Original image
Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment

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

Original image
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.

Original image
Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
Original image
Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?


To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.


The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.


In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.


The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.


The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   


Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.


It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”


In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]


Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.


The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.


Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.


Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

Original image
Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
Original image
Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''


More from mental floss studios