaptation. Once again, though, inspiration eluded him.

Wall Street as we know it didn’t really start to take shape until after a change in tactic: When Gatsby led him nowhere, Weiser read everything about finance that he could track down and, along with Stone, “spent three weeks visiting brokerage houses, interviewing investors and getting a feel for the Weltanschauung of Wall Street.”

6. PARTS OF THE MOVIE WERE SHOT AT THE NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE DURING WORKING HOURS.


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Permission was secured with the help of Kenneth Lipper, a longtime Wall Street insider who also served as New York City's deputy mayor from 1982 to 1985. For the film, Stone brought him on board as the chief technical advisor.

7. TWO MONTHS BEFORE THE FILM’S RELEASE, THERE WAS A MAJOR WALL STREET CRASH IN REAL LIFE.

Historians now call it “Black Monday.” On October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by a staggering 22.6 percent. It was the largest single-day stock market decline of all time, with $500 billion suddenly going up in smoke. Wall Street would hit theaters on December 11, leading conspiracy theorists to wonder if Stone had seen the crisis coming and made his movie to exploit it. 

“I did not foresee the crash, as some people say, because if I had, I would have made a lot of money,” Stone quipped.

8. GEKKO WAS BASED ON THREE BIG-NAME FINANCIERS. 


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“If you need a friend, get a dog,” Gekko advises his young protégé. This quote was adapted from a remark that corporate raider Carl Icahn once made (which he had cribbed from Harry Truman). In 1985, Icahn became a notorious figure by taking over TWA airlines under the pretense of making it more profitable only to sell off its assets for his own gain. Gekko, no doubt, would’ve approved.

Wall Street’s charismatic antagonist also took cues from Asher Edelman, a financier and major league art enthusiast. Another source of inspiration was arbiter Ivan Boesky, who confessed to illegal insider trading in 1986 and ended up in jail in 1988 (more about him later).

9. STONE’S FATHER WAS A STOCKBROKER.

A survivor of the Great Depression, Louis Stone had a huge influence on his cinematically-inclined son. “The main motivation to make Wall Street was my father,” the director admitted. “He always said there were no good business movies, because the businessman was always the villain.” In the end, Wall Street was dedicated to the elder Stone, who passed away two years before its release. 

10. GEKKO’S BIG LINE IS NUMBER 57 ON THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE’S TOP 100 MOVIE QUOTES LIST.

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” finished just ahead of “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” from The Godfather: Part II. Gekko might as well have been quoting Boesky: At a 1985 commencement address given at UC Berkeley, the trader said “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”

Newsweek later reported on the speech—and made a telling observation. “The strangest thing, when we come to look back,” the magazine argued, “will not just be that Ivan Boesky could say that at a business school graduation, but that it was greeted with laughter and applause.”

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